King, the family’s large German Shepherd, bounced on front paws as large as a baseball catcher’s glove as Rex approached, the dog’s enormous neck straining against the chain that tethered it to the ground outside the trailer. Rex let King leap onto his chest, scratched his dirty head; glancing down at the empty aluminum bowl (licked clean, Rex suspected, from not being filled yet today), he petted the dog down. “Don’t worry, boy, I’ll feed you in a minute.” The teen then ascended the wooden stairs leading up to the trailer’s front door, taking the first step with his left foot; Rex lead with his right foot on all other stairs, but years of experience had conditioned him to begin entering his home on his off-foot, the better to avoid the right side of the third tread, loose and apparently impervious to repair. He opened the screen door, its upper section a void, and pushed through the weathered, scratched front door.
Reg, his older sister, was sitting at the green formica table in the space outside the bedrooms and bathroom, an area not separate enough from the food preparation appliances and utensils to be considered a dining room. She was eating from a plastic bowl with the orangey yellow stains of macaroni and cheese.
Rex pointed to the bowl, his mouth watering. “Hi. Save enough for me?” Reg nodded, swallowed, then gestured toward the back bedroom. “She didn’t have a good day.”
Rex nodded, took off his jacket, walked into the bedroom. The only light in the room was a nighlight low on the wall to the left. His mother was in bed, covers over her. Rex didn’t hear her breathe until he had leaned over her, but what he heard was labored, pained.
He was about to stand up, turn to leave, when her eyes suddenly snapped open, and she drew a deep shudder of a breath in, ending in a sob, her body tensing.
Rex (who had seen this reaction from her enough times to no longer be surprised by it) did not move, instead smiled, said hello. Her body relaxed, a weak smile seeping onto her face as she exhaled.
“Rex.” Her whisper a pained sigh. “When did you come back?”
She looked up at the ceiling a moment. “You – where did you go?”
“Fencing tournament, Mother.” Better to misrepresent than have to define a scrimmage for her. “At the Academy.”
She cleared her throat. “Do . . . you need a ride?”
“Double-J – John Johnston gave me a ride.”
“I . . . don’t have a car.”
Rex did not answer, choosing to let the topic expire, like a sunbeam disappearing behind a cloud.
“Wiil that . . . Hutch – inson girl be there?”
“Yes, Annie was there.” His mother smiled at Rex’s response.
“Her family . . . they have been . . . so good to us.”
“They have good hearts. Especially Annie.”
“Rex!” Her voice suddenly rising into a soft, sharp shout.
She hesitated, clearly uncomfortable with what she was about to say. “I’m . . . I’m . . .”
“Are you cold?”
She closed her eyes, sighed, moved her head up and down with just enough energy to indicate that Rex was correct.
“I can turn the furnace up –”
She shook her head forcefully. “We can’t . . . afford –”
“No – not the . . . furnace.”
Rex sighed. “I can get you the comforter.” She nodded weakly. He walked to the wall behind him, opened the closet door and retrieved a faded, torn comforter. By the time he returned to his mother, she was sleeping.
He placed the comforter over her, kissed her forehead, and walked back into the main room of the trailer. Reg was watching television with their younger sister, Renee; Rex sat on the couch between them.
Rex had minimal interest in the program, but he was too tired to raise an objection or suggest an alternative. He thought of reading, taking a book into the kids’ bedroom, but knew he lacked the energy to pay sufficient attention.
During a commercial, Reg turned to him. “Did you win today?”
“Tied for third, in foil. Epee’s next week.”
“Mr. Williams came by today.”
Rex turned to her quickly. “Mr. Williams? Here?”
Reg nodded. Rex rose, walked over to the television, turned it off, turned to his sister. “What did he want?”
She shrugged. “Nothing. Just wanted to talk to Momma. Wanted to look at our cupboard.” Renee remained still on the couch.
“And you let him?”
Reg nodded. “Refrigerator too.”
Rex closed his eyes, turned his head up at the ceiling, hands on his hips. “What we have for food is none of his business!”
“But he works for the state, isn’t he like a cop – ”
“Mr. Williams is NOT a cop, he does not have a BADGE, and he’s got NO BUSINESS snooping around in our cupboards!”
His sisters stared at him, unblinking. Rex sighed, relaxed his shoulders. “Sorry,” then leaned down to the television to restore its power.
They watched televsion for the next hour, not saying anything until Rex announced it was time for everyone to get to bed.
His two sisters went noiselessly to the smaller bedroom, followed by Rex. He helped them get undressed, got them into the bed that they shared, drew their covers over them.
Ref was practically asleep by the time he covered her. Renee, still very awake, looked up at him with a smile.
“Is Mr. Williams going to take us away?” Renee’s voice conveyed more curiosity than worry.
“No.” Rex shook his head aggressively. “Never.”
“When you grow up, are you going to try out for the Three Musketeers?”
Rex laughed. “The Three Musketeers aren’t real. It’s just a story. They’re not a team.”
“What team are you going to be on?”
Rex shook his head. “We don’t have . . . teams in fencing, really. Not like in baseball or basketball.”
“Aren’t you on the high school team?”
Rex paused. “We’re . . . a bunch of fencers. Not a team.”
He kissed her on the forehead, then rose and left the bedroom, turning out the light as he left.
He heard King whining, then the sound of his aluminum bowl being dragged across the frozen dirt. Cursing, Rex raced to the sink, grabbed the large bag of discount dog food from under the uncovered opening, raced outside and quickly spilled its contents onto the bowl, King nearly knocking him over as he began feeding. Rex remembered the last time Mr. Williams had visited them, over the summer, how he’d questioned whether the Ankiels should be providing for a pet. But there had already been so much taken away from his family; why, he wondered, did being poor mean you automatically lost the ability to make your own decisions?
Re-entering the trailer, Rex realized his body was more tired than his mind, but on this evening physical desires gave way to the intellect. He reached up to pull the chain that powered the light over the green table, when his eyes landed on a gray plastic bag. He had carried it in from Double-J’s car, had dropped it on the table when Reg told him about their mother, had let it leave his mind completely for the rest of the evening, until now. He reached down, parted the plastic opening, looked down on its contents.
The fencing shoes that Coach Dan had insisted he take seemed completely out of place within his family’s trailer. He remembered a discussion from last spring between Myles and Annie, regarding the cost of shoes and other fencing equipment; these shoes, he realized, were worth more money than was needed to feed his family for a week, perhaps two. I could seek them, he thought; nobody on the Bark Bay team were near his shoe size, but certainly someone from the Academy, or Midland, Woolford . . . But was that what he wanted? Shoes wouldn’t make him a better fencer, but they would reduce the wear on his sneakers — wearing these gifted shoes would save his family money, yes? He nodded, balled the plastic over the shoes again, reached up and pulled the light chain, darkness enveloping the trailer as he walked over to the main bedroom and opened the door gently.
There was just enough light from the nightlight to allow him to see his way around. His mother had not moved from the position where he had left her earlier that evening. He shut the door slowly behind him, walked over to the closet, and when his mother spoke he reacted without surprise.
“Have . . . you been home long?”
“I came back a few hours ago, Mother.” He put the bagged shoes on the highest of two shelves in the closet, where only he could reach, and made sure its contents were not visible.
“Did . . . what . . . ”
Rex began undressing as her voice trailed off. He had put on the t-shirt and shorts he wore for sleeping by the time she spoke again.
“When . . . is your fencing tournament?”
“It was today, Mother.”
“Do . . . you need a ride?”
“No, Mother. I’m fine. Please go back to sleep.”
She was silent. For a long moment. Then — “You are . . . such a good boy.”
Rex decided not to answer, trusting that remaining silent would help his mother sleep. A moment later, he heard her regular, soft breathing.
Rex lay next to his mother and stared at the ceiling, his mind still active. He thought about the conversations he had lately with his mother about the family sleeping arrangements. With no regular income, getting a bigger trailer was out of the question, and sharing a room with his sisters was potentially more uncomfortable than the current situation. Of course there was the option of putting Rex’s bed in the main room, in the place of the sofa, which had been the arrangement when they had first moved in, after his father had left.
But Rex was still very young then, the memory of Neb leaving too hurtful to him, and he complained about being alone at night. He found it comforting then to fall asleep in his mother’s bed, being wakened by her a few hours later and shuffling off to his bed in the main room. Then his mother’s sickness became more pronounced, and she would forget to wake him at night, until eventually his staying in his mother’s bed until morning became routine.
Rex closed his eyes, thought of the scrimmage that afternoon, how Francis Pine had goaded him into a position that neutralized his strength. When he thought of Francis, he was neither envious (as was Annie), disdainful (as was Double-J), or annoyed (as was Rune); instead he admired his opponent, admired him so much that he wanted to pay him the ultimate compliment, which was to commit himself to besting him, to acknowledge that he was an opponent worthy of challenge, skilled enough to inspire you to improve your own skill with the blade.
He was going to beat Francis Pine the next time they faced. And Francis would respond by committing to winning their next bout. And so on it would go, a back and forth battle which would make the two of them better.
Rex smiled, yawned, and turned to his mother, snoring silently next to him. Whispering “good night,” he turned and closed his eyes, as frost descended in the night sky.
End of “November”