Gray Metal Faces – March 10

Guy salutes again, a silly ritual before the last touch but guess I gotta return it. “Pret — allez.” No tricks this time, get the center and attack, EEEP EEEP. “Together. Pret — allez.” Quicker this time, EEEP EEEP. “Together. Pret — ” could go all day like this, need to break his tempo — “allez.” Take the center but don’t attack, set up the parry, no he ain’t biting. Flinch to the head, still don’t — he’s moving, dammit he’s got me backing up, here’s the head cut parry-five, now the line change to four, drop the blade, catch it, riposte EEEP EEEP. We both gawk at the ref, know this call will decide it, matter of which struck first, his attack or my parry. “Attack right — ” yes? — “is parried — ” throw my arms up YES, other guy’s protesting but there’s no way this is getting reversed, walk back to my starting line and take off my mask.

At least she didn’t ask him to stay (another benefit of her mother’s imminent arrival). Double-J twisted the ignition of his coupe, shifted into reverse, glanced up occasionally at the rearview mirror as the coupe backed out of the gravel driveway, the two-story gray house with the high arches in front shrinking away.

As the rear tires found pavement on the county road, he turned the vehicle sharply left, and in looking up at the rearview caught a glimpse of light from a second-story window, surrounding a silhouette of head and shoulders. The Bird’s room, yes from what he remembered of the twists and turns inside. And it had to be her silhouette, of course. Watching him leave?

Double-J shook his head. He hadn’t liked her lack of experience, but had found her nervousness more arousing than he’d expected, perhaps because it was clear that she wasn’t afraid, in spite of her uncertainty. The mess — always the worst part with virgies (he’d helped her put the sheets in the wash, rinsing the stains as best they could first) — but her kisses had been warm and eager on his body. And she’d made no attempt to make him stay just a minute longer, hadn’t asked when they could be together again, hadn’t demanded he call. She had satisfied her need, much as he had satisfied his; had it been her, rather than him, who had been the true manipulator of this entire evening? The possibility actually pleased him.

The coupe coursed through Bark Bay once again, as Double-J made his way back to the Embassy. Yeah, there was always a chance that The Bird could change, attempt to latch onto him like a leech, just as this town tried to suck the life out of its youth, or the team, the damn fencing team, tried to suck the individuality out of its members. “Let ’em try,” he said to nobody. For Double-J knew his destiny would soon take him far from his latest conquest, far from the fencing team, far from this miserable, doomed town.

He’s pissed, can see that in his face when he takes off his mask. And he should be, losing after being up 4-2. We salute, shake hands — “nice bout” — but in his eyes I can see that he’s eager for the next opportunity to trade steel with me.

[End of “Gray Metal Faces – March”]

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Gray Metal Faces – March 6.5

[As the conclusion to this chapter revision approached, I decided there needed to be an additional scene. This takes place between March 6C and March 7A; material from March 6A has been cut and added to this new scene.]

“A — halt.” Guy jumped the start, ref’s giving him a warning, not sure why he didn’t issue a yellow. “Pret — ” guy’s holding himself back, might be able to use it against him — “allez.” Take the center, he’s backing up, this one’s mine, small quick steps, wait for him to open — he flinches, I go, miss DAMMIT, hit on the backswing, EEEP EEEP, “halt.” All up to the ref, could go either way, he doesn’t look certain. Shakes his head, “attack no, counter no, the remises are together, no touch.” Got lucky there. 

Double-J smiled, nodded down at the first flanneled man, slowly getting to his feet. “You and your friend, best be getting outta here.” The newcomer picked up his companion and carried him away, Double-J standing over the man in the pickup as he watched the two men get into a green hatchback.

As the car drove out of the parking lot, Double-J got down to one knee, and glared down at the pickup man, who no longer had any fight left in him. The teen spoke with quiet anger, the man replying with short, shame-filled nods. Double-J then stood, and walked briskly back to his coupe.

The Bird heard him cursing under his breath as he opened the door and got into the driver’s seat. She asked what he’d said to the pickup man before leaving him alone on the pavement, and Double-J snorted. “Told him if he ever drew that shotgun he had in his front seat on me, I’d break both his arms.”

A week from Thursday

Double-J was exiting a pharmacy when he saw Butch walking in to the store three doors down the strip mall. He could not remember the last time he had been in Page Turners, and he was not sure why talking to Butch was suddenly so important enough to warrant this diversionary trip, but Double-J always enjoyed following his instincts.

He decided to follow the overweight junior with the short crop of tow, curious to see Butch’s literary destination. The aisle furthest to the left of Page Turners contained rows of newspapers and magazines; Butch walked past the News, Travel, Music, and Politics sections, finally stopping at the far corner stand: Comics.

Stopping at a comfortable distance, Double-J raised his chin. “Thought you usually came here with your buddy, Banks.”

Butch didn’t jump, but his face had its typically surprised expression. “Oh! You mean, Rune?”

Double-J frowned, as he recalled the memory of his roadside encounter with Hugh Banks. “Is it me, or has that guy gotten even more flaky lately?”

Butch stared back blankly, and for a moment Double-J thought he would have to define flaky in order to get a response. But then — “I don’t know what’s going on with him.” Butch’s voice was unusually cold. “He hasn’t been to practice, doesn’t wanna read comic books no more, won’t even talk to me, or Annie, or anyone.”

Double-J waved his right hand. “Nothing new there. Teen angst.”

Butch bit his lower lip, his eyes narrowing. “What did he ask?”

From experience, Double-J knew that if this conversation didn’t move forward, it would quickly get mired in a place he didn’t want to be stuck. “Didn’t see your family’s truck outside.” It had been in Lefty’s shop last week, and he had repaired the heat shield on the exhaust.

“Oh! I got a ride here from Mrs. Everett, and my mom, she won’t be here for another hour.”

“Ah.” Double-J pointed at the rack of comics. “Really going to take you that long to make your selections?” Butch replied that it wouldn’t, and after receiving Double-J’s promise to get them to the Baptist church before her mother left, and making a quick purchase of four Marvel comics, he left Page Turners with Double-J.

They had just exited the strip mall’s parking lot in the coupe, when Double-J, struck by an impulse he could not resist even if he had wanted, said that he was not actually certain Butch had a mother.

“Oh! Well, she’s dead.”

The coupe momentarily swerved over the center line. “You mind telling me who the hell’s over at your church?”

“Oh! Sorry, that’s my stepmother. My mom, she died, when I was a baby.”

“Ah.” Double-J made a silent promise to himself to not act on any more impulses on this trip.

“My dad, he married Faith after mom died. Faith, she’s my mom. Well she’s not — “

“Got it,” Double-J waving his right hand towards his passenger. “What I was trying to say before, not very effectively, was that I’ve never actually met your mo – stepmother.”

“Oh! Well, she don’t work, when she’s not home she’s at the church — “

“Been working on your family’s truck for years. Sometimes your dad brings it in to Lefty’s, or one of your brothers, or sisters. I’m pretty good with names, don’t ever remember a ‘Faith’ coming in to the shop.”

“Oh! Well, my mom, she doesn’t do a lot of the errands.”

Double-J smiled reflexively as he saw they were approaching the driveway to the Baptist church. “She sounds like a person who doesn’t like being away from home.”

As he pulled the coupe into the driveway, Double-J expected another Oh!, followed by another perplexing explanation. He certainly didn’t expect silence from his passenger. When he stopped the car, he looked over to see Butch staring blankly at the front of the church.

“My mom likes to do a lot of things. She’s asked to do more of the errands. But my dad — “

The image of Reverend Goodman’s stern face, from a summer camp many years in the past, came to Double-J’s mind.

“Thank you for giving me the ride.” Without another word between he and Double-J, Butch then quickly exited the vehicle, and a moment later entered the church through a side door.

Gray Metal Faces – March 9B

The Tuesday after the next

Dan Jacobs knew practicing just three days after Rex’s injury would be difficult for the team, but he also knew cancelling would only exacerbate the psychological wound that had been inflicted along with the gash to Rex’s arm. As his sneakered feet hustled down the tiled corridor to the cafeteria entrance (he was late for the start of practice due to a mandatory faculty meeting), he wondered who would show today. Annie for certain (We ARE having practice this week, right? was the message she’d left on his school voicemail), most likely Juan (he hadn’t witnessed Saturday’s tragedy, and he and Rex were close), and… no other names came immediately to his mind. Both Butch and The Bird might still be too distraught at having seen Rex injured so badly, blood streaming out the gash in his arm like water from a ruptured hose, his gray lame turning crimson. Coach Dan shook his head, and shuddered; this practice would be as important for him as it was for his students.

Reaching the end of the corridor, he walked left through the open cafeteria doors — and saw something he hadn’t ever expected to see in his career as coach of the Bark Bay High School fencing team.

There must have been over thirty students in the cafeteria. Annie, Juan and yes, Butch and The Bird, but also Coy, OK, Big and Little Paul — Micky, Zeph — other young faces he barely recognized, and in some cases, not at all. Coach Dan couldn’t be sure, but it certainly seemed that any student who had been at more than one fencing team practice the last two years, all of them, were here. They had formed an uneven semi-circle around Annie, standing next to Jimmy at the center of the large cafeteria floor.

Jimmy was the first to recognize his arrival. “Daniel.” He felt scores of eyes turning towards him like search lights. “You hear any more, ’bout Slim?”

“Nothing recent.” The semicircle morphed, forming around their volunteer fencing coach. “He went home this morning, sure you all heard that. Been sleeping a lot. He’s still weak, but he was up this afternoon, moving around the trailer. He won’t be coming back to school this week, doctors orders — and obviously, he won’t be fencing any time soon.”

Annie walked in front of Coach Dan, her brown pony-tail waving. “I talked to everyone, we’ve got meals planned for his family, next couple weeks.”

The volunteer fencing coach and seven-year English instructor at Bark Bay High School put his hands on Annie’s shoulders, and nodded with approbation. “Thank you.” Then turning back towards the semicircle of students, Coach Dan raised his right arm, calling for the attention.

“Most of you here today — came for a few reasons, all related to Rex. To find out what really happened on Saturday, to hear how he’s doing now — but most importantly of all, because you care for Rex, love him like the big brother he’s been to many of you.”

He felt mucus forming in his throat, covered his mouth and coughed, let his arm fall to the side. “What happened to Rex on Saturday, no words are adequate to describe. Accidents such as that are rare in fencing, but when they do happen they can be quite grisly, as those of us who were there can attest.”

A slender figure then break from the semicircle, walking with caution, as if the cafeteria floor were littered with land mines. Coach Dan recognized The Bird’s typical reticence, but also saw the freshman’s eyes looking right into his, and within that gaze a determination to push beyond her natural instincts. She clearly wanted to speak — so very unusual for her, but then again, today was far beyond usual. Stopping in front of Coach Dan, The Bird turned to her fellow students and, with the air of a woman who found no reason to ask for permission, spoke.

“What I saw Saturday, was the scariest thing ever. Hearing Rex scream in pain, seeing the horror of his injury — as soon as it happened, there was a part of me that just wanted to run away from it, but I was too scared to do anything but watch other people come to his aid.”

Coach Dan had never heard her speak with such assurance. “But even after I knew he was going to be OK, I was still scared. Every time somebody asked me about the accident, I felt like running away, and I didn’t understand why. But when I got here tonight, saw everybody… that’s when I finally understood why I’ve been so afraid.”

She scanned the faces of the people around her, an act her fencing coach recognized as one of his own oratorical techniques. “My mother and I moved to Bark Bay three years ago; we’ve moved a lot, on account of her work. I had grown sick of having to leave friends almost as soon as I made them, so this time I was going to keep everyone at arm’s length, not get close to anyone. That way it wouldn’t hurt so much, the next time we had to leave.”

A bank of fluorescent lights above her head flickered, then seemed to shine more brightly than before. “But then, I started coming to fencing practice. It was weird, I’d never played any sport before, but there was something about fencing that kept me coming back each week. I didn’t want to admit it, but it was — ” she blinked, swallowed, the curtains of her hair momentarily covering her face as she looked down, then back up — “it was you guys. All of you. You’re funny, loud, strange, sometimes I think you’re just like every kid our age would be if only they dared to be honest. And yeah, sometimes it can get a little obnoxious and crude at practice, but I can’t help it, I like those times too.”

The Bird looked over at Coach Dan, who gave no indication of wanting her to stop. “This is going to sound really dumb, but I’m going to say it, for Rex’s sake. I want to be part of this team. I don’t care about competing, but I want to be here, and be part of all this craziness. And Rex, he’s a part of this team, an important part. So when people asked me this week, about what happened to him — I guess it hit me, how important he was to us, to me. How I cared about him. And I guess that’s why, I got so scared.”

She was silent a moment, but all eyes in the room looked at her patiently. But The Bird shook her head. “Sorry. I didn’t mean… to speak… so long.” And then she became the young girl everyone thought they had known, quiet and awkward, looking like she wanted nothing more than to have all eyes in the room find some other focus.

Coach Dan stepped forward, relieving his student from further attention. Catching a glance at the team’s equipment sacks, leaning unopened against the short wall in front of the stage, he addressed the crowd of students. “People ask me all the time — teachers, students, people in town — why I’m a fencing coach. And if I have the time, I give them the full story, from that time I met ol’ Josef — ” his emphasis drawing the appreciative giggle of recognition he expected — “but mostly there’s no time to get into all that, so I just say that being a fencing coach, allows me to see my students learn lessons I could never teach, insights I could never hope to provide in any classroom.” He caught the eyes of Butch, standing at the far left of the semicircle, and quickly but pointedly made his way across the sea of faces in front of him. “And I can see today, you’ve learned one of those lessons — that none of us are alone.” He felt Annie squeeze his stomach. “None of us, needs ever feel that we’re alone.”

A slow, sharp clapping of hands from the equipment sacks. Coach Dan turned, expecting yet another surprise this afternoon, and was not disappointed. Standing above the equipment sack, now opened, that contained the team’s weapons, was Double-J, glaring at him caustically. “Nice speech, Jacobs. But if you don’t mind — ” the burly teen stooped down, lifted a saber from the sack, then raised it and pointed its tip directly at his coach — “some of us would like to get ready for States.”

Gray Metal Faces – March 9A

Try absence of blade this time. “Allez.” Here you go buddy, take that center while I show you my entire target area. Hesitates — hasn’t seen this before, doesn’t know what to do. Step forward, he backs up, matching my tempo, this is working perfectly. Attack, here comes the counter don’t flinch, EEEP EEEP. “Attack left, is tooch.” Awesome, got it tied at 4. No valiant comeback, going for the WIN.

The coupe conveyed its occupants east on the county road, three point two miles past the Gulf station, eventually turning into the driveway of a house seemingly far too large for its two occupants, its windows dark.

Tires crunched the soft gravel; hitting a hidden pothole, the car jerked down to the right, splashing the partly frozen water underneath, then righted itself as the vehicle regained level ground. The car stopped before the front door a second later.

The Bird thanked Double-J for the ride home; he inhaled into his right cheek, kchk. “No problem. Good talking to ya.” Clearing her throat (which she rarely did), The Bird then suggested he come in for a while. She examined his face, saw the briefest glimmer of a smile, then a look of serenity delivered with a conviction that would, she thought, have pleased her thespian mother — “Awright. If that’s what you want.”

His slender passenger unlatched the coupe’ door, swung it open with a push of her right hand without looking. Catching Double-J’s gaze, she smiled at him with her eyes, then waited for him to begin exiting, before swinging her legs out into the crisp night air.

She walked swiftly up the front steps, then flipped a switch to the left of the door, an overhead light beaming down on her. She turned, saw Double-J approach. She held up a hand, her face hidden in the shadow thrown down by the light.

Double-J stopped and held his arms up, as if pleading. She then told him why she had called him that afternoon, at the shop. How she was worried about the fencing team, and had tried to talk about her concerns with Coach Dan, and Annie, but — she said they listened, but for some reason couldn’t understand her.

“So you thought — ” there was a tone of victory in Double-J’s voice — “why not talk to the only sensible person on the team?”

She explained that the two of them were part of the team, but were not part of the team’s social circle. That they were both more comfortable looking at the team from the outside. And because they were both, in their own way, outsiders on the team, she thought he might be more receptive to her concerns.

The burly teen nodded up at her — “All right.” She continued, explaining that she knew asking for his help would be a long shot, but she had to try. And when she finally called him at the shop, the first thing he heard was his anger, saw no indication he’d changed his mind about wanting anything to do with the team. And then — her lips turned up — then, she said, he asked when her mother was bringing in her car for the new brake pads she’d ordered.

His eyes widened, head nodding down to the left. “Figgered since they’d come in — “

She told him, she continued, that the earliest her mother could come in was Thursday. Because she was working in the city through Wednesday, would be home late each night. And after she’d said that, she added, he’d changed the subject back to the fencing team, and all of a sudden he was like sure, he would be glad to meet with her, but it had to be Tuesday, or Wednesday. That he were working evenings, the rest of the week.

Double-J dipped his head down, closed his eyes. And began to grin. Lifted his head — “I believe you are insinuating — ” opened his eyes, grin spreading — “that I have an ulterior motive.”

A cold brace of March wind whipped against The Bird’s face. Then, she said he was trying to get her to do what he’d wanted.

He nodded. Then raised his palms gently up at her, approached slowly. Lifted his right foot, placed it on the first step. “Seems to me, that all I’m trying to do — is go to that place you’ve always wanted to see me at.”

He waited, looking up at her. The Bird took her hands out of the coat pockets, said she had one more question — was there anything someone could say, anything somebody could do, that could change his mind about the fencing team, make him come back to practice, show up for the regional tournament at the end of the month.

Double-J was shaking his head before she could finish her question. “There ain’t nuthin’ there for me, no more.” And then his left foot raised, landed on the second step, The Bird waiting for him as he continued to ascend towards her.

Gray Metal Faces – March 8

Reach into the bag — “Allez.” Set the point in line, let him take the center. He pauses — good. Goes for my blade, misses my disengage but keeps coming, lunge, EEEP EEEP. Dammit, got him on the edge not the point, ref calls it right we’re done; right hand extends out, he’s giving it to me! Other guy’s arguing about the point but the ref’s not agreeing, dunno if he doesn’t know the rule or didn’t see how I hit, but I’ll take it.

The coupe continued along the county road, away from the center of the town which both Double-J and The Bird called, with more resignation than satisfaction, home. By this early evening hour, the streets of Bark Bay were mostly deserted, the majority of businesses and even most of the restaurants and gas stations closed, sidewalks empty of pedestrians, isolated vehicles crawling along the roads like stray animals. For The Bird it was a familiar scene, especially in winter, but experiencing it with Double-J inspired her to speak, saying it looked like the entire town was sleeping.

“Good.” He wiped his black mustache with the back of his right hand. “If they knew any better, they’d stay that way. They’d do less damage, and it’d make it easier to put them out of their misery.”

The Bird was accustomed to Double-J’s cynicism, and while this latest statement was hardly uncharacteristic, she decided a challenge was necessary, asking if he was actually proposing murder. The sound that came in response seemed a combination of sneeze, cough, and growl. “Not worth the effort. ‘Sides, would make them martyrs. No, better let them all die quietly, be killed by their own ineptitude. Implode, rather than explode.”

Even Rex? Her bold question surprised even The Bird.

From behind the steering wheel, Double-J’s eyes narrowed, lips drawing back. Her latest question had clearly upset him, a fact which demonstrated to The Bird that she was moving in the right direction.

“Rex — ” Double-J ran his tongue across the bottom of his mustache — “his family, they’re victims. Been punished all their lives by this town’s hypocrisy. We’ll help you, but only if you can prove — ” he jumped on the coupe’s brake pedal, nearly passing a red light — “The churches, all those charity organizations, they ain’t nothing but tax dodges. Helping people like Rex’s family, this town has no interest in paying what it takes to do that.” The traffic light turned green, Double-J revving the coupe forward. “Rex and his family, are examples of how this town can grind people down to ruin. When they’re awake.”

Two Saturdays to come

“Can I help you?” The orderly’s question was more a command, intended to stop the young man who had been running down the white-tiled third floor of building G in County General Hospital.

Double-J hustled past her, then suddenly stopped himself, turned to face the orderly — “Room 221.” Without taking her wary eyes off the teen, the orderly pointed wordlessly behind her, thumb pointing to Double-J’s left.

A moment later he had swept into 221. Sitting on a chair, Annie looked up, raising a finger vertically across her lips. Coach Dan was standing directly behind her, his attention focused on the occupant of the hospital bed beneath him.

“Jesus!” Double-J raced up to the open side of the bed, nearly knocking over a portable tray stand. “Rex — “

Coach Dan’s hand, extended across the bed and onto his right shoulder, stopped him. “Leave him be. He’s lost a lot of blood, needs the rest.”

Double-J nodded, gazed down on his friend. Rex’s face, turned slightly towards Coach Dan, looked calm but pale. His right arm, closest to Double-J, was not visible under a heavy wrapping of bandage. An IV tube, dangling from a stand next to Coach Dan, snaked down to his left arm. Double-J sniffed, reached down with his left hand, which hovered over Rex’s forehead a moment, then waved down to squeeze the sleeping teen’s hand.

Annie stood. “Francis feels terrible.” Her voice was weak, distant.

“He should.” Double-J released his grip, glared up at Coach Dan. “Cutting a guy — “

“It was an accident.” Coach Dan wasn’t sure how much Annie had told him when she called. “Just a cut to the arm, nothing vicious. Rex caught him with a strong parry, too strong, Francis’ blade broke on impact. No way to stop his momentum, and the broken blade . . . ” The volunteer fencing coach at Bark Bay High School sighed, nodding in the direction of Rex’s bandaged arm.

“He’ll be OK.” Stepping beside her coach, Annie seemed to regain her strength. “It was — there was blood all over the place, but they’ve sewn up the wound.”

Coach Dan almost smiled, raised a hand to Annie’s shoulder. “Your tourniquet — while everyone else was freaking out, you raced in there. They say what you did, saved his arm.”

The teen showed no sign of satisfaction on her face. “They’ll keep him a couple days, make sure there’s no infection. Soonest he could go home’s Monday.”

Double-J nodded, looked down again at Rex, the only person at Bark Bay High School he could unreservedly call his friend. He could hear Rex breathing, shallow and labored — and realized how unusual that was. Rex was quiet, if he wasn’t in your field of vision you could easily forget he was around. Double-J shouldn’t hear him breathing, shouldn’t be seeing this person lying helpless in a hospital bed.

“Did I ever tell you — ” Double-J was still looking down at Rex, but Coach Dan ad Annie knew he was addressing them — “what Rex told me, after I had that fight with Myles?” He didn’t look up to see the two other occupants in the room shaking their heads. “It was a few days after practice. Was giving Rex a ride back to his trailer, for some reason, can’t remember why. He started talking about fencing, and that’s when I told him I was done, wasn’t going back to the team. He asked me why, and I told him the team had become all about Myles, the golden boy, and I didn’t want any part of it.”

For a moment, the only sound was the rhythmic beeping of a monitor from a room down the hall. Double-J bit his lower lip — “He didn’t say nothing after that, ’til we got to his trailer. Before he gets out, he looks at me.” The senior winced, biting his lower lip again. “And he tells me he was pretty upset too, he liked Myles but didn’t like how the team’s focus had changed since he came on. The team, he told me, was like his second family, and he didn’t want…”

The burly teen closed his eyes, re-opened them slowly, as if the sight before him brought pain. “He didn’t want to lose his second family. And being in front of his trailer and all, I shoulda known he was thinking about his real family, how Family Services kept threatening to take his sisters away, put them in foster homes. But all thought was, hey I got me an ally, somebody who’s gonna have my back if I push back against Myles.”

With a sudden thrust of his left hand, Double-J struck the bed next to Rex’s pillow. “Goddammit, you shouldn’t be here, me neither. You should be in your family’s trailer, I should be at Lefty’s shop. This place, it’s an antiseptic abomination…”

Grabbing the bed’s rail with his right hand, Double-J closed his eyes, leaned over Rex’s unconscious body — and with an effort that looked like he was squeezing tears from his eyes, wept.

Across the bed, Coach Dan and Annie were paralyzed at the sound of Double-J’s wail, EEEEH – EEEEH – EEEH – EEEH. Neither could remember seeing him this vulnerable. Annie took a step to her left, towards the other side of the bed — but stopped as she saw Double-J lift his face.

No trace of sorrow. His face was red and wet with rage.

“My fault.” He exhaled, lungs rattling. “Shouldn’t have given him my equipment. He weren’t ready for saber — “

“He would have been, if I’d been around.” Coach Dan shook his head. “Jimmy could have worked with him, instead of running the team.”

“No, it’s me.” Annie patting her chest. “Should have been his strip coach, instead of hanging out with my friends.”

“No.” Both Coach Dan and Annie could tell Double-J was restraining from his customary vulgarity. “It was me, who doomed him.” The burly teen stood upright, wiped the wetness off his face. He shook his head, the thin black wires of his hair waving in the dim hospital light. “Nothing more I can do here. I’m going to his trailer, stay with his family ’till he can come home.”

Annie raised her hand. “I can — “

“No you can’t.” And without looking back, Double-J raced out of the room like man escaping prison.

Gray Metal Faces – March 7B

Twenty-five months ago

“WHO’S NEXT? ” Myles Glossurio’s commanding voice bounced off the concrete walls of the Bark Bay High School cafeteria, as eleven pairs of teenaged legs shuffled around him. “Barksdale? Slovich?” No matter the sport, no matter their year or position on the team, no matter his relationship outside the team to them — during practice, Myles always referred to teammates by their last name.

“Double-J — ” hearing his name, the sophomore looked up with his clean-shaven face at Juan Kwon — “think it’s about time you showed our captain what it’s like to fence saber.”

“GAHD!” Myles’ athletic body walked confidently over to the team’s equipment sacks. “Last time I picked up saber was at the Academy, last month.” He looked over at Coach Dan, whose arms were folded across his chest as he leaned against the short wall that served as the front of the cafeteria’s stage. “Who was that guy I beat?”

Coach Dan blinked. “Jamie.”

“Yoder?” Coach Dan nodded in response. “Ha! His dad played in the minors, topped out at Double A.” The golden arm of the school’s All-State quarterback pointed at Double-J. “Gear up, Johnson.”

“Call me Double-J.” He could not control wincing as his adolescent voice cracked. Myles stopped himself, and glared back in silence with amused eyes.

Double-J snarled as he hustled over to the wall where he had left his gear. Picking up mask, glove and weapon, he positioned himself a moment later at the far end of the makeshift strip at the center of the large floor.

“Edge weapon.” Stepping towards his starting line, Myles looked down at the blade of his saber like it was a younger sibling’s toy. “How charmingly imprecise.” Lifting his gaze, he caught Double-J’s eyes — “Johnson, you DO know that the only reason saber is still considered a legitimate competition weapon, is to keep the Russians from leaving the FIE?”

“This ain’t Russia.” Double-J extended his right arm up and out, the saber he held forming a line that extended from his shoulder to a point on the ceiling above and past Myles’ head. “And this ain’t one of those stupid point weapons.” He brought his weapon down swiftly, blade audibly cutting the distance between the two teens. “Seems to me, saber’s the closest thing we got in this sport, to a weapon a person would actually use in the real world.”

“HA!” Myles rocked his hand back and forth, the blade of his saber waving like a solitary strand of uncooked spaghetti. “What the hell could anyone do with this thing? Break up a robbery?”

Coach Dan’s chuckle was faint yet distinctive under the current of conversations that rippled through the team. He lifted his chin, arms still folded and body leaning against the short stage wall — “You love birds want a ref?”

Myles turned and nodded, but Double-J’s voice shot out — “Nah. This’ll be quick.” Myles glanced back at his opponent, smirked, and after a salute more obligatory than sincere, put on his fencing mask as Double-J did the same.

The two teens crouched down, right arms forward; Myles slapped his thigh with his left hand, and they stepped toward each other aggressively. Myles slashed towards Double-J’s head; two thin blades of steel collided, the crisp sound catching the attention of the other team members. The blades slid off each other, both fencers being hit in the mask.

“YA!” Double-J’s left arm bolted in the air like he was displaying a trophy.

“Nah, that’s mine.” Myles stepped back, raised his left hand, brought his blade down and past his open palm. “My attack landed, before your parry.”

“My parry.” Double-J pointed the tip of his saber directly at Myles’ chest. “Can’t talk your way outta this.”

Rex!” At the sound of his coach’s commanding voice, the freshman (not only the tallest in his class, but already close to being the tallest at the entire school) jogged over from the canvas sacks that carried the team’s equipment. Coach Dan unfolded his arms, pushed his body off from the wall, spoke in a hushed but direct tone with his student.

Without further discussion, Myles and Double-J returned to their starting lines, then charged at each other again at Myles’ command. Double-J’s metal wing slashed at Myles arm, Myles following the attack with one of his own. As if in unison, both competitors raised their arms, exclaiming.

“His attack.” Juan had approached the combatants, and was now pointing at Double-J.

“Missed,” Myles shaking his head. “Knew he was going to be short, so I countered.” Pointing to the sophomore — “his remise came after the counter.”

Double-J yelled, the force of his exclamation almost as startling as its vulgarity. His point threatened Myles’ chest once again — “Not LETTING you STEAL this from me!”

From behind his gray metal mask, a frown could be seen to grow on Myles’ lips. Lifting his left hand gently like a man retrieving his wallet in front of a nervous mugger, the starting point guard who had lead the boys’ basketball team to last year’s Division Three semi-finals grabbed the bottom of the mask’s cloth bib, pulled it slowly up and away from under his chin until his face, now smiling, was visible, the mask coming to rest like a turtle on top of his head. “Johnson — you DO know this is supposed to be a friendly — “

“There’s no FRIENDS in fencing!” Double-J gave no indication he would even consider removing his mask. “The very MOMENT you get on strip and point a weapon at me, you’re the ENEMY!”

“Excuse me?” Two sets of eyes turned towards the soft voice coming from the elongated body approaching them. Rex had been, along with Double-J, one of three students to attend the first practice in October, and while that third student had long since left and been forgotten, the freshman and sophomore had developed a close friendship, one that strengthened as the team’s membership had exploded after Myles’ arrival. “Coach Dan — ” a slender pipe extended behind Rex — “he asked me, to be your ref?” His inflection rose with each word, as if he were suddenly questioning himself.

Double-J lifted his mask, revealing a face red with rage and exertion. He then waved at Rex with his unarmed hand — “Stay out. Don’t want you getting mixed up in this.”

The tall freshman paused in confusion, shoulder’s sagging in relief as Coach Dan’s voice carried across the cafeteria. “Reffing’s good experience. Let him direct, correct him if there’s a mistake.”

Myles spread his arms, palms up, saber dangling from between the middle and index fingers of his right hand. He pointed his forehead at Double-J — “You wouldn’t want to interrupt this lad’s development, would you?” Double-J’s grunt of disgust accentuated the sharp pull of his mask, covering his face.

The bout continued, neither fencer paying much attention to Rex’s calls. Double-J quickly began using his advantage in experience and bladework, parrying most attacks that came at him, scoring on ripostes. But Myles was the far superior athlete — faster, stronger, taller, better conditioned, his lunges covering a distance his foe simply could not match. And after the first few exchanges, Myles evidenced an additional advantage in poise. Each attack that came through Double-J’s defense, each of his ripostes that did not land, caused the younger, shorter fencer to growl, scowling visibly behind his gray metal face. Myles responded to his mistakes with curiosity (now isn’t that interesting), humor (that would have worked, if I were using a dagger), even what seemed at times gratitude (dude, thanks for not letting me score with slop). And as Myles’ confidence grew, so too did his skill — at the same time as Double-J’s frustration, and lack of conditioning, caused him to begin surrendering more touches than he scored.

Having returned from sparring with a sophomore, Juan Kwon walked up behind Rex. “What’s the score?”

Rex blinked. “I didn’t — “

“Eight – six.” Myles pointed across the makeshift strip. “He’s up — for now.” Double-J had been leaning forward, hands on knees, but at his opponent’s words stood erect, then crouched into en garde position.

“Fence.” At Rex’s command, Double-J charged forward, Myles letting him reach the center and then springing straight up, weapon arm flying forward, the thin metal of his blade whipping in an arc that swept down until it landed, with a sound that was a little bit tink and a lot more tunk, directly on top of Double-J’s mask.

“Halt.” Remembering Coach Dan’s instructions, Rex paused, recreating the action in his head before speaking. “Preparation, no attack on the right. Attack left — ” right arm pointed straight at Double-J, left hand raising towards Myles — “tooch.”

“Finish up, my friends.” Walking across a patch of sunlight reflecting off the cafeteria floor, Coach Dan pointed up at the large analog clock on the southern wall. “Polishing the floors tonight — gotta be out in five.”

Myles had already returned to en garde. “To nine, then.” At Rex’s command, Myles raced to the center this time, his exhausted opponent ceding the position, waiting to parry. A flinch towards the head — Double-J did not move — Myles brought his arm down, flinched again to the head, then began to bring his arm down again before deftly jabbing forward, blade crashing into mask.

“Eight all!” Myles pranced back to his starting line, gyrating in celebration as he did after racing into the end zone, drilling a three-pointer, or launching a home run. He turned, crouched back down into en garde — and discovered he no longer had an opponent.

Double-J had already pushed past Rex and Juan, and was in the process of tearing off his equipment, paying no attention to Coach Dan’s calm, firm voice as he reached the team’s equipment sacks. Only Rex, discovering rare self-assurance, dared to approach him.

“What — ” Rex realized his friend would have no interest in discussing the reason for his sudden departure — “where are you going?”

Double-J turned on him, his expression pained with indignation. “Anywhere, but here. Any place, that respects fencing, and doesn’t have time for self-indulgent ballers looking for kicks.” He pointed an angry finger at Myles, still standing at the strip, mask covering his face. “Knock yourself out. There’s more than enough pushovers here to gratify your damn ego.”

Casting the last of his great down, Double-J then exited the cafeteria through its large metal double-door, his storm of profanity finally silenced as the doors closed, ka-klack.

Gray Metal Faces – March 7A

“Allez.” Meet at center, parry the head cut, riposte counter-parried, his riposte’s short. Back up, try to get him to overcommit. He’s on to me, staying back. Feint to the arm, doesn’t bite. Step forward, watch — comes under, nips the hand. Dammit. 4-2, need to change my game with this guy.

As she fastened her seatbelt, The Bird noted Double-J made no attempt to even acknowledge his own. When he turned the ignition (immediately reaching over and turning down the volume of his audio deck), she noted how the entire dashboard erupted in a sea of green and red lights, like the Christmas trees in family homes she would visit with her mother over the holidays. The music was unfamiliar but unmistakably blues, the sound enticingly exotic. From this new front-seat perspective, the interior of Double-J’s car seemed like the control panel of a spaceship, ready to take her to unexplored worlds.

Double-J twisted, black bristles of hair flying past his right shoulder as he backed the coupe out of its parking space; as he turned forward and shifted into drive, The Bird looked out the window to her right, and saw the man from the pickup getting to his feet, slowly, as if the earth beneath him had suddenly increased the force of its gravity.

As they exited the strip mall, she asked if Double-J really thought the man had been going back to the pickup for his shotgun. Double-J hmmpfed, mouth closed. “Dunno. That other dude hadn’t rushed him, maybe.”

The coupe glided into downtown Bark Bay, the traffic light at the central intersection still operating fully. Double-J turned right, then crossed two streets and took a left onto a county road.

And then the words starting coming out of The Bird. They were just arguing, she said, and the second man had gotten out of his pickup without his gun. The situation didn’t get dangerous, she told Double-J, until he had stepped in.

Double-J pursed his lips. “Guess I have that effect on people.”

She said he seemed to enjoy being a social catalyst.

“Catalyst, huh?” He smiled like a hungry man sitting down to dinner. “Like the sound of that. Y’know, that’s what I like about you, Kassie.” She found it odd that while he had been the first person to call her The Bird, he never used that name when addressing her. “You don’t need to ask questions, in order to come up with your own answers. You tell people what you see, ‘stead of asking what you should be looking at. Only time you ask a question . . . ” his voice trailed off as he glanced over at her with expectant eyes.

Is when someone knew something she didn’t, she said. Or, she added, if someone was holding back information.

She saw him lean back in the driver’s seat, arms fully extended as hands clutched the steering wheel at eight and four, satisfaction beaming from his  mustachioed face. “It’s like being on strip. Setting up your opponent, getting them to do what you want them to do. Same in the real world too — people are easy to control, once you figure out how to push their buttons.” He sighed. “It’s — awesome.”

Gray Metal Faces – March 6C

“I’m not going back to Bark Bay High. Need two credits to graduate, but I worked things out to get the credits without ever having to step into that hell-hole again. And if the school changes its mind, denies me a diploma – fine, I’ll get a friggin’ GED.” The teen glared at Lefty – “Not like I need a degree to work at the shop, do I?”

Lefty lowered his gaze to the floor, and shook his head slowly. Double-J now looked directly at Rex. “And yeah, that means I’m not on Jacobs’ fencing team no more neither.”

“I don’t get it.” The challenge in Rex’s reply was as obvious as a head cut. “Fencing’s the only thing you enjoy, don’t know how many times you told me that.”

“And that ain’t changed.” Double-J pointed to himself – “I ain’t changed – it’s the damn team that changed.”

“Annie – ” Jimmy’s voice sounded strained, as if the words he was about to speak were coerced – “she says if’n you wanna be captain –”

WANT?” Double-J grabbed the seat cushion underneath him. “You go tell Annie, that I got no interest in her damn offer, ‘cuz she’s acting like being captain is something she owns, just another thing her family could buy for her. This ain’t ‘bout ownership, it’s ‘bout what’s right, recognizing who’s earned the right to be captain, and most of all, recognizing that Annie IN NO WAY earned that right.”

A car engine sputtered in the street below as the apartment fell silent.

The car engine roared into life. Jimmy cleared his throat. “I ever tell you – why I started coaching?”

Rex was perhaps even more intrigued by Jimmy’s unexpected question than was Double-J. From his first appearance at practice in January, Jimmy had seemed an almost reluctant coach, engaged but distant, his aloof demeanor in sharp contrast to Coach Dan’s affability. It wasn’t that their new assistant coach didn’t care — Jimmy was just as insistent as Coach Dan on proper execution, just as demanding of maximum effort, just as eager to support his students during tournaments — it was rather a feeling Rex had that a part of Jimmy’s awareness was always held back, lurking behind his words and actions, observing the fencing team, evaluating. And now, perhaps, this enigmatic man from Louisiana was about to reveal what he had been seeking.

“Been here five years. Moved up in the spring, and by summer got so busy, knew I needed to hire on. Put an ad in the Beacon, didn’t promise much: dime over minimum, long hours, weekend work. Not surprising, most calls I got were from kids — ” for not the first time, Rex noticed how Jimmy pronounced the word with an extra y, kyids — “just graduated, didn’t hire no drop-outs. Hired two, boy and a girl, both 18, boy turned 19 in September, right ’round the time he left, for a job flippin’ burgers at the Burger Clown. Girl, she left before the holidays. No reason, just didn’t wanna work for me no more.”

“Must’ve been tough.” A subtle tone of sarcasm in Double-J’s voice, an implied admonition to get to the point of the story.

“Since then, must’ve had couple dozen kids, working for me one time or ‘nuther. Some work out — Jelly-Jam, she started ’bout that time the first girl left, been with me ever since, made her office manager last year. But most, they with me a few months, then move on. The turnover, it’s a real problem, having to train new kids all the time. Wears out Jelly-Jam, ‘s well.”

“Ah, I get it.” Double-J leaned forward, the cushions of the chair billowing under his shifting weight. “So when Jacobs asked you about coaching, you saw it as an opportunity to conduct field research on the labor market.”

“I understand the grown-ups round here,” Jimmy’s voice softening, like he was ready for a nap, “they different sure but at least I can make sense of ’em. But the kids; you ain’t like the kids I worked with down south, in Louisiana and Texas.” His right arm waved forward, in the general direction of the street outside the apartment building. “Most of you have got, so much goin’ for ya. Families with good homes, good schools — ” Double-J snorted a laugh, but Jimmy waved a dismissive finger in the teen’s face — “all them kids work for me, they been educated, you best believe. Most of ’em, could go do whatever they want, if’n they set their mind to.”

“Shouldn’t waste yer time.” The guitar slipped off the side of the chair, Double-J catching its neck before it fell to the apartment floor. Another car engine, likely a pickup, roared to life outside. “Kids with any smarts, move outta Bark Bay soon’s they graduate. Don’t come back, ‘cept for holidays and summer vacations. Kids who stay, not only don’t they have the means to leave, don’t have the smarts to figure out what they want out of life.” He raised the guitar to his lap, brought his right hand over the strings, as if prepared to resume playing. “Just drift along without a plan, lettin’ the stream of life take ’em wherever. Gives ’em the impression they’re going forward, when all they’s actually doing, is getting dragged along with the current.”

“But you ain’t like that.” Jimmy seemed to rise in his seat. “Known you long enough, t’ know you got your eyes wide open. Know you got ambitions that should be taking you far ‘way from here.” He rubbed his hands together — “Know you smart enough, t’ know what you doin’ now, ain’t gonna get you nowhere. Smart enough t’ know, that buckin’ the stream just give you a sense you fightin’, you winnin’, when all the time you just bein’ pushed downstream by the current, jus’ like ev-rone else.”

Double-J blinked. “Your concern for my well-being warms my heart.”

Jimmy then rose abruptly from his chair, and glowered down at Double-J, looking as if he were about to challenge him to a fight. “Can you just look at you-self?” Spittle flew from Jimmy’s lips, sailed over Double-J’s head. “Livin’ in a dead-end apartment, workin’ a dead-end job — ” he turned sharply towards Lefty — “no ‘fense.” The lead mechanic nodded, turned away, Jimmy returning his focus to the apartment’s teen tenant. “Dropped outta high school, quit doin’ a sport you love, just to prove some kinda damn point. Act like you so proud, but what you gotta show for all that pride?”

Double-J squeezed his face, hands remaining at his sides. “That what you think? That my life’s just one big mistake, after another?”

Jimmy’s face softened. “It’s about choices, son. What choices you makin’ in life.”

“O — K!” The teen rose, his head rising only to the level of Jimmy’s shoulders. “And I’d rather make my own choices, than have some fool make safe decisions for me.” Double-J stepped back, addressed the other two occupants in the room. “If any of you think anything you’re gonna say this evening, is gonna persuade me to go back to that damn school, get me back on the fencing team again – I’m telling you now, there’s nothing you can do to change my mind, so I suggest you stop trying, save yourself the energy.”

Jimmy opened his mouth to speak, but stopped at the sound of Lefty’s soft but commanding voice. “How long you been working at my shop?”

Surprise flashed on Double-J’s face, was immediately replaced with a disinterested frown. “Dunno. Three, four years.”

Lefty’s five-three-year-old face stared down at the bare floor in front of his chair. “‘member why I let you start workin’ there?”

Double-J laughed sarcastically. “‘cuz I knew more about cars than – “

“Your daddy brung you.” Lefty’s voice cracked as his tone raised, his face continuing to look down. “Done tol’ me, Lefty, I got to find a way to keep this boy busy. He ain’t the type to be content sittin’ around watching TV or nothin’. He gets restless, then he goes out and gits himself in trouble. And I does what I can for him, but with me being in the service and his mother working in the city, we can’t watch him all the time.”

Rex stared at Lefty, saw tears on his cheeks. He suddenly realized the older man’s breath no longer smelled of onions, the odors of the dirt and grime of the shop didn’t emanate from him like they had before.

“Yo’ daddy, he asked me if I seen you work on engines, and I says yes, he pretty good. And he says he knew you was underage, but I tells ‘im I could keep you in the back, make sure nobody seen you, and if they did I’d pretend to run you off.

“And yo’ daddy thanked me, and he a good man and all but what I didn’t tell him then, still haven’t, is that I didn’t do it for him. I did it for you.” He raised his head, right index finger jabbing at Double-J, tears now dripping from his chin. “I’d known youse from a kid, know what kind of heart you had, knew that everything they was saying about you being a bad boy, a troublemaker, they was all wrong about you. And anything I could do – to keep attention away from you –”

Lefty looked down at the floor, rubbed his eyes. Rex shifted in his chair, as Jimmy reached out and placed a hand gently on Lefty’s shoulder. Double-J sat back in his chair, silent. A car door closed on the street below, the sound echoing in the cold.

Lefty looked up again. “All you needed was time.” Jimmy drew back his hand. “Time to figger things out for yerself, time away from all the people who thought they was helping you, trying to guide you. That’s why I gave you a job. Now I look at you, see what you doing…”

Lefty’s voice was cracking, like ice in a tumbler. “Skipping school, talkin’ back to your coach. Now you got the three of us come visit yuh, try to talk some sense into yuh. But I knows what gonna happen – you gonna kick us out t’night, tell us to mind our own bidness, and we’ll leave, but some day soon more people are going to come visit you, and they won’t be like us, won’t be your friends, your family. And what you’ll do is, you’ll also tell them to go away and mind their own bidness, but the difference is that for them, what you do is they bidness, and when you sends ’em away they’ll come back, and one of those times when they come back — ” he swallowed — “they won’t leave, less you leave with ’em.”

Lefty looked directly at Double-J. “Can see all that ’bout to happen, and they ain’t no damn thing I kin do ’bout it. That promise I made your daddy, ’bout keepin’ you outta trouble. I done my best, but that weren’t ’nuff. I done failed.”

A gust of wind whipped outside, rattling the windows of the small apartment. Double-J cleared his throat. “Lefty – this has nothing to do with you. You’ve been great, gave me a good job, so yeah, I owe you for that. But I can’t return to school, go back to the fencing team, just on your account. If I go back, I’d be saying that Jacobs was right in what he did, and I can’t let him get away with that. Don’t worry, I ain’t gonna let no trouble come to you – if I have to stop working at the shop, I’ll do it. If I have to get a GED, I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure nobody sees you as failure – just so long as it doesn’t require me to accept failure myself.”

“All right, then.” Rex rose suddenly as he spoke, as if his chair were suddenly electrified. “Jimmy, Lefty – we’ve done what we can, it’s time to go.” He turned towards Double-J, who remained sitting, listening intently. “Double-J, just think about something. As abrasive as you can be, especially during practice, we all miss you – me, Annie, Rune and Butch, Kassie. Without you, we’re simply not as good, either as a team or individually, as we are when you’re there. You push us, force everyone to do better, and I’d like to think we’ve made you a better fencer as well.”

Double-J nodded slowly.

“I’m – disappointed you decided not to fence with us no more. Don’t think it’s the best decision, for yourself, certainly not for the team. I know you’ve got problems with Coach Dan, and Annie, but when haven’t you had problems with them, and when haven’t the three of you been able to work things out? I don’t know why this time has to be different, but I can tell there’s no turning back for you now. It’s just – the only word for it is sad, I’m sad you’ve decided to turn your back on all of us, sad you don’t care about the fact that we had a great team – have a great team. Just not as great without you.”

Rex turned swiftly towards Jimmy and Lefty. “Let’s go.”

“Hold on.” Double-J stood, the chair cushion underneath him not fully straightening as his weight lifted. He pointed at Rex — “you got regionals, end of the month, right?”

“Yeah.” Rex’s inflection rose with the expectation of what he hoped his friend was about to say next. “You coming?”

Double-J frowned, black mustache curling above his lips. “Nah. Stuff to do.” There was no conviction in his voice. “Be at Midland, week after.” Coach Dan had already told the team they wouldn’t be competing at Midland.

Jimmy nodded at Rex. “Slim here, says he gonna do saber at Midland.”

“Heard that.” Nodding, Double-J retreated back to the rear room of the apartment — “hold on” — sounds of scuffing within a closet like a man moving into a new home, as the three guests gathered their winter coats in the small living area.

Rex scanned the bare walls, searching and not finding any object to draw his attention. Jimmy patted Lefty’s shoulder — “You OK, young fella?”

Lefty’s laugh sent clouds of onion breath into the air. “Yeah, yeah, ah’m fine. Shitfire and damnation, ah’m fine.”

“Good.” Jimmy rubbed his chin. “But, shitfire and damnation, you know how  — ”

“Ya, here you go.” The scuffling stopped, and a moment later Double-J returned, carrying a gray oval fencing mask, a silvery lame with sleeves that hung down just above the floor, and the distinctive thin flat blade and curved handle of a saber. Seeing Rex shake his head, the burly teen extended his arms defiantly.

Rex looked down at the equipment with reluctance, as if the offer were a practical joke. “I can’t — “

“Not like I’m gonna be needin’ these, til Midland.” Several minutes later, Double-J escorted his guests from his apartment at the Embassy, Rex unable to prevent himself from realizing he was now in temporary possession of equipment that cost more than his family’s weekly grocery bill.

Gray Metal Faces – March 6B

Double-J’s apartment consisted of three rooms with what barely seemed enough floor space for two. Rex nearly tripped over an old but serviceable sofa that lay just inside the door; to the right of the sofa was a cushioned chair worn with age. An acoustic guitar lay behind the chair, neck propped against the wall. Along the far wall was a sink, stove, half-sized refrigerator, and a microwave oven that looked like it belonged in a much larger kitchen. Two legs of a card table and two folding chairs sat on a narrow strip of linoleum in front of the kitchen area; the table’s other two legs and two more folding chairs lay on the carpeted area of the living room. A small corridor beyond the cushioned chair led from the multipurpose front room back to a bathroom and bedroom, from where they heard Double-J call out.

“You mind watching them steaks? Don’t want them to friggin’ burn.”

Rex walked over to the stove, saw the large frying pan that was making the noise he had heard in the hall. Inside the pan were four steaks, each the size of an oversized card deck, sizzling in a thin layer of oil. Rex realized that Double-J must have just started to cook, as the top sides were still red.

“Looking good.” Rex suddenly sensed a difference from the last time he had been in this apartment. It had been a few weeks ago, right after Double-J declared he was done with the fencing team, done with Bark Bay High School. Rex had gone to seen him, went up to the apartment, saw the spoiled food in the sink –

Rex’s eyes scanned the bare surface of the card table. He looked around more, saw the sink spotless except for the cracked porcelain, neatly stacked dishes dripping dry in the drainboard, the linoleum in front of the sink free of spills and crumbs. Rex turned toward the living area and – yes, saw the distinctive pattern of a vacuum cleaner’s path along the rug. The tall teen laughed – “You cleaned?”

“Of course.” Double-J’s voice grew louder as he walked out of the bedroom. “You’re guests, right?” His hair was longer, and seemed more black and wiry than usual. It frizzed from his head as if in agony, and fell lightly on his shoulders, his beard and mustache billowing around the mouth. Rex thought his friend had lost weight, although he still seemed overweight. He was wearing jeans – he always wore jeans, even to his grandfather’s funeral – and a white t-shirt visible under an oversized gray sweat shirt, bearing the small shield of the Academy on the upper left breast.

Lefty pointed at the lad he considered his apprentice – “Where’d you get that shirt?”

Double-J looked down quickly, then back up at Lefty. “Dunno. Picked it up somewhere, a while ago.”

Jimmy laughed. “Thought for a moment, you were gonna tell us you done joined the Academy.”

Double-J snorted contemptuously. “If’n I had the money to go to the Academy, the last thing I’d do with it, is join the Academy. Had enough of one school already.”

“Huh.” Seeing Double-J extending his arm towards him, Rex began taking off his jacket. “Told me last week you weren’t dropping out.”

Double-J smiled, took Rex’s jacket, then walked over to the frying pan. “I’m not -” he picked up a spatula with his free hand – “but I’ll get into all that after we eat.”

Lefty walked over to the stove, peered down at the steaks sizzling in the skillet. “Shitfire and damnation.”

“Not a big deal, really.” Double-J bent to open the door of the half-sized refrigerator. “Grocery store up the street, the meat they don’t sell over the weekend, they put it on sale Monday. Got these for half-price.” He opened the small freezer drawer, retrieved a bag of green beans. “It’s really not that hard to eat well without paying an arm and a leg. You just gotta pay attention.” He opened the bag, placed it on the counter next to the sink, opened a cupboard door, and retrieved a plastic container. “Thing is, most people don’t pay attention. They just go along, doin’ whatever it is they’re told, don’t ever question whether the people givin’ them orders, know what the hell they’re talking about. No, the only time they think about that, is when things go wrong, and they’re looking for someone to blame for their failure.”

He began pouring the frozen vegetables into the container, then stopped himself. Turning from the kitchen, he looked at his three guests, making sure to make eye contact with each. “Know what I like about fencing?” He didn’t wait for a response. “In the end, you’re accountable for your own actions. You do all this training, listen to what your coaches say, take advice from your teammates – but when you get on the strip it’s all about you, what you can do out there, how you react to what you’re opponent’s doing. When you win, it’s because of what you did, and when you lose – hey, you’re teammates and coaches weren’t on the strip, it’s all on you.” He spread his arms, lifted his chin. “It’s simple, it’s beautiful, it’s – pure.”

“That so.” Jimmy had sat at the right end of the sofa, next to Rex, Lefty sitting on a metal folding chair turned away from the card table. Jimmy’s lips curled into his gums – “So tell me, if you like fencing so much, why’d you quit the team?”

Double-J snorted, as he turned the sizzling steaks over in the frying pan. “Quit is a strong term, one that doesn’t really capture my status on Jacobs’ team.” All three of his guests opened their mouths to speak, but Double-J raised his right hand in their direction and they fell silent, as if a spell was cast from his palm – “Later, after we eat.” The teen laid his spatula on the stove top, then opened the microwave oven next to the sink, and inserted the plastic bowl of frozen vegetables.

The four of them talked casually as Double-J proceeded cooking. Jimmy said his catering business was doing well, he was struggling like everyone else in this economy, but just because times were tough didn’t mean people stopped having parties and receptions. Rex commented that he was pleased with how he’d fenced at the tournament a few weeks back at Midland, placing fifth in foil and second in epee, eliminated in both weapons by Francis Pine from the Academy. Lefty thought the parts for the transmission in Mr. Levy’s Oldsmobile would be in tomorrow.

Double-J lifted the fried steaks from the frying pan with his spatula – “Call me when that tranny comes in.”

Lefty shook his head. “Tip’s in the shop tomorrow, he can install it.”

Double-J snorted. “Tip’s got no business working on any tranny. Especially the Levy’s.”

“We’ll be OK – “

“I’ll stop by the shop tomorrow, at 10.” It was as if Double-J hadn’t heard Lefty’s response. “Got nothing better to do.”

The meal was the best Rex could remember having for the last several months, since the cookout at his uncle’s house that summer, certainly better than the boxed or canned meals he and his sisters routinely prepared for his family back at their trailer. The steak was moist, savory, and most significantly was steak, a food that would have been as out of place at Rex’s house as lobster or veal. The vegetables weren’t fresh – frozen vegetables prepared in a microwave, potato flakes poured from a box and mixed with water over a stove – but they were hot, filling Rex’s belly with a pleasure he hadn’t experienced in weeks. Having known poverty as long as he could remember, Rex had learned over the years to control his hunger, to eat sparingly to prevent his appetite from growing, but within seconds of the dinner plate being placed before him he loosened his restraints and began devouring the meal that Double-J had prepared, allowing himself to indulge the ever-present hunger within him in a way he normally would not have trusted.

And there was even dessert, fresh fruit that Double-J had sliced before they arrived, served with whipped cream spurted from a canister. “Shitfire and damnation — we must be paying you too much if you can afford all this,” Lefty’s joke prompting another admonition from Double-J that you didn’t have to pay a lot of money on food if you just paid attention to prices instead.

Jimmy and Rex offered to wash dishes, as Double-J and Lefty arranged chairs around the small couch in the living area. Double-J sat in the cushioned chair, his large body forming a broad U into the cushion beneath him, the long black wires of his hair falling down across his shoulders, beard and mustache parting to reveal a broad smile of contentment on his face.

He and Lefty talked about the Levy’s transmission as Jimmy and Rex finished in the kitchen. As Jimmy walked into the living area, he pointed to the guitar, propped on the wall behind the chair. “You play?”

“Yeah.” Double-J rose clumsily from his chair, as Lefty commented he was actually pretty good. “Christ Lefty, don’t oversell me.” Double-J reached down, grabbed the neck of the guitar, walked back to his chair and sat, the cushion again forming a long U under him. He then began playing an instantly recognizable melody, and a moment later, he began to sing:

When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah – hurrah,
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then, hurrah – hurrah,
We all will cheer and dance about, the children will laugh and give out a shout,
And we’ll all be glad when Johnny comes marching home

He continued playing, more softly and without singing. Rex raised his chin — “Didn’t know you were so fond of our high school fight song.”

Double-J shrugged while continuing to play. “How Bark Bay High manipulates the passions of its students, don’t concern me. What interests me, is looking at the stuff they give us – school, society, whatever – and find out what’s really there.” He began playing the opening bars of the song again. “You know what When Johnny Comes Marching Home is about?”

Jimmy cleared his throat. “It’s from the Civil War.”

“Right.” Double-J stopped playing, his arms flying forward across the guitar, fingers extending towards his guests. “See, Johnny was this soldier, in the Union army – that’s the North, Lefty,” a disinterested chuckle rising from his guests. “Johnny’s brother, he wrote the song, people thought the song was a celebration, became popular. Thing was, Johnny didn’t come home, and his family never did find out what happened to him. Johnny suffered the same anonymous fate as thousands of other soldiers. Coulda been killed in battle, clutching a gut wound in some frozen mud field – coulda caught gangrene, died in some filthy army hospital tent – hell, coulda starved, that happened even in the North. Or deserted, decided the war weren’t worth what they was paying him, or that things like slavery or states rights or God help us, preserving the damned Union was all just a bunch of bullshit. We dunno what happened to poor Johnny – ” and now Double-J looked up and smiled at his guests – “but hey, we do have this song to make us all feel better about war.”

Double-J sat upright, grabbed the long neck of the guitar and laid its rounded end softly on the floor, then released the neck to rest against the side of his chair. “But it’s time. Let’s get to the reason for your visit tonight.” He cleared his throat with rough loudness.

Gray Metal Faces – March 6A

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

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

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

He was smiling.

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

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

Seven days in the future

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

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

Definitely Lefty, Rex thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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