A Mission of Research

Though Jimmy’s unexpected question was not directed towards him, Rex was perhaps even more intrigued than Double-J. From his first appearance at practice in January, Jimmy had seemed an almost reluctant coach, engaged but distant, his aloof demeanor in sharp contrast to Coach Dan’s affability. It wasn’t that their new assistant coach didn’t care — Jimmy was just as insistent on proper execution, just as demanding of maximum effort, just as eager to support his students during tournaments, as Coach Dan — it was rather a feeling Rex had that a part of Jimmy’s awareness was always held back, lurking behind his words and actions, observing the fencing team, evaluating. And with Jimmy’s non sequitur of a question to Double-J just now, Rex fully realized that Jimmy had been hiding an agenda, a mission all this time — one he was now about to reveal.

“Been here five years.” Rex knew from previous conversations that Jimmy was refering to his time in Bark Bay. “Got here in April, started my business in May, catered my first job in June. Got so busy by July, knew I needed to hire on. Put an ad in the Beacon, didn’t promise much: dime over minimum, long hours, weekend work, no OT. Not surprising, most the calls were from kids — ” for not the first time, Rex noticed how Jimmy pronounced the word with an extra y, kyids — “just graduated, didn’t hire no drop-outs. Hired two, boy and a girl, both 18, boy turned 19 in September. Right around the time he left, took a job working some crappy fast-food place. Girl, she left before the holidays. No reason, just didn’t wanna work for me no more.”

“Must’ve been tough.” A subtle tone of sarcasm in Double-J’s voice, an implied admonition to get to the point of the story.

“Since then, must’ve had couple dozen kyids, working for me one time or ‘nuther. Some work out — Jelly-Jam, she started ’bout that time the first girl left, been with me ever since, made her office manager last year. But most, they with me a few months, then move on. The turnover, it’s a real problem, having to train new kyids all the time. Wears out Jelly-Jam, ‘s well.”

“Ah, I get it.” Double-J leaned forward, the cushions of the sofa billowing under his shifting weight. “So when Jacobs asked you about coaching, you saw it as an opportunity to conduct field research on the labor market.”

“You northern kyids — ” Jimmy’s voice softened, like he was ready for a nap — “I understand the grown-ups round here, they different sure but at least I can make sense of ’em. But the kyids; you ain’t like the kids I worked with down south, in Lousiana and Texas.” His right arm waved forward, in the general direction of the street outside the apartment building. “Most of you have got, so much goin’ for ya. Families with good homes, good schools — ” Double-J snorted a laugh, but Jimmy waved a dismissive finger in the teen’s face — “all them kyids work for me, they been educated, you best believe. Most of ’em, could go do whatever they want, if’n they set their mind to.”

[“Gray Metal Faces,” March 13E]

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Wanting What’s Right

“But it’s time.” Double-J straightened his body in the billowing cushions of the sofa, grabbing the long neck of the guitar and laying its rounded end softly on the floor, then releasing the neck to rest against the sofa. “Let’s get to the reason for your visit tonight.” He cleared his throat with rough loudness.”I’m not going back to Bark Bay High. Ñeed two credits to graduate, but I worked things out to do the work, without ever hvaing to step into that hell-hole again. And if the school changes its mind, deny me a diploma – fine, I’ll get a friggin’ GED.” The teen glared at Lefty – “Not like I need a degree to work at the shop, do I?”

Lefty lowered his gaze to the floor, shook his head slowly.

“Didn’t think so.” Double-J now looked directly at Rex. “And yeah, that means I’m not on Jacobs’ fencing team no more neither.”

“I don’t get it.” The challenge in Rex’s reply was as obvious as a head cut. “Fencing’s the only thing you enjoy, don’t know how many times you told me that.”

“And that ain’t changed.” Double-J pointed to himself – “I ain’t changed – it’s the damn team that changed.”

“Annie – ” Jimmy’s voice sounded strained, as if the words he was about to speak were coerced – “she says if’n you wanna be captain –”

WANT?” Double-J grabbed the seat cushions underneath him. “You go tell Annie, that I got no interest in her damn offer, ‘cuz she’s acting like being captain is something she owns, just another thing her family could buy for her. This ain’t ‘bout ownership, it’s ‘bout what’s right, recognizing who’s earned the right to be captain, and most of all, recognizing that Annie IN NO WAY earned that right.”

A car engine sputtered in the street below as the apartment fell silent, stillness descending after Double-J’s storming screed.

The car engine roared into life. Jimmy cleared his throat. “I ever tell you – why I started coaching?”

[“Gray Metal Faces”, March 13D]

Depression Comix 286 and 277

Clay Jonathan at the Depression Comix blog provides a regular series of disconnected comic strips, each comprised of three to four panels, that depict the effects of depression on a half-dozen or so recurring characters. It’s an unconventional topic for an art form that’s more often associated with humor and action, but the artist portrays his subject matter with honesty and integrity while managing to work within the conventions of his medium.

Not much happens within each strip — a couple walk through a park, a woman laces running shoes, a man showers — and this banality underscores the lack of energy and enthusiasm routinely displayed by the characters suffering from depression. The latest strip, 286, shows a woman viewing a former friend playing in a band, and regretting her inability to feel happy for her friend’s success. Yet she’s able to talk to another friend about her reaction, and it’s small interactions like these that make this series engaging. The characters are depressed, but they communicate — with their friends, with themselves, and most importantly, the reader. Other characters in the strip also communicate with the depressed characters, sometimes with empathy but occassionally with indifference or anger.

Humor, as I mentioned before, is a common element in comics, but it’s difficult to write about depression in a manner that’s both honest and funny. Fortunately, Depression Comix doesn’t take the easy way out by relying on lame jokes or mocking stereotypes; if there isn’t a good punchline, the comic doesn’t try to force one through. It’s this integrity that makes the occassional attempt at humor, such as strip 277, all the more poignant.

If you struggle with depression, you’ll be able to see yourself in many of these strips, and perhaps gain insight you haven’t recognized before. If you’re fortunate enough not to suffer from depression but want to better understand how it can affect your family and friends (and yourself, if only indirectly), you’ll appreciate the candor of this strip. And if you just like comics, you’ll appreciate the unique achievement of Depression Comix.

Dinner and a Song

“That so.” Jimmy had sat at the right end of the sofa, next to Rex, Lefty sitting on a metal folding chair turned away from the card table in the kitchen area. Jimmy’s lips curled into his gums – “So tell me, if you like fencing so much, why’d you quit the team?”

Double-J snorted, as he turned the sizzling steaks over in the frying pan. “Quit is a strong term, one that doesn’t really capture my status on Jacob’s team.” All three of his guests opened their mouths to speak, but Double-J raised the his right hand in their direction and they fell silent, as if a spell was cast from his palm – “Later, after we eat.” The teen laid his spatula on the stovetop, then opened the microwave oven next to the sink, inserted the plastic bowl of frozen vegetables.

The four of them talked casually as the dinner preparations ended. Jimmy said business was good, he was struggling like everyone else in this economy, but just because times are tough don’t mean people stop getting married; Rex was pleased with how he’d fenced at the tournament a few weeks back at Tech, placing fifth in foil and second in epee, eliminated in both weapons by Francis Pine from the Academy; Lefty thought the transmission parts for Mr. Levy’s Oldsmobile should be in tomorrow.

Double-J lifted the fried steaks from the frying pan with his spatula – “Call me when that tranny comes in.”

Lefty shook his head. “Jip’s in the shop tomorrow, he can install it.”

Double-J snorted. “Jip’s got no business working on any tranny. Especially the Levy’s.”

“We’ll be OK – “

“I’ll stop by the shop tomorrow, at 10.” It was as if Double-J hadn’t heard Lefty’s response. “Got nothing else to do.”

The dinner was the best that Rex could remember having for the last several months, since the cookout at his uncle’s house that summer, certainly better than the boxed or canned meals he and his sisters routinely prepared for his family back at their trailer. The steak was moist, savory, and most significantly was steak, a food that would have been as out of place at Rex’s house as lobster or veal. The vegetables weren’t fresh – frozen vegetables prepared in a microwave, potato flakes poured from a box and mixed with water over a stove – but they were hot, filling Rex’s belly with a warmth he hadn’t experienced in weeks. Having known poverty as long as he could remember, Rex had learned over the years to control his hunger, to eat sparingly to prevent his appetite from growing, but within seconds of the dinner plate being placed before him he loosened his restraints, devoured the meal that Double-J had prepared, allowed himself to indulge the ever-present hunger within him in a way that he normally would not have trusted.

And there was dessert, fresh fruit that Double-J had sliced before they arrived, served with whipped cream spurted from a canister. “We must be paying you too much if you can afford all this,” Lefty’s joke prompting another admonition from Double-J that you didn’t have to pay a lot of money on food if you just paid attention to prices instead.

Jimmy and Rex offered to wash dishes, as Double-J and Lefty arranged chairs around the small couch in the living area. Double-J sat, his large body forming a long U into the cushion beneath him, the long black wires of his hair falling down across his shoulders, beard and mustache parting to reveal a broad smile of contentment on his face.

He and Lefty talked about the Levy’s transmission as Jimmy and Rex finished in the kitchen. As the two teens walked into the living area, Jimmy pointed to a guitar, propped against the far wall. “You play?”

“Yeah.” Double-J rose clumsily from the couch, as Lefty commented he was actually pretty good. “Christ Lefty, don’t oversell me.” Double-J reached down, grabbed the neck of the guitar, walked back to the sofa and sat, cushions again forming a long U under him, and began playing an instantly recognizable melody. A moment later, he began to sing:

When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah – hurrah,
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then, hurrah – hurrah,
We all will cheer and all turn out, the children will laugh and give out a shout,
And we’ll all be glad when Johnny comes marching home

He continued playing, more softly and without singing. Rex raised his chin — “Didn’t know you were so fond of our high school fight song.”

Double-J shrugged while continuing to play. “How Bark Bay High manipulates the passions of its students, doesn’t concern me. What interests me, is looking at the stuff they give us – school, society, whatever – and find out what’s really there.” He began playing the opening bars of the song again. “You know what When Johnny Comes Marching Home is about?”

Jimmy cleared his throat. “It’s from the Civil War.”

“Right.” Double-J’s arms flew forward, across the guitar towards his guests. “See, Johnny was this soldier, in the Union army – that’s the North, Lefty,” a disinterested chuckle rising from his guests. “Johnny’s brother, he wrote the song, people thought the song was a celebration, became popular. Thing was, Johnny didn’t come home, and his family never did find out what happened to him. ‘Johnny’ suffered the same anonymous fate as thousands of other soldiers. Coulda been killed in battle, clutching a gut wound in some frozen mud field – coulda caught gangrene, died in some filthy army hospital tent – hell, coulda starved, that happened even in the North. Or deserted, decided the war wasn’t worth what they were paying him, or that things like slavery or states rights or God help us, preserving the damned Union was all just a bunch of bullshit. We dunno what happened to poor Johnny – ” and now Double-J looked up and smiled at his guests – “but hey, we do have this song to make us all feel better about war.”

[“Gray Metal Faces,” March 13C]

The Purity of Accountability

The stairs, made of thin plywood and covered with a carpet runner bald and frayed in more places than it was whole, creaked with the ache of age as Rex and Jimmy rushed to the second floor, hoping to catch a respite from the oniony breath and garage odors emanating from Lefty. They reached a landing, turned right, bounded up another flight of creaking stairs and reached the second floor of the Embassy Apartments. The second door on their right was open; Rex heard the sound of oil heating in a frying pan as he and Jimmy approached the doorway.

Jimmy stopped, knocked on the sill, above the latch. The response from inside was immediate and violent, as if the action at the door were anticipated with a perverse pleasure.

“JESUS! Goddam door’s OPEN, what more do you losers NEED? This ain’t friggin’ ANNIE’S house, ain’t got no damn BUTLER!”

Jimmy raised his voice to speak, before being cut off by Rex, who rushed him into the apartment, followed by his companions.

They walked into the main room of Double-J’s apartment, comprised of three rooms with what barely seemed enough floor space for two. They nearly tripped over an old but serviceable sofa that lay just inside the door. Along the far wall was the kitchen – sink, stove, half-sized refrigerator – a card table and two folding chairs nearby serving as the dining area. Past the kitchen were the bathroom and bedroom, from where they heard Double-J call out.

“You mind watching them steaks? Don’t want them to friggin’ burn.”

Rex walked over to the stove, saw the large frying pan he had heard in the hall. Inside the pan were four cube steaks, each the size of an oversized card deck, sizzling in a thin layer of oil. Rex realized that Double-J must have just started to cook, as the top sides were still red.

“Looking good.” Rex suddenly realized he’d sensed something different from the last time he had been to see Double-J in this apartment. It had been a few weeks ago, right after Double-J declared he was done with the fencing team, done with Bark Bay High School. Rex had gone to seen him, went up to the apartment, saw the spoiled food on the card table –

Rex’s eyes scanned the bare surface of the card table. He looked around more, saw the sink spotless except for the cracked porcelain, neatly stacked dishes dripping dry in the drainboard, the linoleum in front of the sink free of spills and crumbs. Rex turned toward the living area and – yes, saw the distinctive pattern of a vacuum cleaner’s path along the rug. The tall teen laughed – “You cleaned?”

“Of course.” Double-J’s voice grew louder as he walked out of the bedroom. “You’re guests, right?” His hair was longer, seemed more black and wiry than before. It frizzed from his head as if in agony, falling lightly on his shoulders, beard and moustache billowing around his mouth. Rex thought he had lost weight, but he was still rotund yet fit, more muscular than fat. He was wearing jeans – he always wore jeans, even to his grandfather’s funeral – a white t-shirt visible under an oversized gray sweat shirt, bearing the small shield of the Academy on the upper left breast.

Lefty pointed at the lad he considered his apprenctice – “Where’d you get that shirt?”

Double-J looked down quickly, then back up at Lefty. “I dunno. Picked it up somewhere, a while ago.”

Jimmy laughed. “Thought for a moment, you were gonna tell us you’d gone joined the Academy.”

Double-J snorted contemptuously. “If’n I had the money to go to the Academy, the last thing I’d do with it, is join the Academy. Had enough of one school already – don’t need to go to another school, get all ticked off again.”

“Huh.” Seeing Double-J extending his arm towards him, Rex began taking off his jacket. “Told me last week you weren’t dropping out.”

Double-J smiled, walked over to the frying pan. “I’m not -” picking up a spatula – “but I’ll get into all that after we eat.”

Lefty walked over to the stove, peered down at the steaks sizzling in the skillet. “Pretty fancy.”

“Not a big deal, really.” Double-J bent to open the door of the half-sized refrigerator. “Grocery store up the street, takes the meat they don’t sell over the weekend, put her on sale Monday. Got these for half-price.” He opened the small freezer drawer, retrieved a bag of green beans. “It’s really not that hard to eat well without paying an arm and a leg. You just have to pay attention.” He opened the bag, placed it on the counter next to the sink, opened a cupboard door, retrieved a plastic container. “Thing is, most people don’t pay attention. They just go along, doin’ whatever it is they’re told, don’t ever question whether the people who tell ’em what to do, know what the hell they were talking about. No, the only time they think about that, is when things go wrong, and they’re looking for someone to blame for their failure.”

He began pouring the frozen vegetables into the container, then stopped himself. Turned from the kitchen, looked at his three guests, made sure to make eye contact with each. “Know what I like about fencing?” He didn’t wait for a response. “In the end, you’re accountable for your own actions. You do all this training, listen to what your coaches say, take advice from your teammates – but when you get on the strip it’s all about you, what you can do out there, how you react to what you’re opponent’s doing. When you win, it’s because of what you did, and when you lose – hey, you’re teammates and coaches weren’t on the strip, it’s all on you. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, it’s – pure.”

[“Gray Metal Faces,” March 13B]

Awkward Introductions

Seven days in the future

Tires crunched loudly against gravel and ice in the lingering cold of March, as a large white van, SQUISITO CATERING painted on either side, pulled into an open parking space on Elm Street, three houses to the east of the Embassy Apartments. One of the larger apartment buildings in Bark Bay, the Embassy had three floors, loud radiators, no central air, and a strict 11 pm curfew enforced by the owner, a red-faced former state trooper with a temper as short as his hair.

Rex opened the van’s passenger door, the tall teen getting out of the car shortly before Jimmy emerged from the driver’s side. They walked without speaking up to the building’s entrance, saw in the small half-circle windows of the front door a man wearing a dirty green visor waiting inside. As they got closer, Rex was able to confirm his initial impression that this man was Lefty – George Monroe, owner of Lefty’s Auto Repair, where Double-J had worked for the last few years. As Jimmy reached for the front door handle, Rex detected the mixed odor of grease, motor oil, and gasoline, and saw through the window that Lefty was now looking at them, smiling with yellowed teeth and a face covered with dirt, black grease marks, and three days worth of beard stubble.

Definitely Lefty, Rex thought.

Lefty stepped back as the door opened — “How you fellas doing?” — his back against the security door leading to the apartments. The smell of onion blended into the already pungent mélange of garage odors, as Lefty pointed past the newcomers. “That van belong to you?” Jimmy nodded. “‘member seein’ it at the shop, last month. Handling OK now?”

Rex glanced over at the man who had volunteered to help coach the Bark Bay High School fencing team, saw him flinch as Lefty’s breath made contact with his face. “I — yeah, we running good now.”

Lefty clapped his hands, nodding. “Suspension on dose tings are a bitch, but we got hu tuh behave. Shitfire and damnation!” He laughted, hugging his body, as Jimmy looked at him with a combination of awe and disgust. Suddenly, Lefty extended his arm towards Rex — “My name’s George, but ev-body calls me Lefty, so might as well do th’ same.” Out of reflex, Rex shook his hand. “Sorry ’bout all muh dirt –- no time t’ go home, take no shower.”

“No problem. Nice — ” Rex nearly gagged as the full force of Lefty’s breath hit him — “to meet you.”

“Same he-ah.” Lefty then looked down at Jimmy’s feet, raised his head deliberately, eyes scanning the owner of Squisito’s Catering, stopping suddenly at his face — “Not from ’round here, ain’t cha?” — then cackled violently.

Jimmy snorted a solitary laugh. “Born and raised in Louisiana.”

“Ya don’ say? Shitfire and damnation!” Lefty slapping Jimmy on the left shoulder. “Well we all comes from someplace or nuther. Might as well be Weezyanna, or Ja-Pan fer all I care.”

Rex began to feel light headed, the smell in the entry room beginning to make him nauseous. He pointed to the column of white rectangular buttons on the wall to his left — “What room is Double-J in?” Lefty ran his hand down the crudely fashioned paper labels next to the buttons — “This’un,” then pushed the button next to JOHNSON. A moment later, a sharp crackling sound came from a small speaker on the wall above the column of buttons, followed by a curt Yeah?

“Hey.” Urgency in Rex’s voice, a desire to speak before the others. “I’m here, with Lefty and Jimmy.”

The speaker crackled again, the voice that followed more welcoming. Hey! Guys! Come on up!

A second later, a loud buzz sounded from the interior security door. Lefty opened the door, turned and smiled as he motioned for Jimmy and Rex to walk in. “Second floor, third door onna right.”

[I’m experimenting again with my blog titles, and will be entirely removing the references to the novel and chapter names. The above is from “Gray Metal Faces,” March 13A.]

Settlement – Gray Metal Faces, March 12A

“Allez.” Get the center, he lets me take it. Feint the head cut, get him to flinch — slash the arm, EEEEP, look over YES, only ONE LIGHT this time, ref doesn’t both calling it out, just uses hand signals. Return to start. Not sure what was up with that touch, might have just been resting. Or looking to play the tempo game — watch that. “Pret.”

“Take it easy.” Double-J’s voice a command, not a plea, as he glared at the man on the right. “Yer gonna get your money, but like I said, I ain’t got it on me.”

Two women in their thirties exited the Pizza Place, and Baseball Cap brought his right arm down from his left hip, The Bird noticing with relief that his hand was empty. The man on the right frowned after the women passed. “So when — ”

“Friday.” Double-J pointed with his left thumb in the direction of the road outside the parking lot. “Get paid, Friday. Stop by the apartment, I’ll have yer money then.”

“Huh.” Vapor billowed from Baseball Cap’s mouth with his skeptical grunt. “Friday.” A car, followed by another, drove into the parking lot, pulled into nearby spaces. The Bird looked at the two men facing Double-J, saw their faces relax. As  doors opened from the newly arriving cars, the man on the right tapped his index finger on the teen’s shoulder. “Just ‘member, we knows where you live.”

Double-J barked a laugh. “Should hope so, you were there last Saturday!”

The occupants from the new arrived cars walked past the men, who waited for the newcomers to reach the restaurant door before jostling past Double-J, who remained stationary, the shoulder bumps of the two men glancing off him like bird wings against a statue.

Two Evaluations – GMF, March 11B

“You probably are. Not aware of this.” Mr. Nestor’s voice sounded cold, the sound of a knife scraping an ice cube. “But this boy on your team, Double-J — he not only. Is no longer enrolled. At your school. But also has had. More than one incident. With the. Authorities.”

The Bird couldn’t remember him being so circumspect, as if reluctant to speak his mind. She asked if he was saying Double-J was a criminal.

“Oh no, dear no!” She wished they were speaking in person, The Bird hated telephone conversations, not seeing the face of the people she was speaking with. “I haven’t found — he has never been arrested, never charged. But he has been questioned. On several occassions. About his friends, some of whom have been arrested, have been charged, have been convicted. Nothing violent, fortunately. But still — disturbing.”

She let the line’s static hum a moment, reviewing her memories of him, all from the fencing practices he infrequently attended. His open defiance of Coach Dan, the mocking sarcasm he weilded against every team member. And she remembered the rumors she heard, about his apartment, the parties he thew. Next time I have the guys over, maybe I’ll just send the cops an invite, save the neighbors a phone call. What she was hearing now from Mr. Nestor didn’t contradict any of her impressions of Double-J, yet there was something in his analysis that she didn’t trust, that seemed distorted, incomplete.

The Bird asked if he had ever spoken to Double-J; he tutted, and she envisioned him shaking his head. “Only that one evening, my sweet. Not long enough to evaluate whether what I’ve heard is consistent with his personality.” She noticed the hesitation was gone from his voice. She felt an urge to challenge him, shame his gossip, but decided instead to relate facts — he was rarely at pratice because he had a job, never at school because he’d already graduated (she wasn’t sure of this, but he was evidently certain), and had never said or done anything that made her feel unsafe.

“I.” Mr. Nestor cleared his throat. “See.” And at that moment the front door of her home opened, her mother striding in and, a few moments later, taking the receiver from The Bird. Who went to her upstairs bedroom, closed the door, and while sitting on her bed listened intently to her mother’s side of conversation, never once hearing any suggestion that Mr. Nestor had returned the conversation back to the short, powerful sabre fencer she knew from the occassional Tuesday afternoon practice.

An Old Friend Calls – Gray Metal Faces, March 11A

A week from last Monday

The Bird had been napping on the the gray and brown couch of the living room when the telephone had begun ringing. She and her mother rarely received calls, and many times when alone in house The Bird would leave calls unanswered, letting the phone ring until the attempted communication was ended by the caller or passed onto the messaging system. But now, motivated by her annoyance at having been awakened, she decided to answer this call.

“Sandy?” The Bird realized she had picked up the receiver and held it to her ear, but had not said hello or otherwise acknowledged the call. She replied that yes, this was Sandy.

“It’s Mr. Nestor.” She didn’t recognize the voice of her mother’s elderly friend, this being the first time she had heard his voice transmitted over the telephone system. “How is my little girl?” The Bird had often thought how pleasant it would be if her father was really Mr. Nestor, not the nameless man whom her mother would not discuss. Mr. Nestor was kind, thoughtful, always willing to help she and her mother, yet he lived in California most of the time, far from the tiny village of Bark Bay where she and her mother lived. And he was much older than her mother, more a grandfather to The Bird than a surrogate father.

The Bird asked if he was working in the city. “Why, yes.” He rarely called unless he was near. “There’s a summer Shaw festival, I’ve been asked to direct — such an honor.” He cleared his throat, a sound she recognized as his sign that he was about to direct their conversation towards a topic he considered important. “Sandy, I need, to talk, to you — ” if there was one thing The Bird did not appreciate about Mr. Nestor, it was the dramatic pause he frequently employed in his voice — “about that, fencing team, you’re on.”

She was almost able to reply that she hadn’t been to practice, or seen anyone on the team for a month, that she had basically quit, before the stentorian voice continued. “There is, a boy, on the team. I believe, I met him, when you all came up to see the dress rehearsal for ‘Hamlet.’ Calls himself, Double-J.”

Static crackled over the line’s silence. “One of, the producers, has a daughter at, the Academy. I do not know, her name, but she is, a fencer, like you. And, my producer friend, attends many, of her daughter’s, fencing tournaments. And, for that reason, knows many high school fencers, by name.”

Choices in the Dark – Gray Metal Faces, March 10A

“I ain’t got yer money, ‘cuz it’s lost.” Double-J’s pronouncement halted the growing anger in his two accusers, the two men momentarily confused. “Yuh lost yer damn money, when yuh fergot t’ ask me, or anyone else, t’ pay for that beer run — ” The Bird noticed Double-J’s accent becoming more pronounced with his agitation — “Yuh wanna blame someone, blame yurself, fer goin’ straight t’ the back room t’ get  high, ‘stead ah takin’ care ah bidness. Yuh wanna cry ’bout yur damn money — ”

“Yur one ah dem college kids, ain’t ya?” Grabbing control of the conversation, Baseball Cap regained his belicose demeanor.

Double-J shook his head violently. “Got no use — ”

“Not wha I mean, wheder you take classes or nuthin’.”

“Yeah.” The man to Baseball Cap’s right, the one whose beer money was in dispute, seemed able to communicate with his partner without speaking; The Bird wanted no part of either man’s telepathy. “Yuh got tha’ attitude, tha’ you kin talk yur way outta fightin’.”

The Bird’s instincts wanted to run back into the Pizza Place, and — she wasn’t sure what, scream for someone to help, to call the police. But Double-J and the two men were between her and the restaurant’s entrance, and she was certain one of the men would grab her if she attempted to run past, stop her as the other man attacked Double-J. There were three other buildings (an accountant, a salon, a bank) in this small strip mall, all windows dark with emptiness. She looked around again, saw no other person in the lot, realized there was nothing she could do to help, no reasonable course of action save to trust in Double-J’s ability to avoid further escalating the situation.

She heard him suck in, air reverberating in his lungs like a growl. “You guys wanna fight — ”

“No sah!” Baseball Cap stepped back, unzipped his down vest, flipped open the flaps towards Double-J. “Ain’t gonna be no fightin’ tonight, yuh understan’?” He brought his right hand down across his waist, patted his left hip twice. In the darkness, The Bird couldn’t see what he was patting, but saw in Double-J’s indignant yet resigned expression that she really didn’t need to know what was there.

“Gonna make dis simple, boy.” The man to the right crossed his arms. “You jus’ gimme my money, an’ we done here. You don’t, it gonna get messy.”