Double-J’s apartment consisted of three rooms with what barely seemed enough floor space for two. Rex nearly tripped over an old but serviceable sofa that lay just inside the door; to the right of the sofa was a cushioned chair worn with age. An acoustic guitar lay behind the chair, neck propped against the wall. Along the far wall was a sink, stove, half-sized refrigerator, and a microwave oven that looked like it belonged in a much larger kitchen. Two legs of a card table and two folding chairs sat on a narrow strip of linoleum in front of the kitchen area; the table’s other two legs and two more folding chairs lay on the carpeted area of the living room. A small corridor beyond the cushioned chair led from the multipurpose front room back to a bathroom and bedroom, from where they heard Double-J call out.
“You mind watching them steaks? Don’t want them to friggin’ burn.”
Rex walked over to the stove, saw the large frying pan that was making the noise he had heard in the hall. Inside the pan were four steaks, each the size of an oversized card deck, sizzling in a thin layer of oil. Rex realized that Double-J must have just started to cook, as the top sides were still red.
“Looking good.” Rex suddenly sensed a difference from the last time he had been in this apartment. It had been a few weeks ago, right after Double-J declared he was done with the fencing team, done with Bark Bay High School. Rex had gone to seen him, went up to the apartment, saw the spoiled food in the sink –
Rex’s eyes scanned the bare surface of the card table. He looked around more, saw the sink spotless except for the cracked porcelain, neatly stacked dishes dripping dry in the drainboard, the linoleum in front of the sink free of spills and crumbs. Rex turned toward the living area and – yes, saw the distinctive pattern of a vacuum cleaner’s path along the rug. The tall teen laughed – “You cleaned?”
“Of course.” Double-J’s voice grew louder as he walked out of the bedroom. “You’re guests, right?” His hair was longer, and seemed more black and wiry than usual. It frizzed from his head as if in agony, and fell lightly on his shoulders, his beard and mustache billowing around the mouth. Rex thought his friend had lost weight, although he still seemed overweight. He was wearing jeans – he always wore jeans, even to his grandfather’s funeral – and a white t-shirt visible under an oversized gray sweat shirt, bearing the small shield of the Academy on the upper left breast.
Lefty pointed at the lad he considered his apprentice – “Where’d you get that shirt?”
Double-J looked down quickly, then back up at Lefty. “Dunno. Picked it up somewhere, a while ago.”
Jimmy laughed. “Thought for a moment, you were gonna tell us you done joined the Academy.”
Double-J snorted contemptuously. “If’n I had the money to go to the Academy, the last thing I’d do with it, is join the Academy. Had enough of one school already.”
“Huh.” Seeing Double-J extending his arm towards him, Rex began taking off his jacket. “Told me last week you weren’t dropping out.”
Double-J smiled, took Rex’s jacket, then walked over to the frying pan. “I’m not -” he picked up a spatula with his free hand – “but I’ll get into all that after we eat.”
Lefty walked over to the stove, peered down at the steaks sizzling in the skillet. “Shitfire and damnation.”
“Not a big deal, really.” Double-J bent to open the door of the half-sized refrigerator. “Grocery store up the street, the meat they don’t sell over the weekend, they put it on sale Monday. Got these for half-price.” He opened the small freezer drawer, retrieved a bag of green beans. “It’s really not that hard to eat well without paying an arm and a leg. You just gotta pay attention.” He opened the bag, placed it on the counter next to the sink, opened a cupboard door, and retrieved a plastic container. “Thing is, most people don’t pay attention. They just go along, doin’ whatever it is they’re told, don’t ever question whether the people givin’ them orders, know what the hell they’re talking about. No, the only time they think about that, is when things go wrong, and they’re looking for someone to blame for their failure.”
He began pouring the frozen vegetables into the container, then stopped himself. Turning from the kitchen, he looked at his three guests, making sure to make eye contact with each. “Know what I like about fencing?” He didn’t wait for a response. “In the end, you’re accountable for your own actions. You do all this training, listen to what your coaches say, take advice from your teammates – but when you get on the strip it’s all about you, what you can do out there, how you react to what you’re opponent’s doing. When you win, it’s because of what you did, and when you lose – hey, you’re teammates and coaches weren’t on the strip, it’s all on you.” He spread his arms, lifted his chin. “It’s simple, it’s beautiful, it’s – pure.”
“That so.” Jimmy had sat at the right end of the sofa, next to Rex, Lefty sitting on a metal folding chair turned away from the card table. Jimmy’s lips curled into his gums – “So tell me, if you like fencing so much, why’d you quit the team?”
Double-J snorted, as he turned the sizzling steaks over in the frying pan. “Quit is a strong term, one that doesn’t really capture my status on Jacobs’ team.” All three of his guests opened their mouths to speak, but Double-J raised his right hand in their direction and they fell silent, as if a spell was cast from his palm – “Later, after we eat.” The teen laid his spatula on the stove top, then opened the microwave oven next to the sink, and inserted the plastic bowl of frozen vegetables.
The four of them talked casually as Double-J proceeded cooking. Jimmy said his catering business was doing well, he was struggling like everyone else in this economy, but just because times were tough didn’t mean people stopped having parties and receptions. Rex commented that he was pleased with how he’d fenced at the tournament a few weeks back at Midland, placing fifth in foil and second in epee, eliminated in both weapons by Francis Pine from the Academy. Lefty thought the parts for the transmission in Mr. Levy’s Oldsmobile would be in tomorrow.
Double-J lifted the fried steaks from the frying pan with his spatula – “Call me when that tranny comes in.”
Lefty shook his head. “Tip’s in the shop tomorrow, he can install it.”
Double-J snorted. “Tip’s got no business working on any tranny. Especially the Levy’s.”
“We’ll be OK – “
“I’ll stop by the shop tomorrow, at 10.” It was as if Double-J hadn’t heard Lefty’s response. “Got nothing better to do.”
The meal was the best Rex could remember having for the last several months, since the cookout at his uncle’s house that summer, certainly better than the boxed or canned meals he and his sisters routinely prepared for his family back at their trailer. The steak was moist, savory, and most significantly was steak, a food that would have been as out of place at Rex’s house as lobster or veal. The vegetables weren’t fresh – frozen vegetables prepared in a microwave, potato flakes poured from a box and mixed with water over a stove – but they were hot, filling Rex’s belly with a pleasure he hadn’t experienced in weeks. Having known poverty as long as he could remember, Rex had learned over the years to control his hunger, to eat sparingly to prevent his appetite from growing, but within seconds of the dinner plate being placed before him he loosened his restraints and began devouring the meal that Double-J had prepared, allowing himself to indulge the ever-present hunger within him in a way he normally would not have trusted.
And there was even dessert, fresh fruit that Double-J had sliced before they arrived, served with whipped cream spurted from a canister. “Shitfire and damnation — we must be paying you too much if you can afford all this,” Lefty’s joke prompting another admonition from Double-J that you didn’t have to pay a lot of money on food if you just paid attention to prices instead.
Jimmy and Rex offered to wash dishes, as Double-J and Lefty arranged chairs around the small couch in the living area. Double-J sat in the cushioned chair, his large body forming a broad U into the cushion beneath him, the long black wires of his hair falling down across his shoulders, beard and mustache parting to reveal a broad smile of contentment on his face.
He and Lefty talked about the Levy’s transmission as Jimmy and Rex finished in the kitchen. As Jimmy walked into the living area, he pointed to the guitar, propped on the wall behind the chair. “You play?”
“Yeah.” Double-J rose clumsily from his chair, as Lefty commented he was actually pretty good. “Christ Lefty, don’t oversell me.” Double-J reached down, grabbed the neck of the guitar, walked back to his chair and sat, the cushion again forming a long U under him. He then began playing an instantly recognizable melody, and a moment later, he began to sing:
When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah – hurrah,
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then, hurrah – hurrah,
We all will cheer and dance about, the children will laugh and give out a shout,
And we’ll all be glad when Johnny comes marching home
He continued playing, more softly and without singing. Rex raised his chin — “Didn’t know you were so fond of our high school fight song.”
Double-J shrugged while continuing to play. “How Bark Bay High manipulates the passions of its students, don’t concern me. What interests me, is looking at the stuff they give us – school, society, whatever – and find out what’s really there.” He began playing the opening bars of the song again. “You know what When Johnny Comes Marching Home is about?”
Jimmy cleared his throat. “It’s from the Civil War.”
“Right.” Double-J stopped playing, his arms flying forward across the guitar, fingers extending towards his guests. “See, Johnny was this soldier, in the Union army – that’s the North, Lefty,” a disinterested chuckle rising from his guests. “Johnny’s brother, he wrote the song, people thought the song was a celebration, became popular. Thing was, Johnny didn’t come home, and his family never did find out what happened to him. Johnny suffered the same anonymous fate as thousands of other soldiers. Coulda been killed in battle, clutching a gut wound in some frozen mud field – coulda caught gangrene, died in some filthy army hospital tent – hell, coulda starved, that happened even in the North. Or deserted, decided the war weren’t worth what they was paying him, or that things like slavery or states rights or God help us, preserving the damned Union was all just a bunch of bullshit. We dunno what happened to poor Johnny – ” and now Double-J looked up and smiled at his guests – “but hey, we do have this song to make us all feel better about war.”
Double-J sat upright, grabbed the long neck of the guitar and laid its rounded end softly on the floor, then released the neck to rest against the side of his chair. “But it’s time. Let’s get to the reason for your visit tonight.” He cleared his throat with rough loudness.