Coach Dan’s Tale 2Q

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

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

Dan picked up the fencing glove, left lazily on his bed. He realized he had been attempting all his adult life to be the same person he had been in his youth, had been determined to hold on to what mattered most to him. And those aspects of him could survive, yes — but only if he changed, adapted to his surroundings. He could live in Bark Bay, could still be a Jew, a teacher, a fencing coach — but not the same Jew, the same intellect, the same fencer, he had been in his youth.

He put down the fencing glove, back on the bed near where it lay before, and walked back into the living room of his apartment. He looked at the telephone, inert on the table, a silent portal to different worlds. If he waited long enough Colleen would call again, demanding an answer to the job opening she had arranged on his behalf.

We’re either running from something, or running to something.

Dan Jacobs, English instructor at Bark Bay High School, coach of the Bark Bay fencing team — Coach Dan picked up the telephone, pushed a button until Colleen’s number displayed on the small screen, pressed Talk. He held the receiver to his ear, heard the distant ringing on the other end. A moment later Colleen would answer, and thought he did not use the exact words, he would tell her that, for now anyway, he was determined to remain still.

End of “Coach Dan’s Tale”

Coach Dan’s Tale 2P

There was still that job, at Maine Central. He looked at his phone, thought about how a simple return call to Colleen would set in motion a chain of events leading to, to . . .

We’re either running towards something, or running from something.

He would be back in Illinois, just north of Chicago. “Don’t you ever miss your hometown?” Katie had asked, several times, never accepting his pat yes, and no response. “You know I’m not a religious man,” he’d explain, “but not having to take vacation days on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, that would be nice.” Then Katie would challenge him — she really was differentshe had an independence, an intellect, a moxie — they probably needed teachers back in Skokie. “That’s not what I want,” he’d reply. “I’d be just another face in the crowd. Not comfortable with that.”

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

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

Coach Dan’s Tale 2O

Coaching the fencing team had certainly given him a jolt, a thrust of energy to his teaching career that was always threatened with stagnation in a small town like Bark Bay. And with Miles the previous three years the team had flourished, had enjoyed success he hadn’t hoped to imagine.

But Dan knew that had been an unusual stroke of good fortune, a warm week in the middle of winter. Miles was an outstanding all-around athlete, who felt the team sports that Bark Bay High didn’t allow him to fully express his individual ability. Fencing for him was a novelty, an experiment — and as his struggles in college demonstrated, it only held his interest so long as he enjoyed success.

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

Because he did not know how long he’d be at Bark Bay. The enthusiasm he had for small-town life — the slower pace, the appreciation of simple pleasures, the self-effacing personalities — had been diminishing. Katie had noticed that, had challenged him on that. “You’re not going to want to stay in town?” she’d asked. He tried to deflect, I don’t know what I’m having for dinner tonight, how should I know what I’ll be doing in five years?, but Katie wouldn’t relent.

“You’re too ambitious to stay.”

Everybody has ambitions, Katie. You have your business.

“But some ambitions can be met in town, others can’t. I know I can make a living with cake decoration in Bark Bay, there’s always going to be birthday parties, graduations, weddings, and everyone’s going to want a little something different, it’ll never get old. But teaching — my aunt was a teacher, I remember her talking about how little things changed year to year. Are you still going to want to teach English at Bark Bay High School five years from now? You’re not like my aunt, Dan — you’re curious, you like to challenge yourself as much as you like to challenge others. How long before you run out of challenges at Bark Bay?”

We’re either running from something, or running to something. Had he run out of things to run towards in Bark Bay?

Coach Dan’s Tale 2N

But he couldn’t just say oh well, it didn’t work out with Katie, she wasn’t like Gina or Cam or, or the nameless faces he remembered, the fun times while it lasted, over when the time stopped being fun. Katie was different — not in any specific quality that she had, but in the fact that yes, he had been avoiding the word (we’re all escaping from something) but couldn’t live in denial any longer, he had loved her, and while part of him wanted her to run to Wayne, to leave him with his independence —

Dan looked around his apartment, the piles of laundry, books stored in odd places (on top of appliances, under blankets, stacked on the floor, unstacked on the floor), food spoiling in the sink, the stovetop, the fridge. He suddenly felt as if his living space had been the victim of a schoolboy prank.

He wasn’t living any longer in Bark Bay, at least not according to his definition of living, something along the lines of continual self-improvement. He had taken root, not like a flowering plant but rather like a mountain, stone and cold, immovable, immutable.

He walked into his bedroom, saw among the pile of clothes (some ready for the laundry, others not) the fencing glove he used during practice. Fencing — now there was evidence of growth. He wouldn’t have started Bark Bay’s fencing team, or club as it was, absent of Josef’s challenge. But I chose to take up the challenge, he thought, it was my choice to fight the athletic department, get the funding we needed, had made time available for my students, my fencers.

MY fencers? There’s an odd choice of word, my, like they belong to me. More like they’re my responsibility, actually, I’m responsible for their development, as fencers at least.

Coach Dan’s Tale 2M

As he lowered the phone his eye caught Josef’s letter, lying on the kitchen counter next to the refrigerator. A voice, message from my past life, he thought, then turned to his phone — voice from the past, message from the future? “And here I am, in the present,” he said aloud.

Yes, he was here, in the present, in the same small apartment he had lived in for four years, in the same town he had lived and worked, taught, for seven years. You’re either running to something, or from something. He had never given serious thought to Colleen’s opportunity two years ago, made no inquiries of his own, Colleen acting as his voluntary agent. He laughed about it at the time, talked about it freely with Steph and his other friends, just as he had that evening with the olive-skinned woman. He tried to remember her name — Shamalka? No, that wasn’t it, I should know, I’m not some ethno-centric ignoramous like — better not finish that thought.

He hadn’t told her that Colleen had called again just two weeks ago, that the same job at the same school was opening, the new hire had found a better opportunity closer to his home in New Orleans, he kept calling it Naw-Lins, we should have known. He hadn’t told Steph either, or anyone else in Bark Bay. Hadn’t called his parents, his schoolboy friends living in Skokie and Evanston — hadn’t talked to anybody. Only Colleen, and the school board, knew about their offer to him.

Something was different, making him pause in consideration this time. He couldn’t shrug off this opportunity like he had two years ago. What changed? Not this apartment, not his job — had he been seeing Katie then? No, that was before Katie. Wasn’t Katie just the latest in a long line of women who had come in and out of his adult life? Katie . . . Katie was a local, born and raised in Bark Bay, she’d either die as an old woman in Bark Bay or would die of heartbreak much younger if she moved away. Wayne was a plumber, had his own business — he would stay. It wasn’t going to work out, not Katie, not him.

Coach Dan’s Tale 2L

“Well hello Daniel.” Coach Dan said hello.

“I tried calling you earlier but you weren’t in.” He was out doing a favor for a friend.

“A good friend?” Yes. “Well I’m glad to hear that. Your mother worries about you, says you still haven’t made good friends at Bark Bay after all these years.” Coach Dan asked what he could help her with, already knowing the substance if not the detail of what she would say next.

“Carolyn called me today. You remember Carolyn, don’t you?” Name three members of the Confederate cabinet. “She’s on the school board at Maine Central.” Six miles from his parents house in Skokie.

“Daniel, you need to act. Carolyn can’t say it outright but I can tell by the tone of her voice, the job’s yours if you want it. They took a chance on Durlin a couple years ago, and now that it’s not working out they want to hire the best this time. They want you even more than they did back then.”

Everyone is either running to something, or running from something.

“Dammit, we’ve given you time, Daniel! How much more time do you need?”

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

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

Arm first, then lunge.

“There’s a board meeting Tuesday. Can you give them an answer by then?”

What are you escaping from?

“You do that. Have a good evening, Daniel.” He wished her a good night, and lowered the receiver.

Coach Dan’s Tale 2K

Coach Dan placed the letter down, began to think of how he would respond to Josef as he opened cabinet and container doors and lids in preparation of his evening meal. He made it his goal to respond to the weekly letters from his old coach with a monthly repsonse of his own (in a letter of course — Josef was equally resistant to receiving more technologically advanced communications as he was sending them). His letters addressed, point by point, each of his former coach’s criticisms. He wasn’t sure when he had sent his last letter, but he felt compelled this evening —

Compelled. Coach Dan was attuned to his compulsions, was wary of their power over his life. What was compelling him?

You didn’t just come to Bark Bay, the olive-skinned (Prajakta was it?) had said. You were escaping from something.

Escape. Running from, rather than running to. Retreat, parry, no advance, no lunge, arm not extended.

Do you know what you were escaping from?

shhhrEEEN. When Coach Dan’s telephone broke a few years back he had replaced it with the cheapest model he could find, and was too proud to admit that its irritating ring was proof that he had made a mistake. shhhrEEEN. He placed the carton of milk in his hand on the counter, walked with purpose to the phone.

The name on the caller ID screen was FRIEDMAN COLLEEN. His old high school teacher. Coach Dan sighed, picked up the receiver.

Coach Dan’s Tale 2J

Josef’s letter was filled with his customary criticisms. Without ever having seen any Bark Bay fencers in action, Dan’s former coach was convinced none were living up to their potential, a failure he attributed directly to their coach, who did not expect enough from them.

Coach Dan shook his head as he read through the letter, knew there was no way to explain to Josef that their coaching environments were entirely different. Fencing at Bark Bay wasn’t a varsity sport, was officially designated a club, with no funding. Our equipment is second-hand, he wanted to explain, we practice in the cafeteria. We’re lucky to even exist.

It had been different when Miles had been with him the past few years, but that was mostly beause Miles was a special athlete, gifted not only in strength and speed but in desire, his adaptability, his brilliantly tactical mind. He hadn’t needed to push Miles because Miles pushed himself.

But Miles was gone now, graduated, off to college, to State. There was still some talent on the team, but Coach Dan knew that pushing them would not produce the results that Josef took for granted. If he did challenge them, Double-J would flip him off, Annie retreat, Rex disentegrate, Bernie implode. Butch, Kassie — they were too new, Dan did not have a feel for how they’d respond to pressure.

Josef urged him to grab control of the team, bend it to his will, but Coach Dan knew he could not adopt his teacher’s ways to the Bark Bay fencing team. It wasn’t a foil, a rigid piece of steel that needed to be mastered, forged into a weapon of victory. Coach Dan’s team was more a delicate flower — if he applied too much pressure he would crush, extinguish its life force.

And yet he also knew that Josef was partly right — if he didn’t apply enough pressure, this delicate flower would float away from him on a breeze, lost and alone.

Coach Dan’s Tale 2I

Josef’s letter was handwritten, as always, all in block capital letters, a composition style that befitted his stenatorian demeanor. YOU MAKE MISTAKE WITH CAPTAIN it began — Coach Dan had written him (Josef being as reluctant to take calls as make them) about the decision to name Annie the captain. SHE IS YOUNG. OLDER MEN WILL NOT ACCEPT. Coach Dan knew it was a risk to have a sophomore team captain, but he had an appreciation for Annie’s leadership skills that he suspected men like Josef, convinced in the correctness of his old school philosophy, would easily overlook. Getting Double-J on board with the decision — he had reluctantly agreed to Annie only when it had become clear that nobody would support his being captain — but that was hardly a reason to reconsider the decision, as getting Double-J was hardly willing to agree on the time of day.

Coach Dan’s Tale 2H

“Second letter this week,” Coach Dan mumbled as he slapped Josef’s letter into the pile of mail crooked into his arm. His coach had been sending letters frequently to the Odd-B ever since his former student had started the Bark Bay fencing four years ago. It was always letters, Josef having a paranoia about government surveliance born of his long years under totalitarian rule.

“They can open mail too,” his students would often remind him.

“You know when mail opened,” he’d reply. “Tap phone, email — easy to do without detection. Not mail.” Nobody appeared to believe that challenging his logic was worthwhile.

Coach Dan took the elevator to the third floor, turned right as soon as the doors opened and walked robotically to his apartment door. He didn’t count the steps this time, but knew it always took 14 steps to get to B306, unless he had to maneuver around some person or obstacle.

He walked into his apartment, took two steps and threw his mail over the back of the sofa that faced the entertainment center. He removed his winter jacket, discarded that over the sofa as well, then walked into the kitchen, opening the refrigerator door and retrieving a can of juice.

He walked into the living area, sat down on the couch between his jacket and today’s mail. Flitting through the mail, he retrieved Josef’s letter, and holding it up in the air as if it were a medal, said, “Well Josef, let’s see what you’ve got to say for yourself today.”