Gray Metal Faces – March 4

“Allez.” Step step attack, EEEP EEEP. “Togehter. Pret. Allez.” EEEP EEEP. “Together.” Gotta make it more obvious. “Pret.” Get the attack this time. Come on! “Allez.” Dammit got distracted, he’s first, gotta get the parry, here comes the attack look for the line change — EEEP. Damn. “Touch right, 2-1.” Caught the parry but he pushed through. “En garde.” Guy’s too quick, not gonna beat him on speed. “Pret.” Set up the tempo game. “Allez.”

Double-J pulled open the front door, waited a moment for The Bird to reach before stepping outside. One of the flanneled men who had been sitting near them left at the same time, and followed The Bird outside. The wind had calmed, the chill air no longer invading the Pizza Place but rather hovering outside the entrance, pouncing on patrons as they exited.

The Bird asked Double-J if he could still give her a ride back; his mustache frowned back at her, as if he’d been insulted. He continued walking to his coupe, calling back to The Bird that she could just get in — “Only time I lock it is when I’m parked outside the Embassy.”

The Bird’s memory of Double-J’s tan coupe went back far before she joined the fencing team in the fall; with its powerful engine and heaving dual exhaust, the vehicle could be heard charging through the school parking lot all the way to the far wings of the high school. She opened the passenger door, and peered into the coupe’s interior for the first time.  It reminded her of the theater dressing rooms she had so often visited with her mother — small, overstuffed, yet somehow also comfortable. She lowered herself onto the seat, and was impressed to feel its genuine leather. She closed the door, and looked to her left, expecting to see Double-J entering the car.

But he was standing outside the door, hands in his jacket pockets, and although she couldn’t see his face she sensed his attention was focused to their right. She turned in that direction in time to see a pickup truck, red with rust holes at the base of its door, coming to a stop at the far end of the lot, three or four spaces away from the coupe. The truck’s window was rolled down, and the driver’s head was hanging out like a puppet, and yelling to a man on the sidewalk, one of the flanneled men from the Pizza Place.

The pickup truck stopped, and the driver opened the door immediately, shouting words The Bird could not quite make out behind her Plexiglas shield. The flanneled man began pointing at the driver, and the two men began hurling obscenities at each other.

She heard the door on the other side of the coupe open. She looked over, and saw Double-J leaning in, his gaze severe. Seeing he had caught her attention, he uttered a curt command — “Stay in the fucking car” — and slammed the door.

The following Tuesday

“Riposte!” Coach Dan’s voice bellowed from behind his folded arms. “You’ve got the parry, now riposte!”

Standing in front of The Bird, Big Paul had frozen in his lunge, his blade pointed wide to her left, deflected by her own. More out of obedience than instinct, The Bird rotated her forearm back to the right, palm transitioning from pronation to supination, arm coming forward until the point of her blade landed on Big Paul’s waiting chest.

“Very good.” Coach Dan pushed his body off the concrete wall he had been leaning against, walked swiftly across the one of the islands of white tile on the cafeteria floor until he reached the makeshift strip where The Bird and Big Paul had been practicing. “The first step, is execution. The next step, is knowing when to execute. Masks off.” The two teens lifted their masks onto their heads, exposing their late-practice faces, rouged and glistening. “You both know how to parry/riposte, now you have to know when the time’s right in the bout to play that game.”

“How you know that?” Big Paul was an infrequent member of practice, but was eager with questions on days when he was present. Coach Dan motioned for The Bird to step outside the strip, but stopped himself when Jimmy approached with Rex, concern on the faces of the officious businessman and tall teen.

“Daniel — ” Jimmy’s reluctance to call himself a coach caused him to treat the word like an airborne contagion — “Rex here wants to talk about that Johnson boy.”

“Yes, Double-J.” Coach Dan’s voice suddenly lost its moxie. “Take it he hasn’t been at practice lately?”

“Well — ” Big Paul’s voice rising an octave — “you wouldn’t know, because neither have you.”

A titter of laughter sprinkled through the students gathered around the two volunteer coaches of the Bark Bay High School fencing team, as Coach Dan pursed his lips, nodding his curly head. “Guilty as charged, my friend.”

“So where have you been?” Having just finished a practice bout with O.K., Annie entered the semi-circle, her face flushed with exertion, brown pony-tail laying limply along her back. “Aren’t we supposed to be getting ready for the regional?”

“Yes we are, my friend.” On the last Saturday of every March (or perhaps a week earlier or later to avoid a conflict with Easter), State’s fencing team hosted the Lunge into Spring, a large tournament open to all collegiate fencers in the state. Experienced high school fencers were also encouraged to participate, the event serving as good preparation for April’s state high school tournament, as well as an opportunity to catch the attention of collegiate coaches. “That’s why I’ve had Mr. Saunders here — “

“Jimmy.”

” — leading practice.” Coach Dan’s focused his attention squarely on Annie. “And what he’s telling me, is that you and Rex, anyway, are ready for the regional.” His bearded face now beaming at Big Paul — “Care to join us? Might get another shot at Jamie, before States.” Big Paul had an ongoing rivalry with Jamie Yoder from the Academy, the two facing each other four times last year in pools (never in DEs), each winning twice but Jamie leading in touches by two.

“Nah.” Big Paul rubbed his square chin. “Not this time.”

“And how about you, Bird?” The Bird found the sudden shift in Coach Dan’s attention jarring. “You seem to be ready for competition.”

No, she replied. She said she didn’t want to compete, at the regional, or at States.

“What about Midland?” Annie’s question seemed directed at both The Bird and their coach. Midland High School was hosting a high school tournament the week before States. “That’s where Rune and I first competed last year.”

Coach Dan raised his eyebrows, but then his concentration seemed to be suddenly violated. “What’s the date?” Annie answered immediately, her coach responding by drawing the sole of his right sneaker towards him over the black tiled floor, sheeek. “Out of town, that weekend. Jimmy, I assume — “

“Don’t go there, Daniel.” The owner of Squisito’s Catering frowned dismissively. “This man’s got bills to pay.”

“It appears, then — ” Coach Dan regained his swagger as he stepped in the middle of the team’s circle — “that some alternate means of transportation needs to be identified. Big Paul, you have your license?”

Big Paul pulled air into his cheek, chk. “Parents won’t let me take the car up to the city.”

Coach Dan looked at Annie, raising his eyebrows. “Your folks going up to the Academy that day?”

Annie grimaced. “Midland’s a pretty big detour. I can ask — no promises.”

“I know.” Rex strode with long legs towards his coach. “Lemme talk to Double-J, get him to go. He’s not going to the regional, already know that, but Midland, he might do.”

The Bird then said she doubted Double-J would listen to him, surprising even herself with her words, before adding that if he wasn’t already planning to be there, he wouldn’t be talked into going. Annie turned toward her, surprise turning to recognition on her face, before Coach Dan regained everyone’s attention, raising his arm to place his hand on Rex’s shoulder.

“You’re his friend, and he listens to you — but, don’t take this the wrong way, you’re not the most persuasive person in the world.” Rex closed his eyes, nodded. “You’re going to need backup, when you talk to him.” Lowering his arm, the instructor with the fourth-longest tenure at Bark Bay High School glanced over at The Bird. “Think it’s safe to say he won’t be too amenable to what I say — ” the frail teen shook her head — “and Annie, you’ve got your own history with him, that would probably get in the way.” The sophomore captain of the fencing team bit her lower lip, staring down at the tiled floor.

“Jimmy — ” Coach Dan’s command caught his assistant coach by surprise — “you and Double-J, seem to get along pretty well.”

Jimmy expanded his cheeks, blew out. “Depends on your perspective.” He shook his head, growled, as if suddenly attacked by a pesty flying insect. “All right, you want me to talk to that boy, I’ll go do it.” His eyes shot towards Rex — “Just don’t make it no Tuesday, or Wednesday.”

“Get Lefty, too — whoa — ” Big Paul nearly dropped the mask he had been holding in his left hand. “He’s his boss, but outside the shop, they’re like family.” The junior foil fencer saw Rex’s frown — “I mean, not like his real family but some other kind, the type where everybody actually likes each other.”

“Lefty’s a good man.” Jimmy seemed more comfortable in his newly assigned role. “Need to take the van in next week, fix that AC ‘fore the weather gets warm. I’ll talk to him, figger out a date.”

Coach Dan threw his arms wide, as if to embrace the encircled members of the fencing team. “I believe, my friends, that we have a plan.”

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