Gray Metal Faces – March 6C

“I’m not going back to Bark Bay High. Need two credits to graduate, but I worked things out to get the credits without ever having to step into that hell-hole again. And if the school changes its mind, denies me a diploma – fine, I’ll get a friggin’ GED.” The teen glared at Lefty – “Not like I need a degree to work at the shop, do I?”

Lefty lowered his gaze to the floor, and shook his head slowly. Double-J now looked directly at Rex. “And yeah, that means I’m not on Jacobs’ fencing team no more neither.”

“I don’t get it.” The challenge in Rex’s reply was as obvious as a head cut. “Fencing’s the only thing you enjoy, don’t know how many times you told me that.”

“And that ain’t changed.” Double-J pointed to himself – “I ain’t changed – it’s the damn team that changed.”

“Annie – ” Jimmy’s voice sounded strained, as if the words he was about to speak were coerced – “she says if’n you wanna be captain –”

WANT?” Double-J grabbed the seat cushion underneath him. “You go tell Annie, that I got no interest in her damn offer, ‘cuz she’s acting like being captain is something she owns, just another thing her family could buy for her. This ain’t ‘bout ownership, it’s ‘bout what’s right, recognizing who’s earned the right to be captain, and most of all, recognizing that Annie IN NO WAY earned that right.”

A car engine sputtered in the street below as the apartment fell silent.

The car engine roared into life. Jimmy cleared his throat. “I ever tell you – why I started coaching?”

Rex was perhaps even more intrigued by Jimmy’s unexpected question than was Double-J. From his first appearance at practice in January, Jimmy had seemed an almost reluctant coach, engaged but distant, his aloof demeanor in sharp contrast to Coach Dan’s affability. It wasn’t that their new assistant coach didn’t care — Jimmy was just as insistent as Coach Dan on proper execution, just as demanding of maximum effort, just as eager to support his students during tournaments — it was rather a feeling Rex had that a part of Jimmy’s awareness was always held back, lurking behind his words and actions, observing the fencing team, evaluating. And now, perhaps, this enigmatic man from Louisiana was about to reveal what he had been seeking.

“Been here five years. Moved up in the spring, and by summer got so busy, knew I needed to hire on. Put an ad in the Beacon, didn’t promise much: dime over minimum, long hours, weekend work. Not surprising, most calls I got were from kids — ” for not the first time, Rex noticed how Jimmy pronounced the word with an extra y, kyids — “just graduated, didn’t hire no drop-outs. Hired two, boy and a girl, both 18, boy turned 19 in September, right ’round the time he left, for a job flippin’ burgers at the Burger Clown. Girl, she left before the holidays. No reason, just didn’t wanna work for me no more.”

“Must’ve been tough.” A subtle tone of sarcasm in Double-J’s voice, an implied admonition to get to the point of the story.

“Since then, must’ve had couple dozen kids, working for me one time or ‘nuther. Some work out — Jelly-Jam, she started ’bout that time the first girl left, been with me ever since, made her office manager last year. But most, they with me a few months, then move on. The turnover, it’s a real problem, having to train new kids all the time. Wears out Jelly-Jam, ‘s well.”

“Ah, I get it.” Double-J leaned forward, the cushions of the chair billowing under his shifting weight. “So when Jacobs asked you about coaching, you saw it as an opportunity to conduct field research on the labor market.”

“I understand the grown-ups round here,” Jimmy’s voice softening, like he was ready for a nap, “they different sure but at least I can make sense of ’em. But the kids; you ain’t like the kids I worked with down south, in Louisiana and Texas.” His right arm waved forward, in the general direction of the street outside the apartment building. “Most of you have got, so much goin’ for ya. Families with good homes, good schools — ” Double-J snorted a laugh, but Jimmy waved a dismissive finger in the teen’s face — “all them kids work for me, they been educated, you best believe. Most of ’em, could go do whatever they want, if’n they set their mind to.”

“Shouldn’t waste yer time.” The guitar slipped off the side of the chair, Double-J catching its neck before it fell to the apartment floor. Another car engine, likely a pickup, roared to life outside. “Kids with any smarts, move outta Bark Bay soon’s they graduate. Don’t come back, ‘cept for holidays and summer vacations. Kids who stay, not only don’t they have the means to leave, don’t have the smarts to figure out what they want out of life.” He raised the guitar to his lap, brought his right hand over the strings, as if prepared to resume playing. “Just drift along without a plan, lettin’ the stream of life take ’em wherever. Gives ’em the impression they’re going forward, when all they’s actually doing, is getting dragged along with the current.”

“But you ain’t like that.” Jimmy seemed to rise in his seat. “Known you long enough, t’ know you got your eyes wide open. Know you got ambitions that should be taking you far ‘way from here.” He rubbed his hands together — “Know you smart enough, t’ know what you doin’ now, ain’t gonna get you nowhere. Smart enough t’ know, that buckin’ the stream just give you a sense you fightin’, you winnin’, when all the time you just bein’ pushed downstream by the current, jus’ like ev-rone else.”

Double-J blinked. “Your concern for my well-being warms my heart.”

Jimmy then rose abruptly from his chair, and glowered down at Double-J, looking as if he were about to challenge him to a fight. “Can you just look at you-self?” Spittle flew from Jimmy’s lips, sailed over Double-J’s head. “Livin’ in a dead-end apartment, workin’ a dead-end job — ” he turned sharply towards Lefty — “no ‘fense.” The lead mechanic nodded, turned away, Jimmy returning his focus to the apartment’s teen tenant. “Dropped outta high school, quit doin’ a sport you love, just to prove some kinda damn point. Act like you so proud, but what you gotta show for all that pride?”

Double-J squeezed his face, hands remaining at his sides. “That what you think? That my life’s just one big mistake, after another?”

Jimmy’s face softened. “It’s about choices, son. What choices you makin’ in life.”

“O — K!” The teen rose, his head rising only to the level of Jimmy’s shoulders. “And I’d rather make my own choices, than have some fool make safe decisions for me.” Double-J stepped back, addressed the other two occupants in the room. “If any of you think anything you’re gonna say this evening, is gonna persuade me to go back to that damn school, get me back on the fencing team again – I’m telling you now, there’s nothing you can do to change my mind, so I suggest you stop trying, save yourself the energy.”

Jimmy opened his mouth to speak, but stopped at the sound of Lefty’s soft but commanding voice. “How long you been working at my shop?”

Surprise flashed on Double-J’s face, was immediately replaced with a disinterested frown. “Dunno. Three, four years.”

Lefty’s five-three-year-old face stared down at the bare floor in front of his chair. “‘member why I let you start workin’ there?”

Double-J laughed sarcastically. “‘cuz I knew more about cars than – “

“Your daddy brung you.” Lefty’s voice cracked as his tone raised, his face continuing to look down. “Done tol’ me, Lefty, I got to find a way to keep this boy busy. He ain’t the type to be content sittin’ around watching TV or nothin’. He gets restless, then he goes out and gits himself in trouble. And I does what I can for him, but with me being in the service and his mother working in the city, we can’t watch him all the time.”

Rex stared at Lefty, saw tears on his cheeks. He suddenly realized the older man’s breath no longer smelled of onions, the odors of the dirt and grime of the shop didn’t emanate from him like they had before.

“Yo’ daddy, he asked me if I seen you work on engines, and I says yes, he pretty good. And he says he knew you was underage, but I tells ‘im I could keep you in the back, make sure nobody seen you, and if they did I’d pretend to run you off.

“And yo’ daddy thanked me, and he a good man and all but what I didn’t tell him then, still haven’t, is that I didn’t do it for him. I did it for you.” He raised his head, right index finger jabbing at Double-J, tears now dripping from his chin. “I’d known youse from a kid, know what kind of heart you had, knew that everything they was saying about you being a bad boy, a troublemaker, they was all wrong about you. And anything I could do – to keep attention away from you –”

Lefty looked down at the floor, rubbed his eyes. Rex shifted in his chair, as Jimmy reached out and placed a hand gently on Lefty’s shoulder. Double-J sat back in his chair, silent. A car door closed on the street below, the sound echoing in the cold.

Lefty looked up again. “All you needed was time.” Jimmy drew back his hand. “Time to figger things out for yerself, time away from all the people who thought they was helping you, trying to guide you. That’s why I gave you a job. Now I look at you, see what you doing…”

Lefty’s voice was cracking, like ice in a tumbler. “Skipping school, talkin’ back to your coach. Now you got the three of us come visit yuh, try to talk some sense into yuh. But I knows what gonna happen – you gonna kick us out t’night, tell us to mind our own bidness, and we’ll leave, but some day soon more people are going to come visit you, and they won’t be like us, won’t be your friends, your family. And what you’ll do is, you’ll also tell them to go away and mind their own bidness, but the difference is that for them, what you do is they bidness, and when you sends ’em away they’ll come back, and one of those times when they come back — ” he swallowed — “they won’t leave, less you leave with ’em.”

Lefty looked directly at Double-J. “Can see all that ’bout to happen, and they ain’t no damn thing I kin do ’bout it. That promise I made your daddy, ’bout keepin’ you outta trouble. I done my best, but that weren’t ’nuff. I done failed.”

A gust of wind whipped outside, rattling the windows of the small apartment. Double-J cleared his throat. “Lefty – this has nothing to do with you. You’ve been great, gave me a good job, so yeah, I owe you for that. But I can’t return to school, go back to the fencing team, just on your account. If I go back, I’d be saying that Jacobs was right in what he did, and I can’t let him get away with that. Don’t worry, I ain’t gonna let no trouble come to you – if I have to stop working at the shop, I’ll do it. If I have to get a GED, I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure nobody sees you as failure – just so long as it doesn’t require me to accept failure myself.”

“All right, then.” Rex rose suddenly as he spoke, as if his chair were suddenly electrified. “Jimmy, Lefty – we’ve done what we can, it’s time to go.” He turned towards Double-J, who remained sitting, listening intently. “Double-J, just think about something. As abrasive as you can be, especially during practice, we all miss you – me, Annie, Rune and Butch, Kassie. Without you, we’re simply not as good, either as a team or individually, as we are when you’re there. You push us, force everyone to do better, and I’d like to think we’ve made you a better fencer as well.”

Double-J nodded slowly.

“I’m – disappointed you decided not to fence with us no more. Don’t think it’s the best decision, for yourself, certainly not for the team. I know you’ve got problems with Coach Dan, and Annie, but when haven’t you had problems with them, and when haven’t the three of you been able to work things out? I don’t know why this time has to be different, but I can tell there’s no turning back for you now. It’s just – the only word for it is sad, I’m sad you’ve decided to turn your back on all of us, sad you don’t care about the fact that we had a great team – have a great team. Just not as great without you.”

Rex turned swiftly towards Jimmy and Lefty. “Let’s go.”

“Hold on.” Double-J stood, the chair cushion underneath him not fully straightening as his weight lifted. He pointed at Rex — “you got regionals, end of the month, right?”

“Yeah.” Rex’s inflection rose with the expectation of what he hoped his friend was about to say next. “You coming?”

Double-J frowned, black mustache curling above his lips. “Nah. Stuff to do.” There was no conviction in his voice. “Be at Midland, week after.” Coach Dan had already told the team they wouldn’t be competing at Midland.

Jimmy nodded at Rex. “Slim here, says he gonna do saber at Midland.”

“Heard that.” Nodding, Double-J retreated back to the rear room of the apartment — “hold on” — sounds of scuffing within a closet like a man moving into a new home, as the three guests gathered their winter coats in the small living area.

Rex scanned the bare walls, searching and not finding any object to draw his attention. Jimmy patted Lefty’s shoulder — “You OK, young fella?”

Lefty’s laugh sent clouds of onion breath into the air. “Yeah, yeah, ah’m fine. Shitfire and damnation, ah’m fine.”

“Good.” Jimmy rubbed his chin. “But, shitfire and damnation, you know how  — ”

“Ya, here you go.” The scuffling stopped, and a moment later Double-J returned, carrying a gray oval fencing mask, a silvery lame with sleeves that hung down just above the floor, and the distinctive thin flat blade and curved handle of a saber. Seeing Rex shake his head, the burly teen extended his arms defiantly.

Rex looked down at the equipment with reluctance, as if the offer were a practical joke. “I can’t — “

“Not like I’m gonna be needin’ these, til Midland.” Several minutes later, Double-J escorted his guests from his apartment at the Embassy, Rex unable to prevent himself from realizing he was now in temporary possession of equipment that cost more than his family’s weekly grocery bill.

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