Gray Metal Faces – March 2

Arm out, got the middle, head cut, he aims at four, EEEP EEEP. “Halt. Together.” Got there first, need to make it more obvious. “Pret. Allez.” EEEP EEEP, another no touch, what I gotta do. “Pret. Allez.” He jumped the gun this time, he’s first — attack’s out of distance, misses — get him on the arm, tags me on the remise, EEEP EEEP, dammit it’s MINE this time. “Halt.” MINE. “Attack right no, attack left yes.” Good, ref saw it, there’s hope for this bout.

“Sounds like a typical practice.” Double-J drank from his Coke again. “Footwork drills, conditioning — probably did some bouting when Jimmy got fed up.”

The Bird protested that it was different, that practices hadn’t been typical, what they used to be, for a while. A lot of people were missing, she said; Rune hadn’t been at practice since the last tournament —

“Ha!” Eyes focused above The Bird’s head, Double-J shook his head. “Heard Banks has gotten his ass kicked on a regular basis. Got dumped by his girlfriend, too. Banks is probably sitting at home, licking his wounds.”

The week before, The Bird continued, they were just three other people — Annie, Rex, and Jimmy. “It happens.” The waitress delivered The Bird’s salad. “One practice last year — around this time, it was — it was just me and Myles.” His eyes brightened. “That was actually one of our best afternoons, just the two of us going at it until Myles got tired. Jacobs even managed to keep his mouth shut for once.”

The Bird looked down at her salad, then back up at Double-J. She told him that everyone was worried about him.

“Everyone?” The burly teen leaned his head toward The Bird, his left eyebrow raised.

Well, The Bird admitted, Jimmy was worried, definitely. And Annie. And Rex. They don’t — she paused — understand.

“Why I left the team?” Nod. “Didn’t need it, no more. It’s that simple. Ain’t nothing we do at practice that I ain’t already done dozens of times before, and there’s nobody else for saber — Jimmy don’t count, he’s been out of the sport a quarter century.”

Across the table, The Bird contemplated his latest statement, then blinked. She said there was a Korean guy —

“Juan?” Nod. “His name’s Joo-won, you know that right? Teachers started calling him Juan because they couldn’t be bothered to learn his real name. Nah, this town ain’t racist. Saw his sister at the store the other day, said he’d poked his head back in at practice. But she also told me something else.” He leaned across the table, lowered his voice. “He ain’t going back to you guys. He didn’t like Jimmy, so last week his parents signed him up with Dr. Schmidt.” The Bird recognized the name of the En Garde! club owner, as Double-J leaned back in his chair. “Can’t say that I blame him.”

The Bird lifted her fork, placed it back down on the table. She asked if he was going to Dr. Schmidt too.

“That clown?” He seemed anxious to leave the table abruptly. “Schmidt teaches like fencing hasn’t changed in a century. Nah, I’m done with lessons, done with training. Like I told Jacobs last month, if I wanna fence at tournaments I’ll do it, there’s no rule you have to be affiliated. Kristof, at Wolford, he’s been competing two years, no team or club.”

Double-J leaned back, the front legs of his plastic chair rising off the floor. “So don’t worry about me, little bird. I’m doing fine. Never been better, in fact.”

The Bird shook her head, and said she wasn’t worried about him; Double-J responded with the look of a judge who’d lost patience with an attorney’s argument. It was other people, she explained, other people were worried about him. Not her.

“That a fact?” Nod, Double-J raised his tumbler, saw it was nearly empty, waved the waitress over. Stroked an eyebrow with his thumb — “That checks out. You called about the team, didn’t say nothing ’bout me.” He then snapped his fingers, “You’re mom’s car is done, shop’s open to eight tonight, she can pick it up whenever she wants.”

The Bird shook her head, said her mother was working in the city, wouldn’t be home until late. She then picked up the earlier conversation, said she couldn’t explain it, sometimes she would have feelings about people, that they were headed in a certain direction, good or bad. These weren’t like predictions, she didn’t know what was going to happen, but she was convinced that if things didn’t change — her eyes grew big. It’s patterns, she said, I see patterns of behavior, it’s like what Coach Dan says about fencing.

The last statement seemed to fully engage the burly teen sitting across from her. “See what patterns your opponent is following, then find its weak point and exploit it.”

And don’t fall into patterns yourself, The Bird added.

“Be predictably unpredictable.” He snorted a laugh through his nose.

The waitress revisited their table, carrying Doulbe-J’s sandwich and a glass pitcher of Coke. A soothing pop song descended from the ceiling’s loudspeakers, masking the conversations from other tables. Refilling Double-J’s tumbler, the waitress left abruptly.

Haven eaten several bites from her salad, The Bird placed her fork back down on the table. There’s something wrong with the team, she said as Double-J tore into his sandwich. It wasn’t just about who showed up at practice — she remembered they had four strips going last month, must have been close to a dozen, the two Pauls, OK, Micky and her brother — just about everyone, except Rune.

“Banks?” Nod. “Big loss there.” The Bird flinched at his sarcasm, Double-J responding with a dismissive head shake. “Don’t worry about Banks, his family’s gonna take care of him, like they always have.”

Three days later

“Pull over.” Rex punctuated his uncharacteristically insistent command by reaching over from the passenger’s seat and nudging Double-J’s right arm, which lay on the front seat as his left arm commanded the coupe’s steering wheel.

Double-J glanced in the direction his slim friend was pointing, and suppressed the urge to groan. He kicked the accelerator like an annoying dog, Rex’s voice rising in objection as the coupe sped towards the solitary figure walking along the road’s dirt shoulder, passing less than a foot from contact, the coupe then swerving sharply right and stopping abruptly.

“Christ, take it EASY!” Ignoring his passenger’s complaint, Double-J rolled down his window, stuck the profile of his head outside the coupe, and without looking back addressed the person whose path his coupe was now blocking — “Banks. Rex here wants a word with you.” He then sat back in his seat, grinning with the left side of his mouth and frowning with the right, and waited with dark anticipation for the sharp cry of objection that was sure to erupt from behind his vehicle.

Yet the only audible sound for a moment was the hum of the coupe’s engine. Double-J squinted, looked up at his rear-view. Banks, the kid everyone else called Rune, was standing in the exact position he’d been when the coupe sped past him, his hands remaining in his jacket pockets. And he was — smiling.

Sneakered feet crunched into soft gravel as Rune sprinted up to Double-J’s door. “HEY THERE!” A cloying mirth in his voice. “How’s it GOING, Mr. Double-J!”

The burly teen twisted toward the grinning fool standing to his left. “The fuck — “

Rune.” Rex leaned across the front seats, nearly bumping heads with Double-J. “Where you been, man, I haven’t seen you.”

The eyes of the teen standing outside the car GREW, then EXPANDED even further, and then got EVEN BIGGER. “Where have I BEEN?” Hands flew out the jacket pockets, arms spread wide. “I’ve been EVERYWHERE, you’re just not in the same PLACES I’ve been!”

“Tuesday afternoon, practice.” Double-J leaned back as far as he could as Rex continued speaking, sounding more like Coach Dan with every word. “You ain’t gonna get any better unless you practice.”

“Better at WHAT?” An additional sense of delight seemed to erupt on Rune’s face as he stared down at Rex’s blinking, blank expression. “Hey Double-J — ” Rune’s arms flying forward, slapping on to coupe’s roof — “when’s your next PARTY?”

Rex reclined back into his seat, as Double-J remembered the last time he’d seen Rune. A Saturday, last month, a buddy of his had brought Rune to his apartment, mistakenly assuming that any fencer at Bark Bay High School would be welcome. The back room — Jez had taken Rune’s hand, was leading him back there to get high —

“Don’t tell me you’re not having parties no more?” Rune’s voice was now barely a whisper, his face contorted in mocking disappointment. “I mean, I had so much fun the last time — “

Double-J had bruised his hand, the punch to Rune’s stomach hitting a rib. That’s why he had started kicking.

” — we just GOTTA do that again, dontcha think?”

“You need a lift?” Double-J pointed behind him with his left thumb. “I can get you home.”

“A RIDE?” Rune stepped back, his arms spreading wide again. “You really think I need TRANSPORTATION?” He stepped back into the middle of the road, nearly tripping over a mound of bituminous patchwork. “I don’t need a ride in your CAR, because — and I don’t think you know this yet — “

The manic figure standing in the road leaned forward, waited for the proper look of bewilderment on the faces of the two teens in the coupe.

” — I’m an AIRPLANE!” Rune then turned sharply up the road, buzzing his lips and waving his outstretched arms wildly up and down, bzzzzzzzz.

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