Suggestions Box

A coffee can gleamed from a bleached counter.  Only the waves and seabirds had welcomed it so far, and they were faint behind salt-flecked windows; from the crew, there had been nothing but wary silence.  The can invaded their personal space.  It was very new.  It was tackier than the mackerel the captain had stapled to the wall.  Someone had written on it, “Suggestions.”

“That,” Someone said, “is a suggestions can.”

The crew spun in their seats.  The speaker, a man, stood in the doorway, like a clothed and vengeful Zephyrus. When the whirl of napkins, spray, and steam ended, the captain became mortal again.  He smelled of fish.

His red-cumulus brows and tuft of hair floated like morning clouds above sea-gray eyes. Those eyes prophesied for Neptune and switched moods in a moment.  Death was in those eyes.

A Catholic among the salts averted his eyes and crossed himself surreptitiously under Captain’s Medusa-like glare.  Protestants and non-believers saw the movement and silently cursed the Reformation.  Ritual made Captain easier to deal with, a crucifix to his nautical Dracula.

“You can write a suggestion on a piece of paper, fold it up, and put it in here.”  Captain crossed to the counter as he spoke, lifted the can reverently, and pointed to a convenient slot cut in the plastic top.  An unwise person sniggered.

Captain dropped his gaze back to the room.  Silence again.

“Your suggestions will be kept confidential.”  The clink of tin on wood resonated uninterrupted.

Captain limped over to the ancient and pitted coffee pot.  With another glare, he filled his novelty mug and left.  Then the whispers began.

***

Captain smiled gently when he slammed the galley door and crossed the deck to the rail.  Any suggestion made would not be confidential; he recognized each man’s handwriting on the ship.  Soon, they would realize this.

Captain had invented the can the night before, after watching a something similar on his favorite sitcom.  Normally, Captain would read Moby-Dick in bed, but someone had stolen his copy.  The suggestions can would help punish the criminal: Captain would now be able to keel-haul the culprit.  Other than that, it was just searching.  Captain was not an especially cruel man, but he was very upset.

An explosion of noise occurred behind Captain as someone exited the cabin. Captain sipped his coffee.

“Yes, Jones?” Captain asked when the footsteps got close.

Paul Jones was the ship’s skinny, black-capped, university-educated, literature-inclined mate and occasional other book club member, although not recently.  Captain remembered this about Jones and had an idea.

“Permission to speak frankly, sir?” Jones asked. Captain turned around, grin gone.  Jones always spoke frankly and never asked for permission.  Captain nodded and the man continued quickly:

“Sir, I think that the idea to take suggestions may have come at an inappropriate time.”

Captain looked the slender mate over.  Something was obviously wrong with Jones; then again, Jones always had a problem.  The ocean, salt, religion, fish, discussing Melville.  Jones wrote his thesis on Moby-Dick, but had never answered any of Captain’s many questions about their mutually favorite work and author.

“Have you considered the possibility that someone might abuse this privilege? Sir?” Jones asked, hesitantly.  He must not have liked the added scrutiny, because he was squirming and turning green. “Anyone could suggest anything. There weren’t even any guidelines.”  The last bit was rather accusatory.

Captain placed a hand Jones’s wiggling shoulder and looked deep into Jones’s eyes.  “I’m not concerned with that. If someone suggests something stupid, I’ll know.  If someone suggests something brilliant, I’ll also know. Then I will dispense justice as I see fit.”

Dramatically, Jones shook free and turned his back.

“But… what about confidentiality?” Jones’s back asked.

“Jones, I have eyes, a working brain, and copies of every crewman’s handwriting.  How do you expect that to be confidential?”

Jones’s shoulders hunched. “But, I thought you’ve always said that a maritime democracy is a mutiny.  Every time we’ve tried for a vote”

“Enough, Jones.”  He’d let the man whine long enough. “The can stays.  Tell the crew not to worry. Also, put in a suggestion that the reading and possession of Moby-Dick is now mandatory.  Then meet me above.  We’ll discuss security up top, if that’s what’s bothering you.”  With that, Captain swept away toward the cabin and climbed the ladder to the navigation deck.

As he pulled himself up, Captain wondered about Jones’s insistent questioning.  Maybe I should have told him, he thought.  Captain resolved to check on the can that night to make sure that it wasn’t interfered with.

***

Paul Jones felt very ill as he watched Captain climb the ladder one-handed.  He hadn’t slept well the previous night and now his troubles were compounding.  At dinner, Captain had asked him another inane question about Moby-Dick (“Why is the captain so obsessed with that stupid whale?”).  That had forced him to break a solemn oath, made in the collegian naiveté, never to burn a book.  He thought it symbolic the way the flames consumed “Call me Ishmael.”  Then Paul went to sleep.

At about three in morning, Paul awakened from a dream in which he had fallen through nothingness next to a burning white whale who kept asking, “Why did you do this to me? Why?  He checked himself for extra arms or a carapace, but the unsettling dreams had not transmogrified him.  Disappointed, Paul sighed and tried to fall back asleep.

When the sheep got red hair and started asking him how to spell the word “I,” Paul stopped counting. Cursing and sweating, Paul pulled on his cap, went topside, and bee lined to the galley to banish his dreams with a special, university-developed blend. Then he saw the can.

Paul read it and pondered it as he mixed the ingredients.  He checked the mug when he felt light-headed enough, then added a few drops of cold coffee for palatability.  He threw the mixture back.

With many fewer brain cells, Paul read the can again.  It was a joke, obviously, or a hallucination.  As the sleeping potion began to set in, he wrote his recommendations on napkins and slipped them inside. Several of them had to do with alternative techniques for destroying dog-eared copies of Moby-Dick.  Then he stumbled to bed.

Paul awakened in the morning proper to a fit of sobriety.  He hurried into the galley to see the can shining bright and innocent in the morning light.

Frantically, Paul grabbed a bench and sat down.  He dropped his head into his hands and ignored any cautious greetings sent his way.  That was until he watched one of last night’s more obscene napkins wipe crumbs from another man’s mouth.  After that, Paul collapsed in dismay.

Most napkins were in the can, he knew.  Others were still in the napkin dispenserhow this happened or how he knew, Paul wasn’t sure. But he could see them.  And still others were roaming around the kitchen.

“I would suggest you move today, Jones!  You do like your job, right?”  Captain’s scream echoed over the deck and made Paul very anxious.

Quickly, Paul decided to remove his errant suggestions that night, while keeping a close eye on Captain during the day.  Wait! Paul silently told himself, you could volunteer to guard it tonight.  Considering this, Paul knew he had to make sure Captain didn’t see anything in that can.  Newly resolved and feeling less queasy, Paul climbed a ladder to be sprayed with insults, spittle, and future nightmares.

Paul’s impromptu plan was successful: Captain had assigned him the full night watch. In fact, a massive haul of fish that afternoon had made him particularly charitable, Captain said, so Paul would be protecting the ship’s democratic process.  Alone. For the entire night.  Eight hours. Ha ha.

Paul protested solely for appearance’s sake, but his vocal cords still throbbed from the shouting match he’d lost.  When no one was looking, Captain shot Paul a wink.  When Captain wasn’t looking, Paul stretched out his middle finger.

So Paul had been left to spend the night comforted by stars, a smell of fish, and that wretched can. Again and again, he told himself that he had planned this, but more and more he disliked it.  No one had even volunteered to keep him company.  Not that he would have accepted, but it still would have been nice.  Anyway, better get a move on

“Thought I’d keep you company, Paul.”  Paul started and cursed himself for inner turmoil. It was the ship’s boy, Billy.  If a mouse could be a boy, it would be Billy.  Billy was very brown, very small, very much ten, and not very bright.

“Not right for you to spend the whole four hours alone, sir,” Billy continued.  Paul ignored him.

This was probably the only ship that still had a boy.  Because of this, Paul wasn’t surprised when he found a whip and a sextant in Captain’s chambers.

“Oh, it’s nothing, Billy,” Paul said, breaking the boy’s commentary on loneliness. “I’ve kept many a long watch before this.”   He tried to get as much stoicism as he could into those words; he needed to be alone.  Usually, Paul liked the kid.  Now, this was turning out to be a problem.

“Yeah, but… it’s not fair, and that’s it.”  Billy seized Paul’s tone like a life raft; Paul had a horrific idea. A distraction would give him a chance to put the contents of the can into his pocket, and then he could jump into the water after the kid.  During the rescue, all Paul’s troubles would float away.

“Don’t worry, it’s fine.” Paul sighed and inched to the rail. “It’s all right.”

“No, it’s not.” Billy said after a long pause. “It’s not right at all.” Paul stopped and winced, following the kid’s train of thought.

“Hey, there’s that suggestions thing!” Billy said, after another break.  You had to be more than a little slow to remain on this ship, Paul thought moodily. “You could put something in there that says, um, ‘No night watches all alone.’ ”

“That’s a good idea Billy, but it probably won’t work.”

“Why not?”

“Because you need to go back to bed” wasn’t a good answer, so Paul didn’t give it.  Instead, he tried a mysterious tone with, “Because Captain would know.”

“Sorry Paul, but that doesn’t seem like a good reason,” Billy said, sagely. “Isn’t that the point of a suggesting something? Don’t you want it to be got? Why are you making that face?”

“Old… harpooning injury.  Big shark.  Little boat,” Paul lied. “Maybe I wasn’t clear enough, Billy.  If you write down a suggestion on a piece of paper and put it into that can, Captain will know, for sure, that it was you.”

“I thought you said they were anemones? That injury sure is hurting you a lot.  Does hitting your forehead help?”

“ ‘Anonymous,’ you little… observer, you.  That’s just a fancy way of keeping our names a secret.  But make one Captain doesn’t like, and he’ll make it hell for you.”

After another minute of water lapping: “Did you put in one you think he won’t like?”

“Maybe. Maybe someone else did.”

“You should take it out.”

“Who says I put one in?”

“You did.  Right before I came up.  You’ve been muttering about it all day.  Anyway, I thought Moby Dick was the captain’s favorite. You’re a smart man, Paul.  You’ve got it figured out. Why would a book be a problem?  Paul?  That must be a bad injury, for you to be crying like that.”

***

Paul finally ditched the kid when the sky was lightening.

After the exhaustion-induced breakdown end, Billy forced Paul into the galley, fixed him a cosmopolitan, and made Paul tell him the story of Jaws.  Just when Paul thought it was safe to move for the can, Billy woke up and asked to be told about Moby Dick.  Paul then proceeded to recite his thesis.  When dawn was just breaking, the kid dropped off.

With great stealth, Paul rose from his bench and crept toward the wood on which the can lay, unassuming and unaware.  Like a hunter, Paul stalked his static quarry.  Like a graverobber, he carefully got into position, the can his targeted idol. One hand on it…

“Ishmael is obviously a pseudonym.  What does pseudonym mean, Paul?” Billy asked, loudly, in his sleep.

Paul jumped two feet in the air.  He landed in a fighting crouch and leapt forward.  The can had been propelled by his surprise, and it tap danced away.  It pirouetted when it reached the end of the counter, winked at him in the morning light, and plunged.

Paul cursed softly but remained still.  A sympathetic gonging noise only made him cringe more.  The can rolled with a crescendo until it enthusiastically greeted a table leg with a loud pop.  The contents of the can shot toward the sky and covered the cabin with a white film and fluttering. Paul held his breath.

“Wha?” The noise had been loud enough to wake Billy. “What happened, Paul?  What did you–” Billy had apparently never studied sign language, because he ignored Paul’s frantic gesticulations for quiet. Captain slept right below the kitchen.

“Damn it all to hell!” screamed the voice below decks. “Run up the hoister and set the jig! Pull the ropes aft!  Someone’s going to be missing their ribs tonight!”  Paul head sunk into his chest as the cacophony increased.  He was doomed.

With the clarity that comes to the mortally wounded it was only a matter of time Paul noticed every detail.

“You little stinker!”

“You bastard!” Paul screamed and rose from the fetal position. “Your head’s gonna roll!”

***

Captain was surprised.  He’d never seen Paul Jones this angry, and he’d made Jones livid several times before.  With each angry outburst, Captain thought Jones might burst blood vessels in his face. Jones’ temper was over the boiling point; it was vaporizing.

“What exactly did you say happened, Mr. Jones?” Captain wasn’t used to honestly asking questions, and so sounded like a teenaged suitor. He wondered briefly if he’d been too hard on Jones the night before. What had made the man crack?

Jones spat on his captive as a way of pointing.  The poor man couldn’t move much anyway.  Captain suspected he had a broken leg or two.  Captain also suspected who was at fault. “This felon was tampering with the suggestions can!” Jones said.

Captain was surprised.  He’d always thought “felon” was a compliment.  Unsure, he proceeded with tact:

“I see.”

The eyebrow wrinkle that accompanied the polite nothing usually was enough. This time, of course, it did nothing.  Jones appeared at a loss for what to do next, so he shook the criminal as best he could. Captain peered closer.  The culprit was Ishmael, a well-scrubbed man, with a pink, teardrop face and body, calm demeanor and easy laugh.  Captain had hired him for his surname and his tendency not to flinch when looked at.  However, he was not one Captain pegged as a dissenter or a saboteur. Albeit now, he definitely looked like one…

Captain furrowed his forehead.  The rest of the crew shrank back.  He noticed several, in addition to Rodriguez, making the Sign of the Cross.  While that was unimportant now, Captain always felt hurt, on the inside, when they did that. Like he was unholy.  He’d never blasphemed in his life, though he’d cursed a bit…

Jones started screaming again.

“Thank you, Mr. Jones,” Captain said, after it sounded like Jones was done.  He didn’t want Ishmael getting too close to the rail and there was no telling what Jones might do.  “You will release Mr. Ishmael. Your desire to protect our beloved instrument of democracy will not go unnoticed.  Perhaps I’ll heed the suggestion.”

Jones stopped in mid-breath.  Terror surged to his cheeks.  Captain hadn’t done that to Jones in years.  What caused that? Captain wondered. He hadn’t put that much menace into the tone.

Captain threw his eyes over the crew, each man shivering.  Even the man on the rail, who added a guilty look that said, “What, me abandon ship?  How could you Oh, I just thought I saw a big fish in the distance.  Marlin, or something.  Chased by an old guy.  Talking to himself.  But it was nothing.”  Captain nodded when the man carefully returned to deck.

Jones was stiff as a board.  Captain stepped forward and noticed the wince.

“Got something you want to say, Mr. Jones?” Captain asked quietly, over the sounds of wind and water.

Jones shook his head.  Captain let the glare linger for a bit, before turning his back.

“Mr. Ishmael, stand up.”  At the poor man’s plaintive movement, Captain said, “Okay, sit up then.”  The deep breath Captain took in was like a low-pressure system moving air away.  A faint noise behind him meant that Jones had noted the barometer dropping fast.

“You will tell me exactly what you were doing when Mr. Jones encountered you, Mr. Ishmael,” Captain said, in his authoritative voice. He added, without turning: “Mr. Jones, you will be allowed to speak in your own time.  I do not want you interfering with Mr. Ishmael’s testimony.  At all.  In your own time, Mr. Ishmael.”  Captain sat on a barrel and did his best to look attentive.  Ishmael squirmed, before the glare forced him to speak.

“Well, sir, I was just trying to make a suggestion before anyone else woke up.  I didn’t want to be disturbed, so…”

***

Paul shivered uncontrollably.  Since Captain had relented his glare, Paul had been furiously checking and rechecking his memory, trying to remember if Captain had surprised him, more than normal, at any time in the last day.  Paul’s terror was fueled by a growing but indeterminate fear.  Had Captain heard anything?  Paul wondered.  Maybe after dinner?

Regret was now cancerous, affecting Paul’s psyche.  Paul had never regretted anything more in his life, than the moment he…  Paul thought bitterly for a moment about his love life, then finished: … took this job…

Someone said something and Paul became very uneasy.  Like a piece of meat at a vegan convention.  he looked up.

“Would you like to tell us what you were doing, Jones?” Captain asked with a peculiar look on his face.  Something with both rage and glee.  “I understand that you were covering the midnight watch, but I also understood that you were sane at the time that I assigned it to you.”

Paul stared back, doing his best to look harmless and encourage Alzheimer’s.  Surely Captain was old enough…

“Are you deaf, Jones?  Are you actually insane?”

“No sir.”  Paul prepared himself for a torrent of obscenity.

“Really?  Because I might say that snapping a bastard’s leg in two places for no damn reason is a sign of insanity!”

Paul didn’t know how to respond.  He’d never been called just a bastard before.  Captain was so angry that he was actually having trouble swearing.  Maybe he’d been stung by a bee in the throat, something.  Anaphylactic shock, caused by anger. Captain had already started to make a whistling noise, probably from the pent-up rage.  He sounded like a kettle.

***

Paul opened his eyes and saw a bright light.  Elation  and smugness at the afterlife came a moment before a splitting pain in Paul’s jaw and the appearance of a face that persuaded Paul his criticisms of Christianity were quick, unsubstantiated, and wrong.  He was in Hell. Captain, it turned out, was Lucifer, the Fallen Morning Star.

“Lazarus, a drop of water!” Paul cried, eyes shut in hope of diminishing the pain.  The sound came from his mouth, and Paul was surprised at his vocal chords.  He had not expected them to exist in spirit.  His nose was working, too, and he smelled fish.  Suspicion caught up with him; at that moment too, did the realizations of what he had done, of mercy, of penitence, of stupidity, and of a bucket of water in the face.

“You want some water, Jones?” Captain bellowed.  “I’ll give you the ocean!  The whole stinkin’ sea!”

Paul found himself lifted into the air by a very mighty hand and realized that humility was his only recourse.

“Open your eyes, boy!”  Paul did so.

There was Captain’s face, close up and bouncing with every shake.  Personal. Paul could see the man’s (or demon’s, Paul still wasn’t sure) pores, burgeoning capillaries and every follicle of rage-reddened hair.  Captain’s eyes were streaking, but not with tears.  Paul wondered, vaguely and fuzzily, if he would be asked to recount his sins.  He hoped not.  He didn’t think he could remember them all.

“Tell me, Jones,” Captain said in a soft voice, “what were you thinking?”  Captain was holding the can.  Neurons hesitantly began to relay messages to a concussed mind.

“What were you thinking, Jones?” Captain repeated, a little louder. “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?”

Paul’s ears rang and he watched himself flounder in the stormy irises.  He’d always known he was going to die, but … well, he thought bitterly, really only one person actually knew… and he’d been a fool enough not to change it…

“One treat, after all these years, Jones?  One open ear to mutiny and you cripple a man? I’ll give you what you deserve, Jones. I’ll give you all you ever wanted. Oh, and I’m not listening, so stop moaning!  Crying never helped anyone!”

Paul closed his eyes again.  Frantically, he tried to compose a sufficient prayer, that would incorporate all possible loopholes.  I’m sorry for blaspheming you, God, Jesus, Muhammed, Buddha, Whoever You Are… He felt his stomach enter his chest and realized his idiocy.  Then he hit water, hard.

Paul struggled in the darkness.  Whatever allegory his subconscious might compose, he couldn’t see it ending well.  Tyranny had won, regardless, he thought, so he might as well surface.  The water was numbingly cold, he might as well go toward the light…

“And take this with you!” greeted Paul’s ears as he broke the surface.  Something hit him in the head, and the darkness came back, slowly. Paul was afraid, because he remembered two things.  He’d seen triangular fins in the water.  And “blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”

Paul trembled before he sank.

***

“What was it he said, sir, when he came up, again?”

“What? ‘I’m an idiot?’”

Silence, relatively.

“Yeah.  Why’d you fish him out? I thought you said you weren’t going to listen, sir.”

More wind, waves, and creaks.  This silence held more.

“Just not him.” Captain sighed. “Trust me, Ishmael, idiot deserved the sharks.  But so do I.  Realized it after I hit him in the head.  We deserve worse than we get, and get better than we deserve.”

“Sir?”

“I was just as stupid to ask you for suggestions.  Stupider.  Knew it would get out of hand, and ignored it. Figured I was entitled to a laugh”

“Think he’ll wake up?”

“Oh, eventually.  Eventually.”  Captain watched the sun set. “Eventually, we all do.  It’s just got to be before it’s too late.”

Trials of Sport

Based on my most recent post, I realized that I should just try to post all the things that I’ve got stored up on my computer. Here’s one of my better short stories. I wrote it leading into my creative writing workshop at UCLA and, reading it again, it’s definitely one of the better things I’ve written.

It’s fiction — although I did go to a Tae Kwon Do class when I was about 7 and witnessed something similar to what’s described below. And I did do Tae Kwon Do in college. You can read about it, complete with terrible headlines here (Club offers ample kicks) and here (Martial arts learning experience continues).

When I turned eleven, my father gave up his dreams of me and sports and success.  It took shock therapy to transfer some of his zeal to me.

“Son, what do you think of the martial arts?” my father had asked me during a mysterious twilight car ride. “You know, like Karate,” he added, when he sensed I hadn’t understood.

“Ooh! Karate would be awesome, Dad!”

He slapped the steering wheel and smiled widely.  “Well, I’m taking you to Taekwondo!”

“Oh.” I wondered what Taekwondo was.  Maybe it was super Karate.  I imagined me balancing on rocks in twenty-foot surf, me crushing steel blocks to powder, me catching flies with chopsticks, me beating up hordes of bad guys while my father looked on proudly.

In reality, my father frowned at me because I wasn’t responding enthusiastically.  I don’t know what he expected.  I was benched in soccer for growling at the other team, but he said I was too young to understand.  During baseball, a pitch got away from him and broke my right hand, but he said that was just bad luck and he was really sorry.  I forgave him.  The football coach put me as kicker, which would have been fine, but we never scored.  My ears got infected swimming and wrestling, and I couldn’t clear the net in tennis.  Taekwondo was probably next on the list.  But I don’t think I knew this at the time.

“Well, son?” he asked. “Will you give it a try?”

I did want to give it a try, but I shrugged.  He always asked if I would give something a try.  But I didn’t want to crush him, so I said, “Yeah, Dad. This’ll be fun.”

He smiled thankfully and turned right.  We were surrounded by a business park. Six cars congregated around a fluorescent sign that read “Taekwondo” and a lighted panel window.  My father parked and made it seven.  Before we went inside, he grabbed both my shoulders and squeezed in the way that good fathers do.  Then he grabbed the door handle and we entered a wood-paneled room.

A large man to our left was kicking a hanging bag and coating himself in ceiling dust.  There were other kids around, doing martial-artsy things, but I had eyes only for the big man. He looked like a statue with his white robe and black belt and bronze skin and oiled muscles.

“Here for Taekwondo?” he asked after a final, tremendous kick.  His voice could break boards.  I was disappointed with his lack of accent.

My father nodded, too awed to speak.

“You can’t come on the floor tonight.” He waved an arm to his students, replicas with technicolor belts. “They’re testing to move up a belt.  You can’t start today. You can watch.  Sign here.”  The big man conjured a wavier–maybe he had one up his sleeve–and gave it to my father, who signed it for both of us.  Before he finished, the black belt snatched it back.

The big man trotted onto the wood floor and yelled. The twenty kids jumped to attention. My father looked at me again, asking, “Well?”

“This will be great, Dad.”  I think he knew something was wrong at this point.  I did not.

Twenty minutes later, I watched saucer-eyed as a boy with a blue belt kicked another boy with a green belt in the face.  Then in the groin.

My father grabbed my hand. Two more to the face.  One to the chest.

My father grabbed my other wrist.  Another to the groin.

My father picked me up.  The green belt finally started to cry.

My father reached the door when the master reached the abused boy on the ground.

“What do you do when you are hurt?” the big man screamed an inch from the boy’s face.  What do you do when you are hurt?

I couldn’t hear the boy’s answer through his sobs.

Next thing I knew, we were driving home.  My father’s face was very pale.

“Dad?” I asked quietly. “Are you okay?”

He kneaded his lip with his thumb and forefinger and ignored me.

“Dad, does that usually happen?”  The engine punctuated the silence with a shift.

“Mark, sometimes I think I want you to do too much.”  My father only calls me by my name when he’s upset.  I should have realized this, but I wanted him to answer my question.

“Yeah, but–”

“I love you, Mark, and I only want the best for you.  You know that, don’t you?”  The last time he said that to me, he had just finished telling the nurse how I broke my hand.  I stuck my nose to the window glass and depression set in.  Here it comes.

“I’m sorry, Mark.  I’m really sorry.  You should have never seen that; I should have never let you see that.” He stopped for long enough for my hope to rejuvenate.  Maybe he would take me back.  He might have been sorry, but I had never seen anything so incredible in my life.  I was eleven and saw another boy get yelled at for being beaten up.  And that made me want to take a punch in the gut and deal one right back.  This may have been my father’s objection.

He apologized to me on the ride home, but I was lost in my dreams.  He interpreted this as emotional scarring–he must have– because the following summer, he got me marimba lessons.

Seven years later and it was testing day, again.

I had told my dad the truth twelve weeks earlier, over the phone.  I told him that I really wanted to try martial arts and it was through the college and it was Taekwondo and that he shouldn’t be afraid because I was going to make him proud like I hadn’t before. He didn’t respond well. Now I wasn’t sure if he was to show up for the examination–I hadn’t seen him in the crowd bordering the mats.  That might have been all I really wanted.

I was in my own white robe with a white belt securely around my waist and I was staring my sparring partner in the eye.  His red beanie wasn’t part of the uniform but I wasn’t going to say anything.  I didn’t want to open my mouth; I might dry-heave or say something similarly vacuous.

Char-yot!

Jake stepped to our side after shouting and I stood to attention.  My partner slouched straighter.  Jake was the captain of the university’s Taekwondo team, and the opposite of my childhood instructor:  Jake was lithe, caring, and inclusive.  Maybe too much so.

I hadn’t sparred with Gus before, the man across from me.  I had avoided him since the first class.  He smelled like old, fried socks and could put his legs behind his head.  Gus might have been courteous, knowledgeable, and a friend in other circumstances.  But I knew him from Taekwondo.

“Are you okay, Mark?” Jake asked quietly.  I had done well on the other parts of the exam.  But I was swaying, I was so nervous.  I may have felt like I couldn’t sweat, but the room was a sauna so I was dripping.  Regret and fear, too?

I nodded away my doubts.  Jake shrugged told Gus and I to bow.

We did so and stared each other down.  You were supposed to glare at your opponenteven if he was your best friendin order to intimidate him.  Usually, this made me giggle, but now I imagined Gus talking to my father in the hospital: “Honestly, sir, I don’t know what happened.  We bowed and he fainted.”

Choon-bi!” I straightened up and stepped my right foot back.  Gus was left-footed, which made him look off-balance.  I had to be careful.

Shijak!” The duel began.

I bounced back immediately.  Gus also had more reach than I did, so I’d have to fool him to score a point, to get inside and slap my foot on his chest protector.  Jake told us scoring wouldn’t matter for our belts, but he said a lot of things he thought were reassuring.

“Point!” the audience screamed when I popped one off Gus’s chest.  I’d drawn a kick and scooted under his follow-through with a roundhouse.  I continued to close the distance; if you touched chest protectors, the referee would allow you to separate. That was what had happened before.

But Gus punched me four times in the chest, then pushed me away and tried to kick me in the head.  I dodged it but was shocked.  I wanted to yell, “He hit me! He tried to kick me!”

Instead, we circled again, making mock charges, yelling wordless threats, aiming a kick or two.  I suspected that real world fights weren’t this deliberate, but I had no experience.  My marimba playing limited me severely.

A few minutes passed with incidental contact.  We traded two solid kicks.

“Ten seconds left,” Jake said.

Hai!” Gus stepped forward into a mock charge.  I stood my ground and missed with a roundhouse.  I stepped down and began stepping back.  Then I saw Gus’s haymaker whistling toward my open right side and tried to block it.

Whack!

“You punched me in the hand!” I whined, hopping away and holding my right fist. “You punched me in the hand!”

Also unlike the real world, or previous Taekwondo lessons, fights stop when someone gets hurt.  As Jake says, “We’re trying to hurt each other, but not trying to hurt each other.”  It’s another of those things he says.

Gus had a look on his face that said, “I didn’t mean to,” which was stupid. Of course he had meant to; he just didn’t mean to hit me in the hand.

I stuck my hand between my legs and hopped in circles, cursing.  What was Gus doing punching, anyway?  Was he absent the class Jake explained the scoring system? Punches weren’t thrown because they didn’t score points.  Punching was for the Japanese or losers.

“Here.  Let me see it,” Jake said quietly, and touched my hand.  I yelped in protest.

“It’s probably broken, then.  Might want to get it checked out.” He paused before yelling to the crowd. “That does it!  We’re done!”  We were the last pair to fight.

Gus and I bowed at each other, Gus apologetic and me grimacing.

“No hard feelings?” he asked with genuine concern.

“Depends on how bad it is,” I said and he when he looked alarmed, I added, “Relax, I’m kidding.  I’ve broken it … before.…”

I trailed off because I saw my father standing in the doorway.  It felt like the world stopped and my hand fell off.  I pushed my way through the crowd until we were face-to-face.  Then I saw his shirt close-up as he hugged me harder than he ever had in his life.

“You never asked me to do too much, Dad,” I told his heart.  “I just didn’t know what to do.”

All he could do was cry.