Returning to the start without starting over

Corngoblin and I share an interest in writing about the craft of writing, what I call metawriting. I’ve also found that my metawriting posts tend to elicit more likes and comments than almost any other type of writing I upload. This has surprised me, as I’d assume most readers would find such posts self-indulgent and distracting; they are, however, also very honest and revealing, so that might be why they’ve generated such interest. So, since Corngoblin has just posted an interesting work of metawriting, I’m interested to see what happens if I use that essay to reflect on the novel I’ve been drafting.

Corngoblin’s essay discusses the strategic importance of beginnings; while it doesn’t say much that’s terribly original, it is entertaining for his distinctively absurdist, self-deprecating humor:

When you’re planning the beginning of the story, your job is the same job you have when you break out a board game for your friends to play: you need to make sure all of the pieces are on the board. Some games are really complicated, though. They’ve got a lot of pieces, but you really want to play, so you need to make sure you get all the pieces down as quickly as possible, or your friends are going to get bored and go do drugs or something instead.

I get the feeling they don’t play much Parcheesi at the Corn-Man’s parties.

This metaphor has me thinking about Chapter One — how well do I lay my pieces on the gameboard before my reader? The decision to begin with a demonstration fencing bout was certainly strategic; when Coach Dan explains the rules and terminology of the sport to the Bark Bay High School student body, I’m effectively saying to my reader, Here’s everything you need to know about fencing. I also introduce all seven of the principal characters — distinguishing physical characteristics (Annie’s pony-tail, Rex’s height), vocal patterns and tag phrases (Coach Dan’s my friend, Rune’s I dunno), personality (Double-J’s acerbic sarcasm, The Bird’s reticence, Butch’s awkward gentility). In my latest series of revisions, I focused on dialogue and character interactions; I believe those were correct decisions, but I’m now realizing that I have much work still to do with describing the town of Bark Bay, and establishing the tensions that will be developed in subsequent chapters.

To use the language of Corngoblin’s metaphor — I’ve chosen to place a fairly complex game in front of my readers, and while I’ve got the major pieces in place, there’s a few missing, lying within the box of my imagination. There’s more work for me to do before I consider this game reader to come out of beta testing. I just hope I get that work done before my readers start looking for the bong pipe.

 

Gray Metal Faces – September 16

An hour later, Dan had returned to his apartment at the Odd-B. The mailroom renovation now in its second month, Dan had developed the habit of glancing down at the floor immediately inside his doorway upon entering; there was nothing waiting for him on this day, but his mind was instantly drawn to the third of the letters he had received the preceding Friday — one he had yet to open.

He walked into the small kitchen area, where a rectangular wooden table, the only furniture that had remained in his possession since his first apartment in St. Louis, was laden with disheveled piles of paper. He had cleared a spot on the table for the large manila envelope from Friday, his address and the return, MAINE CENTRAL SCHOOL BOARD, printed in capital block letters on computer labels. Colleen put me in their system already. He tore open the top of the envelope, tore out the single sheet of twenty-pound paper, turned it over, skipped past the salutation, read the first line. We would like to formally extend . . .

They didn’t want to wait after all, their offer was for this year, not next. Morgenstern, the school’s fencing coach for the past twenty years, would retire next spring; Dan would be assistant coach for the year, take over the next. A good salary, at a school twenty minutes from Skokie, close enough to the town where he grew up to be familiar but distant enough to not be suffocating; teaching the subjects he wanted, taking over a fencing team with a long tradition, with an ideal transition period as well. If Dan had been asked to describe his ideal job offer, it would probably have not equaled this opportunity.

Colleen’s voice over the telephone buzzed into his memory. Dammit, we’ve given you time, Daniel! How much more time do you need?

They’ll never build that bridge. It would be the death of this town.

I know you’re not comfortable making a move right now. But if you stay in your comfort zone, you’re going to miss out on some wonderful opportunities in life. This is one of those opportunities, Daniel. Don’t let it just – go.

He would be back in Illinois, just north of Chicago. Katie had asked him several times if he missed his home town, never accepting his pat “yes and no” response; the closest he’d come to expressing regret would be a jocular complaint about having to take vacation days on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Then Katie would challenge him – she really was different, she had an independence, an intellect, a moxiethey probably needed teachers back in Skokie, too. He’d dismiss her arguments with a wave, saying he wouldn’t be comfortable just be another another face in the crowd.

And for years he had been comfortable as a wanderer, never staying in one place too long. Seven years in Bark Bay – nearly twice as long as he’d stayed in any one place since leaving home for college – this wasn’t a coincidence. Fencing had something to do with that, but so had Katie. But Katie was engaged now, to Wayne. Katie would stay in Bark Bay, decorate cakes, start a family, host Thanksgiving for her grandchildren, would die in Bark Bay after a long, happy life. Katie belonged here.

And Dan – he could belong here, should he choose. Many Jews lived in small American towns, as his grandfather would remind him. We are a strong people, Poppa would say, leaning forward for emphasis. We adopt to our surroundings, blending in without losing our identity.

Adapt, that was the key word. It meant survival, yes, that was Poppa’s point of emphasis. From generation to generation, do not let the light go out. But rooted in that word, that concept, was also the concept of change. The Judaism of his youth, from the north side of Chicago – that was not the Judaism he had found in Missouri, was not the Judaism of his friends from Israel, was not the Judaism of the small community he visited during High Holy Days.

It wasn’t just religion, although he had begun to realize that being a good Jew mattered more to him than he would have cared to admit even a few years ago. Sh’ma Yisrael, yes there was that. But there was more – politics, music, art. Fencing.

Laying on top of another pile on the table was a fencing glove, part of the equipment he had brought back with him after Friday’s practice (good luck trying to find a janitor to unlock the storage room that late in the week). Dan picked up the glove, stared at it. He realized he had been attempting all his adult life to be the same person he had been in his youth, had been determined to hold on to what mattered most to him. And those aspects of him could survive, yes – but only if he changed, adapted to his surroundings. He could live in Bark Bay, could still be a Jew, a teacher, a fencing coach – but not the same Jew, the same intellect, the same fencer, he had been in his youth.

He put down the fencing glove, and walked back into the living room of his apartment. He looked at the telephone, inert on the table, a quiet instrument sitting ready to be transformed into a portal to a different world. If he waited long enough Colleen would call again, demanding an answer to the job opening she had arranged on his behalf.

Dan Jacobs, English instructor at Bark Bay High School, coach of the Bark Bay fencing team – Coach Dan picked up the telephone, pushed a button until Colleen’s number displayed on the small screen, pressed Talk. He held the receiver to his ear, heard the distant ringing on the other end. A moment later Colleen would answer, and she would certainly ask if he were ready to make a decision. But he had no intention of making a decision this night; all he wanted was to listen to Colleen, but more importantly, to feel the battle of the conflicting thoughts in his own mind, the impulses to accept the offer or remain battling like two bold fencers, blades dancing between them, their gray metal faces expressionless and powerful.

End of “September”

Gray Metal Faces – September 15

The fifth Monday

In his last action as Mr. Jacobs for today, Dan laid his soft leather briefcase on top of the wooden desk in room 121 of Bark Bay High School. Late afternoon sunlight filtered through the westward facing walls, reflected off the clear plastic of a hardcover book (a novel, borrowed from the city library on a friend’s recommendation) and landed on the edge of his bearded left cheek, as he gathered a short stack of papers, along with the novel, and placed them into the briefcase.

“Heading out?” Gracie Hempstead, calculus teacher and one of the few members of the Bark Bay staff younger than Dan, stood unsmiling in the doorway, right hand on the frame, to the room that had been Dan’s de facto office for the last seven years. Dan finished packing his briefcase with slightly greater vigor, grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair, then walked with Gracie into the tiled hallway of the school’s South Wing, pulling his jacket onto both sleeves (smoothly negotiating the exchange of the briefcase between his hands) within a dozen steps.

Dan noticed Gracie’s gait was noticeably less energetic, and when he looked over at her decided her body language seemed deliberately subdued, as if she were challenging him to notice. “Everything OK?”

She pointed to the glass doors, now twenty feet in front of them. Her steely gaze commanding Dan to not speak further until they had exited the building.

Gracie began walking faster as soon as they passed the glass doors into the warm afternoon air, but her movements were fueled not with her typical sprightful exuberance, but a much darker, anxious energy. “Yolana says she wants to move. Says she can’t find work, now that the summer job at the motel’s done.” They had reached her yellow hatchback; her hand jabbed into a jacket pocket, then another, finally pulling out a set of keys.

Dan’s car was three spaces away to the right; he walked over to the passenger side of the hatchback, placed a hand on the roof. “She’s from where, Dallas?”

Gracie scowled, opened her door without looking. “Austin.”

“And she’s been here what, since January?” Gracie had convinced Yolana to move over the holidays; Dan had helped unload her van.

“If she can keep busy, it would get her mind off all the other shit that she has to put up with. But when she’s home alone all day, she can’t help dwelling on how miserable she is.”

“She’s a hairdresser, right?” Bark Bay had only one salon. “Has she tried looking for work in the city?”

Gracie folded her arms across the top of the driver’s doorside, rested her chin on them with a sigh. “That’s an hour away.”

“There’s all kinds of people who commute — “

“Dan, you’re a sweetheart. You mean well, but — if this was just about a job, we could work through this. But with everything else . . . ” She shook her head, let her arms fall to her side.

Dan drummed the rooftop with his fingertips. “Anything I can do?”

The twenty-nine-year-old daughter of two university professors, their middle child and only daughter, sniffed loudly, brushed sandy strands of brown hair from her forehead. And blinked, refusing to cry. “You free for coffee tomorrow? After work?”

“Of cour — ” Dan shut his mouth suddenly, eyes widening as the part of his mind that maintained his personal calendar called his attention. “Sorry, no. First fencing practice.”

“Awesome!” Her voice regained its vigor. “I saw the demo Friday, that was incredible! You really got the students involved.”

“The team did all the work. Me, all I did was talk. How about Wednesday, for coffee?”

“Sounds good.” She opened the car door, looked up at Dan again. “Good luck with the team tomorrow!” Dan stepped away from the car, waved as Gracie started the engine, had his back turned by the time she had backed away from her parking spot.

Gray Metal Faces – September 14

If this conversation were to resume, Dan was determined to navigate away from the shoals of crankish opinion. “I heard — some poor kid — missed a field goal?”

Jerry followed obediently, describing the ending of State’s football game yesterday with a level of detail that would have impressed the average journalist. Dan listened with polite disinterest, registered an occassional huh or OK, punctuated with a well-timed wow, to confirm his engagement. The two continued running in the mid-morning sun, following the lead runners as part of the informal, nameless group of fitness enthusiasts that criss-crossed through the narrow streets of Bark Bay every Sunday morning, weather permitting or not.

They passed the digital clock in front of a bank; 9:38, a little more than half an hour into their hourish run.  A right on the next street, up a hill, cross the street to turn left, then a familiar scent of gas, oil and grease came to Dan before his vision caught Lefty’s Garage coming up on their right. Cars parked in front of the closed garage doors with no apparent sense of organization, like toys quickly abandoned in a sandbox by frenetic children. Double-J — the teen worked at the garage, seemed to spend more time at the shop than he did at school. Lefty was Double-J’s foster parent, but Dan had heard the teen had moved out, into an apartment of his own. Ever defiant and disdainful of authority, Double-J would resent the questions Dan would feel obligated to ask at practice on Tuesday. If Double-J shows up. They passed the garage, and Dan spit into the bushes.

“Another — one.” Jerry was now pointing to their left, across the street, Dan recognizing the towering (by Bark Bay standards) of the Episcopal church, before quickly snapping his head down, glaring at the road in front of them.

“My buddy’s — getting married — there.” Hoping for a coincidence, Dan asked Jerry who is friend was. “Wayne — Lafleur. He’s — ” Jerry stumbled, nimbly regained his stride — “plumber. You — know him?”

“Yeah.” Dan continued glaring at the road in front of them. “Good man.”

“He’s marrying — ” Jerry’s breath caught in his throat, exhaustion beginning to gain control.

“Katie.” He saw Jerry pull up, waved and kept running. “Katie Jasinsky.” The wedding would be at the end of October — Dan knew the date, because the invitation had been the second of the three personal letters he had received on Friday.

A square envelope, bulky, his address and the return scripted with calligraphic perfection; he’d turned it over, lifted the flap carefully, the glue releasing its bond. He bent the flap back, pulled out the contents: a reply card with a return envelope, postage paid, fitted behind a single sheet of card stock, a simple border at its edges, a dozen lines of scripted text at the center. The honor of your presence . . .

In many ways the announcement was not surprising, because wasn’t Katie just the latest in a long line of women who had come in and out of his adult life? Katie, a local girl, born and raised in Bark Bay, who would either die of old age in Bark Bay, or a broken heart would kill her much sooner if she moved away. Wayne was a plumber, had his own business –- he would stay.

Dan, though — Katie was not shy about expressing her reservations. You’re not going to want to stay in town, are you? — not a qestion, a prediction. He’d tried to deflect, “I don’t know what I’m having for dinner tonight, how should I know what I’ll be doing in five years?” Katie wouldn’t relent.

You’re too ambitious to stay.

“Everybody has ambitions, Katie. You have your business.”

But some ambitions can be met in town, others can’t. I know I can make a living with cake decoration in Bark Bay, there’s always going to be birthday parties, graduations, weddings, and everyone’s going to want a little something different, it’ll never get old. But teaching – my aunt was a teacher, I remember her talking about how little things changed year to year. Are you still going to want to teach English at Bark Bay High School five years from now?

He passed under the shadow of a tree, broad leaves already golden, and quickly looked up, made sure he was still following the leaders. You’re not like my aunt, Dan – you’re curious, you like to challenge yourself as much as you like to challenge others. How long before you run out of challenges at Bark Bay? He knew he couldn’t argue the point further, just as surely as he knew Wayne would be a far better match for Katie than he. But Dan couldn’t just shrug this off, Katie wasn’t like Gina or Cam or the nameless faces he remembered, the fun times while it lasted, over when the time stopped being fun. Katie was different – not in any specific quality that she had, but in the fact that yes, he had been avoiding the word but couldn’t live in denial any longer, he had loved her, and while part of him wanted her to run to Wayne, to leave him with his independence –

“Hey Coach!”  Dan looked up at the shout, located the voice. Teenage girl, red hair, slightly overweight.. He waved — “OK! See you at practice Tuesday?”

He saw her smile with the unmistakable air of insincerity. “Later, Coach.”

Fencing –- he thought of his conversation with Gandy, as he continued running. He would never have started Bark Bay’s fencing team, or club as it was, absent of Josef’s challenge. But he’d chosen to take up the challenge, it had been his choice to wrestle with the athletic department, get the funding he needed,  make time available for his students, his fencers.

His fencers? An odd choice of word, like they belong to me. Coaching the fencing team had certainly given him a jolt, a thrust of energy to his teaching career that was always threatened with stagnation in a small town like Bark Bay. And with Myles the previous two years the team had flourished, had enjoyed success he hadn’t hoped to imagine.

But Dan knew that had been an unusual stroke of good fortune, a warm week in the middle of winter. Myles was an outstanding all-around athlete, who felt the team sports at Bark Bay High didn’t allow him to fully express his individual ability. Fencing for him was a novelty, an experiment – not his passion.

Dan knew that if fencing were to survive at Bark Bay, it needed to be more than a curiosity. He needed a core group of fencers who were committed to the sport, who got their motivation from within themselves. As much as he enjoyed being the center of attention for fencing at Bark Bay, Dan knew that the team couldn’t be all about him.

He felt himself getting depressed, a feeling that always made him uncomfortable. He needed to escape the memory of Katie, her departure from his life. Of course he’d go to her wedding – but that didn’t mean he was going to send his reply any time soon.

Gray Metal Faces – September 13

The fifth Sunday

“Hey.” Dan slowed the pace of his running shoes padding the cracked and crumbling bituminous of Briggs Road, allowed the runner behind him to pull up beside him. As Jerry appeared on his left, Dan realized it was the first time since the start of the run that morning that he’d chosen to engage in conversation.

He was typically more engaging on these weekly runs, meeting with the informal group of Bark Bay residents every Sunday morning, 9 or a little after, at the BB Convenience Store (Coffee Junction, the only coffee shop in town, being closed on Sundays). Dan enjoyed talking with friends both old and new as teh group waited for any late arrivals, beginning their run any time between quarter and half past the hour. Most of the local political information he’d acquired over the years had come during these informal meetings.

“Did you — catch the — game yes — terday?” The syllables of Jerry’s question coming between gasps of air.

“Nah.” Dan wiped his face with the palm of his right hand, sweat streaking into his black beard. Skies were clear this morning, temperature comfortably cool, ground wet from last night’s hard rain. He avoided a puddle on his right, kept pace. “Busy.” He looked ahead, saw Wendy and Bernice were at least a dozen yards back; snapped his head back quickly, saw the closest runners were equally far back. Not a coincidence.

“Huh.” Dan sensed Jerry abandoning the subject of yesterday’s game, the topic passing like the mailboxes they raced by. A large building, all white, came up on their right.

“We did — last week — not the — same route.” Jerry sounding like a man whose body would soon quit responding to his recreational desire.

“We try to — mix it up. Every month or — so.”

Jerry extended his right arm, almost touching Dan’s chest, as his finger pointed to the white building. “Wonder which — church that — ”

“Methodist.”

“Parking — lots full — today.”

Shrugging would have thrown off Dan’s gait. “Today’s their big day.”

“Hate churches.” Jerry’s voice had regained its vigor. “Don’t care who they are — Methodist, Baptist — Catholic — Jehova’s Witness, all the — same, you ask me. Cause all — the wars — in the world.” Dan felt a slap on his bicep. “You must — think so — too, right?”

Dan frowned, not attempting to hide his disapproval. “There’s good and bad  — everywhere, my friend. Don’t be so quick — to paint with broad strokes.”

They approached a large section of decripit road, Dan swerving off to the soft shoulder on the right, Jerry into the center of the road. Dan picked up his pace, giving Jerry the opportunity to hang back, wait for the group behind them to catch up. But Jerry matched his pace, was soon beside him again.

Gray Metal Faces – September 12

The conversation was now focused on agendas, Gandy asking Dan to reveal his reason for starting the fencing team at the high school, while Dan tried to ascertain what was motivating Gandy’s increasingly probing questions. It occurred to him that she could well have asked the same questions of anyone who had entered Riverside Gymnastics, treated the information she gathered from these conversations as a form of market research, data on the needs and desires of her current and prospective customers. Or perhaps she was naturally curious, the diversity of human experience something she relished. Loneliness, perhaps, adult children with families of their own, her students and their parents a form of extended family.

So many possibilities. He suddenly felt compelled to explore sifting through them all, discover the agenda of this gentle yet mysterious woman. And the best way to do that, was to continue this conversation.

“It’s funny.” He smoothed the short curls of his black bearded chin, flecked with gray. “It wasn’t long after the team started, that I realized how much I missed the sport. How I regretted walking away after my injuries.” He twisted in his seat, pointed with his chin at the elderly gentleman in the front row. “One night that first fall, I was working with Rex, the boy your nephew knows. He was even skinnier then than he is now.”

The old man chuckled. “Hard to believe. Boy looks like a skeleton sprayed with white paint.”

“He’s remarkably strong, though, you’d be impressed. Rex was at our very first practice, and from the start I could tell he had a passion for the sport. That night, it must have been our third or fourth practice, it’s around four so we’re winding down, and Rex asks if he can stay a little longer. I didn’t have anything going on that evening, so I said sure. After everyone else leaves, I start working with him on the fundamentals — keeping distance, controlling tempo with his footwork, arm position. I notice he’s picking up everything really quick, and he’s hungry for more, so I show him how to set up an attack, disengages, parries. I get him to do disengages in flight, a really complex attack, and even that he’s getting — the first time’s an adventure, but you see the light turn on when he tries again, and by the third time, he’s got it. I can’t remember how many times in a row he executes the attack, but I’m getting tired, even if he isn’t. So I stop, look up at the clock — and it’s 5:3o. Rex apologizes, but I wave him off; all I can say is, Why did I ever leave this sport?

He quickly scanned the faces in the waiting room. The man wearing the baseball cap slowly nodded his head in silent appreciation, and the elderly couple grinned as if Dan were a cherished nephew. Gandy, however, was studying his face, looking for more information. Dan’s eyes grinned.

“Ten years, you said? It had been ten years since you’d last seen your coach?”

The music in the gym stopped. Dan glanced through the large window, saw excited young bodies forming a circle around their tired instructor. “Give or take a few years, yes.”

“And not all of those years were at Bark Bay, right?”

He turned to face her, as the other occupants of the room, losing interest in the conversation, fixed their gazes on the youthful activity in the gym. “Had several temporary jobs out of college. Small towns in Michigan, Indiana. Then three years in the St. Louis school district, only the first of which was pleasant.”

Gandy straightened the thin glasses on her nose. “Bark Bay’s a long way from St. Louis.”

“One of the reasons I came here.”

“Lot of people say that.” She sat taller in her chair. “Most of them are professionals — your doctors, lawyers, teachers like yourself. They’ve had some success, usually in some big city far from here, but it’s begun to wear on them. They’re tired, want to escape the rat race, and some of them are so desperate as to decide that a place in the middle of nowhere sounds pretty good to them. And they go to places like Bark Bay, and for a while it’s everything they thought they wanted — less noise, less rushing, less having to be on the go at all times.”

The man in the baseball cap rose from his chair, walked out of the waiting room; Gandy waved at him, returned her attention to Dan. “But after a few years, the novelty of their environment wears off. What seemed refreshing at first, upon further experience now seems just boring. Most of them decide that life they’d left behind looks pret-tydarngood to them, after all, and they wind up going right back to it.”

“Most, you say.” Dan’s left index finger pointed directly at Gandy’s right shoulder. “But not all. Some of the newcomers stay, after all.”

“Yes, some do.” The elderly couple walked past, exchanged a brief word with Gandy, who made no effort to hide her ambition to continue her conversation. “I’ve talked to a lot of them, tried to understand what made them different, what was it about them that made it possible for them to stay.” She leaned forward. “And you know what I’ve found?”

Mustering every ounce of sincerity within his spirit, Dan opened his arms wide, leaned back in his chair. “Please — tell me.”

“They — ”

The door to the waiting room slammed open a second before the sharp cry of UNCA DAN! cut through the room. THERE’S NO CLASS NEXT WEEK!

“No need to yell, Nassie.” The commanding tone of the school’s founder had returned to Gandy’s voice, as she addressed the three-foot-tall nuclear butterfly that had run into the room. “And please, this week could you remember to put your shoes on before you leave.”

Several parents had arrived, gathered their children in the coat room. Nassie talked excitedly with the other children, clearly enjoying herself too much to be anyone other than the last of her group to leave the building. Dan stood by a wall in the far corner of the coat room, observed Gandy as she talked, if only for a moment, to each of the parents. Part of her business model, Dan decided.

After reminding Nassie to put on her shoes — no, she couldn’t carry them to the car — Dan walked over to Gandy, as she wished the Mortensons (whose oldest daughter had been in his class the year before) a good evening. Seeing Dan, she sighed, waited a moment so that she and Dan could have the coat room to themselves.

“You’re a good man, Mr. Jacobs — Dan. Annie speaks highly of you, and I can’t think of any other person her age whose opinion I trust more.”

Dan tried to blush, gave up the effort when he realized how ridiculous he looked. “A lot of people feel that way about Annie.”

“Everyone in life is either running from something, or running toward something.” Dan had been confident Gandy wasn’t going to let him leave without completing her speech. “The people who leave, are the ones who’ll be fromming all their lives. Those who decide there’s something here in this little town they want to run towards — those are the ones who stay.

“So tell me — is this fencing team of yours, at the school. Will it keep you running?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Can I tell you after our first practice next week?”

Gandy extended her hand. “Have a good evening, Dan.”

“As do you, Gandy.” Releasing her hand, Dan finally herded Nassie out the door of the Riverside Gymnastics School.

Gray Metal Faces – September 11

“Hmmm.” Gandy contemplated his words like a judge deliberating a case. “So, you stopped fencing after hurting your knees?” Dan considered challenging the nature of her question, yet settled for a reluctant nod; the three-month membership at the St. Louis fencing club, and not finding any of his old magic, also didn’t seem worth mentioning. “Aren’t there other things you can do in fencing, besides competing? Coaching — aren’t there referees in your sport?”

“Of course, my friend!” He grinned, tilted his head, shrugged. “But — what can I say? I was young, frustrated that I couldn’t compete, not without pain. Felt like it was time for me to turn the page, move on to the next chapter in my life.”

“I see.” Gandy pulled her sweater closer. “So I take it, you weren’t in contact with your coach, until his retirement party.”

“Hadn’t spoken to him in a decade.” And not entirely Dan’s fault; Josef’s distrust for nearly every technological innovation that had appeared after his youth, especially those involving communications, posed a unique obstacle.

“I see. So one day, you have this conversation with a man you haven’t talked to in ten years — and the next day, you’re a fencing coach?” Dan felt the three other three members of the room lean a little closer towards him.

“Not that simple, no.” Of course it wasn’t; Dan had left that reunion weekend without any thought of actually taking up Josef’s challenge. Yet two days after his return to Bark Bay, a letter arrived at the Odd B. A handwritten letter, much like the one Dan had received the day before, and the dozens Josef had sent in between. Dan had been dumbfounded by that first letter, realizing Josef had either remembered his name or more likely had asked one of his other former students, had found out where Dan taught, had contacted the Bark Bay High School, had gotten his mailing address. Then sent him that letter, no salutation, three sentences all in capital letters – YOU START TEAM IN FALL. NEW SCHOOL YEAR. BE PATIENT, NO CHAMPION THIS YEAR – no signature.

Coaching? Dan wasn’t even sure if he knew the rules any longer. He’d decided to write a terse response back to Josef, when his phone started to ring. Stu Johnson, Bark Bay’s assistant principal and athletic director. Got this weird letter today from this guy, said he was an NCAA fencing coach. Tells me you’re starting a fencing team this fall? Dan let Stu continue talking, about the unexpected surplus in the athletic budget, the edict from the state’s educational department regarding support for non-revenue sports, what did he have in mind for starting the program? Sure, you can get back to me.

The following two weeks had been a blur. A call to the Academy, Dan had competed against a few of their alumni in college; he expected their fencing coach to give him some reason or other to dissuade him, but instead seemed on the verge of combustion as they talked, of course they had spare equipment available, so did State! More calls with Stu; a school district meeting, his first sense of suspicion (so you don’t have any previous coaching experience), but he had the support of Stu and his considerable clout. He told Dan exactly how much to ask for (the Academy coach had said he would need twenty five percent more, at a minimum, but Dan knew he was in no position to negotiate), what to say in his presentation to the board (you’re a club, not a team – that eliminates a lot of interference from the state), and by the week before school began that fall he had purchased seven used foils (two French grips and one pistol to share among the lefties, four righty pistols), five less than perfect but functional masks, a dozen soiled and torn back-zipper jackets of various sizes, four right-handed gloves and two for the lefties, two plastic chest guards, and, through the end of September anyway, half of the basketball court from 3 to 5 each Tuesday afternoon (they’d have to see about practice time once basketball tryouts began). And the town of Bark Bay, for the first time in its history, had a school with a fencing club.

Dan wasn’t sure at what point in that whirlwind of a fortnight he stopped going through the motions, started not only to believe that Josef’s and Stu’s idea was possible, but to actually want it. At some point he realized this was an opportunity to re-open the book of his fencing career, to turn what had ended with injury and frustration into a new story, one which he could control. No, he’d never coached before, but at least he didn’t need to fence competitively himself. The team, or club, may not succeed, but this time the power to determine success and failure rested solely with him – if he wanted it to end, it would end on his terms this time.

The letters from Josef came at a steady pace, at least one a month, and during the zenith of Myles’ career, sometimes weekly. Josef showed no interest in Dan’s cautious expectations, did not care about the school’s size, did not care that few other public high schools in their region had an organized club or team (YOU HAVE LUCK SCHOOL SUPPORT YOU, and on that point Dan wholeheartedly agreed). The impatience was always there, the insistence on perfection. Josef was the sole person to be displeased with Myles’ second-place finish last year, he wanted to know why both had settled for second best. It was important for Dan to expect success, and Josef demanded Dan devote his energies more to his coaching than his teaching. TEACH THE ENGLISH, IS YOUR JOB. COACH FENCE, MAKE WINNERS. Without ever having seen any Bark Bay fencers in action, Dan’s former coach was convinced none were living up to their potential, a failure he attributed directly to their coach, who did not expect enough from them.

The letter he’d just received was dominated by one question: WHO IS MAKING THE REPLACEMENT OF MYLES AT THE POSITION OF CAPTAIN? A series of additional questions followed, offered with no readily apparent organizing principle and showing the coach’s distinctive command of his second language. The letter contained all the exhortations from previous letters — he must continue the work he had begun four years ago, he shared a responsibility with all fencers to spread the tradition of their sport.

“Took a lot of meetings and phone calls, but we got the team up and running, managed to somehow keep it going those first two years.” The aluminum chair creaked under Dan’s weight as he turned in the direction of the man in the baseball cap. “Having Myles on the team, yeah that made some things easier. A lot easier. And now that he’s gone, to State, those old challenges have come back.”

“I still don’t understand something.” Dan returned his attention to Gandy’s inquisitive eyes. “If starting this fencing team was so difficult — and I believe you — and you had left the sport so long ago without ever intending on looking back — then why’d you do it? What would possess a man to give up so much of his free time? Excuse me for being so bold — ” her voice as unapologetic as a man taking back the power tool from the neighbor who’d borrowed it over a year ago — “but this fencing team has a lot more to do with you, than with your coach.”

Gray Metal Faces – September 10

Gandy had not finished her question before Dan had recalled the first of the personal letters he had received yesterday. The large, handwritten block letters on the envelope.

“My fencing coach from college — encouraged me to start a team at the school.”

Gandy pulled the sweater across her shoulders. “Encourage is what I do when I’m spotting a teenage girl  on her first dismount from the beam.”

“I’d first thought threatened, but that didn’t seem right. Perhaps challenged, then.” Dan’s memory returned to that reunion on campus six years ago, to celebrate his coach’s retirement (more of a transition in truth, as the college had finally eliminated his position after years of threats, and nobody believed his refusal to continue coaching as a volunteer). Josef Hadik, more frail in body than Dan had expected yet with a face as expressive as ever, was sitting at a large round table in the student union; Dan had approached, convinced Josef would not remember him, not after a lost decade of neglected communication.

He had been partly right. You teacher. Josef’s attention to detail had always been sharp. Where teach? A command, not a question. He’d sat up suddenly, leaned towards Dan. You coach? Dan remembered literally backpedaling, explaining he had just started a new job at this small school in the rural north – School has team? Josef’s words like a sharp thrust to Dan’s six, then disengaging under Dan’s response of no  – You start team. In fall, school year start. You — his  finger jabbed Dan’s chest —  start team. And then he sat down, turned his attention away from Dan like he was a fallen opponent. That had been their only conversation that weekend, and Dan had returned to Bark Bay certain that Josef would forget his challenge just as he had clearly forgotten his former student’s name.

“Tell me — ” Gandy’s inquisitive voice calling Dan back to the present — “about this coach of yours.” It had been years since Dan had told the tale yet the words flowed from him easily, how Josef had emigrated (or escaped, as he often said) from Hungary in his early twenties, fresh from the national sabre team; after running a largely unprofitable fencing school in Detroit for five years, Josef began a modest yet successful career as a college fencing coach. By the time Dan had arrived on campus on a partial scholarship, Josef’s teams had won a dozen conference championships, had sent scores of fencers to regional NCAA tournaments, a few even reaching the nationals, never medaling.

“So you fenced?” The man in the baseball cap’s voice was tinged with wonder, as if he were asking if Dan  had found a cure for cancer. “In college?”

“Couple years.” Dan flexed his leg, grimaced. “Blew my left knee out junior year, and when I didn’t rehab properly, the right went as well.”

Gray Metal Faces – September 9

The fifth Saturday

“A fencing team?” The middle-aged man, nearly the same age as Dan but looking at least a decade older, blinked in confusion. “At the high school?” The man’s arm pointed in the general direction of the front door to the Riverside Gymnastics School.

Sitting in the back row of aluminum folding chairs of the Riverside viewing room, Dan nodded. “I get that reaction a lot, my friend. Perhaps a little less, after Myles joined the team, but you’re — ”

Myles?” Eyes widened in surprise under the shade of a baseball cap’s bill. “You mean, that kid who played quarterback, lead the basketball team in scoring, and pitched a few no-hitters a year? He fenced, too?”

“For a couple years, yes.” He fought the urge to remind him that Myles had graduated. “It’s technically a club, not a team. I usually call them a squad.”

“Is that so?” The man stared back at Dan, as if he’d just been told that aliens had stolen his pickup. Behind him, a large window looked out onto the vast floor of the gym, where over a dozen toddlers followed as best the desperate directions of their beleaguered yet pleasant instructor, a dated rendition of Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush playing over the gym’s loudspeakers. Seated a few seats to the side of the baseball-capped man in the front row, an elderly couple, the only other occupants of the room, had begun to pay attention to the conversation. The man, wearing an orange hunting cap covered with grease and dirt, cleared his throat — “My nephew knows a boy, he’s on the squad.”

“Ah!” Dan’s eyes conveyed a wordless invitation to continue.

“Ankiel. First name’s Ron, or something.”

“Rex?”

The older man shrugged. “Guess so. Lives in that trailer, out on the county road.”

The woman next to him shuddered. “That’s one sad place. I deliver food there sometimes, for the Community Center. Don’t know how anyone can live like that.”

The opening of the door provided a welcome distraction. Dan twisted in his chair, saw a short woman, late forties-ish, an unbuttoned yellow and pink cardigan sweater clearly two sizes too big draped over her shoulders, armless sleeves hanging down her sides; her narrow glasses and immaculate light-brown hair gave Dan the impression of a studious, thoughtful person.

“And how is Gandy this evening?” The newcomer nodded in the direction of the elderly woman’s greeting.

Dan rose from his chair. “Ah yes, Miss Walker. Glad to meet you.” He extended his hand, was surprised by her grip.

“You must be Mr. Jacobs.” Dan was both surprised at her guess and annoyed at not having the opportunity to introduce himself on his own terms. “Gene and Stephanie said you’d be taking Nassie to class today.” His estimation of her quickly diminished.

“One of my students speaks highly of you.” Dan waved in the direction of the large window. “Annie Hutchinson.”

“Oh, Annie!” Gandy waved a hand in front of her bespectacled face. “She was one of my Tumble Bugs, before she could walk.” Suddenly her eyes grew wide with recognition. “Are you — Dan? Coach Dan? From the fencing team?”

He nodded, waved towards the window. “All those lessons Annie took here, she developed some valuable body control skills, really helps with her fencing. She teaches here, doesn’t she?”

“She helps out, when I’m short staff. And sometimes when I don’t, she’ll just come here and practice. Sometimes she brings that — what do they call that sword?”

“Foil, we call it a foil.” Dan blinked. “She brings her foil HERE?”

“Oh not when there’s a class, I’ve told her that. But in between classes, when the gym’s empty – ”

“On the floor, right?”

“Mostly – ”

MOSTLY?

Gandy cleared her throat, looked around at everyone else in the small room before resuming eye contact with Coach Dan. “Well, sometimes she gets on that balance beam, and – ”

Coach Dan turned from her, ran to the window. Off to the right, a row of balance beams, at different heights. None of them currently occupied. “Miss Walker — ”

“Oh please, call me Gandy.” Dan recalled Annie telling him about the nickname, created by her first granddaughter’s failed attempt to say the word grandmother.

“All right, fine.” He inhaled deeply, forcing himself to get the desperation out of his voice. “Please, let Annie know that foils should only be used at fencing practice.”

“I understand.” She pulled the walls of her sweater tight across her shoulders. “I actually don’t see as much of Annie ever since she started fencing. Last fall, I think it was.” She sat in the chair next to where Dan had been sitting; in the gym, exuberant child voices cried over the recording of This Old Man.

Coach Dan nodded, returning to his seat, his face and posture relaxed again. “Yes, that was about when she started. Practicing with the team, that is.”

“You know, when Annie told me she had joined the fencing club at school, I was amazed that Bark Bay even had a fencing team.”

Dan looked back at the baseball-capped man, who grinned in response. “We were just talking about that, how I get that a lot. Bark Bay’s one of the few public schools in the state that has a fencing team, or club. It’s more common in private schools, like the Academy.”

“And this is what – your team’s third year?” The man in the baseball cap seemed to have a renewed interest.

“Fourth, actually.”

“So, tell me — ” a playful smile crept onto Gandy’s face — “if fencing’s so rare in public schools – what on earth ever possessed you to start a team at Bark Bay?”

Gray Metal Faces – September 8

An hour later, Dan felt a wintry chill as he walked out to his car in the school parking lot. Typically deserted by this time on Friday, the lot was actually half full ahead of the evening’s football game, and Dan had to negotiate around several incoming cars on the way to his own. There was also more traffic than usual as he drove towards the center of Bark Bay; busy by the town’s standards, yet nothing like the congestion experienced during the summer tourist season. Left on Main Street, right on Bridge Street; the traffic lights would still operate fully until ten that evening, and then begin flashing yellow on the east-west roads, red for the north-south.

He crossed the bridge over the East River, upstream of the bay that had given the town its name during its long-forgotten days as a major lumber port. A gust of wind pushed his car left, nearly crossing the yellow painted divider; he corrected the vehicle without much effort. The East Bridge, as it was called, had become a perpetual source of frustration in Bark Bay; winter’s ice and snow made driving treacherous at times, while increased traffic volume in summer caused interminable delays, angry motorists making improper decisions in haste. An accident on the bridge had delayed Coach Dan several hours on his first visit to Bark Bay, nearly a decade ago, and upon moving to the town he’d taken an interest in the bridge’s history. Built over the East River late in the seventeenth century, it had been re-built several times, with increasingly better material. But the last rebuild had been over a quarter century upon Dan’s arrival, and a single lane in either direction had clearly become inadequate; everyone in town agreed the next rebuild had to meet the demands of the modern world.

The state’s department of transportation, however, had a different plan. A new bridge, a mile further upstream of the river, would effectively replace the East Bridge as the principal arterial route for the region. Bark Bay’s political and commercial leaders fought the proposal vehemently, the new bridge would effectively bypass the town, destroy our economy; state leaders responded with studies demonstrating the new bridge’s impact on Bark Bay’s summer tourism industry would be minimal. The Minimal Bridge, its detractors called it, as they pleaded with Lee Stephens, Bark Bay’s elderly state senator, to wield his still considerable clout against the plan.

The battle lines had been drawn, talking points in the debate memorized, by the time Coach Dan had settled in Bark Bay. Never particularly drawn to either side, he had taken a sardonic view of the ongoing controversy – both bridges, old and new, East and Minimal, had become ciphers, symbolic representations of the town’s uneasy relationship with modernity. If there wasn’t a debate over the bridge, the people of Bark Bay would have to find some other focus for their collective anxiety.

Coach Dan took the first right off the bridge, accelerated in the direction of the new bridge’s area. Land owned by the Hutchinson family, at least formerly. Carl Hutchinson – Annie’s father – insisted he had sold all that land to a developer, years ago. But rumor had it that Carl also planned to run against Stephens in next year’s election. Dan had never met Carl, knew of him only through Annie; she was evanescent and hard-working, respected and liked by everyone on the team. And she loved her parents. Seeking political office for personal gain seemed to Dan more Chicago than Bark Bay; could Carl Hutchinson really be so bold?

Five minutes and three stop signs later, he arrived at the Odyssey Condominiums, his home for the past four years. He pulled his five-year-old sedan into his reserved spot next to the middle building, “Odd B” as it was called. His was one of few single-resident units in the complex, and his living there for seven years was probably a record, his landlord had told him last month. Still have nice units at the new place. Other side of the river, closer to the school. And yes they were affordable, yes it would be convenient, but no thanks, he could not articulate exactly what but there was something about this complex, the Odd B in particular, that appealed to him. Unlike the young couples and upwardly mobile singles who were the primary demographic for the Odyssey, Coach Dan was not saving money for a home. He had found his comfort zone at the Odd B, had no intention of disrupting his routine.

Long sheets of plastic hung over the entrance, like unfurled sails on a still vessel; construction of a new, more secure entry door had begun last month, would be complete before the holidays. Dan swam his body through the plastic, unlocked and passed through the temporary door, the dust of wood and plaster filling his nose. He sneezed as he walked past the former location of the mailboxes, now just a shattered wall. Until the new mailroom was finished in October, the Odd B’s head custodian delivered mail to the units, sliding envelopes under doors as well as notices of packages, stored in the office.

Dan took the elevator to the third floor, turned right as soon as the doors opened, walked more purposefully than usual to his apartment door. He didn’t count the steps this time, but felt certain he had taken fewer than the usual 14 to B306. Late afternoon light slanted under the front door, except for a small patch of shadow in the middle. He thrust his key into the lock, turned and pushed the door to B306 open, and immediately looked down.

Three envelopes, just like the custodian’s text message had said. Each face down, none of them displaying the distinctive gloss of junk mail. He pounced down, deft fingers scooping up each envelope and turning them over as he stood, stepped forward, closed the door behind him without looking.

Yes, three pieces of personal mail. Two expected, the third unsurprising considering the source. Dan walked past the back of the couch that lay across the room at the front of his unit, then laid his briefcase atop one of the many loose piles of stacked papers on top of his dining table, the only piece of furniture that had stayed with him from his first apartment in Chicago, fifteen years ago.

Dan’s routine was to leave his mail unopened on the couch as he changed into his leisure clothes and prepared dinner, which he would eat while sorting through his mail and answering machine messages. But, three letters — he considered breaking with his routine, opening each of the letters now.

“Nah.” He tossed the letters on top of his briefcase. He would have more than enough time this evening, this weekend, to read through those letters. And decide upon his reply, because he knew without looking at their contents that each would require some response from him.