Gray Metal Faces – March 5

“Allez.” Let him take the middle. Head cut, here comes the line change, GOT the parry this time, riposte EEEP EEEP, tell me you SAW that! “Attack right is parried, counter-parry of the riposte — ” NO NO NO! — “touch right.” Try to argue, there was ONE blade contact not two, it’s MY parry. Get him to blink, he knows I’m right but he’s one of these self-righteous pricks who can’t ever admit he’s wrong, not going to reverse himself. “En garde. Pret.” Down 3-1, should be up by the same score. “Allez.”

Double-J’s hip brushed the left fender as he scrambled past the front of his coupe, The Bird’s vision following him. The two men stopped barking at each other as they saw the teen approach, both men appearing to recognize him.

With his back turned to her, The Bird was unable to comprehend most of the words Double-J spoke, but his meaning was clear — in curt, caustic commands, he was ordering both men to knock it off.

Judging by the snarl on the flanneled man’s face, the appeal was not being received well. The man’s sarcastic drawl pierced the cold night air and cut through the coupe’s windows: “Yur one ah dem college kids, ain’t cha?”

Double-J shook his head violently. “Got no use — “

“Not wha I mean, wheder you take classes or nuthin’.”

“Yeah.” The man from the pickup truck, standing to Double-J’s right, nod his head in bitter agreemtn. “Yuh got tha’ attitude, tha’ you kin talk yur way outta fightin’.”

The Bird wanted to get out of the car, run back into the Pizza Place and — she wasn’t sure what she would do next, scream for someone to help, or call the police. But Double-J would certainly hear her, and given the volatility of the developing situation any distraction could increase the danger to her friend. There were three other buildings (an accountant, a salon, a bank) in this small strip mall, all windows dark with emptiness. She looked around again, saw no other person in the lot, realized there was nothing she could do to help, no reasonable course of action save to trust in Double-J’s ability to avoid further escalating the situation.

She heard her friend growling back at the two men, neither of whom seemed willing to back down. “No sah!” The man from the pickup truck took a step backwards, towards his vehicle. “Ain’t gonna be no fightin’ tonight, yuh understan’?” And as his right arm reached back toward the door handle, the flanneled man charged, his eyes filled with hate.

But the man tumbled forward on his third step. He had tripped over Double-J’s outstretched leg.

A week from last Monday

The Bird had been napping on the the gray and brown couch in the living room when the telephone had begun ringing. She and her mother rarely received calls, and many times when alone in house The Bird would leave calls unanswered, letting the phone ring until the transmission was ended by the caller or passed onto the messaging system. But now, motivated by her annoyance at having been awakened, she decided to answer.

“Sandy?” The voice was familiar, but in her post-nap stupor The Bird didn’t fully recognize the speaker. She replied that yes, this was Sandy.

“This is, Mr. Nestor. How is, my little girl?” This customary greeting from her mother’s elderly friend always grieved her, as The Bird often had thought how pleasant it would be if this man were truly her father, instead of the nameless man her mother would never discuss. Mr. Nestor was kind, thoughtful, always willing to help, yet lived in California most of the time, far from the tiny village of Bark Bay where she and her mother lived. And since he was much older than her mother, it seemed more natural for The Bird to consider him a grandfather, another male figure unknown to her.

The Bird asked if he was working in the city. “Why, yes.” He rarely called unless he was near. He continued in his typically halting voice, sprinkled with brief pauses for breath, as if the act of speaking was physically draining. “There’s a summer, Shaw festival, I’ve been asked to, direct. Such an honor.” He cleared his throat, a sound she recognized as his pivot towards a conversation topic he considered important. “Sandy, I need, to talk, to you. About that, fencing team, you’re on.”

She was almost able to reply that she wasn’t really on the team, all she did was show up to practice, before the stentorian voice continued. “There is, a boy, on the team. I believe, I met him, when you all came up to, see the dress rehearsal for ‘Hamlet.’ Calls himself, Double-J.”

Static crackled over the line’s silence. “I am friends with, someone who, has a daughter at, the Academy. I do not know, her name, but she is, a fencer, like you. And, my friend, attends many, of her daughter’s, fencing tournaments. And, for that, reason, knows many high school fencers, by name.”

Mr. Nestor’s voice sounded cold, like a knife scraping an ice cube. “You probably are. Not aware of, this. But this boy on your team, Double-J — he not only. Is no longer enrolled. At your school. But also has had. More than one incident. With the, authorities.”

The Bird couldn’t remember Mr. Nestor being so circumspect. She asked if he was saying Double-J was a criminal.

“Oh no, dear no!” She wished they were speaking in person, The Bird hated telephone conversations, not being able to see the faces of the people to whom she was speaking. “I haven’t found — he has never been arrested, never charged. But he has been questioned. On several, occasions. About his friends, some of whom have been arrested, have been, charged, have been, convicted. Nothing violent, fortunately. But still — disturbing.”

She listened to the line’s static hum a moment, reviewing her memories of Double-J, all from the fencing practices he infrequently attended. His open defiance of Coach Dan, the mocking sarcasm he wielded against every team member, the stories he told about his apartment, the parties he threw. Next time I have the guys over, maybe I’ll just send the cops an invite, save the neighbors a phone call. What she was hearing now from Mr. Nestor didn’t contradict any of her impressions of Double-J, yet there was something in his analysis that she didn’t trust, that seemed distorted, incomplete.

The Bird asked if he had ever spoken to Double-J; he tutted, and she envisioned him shaking his head. “Only that one evening, my sweet. Not long enough to evaluate whether what I’ve heard is consistent with his personality.” She noticed the hesitation was gone from his voice. She felt an urge to challenge him, shame his gossip, but decided instead to relate facts — she told him he was rarely at practice because he had a job, never at school because he’d already graduated (she wasn’t sure of this, but Double-J himself certainly seemed confident), and had never said or done anything that made her feel unsafe.

“I.” Mr. Nestor cleared his throat. “See.” And at that moment the front door of her home opened, her mother striding in and, a few moments later, taking the receiver from The Bird. She went to her upstairs bedroom, closed the door, and while sitting on her bed listened intently to her mother’s side of conversation, never once hearing any suggestion that the conversation had returned back to the short, powerful saber fencer she knew from the occasional Tuesday afternoon practice.

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