Mr. Jacobs stepped aside, which The Bird took as her cue to do the same, and into the irregular circle of the theater’s lobby walked Ed Nestor, her mother’s friend and advisor for as long as The Bird could remember. His short-cut graying hair, salt-and-pepper beard, and generosity towards she and her mother had made The Bird, at an early age, think of him as an elderly member of the family, like the grandparents of her friends at school. He wasn’t, of course, but given that The Bird did not have an actual grandfather (her mother’s father had died the year before The Bird was born, and she knew even less about her father’s parents than the little she knew of her father), she allowed herself this fantastical indulgence.
“Hello, young scholars!” Ed Nestor’s face beamed in cordial greeting as his arms swept to his side, his tweed jacket swishing audibly. “I understand you have some interest in stage fencing?” When his enthusiastic question was answered with blank stares, Mr. Jacobs’ voice suddenly boomed, echoing in the near-empty lobby of the theater. “I asked Ned, Mr. Nestor, to talk about his choreography for the duel between Hamlet and Laertes.”
Annie raised her hand, and Ed Nestor nodded his gray head in her direction. “Coach Dan says you’ve worked on Broadway.”
Ed Nestor smiled diffidently, his salt-and-pepper beard bristling with energy. “A long time ago, yes. Hollywood, as well.”
“You’ve been in movies?” Rune’s voice was filled with excitement.
“Just behind the scenes, young man.”
“Which films?” Rex sounded genuinely curios.
“Oh, mostly pirate films, low-budget fare.” He rattled off a few titles, Double-J cutting him off after the fourth — “So why the hell are you out here now?”
Ed Nestor’s back had been to Double-J, so he twirled dramatically to the burly teen, a broad smile on his elderly face which conveyed no consternation. “There is no place else I’d rather be, young man.” He walked slowly, confidently towards Double-J, like a lawyer making his closing argument to the jury. “I’m surrounded by eager, hungry actors, whose love of the stage is far greater than their desire for riches or fame. Here there are no divas or prima donnas, no Machiavellian directors, no impossible mandates from production companies.” He stopped, right foot landing loudly on the tiled floor of the lobby, less than a foot from Double-J, who looked back impassively. “This –” Ed Nestor pointed down with both index fingers — “is where the theater still lives. And that, is the reason why I am here!”
Mr. Jacobs clear his throat. “Ed, perhaps you should explain, how you work with your actors.”
“Ah yes.” Ed Nestor returned to the center of the lobby, then crouched down into en garde position. “First I show them how to stand, hold their arm. What your coach probably taught you on your first day.”
“And still do.” Self-conscious laughter rippled through the team.
Ed Nestor came out of his crouch, resumed his professorial stance. “But your average theater-goer probably doesn’t — appreciate the sport of fencing like you and I, so for stage fencing, the body movements must be, shall we say, exaggerated.” He stepped back, quickly removed his tweed jacket and tossed it to Double-J, who caught it with a reluctant smile. “Coach, would you care to help me demonstrate?”
The Bird watched Mr. Jacobs purse his lips, nod sideways, walk to the spot where shirt-sleeved Ed Nestor had pointed. “On your guard, Coach.” Mr. Jacobs crouched down as commanded, as did Ed Nestor, the two men facing each a mere few feet apart. “Now this, is a standard attack and parry — ” Ed extended his right arm slightly outside his torso, the hand at shoulder height, then lifted his right foot slightly and slowly lunged his body forward, pushing off his back leg. Mr. Jacobs calmly brought his arm across and deflected the invisible attack. “Very good — ” Ed went back to en garde — “but for the stage, the action will look like this.” His right arm flew out, swift and wide and high, the student fencers laughing at what looked to them a wild, undisciplined motion; Ed followed with a lunge that looked like he was trying to take flight, and Mr. Jacobs responded by swinging his arm not straight across his body but looping up, in what seemed to the students a miserably ineffective parry.
Rex clapped, and his applause was picked up by the other team members — save for one. “Nice show.” Double-J walked forward, holding Ed Nestor’s tweed jacket at arm’s length. “This mean I don’t have to stay for the play?”
Ed Nestor laughed sourly, as Mr. Jacobs pointed up at the lobby’s high back wall. “Twenty minutes until the start.” A quick look back at Ed Nestor. “Understand we have the theater to ourselves.”
“Some family.” Ed pulled his jacket back onto his body. “Not many.”
“We should sit in the back.” Coach Dan had returned to the center of their circle. “It’s a difficult play, want to give you the opportunity to ask questions.”
The Bird said they should wait, her mother had wanted to meet the team before they began. Double-J groaned and looked away, as the other team members gathered around The Bird. Rune had a wide, sarcastic grin on his face — “You mean, we get to meet Save-Anna?”
The Bird nodded. Save-Anna was a character her mother played in a series of commercials for the Stop and Save grocery store chain. Anyone watching television for more than a few hours within a hundred-mile radius was bound to see Save-Anna and her foot-high bouffant, wide eyes brimming with excitement behind absurdly large horn-rimmed glasses, ridiculous-red lips shouting with incredulity at the UNBELIEVABLE deals available RIGHT NOW at your local Stop and Save, her histrionics accentuated by exuberant banjo chords accompanied by a chorus of background singers pleading Oh Save-Anna, won’t you shop for me?
“Nobody’s meeting Save-Anna today.” The Bird was grateful for Mr. Jacobs’ proclamation. “Janet — The Bird’s mother — is playing Gertrude tonight. Hamlet’s mother. And that’s the role she’ll be discussing with us.”
Ed Nestor attempted, without much success, to engage his young audience in a discussion of the play’s meaning. The arrival of The Bird’s mother, fully dressed for her regal role, came as a relief to everyone.
Janet Wernick greeted Mr. Jacobs warmly; she then put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “And these must be your teammates,” her other hand sweeping across the width of the lobby.
The captain of the Bark Bay High School fencing team strolled in front of Janet, extending her hand — “Annie Hutchinson. Pleased to meet you.”
“Hutchinson!” The Bird’s mother tilted her head back. “Isn’t your father — ”
” — running for state senate, yes.”
Janet smiled at the teen politely. “Impressive, yes.”
The Bird pointed at Rune, introducing him to her mother; she squinted, as if trying to listen through her eyes. “Roan?”
“Rune,” the greasy-haired teen steeping forward and extending his hand. “It’s what they call me — ”
” — he likes to print runic letters.” A small flinch of annoyance crossed his face at Annie’s explanation.
“I see.” The Bird’s mother shook the teen’s hand. “And before they started calling you Rune, what was your name?”
“Banks. Hugh Banks.”
Janet looked up momentarily. “Banks. There’s an accountant in town, named Banks — ”
“That’s da — my father.”
“A pleasure.” She smiled, nodded, turned to the teen on Rune’s left, notably heavier than the other students in the lobby. “And are you on the team as well?”
“Hmmm? Oh!” The Bird couldn’t understand why Butch seemed surprised. “Yeah, I’m on fencing. Just doing foil now, Double-J wants me to try saber, but I just started, you know what I mean?”
Janet blinked, her face revealing she had no idea what Butch was saying. She shifted her attention towards the thin teen standing to Butch’s left, and looked up — “And who is this tall drink of water?”
Rex snorted a pleasant laugh, extended his hand. The Bird’s mother extended hers, and could not hid her surprise as Rex clasped her hand, raised it in a polite yet assertive motion, then greeted it with a light, audible kiss.
When the tall teen raised his head, the woman who was about to play Gertrude met his gaze with a calm learned from years on the stage. “That was . . . unexpected.”
The Bird told her mother that Rex had a flair for the dramatic.
“How sad.” Rex’s voice did not sound in the least bit unhappy. “Simple politeness, manners — what does it say about our world, that such behavior is now considered unusual?”
“Hmmm.” Janet considered his face carefully. “You seem a bit — sorry, don’t take this wrong, but isn’t fencing a bit rough?”
Rex’s eyes widened, but it was Rune that replied. “Well, yeah. How many other sports use a weapon?”
Several. Attention in the lobby turned almost in unison to the sound of the voice coming from the side wall of the lobby. “Archery. Skeet shooting. That Olympic sport where you ski cross-country, then shoot a rifle.” The Bird recognized the voice at the same moment she caught sight of its source — Teddy Jasper, the man who had been whispering to her in the auditorium before the team arrived.
“Biathlon.” Rune focused inward a moment, then beamed. “But in those sports, you don’t use your weapon against another person!”
The pencil-thin moustache above Teddy Jasper’s lip twitched slightly as he stepped past Rune, their conversation clearly ended. Mr. Jacobs called the team members over to him, said it was time for them to take their seats in the auditorium. But as The Bird began walking with them, she felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder.