Gray Metal Faces – March 3

“Pret – Allez.” He let me take the middle this time, head cut then line change to four — parry misses but so’s my cut, I’m dead in the water as his counter lands on my arm. Suckered me into falling short, fell for it. Bastard — smart bastard, though. I’ll admire him after handing his ass to him.

The Bird pushed her salad away, the ceramic bowl skritch-ing across the plastic metal table top. She told Double-J that the team seemed to be — shaking her head, she said the only word she could think of was disappearing. People would show up for practice, but nobody seemed to care anymore. The Bird said it was like the only reason people came to fencing practice, was that they couldn’t think of anything else to do on Tuesday afternoons.

Across the table, Double-J squinted. “Even Annie? Rex?”

The Bird shook her head. Some days, she said, they would be the only two who really fenced. Everyone else, they’d go through stretching and drills with Coach Dan, but then he’d tell the team to start sparring and then Annie and Rex would get started, with everyone else sitting in the corner and playing games, or talking, until Coach Dan made them get up and spar.

Double-J laid the remnant of his sandwich onto his plate. Continuing to chew sausage and bread within his right cheek, he spoke briskly out the left side of his mouth. “Hate t’ tell ya, but it’s been leading up to this for a while. Ever since end of last year — all those seniors graduated, they’d been on the team two, three years. Took a lot of that enthusiasm you’re talking about with them.”

But they’re just people, The Bird protested. It’s still fencing —

“Fencing?” Double-J swallowed, leaned back, an overhead light reflecting off a stream of grease on his black mustache. “You mean, that sport nobody cares about, except for coordinated geeks? The sport everyone thinks is elitist, only practiced at private schools like the Academy?” He grabbed a napkin from the table, lifted it half-way to his face then frowned, threw it down, and wiped his mustache with the back of his hand. “You really think fencing ever had a chance in a small town like Bark Bay? It’s a sport that generates zero revenue, and some pretty big overhead costs — jackets, masks, blades. And then you get into the electronics — body cords, blade wires and tips and springs, you’re lucky to get a good year out of any of those; cord reels, they’re always getting snagged up, ruining the wiring inside; lames with dead spots, those patches that never work; scoring machines getting banged up from being tossed into the trunk of some coach’s sedan. There’s a reason Jacobs doesn’t bring it the electronics, except a few — “

The waitress glided past their table, asked without stopping if everything was OK. Double-J nodded at her with annoyance. “So yeah — seems to me that fencing’s got the deck stacked against it. Place like the Academy, where they have more money than they know what to do with, they can afford all that overhead. But a public school, like BBHS — ” he leaned forward — “in this economy?”

Rex fences, The Bird replied. And Coach Dan, she continued, had kept the team going for four years.

Double-J nodded, pursing his lips. “You really like Jacobs, don’t you?” The slender teen sitting on the other side of the table did not move. “Huh. Seems to me, thinking back over the past few years, he’s always been more popular with the chicks on the team than the guys.”

The Bird’s face darkened, as she asked what Double-J was insinuating. He smiled, blinked. “Just an observation. But you do know, that he didn’t start the team out of the goodness of his heart?” Not seeing a response, he continued — “Ever hear him talk about Josef? His coach, from college?” The Bird shook his head. “That’s right, you’re new. Josef’s from the old country — Hungaria, Romania, one of those. Few years back Josef retires, and Jacobs goes out for a party on his old coach’s behalf. The way Jacobs tells the story, soon as Josef sees him the old man gets on his case, why the hell ain’t you coaching, didn’t want to hear no excuses. One thing lead to another, and boom, Bark Bay’s got a high school fencing team.”

The Bird asked why he was telling her this. Double-J smiled — “Because it’s time you knew the truth. At states last year, I talked to one of the refs, who was one of Josef’s other students. I asked him about the story Jacobs tells about the retirement party, and he was like, it never happened, they tried to have a party for Josef but the old man refused, said he was going to continue coaching as a volunteer. And that’s when I realized how big a fraud Jacobs is, how this altruistic image he’s fashioned about himself is such bullshit. Starting this fencing team was nothing but a mid-life crisis, nothing but a desperate attempt to recapture his youth. Some guys buy a sports car so they can feel fast and powerful again — Jacobs, he wants an opportunity to purge some of the regret he feels for the mistakes he’s made in his past.”

The Bird sighed, her face tired. She then asked how long he had believed Coach Dan was merely having a mid-life crisis, a question which amused Double-J. “Been on to him almost from the start.”

But, she replied, you stayed on the team anyway.

“Yeah.” He grabbed the remaining bit of his sandwich from his plate, thrusting it into his mouth as if it were about to escape. Soft pop music from overhead speakers mingled with conversation from other tables, don’t ask me why, could you get to it, in the first part, fastball, sometimes people say, what works for me. “In spite of all his pretentiousness, Jacobs knows fencing, he’s a good coach. Myles — ” he snorted — “he had all the speed and coordination in the world, but didn’t know how to use it. When he started, I beat him easily, any weapon. Jacobs, he taught him about distance, tempo. Setting up your opponent, making him fight on your terms. Once Myles understood how to fence, that’s when he started winning, competing at the state level.”

Then Coach Dan, The Bird asked, wasn’t the reason he left the team.

“Nah. Had my own reasons.” He tilted his head back, glanced up at the ceiling.

Such as — she visibly pushed past her uncertainty — Annie.

Double-J brought his glare down, looked across the table with a focus he generally reserved for competition. “You think — ” then the anger in his face dissipated yet did not disappear, like a liquid stain brushed from a pant leg. “What Annie does, who she schtupps, that’s her business. What the fencing team does, that’s none of my business neither. And based on what you just told me, with people not showing up and those that do not really interested in fencing — before long, it’s not going to be anyone else’s business soon.”

The waitress returned to their table, asked The Bird if she were done with her salad. You too, a-HA-ha-ha, then they said it was clear. The Bird asked if she could hang on to her salad for a bit longer. Double-J lifted his red plastic tumbler — “Refill.”

It will be ready at the office. The Bird said she didn’t understand, the team had been so active in the fall, what had gone wrong. The burly teen sitting across from her blew air past his lips — “Seems to me, it was bound to happen. Last two years were an aberration, the team was mostly Myles’ sycophants. Now that he’s gone, reality’s set in. Fencing was never gonna make it in this town, it’s too infatuated with spectator sports like football. Bark Bay wants to be entertained, and unless you understand fencing it just looks like two beekeepers charging at each other with fishing rods. They might think it’s amusing, but entertaining, no way. Fencing just won’t work, around here.”

He leaned back in his chair. “And if you ask me, that’s how it should be. Bark Bay don’t deserve to have a fencing team. It takes a degree of sophistication to appreciate the sport, and that’s a commodity in short supply in this town.”

The Bird lifted her fork, hovered it over the salad bowl — then set the fork down. So what you’re saying, she said to Double-J, is there’s no hope.

“For the fencing team?” Nod. The waitress swept past, depositing their check on the table. “Dunno. ‘pends ‘pon whatcha mean. As a social club, place where Bark Bay’s geeks and freaks can hang out and feel safe every Tuesday afternoon — yeah, I can see Jacobs keep that going a few more years. But as a team, a group that competes against the Academy?” He rose from his chair, picked up the green and white slip the waitress had delivered, told The Bird how much she owed. “Next time Jacobs misses a practice, you can pretty much bet Annie’s family will sign her up with Dr. Schmidt. Shit, they’ll pay him to come to their house, give private lessons to their princess.” He retrieved his coat from the back of the chair, pulled his arms through the sleeves. “Rex, he’s not going anywhere, but he’s only got a year left. Kids like OK, Coy, they’ll keep showing up every now and then, but they’ll never compete.”

The short, stout senior at Bark Bay High School zipped the front of his black jacket up to his chin, then nodded at The Bird, who had finished putting on her own jacket. “Let’s get out of this dump.”

Three hours ago

“Kid.” Lefty always called him by that name. From the oil change bay in which he was standing, Double-J looked up at the space between the top of the bay’s front wall and the bottom of the Jeep, Lefty’s dirty face peering from behind the door leading to the garage’s front desk. “Somebody here, t’ see ya.”

“Tell him I’m busy.” Double-J looked down, reached for the filter he had placed on the workbench.

John? ” He froze at the soft, commanding female voice, then swore to himself. Dropping the wrench he had been carrying in his right hand, the cold metal clattering above the sounds of compressed air and hammering from other corners of the garage, he shouted he’d be there in a minute as he walked back to the rear of the bay, and climbed the short ladder to the greasy concrete floor.

An elderly man (front-end alignment) was discussing his bill with Lefty at the front desk when Double-J pushed past the door from the garage. At the rear of the carpeted room, standing in front of a row of cushioned metal chairs, was a middle-aged woman with short black hair, wearing a floor-length green overcoat. She smiled, looking to Double-J like a loving parent who hadn’t seen her child in several months — which, in fact, she was.

He walked up to embrace her, knowing there was no avoidance. “Hi Mom,” his voice low enough to avoid being heard by the other occupants of the room. She kissed him audibly on his left cheek.

“So how much are you making an hour?” Oneida Barelli’s abrupt shift to her lawerly tone was a relief to her son.

“Enough to get by.” He glanced over at Lefty, still engaged with the customer.

Oneida stepped back. “That wasn’t my question.”

Double-J frowned, whispered his hourly wage. Oneida took another step back with horror in her eyes, as if her son had just vomitted. “That’s just a quarter over MINIMUM! Lefty — ” she looked over at the front counter, waited for the garage owner to raise his head — “how long has John been working for you?”

“He’s a student.” Lefty took a credit card that had been offered by the elderly customer. “State says I can pay him less, if’n I want. But I don’t.”

“How magnanimous of you.” Oneida’s sarcasm seemed to drop the temperature of the already chilled room.

Lefty and his customer continued with their transaction as Oneida turned back toward her son. “Don’t let anyone take advantage of you, ever. You do know, even in a little town like Bark Bay, there’s other garages, places that could pay you what you’re worth.”

“I’m fine, Ma.” Double-J wiped his mustache with the back of his left hand. “Make enough to afford an apartment, support myself. Got some money saved, too, so there’s no reason — “

“Your father’s going to be in town, next week.” The elderly customer walked past without looking at them, then exited the building. Behind the counter, Lefty pushed upon the door to the garage, and called for Double-J to mind the front; upon seeing his young employee nod, Lefty then disappeared behind the door.

Feeling less self-conscious now that he and his mother were alone, Double-J groaned. “Don’t tell me you came all the way down from the city, just to give me that news.”

Oneida Barelli, the woman who had left Lt. Bradley Johnson soon after their son’s birth, crossed arms across her jacketed chest. “We’re worried about you, John. We’ve heard you’ve dropped out of high school.”

Double-J threw his head back, grunted. “That’s bu — BS, Ma. Told you back in December, I got enough credits to graduate already. I didn’t drop out, I stopped going, because there weren’t no reason for me to hang around no more.”

“But it looks bad.” Her right hand shot forward, grabbed the greasy denim sleeve of his right arm. “Colleges won’t like — “

College?” The teen withdrew his arm from her grasp. “How many times I gotta tell you — if you send me an application, I won’t fill it out; if a college accepts me, I won’t attend; and if you pay my tuition, I’ll tell the college to blow it on their football coach’s salary!”

John —

“I am NOT going to be trapped in some quasi-intellectual cage!” His hands were raised, as if supporting an invisible weight pushing down on him. “There’s nothing, nothing I can learn at any college, that I can’t find out on my own time, my own terms. Seen too many fools come back to Bark Bay, after a year or two of college when they realize it’s not for them. Only difference between them and the ones who graduate, is that they’ve got less debt to pay off.”

“John, please.” Oneida was leaning forward, her face stern. “The difference in earning potential — “

“In the professions, yes.” The teen waved his right arm in Oneida’s direction. “Sorry to break it to you Ma, but not everyone wants to be a lawyer, and work 70 hours a week like you do.”

“DAMMIT, John, there’s more to life than this shop!” She had closed on him, had backed him against the row of chairs near the building’s entrance. “The world’s a whole lot bigger than Bark Bay! You’re smarter than this, you have to realize — “

He grabbed her jacketed upper arms. “I realize. Believe me, I’ve got ambitions that go far beyond my crappy little apartment at the Embassy.” He exhaled audibly. “I’m not planning to stay in this job, this town, much longer. A year, maybe sooner. Just need to save a little more money.”

Oneida’s face brightened from the emergence of a sudden idea, but the light extinguished almost instantly, as if her judgment had issued a silent veto. “John — when you’re father’s here, can you just pretend that you respect our beliefs?”

The burly teen, barely taller than his mother, snorted a laugh, then pulled her forward and down, her forehead descending until his lips touched them gently. “I’ll do my best.”

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