Return of Myles 3R

Coach Dan scanned the faces in the room, saw the same faces he had seen before his attempt to deflect Myles’ blow. Annie still burned amber with indignant anger; Rex’s pallid face remained passive and accepting; Bernie looked down, shame and defeat evident in his posture; Butch continued to look confused, the wideness of his eyes making his face seem rounder than usual; Kassie’s eyes darted nervously from left to right, as if she were looking for somebody or something else to come threaten her and the other members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team. Only Double-J, hanging back apart from the rest of the team, seemed truly comfortable, his face beaming with bemused appreciation as he broke the silence in the large, empty cafeteria.

“This mean practice is over, Coach?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of “Return of Myles”



Return of Myles 3Q

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return of Myles 3P

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

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

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

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

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

Return of Myles 3O

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return of Myles 3N

Myles staggered back from his former coach’s push, then glared past him, towards his former teammates on the Bark Bay High School fencing squad.

“Think you’re safe here?” Butch looked quickly to his right and left, like a man suddenly told he was surrounded by wild dogs. Myles sniffed loudly. “Safe with all your geek friends, playing your geek sport?” Myles was shouting now, his voice bouncing off the tiled floors ad concrete walls of the empty cafeteria. He pointed without looking behind him, in the direction of large metal exit doors. “Think anything you learn here is going to help you out there?”

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

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

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

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

“Call me Dan. And call me tomorrow.”

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

Return of Miles 3M

An excited cry, OOH! OOH!, shot from behind Coach Dan. Who turned, and saw Double-J jumping on his heels, right hand raised high, his moustachioed face brimming with mock enthusiasm.

“Lemme guess, lemme guess!” Double-J lowered his arm and stepped forward, past his teammates, past Coach Dan’s outstretched reach, all pretense of enthusiasm dissipating with each step towards Myles. “That fencer would be you, right? Mr. All-Star, Bark Bay’s Golden Boy.”

Myles grinned. “As a matter of fact — ”

“Adrienne called me the other day.” Double-J’s tone was quick and biting, like the head cut he used so often when competing in sabre. Myles’ grin fell as Double-J continued. “Said she was worried about you, wanted to know what was going on.”

Coach Dan placed a hand on the back of Double-J’s shoulder. “Enough — ”

Double-J thrust the shoulder forward, away from his coach’s hand. “The Rat doesn’t let you compete if you cut class.” Karl Ratzenkeller, fencing coach at State for a decade, had a reputation for being fair but firm. “And what you said about State being on break, it’s the middle of the week, middle of October, that’s B.S.”

Myles raised his chin, pointed a finger at Double-J. “Asshole — ”

“Are you flunking?”

Coach Dan stepped between the two teens, catching Myles as he stepped forward. “That’s ENOUGH!” he cried, pushing both away from him.

Return of Myles 3L

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

“You’re a bunch of losers.” He fully extended his arm, his accusatory finger now pointed directly at Double-J. “Powerless rebel.” At Rex, “Pariah.” At Annie, “Scared little girl.” At Bernie, “Spaz.” At Butch, “Lard-ass.” At Kassie, “Freak.”

Coach Dan held up his right hand, palm facing back at his team. “And me? What sobriquet will you honor me with?”

Myles lowered his right arm, smiled venomously at his former coach. “Oh how noble, coach, trying to defend these poor wretches who’ve fallen under your spell. Tell me, does it bother you to know that you’re just using them?”

Coach Dan flinched, but did not answer. Myles raised his chin, called out to the team behind him. “Has he told you about his fencing career? How he blew out his knee before his first tournament, and never recovered?”

“Yes.” Annie followed her response with a cold stare back at Myles.

Myles laughed, taking a step back. “Doesn’t that tell you why he started this team, after a decade of not fencing? He’s having a mid-life crisis, folks! You’re just puppets to him, he’s vicariously living the fencing career he couldn’t enjoy through you!” He leaned forward, clapped twice, then stood upright, his face filled with mock wonder. “But wait — none of you are quite as good as he was, back in the day.” He pointed at Rex. “Perhaps you’ll qualify for states this year, in epee, but no, you’re not going to medal, the Academy’s too strong.” He held his arms wide. “There was only one person, one fencer who could realize his unfulfilled potential.”

Return of Myles 3K

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

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

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

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

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

Return of Myles 3J

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

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

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

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

“But that’s not my –”

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

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

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

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

Return of Myles 3I

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

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

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

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

Myles stood uprgright, laughing. “No –”

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