Gray Metal Faces – January 1

[Over the coming month, this blog will feature a revision to the fifth chapter of “Gray Metal Faces,” a novel I’ve been drafting for far longer than I care to consider.  For background information and summaries of other chapters, see the information I’ve posted here.]

The second Saturday

“Why?” Then Double-J stood up, his broad frame hovering over the equipment sacks belonging to the Bark Bay High School fencing team.

Still squatting on the other side of the sacks, Rune shrugged. “I don’t know. Different, I guess.” He brushed wavy curls  away from his brow.

You’re on deck. Double-J half-turned in the direction of Rex’ voice behind him, nodded quickly. “Remind me why I agreed to fence foil today?”

“Hector’s competing.”

Double-J grunted contemptuously. “Not in my pool, he ain’t. Hate foil.”

“So — you coming?”

Double-J knelt down, reached into the long canvas sack that contained the team’s weapons. He lifted a foil, let it fall back into the sack, clak. He picked up another, raised it in the air, examined it closely, brought it down to his side, then turned his attention back to Rune. “You need my car, don’t you?”

Rune stared back at Double-J. A wavy stream of greasy hair fell back down into his eyes.

Double-J laughed. “Coach can fit five in his car, maybe six. You heard there were more than six yeses? Or, someone tell you to talk to me?”

Rune brushed the hair from his eyes, smiled back at Double-J. “We won’t make you clean out the back seat.”

The thin black wires of Double-J’s hair waved crazily as he shook his head. “Still don’t know why we’re doing this.”

“I don’t either.” Rune stood, spread his arms wide. “Why are we going Tuesday? Why are we here today? Why are we here at all?” His eyes grew wide, as if gazing into the heart of eternity. “What, after all, is the meaning of life?”

Hey, a tone of urgency in Rex’s call. Double-J turned, walked in the direction of the strip, towards his next bout, yet his voice was clearly aimed back at Rune. “I’m expecting money for gas.”

As he crossed the wooden floor of the State’s secondary gymnasium, Double-J became aware once more of the familiar sounds of the fencing tournament — quick shuffling footfalls followed by the crisp kissing ting of steel blades; sharp referee commands to Halt! and Fence!; the abrupt buzzing of scoring machines. Lurking under all these noises was the soft murmured voices of the spectators, mostly other fencers between bouts and their coaches, or one of the small numbers of parents or friends. Tournaments at State tended to draw more non-participants than those held at a local high school, though not nearly as many as would be present at the Academy, where supporting the fencing team was taken as a point of pride.

Double-J lifted his chin as he looked up and made eye contact with Rex. The tall teen nodded back. “You’re up.” Rex looked around him quickly, confirming nobody was in hearing distance, then turned back to Double-J. “Mike beat up on some newb from the Academy. Skunked ‘im.”

“No surprise there.” Double-J walked past Rex, reached down to the cord reel on the floor at the end of the fencing strip, and pulled up its three-pronged connector. “Who’s first on the menu?”

“Bednarik.”

Double-J looked up at Rex. “Who?”

Rex shrugged. “Bednarik. Kristof, I think. He’s from Wolford.”

Double-J laughed, as he reached behind him and plugged the cord reel’s connector into his body cord. “Didn’t know Wolford had a team this year.”

“They don’t.” Rex clapped down on Double-J’s shoulder playfully. “He’s one of Herr Schmidt’s boys.”

Double-J looked up suddenly, stared down to the other end of the strip, where he saw a slender, curly-haired teen hooking into the opposite cord reel. Next to the teen was Dr. Schmidt, fencing coach of the En Garde! fencing school, dressed as usual entirely in white. Double-J looked down, shaking his head. “Hate him already.”

“Thought you hated everyone.”

“I do.” With his left hand, Double-J grabbed the other end of the body cord that was dangling out of his right sleeve. “But now he’s given me a real reason to hate him, which just totally pisses me off.”

“Saw his bout with Jen.” Rex flicked his head back, in the direction of Double-J’s opponent at the other end of the strip.

“Who won?” Double-J sounded indifferent.

“They were tied at 2, then he got the last three.” Rex lowered his voice. “Watch his — ”

Beeeehhhh. Double-J followed his abrupt, guttural dismissal by stepping past Rex. “I’ll figure it out.” He stepped to the center of the strip, raised his foil for the referee’s weight test; a moment later he then tested his foil against his opponent’s lame, an action mirrored by his opponent. The lights on the scoring machine lit correctly, and at the referee’s command the two fencers stepped back to their starting lines, quickly saluted each other and the referee, then donned their masks.

“Fence.” Double-J advanced quickly on his taller opponent, stopping when he reached lunge distance. Another quick step forward — Double-J’s opponent didn’t flinch. Another step — the opponent retreated, Double-J advanced again, began to lunge — the opposite foil flashed, kissed Double-J’s foil, the tip then landing on the shoulder.

Counter-tempo. That was what Rex had been trying to warn Double-J against, the strategy that this opponent (Kristof?) had used to beat Jen. Double-J had been aggressive, as if he were fencing saber, but this was foil, and Rex knew that Dr. Schmidt taught his students to use their opponents’ aggression against them.

The two fencers traded off-target hits, then Kristof scored again off a retreat. Double-J turned, dark murmurs seeping from the cold gray metal of his mask. Rex caught his eye as he returned to his starting line. “Watch — ”

Shut up.

Rex turned, shaking his head. He knew from watching the earlier bout that Kristof wasn’t skilled enough to execute Dr. Schmidt’s strategy properly, couldn’t beat Double-J on a level playing field. But Double-J’s impatience was playing right into Kristof’s game, and if he let his anger and frustration take over he was likely to continue this misplay.

“Fence.” Double-J advanced quickly, Kristof waiting at his line like a man with all the time in the world.
Double-J came forward, and without looking Rex could sense Kristof beginning to retreat, preparing for his counter-tempo attack. The ting of blades — a second ting — Double-J had parried Kristof, then landed his riposte to score his first touch.

Their bout moved quickly from that point, Double-J using a series of feints and disengages to further throw off Kristof’s timing. Having surrendered three straight touches and now trailing, Kristof abandoned his counter-tempo strategy and became the aggressor. Now it was Double-J who had his opponent playing his game, scoring a riposte off a desperate lunge with an ease that made his action looked choreographed. Kristof did manage to land a touch off a disengage, but then Double-J coaxed Kristof into attempting his counter-tempo attack once more. Double-J was waiting with the parry, and his riposte gave him the 5-3 victory.

A quick salute to Kristof and the referee, an obligatory shaking of hands, then Double-J, the thin black wires of his hair and moustache matted with sweat, turned to face Rex, who smiled in greeting. “So you figured it out.”

Double-J squinted. “Figured what out?”

Rex widened his eyes, waved in the direction of the strip. “The . . . the counter-tempo. You saw what he was doing, beat attacking off your advance.”

“Huh.” Double-J looked thoughtful, then proceeded to unhook himself from the cord reel. “That what he was doing?”

The tall teen looked down on Double-J, incredulous. “You didn’t see? But you responded perfectly! How could you do that if you didn’t see what he was doing?”

Double-J looked up disdainfully. “Yeah I saw — just didn’t think about it.” He tapped his temple lightly, twice. “You’ve been doing epee too long — you think too much. I beat him by fencing like we were doing saber, going on instinct. Don’t think — just go.”

“You boys are doing well today!” Double-J and Rex turned at the sound of the voice they found both friendly and annoying, and saw the approaching figure of Coach Gavvy, from the Academy, her large circular glasses in thick frames seeming far too heavy to be supported by her elfish body.

Rex waved a greeting. “Hey Coach — ”

“Annie just beat Mike — ” Coach Gavy leaned forward — “Mike! — 5-2 on the far strip! First tournament of the year, and she’s already beating Mike, thought she was a year away, has she been taking lessons?” Rex shook his head. “Well I figured she had, it’s not like her family doesn’t have the money to send her to Dr. Schmidt, you know her father’s running for state senate this spring?” Rex nodded. “How much you bet they’re finally gonna get that bridge built when he gets elected, they’ve been talking about that bridge for years now but have you met her father?” Rex nodded, and resisted the urge to grab hold of Double-J as his friend walked away. “He’s a real mover and shaker, got real chutzpah — ” she jabbed a finger into Rex’s chest — “you know what that is don’t you, sometimes Daniel” (that was always how she referred to Coach Dan) “shows a little of that himself, has he been working with Annie?” Coach Gavvy exhaled audibly.

Rex cleared his throat. “He works with all of — ”

“No, I’m not talking about practice, that’s what, Tuesday after school isn’t it, that’s when Daniel had me come a couple years ago, maybe it was three years, two three I don’t know, it was Tuesday, you still in that cafeteria?” Rex nodded. “UHHHH! I keep telling Daniel he needs to talk to Stu, tell him he needs to give the team gym time, it’s a lack of respect — ” with each of her next words, she slapped the back of her left hand into her right palm for emphasis — “PLAIN. AND. SIMPLE. You need to tell him — ” she was jabbing Rex in the chest again — “that you’re SICK and TIRED of being treated like second-class athletes at Bark Bay!” She exhaled audibly.

Rex drew his head back. “OK — ”

Coach Gavvy shot her left hand behind her, pointed in the direction of the far strip as she continued staring up at Rex. “Didn’t you hear me? Annie — you’re Annie — just beat Mike Paris! FIVE! TWO! Who’s working with her? Where’s she getting her training? Because I certainly don’t think she could have advanced so far this past year just by showing up in your CAFETERIA at PRACTICE Tuesday afternoons!”

“Gavriella, would you mind explaining why you’re interrogating one of my students?” Rex relaxed at the sound of his coach’s voice, approaching from behind.

The coach of the Academy fencing team ducked her head to Rex’s right, looked past him. “I wasn’t interrogating him, I was congratulating your team’s success.” Her tone had grown playful. “Bark Bay’s catching up to us, it’s not just Miles, I’ve been telling the team that for a year, and unless somebody takes Annie down, this might be the day you finally beat us!”

Coach Dan uttered a sound that sounded to Rex like a mixture of a laugh and a snort of contempt. He pointed at Coach Gavvy with his chin, the short dark curls of his beard nearly waving at her. “This isn’t a team event, Gavriella, you know that.”

Her eyes widened, making her round eyeglasses seem to expand to the size of manhole covers. “If you don’t think — ”

“It doesn’t matter what you or I think.” Coach Dan waved a dismissive hand. “And it doesn’t matter if our teams are keeping an unofficial team score, if that’s what you’re getting at. Even if this were a team event, the focus wouldn’t change.” He pointed down with both index fingers. “This tournament, this sport, is about competing, about challenging each of our athletes to discover their potential.”

Coach Gavy blinked, her long eyelashes nearly brushing the inside of her glasses. “Oh PLEASE, Daniel. If you’re team ever beats mine, you’ll be telling EVERYONE at temple.”

Coach Dan smiled impishly. “Never said this job didn’t have its perks.”

Coach Gavvy turned with a disgusted laughing uuu-huh-UUU!, and walked away quickly.

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