Gray Metal Faces – October 14

“Whenever I see more talking than fencing, it’s time for practice to end.” Coach Dan walked over and placed his right hand gently on the Bird’s left shoulder. “Think we’re done for today.”

Myles turned to his former coach, looking perplexed and annoyed. He then glanced up at the large clock in the Bark Bay High School cafeteria. The thin red second hand ticked loudly as it moved from 3 to the next hash. “It’s 4:30, coach. Don’t you still have the cafeteria until 5?”

“Yeah, coach.” Butch spoke as if he believed Dan’s memory was faulty. “Didn’t we stay until 5 the last few weeks?”

Coach Dan held out his right hand, like a traffic cop commanding a vehicle to stop. “Yes, we usually stay until 5.” He turned to Myles, locking his gaze onto the young man’s eyes before continuing. “But today, I think we need to end now.”

The Bird said they needed to stay, that they should let happen what needed to happen. Myles pointed his foil in her direction. “What she said, I guess.”

Rex emerged from behind Coach Dan, his tall thin body seeming to suddenly fill the empty cafeteria. “Come on, Myles. You’ve beaten everyone here, there’s nothing left for you to prove.”

With eyes closed, Myles shifted his head left, then right. Not quick, not wide, but with just enough movement to signify his disagreement. He opened his eyes, darted his eyes to his right – finding Coach Dan (talking with Annie) with his gaze, he turned. “There’s one person I haven’t faced yet.”

“And when – ” Coach Dan stopped in mid-sentence. Blinked. Frowned, then after shifting to an accepting smile, turned towards Myles. “I don’t think – ”

“You were regional champion in foil for, what, northern Illinois?” Grinning, Myles walked in Coach Dan’s direction. “And had entered a few tournaments in college before your – ” his face dropping in comic hyperbolic sorrow – “poor, unfortunate accident.”

“Myles – ” Annie was stopped from speaking further by a quick hand signal from Coach Dan, now staring intently back at Myles.

The freshman student at State and former captain of Bark Bay High School’s fencing team turned slightly, placing his right foot forward, left foot perpendicular. Bent his knees, and extended his right arm forward, holding a foil that he now aimed towards Coach Dan’s head. “But that was – twenty years ago? I’ve seen you leading drills, coach, you never seem uncomfortable. So tell me – why is it that you don’t compete?”

Coach Dan voice was soft yet direct, a voice his team would hear during an unfocused practice session, a voice that said he was no longer asking for their cooperation, he was now telling them what they must do next. “Coaches shouldn’t compete against their team, Myles. I’ve seen it happen, seen how it disrupts, ruins the relationship.” He smiled, the edge in his tone disappearing. “Anyway, I’m not in high school anymore – ”

And neither am I!” Myles remained in en garde position, his smile venomous. “I’ve graduated, coach. Whoops, that’s right – you’re not my coach, no more. You’re just – ” Myles lowered his foil, straightened his knees, stared up thoughtfully as he came out of en garde. “Ah, yes.” He aimed his poisonous stare at Coach Dan. “You’re a middle-aged schoolteacher, from Chicago, who’s starting to feel uncomfortable in this sleepy little town of Bark Bay.”

Myles!

Myles’ face dropped into a scowl as he thrust his left arm in the direction of Annie. “Oh, I see it all the time, young professionals coming here. Doctors, lawyers, teachers – they get tired of city life. The stress, the congestion, the crime. They come here hoping to get away from it all, and at first it’s everything they were looking for. Quiet. Peaceful. Safe.”

Myles turned from Coach Dan, scanned the room and made eye contact with each current member of the Bark Bay High School fencing team as he spoke. “For some the romance ends the first time they order Chinese food.” A nervous laugh rippled through the cafeteria. “Others adjust, but after five years, maybe ten, they start getting – ” he turned back to Coach Dan – “restless.

“Tell me, coach.” Myles was crouched down into en garde position again, fencing mask removed but foil aimed in Coach Dan’s direction. “How goes your ongoing request to replace the team’s electronics?”

“Look around, Myles.” Coach Dan waved his right arm in front of him. “You don’t see any machines, any reels, lames even.” A scoring machine, two reels, and a handful of lames and wired weapons remain stored in the equipment room most practices.

Myles uttered a contemptuous short laugh. “You know, there was a time last year I actually thought old Stu Higgins would open up his budget for you.”

Coach Dan’s right hand transformed into a traffic cop’s, flat palm commanding Myles to stop. “We get by, Myles. Like we always have.”

“Of course, of course! Still, it must be difficult to face yet another year of being ignored, not having the equipment you need. Especially difficult because, back when I was on the team, we nearly came into our own? Stories in the paper, nearly two dozen team members, hosting our own tournament. But that’s all gone now, isn’t it? And you do know why, yes?”

For the first time that anyone on the Bark Bay High School fencing team could remember, their coach looked frustrated. “This isn’t – ”

“The problem, coach, is that you keep thinking of fencing as a team sport. You want the team to be successful, you’re always looking out for your team. But the reality is that all people care about is individuals, personalities. Back when I was around to be your golden boy, we had all the attention we needed. But now – ” he came out of his crouch, looked around quickly at the half-dozen team members – “sorry folks, but you really do look a bit sorry – ”

Give me a foil.” Coach Dan had thrust his right arm towards the team’s equipment bag, without taking his gaze off from Myles.

Myles smiled appreciatively, as Double-J called to Butch, who was closest to long canvas sack that contained the Bark Bay High School fencing team’s foils. “Give coach a foil.”

Butch bent over the sack, then stood upright, turning towards Coach Dan. “Which one?”

“Any one.” Coach Dan maintained his cold stare at Myles. “It doesn’t matter, just give me a foil.” Blades klacked as Butch searched, then came the sound of one rustling against the canvas as Butch retrieved it. Coach Dan turned, smiled at Butch as he accepted the foil.

“You’ll need this.” Annie stepped in front of Coach Dan, mask in hand. Behind her was Butch, carrying the thick black coaching jacket, worn and brown at the chest from hundreds of practice touches. Coach Dan took the mask from Annie, then pointed with his foil at the jacket. “I won’t need that.”

Annie and Rune looked back silently at their coach, their eyes widening. There were times he would conduct drills without his jacket, even times he would let himself be touched. But those were isolated incidents, occurring for the sake of convenience only, to complete an instruction (keep your arm out, turn the wrist, now extend – good – and lunge) without interruption. But this challenge from Myles was not one of those times.

Coach Dan smiled quickly. “It’s OK.” He turned towards Myles, with a determination that made unnecessary any request for Annie and Rune to clear the space between the coach and his former student.

“No jacket?” The tip of his foil pointed at Coach Dan, Myles tilted his head down, eyes staring out from behind a veil of eyebrows, and uttered a loud tsk-tsk. “Not being very safety conscious, are we? Not exactly your style.”

Coach Dan raised his foil, offered a perfunctory salute, quickly closed his mask over his head. Myles remained staring, his mask still at his feet. “No, not like you at all, coach. You seem threatened, like you need to prove something. Not your style at all. You usually try to be much more – avuncular, I think’s the word.”

Coach Dan crouched down into en garde position. The Bark Bay High School fencing team had seen him demonstrate this position before, but none of them had seen him display such coiled energy, such aggression. He was no longer interested in instruction. Coach Dan was now in position to compete, to fence against his former student.

Myles raised his foil in salute, grinning eagerly at Coach Dan. He completed the salute, then suddenly brightened in surprise. “A referee!” Myles turned to the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team. “Which one of you cares to direct our bout?”

Rex raised his hand, his tall thin body looking like a flagpole planted in the middle of the cafeteria floor. Coach Dan lifted his mask from the bib, exposing his face, uttered a quick thanks before swiping a salute in the tall teen’s direction. He then shoved the mask down, his face disappearing behind its gray metal, and turned to face Myles, also masked and ready.

Rex called for the two fencers to begin. For the members of last year’s Bark Bay High School fencing team, seeing Myles advance with his customary aggression evoked strong memories. For behind the gray metal of his mask, under the smooth white linen of his jacket, the teen holding the foil whose red rubber tip twirled in tight threatening circles – they all recognized their former captain, the elite athlete whose natural abilities made him a force in whatever sport he undertook (and there were few he had not as a student at Bark Bay), whose skill with the blade was the envy even among the more accomplished fencers at the Academy, whose work ethic and determination to win brought feelings of shame to all of his teammates, even Double-J (although he would not admit to that). Yes, the person advancing to the center of the strip, this was Myles, the Myles, their Myles, their leader and captain, who they had enjoyed watching defeat, most times with ease, opponents none of the other Bark Bay fencers could even hope to conquer. Seeing Myles about to attack had always brought them comfort in the past, knowing that even if they could not have success, Myles would succeed for them.

But his opponent for this bout was far different than any other opponent they had seen him face. For Myles’ opponent was not only their coach, but the only reason that Bark Bay High School had a fencing team in the first place. Daniel Jacobs – Mr. Jacobs, as he was called in his day job as the Honors English teacher – Coach Dan had formed the team on his own initiative four years ago, had kept it going through both bad times (the years before Myles) and good (those two years when not only captained the team, but drew both members and media attention through the strength of his all-sport celebrity). Myles may have been their leader for two years, but everybody knew that Coach Dan was their foundation. Myles’ graduation had been a blow, but should Coach Dan suddenly find he no longer had time to lead the team, or become fed up with the perennial lack of funding from the athletic department, or (as Myles had just suggested) finally tired of small town life in Bark Bay and took a job in a larger, more prosperous community . . . everybody knew there would be no fencing team at their school should any of those events occur.

So as Rex called for the two opponents to begin their bout, they felt torn between wanting to see Myles launch himself, demonstrate the awesome power and skill of his blade, and needing to see their coach, their rock, withstand yet another challenge.

Myles advanced swiftly towards the center of the makeshift strip, Coach Dan remaining in his position, balancing between the balls of his feet. “You sure you remember how to do this, coach?” Myles tone was friendly, but mocking. “How long has it been since you’ve competed?”

Crouched down in his en garde position, Coach Dan continued bouncing silently on his feet, the blank gray metal of his mask hovering silently behind his extended foil.

Myles shook his head, the shadow of a grin visible behind his mask. “You’re just letting me take the middle? Aren’t you still telling your students to be the aggressor, take the center whenever possible?” He turned slightly towards Rex, standing in the director’s position outside the center. “That is still his strategy, right?” The tall teen nodded. “So coach, you must want me to take the center. Is this part of today’s fencing lesson?”

Coach Dan gave no reply as he continued the back-and-forth bounce between front and back foot. Annie thought he looked like a robot toy, his movements steady and predictable.

“No answer?” Myles’ tone sharpened with impatience. “Well I guess there’s only one thing TO DO,” as the last two words spat out behind his metal mask Myles stepped forward quickly, right arm extended and aiming his foil at Coach Dan, the weight of his body thrown into a powerful lunge –

Coach Dan stepped back, turning his wrist over, his foil flexing swiftly to his left, blade singing as it parried Myles’ attack.

Myles stepped back with reflexes trained to anticipate his opponent’s riposte. Yet Coach Dan did not riposte, did not make any attacking motion at all. Instead he resumed his quiet defensive pose, bouncing lightly between the balls of his feet.

Myles stepped back, uncertainty wafting over him like an unexpected cold breeze in autumn. The observers understood his hesitation. Coach Dan had always told them to follow a successful parry with an immediate riposte, to take advantage of their opportunity, seize control of the action. Yet he’d followed his parry of Myles attack by stepping back, withdrawing from the action. Coach Dan appeared calm and controlled, bouncing lightly between the balls of his feet at his end of the makeshift strip, yet everyone in the cafeteria sensed that what had happened, and would continue to happen as this practice bout between coach and former student progressed, would be far different than anything they had seen in practice.

Exhaling a loud grunt, Myles advanced again, with less power and speed than his initial attack. He threatened four, disengaged to six, lunged – Coach Dan stepped back, caught Myles’ blade with a circular parry. No riposte. Myles recoiled, then immediately resumed his attack, threatening six and feinting a disengage before lunging – Coach Dan stepped back, parried. No riposte.

The bout continued for several minutes along the same pattern, Myles continuing to attack with increased determination, each attack parried deftly by Coach Dan, who made no riposte or attack of his own. Myles attacked Dan’s low line, parried as efficiently as the others; Myles stepped back, his shoulders drooping, noisily inhaling behind the grey metal of his mask, Coach Dan’s breathing barely audible as he continued bouncing between the balls of his feet.

Another lunge from Myles, another parry from Coach Dan. No riposte. Myles turned quickly to Rex, standing in the director’s position outside the makeshift strip, between the two fencers. Rex shook his head, uttered a brief “no touch.” Myles raised his left hand, asked for time; Rex glanced at Coach Dan, who nodded curtly.

Waving his left hand up in Rex’s direction, Myles crouched back down into en garde position, behind the starting line of the makeshift strip. His crouch was lower than before, the coiled energy in his bent knees charging the air around him. Across the strip, behind his starting line, crouched Coach Dan, resuming the soft bounce between back and front feet he had maintained since the beginning of the bout.

Rex, standing in the director’s position outside the center of the strip, with elbows tight on his sides extended his forearms, his left pointed towards his coach, his right towards the young man who last year had been his closest friend on the Bark Bay High School fencing team. Turning his head swiftly from right to left, he called for the opponents to be ready.

“What’s the score?” Myles flinched with disgust at Butch’s question. Rex answered without turning back. “There is no score.” Another quick flick of his head to left and right, then Rex commanded the two opponents to fence.

Myles quickly advanced two steps, and with a guttural roar lunged at Coach Dan, his back leg propelling the young man forward like a leaf blown by a sudden powerful gust of wind.

Coach Dan had already begun to step back as Myles projectiled towards him. The older man’s blade deflected Myles’ attack, but again, the riposte did not come. Myles stepped back, the gray metal of his fencing mask staring at his opponent, and exhaled loudly. “Will – you – FIGHT?”

“I am.” Coach Dan’s reply was as curt as his parries had been.

“RIPOSTE!” Myles slammed his front foot on the tiled floor of the Bark Bay High School cafeteria, the playfulness of his earlier taunts no longer present. “You parry, you riposte!”

Coach Dan stood upright, abruptly pushed his mask onto the top of his head, exposing his face. “Not always. Only riposte when the moment’s right.”

“And?” Spit flew from Myles’ masked face. “AND?” He threw his arms wide to his sides. “You haven’t attacked ONCE, haven’t riposted ONCE since we started. Why hasn’t the moment been right so far?”

Coach Dan smiled. “It’s all part of my strategy, my friend.” He pulled down the mask over his face, resumed his en garde crouch.

Myles did not wait for Rex to restart the bout, the teen charging at Coach Dan with an aggressive growl, his foil thrusting forward violently, only to be parried by his older opponent. No longer concerned about a possible riposte, Myles attacked again, followed this parry with another attack, and again, each attack seeming faster and more powerful than the one before, the sound of colliding metal sounding through the empty cafeteria like a printing press, hammering again and again . . .

And Myles stepped back, shoulders drooping, breath coming heavy from behind the gray metal of his fencing mask. He raised his head, looked across the makeshift strip at Coach Dan, who remained in his crouch, bouncing lightly between his feet, perhaps not with the same energy he had shown at the start of their bout, but still controlled, steady, ready for his opponent’s next move. Which was to raise his left hand, pointing the foil held in his right at the ground.

“You – you – ” Myles dropped his foil, which KANGed awkwardly on the tiled floor, then leaned forward, hands on knees. “OK. You win.”

Coach Dan was known for surprising his students, but what he did next amazed even Double-J, who had worked with him for four years. Coach Dan shook his head. “No. This bout isn’t over yet. You need to finish.”

Myles stood upright, laughing. “No –”

Finish.” The curt command wasn’t a shout – Coach Dan did not shout – but was uttered with the directness of an arresting officer.

Myles leaned forward more, now resting his forearms rather than hands on his knees, his masked head pointing straight down at the tiled floor of the Bark Bay High School cafeteria. He talked as if addressing someone standing behind him. His voice was soft.

“There’s . . . no point, coach. You . . . I can’t . . . are you trying to prove – ”

“I’m not trying to prove anything.” Although the bounce between his feet had dissipated into a gentle back-and-forth rocking, Coach Dan remained in his en garde crouch as he spoke. “I’m trying to win this bout, a bout that you requested.”

Myles continued to address the imaginary person crouching between his legs. “Then . . . then attack.”

“But that’s not my –”

YEAAAHHHR!” Myles stood up suddenly, brought his hands up to the sides of his head, tore off his fencing mask in one sudden, violent motion. His sweat-drenched face pained with hate, Myles held the mask over his head like a prehistoric caveman lifting a boulder, then swung his upper body down, arms following and continuing and releasing the mask, which clattered with a hollow metallic echo against the tiled floor, bouncing once, twice, then rolled gently along the convex oval of its front face.

The members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team stared in disbelief as Myles, their former captain, turned from the makeshift strip, took three steps, then fell on his knees to the floor, his chin dropping until it fell on his heaving chest.

“Call it.” Everyone in the room except Myles turned to the sound of Coach Dan’s voice. He was addressing Rex, who’d remained standing at the director’s position. Coach Dan pointed the tip of his foil at Rex. “Call it.”

Rex shook his head, pointed at Myles without looking at him. “Black – black card.” Later that evening, Rune will explain to Butch about the three levels of fencing infractions, how directors kept three cards with them, would show a yellow card to issue a warning, a red to penalize a touch against a fencer, and black for violations egregious enough to warrant immediate disqualification from a tournament. Yes, Rune will explain, poor sportsmanship could be grounds for a black card. No, he will explain, he had not seen a black card infraction prior to this afternoon.

Coach Dan leaned forward, pulled his fencing mask over the top of his head. His face was expressionless as he brought his legs together, turned in the direction of Myles (slumped with his knees on the floor outside their makeshift strip), raised his foil in salute, brought it swiftly down. His actions were stiff, performed with the enthusiasm of a waiting room patient filling out a medical form.

The large cafeteria was silent, save for the sound of Myles’ labored breathing, gradually subsiding like a steam engine powering down. Coach Dan caught Annie’s eyes, waved her over to him with a backwards nod of his bearded head. She hustled towards him, pony-tail dragging behind her head, as her coach extended his foil and mask in her direction. She took both, and turned towards the large canvas sacks that contained the equipment of the Bark Bay High School fencing team. Rune met her, waved the Bird and Butch over to join them.

Double-J walked behind Rex, clapped him on the right shoulder. The tall teen turned, saw his mustachioed friend jerk his thumb behind them, in the direction of the metal doors leading out of the cafeteria. Coach Dan called to them, asked them to wait a moment. He was about to give them information about the team’s upcoming practice at the Academy, when the sound of bitter laughter echoed jarringly through the large cafeteria.

Coach Dan turned at the sound, as did the members of the fencing team. They saw Myles, still slumped over, his body heaving with a sound filled with mixed emotions. Anger, sorrow, contempt, regret, pity, defiance – the range of emotions in his laugh fell on their ears like the taste of an over spiced soup.

Myles stopped laughing, sniffed loudly. His back still facing his former teammates, they watched him raise the back of his right hand to his nose, wipe dismissively. He inhaled, the mucus in his throat rattling noxiously. Pushing off the tiled cafeteria floor with his hands, he rose to his feet, and turned, the streams of tears on his cheeks glistening off the ceiling lights like war paint.

With swollen red eyes, Myles scanned the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team, who had instinctively gathered around Coach Dan as Myles approached. Their former captain – second in foil at last year’s state tournament, four-year starting quarterback, career assist leader on the basketball team, drafted but not signed by the Cincinnati Reds in the amateur baseball draft – and currently just another nameless college freshman at State, raised his right arm to chest level, and pointed an accusing finger at his former teammates.

Myles scoffed, turned, walked two steps, turned back, face redder than before. He pointed down at the floor “This place. How you train here, what you learn in this school, what you or your parents do in this damn town – ” his voice was now a barely audible whisper – “none of it’s going to do you any good. All you’re doing now is just hiding, deluding yourself that you’re going to be ready for what’s out there when you’re eighteen, and nobody’s legally obligated to take care of you anymore.”

“Myles.” Rex stepped forward, his long legs looping past Coach Dan, his lean right arm extended towards his former teammate. “It’s OK. We can help you.” Coach Dan came up beside him, nodded.

Myles stood upright, frowned as he took Rex’s hand. “Hmmm. Believe me, buddy, I’d like to believe you. Problem is, I know better, and enough to know that your offer is part of the problem.”

Myles raised his hands to his face, wiping the tear stains from his cheeks, then flicked his head towards Coach Dan. “Sorry, coach – ”

“Call me Dan. And call me tomorrow.”

Myles shut his eyes, nodded as a small grin seeped onto his face. He turned again, this time walking quickly, the metal doors of the cafeteria clanking loudly as he exited.

Coach Dan and the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team stood silently, staring at the metal exit doors of the cafeteria, as if they expected Myles to walk back through them again. A moment later, as the distant opening sound of the glass doors leading to the school parking lot made its way to them, Rex exhaled loudly.

“I guess this means,” Rune’s voice lilting comically, “that Myles won’t be joining us at the Academy on Saturday?” He looked around the room, his eyes wide with laughter, but was met with cold stares from everyone.

“Just wish the bastard wasn’t right.” Coach Dan turned quickly at Double-J’s comment, was met with a frowning response. “Well he is.”

Annie walked up quickly to Double-J, stared directly into his mustachioed face, her pony-tail straight back and stiff behind her head. “What’s he right about? Us being losers?” Rune walked up behind Annie, joined her defiant stare. “Yeah, what’s up with that?”

Double-J held up both palms, his mouth twitching into a mashup of a bemused smile and disgusted grimace. “Chill out, you two. The safety part, is what I meant.” He turned to Coach Dan. “I remember when you started this team, it was all about fencing. But now it’s turned into, I don’t know,” Double-J throwing his arms up into the air, “some kind of glee club.”

Coach Dan pursed his lips, nodded sideways. “Yes, just like a glee club. Except there’s no music, no performances, and the singers stab each other with weapons.”

His response generating the rippling giggles he had wanted, Coach Dan moved to a location that was as equidistant as he could be to the six members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team. He raised his voice, words echoing off the tiled floor and concrete walls of the cafeteria.

“Everyone has their own reasons for being on this team. Some of you are more competitive than others – ” he made quick eye contact with Double-J, then Rex, then Annie – “others, not so much. But I’ve never had try-outs, never cut anyone who wanted to be on the team. So long as you put in the work at practice, show you want to be here, there’s a place for you.

“Just like there was a place for Myles.” He quickly scanned the faces of the fencing team members, saw emotions ranging from disgust to shame. “I’ve never met an athlete like Myles, even when I was competing in college. He had God-given talent, a work ethic equal to none, and a consuming desire to win.”

He scanned the team’s faces again. They were getting uncomfortable. “And I failed him.” The faces turned back to him, eyes filled with questions.

Coach Dan looked down. “I saw his talent, and decided what he needed was to be pushed. That was foolish – Myles could push himself, he didn’t need me to motivate him. The only thing I did was to keep him focused entirely on himself, on what he could do. He was so popular here at school, he thought it was all about him. And I, foolishly, did nothing to help him think differently.”

The soft sound of a throat clearing interrupted. Coach Dan looked up, saw the Bird holding her hand in the air above her head. He nodded to her silently.

That’s not your fault, the slender girl said behind her straight black curtain of hair. When you fence, she continued, you’re always by yourself, alone on the strip. Maybe Myles was right to think it was all about him, because in fencing, it really is all about you.

Coach Dan raised his eyebrows quickly. “It’s easy to see it that way.” Then he smiled, the short dark curls of his beard seeming to grow as his face brightened. “But – no offense – it’s also short-sighted.”

He walked slowly among the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team, making eye contact with each as he passed them. “Every fencer has to be a bit selfish. Accomplishing something for yourself is what gives you that drive, that energy to succeed, to get better at the sport. But this sport is too difficult for anyone to succeed on their own. High schoolers, college fencers, people in clubs – doesn’t matter what level you’re at – even people at the national, international level – everyone meets some obstacle they can’t overcome, some skill they can’t master, some opponent they just can’t beat.”

Standing in front of Double-J, Coach Dan raised his right index finger in the air. “That’s when you need help. Whether it’s someone coaching you, working with you on a drill, helping you strategize, or even just giving you moral support. Without people around to aid you when you need it – no, you’re not going to succeed.”

He now walked into the center of the cafeteria, in full view of his students. “And the only way you can get that help, is to give it. To show by your actions, that you’re not just fencing for yourself – you’re fencing for your teammates, your family, your friends. And that, that is what I forgot to teach Myles when he was here.”

Coach Dan turned in the direction of the large analog clock, suspended over the metal-curtained half-doors leading to the kitchen.  “Ten to five.” The fencing team officially had the cafeteria until 5, but since the janitors wouldn’t be polishing the floors for another week, they could stay a good three-quarters to a full hour longer. Coach Dan turned back to his team. “Today was – unusual, to say the least. If you’ve all had enough, I understand.”

Rex stepped forward. “But we’ve got that tournament at the Academy Saturday.”

“It’s – ” Coach Dan stopped himself from stating that Saturday was just a practice. “Go on.”

Rex walked up to one of the lines between black and white tile on the cafeteria floor. “If it’s OK, with you, Coach – ” Rex brought his right foot forward, toe just behind the line, and crouched into en garde position – “I’d like to prepare more for Saturday.”

“Yes!” Annie followed her exclamation by rushing up to Rex’ line, her head turned and left hand waving to the rest of the team, her pony-tail swishing her back. “Let’s go, guys!”

Rune smiled meekly, joined the line next to Annie, followed by the Bird, then Butch. Coach Dan looked beyond the line, saw Double-J standing where he had been, arms folded across his chest, bemusement still animating his mustachioed face. Coach Dan raised his chin. “You want the big kids to make fun of you?” Double-J laughed, shook his head, lowered his arms and with mock enthusiasm, joined the line to Rex’ left.

“Very good.” Coach Dan got into position, facing the team a few paces in front of their line, and came down into en garde position. The short dark curls of his beard brightened as he smiled, took one step backward, and called for the team to advance.

Advance. Advance advance. Retreat, double retreat. Advance, extend, lunge – what goes FIRST?

End of “October”

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Gray Metal Faces – October 13

Myles’ teammates from last year gathered around him as Coach Dan called over the Bird and Butch, inquisitive looks on their faces. “The Wall starts with one person standing with their back to a wall. Everybody else forms a line in front of them, and takes turns fencing the person against the wall. Just one touch — soon as either the person against the wall or the person he faces scores, that person goes to the back of the line, and the next person goes up, fences to one touch. When the person against the wall’s faced everyone, somebody else goes to the wall, and you go through the line again.”

By the time Coach Dan had finished explaining the rules of the game to the Bird and Butch, Myles had already positioned himself with his back to the west wall of the cafeteria, facing a line headed by Rex. Myles pulled the fencing mask he had found down over his head. “Coach, I remember this damn thing from last year, thought you were going to throw it out?”

“You find a replacement for it, Myles, and I’ll go through with it.”

Myles chuckled, not caring to hide his disdain for Coach Dan’s response. “And this foil,” he continued, picking up the foil he had found and waving it in the air, his complaint now muffled from behind the grey metal of the mask. “Can’t you tighten this thing?” He pointed to the hilt, which made a large creaking sound as the blade wobbled wildly. “I mean, really.”

“You’re not looking to make excuses ahead of time, are you?” Rex’ tone was light, mocking but not challenging.

“On the contrary.” Myles’ tone indicated he had no interest in continuing to jest with Rex. “I just want everyone to know how inferior my equipment is, in order to make my coming victory all the more impressive.” Myles bent his knees, right foot extended forward and right arm holding his foil, its tip pointed directly at Rex.

“This one is for States,” Rex called, crouching down and advancing towards Myles. Rex lunged — the blades of the two teens clashed — HA! Myles exclaimed. The point of his foil dug into Rex’ right shoulder. “Rex, how many times do I have to tell you not to attack to six every time? You’re as predictable as ever. Anybody who’s faced you more than once knows to not go to the four parry, just wait for the disengage to six. I mean, really, Rex. Next!”

Rex turned, shaking his head as he walked back to the end of the line. Annie stepped forward, crouched into en garde position in front of Myles.

“Ah!” Myles exclamation jabbed at Annie. “The usurper!”

Annie tilted her head, her face questioning behind her gray metal mask. She heard Double-J grunt behind her as Myles continued. “Little girl, judging by the size of your feet, you’re going to need some newspaper to stuff the shoes you’re trying to fill.”

Annie shot back her reply. “Foot size doesn’t matter. It’s what you do with them that counts.”

Myles laughed, crouched down into en garde position. “We’re not in ballet class any more, little girl, and this isn’t Gandy’s gym.” He extended his foil at Annie. “Let’s see if you can dance your way past three feet of steel.”

Annie growled, launched herself at Myles. He deftly parried, his riposte fast and firm, and counter-parried by Annie. She attempted to riposte, but Myles swung his blade hard and to the right, overpowering Annie, who grunted in disgust as Myles forced the tip of his weapon onto Annie’s belly.

Annie stepped back, laughed, teased her response — “Bully!”

Myles nodded. “Every opponent’s a bully. They look for your weakness, then exploit it unmercifully. You’re fast, skilled, but there’s no meat on your upper body. If you want to survive in tournaments, start doing pushups. Next!”

Annie shrugged, turned and walk back to the end of line, giving way to Double-J. Myles faced him, raised his left hand in greeting. “And now it’s — ”

“Shut up,” Double-J following his curt command with a quick advance towards Myles.

Myles lunged at his opponent’s second step, Double-J recovering from the surprise move in time to parry, his riposte coming immediately and parried by Myles. The two teens drew their arms back, jabbed with their foils, both landing a touch on their opponent’s chest.

Double-J spoke in the voice of a man not willing to negotiate. “Second intention.”

Myles shook his head. “My counter-parry, I have right of way, my touch.”

Double-J swore loudly. “My blade never lost control of the action, it’s mine!”

Myles chuckled, a mocking smile visibly beaming behind his gray metal mask, but Coach Dan called before he could respond. “It’s a drill, my friends, not a debate. Move on to the next fencer, please.”

Double-J backed away towards the end of the line, not turning from Myles. “This isn’t over yet.”

Myles chuckled again. “John, I haven’t even gotten started yet. Trust me, you’ll know when I get going.”

Rune was next in line to face Myles in the drill. “Mind if I try something new?” When Myles shrugged his reply to Rune’s question, the younger teen extended his arm, charged forward quickly, the tip of his foil aimed at Myles’ chest. Myles parried the blow easily, waited for Rune to nearly reach him, then jabbed with his foil, the tip landing on Rune’s back.

After stopping his run, Rune turned to Myles. But Myles was already looking at Butch, next in line. “Fleche attacks look cool, but you shouldn’t try them unless you know what you’re doing.” Myles talked as if Rune wasn’t in the room.

“On the contrary!” Coach Dan’s booming voice echoed off the cafeteria walls and tiled floor. “The whole point of practice is to experiment, find things that work for you. Rune,” his eyes now directed at the teen’s gray metal mask, “good for you.”

Already near the end of the line, Rune stood silent a moment. Then, turning back to Myles, he pumped his fist into the air and bellowed with comic enthusiasm. YEAH! Laughter broke among the line of fencers, the amused absurdity of Rune’s reaction even penetrating the gruff visage of Double-J, who laughed with the detached reserve of a man allowing himself to be pleased while watching his son’s cartoons.

The shadow of a smile could even be seen through the metal of Myles’ mask. “How droll, Hugh. Now why don’t you get back to the end of the line, and let me see how good coach’s new recruits are.”

Butch walked forward from the line. Stopped, then raised his foil, the tip pointed above Myles’ head. Myles responded with a laugh that carried no humor. “It’s a drill, dude. You don’t salute for a drill.”

“Oh! Sorry.” Butch sounded genuinely embarrassed and apologetic. “I just started last month — ”

“I gathered that.” Myles came out of his crouch, turned his head until the face of his gray metal mask pointed in the direction of Coach Dan. “But I am surprised that you put a foil in his hand so soon, coach.”

Coach Dan raised his eyebrows, his chin lifting seemingly in response. “This isn’t Europe, my friend. You know as well as I do, you put a group of American teens in a room full of weapons, there’s no way they’re going to just practice footwork for a year. Tournaments no, but practice — I seem to recall you picking up a blade that day you wandered in here from basketball practice.”

“True.” Myles took off his mask, sought Coach Dan’s gaze with his eyes. “But let’s just say that was — different.”

Annie shot her reply before Coach Dan could speak — “Is that because you’re freaking Myles?”

Myles turned towards her, grinned brashly. “Well, since you seem so insistent — no, not because I am who I am. It’s because I was — ” he turned quickly to Butch — “sorry to be blunt — ” now turning back to Annie — “back then, I was in shape.”

Butch looked reflexively down at his rotund body, his embarrassment grown deeper.

“I wouldn’t brag about your conditioning, pal.” Double-J had removed his mask, stepped forward from the line to face Myles. “You’re sucking some serious wind.”

Myles closed his mouth, which had been opened like a bellows. He inhaled deeply through his nose, then let out an appreciative sigh. “That’s better.” He turned to Butch. “I didn’t intend to slight you, I was just making an observation. I’m sorry if you got offended.” He slipped his fencing mask over his head, pointed his foil at Butch, nodded at him to advance.

Butch advanced a step, the tip of his right foot stubbing against the tiled floor, sending him forward awkwardly. Myles watched him, silent, still. Butch regained his footing, crouched down into en garde position (Annie noting quietly that his feet, arms, torso, all were out of position), sighed heavily as he faced Myles. Who had not moved throughout Butch’s stumbling.

The end came quickly, Butch lunging awkwardly only to be parried deftly, Myles’ riposte landing swiftly. Myles turned to the next person in line, ignoring Butch as if he were a fly he had just shooshed away from his meal.

Butch walked back to the end of the line, leaving Kassie at the front of the line. But instead” of advancing she stood, arms straight down her sides, her fencing mask dropping from her head as if it were about to fall off.

“You’re next.” Myles statement was as much a command as a statement of fact. The Bird took a step back, almost backing into Annie, who put a gentle hand on the slender girl’s back.

Myles lowered his arms, tilted his head playfully. “Oh puh-leeze. You’re not supposed to retreat, it’s against the rules!”

The Bird replied that she didn’t know what to do.

Myles swept his foil in front of him, swoosh. “You’re supposed to fence, darling. That is why you’re here, isn’t it.”

The Bird shook her head.

“What?” Myles’ voice cracked through the air, Annie recognizing the tone from last year. Myles had a term, a combination of disgust and confusion, he called it confustion. His voice was filled with confustion as he spoke to the Bird. “So why are you here, darling? Looking for a date?”

Annie stepped forward. “Myles — ”

He swept his arms open. “I’m available, you know.”

Coach Dan stepped forward, but the Bird replied before her coach could speak. She said he couldn’t find what it was he was looking for, not here.

Every member of the Bark Bay High School fencing team turned to the Bird, their eyes filled with questions.

“Really now?” Myles’ confusion grew along with his volume. “And what is it, exactly, that I’m looking for?”

The person you used to be, she replied.

Time seemed to stop in the cafeteria, as the gray metal of Myles’ fencing mask peered into the Bird. The sound of footsteps in the hall could be heard.

Myles crouched down into en garde position. He waved the Bird forward. “Let’s just do this, OK?”

“Hold on, my friend.” Coach Dan stepped between the Bird and Myles.

Gray Metal Faces – October 12

The fifth Tuesday

Advance, advance — lift the feet, don’t drag. Advance, retreat, an attack to your four, now a disengage to six — don’t throw your parries, use just enough force to deflect the blade. Riposte, extend, lunge — WHAT GOES FIRST? Get that hand out before the feet start moving!

Annie was already in the cafeteria when Butch arrived at practice. Foil in hand, she appeared to be attacking the wall to the immediate left of the double-door entrance, her brown pony-tail flying behind her with each attack.

“Hey.” Annie stood, feet coming together and her upper body relaxing, pointing with her foil at the area she had been attacking. Using gray duct tape at the borders, she had mounted a laminated white poster, a couple feet square, with a series of concentric, dashed circles, a red dot the size of a golf ball at the center. “Point control.” She resumed her en garde crouch, her eyes focused on the homemade target; extending her arm, she pushed from her back leg, body propelling forward, the blue plastic tip of her foil landing within the bull’s-eye, the blade bending upward in a tight parabola.

The metal doors opened again, Coach Dan and Rune arriving, the team’s remaining equipment sacks over their shoulders. By the time Butch had helped with the unpacking, Rex had arrived as well, along with the frail girl from the week before; she looked at Butch behind a curtain of black hair.

He hadn’t been introduced to her last Tuesday. “My name’s Butch.” He grew uncomfortable as the silent eyes behind the curtain continued staring back at him. He wanted to ask her name, but found himself asking a different question — “Do you have a name?”

“Call her the Bird.” As usual, Double-J’s voice seemed to arrive before his body; the frail girl’s head twitched quickly in its direction. “See?”

Coach Dan’s voice rose above the murmur of several simultaneous conversations, ordering the team to line up.  But before he could begin the team’s first drill of the afternoon, the metal cafeteria doors opened with a loud KA-KLACK.

Coach Dan was the only person who recognized the young man who walked abruptly into the room, his arms extended wide and towards the ceiling, eyes beaming and smile glistening but both nearly hidden under a thick, bushy, uneven beard. When Coach Dan called out to him, “Myles!”, he noticed Annie’s eyes widen, her head jerking forward and mouth open in disbelief.

Myles lowered his arms, clapped twice quickly, loudly. “And how does BB High’s fencing team look this year?” He stopped several feet before the line of fencers, everyone still staring at him in surprise. “Rex, Double-J — ” he nodded firmly as he called out each boys’ name, then smirked — “Annie.” He pointed to the boy on her right. “What was it, Rube?”

Rune.

“Yes yes, Rune. Real name’s Hugh, isn’t it?” Rune rolled his eyes, as a nervous giggle percolated through the team. Myles looked quickly at the Bird, Butch. “Roped in a couple freshman, I see.” Butch opened his mouth, but Myles addressed him before he could speak. “Not sure if you remember who I am.”

Butch’s eyes widened. “You — you used to be Myles, right?”

Myles laughed, shot a quick glance over at Coach Dan. “I’m glad to see this one at least pays attention to you!” He turned back to Butch. “And let me assure you that I am still Myles. Just not the clean-cut Myles you remember as your quarterback, point guard, starting pitcher — and captain of this motley crew of fencers the past two years.” Myles looked back at Coach Dan. “Your team knows how to take a joke, right? That I use the term motley as one of endearment, right?”

Coach Dan blinked, nodded. He did not often respond silently like this, and the team knew him well enough to recognize that it meant something was wrong.

Annie stepped forward from the line. “It’s great to see you, Myles.”

Myles responded in a way which suggested he hadn’t really heard what Annie had just said. “I’m home, for a few days. Helping out my old man. Had some free time, and had a feeling Tuesday afternoon was still the time for fencing practice.”

Annie bounced on her heels, her pony-tail prancing behind her head. “So you’re here to show us what you’ve learned from The Rat?” Mikhail Ratzenbaum was the fencing coach at State.

Myles walked past Annie, towards Double-J. “Haven’t spoken to Ratface since September. Taking a break from fencing, so I can focus on other things.”

“Did you make the football team?” Butch’s question was tinged with anticipation, but not for the quick, icy stare from Myles, who followed instantly with a hyperbolic smile. “Redshirt. Not playing this year. They’re saving me up for next year. But you — ” Myles thrust his right hand in Double-J’s direction — “beaten Francis Pine yet?”

Double-J looked down at Myles’ extended hand. The burly teen then looked back at Myles’ face without moving. “Haven’t competed yet. Think we’re going to the Academy in a couple weeks.”

Coach Dan called from behind the line of fencers. “They invited us for a practice, before the first tournament. I’m hoping we can put in a good showing.”

“The Academy’s tough, real tough.” Myles walked into an open area of the cafeteria, his voice echoing slightly in the large empty room as he spoke. “You sure you’re team’s ready, Coach?”

Coach Dan smiled. “Tell you what. Why don’t you practice with us this afternoon, and find out?”

Annie spoke before Myles began shaking his head. “Come on, Miiiiiiiles. You know you waaaaaaant to.”

Rex stepped forward, grinning. “I still owe you from States last spring.”

Myles opened his mouth to speak, only to be pre-empted by Coach Dan. “You’re outnumbered, my friend. I don’t think you’re going to be able to leave this room without putting on a jacket.”

The reluctance that frosted Myles’ countenance thawed, giving way to a gregarious open-mouthed smile. Even under the cover of his thick unkempt beard, his face bore the confidence that in the previous four years had beamed far beyond the walls of the high school, had shone brightly over the town of Bark Bay, its luminance extending to the region, the state. For this was the bold face of Myles Glossurio, the multi-sport star athlete and honors student of Bark Bay High School, the same Myles who in his junior year had made the surprise announcement that he was taking up fencing — fencing? — yes, fencing, an obscure club sport started the year before by the CP English teacher. Few students, mostly those curious to discover what that metallic sound coming from the cafeteria after school on Tuesday was all about, had even known that the school had a fencing club, but within a year Myles’ magnetic personality, as well as his considerable athletic skill, had brought attention to the sport that Coach Dan, that odd CP English teacher, had hardly imagined. Myles had been only the fifth team member, but by year’s end the team had doubled in size, and at the time of his graduation last spring Coach Dan had a large enough team (two dozen! Larger even than the Academy’s team!) to justify having the team bussed to the regional and State tournaments.

Yes, Myles had indeed returned, in both body and spirit. Coach Dan allowed his concern over the team’s future to give way to the excitement his team showed as they gathered around Myles as he took off his jacket.

In response to Rex’s question, Myles said no, he didn’t have his fencing equipment with him. Annie broke from the circle around Myles, her movements as swift as a messenger delivering a word from on high. She knelt down next to the large olive sack that contained the team’s fencing jackets, began sifting through its contents.

Myles lifted his head, chin pointing in Double-J’s direction. “What’ll it be? Foil, epee, sabre? It’s been a while, like I said, but I think I remember the differences.”

Double-J snorted. “I don’t do foil no more. And don’t even talk to me about epee.”

“Ha!” Annie turned quickly at the sound of Myles’ exclamation, a jacket in her hands. Myles shook his head. “Good to see you haven’t changed, Double-J.”

The Bird said she thought they should do foil. Myles turned to her — “why’s that?” — then turned to Annie, studied the jacket she had found. The Bird continued, explained that he’d admitted not fencing in a while, and that foil was the weapon you use when you’re learning.

Myles turned back towards her, his body suddenly tensing. Annie looked up at him in surprise. Myles narrowed his eyes. “Who — are you, again?”

Annie shook the jacket that she held along with Myles, hoping he would respond to the tug. “She didn’t mean — ”

Myles released the jacket, turned fully towards the frail girl, who stepped back as he approached. “If I’ve forgotten half of what I used to know about this sport, that would still be more than twice what you’ll ever learn.”

Coach Dan intercepted Myles’ advance, placed a cautious hand in front of the teen’s chest. “She was just repeating something I’d told her last week, when she asked about epee. No need to take offense, my friend.”

Myles flicked his head quickly. Made eye contact with Coach Dan. Smiled. “Take offense? How silly would that be. How about, want to fence instead?”

Coach Dan pursed his lips. “Sounds like a good idea to me.”

“YES!” Myles turned quickly towards the team, his arms thrusting wildly into the air. “Let’s all fence today.” He walked briskly to Annie, snatched the jacket from her hands.

Myles lifted his right leg, thrust it through the fencing uniform’s crotch strap, lifted the uniform and plunged his right arm through the sleeve. He turned his face towards Coach Dan. “No room in the athletic budget for new equipment?”

“Not even for new used equipment, my friend.” He motioned for the team to reform the line on the floor they had made earlier. “Barely have enough to send the unis out for laundry every month.”

Myles lifted his right sleeve to his nose, sniffed twice loudly. He grimaced. “Eeeew. Who’s dried sweat is this?”

Rex’s voice boomed dramatically across the empty cafeteria. “What you smell is the sweet odor of my toil.” He stared at Myles, mock challenge on his face.

Myles put his left arm through the sleeve, motioned for Annie to fasten the zipper that ran down the center of the jacket’s backside. “You all really should get your own jackets. Having the zipper on the front makes all the difference in the world.”

Annie ran the zipper up to the back of Myles’ neck, fastened the Velcro attached to the collar. “Jackets are expensive. Most of us can’t afford it.”

Myles turned to her. “Most. An appropriate choice of words, coming from one who’s family is certainly an exception. Yet I don’t see you with your own equipment.”

Annie shrugged. “I might get my own. Haven’t decided yet.”

A broad, mischievous grin snaked across Myles’ lips. “Or is it really your decision? I remember your parents expressing concerns about your being on this team.”

“Don’t — ”

LINE UP!” Coach Dan followed his command with two loud claps of his hands.

“Drills?” The sound of Myles’ mocking question bounced off the cafeteria walls, as the former captain of the Bark Bay High School fencing team searched through the large canvas sack that contained the team’s oval metal masks. “I’m going to go out on a limb, coach, and say the team’s just about sick of drills by now.”

Nobody agreed, verbally or non-verbally, with the statement. Yet everyone’s face conveyed a sense of expectancy that hadn’t been present earlier.

Coach Dan decided not to buck the tide that Myles had rolled into the team’s practice. “What would you suggest?”

“Games!” Mask in his left hand, foil in his right, Myles followed his shout by walking swiftly into the center of the cafeteria. “You guys done the Wall yet?”

Annie groaned, turned away, but wasn’t able to hide the smile from her face. Rex’s lean body seemed to grow even taller. “The Wall!” he yelled, pointing to the far wall. Rune came up behind him, nodding his head aggressively.

Waving in the direction that Rex had pointed, Coach Dan smiled behind the thin black curls of his beard. “The Wall it is.”

Gray Metal Faces – October 11

The fourth Tuesday

Billy (rarely called Butch at home, never during family prayers) lifted his head, neck vertebrae straightening until his face was level with his father’s, the minister and his son both kneeling on the stained and frayed carpet of the Goodman family’s living room.

“Father — it’s OK if I pray for the fencing team, isn’t it?”

Cyrus Goodman, minister of the First Baptist Church of Bark Bay, seemed to have been expecting his son’s question. His right hand remained clasped around his left wrist, knuckles raised barely above the carpet. “Surely you know, William, that the Lord commands us to pray for all souls.”

“Oh!” But before Butch could utter the words that were now forming in his mind, his mother, kneeling to his right (the youngest of the eight Goodman children being the only one of their youth at home this evening), raised her head, arms falling from the steeple she’d held at heart level to her side, her countenance politely commanding her son to be silent.

“What burden are you bearing for your friends?”

His mother’s questions brought a flood of memories to Billy’s mind. The events of today’s practice came first, the hurried explanation of epee fencing from Rex (Butch liked the fact he could score by hitting any part of his opponent’s body, as well as the absence of the right-of-way rules he had found so confusing in foil and sabre), being introduced to Micky and Little Paul, and then the sudden appearance of that girl, Annie saw the frail girl standing among the vertically stacked benches and tables like a nymph lurking in the woods, Annie and Micky coaxing her to join them in the cavernous space of the empty cafeteria — You want to fence, right? they’d asked her, receiving only reluctant nods in response, Coach Dan finally coming over and nearly pulling her away from the forest of furniture, a smile appearing on her face at last at his reassuring words, Nobody here has an agenda, my friend.

But it wasn’t those fresh memories that had prompted Billy’s question. The motivation had come from the entirety of his experience over the last several Tuesday afternoons. He scratched the short crop of hair on top of his tow head. “Everybody’s real nice.” Even Double-J, in his caustic way, seemed to invite his teammates to share in his negativity. “I just — don’t understand them.” His eyes widened as his gaze addressed his mother. “That’s what I want to pray for, Mother. I want to know how I should pray for them.” He glanced back to his father, hoping to find an approving look, discovering instead a smile that was unmistakably patronizing.

“Our prayers should not be offered to benefit our selves, or our friends, William. We pray in order to understand God’s will. Prayer is about listening to our Lord, more so than it is about our talking.” Cyrus licked his dry lips. “Do you understand?”

“I — ” Billy instinctively knew that uttering the word in his mind, guess, would lead to a conversation with steadily increasing levels of frustration — “yes, Father.” Billy closed his eyes, his fat fingers meeting in a ball at the front of his chin, knowing in that instant his answer would only come on some future Tuesday afternoon.

Gray Metal Faces – October 10

The third Tuesday

Rain began to fall heavier under twilight skies made darker by a blanket of gray clouds. Focused on the road in front of him, Butch jumped reflexively as the car swung quickly in front of him, the vehicle’s tires squishing into the road’s gravelly soft shoulder.

Through the rain and dusk, Butch saw the car’s brake lights illuminate. He could not make out the license plate, but was sure he recognized the car’s shape — it was a coupe, the one that always sped through the Bark Bay High School parking lot immediately after the last bell for the day rang, sometimes sooner.

There was barely enough light for Butch to see the driver’s window roll down, followed by a head, covered with thin wires of long black hair, from which a voice commanded through the falling rain — “Get in.”

Now certain who was driving, Butch jogged up to the driver’s door, his feet splashig in shallow puddles, looked into the car and confirmed it was — him, the senior on the fencing team that greeted him that night two weeks ago, the team’s first practice of the year.

Butch stopped beside the door. The driver looked up at him, his long black moustache bristling with impatience. “Passenger side, dude. I’m not getting up to let you in.”

“You’re the — you were at fencing the other night.” Butch shuddered involuntarily in the cold rain.

The driver smiled, his eyes revealing that the warmth of his expression was to be temporary. “That’s right, from fencing.” He nodded in the direction of the passenger side. “I’ll give you a ride home, get in.”

“You’re, what was it, Mister — ”

The driver’s response dripped with annoyance. “Dude, I’m not a mister anything. Call me Double-J.”

“Oh! That’s right. Well thank you Mister Double-J — ”

Double-J rolled his eyes, threw his head back. “Holy Christ.”

“Sorry. Double-J — I just live up the street here, it’s only about a mile, I don’t need a ride.” Butch turned his head, sneezed, excused himself.

“Let’s review.” Double-J sighed resignedly as he looked up at Butch. “You’re walking on the side of a road with no sidewalk or lights. It’s dark, raining, and cold. You said your house is what, about a mile away?” Butch nodded, wiping his nose. “Well if you don’t mind my making an observation, you seem a little out of shape, so it seems to me you’re not going to jog.”

“I don’t like running.”

Double-J raised his eyebrows. “Well it’s good to know we have something in common. Now, consider this — as you probably noticed from the other day, I’m pretty opinionated, and outspoken.”

Butch sniffed. “Uh-huh.”

“You probably also noticed that our fencing team, or club or whatever the hell it is we’re calling it — there’s not many of us, here at the Double-B HS.”

Butch paused, stared down thoughtfully through the open car window at Double-J. “Bark Bay High School?”

“Hmmm. You see, being such a small group, we have to be careful about who we let in — seems to me, we can’t let any damned fool join the team, disrupt our chemistry, don’t you agree?”

Butch looked down thoughtfully again. “I — guess.”

“Right. And it seems to me, only a damned fool would walk another twenty minutes or so in the cold dark rain when he could ride in a warm car.” Double-J swung his right arm in the direction of the passenger seat next to him. “So — are you ready to get in already?”

The rain began to fall harder, thick drops pounding metallically on the roof of Double-J’s car, the road’s pavement erupting in splatters, shallow pools of brown water forming in the dirt and crumbled asphalt of the road’s soft shoulder.

Butch cleared his throat, and smiled with confidence as he looked down at Double-J. “I don’t want any fools on the fencing team either.”

“That’s reassuring.”

“And I know how foolish it might seem to turn down an offer for a ride, and continue walking in this rain.”

“You look cold.”

“I am cold. But I also know that some people would also consider it foolish to accept a ride from a stranger.”

Double-J looked up at Butch, and blinked.

Butch sneezed, rubbed his nose, continued. “Foolish to accept a ride from someone without knowing if he’s trustworthy. Without knowing if he’s really doing you a favor, or has some hidden agenda.”

Double-J smiled. “Parry-riposte. Touch right.”

“Like I said, I know some people would consider me foolish if I accepted a ride under those conditions. And like you just told me — you don’t want any fools on the fencing team.”

Double-J nodded, approvingly. “Your name’s Butch, right?” Butch nodded. “Butch — you’re cold and wet. If you get sick, you’ll miss fencing practice, and with you just starting out, seems to me you can’t afford to miss any practices. Given that, I’m no longer asking — I’m telling you, ordering you, to walk over to the passenger side of this car, open the door, and get in.”

Butch nodded. “Thank you,” he said, walking around the front of Double-J’s car, his feet squishing into the wet dirt of the soft shoulder.

Butch opened the passenger door, bent forward and peered into the coupe. He had seen the interior behind Double-J’s head, but found his perception as a potential passenger had been altered now that he was fully authorized to enter the vehicle.

The interior of Double-J’s car was the most unusual thing Butch had ever seen. It was dark, there was no dome light, the dull illumination from the dashboard meters and gauges filling the front with a greenish-yellow haze. He saw brown leather, lots of it, on the seats, the inside of the door he had opened, the steering wheel — none of it ripped or stained or worn, no defect visible. The stereo was loud (Butch had seen Double-J turn the volume down just before opening his door), a rock song that Butch couldn’t exactly recognize (he had heard it before, launched from student car radios in the school parking lot over the past few years) rattling through the car, Butch feeling the notes from the bass line vibrating in the door that his hand was grasping.

He knew instantly that this was not like any of the cars his family had owned, or any other car he had ever ridden in.  His father leased from the dealership, a bright new sedan every two years, always clean, efficient, quiet. There was also the pickup, always the pickup, older even than Butch, kept out in the backyard most of the time, its lower half habitually splashed with mud, the body riddled with dents and rust holes, but always dependable, never failing to start, never failing to go anywhere, haul anything, perform whatever function was required of it. And there was his uncle’s Cadillac, brutally comfortable, Butch always feeling uneasy when riding in it, as if he were wearing jeans and a t-shirt to a funeral. No, Double-J’s car was much different than anything his parents, his grandparents, his uncles, his neighbors, had owned — Butch knew instantly that this car was not designed for efficiency, for work, for comfort, but rather for the pleasure of driving.

“Cool.” Butch threw his backpack onto the floor and climbed into the passenger seat.

Double-J pulled out onto the road before asking Butch where he lived.

“Smith Street. It’s like, two or three stoplights, on the right.”

“I know where Smith Street is.” He noticed Butch was looking around the interior of his car with wide-eyed appreciation, like a child on an amusement ride. “Seems to me, that’s two miles from here.”

“Oh! No, it’s only like a mile.” Butch’s voice sounded confident.

“Hmmm. You walk home from school a lot?”

“Sometimes, only when — ”

“How long does it take?”

Double-J could feel the confusion running through Butch’s mind. “Aw — about half, three-quarters of an hour, I think.”

The car stopped at a stoplight, the first they had come to since Butch had entered. “You mean to tell me you think it takes you almost 45 minutes to walk one mile?”

“Oh! Well I am pretty slow, on account of me being out of shape. My mom keeps telling me I need to lose some weight — ”

“The average human being walks at a speed of 2 to 3 miles per hour.” The stoplight turned green, and Double-J accelerated the coupe through the intersection. “If you’re making it to Smith Street in 45 minutes, seems to me you’re actually doing pretty well.”

“But — Smith Street’s only a mile away.”

It’s — two!” Double-J pounded the steering wheel twice, accentuating each word. “Two miles!”

“Are you sure?”

“What? You think — hold on.” Double-J turned suddenly into a parking lot that had come up to their right. Nearly abandoned, the parking lot allowed the coupe to turn fully, back onto the road they had been travelling, in the opposite direction.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m going to prove to you that it’s two miles from the school to Smith Street.” The stoplight they had just passed was now signaling yellow. Double-J accelerated, zipped through the intersection as the light turned red. “When we get back there, I want you to read my odometer. You can even write it down, if you want, I got some paper and a pen in the glove compartment.”

They reached the Bark Bay High School campus. Double-J pulled up to the closest entrance doors. After confirming that this was where Butch exited to begin his walks home, Double-J asked Butch to read his odometer.

“Seven, eight, two, oh, seven, point, three. You’ve driven 78 thousand miles with this car?”

“I’d have to have been driving since I was ten — which I was, just not legally. No, bought it used, two years ago.” Double-J accelerated the coupe out of the school parking lot. “So how old’s the car?” He scratched his chin. “Ten years.”

“That’s how old my dad’s car is!” Double-J had trouble comprehending the excitement in Butch’s voice. “But it doesn’t look like this, yours is in a lot better shape.”

“Thanks. I work on it myself, at the shop I work at.”

“You’ve got a job?”

“Yeah. Gotta do something valuable with my time.”

“But don’t you go to school too?”

Double-J turned quickly to Butch, flashing the most sardonic smile he could muster. “Like I said — gotta do something valuable with my time.”

“Oh.” The engine hummed as the car sped past the first stoplight. “Oh. I get it. I know what you mean. My dad, he keeps telling me I need to get my grades up, but between you and me, I don’t get it.”

“What’s your dad’s name?” There were several Goodman families in Bark Bay.

“Josh. Joshua Goodman.”

Double-J leaned forward, his eyes wide in surprise yet still focused on the headlight-splashed road in front of his car. “Reverend Goodman?”

“Yessir. First Baptist Church.”

The coupe stopped at the second stoplight. Double-J turned to his right, towards Butch in the passenger seat.

“So what’s the preacher’s son doing on the fencing team?”

Butch shrugged. “I dunno. Fencing, I guess.”

“Hmmm. Thought you Christians weren’t into games.”

“It’s not a game, it’s a sport.” Butch glanced quickly out the front of the car. “Light’s green.”

I don’t give a — ” Double-J stopped himself, looked quickly back, lowered his voice. “There’s nobody behind us. Look, I meant what I said just now, I don’t want anyone disrupting this team. We’ve worked too hard — ”

“Youth Group. Summer camp.”

“Yeah. That’s right.”

“The bonfire?”

“You remember me now.”

“You didn’t have a moustache back then.”

“And you weren’t so — you were a lot — thinner. Sorry.”

Headlights from a car approaching from the rear shown into the coupe. Double-J turned forward, accelerated through the intersection.

They did not speak as they passed the third stoplight, approached Smith Street. Double-J turned right, into the street, as Butch leaned forward and to his left, his head grazing Double-J’s shoulder.

“What — ”

“Nine, point, one.” Butch sat upright, turned to Double-J. “One point eight miles. You were right, almost two.”

“Which house — ”

“Third, on the left.”

Double-J gazed quickly up to his left, scanned the mailboxes, 18, 22, 30. There were interior lights illuminated at 30 Smith Street. No exterior lights, the garage door was closed, nobody outside. Double-J relaxed.

“Thank you for the ride, mis — Double-J.”

“You know, that’s like the fourth time you thanked me.”

The coupe turned into the driveway. No exterior lights coming on, no door opening.

Butch opened the passenger door, swung his left foot out — stopped, turned back to Double-J. “I know my father’s probably not your favorite person in the world.” Double-J shrugged. House doors remained shut. “My friend, Rune, he’s on the fencing team?”

“Yeah, I know Banks.”

“He and I, we’re best friends, since we was kids. Last year he told me all these stories, about how much fun he was having on the fencing team. The way he talked about fencing wasn’t like how he talked about anything else — I’d never seen him so — I guess the word I’m looking for is, comfortable.”

“Huh.”

Butch looked squarely into Double-J’s eyes. “So I wanted to give it a try. And tonight, at practice — that was hard, all that footwork that Coach Dan had us doing, adjusting my legs and my arm and telling me about balance –”

“It’ll get easier.”

Butch laughed. “I hope so. And I hope — that the two of us can find some way to get along. Because I can tell you’re a good fencer, and I can learn a lot from you.”

Double-J examined Butch in silence, the younger teen’s right leg still hanging outside the open passenger door. He remembered seeing Butch, at that summer camp — hadn’t known him by name, but knew he was Rev. Goodman’s son. He knew Butch wasn’t involved in the bonfire incident, and while he doubted this boy, now seated in the passenger seat of his car, could have been the snitch, he couldn’t rule it out either. Double-J had grown bored of the camp, but being sent home, expelled, banished? He hadn’t left on his own terms, and knowing that the young boy sitting across from him could have played a role in his public embarrassment . . .

“See you next Tuesday.”

“What happens next Tuesday?” Butch looked genuinely confused.

Double-J blinked. “Fencing. Remember, Coach Dan said we practice every Tuesday.”

“Oh! Today’s Tuesday?” Double-J closed his eyes, nodded. “Huh. Feels like Wednesday. Doesn’t it feel like Wednesday to you?”

“Good night, Butch.” He hadn’t been checking the exterior lights or doors — no changes.

“Oh. Yeah. Thanks for the ride.” Butch rolled out of Double-J’s car, turned and leaned in. “When’s the next practice?”

“Tuesday.”

“Next Tuesday?”

“And the one after that.”

“Oh. OK. Thanks for the ride!” Butch stood upright, stepped back, closed the passenger door.

Double-J looked behind him, put the coupe into reverse, quickly backed out of the driveway. He looked again back to the house — Butch had opened the garage door, was waving at Double-J, mouthing the words thank you — then felt his foot slam onto the accelerator, propelling the vehicle and he away.

Gray Metal Faces – October 9

“Not another SABRIST?” The youthful voice seemed to rouse Juan from his dour cynicism, as he frowned playfully at the source behind Butch’s left.

“Our new friend wants to learn about the other weapons. But don’t worry, I’ll let you show him epee.”

“That’s only cuz you don’t LIKE epee, isn’t it?” The girl striding jauntily across the cafeteria floor had arrived at practice after Butch, and his first thought upon seeing her now was to wonder if she was really a high school student. Short and petite, with soft round cheeks unblemished by any creases or skin imperfections. But the hair, flowing from her scalp in long curls of auburn, seemed to capture then amplify the dull light of the overhead fluorescents, and her eyes smiled with a brilliance that made her unsmiling face seem pleasant and inviting still. He nearly blinked as her gaze landed upon him.

“The name’s OK.” She stopped a pace before Butch, extended her hand. “Aurora O’Kelly, if you MUST know.” What seemed like the scent of a summer wind rose into Butch’s nostrils as he shook her hand. She pointed to Butch’s right — “I believe Juan’s ready to show you sabre.”

“Oh!” Butch turned, saw Juan standing on a nearby rectangle of white, his mask perched on top of his head, a sabre in his hand, point hovering just above the floor in front of him. Butch walked over to the rectangle, examining this new weapon Juan had just given him.

It was unmistakably different from the foils he had used in his two practices with the fencing team. The blade was not flat and uniformly round, but curved with an edge. Even more noticeably different was the handle — the shallow metal cup that protected the hand on the foil was replaced with a crescent-shaped shield, larger than the foil’s cup at the blade and then narrowing to a thin barrier that connected to the base of the pommel.

This weapon not only looked but felt much different to Butch than the foils he had been using; the sabre seemed designed for slashing, rather than the thrusting motions he had so far found so awkward.  He held the weapon up to Juan like he was presenting the result of a science experiment. “It looks like something a pirate would use!”

“Don’t let Annie hear you say that.” Juan raised his sabre in a line above Butch’s head, then slashed down, pulling his mask down over his face with his left hand. “The scoring’s different in sabre — ” he held his weapon forward, ran his left hand down across the blade — “you score touches with any part of the blade, not just the tip.”

“Oh!”

OK stepped forward, caught Butch’s attention. “And you can hit anywhere from the waist — ” she held her hands, palms up, at her hips — “all the way up to the head.” She raised her hands up to her calm wide eyes.

“Arms too?” The arms being excluded from the target area in foil had been a big disappointment for Butch. He was delighted when both Juan and OK nodded.

“Awesome!” Butch stared down at the sabre’s blade, his eyes focusing on the light it reflected from overhead, seeing in that flash the potential for future adventures.

Gray Metal Faces – October 8

The second Tuesday

Advance. Advance. Double-advance, retreat. Small steps, not so big. Advance, retreat — lift those feet, don’t drag them —  advance, lunge — ARM FIRST!

“Juan.” The stocky teen pulling the fencing jacket onto his arms seemed to fully anticipate the confused look on Butch’s face. “Joo-Won, actually.”

“Oh!” Butch had stopped pulling on his own jacket, gave no indication that Juan’s explanation provided any more clarity. “So JOO-WON — ” Butch enunciated the syllables slowly, ju – wan — “is what they call you in  Korea?”

“Never been there.” Juan looked around quickly, saw that he and Butch were the only team members near the equipment sacks; Annie and Rune had started a practice bout, while Coach Dan was reviewing the details of the en garde stance with OK. “I was born in California, just after my parents emigrated but before we moved to Bark Bay.” Juan resumed putting on his gear with greater alacrity, like he was late for an appointment.

“Oh! So — how did you get a Mexican name?”

Juan grunted. “Didn’t have a choice, really. One of my first teachers, can’t remember who — she asked what my name was, and when I told her Joo-Won, she was like, Oh, Juan.” He uttered the last two words with a hideously exaggerated smile. “Tried to correct her, but she didn’t seem to care. And the other kids, they were like, hey Juan, that’s cool. After a while, I gave up tying to correct people.” Juan turned his back, Butch recognizing the signal to fasten the zipper that ran up the rear of the jacket.

“But we’re not kids no more.” Butch finished with the zipper, turned his back for Juan to fasten his. “We know better. We can call you Joo-Won, if you want.”

The zipper fastened, Juan slapping Butch on the shoulder. “If it makes you feel better, go for it.” Butch turned, saw to his disappointment no hint of appreciation, no indication of a bond between them. “But I’ve learned that it’s not with the effort, fighting people’s ignorance. I’m gonna be Juan for as long as I live in Bark Bay — and I’ve learned not to give a damn about it.” He reached down into the long narrow duffel that contained the team’s weapons.

“So — ” Butch shook his head — “when people call you Juan, it doesn’t bother you?”

Juan stood up, and, for the first time Butch could remember that afternoon — smiled. “Only when people ask me about it.” He handed Butch a weapon with his right hand, holding another in his left.

 

Gray Metal Faces – October 7

Hold the foil with the fingers, not your whole hand — it’s a weapon, not a baseball bat. Using the fingers helps you hit with the tip instead of the blade. Make your parries with the wrist rather than the arm, lead with the point and your blade will form a wall, a shield your opponent can’t get through.

Late afternoon sun reflected off the cafeteria floor as the Bark Bay High School fencing team’s first practice of the year came to an end. As Dan had assured Butch, he had his choice of rides home — he could ride in the coach’s sedan along with Rex (both lived on the other side of the East River from Butch’s home, but Dan showed no concern for the distance), or catch a ride with either Annie or Rune, both of whose parents would soon be arriving in the school parking lot.

The decision came easily for Butch. Because not only was Rune’s home closest to his, their friendship had played a large role in convincing him to join the team.

The outside air was still warm as the bottom curve of the sun dipped beneath the hills on the west bank of the East River. Jackets that had felt necessary in that morning’s chill were draped over arms and shoulders as Butch stood with Annie and Rune on the raised sidewalk outside the cafeteria.

Annie called to Dan, waiting in his sedan with the window rolled down. “You can get going if you want.”

Dan stroked the short curls of his black beard, flecked with gray. “You know I don’t — ”

Clarion horn announcing its arrival, the white Cadillac pulled into the parking lot, the car’s lights flashing at the moment they illuminated Annie. She raised her hand, waved, then turned to Rune as the Cadillac pulled up to the sidewalk.

“See you tomorrow?” Her right hand touched Rune’s left elbow; Butch thought he saw his friend’s body stiffen.

“I dunno.” Rune’s shoulders relaxed, a smile appearing on his greasy face. “I guess, yeah.”

Annie’s brown pony-tail seemed to prance behind her head as she took a half step towards Rune, and for a moment Butch expected her to throw her arms around his friend. Then she seemed to stop herself, backed away, opened the back door of the white Cadillac and, after a quick wave, slid into the interior of the massive vehicle.

The Cadillac doughnutted the parking lot, loose gravel spitting from its rear wheels, then exited. Butch shook his head. “Didn’t know they made cars that big.”

Rune shrugged. “You spend time with Annie and her family, you’ll see a lot of things you don’t see much around here.”

“So, do you — ”

“There she is!” Rune seemed overly relieved at the sight of his mother’s minivan, like a homesick boy being picked up from a negligent aunt’s house.

Dan’s sedan reversed into the parking lot as Rune pulled the minivan’s rear door handle, tugged the sliding door to the right. Over the years of their friendship, from their first meeting at the YMCA day camp their eighth summer, Butch had become accustomed to his friend’s mercurial moods, soaring balloons of happiness punctured by sudden bouts of sullenness, but in this moment he felt a wall rising, as black as the bituminous under their feet.

“Well hello!” The unmistakably cheerful voice of Jenna Banks sang from the driver’s seat. “How was practice?” Rune muttered inaudibly as he climbed into the van, moving to the far side.

“Hey Mrs. Banks!” Butch remained standing outside the van. “Could you give me a ride home?”

“Indeed!” She reached back, her hand falling short of the seat behind her. “Just — toss my bag, into the back.”

“Oh!” The maroon duffel felt heavier than it looked, though Butch still had no trouble moving it behind the seat. “What’s in here?”

“Some workout clothes. Just came from the gym.”

Butch lowered his body into the bucket seat. “You do gymnastics?” He looked over his right shoulder for a seat belt.

“Oh heavens no, indeed!” The van turned right, reversed, pulled forward toward the lot’s exit, the taillights of Dan’s sedan speeding away. “Riverside started an aerobics class last month, it’s really fun!” The profile of Jenna’s broad grin beamed back at Butch, who continued his seatbelt search.

“Mom’s always been into fitness.” Rune’s voice regaining its vigor. “How was class today?”

“Good!” Professor Jenna Banks was in her ninth year at State. “It’s on the door Butch, a little behind you.”

“Oh!” He grabbed for the seatbelt, which slipped out of his hands twice before he could secure it.

Jenna glanced up at the rearview mirror, caught Butch’s reflection. “I was so glad when Hugh told me you were going to be on the fencing team.”

“Rune.” Butch pointed to his friend. “We call him Rune now, Mrs. Banks.”

“It’s OK.” Rune smiled playfully. “Moms are exempt from using nicknames. Mrs. Goodman, she still calls you Billy, right?”

“Oh! That’s right.” Butch waved his right hand over his short crop of flaxen hair. “But I can still call you Rune, right?”

A right hand held into the air. “Always, buddy.” Butch slapped the hand, remembering the notebooks his friend had shown him back in junior high, the cryptic words in letters stretched over multiple lines on the sheet, like funhouse-mirror distortions of written language. They’re runes, his friend had explained, and within a few days as he showed the notebook with increasing pride to his small circle of friends, a name had been bestowed upon him, to his evident delight.

“You still have that notebook?” Butch pointed to Rune’s backpack, laying on the floor of the minivan in front of him. “The one with them runes?”

Rune frowned, shaking his head. “Stopped doing that, last year. Gets old, after a while.”

“Oh.” Butch bit his lower lip, as Jenna asked how he’d enjoyed fencing practice. “It was — good, I guess. Wasn’t what I expected. I mean, I didn’t actually use any swords, except the one time Rex showed me how to hold it, and that was only for a minute.”

“Weapons, Butch.” Rune sounded as if he were consciously imitating Coach Dan’s tone. “They’re called weapons, not swords. And yeah, I dunno but it seems, coach likes to emphasize other things, like footwork and balance, before he lets you start using them.”

“Oh.” The van stopped at a traffic signal. “Well anyway, I certainly liked it better than the other sports I’ve tried.”

Rune’s laugh was cold, humorless. “You’re not going to bring up Little League, are you?” It wasn’t until his second year that Butch figured out that throwing the ball too hard was not his teammates’ problem, but his own.

“Or junior high basketball, either.” Both of them had felt real good about making the team, even knowing it was a no-cut sport. During the first practice Butch felt like he knew what he was doing, but then after sitting the first two games the coach put Rune and him in five minutes into the third game, and upon hearing the referee’s whistle to resume playing Butch had forgotten everything learned in practice. It was by everyone’s account a disaster, and he’d felt relieved when the coach took me out.

“That’s what’s so different about fencing.” Rune know seemed more animated than his mother. “It’s the first sport I’ve tried where I’ve had any success. My parents, especially mom — ” his head twitched toward the driver’s seat — “have always wanted us kids involved in some sport, any sport. They gave me a break my freshman year in high school so I could concentrate on my classes, and around the time they started talking about cross country. Then all of a sudden Myles, superstar Myles, he took up fencing, which had just started at the school. The Bark Bay Beacon did a story about him and his new activity, and when I mentioned that it sounded interesting to me to my parents, they encouraged me to check it out.

“What I didn’t tell them at the time — hope you’re not to disappointed, mom — was that I chose fencing because it seemed like the easiest sport. My experiments with basketball and baseball had failed miserably, I had no interest in the brutality of football —

“No argument here.” Jenna lifted her right thumb upwards as she continued driving.

” — and I knew the track and cross country teams ran outside, and I didn’t want any part of THAT in the winter. I really had no idea what training was involved in fencing, but I did know the bouts lasted only a few minutes, which seemed a lot more desirable than the endless running in basketball or soccer.

“The day after getting their permission to ask about fencing, I went into Coach Dan’s classroom before lunch. I had taken his English class freshman year, and really enjoyed him. Hello Rune, he had this big grin on his face, like he knew the reason I’d come in to see him. I then asked him, is there any running in fencing?, and he said, Well you can run if you want, but since the strip’s only about 60 feet long you’re not going to get very far. I told him that I meant training, and he said he needed me to be in shape, so yeah, he was going to ask his team to run a little. And when I asked him if it was inside or outside running, he frowned and told me to show up to practice next Tuesday.”

“Didn’t you compete in a tournament last spring?” Jenna looking at her son’s reflection in the rearview. “Tell Butch about that experience.”

Rune brushed greasy hair off his forehead. “I dunno. It was fun, I guess. I mean, I didn’t get into fencing to kick butt — I fence because I enjoy it. Competition is a part of fencing, and most of the time I enjoy winning more than losing, but I guess it’s the stuff that goes on before and after the bout that I enjoy more than anything else. Hanging out with the team, rooting them on, finding out what fencers from other schools are up to. When I fence, I want to enjoy myself — focusing on the outcome ruins the fun. I just want to be myself, not something somebody thinks I should be.”

“Didn’t you say you won some bouts at that tournament?” More certainty than usual in Butch’s voice.

Rune held up his index finger. “Just one. Lost about a half-dozen others, my indicator was so bad I didn’t make the cuts for the DEs.” His voice became as dark as the creeping dusk outside. “I hate losing, and can’t figure out why I keep losing. Coach keeps telling me to stick with practice and training, the results will come. But it’s been almost a year, haven’t even won a practice bout. I don’t understand, I was doing so well at that tournament, thought I should be challenging for a medal by now. But that’s all changed, and I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong.”

He leaned back in his seat, head tilted back. “Honestly, there’s times I dunno if I’m cut out for this sport. Thought this would be different than the others I tried — baseball, basketball — but it’s turning out to be more of the same, just with different equipment.”

“Oh.” Jenna had pulled the minivan into the driveway of the Goodman’s home, but Butch did not want Rune’s words to be the last he heard before leaving. “Well, Mr. Jacobs is a really good coach, I’m sure he’ll be able to help you get better.”

Rune exhaled sharply through his nose, “Guess we’ll find out, if either of us is up for the task.”

After an appreciative goodbye to both Rune and Mrs. Banks, Butch was inside his home. The first floor was quiet, his mother routinely napping at this time, father not home yet, siblings in their rooms; the television in the living room would not, by family rule, be turned on for another two hours. Butch took off his jacket, removed his shoes, then began to wash pots and pans, the first of his many chores that evening.

 

 

Gray Metal Faces – October 6

“Oh!” The pleasant befuddlement that seemed permanently fixed on Butch’s face was replaced with the beginnings of understanding. “You must — really like this sport.”

Rex crossed his arms at the wrist, level with the waist, his foil’s blade extending down past his left foot. “Yeah. I enjoy fencing because of the culture. I enjoy the fact that my rivals are also my friends, that those I compete against want to see me succeed almost as much as they want to defeat me. There is a chivalry, a nobility among fencers that you just don’t see anywhere else.” Annie and Rune were standing next to Butch, the three of them looking up at the tall, slender teen who seemed as comfortable as a museum curator displaying a treasured holding. “We all want to win, want to advance as far as we can in this sport, but fencing’s about more than winning, or competing. Fencing — is about how you live your life.”

A loud noise; the four teens looked over at the source. At the far end of the cafeteria, Double-J walked away from Coach Dan, arms raised above his head, hung low and jerking quickly side to side as if he was trying to dismiss an unpleasant odor. A moment later his body slammed into one of the twin metal doors that lead out of the cafeteria; locked, it refused to give way, Double-J kicking at it angrily, SHIT!, before slamming his body into the other door, which opened quickly KA-KLAK and slammed KA-TASH into the narrow wall behind it, the echoes of Double-J’s profane growling audible until the door finally closed, kl-ik.

“Well then!” The three remaining teens had not noticed Coach Dan’s sneaker-soft arrival until his booming voice commanded their attention. “Rex, get the team lined up. Time for some more footwork.”

Advance. Advance advance. Retreat. Double advance. Retreat. Extend, lunge. Recover. Advance. Retreat. Double retreat. Advance. Extend, lunge. If this were Europe, you wouldn’t even touch a weapon until you did twelve months of footwork.

“Butch, hold on.” Annie walked toward the rotund teen, wearing the white fencing jacket (stained with irregular gray streaks of old perspiration) he had just tugged onto his body. She commanded Butch to lift his right arm, then reached to his armpit, poked two fingers through a large hole.

“Good eye, Annie.” Coach Dan waved towards the large khaki sacks that contained the team’s equipment. “Butch, that jacket’s not safe, go put a different one on.”

“Aw man.” Butch sounded genuinely disappointed. “This is the only one that fits me good.”

“Well.” Rune laughed at Annie’s correction, the two then making eye contact; Butch saw in their mutual glare an appreciation for each other he recognized in the way his second oldest brother, Nathaniel, would often look at his fiancé, Jen.

Coach Dan shook his head. “Sorry, safety first. There’s a couple other extra larges in there.” He walked in the direction of the sacks, taking Butch lightly by the arm.

“Think we can get this one repaired?” Butch sounded to Coach Dan like a toddler asking a parent to buy an ice cream to replace the one he had just dropped.

“I’ll see if I have time one evening this week.” They had reached the sacks, Coach Dan searching through the one containing the team’s jackets. “Can’t send it out for mending. No room in the budget.”

Annie was now beside them, as Butch began taking off his torn jacket. “Shame. Would be nice to get some respect.”

“It’s not about respect, my friend, it’s about money.” Coach Dan’s voice was cool, analytical. “Economy’s weak, school budget’s tight. Everybody’s feeling the pinch. Heck, I’m glad we still have money to send our equipment out for laundry once a month.”

“Huh.” Butch sounded impressed. “I guess we should count our roses.”

Coach Dan and Annie turned toward Butch with confused expressions. Butch stooped down, retrieved a new jacket from the sack, stood and looked quickly back and forth between them. “You know — stop, and count the roses.”

Annie shook the confusion from her face. “Smell. Smell the roses.”

“Or count your blessings.” Coach Dan hoped Butch would recognize the finality in his voice.

Butch nodded, as he put his right leg through the jacket’s crotch strap. “Exactly. It’s a finger of speech. It means that when you start thinking the world’s so bad, you have to stop and count the roses.”

“You mean smell them,” Annie insisted.

“Of course.” Butch now sounded almost offended. “But how can you smell your roses unless you count them first?”

 

 

 

 

Gray Metal Faces – October 5

In the next rectangle over, Annie and Rune finished their bout. Butch watched as they saluted each other, came together at the center of the rectangle, and shook hands. There was a look of satisfaction in Rune’s face which Butch had never seen before, like his friend was sharing a secret with Annie, a silent communication which no one, not even Butch, was supposed to observe.

“How’s it going over there?” Annie’s eyes bright with excitement.

“Oh!” Butch lifted the mask off his face, reversing the motion Rex had shown him earlier. “It’s going well. There’s a lot to learn, though.” His vision caught the image of Coach Dan and Double-J continuing their conversation in the far corner of the cafeteria.

“We’re all learning something new about this sport.” Rex’s voice muffled behind his mask. “I’ve been doing this four years, and I still feel like I don’t know anything.”

“Oh! You started as a freshman?”

Rex lifted the mask, letting it rest on top of his head. His beaming face showed his delight in the opportunity to tell a favorite story. “It was three years ago – there was a flyer on the bulletin boad in the cafeteria line, big one, bright colors on a black background – had a large picture of an mustachioed actor thrusting a rapier at the camera. I heard someone behind me ask who that was, and I said that was Errol Flynn, in “Robin Hood,” thought everyone knew that. So I looked at the flyer, saw it was a notice of the fencing club, and I was stunned. Fencing? Here, at this school? You’re joking, right?

“You see, I had always been fascinated by fencing. Robin Hood was my earliest memory — Robin and the Sheriff dueling in the castle, their long shadows dancing on the castle walls behind them — then there was Zorro, Three Musketeers, Cyrano — these were my superheroes, because while they were all legends, they could still all be real. But, of course, only real in a world far different than this one.

“But now — a fencing team, at Bark Bay? Was this real? I went to my first practice fully expecting to be disappointed. I remember not talking to anyone, hanging out by myself in the remotest part of the gym, not wanting to be recognized, because this didn’t seem real, I didn’t want to be disappointed. Coach Dan finally saw me, invited me to suit up, and at first I said no but he wouldn’t let me walk away without at least trying. The first time I lifted a foil, nothing felt so right in my hands. It felt like my hand was made to lift that weapon.”