Coach Time 7K

Jimmy replied with the reserved tone of a man long accustomed to answering politely to highly personal questions. “So what you’re telling me, Daniel, is that if your students are so openly curious about how a Jew from Chicago wound up here in Bark Bay — they’ll be even more curious about how a black man from New Orleans came here as well.”

“Skokie, actually. But yes, I’d expect them to be very curious, indeed.”

“All right all right.” Jimmy reached down for his jacket, a thin trench coat that looked inadequate for the cold December evening outside. “I can always tell them the truth, about why I came up north.”

Coach Dan raised his eyebrows. “What’s that?”

Jimmy shrugged. “Bugs. I hate bugs.”

Coach Dan studied Jimmy’s expression a long moment, and upon realizing this man who was now certainly his friend was not in the least joking, broke into a wide grin, followed by a loud laugh in which his friend soon joined.

End of seventh coaching session

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Coach Time 7J

Coach Dan was certain Jimmy’s statement, as direct and probing as it was, wasn’t really a challenge. Jimmy was seeking information that he’d find in Coach Dan’s response.

The middle-aged English teacher at Bark Bay High School and volunteer coach of the school’s fencing team, scratched his stomach. “My friend, if I were out to change the world, do you really think that showing a bunch of teenagers how to hold a foil without injuring anybody, especially themselves, would be the place to start?”

Jimmy continued his impassive look a moment. Then the corners of his mouth rose, pushing up his cheeks, the lips of his mouth parting to reveal a broad, toothy grin. “Just messing with you, Daniel.”

“I understand. You seem to approach new opportunities with a high degree of caution.”

Jimmy pushed his hands against the cafeteria floor, thin arms and legs lifting his body like tent poles. “I don’t — look for trouble, Daniel. Enough comes my way on its own.”

Now it was Coach Dan’s turn to lunge with a question. “Are you expecting trouble from us?”

Jimmy shook his head. “Your — students seem polite. Respectful.”

“They’re curious, too.” Coach Dan held up a hand, waited for Jimmy to turn fully towards him. “Very curious. They ask me — questions.”

Jimmy studied Coach Dan a moment. “About — your religion?”

Coach Dan nodded. “Never directly. But they are certainly curious about how I feel about being so — different.”

Coach Time 7I

Jimmy’s expression remained placid throughout Coach Dan’s explanation. And its silent neutrality lingered a long moment. The sound of janitors sweeping the outside hallway filtered in to the cafeteria.

Coach Dan realized that Jimmy was evaluating his explanation. Testing it for veracity against his internal bullshit meter. An act which further confirmed that Coach Dan had made the right decision to encourage Jimmy to help him coach the fencing team.

Jimmy broke the silence. “You said something like ‘learning that it’s OK to be different.’ Tell me, Daniel — don’t you have a personal interest in teaching that lesson?”

Like a fencer expecting an attack to four and seeing it come in at seven, Coach Dan was momentarily surprised. “You — the advantage is yours, my friend. Help me out.”

Jimmy smiled. “Do you remember Saturday, at the Hutchinson’s party, when I said I was certain I had seen you before, but couldn’t recall where?” Coach Dan nodded. “I remember now. The Horowitz bar mitzvah. The Epstein wedding.”

Coach Dan nodded. Jimmy’s catering business was one of very few in the area that provided kosher meals.

“I cater nearly every Jewish event within 50 miles, Daniel. And at every one, I see nearly the same people. I’ve even gotten to know some of the out-of-town relatives on a first-name basis.” Jimmy pointed a long index finger at Coach Dan. “You’ve been there. At nearly every one. Not that there’s that many, mind you — the Jewish population in Bark Bay is small.” Disproportionately low, Coach Dan thought. “So, if I may be so bold, you’re interest in encouraging your students, your fencers, to ‘be different’, has more to it than developing their self-awareness.”

Coach Time 7H

Strategies for answering Jimmy’s question flashed through Coach Dan’s mind, were quickly sorted like a man riffling through a pile of mail. Give him the historical answer? The challenged from Josef, the old college fencing coach? No, that approach required far too much context; Jimmy was looking for a quick answer. New-found love of the sport? No, even if true, it sounded too much like a cliche. Enjoy working with students? No, he was a teacher as well, that couldn’t explain why he’d started a fencing team.

Suddenly, it came to him. Coach Dan looked up, scratched his black beard, smiled at Jimmy.

“We’re creating something new here, my friend. It’s more my students doing than my own — being part of this fencing team has allowed each of them to find out something about themselves that they didn’t know existed.”

“You mean physically? The skills?”

Coach Dan shook his head. “No — well yes, there’s that joy in executing a lunge, or disengage, even parrying an attack, the riposte. They enjoy that, but what they’re discovering goes way beyond the physical.” He paused, asked himself if he really believed in the the thought at the tip of his tongue, but decided that even if he didn’t, he was certain he would like the sound of what he said next.

“They’re learning that it’s OK to be different. That it’s OK to be passionate for a sport that doesn’t get a lot of attention. That it doesn’t matter what others think about what they’re doing, so long as they do what brings them joy.

“Nobody fences for the sake of someone else. All fencers ultimately fence for themsleves. I’m seeing these young men and women figure out who they are. And it’s very, very cool.”

Coach Time 7G

Coach Dan paused, his calm silence communicating his agreement to answer Jimmy’s question. Reclining on the tiled floor of the Bark Bay High School cafeteria, back resting on the short wall at the front of the stage, legs forming twin thin tents in front of his body, forearms resting on his knees — Jimmy looked at Coach Dan with an expression of genuine curiosity.

“Why are you doing this, Daniel?”

Coach Dan raised his eyebrows. He had not expected this question.

Jimmy broke the short silence between them. “A fencing team? In this rural corner of the frozen north, in a town that lives for football and basketball?” He waved his right hand off to their left. “Your equipment, Daniel — it’s battered and tattered. And with the economy the way it is, I don’t imagine you have the budget to replace any of it.”

“My friend, I’ve learned it’s not worth my time pleading my case to our athletic director.”

“So again, Daniel — why are you doing this? Because before I agree to give up part of my one free day each week to assist you with coaching this team, I need to know what you — what we — would be striving for.”

Coach Dan hummed, scratched the short black curls of his beard a moment. He knew these questions demonstrated that Jimmy would be perfect as his assistant coach. But he also knew that the answer he’d give could very well determine whether Jimmy would take the position.

Coach Time 7F

Coach Dan stroked the short curls of his black beard. “I’ve heard people say that Double-J marches to the beat of his own drummer.” He snorted a laugh. “I think he told his drummer to take a hike a long time ago.”

“You’re worried about him.” Jimmy’s words were more a statement than question.

“I go back and forth on that. At times I think about how he has a job already, his own apartment — he’s more independent than your average high school student. He knows how to take care of himself.”

“But his decisions — ”

“Yes, yes. It costs him, even in fencing. He’s so aggressive — ”

“Tell me about it.” Jimmy rubbed his right shoulder. “He was coming at me all evening.”

“And his opponents have faced him enough times to know that he falls in love with an attack. If it doesn’t work, he just tries to do it hard, faster. With Double-J, it’s always about what he thinks the most effective attack would be, never about figuring out what his opponent’s weaknesses are.”

“You sound frustrated.”

Coach Dan laughed. “Jimmy, of all the students I’ve worked with on the fencing team, Double-J’s the one I’ve worked with most. But for all the students I’ve been able to work with — it just isn’t working between him and I. I’ve failed him.” He turned to Jimmy. “And that really bothers me.”

“Hmmm.” Jimmy tilted his head back slowly, until it rested against the short wall behind him. “So this is why you’re asking for my help.”

“I don’t have the luxury of having a separate coach for each weapon. Fortunately my epee fencers also fence foil, but sabre — Double-J’s the only one. And it’s the only weapon he’ll touch these days.”

“I see.” Jimmy closed his eyes, let the silence of the large cafeteria surround them a moment. He then lifted his head, opened his eyes, looked at Coach Dan. “I have one question for you, Daniel.”

Coach Time 7E

“So I ask Lefty, can I talk to that young man?, and he’s like sure, so he goes to get him. Minute later the youth I saw in the lounge, he walks through the door, and his hair’s even more messed up than before, it looks like something out of Mardi Gras.

“I says to him, Lefty tells me you just saved me a whole bunch of money on that brake job. He just shrugs. Then I make some dumb comment about how young he looks, and how I was surprised that Lefty hired people so young. And then he snorts, says that’s ‘cuz he never officially hired me. And I’m like, get out, but he just shakes his head, he can’t, well he could now but when I started, state law said I was too young to work, so he started paying me under the table and we just kept doing that.

Coach Dan nodded. “Double-J’s told me that too, that he and Lefty are all off the books.”

Jimmy turned his head toward Coach Dan. “Figure that arrangement don’t work out best for that young man.”

“You figure right. One of the teachers here, his wife’s an accountant, I asked her to look into Double-J’s finances. He only agreed when she said she was donating her time. Couple months later I asked her at a faculty party, and she said he was making about half what an experienced auto mechanic should make in this area.”

Jimmy turned his attention back to the cafeteria doors. “Makes sense. I could tell by the way he talked to me that day, he was one to want to walk a lonely path.”

Coach Time 7D

“You seemed to know Double-J pretty well.” Coach Dan realized he was speaking in the same tone he used when soliciting a response from his students.

Jimmy shrugged, forearms still resting on his knees as he reclined against the short cafeteria wall in front of the stage. “Brake light on the delivery van flipped on last year, so I took it in to Lefty’s. Tells me it would take him a while to get it fixed and I was like, I’ll wait here. So I’m in that little waiting room they have, trying to find a magazine, and in walks this young man.” Jimmy held out his hands in front of him, shoulder-wide. “He’s got this hair, it’s all black and stringy and wild, like he’s just got himself electrocuted.

“I says hello, and he grunts, heads towards the vending machine. Without looking at me, he asks, you the guy with the van? And I go yeah, and he says found the problem, just had to bleed the brake lines, we’re just about done. And then I thank him, but he just grunts, gets his thing from the machine, walks out without looking back at me.

“Little while Lefty, he come in, says I’m all set. I go to pay, he tells me how much and I’m like, get out, that’s all? And Lefty motions back to the shop with his thumb, says he’s got this new kid working for him, calls himself Double-J. And I says, he the one with the hair, and Lefty’s like, oh yeah.

Coach Time 7C

Coach Dan reached to his right, retrieved his water bottle. Still sitting, he opened the bottle, drank quickly. Lowering the bottle, he addressed Jimmy without turning to him.

“We’ve got the next four weeks off for the holidays. Practice resumes on the second Tuesday in January.”

Jimmy’s voice sounded even wearier than his body looked. “Wednesday’s my only day off, Daniel. These old bones need their rest.”

“Jimmy, I need a sabre coach.”

“You have six fencers, Daniel. I think you can find the time to work with everyone.”

“Seven, my friend. Confirmed with Dani that she’s coming back after the new year.”

“All right, seven — ”

“Double-J’s ready to quit.”

Jimmy turned quickly, stared at Coach Dan silently as he continued. “It’s this damn captain thing. You heard us talking about it at the party Saturday. Double-J thinks he should be captain, said he ‘deserves’ it, and he’s not happy with it going to Annie instead.”

“Wasn’t aware that being captain was such a big deal.”

“Agreed, it shouldn’t be. But it is to Double-J. He’s taking this very personally, like it’s a slap in the face. Broke the news to him a few days before the party, and though he didn’t come out and say it, I could tell he has this close — ” he squeezed the tips of his right thumb and index f finger together, held them up towards Jimmy — “from saying he was done with the team.”

Jimmy nodded, turned his gaze back towards the door through which Double-J and Rex had just exited. “I see.”

Coach Time 7B

Jimmy waved his fingers in the direction of the cafeteria doors, through which Rex and Double-J had just left. “Tell you one thing, those young men aren’t anything like the fencers I knew back in the day.” He wiped sweat from his brow as Coach Dan asked him how so. “There’s something — dark about them both. With Double-J it’s more evident, but even with Rex, I keep feeling there’s something unpleasant inside him, right under the surface.”

Coach Dan asked if he had gone to a Catholic school; Jimmy nodded, provided the name. “So what you’re telling me, my friend, is that Catholic students twenty years ago in New Orleans didn’t have problems?”

Jimmy shook his head. “Of course not, Daniel. But they — we — everyone knew who they were back then. It was a simpler time, even in a melting pot like New Orleans, at least you had some kind of identity. Those boys — ” he waved his fingers at the cafeteria doors again — “I don’t think they know who they are.”

“What they are, is fencers.” Coach Dan turned to Jimmy. “And even after all these years away from the sport, I can tell you are as well.”

Jimmy smiled, closed his eyes. “I’ll admit, I had a good time this evening.”