Gray Metal Faces – January 5

The third Thursday

Left hand grab-pushing the steering wheel of her decade old compact (of which she was the third owner), Janet Wernick, wearing no makeup and dressed in jeans and an oversized sweater under a black winter coat, twisted and looked back over her right shoulder. The car accelerated, front wheels spitting dirty snow forward, as it careened backwards across the hard narrow dirt of the driveway. In the front passenger seat, The Bird looked at the house receeding before them, and fought the temptation to tell her mother to stop, let her out, allow her to stay home.

“What time did you say your fencing team was going to be at the theater?” Janet still looking back as she spoke. The Bird said she didn’t know, a purely reflexive response. Then she remembered Mr. Jacobs telling them to meet at the school parking lot at five, and conveyed this information to her mother.

“Five.” The car turned, Janet still looking out the back, and The Bird felt the rear tires gripping pavement with a noise that almost sounded like relief. Her mother looked forward, grabbed the wheel with her right hand, left shifting from the top to the side. “They’ll get there by six, six-fifteen at the latest. Good — I’ll have time to meet them.” Her mother now focused on the road, The Bird allowed herself to frown at the thought of the fencing team meeting her mother.

“So — ” The Bird turned, recognizing the call for her attention — “I guess tonight’s the night I start calling you Bird?”

The Bird, said The Bird.

The Bird?” Her mother groaned, eyes focused on the road. “Not a Bird, The Bird?” The Bird explained that was the name she had been given at fencing practice. “I understand that Sandy, but — ” she groaned again — “it just sounds so awkward, The Bird. You really don’t think Bird is good enough?”

The Bird allowed a touch of impatience to enter her voice, as she said The Bird sounded better than just Bird.

Janet Wernick sighed. “All right then, The Bird it is.” She pointed her right index finger toward her daughter. “For tonight, anyway.” An accepting smile let The Bird know her mother was satisfied.

They drove in silence for several minutes. The late afternoon sun was low in the horizon, hovering above a long snow-covered field, sunlight reflecting off the field so brightly that it appeared almost metallic. For a moment, it looked to The Bird like a giant egg yolk had been suspended over a cold frying pan.

“I think fencing’s wonderful.” Her mother’s voice had softened. “When I told Ed — Mr. Nestor — that you were fencing, he was so pleased. He can’t wait to speak with your coach, your teammates tonight. It’s just — ” her mother, usually so eloquent, was searching for the right words — “I’ve never known you to step outside your comfort zone like this. You’ve always — stayed so close to home. Your grandmother and I, we’ve always worried about you, Sandy. Wondered if you’d ever feel confident enough to . . . ”

The Bird felt her mother’s right hand suddenly grasp her left arm. She looked over, saw her mother’s eyes glistening in the pale light of the dusky winter afternoon. “Life is so uncertain, Sandy. You can’t expect everything to stay the same as it is. You have to take chances, explore the world around you, prepare for the — changes that are as certain to come as the dawn.” The Bird felt her mother’s hand squeeze, hard, almost painful.

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