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-ty – darn – good 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.