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.

Gray Metal Faces – March 6B

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.

Gray Metal Faces – March 6A

[Updated 11/27/2016 to accommodate March 5.5]

“Allez.” Get the center, he let me take it. Feint the head cut, get him to flinch — slash the arm, EEEEP, look over YES, only ONE LIGHT this time, ref doesn’t both calling it out, just uses hand signals. Return to start. Not sure what was up with that touch, he might have just been resting. Or looking to play the tempo game — watch that. “Pret.”

Double-J caught the flanneled man as he fell, then spun him around and tossed him back towards the sidewalk. Watching from the passenger seat of the coupe, The Bird shrieked as she saw the man from the pickup pounce on Double-J, wrapping his arms around the teen. Time seemed to stop a moment, as her vision focused squarely on Double-J’s face.

He was smiling.

Then with a swift backward thrust of his left elbow, Double-J broke the man’s grasp, and a moment later threw his attacker to the pavement, away from the pickup. The flanneled man came charging back, but Double-J deftly side-stepped the attack and struck the man in the side, sending him sprawling down to the pavement as well.

The Bird heard a shout from the other direction, and turned to see the other flanneled man from the restaurant running toward the pickup. Double-J faced the man and crouched down, his fists balled into maces of flesh; seeing the two men lying on the pavement, the second flanneled man stopped, and held his arms up.

Seven days in the future

Tires crunched loudly against gravel and ice in the lingering cold of March, as a large white van, SQUISITO CATERING painted on either side, pulled into an open parking space on Elm Street, three houses to the east of the Embassy Apartments. One of the larger apartment buildings in Bark Bay, the Embassy had three floors, loud radiators, no central air, and a strict 11 pm curfew enforced by the owner, a red-faced former state trooper with a temper as short as his hair.

Rex opened the van’s passenger door, the tall teen getting out of the vehicle shortly before Jimmy emerged from the driver’s side. They walked without speaking up to the building’s entrance, saw in the small half-circle windows of the front door a man wearing a dirty green visor waiting inside. As they got closer, Rex identified the man as Lefty – George Monroe, owner of Lefty’s Auto Repair, where Double-J had worked for the last few years. As Jimmy reached for the front door handle, Rex detected a mixed odor of grease, motor oil, and gasoline, and saw through the window that Lefty was now looking at them, smiling with yellowed teeth and a face covered with dirt, black grease marks, and three days worth of beard stubble.

Definitely Lefty, Rex thought.

Lefty stepped back as the door opened — “How you fellas doing?” — his back against the security door leading to the apartments. The smell of onion blended into the already pungent mélange of garage odors, as Lefty pointed past the newcomers. “That van belong to you?” Jimmy nodded. “‘member seein’ it at the shop, last month. Handling OK now?”

Rex glanced over at the man who had volunteered to help coach the Bark Bay High School fencing team, saw him flinch as Lefty’s breath made contact with his face. “I — yeah, we running good now.”

Lefty clapped his hands, nodding. “Suspension on dose tings are a bitch, but we got hu tuh behave. Shitfire and damnation!” He laughted, hugging his body, as Jimmy looked at him with a combination of awe and disgust. Suddenly, Lefty extended his arm towards Rex — “My name’s George, but ev-body calls me Lefty, so might as well do th’ same.” Out of reflex, Rex shook his hand. “Sorry ’bout all muh dirt –- no time t’ go home, take no shower.”

“No problem. Nice — ” Rex nearly gagged as the full force of Lefty’s breath hit him — “to meet you.”

“Same he-ah.” Lefty then looked down at Jimmy’s feet, raised his head deliberately, eyes scanning the owner of Squisito’s Catering, stopping suddenly at his face — “Not from ’round here, ain’t cha?” — then cackled violently.

Jimmy snorted a solitary laugh. “Born and raised in Louisiana.”

“Ya don’ say? Shitfire and damnation!” Lefty slapping Jimmy on the left shoulder. “Well we all comes from someplace or nuther. Might as well be Weezyanna, or Ja-Pan fer all I care.”

Rex began to feel light-headed, the odor in the entry room beginning to make him nauseous. He pointed to the column of white rectangular buttons on the wall to his left — “What room is Double-J in?” Lefty ran his hand down the crudely fashioned paper labels next to the buttons — “This’un,” then pushed the button next to JOHNSON. A moment later, a sharp crackling sound came from a small speaker on the wall above the column of buttons, followed by a curt Yeah?

“Hey.” Urgency in Rex’s voice, a desire to speak before the others. “I’m here, with Lefty and Jimmy.”

The speaker crackled again, the voice that followed more welcoming. Hey! Guys! Come on up!

A second later, a loud buzz sounded from the interior security door. Lefty opened the door, turned and smiled as he motioned for Jimmy and Rex to walk in. “Second floor, third door onna right.”

The stairs, made of thin plywood and covered with a carpet runner bald and frayed in more places than it was whole, creaked with the ache of age as Rex and Jimmy rushed to the second floor, hoping to catch a respite from the onion breath and garage odors emanating from Lefty. They reached a landing, turned right, bounded up another flight of creaking stairs and reached the second floor of the Embassy Apartments. The second door on their right was open; Rex heard the sound of oil heating in a frying pan as he and Jimmy approached the doorway.

Jimmy stopped, knocked on the sill, above the latch. The response from inside was immediate and violent, as if the action at the door were anticipated with a perverse pleasure.

“JESUS! Goddam door’s OPEN, what more do you losers NEED? This ain’t friggin’ ANNIE’S house, ain’t got no damn BUTLER!”

Jimmy raised his voice to speak, before being cut off by Rex, who rushed him into the apartment, followed by his companions.

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.

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.”

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.”

Gray Metal Faces – March 2

Arm out, got the middle, head cut, he aims at four, EEEP EEEP. “Halt. Together.” Got there first, need to make it more obvious. “Pret. Allez.” EEEP EEEP, another no touch, what I gotta do. “Pret. Allez.” He jumped the gun this time, he’s first — attack’s out of distance, misses — get him on the arm, tags me on the remise, EEEP EEEP, dammit it’s MINE this time. “Halt.” MINE. “Attack right no, attack left yes.” Good, ref saw it, there’s hope for this bout.

“Sounds like a typical practice.” Double-J drank from his Coke again. “Footwork drills, conditioning — probably did some bouting when Jimmy got fed up.”

The Bird protested that it was different, that practices hadn’t been typical, what they used to be, for a while. A lot of people were missing, she said; Rune hadn’t been at practice since the last tournament —

“Ha!” Eyes focused above The Bird’s head, Double-J shook his head. “Heard Banks has gotten his ass kicked on a regular basis. Got dumped by his girlfriend, too. Banks is probably sitting at home, licking his wounds.”

The week before, The Bird continued, they were just three other people — Annie, Rex, and Jimmy. “It happens.” The waitress delivered The Bird’s salad. “One practice last year — around this time, it was — it was just me and Myles.” His eyes brightened. “That was actually one of our best afternoons, just the two of us going at it until Myles got tired. Jacobs even managed to keep his mouth shut for once.”

The Bird looked down at her salad, then back up at Double-J. She told him that everyone was worried about him.

“Everyone?” The burly teen leaned his head toward The Bird, his left eyebrow raised.

Well, The Bird admitted, Jimmy was worried, definitely. And Annie. And Rex. They don’t — she paused — understand.

“Why I left the team?” Nod. “Didn’t need it, no more. It’s that simple. Ain’t nothing we do at practice that I ain’t already done dozens of times before, and there’s nobody else for saber — Jimmy don’t count, he’s been out of the sport a quarter century.”

Across the table, The Bird contemplated his latest statement, then blinked. She said there was a Korean guy —

“Juan?” Nod. “His name’s Joo-won, you know that right? Teachers started calling him Juan because they couldn’t be bothered to learn his real name. Nah, this town ain’t racist. Saw his sister at the store the other day, said he’d poked his head back in at practice. But she also told me something else.” He leaned across the table, lowered his voice. “He ain’t going back to you guys. He didn’t like Jimmy, so last week his parents signed him up with Dr. Schmidt.” The Bird recognized the name of the En Garde! club owner, as Double-J leaned back in his chair. “Can’t say that I blame him.”

The Bird lifted her fork, placed it back down on the table. She asked if he was going to Dr. Schmidt too.

“That clown?” He seemed anxious to leave the table abruptly. “Schmidt teaches like fencing hasn’t changed in a century. Nah, I’m done with lessons, done with training. Like I told Jacobs last month, if I wanna fence at tournaments I’ll do it, there’s no rule you have to be affiliated. Kristof, at Wolford, he’s been competing two years, no team or club.”

Double-J leaned back, the front legs of his plastic chair rising off the floor. “So don’t worry about me, little bird. I’m doing fine. Never been better, in fact.”

The Bird shook her head, and said she wasn’t worried about him; Double-J responded with the look of a judge who’d lost patience with an attorney’s argument. It was other people, she explained, other people were worried about him. Not her.

“That a fact?” Nod, Double-J raised his tumbler, saw it was nearly empty, waved the waitress over. Stroked an eyebrow with his thumb — “That checks out. You called about the team, didn’t say nothing ’bout me.” He then snapped his fingers, “You’re mom’s car is done, shop’s open to eight tonight, she can pick it up whenever she wants.”

The Bird shook her head, said her mother was working in the city, wouldn’t be home until late. She then picked up the earlier conversation, said she couldn’t explain it, sometimes she would have feelings about people, that they were headed in a certain direction, good or bad. These weren’t like predictions, she didn’t know what was going to happen, but she was convinced that if things didn’t change — her eyes grew big. It’s patterns, she said, I see patterns of behavior, it’s like what Coach Dan says about fencing.

The last statement seemed to fully engage the burly teen sitting across from her. “See what patterns your opponent is following, then find its weak point and exploit it.”

And don’t fall into patterns yourself, The Bird added.

“Be predictably unpredictable.” He snorted a laugh through his nose.

The waitress revisited their table, carrying Doulbe-J’s sandwich and a glass pitcher of Coke. A soothing pop song descended from the ceiling’s loudspeakers, masking the conversations from other tables. Refilling Double-J’s tumbler, the waitress left abruptly.

Haven eaten several bites from her salad, The Bird placed her fork back down on the table. There’s something wrong with the team, she said as Double-J tore into his sandwich. It wasn’t just about who showed up at practice — she remembered they had four strips going last month, must have been close to a dozen, the two Pauls, OK, Micky and her brother — just about everyone, except Rune.

“Banks?” Nod. “Big loss there.” The Bird flinched at his sarcasm, Double-J responding with a dismissive head shake. “Don’t worry about Banks, his family’s gonna take care of him, like they always have.”

Three days later

“Pull over.” Rex punctuated his uncharacteristically insistent command by reaching over from the passenger’s seat and nudging Double-J’s right arm, which lay on the front seat as his left arm commanded the coupe’s steering wheel.

Double-J glanced in the direction his slim friend was pointing, and suppressed the urge to groan. He kicked the accelerator like an annoying dog, Rex’s voice rising in objection as the coupe sped towards the solitary figure walking along the road’s dirt shoulder, passing less than a foot from contact, the coupe then swerving sharply right and stopping abruptly.

“Christ, take it EASY!” Ignoring his passenger’s complaint, Double-J rolled down his window, stuck the profile of his head outside the coupe, and without looking back addressed the person whose path his coupe was now blocking — “Banks. Rex here wants a word with you.” He then sat back in his seat, grinning with the left side of his mouth and frowning with the right, and waited with dark anticipation for the sharp cry of objection that was sure to erupt from behind his vehicle.

Yet the only audible sound for a moment was the hum of the coupe’s engine. Double-J squinted, looked up at his rear-view. Banks, the kid everyone else called Rune, was standing in the exact position he’d been when the coupe sped past him, his hands remaining in his jacket pockets. And he was — smiling.

Sneakered feet crunched into soft gravel as Rune sprinted up to Double-J’s door. “HEY THERE!” A cloying mirth in his voice. “How’s it GOING, Mr. Double-J!”

The burly teen twisted toward the grinning fool standing to his left. “The fuck — “

Rune.” Rex leaned across the front seats, nearly bumping heads with Double-J. “Where you been, man, I haven’t seen you.”

The eyes of the teen standing outside the car GREW, then EXPANDED even further, and then got EVEN BIGGER. “Where have I BEEN?” Hands flew out the jacket pockets, arms spread wide. “I’ve been EVERYWHERE, you’re just not in the same PLACES I’ve been!”

“Tuesday afternoon, practice.” Double-J leaned back as far as he could as Rex continued speaking, sounding more like Coach Dan with every word. “You ain’t gonna get any better unless you practice.”

“Better at WHAT?” An additional sense of delight seemed to erupt on Rune’s face as he stared down at Rex’s blinking, blank expression. “Hey Double-J — ” Rune’s arms flying forward, slapping on to coupe’s roof — “when’s your next PARTY?”

Rex reclined back into his seat, as Double-J remembered the last time he’d seen Rune. A Saturday, last month, a buddy of his had brought Rune to his apartment, mistakenly assuming that any fencer at Bark Bay High School would be welcome. The back room — Jez had taken Rune’s hand, was leading him back there to get high —

“Don’t tell me you’re not having parties no more?” Rune’s voice was now barely a whisper, his face contorted in mocking disappointment. “I mean, I had so much fun the last time — “

Double-J had bruised his hand, the punch to Rune’s stomach hitting a rib. That’s why he had started kicking.

” — we just GOTTA do that again, dontcha think?”

“You need a lift?” Double-J pointed behind him with his left thumb. “I can get you home.”

“A RIDE?” Rune stepped back, his arms spreading wide again. “You really think I need TRANSPORTATION?” He stepped back into the middle of the road, nearly tripping over a mound of bituminous patchwork. “I don’t need a ride in your CAR, because — and I don’t think you know this yet — “

The manic figure standing in the road leaned forward, waited for the proper look of bewilderment on the faces of the two teens in the coupe.

” — I’m an AIRPLANE!” Rune then turned sharply up the road, buzzing his lips and waving his outstretched arms wildly up and down, bzzzzzzzz.

Gray Metal Faces – March 1

Grab metal adapter, pull cord out from reel. Attach to rear of body cord, fasten clasp, hook onto rear plastic loop. Attach front of body cord to weapon. Find end of mask cord, clip onto mask.

“Test please.” Approach opponent at center of strip, tap each other’s masks. EEEP, EEEP. Step back to start line, point weapon above opponent’s head, bring it down SWOOSH, repeat for director. Put on mask, crouch down. “En garde. Pret.” Probably the only French this guy knows. “Allez.”

The second Wednesday

“Mind closing that door?” The shaven head of Henry Jennings scowled from the dim yellow rectangle of the kitchen window along the back wall of the Pizza Place, his annoyance amplified at recognizing the young man who had just entered his restaurant.

Double-J frowned, his shoulders suddenly rising as a cold March gale blasted through the partially closed door behind him. “How many times I gotta tell ya to fix that damn hinge?”

“Jesus! You don’t — ” a telephone rang in the kitchen, Henry turning quickly to its sound. A couple whom Double-J didn’t recognize had risen from their chairs as he arrived, and were now putting on their plump winter jackets as they walked towards the door. Double-J stepped aside, made eye contact with the man (late-twenties, the soft face and careful grooming of a professional), raised his right hand and pointed with his thumb behind his shoulder.

“Just give it a good pull, on your way out.” The young professional nodded, the smiling woman behind him thanking Double-J as they passed, the man opening the door fully (the PLEASE SHUT DOOR sign on its front catching Double-J’s eye) and letting his companion walk out first, then pulling on the door handle without looking behind him, the glass barrier to the late winter evening shutting with a heavy klump.

Grinning, Double-J cast his gaze across the Pizza Place’s dining area. A row of booths, two at the side near the front door and three on the far side, bookended six smaller square tables, each with two plastic chairs, arranged in no particular sense of order. Nearly every table was occupied, Double-J recognizing many people as customers of Lefty’s, the garage where he worked. An elderly man with white hair and dark eyebrows (brake job in November, fronts were just about gone but rears could wait until spring) sitting at a booth with two happy toddlers; a woman in her forties (Mallory? Marjie? Worked at a bank) reading a newspaper while chewing on a breadstick; two middle-aged men in flannel, faces dirty with grease (one facing the front might’ve been in for his transmission, last month); another couple he didn’t recognize —

She was sitting at a table, toward the back wall. Alone, a fact Double-J found hardly surprising. Strait, shoulder-length black hair curtained down the sides of her face, which stared with blank concentration at the red and white checkered tabletop, empty save for the small metal napkin dispenser and condiment jars. If Double-J hadn’t known she had asked for this meeting, he’d have assumed she was there to enjoy the sensation of being ignored.

The burly teen shuffled past tables and chairs, stopping behind the empty chair in front of the table at which sat this frail girl who seemed to have too many names (Kassie, Sandy, The Girl Whose Mother Is In Those Stupid Sav-Anna Commercials) and had now adopted the one he had given her as a joke during her first fencing practice that fall. He waited for her to acknowledge his presence; seeing no reaction, he cleared his throat audibly, her eyes finally raising to meet his.

“Do I call you Bird — or, The Bird?”

The Bird’s attempt at a smile failed, like a candle wick that wouldn’t light. She said it was not up to her what name people used to address her.

“Huh.” Double-J pulled out the empty chair, sat quickly. “You order yet?” The Bird shook her head. “Hungry?” Nod.

A harried waitress (coolant leak, late fall) delivered a pair of menus, large and double-sided, plastic laminate curling up at the corners. The Bird did not raise her hands to take the menu, and a moment later the waitress laid it on the table in front of the frail teen before hurrying back to the kitchen.

“Know what you want?” The Bird replied that she’d never eaten here before; Double-J grunted, jabbed his finger at a line about a third of the way down on her menu. “Chicken parm’s pretty good — ”

The Bird replied that she didn’t eat meat. “Didn’t know you were vegan.” She replied that she wasn’t a vegan, she just didn’t like the taste of meat. “That so?” Nod.

Double-J wiped the back of his right hand across his black mustache. “They got an eggplant parm too.” The Bird asked if it was good; Double-J shrugged. “Dunno. Never had it.” He then leaned forward across the table. “Don’t like the taste of eggplant.”

The Bird blinked, looked down at the menu again, finally deciding to order a salad (Double-J telling her he’d never had a salad here either, but said he’d heard they were good) and a glass of water. Double-J considered ordering the chicken parm, but the peckish impulse overruled the puckish and he ordered his usual — “Italian sausage, no onions. And a Coke.”

“Diet?”

Double-J glared back at the waitress’ question. “No, regular — ” he leaned back in his chair, and pated his round belly — “Like being fat.”

The waitress left, slightly embarrassed. The Bird told Double-J that she didn’t think the waitress had been insulting him; the burly teen ran his left hand back across the thin black wires of his hair. “Might not’ve been what she was thinking, but it was in the back of her mind.” He waved his right arm in a sweep across the restaurant’s dining area. “Everybody in this town, think they’re so polite ‘cuz of not saying what’s on their mind. But really, it’s just dishonesty. Eleven thousand people, all just putting on a show, saying one thing but acting entirely different. Seems to me, Bark Bay needs more people like me, calling people out.”

The Bird then asked if that was the reason he’d agreed to meet with her, to call her out; Double-J snorted. “Nah. Nothing personal, but seems to me you’re pretty harmless.” The waitress returned, handed him his Coke, left briskly. “Honestly, my first instinct when you called me last night, said you was worried about the fencing team — ” she nodded quickly, head bobbing in the fashion Double-J remembered from that first practice when he said she moved like a bird — “wanted to say, sorry but that ain’t my concern no more. I’m done with the team, done with school, and with any luck, done with this damn town come summer.” He raised the plastic tumbler of Coke to his mouth without looking, stopping as the translucent plastic straw struck him in the cheek; he snatched the straw with his other hand, threw it down, drank deeply as tiny pools of brown carbonated liquid formed around the straw on the table.

The tumbler was half-empty when he turned his attention back to The Bird. “Don’t really know what changed my mind — guess I decided to find out if everyone’s still as messed up as they were when I left.” He smiled, contorting his face in a way which made his dark mustache seem to frown. “So, tell me, my avian friend. What’s on your mind?”

The Bird cleared her throat, and with eyes looking down at the table, began to speak.

The previous afternoon

“Look, why he went out there ain’t nobody’s business but his own.” Jimmy Saunders’ voice was terse, proactively dismissive. “All I know, is he called me on Friday, asked me to run practice today.” Tuesdays were typically slow for Jimmy’s catering business.

“It’s just strange, y’know.” Rex stepped up behind Annie, his head a foot higher than the sophomore team captain. “Coach Dan came late to some practices last three years, but I never remember him missing one.”

Annie’s eyes widened. “And this, is two weeks in a row! He keeps saying we need to get ready for regionals next week — ”

“That’s right.” Jimmy grabbed the large, bulky canvas sack lying on the floor next to him, raised it to waist level, towards Annie. “Academy gonna be there, so’s Midland, Woolford — all the schools, even some college kids. Daniel said they already got 30 or so in foil — ” he raised his chin towards Rex — “epee, just as many.” His late forties eyes darted across the large, empty cafeteria. “Where’s that Johnson boy?”

“Double-J?” Micky, sitting in a corner across from Big Paul and Coy, looked up, her red hair rising like a campfire. “Stop asking for trouble.”

“He quit the team.” Annie unclenched her jaw as she took the canvas sack from Jimmy.

Quit?” Jimmy hadn’t asked about Double-J last week, had assumed he was working at Lefty’s. “What kind of nonsense — ” he shook his head as if trying to shake off a buzzing insect — “we ain’t got time for this, none of us. Everybody up!”

At the volunteer coach’s command, Annie pointed her index finger to Coy and Big Paul, curling it forward. Her head then darted to the left — “Butch, Bird, you too, let’s line up.”

The Bird let Butch walk in front of her as they approached Annie, standing on a border between the floor’s white and black tiles, one of several such lines used by the fencing team throughout their practices in the cafeteria. Annie remained at the far left of the line, with Rex on her right, followed by Big Paul, Coy, Butch, and, in her usual and preferred position at the right end, The Bird. Jimmy took a position in front of the line’s center, several tiles in front.

“All right, all right.” Putting his right foot forward and pointing his left perpendicular to his body, Jimmy then raised his hands to shoulder level and lowered them; all but one team member crouched down into en garde position. Jimmy frowned — “Butch?”

“Oh!” The portly teen with the short crop of tow looked surprised. “Yes, sir?”

“Don’t call me sir. We starting.”

“Oh!” Butch crouched down immediately. “Sorry, s — I mean, coach.”

Jimmy blinked. “Don’t call me coach, neither. Just Jimmy, all right?”

“Oh!” Butch opened his mouth again, then closed it with the sudden wisdom that further words would provide little to no additional benefit.

“All right. Now, like we done last week, just keep distance. Small steps.” Raising the toes of his right foot and then pushing out only a few inches, Jimmy slowly advanced, the team in front of him responding with a retreat nearly in unison.

The Bird whispered at Butch to move backwards. With a flinch and suppressed oh, he hastily complied.

One Down, One and Some to go

Finished revising the sixth chapter of Gray Metal Faces yesterday. Trimmed a couple thousand words from the first draft, and tightened up the chronology, which were my two primary objectives. Also like the work I did yesterday for the final scene.

The revision of chapter seven, March, begins later today, and should be completed before the end of the long Thanksgiving weekend here in the United States. If that effort moves the word count of the first draft by a couple grand in either direction, that will leave me somewhere between five and nine thousand words short of the NaNoWriMo goal of 50K, with only a handful of days remaining in November.

And of course I have a plan. Soon as I put a bow on chapter seven, I’ll start the first draft of chapter eight (there will be a total of nine chapters in the novel). It won’t be finished by November 30, but I will write enough to meet the NaNoWriMo goal. And I’ll continue with that draft, until I’m finished sometime in December.

If I use one of the NaNoWriMo camps to draft the ninth chapter, could I have a complete revision of the entire novel at the end of NaNoWriMo in 2017? And if that does happen, will a giant tidal wave pummel me into a gaping chasm opened on the earth as I’m struck by lightning?

Gray Metal Faces – February 14

10:21

The house Rune had seen as he exited the forest bore the familiar shape of homes in his subdivision (“a terrible place to come home to when your drunk,” his uncle had wisecracked on his first visit), but he quickly realized he had arrived to the rear of the Florentino house, with its distinctive deck. Only five houses up the street from his home.

Rune plodded through the knee-deep snow between the Florentinos and Morgans. (No, not the Morgans, they’d moved. New family, the oldest child was in third grade — that was all he remembered.) Finding the sidewalks were equally as deep (few homes in their subdivision bothered to shovel past driveway edges), the teen decided the street was a much better option. He nearly had to leap over a snowbank to reach pavement, and his rear leg caught the top of the bank, causing him to stumble but not fall.

He righted himself, and exhaled. For the first time since walking off the front stoop of his home earlier that evening, Rune’s boots were touching solid ground, and he suddenly realized his feet were numb. More irritated than concerned, he began jogging to his family’s house.

Plows from the city had come by this afternoon, leaving a thin stripe of snow on the black pavement, reminding Rune of the inside of an Oreo cookie with its frosting scraped off. As he approached his home, he saw a light turn off on the second floor, his parent’s bedroom. Had his father gone to bed? He had no idea what the time was, but in the driveway of the  house he was currently jogging past, he saw two children and an elderly man get into a sedan. It couldn’t be that late, sometime around 10 he guessed. His father must have gone upstairs for something, found it, turned off the light as he left the room. We own stock in the power company?

He sighed with relief as he finally walked onto his family’s driveway. The garage door was still closed, and he did not see any fresh tire tracks that would indicated his mother and brother had come back from hockey. He walked up to the front door, tested the knob — finding it unlocked, he walked in, and heard the television in the living room.

Warmth returned to his body like a good meal. He sat on a bench and tugged off his boots, sensation returning prickly into his toes. Tossing his wool cap and jacket to the floor, he then walked into the living room, and saw his father sitting in his recliner, legs parallel to the floor; a short half-empty glass, containing a solitary half-melted ice cube, rested on a side table to his father’s right.

The senior accountant at the only financial services firm in Bark Bay did not move, and continued staring at the televsion screen; Rune stopped, wondering if his father was actually sleeping. But then, he spoke: “You’re home late.” A statement spiced with more suspicion than accusation.

“I was — ” Rune always stalled when about to lie — “out with some friends. From the fencing team.” Double-J wasn’t a friend, but at least he had been on the team at one point.

“Huh.” His father continued staring at the television; Rune crossed the room quickly, sat on the sofa, at the edge closest to his father. The teen looked at the screen. A basketball game — of all the spectator sports his father watched, Rune knew it to be his least favorite. Refs let the players show off too much, there wasn’t enough discipline in the game, not any more anyway. In the Banks household, it was taken as fact that all spectator sports had been so much better when his father was Rune’s age.

“How was the fencing tournament, this morning?” Wearing a white t-shirt that was five years too tight on him and gray sweatpants, his father raised a glass of bourbon to his lips, his eyes still focused on the television screen.

“It totally sucked.” Rune could be honest with his father in a way he couldn’t with his teammates. “Lost every bout. Most of them weren’t even close.”

“Huh.” His father placed his glass on a side table, eyes still screen-focused.

A moment later, Rune had gathered enough information from the screen to determine they were watching a collegiate basketball game, between two schools with names that didn’t reference a city, state, or region; the teams could have been from anywhere between here and Timbuktu. Assuming his father would be too distracted by this nondescript game to care about his departure, Rune rose from the sofa, took a step toward the dining room — but stopped when his father asked him a question. He looked down at his father, whose eyes were still focused on the television — “What?”

His father frowned, and looked over at his drink. Picking it up, he drank, the ice cube sliding down the glass, now empty of liquid, and slamming into his father’s upper lip. Paul Banks swore, spat at the cube, then lowered the glass onto his stomach. And resumed staring at the television screen. For a moment, Rune thought his father had forgotten about him. But then, he cleared his throat — “What I said was, I don’t know why you even bother.”

“About what?”

His father waved his left hand in Rune’s direction. “This fencing, thing that you do. I mean, I don’t understand why you keep doing it.”

“Because it’s fun.” Rune realized he was speaking from instinct rather than feeling, that he wasn’t so much responding to his father’s question but rather hoping to cut off further questioning. “I really enjoy fencing.”

“Huh.” His father turned his head, looked on his son with eyes too tired to be angry. “You don’t sound like you enjoyed yourself this morning. And most times, you come home from practice Tuesday and shut yourself in your room.”

It’s also the night you start drinking. “I just get a little frustrated, is all. Not having as much success as I used to.”

His father smiled, and seemed barely able to withhold his laughter. He placed his glass back on the side table, and pointed at his son — “This is all I’m saying. What’s the point of putting up with all that frustration? Why don’t you take up, I don’t know, chess or something?”

I suck at chess too. “I’m OK, dad.”

“Huh.” A trumpet’s blare rose from the television screen; Rune’s father turned his attention back to the game.

“You want me to quit fencing?” The words had escaped before Rune had fully considered their wisdom.

“Quit?” Sounding insulted, his father stood up quickly from his recliner, like a prop pulled by exuberant stagehands. “Now why would I try to ruin all this fun you’re having.” Grabbing his glass from the side table, he then moved swiftly into the kitchen.

Rune sat back on the sofa, feeling his father would have more to say and would be angered if his son left. He looked out the bay windows, to the front of their yard, covered in white and gray layers of snow. Sounds from the kitchen, the freezer door opening, hands fumbling in the ice tray, the door closing. Moccasined feet swishing over the tiled kitchen floors. Rune turned his attention back to the meaningless game, waited until his father returned with his refilled glass. The score flashed on the screen; Rune saw an opportunity to engage his father. “Not many points. Bad offense, or good defense?”

“Huh.” Paul Banks sat down, seemingly oblivious to the question just asked of him. Rune focused on the screen again, looking for something that could initiate a conversation — an impressive play, some antic on the sidelines, a player’s bad haircut, anything. Then suddenly, his father’s weary voice: “I just want to see you have some success.”

Rune waved his greasy hair off his forehead as he looked back at his father, whose face had grown soft, thoughtful. “I’m worried about you, Hugh.” Nobody in his family called him Rune. “Your grades are good, but not what they could be — you’re coasting. Only thing you do outside of school, and eating here at home, is that fencing club. And that’s only one day a week.” An ice cube cracked in his drink, fizzed. “I mean, don’t you ever want to get out of this town?”

Rune didn’t know if his father’s question counted as a non-sequitur. Ice cracked again in the glass. “I . . . don’t know — ”

“Bullshit you don’t know.” There was an edge now to Paul Banks’ voice. “Every child in Bark Bay dreams of leaving.”

Rune felt the urge to argue; he knew his friends well enough to realize many would be quite content staying in town. Sure, Double-J already had one foot out the door and The Bird also seemed ready to take wing, but Butch? Rex? They never expressed an interest in getting out. Even Annie, yes, who had not only traveled extensively with her family but also had the brains, skills, and means to go pretty much wherever she wanted, even Annie had never seemed eager to get out of town. Bark Bay is home for me (it hurt him now to remember her words, but her father’s argument forced the memory onto him like a powerful lunge to his four). It’s the place where everything I’ve ever enjoyed exists, everybody I’ve ever loved lives. Rune knew he should cut his father off and tell him he was wrong, but the edge he heard in the middle-aged man’s voice kept him silent.

“You’re still young, Hugh. Your life, it’s like an exam sheet that hasn’t been filled in. There’s no mistakes yet, no wrong answers you wish you could change.”

An idea came to the teen, too inspiring to keep to himself. “So maybe, instead of trying all kinds of stuff and starting to fill in those answers, I should take my time and look at the questions a little longer.” 

Paul Banks’ scoffing laugh rippled through his son like an ocean wave powering through a sand castle. “This isn’t some pop quiz” — apparently he’d abandoned the analogy he’d just created — “not something you decide to do, or not do. It’s more like, you’re always being evaluated. Somebody’s always watching you. And at some point, probably when you don’t expect it, they come up to you, and say, here’s how you did. And they give you this little score card, with all the marks filled in — what you did right, what you did wrong. And if you just sit back and try to figure things out, like you’re saying… ”

Paul Banks exhaled, letting his lips vibrate, fbbbbbbt, spittle spraying onto his chin. Rune guessed his father had realized the futility of his absurd analogy. He wanted to tell his father to relax, enjoy watching his game, not to worry. He wanted to say he’d be all right. He wanted to say — something. But found that he couldn’t.

“You do want to be successful, don’t you?” His father’s face looked like a wounded deer’s.

“Of course.” The only safe answer. “But I don’t know what being successful means, just yet.” Oh stupid, stupid, stupid.

“JESUS!” His father’s mercurial face was now twisted with disgusted rage. “Have you HEARD anything I’ve said? Nobody gives a SHIT about your opinion, it don’t MATTER how you define success, it’s something that’s defined FOR YOU!”

Rune looked at the man sitting in his father’s recliner, wearing his father’s t-shirt and sweats, his father’s favorite drinking glass lying on the side table to right of his father’s recliner, filled with the familiar smell of his father’s favorite bourbon, on the rocks. And the teen realized he had to recognize this person as his father, because any other perspective would mean treating this man with pity, contempt, and ridicule.

He opened his mouth to respond, but no words came. He heard laughter from the television; turning to look, he saw a stand-up comic grimacing sardonically, and quickly determined he was seeing a commercial. After a glance at the mantle clock above the screen, 10:44, he turned back to his father, only to see that the older man’s chin had fallen onto his chest, his head rolling off to the right, his eyes closed. As if his sudden outburst had exhausted him.

Waving greasy hair off his brow again, Rune dismissed the idea of going up to his room. From experience, he knew his father’s naps were very uneven, and he could wake suddenly at the slightest noise or movement. The game resumed on the television, and he did his best to watch with interest as his father began snoring softly in the recliner to his left.

11:08

As she staggered through the heavy door leading to her home’s kitchen, Jenna Banks jabbed the garage door remote on the wall, causing the garage door to close as noisily as it had just opened. Seeing Chet had already dispensed with his winter clothing, she marvelled at her son’s energy after so many hours of hockey. Well, he had slept on the ride back.

Slipping off her boots, she walked past the kitchen into the living room. The television was on, and her husband was in his recliner, out cold; a typical Saturday night. She sighed, prepared herself for the reaction to come, and spoke — “Paul.” As if responding to a command, her husband’s eyes shot open, and he yelled in surprise. She said it was time for him to get up, go upstairs and into bed; she watched as, without seeming to acknowledge her words, he began to rise deliberately from his chair.

Knowing it would take her husband several minutes to begin walking, she went to the foot of the stairs, and called up to Chet. “Is Hugh home?”

“I dunno.”

Jenna frowned. “Is his door closed?” Every Banks child complied with the family rule that bedroom doors were to be kept open unless the occupant was there sleeping.

Impatient feet stamped on the carpeted hallway upstairs. Then — “Yeah.” Jenna nodded, as the impatient feet returned to their room.

The father of the house had begun walking towards the stairs, and Jenna stayed out of his somnambulant path. She then went over to the recliner, grabbed the remote, turned off the television. On the side table he had left a glass, smelling of bourbon but now empty except for two nearly dissolved ice cubes; she carried it into the kitchen, dumped the remnant liquid into the sink, and left the glass on the counter. Turning lights off in her wake, Jenna Banks then made her way to the master bedroom on the second floor of her family’s warm, comfortable home.

End of “Gray Metal Faces – February”