Another writing from 2007, written for a short story class.
The kettle on the stove whistled.
“Brian, if you would.”
Brian Sorrel looked up as Elizabeth turned, tying herself up in the white coiled phone cord. The woman was pointing urgently at the stove while she waited for the police station to take her off hold.
Brian Sorrel was sixteen years old and waiting for his fiery orange hair to change to auburn, as his mother’s had at his age. He had her freckles and her face, but not her eyes.
Brian took a potholder from a hook above the sink and moved the kettle to a cold burner. He pulled a white beaker from the cupboard. Elizabeth looked over at the woman sitting in her kitchen wearing a dirtied bathrobe over torn pajamas, Brian’s mother.
“I’m sorry this is taking so long,” she told Martha Sorrel, covering the receiver out of habit while she spoke.
Brian frowned when his mother only continued to stare at the counter of the kitchen’s island. Her dark long hair was hanging in her face and her skin was as pale as a ghost. Brian split sugar packets into the bottom of the mug, poured the water and took a few tea bags from the mouth of a frog-shaped bowl by the microwave.
It was past midnight.
“You’re lucky you got out before he came in.”
“Mom.” Brian was holding the cup out across the counter. Martha looked up from the orange tiles and blinked, then she smiled sadly and took the cup and a bag of chamomile. Brian rounded the kitchen island and slipped onto the stool beside hers. He studied her with a sidelong stare while she watched the water in her teacup darken to gold.
Elizabeth turned herself out of the telephone cord and straightened up. “Yes,” she said to the phone, “I would like to make a report. Yes, this is Miss Greenstreet. Yes, I am calling for her…” She turned to the island again. “Martha, they want to speak with you.”
Martha sighed and slipped off her stool. Her muddy slippers left tracks on the white floor as she crossed to the phone. Brian left his own seat and headed into the darkened living room. Elizabeth had a plush couch in one corner where the kitchen light wouldn’t reach. He pulled an afghan off the recliner and slung it over his shoulders, then collapsed onto the couch and fell asleep.
* * *
It was the same story. He was sorry. He had changed. He had just wanted to see his son. Arthur Sorrel had hazel eyes that changed color when he grew angry. Sometimes they paled to yellow, even white. Other times, most times that he became enraged, they were cloudy, sunken and bloodshot.
Brian sat in a courtroom built like an old Anglican church: Polished dark wood, impressive carvings and a lofty white ceiling that looked like paper. Brian’s seat was in the back. He did not want to speak this time and no one called him forward.
He tried not to listen to the words. They were, after all, all lies. If they had ever been true, now they were only incantations Arthur used to fight a restraining order. Like community service or rehabilitation programs, like agreements signed in ink to stay away from the local pubs, they were all a means to an end.
Brian knew the judge would believe Arthur. He’d repeal the restraining order because Arthur had improved and his wife was willing to give him a second chance. Brian knew he had no control over the judge, but he was sick of seeing his mother look so hopeful.
* * *
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Sensei Rob M. Fidelo taught the practice of karate in a small, one-room dojo in the city. Rob was a thirty-five year old, white, straight man who had chosen to live single and alone in an apartment above his dojo where he could be near to his vocation. He was the sort of man who, over the years, had learned to read people’s strengths and weaknesses almost as soon as he met them, but he was humble enough to examine himself even more readily.
Rob had first seen Brian Sorrel through the dojo window that faced the street. Rob had been teaching eight-year-old Ted Addlepict how to curl a proper fist and kiai.
Rob never had believed that karate was for the masses, but he couldn’t afford shades for the wall-to-wall windows facing the street. He tried not to pay attention when passersby were looking in.
Brian’s way of looking had been different though: It had been more focused and more serious, guarded by a front of adolescent indifference. He had a deliberate hunch in his back and a sad-looking smile on his face.
Rob had offered a nod between counting out drills, as an invitation inside. The teenager had smiled a cynical smile that was also sad, and then pulled the empty pockets of his jeans inside out. He shook his head and, with a good-natured wave, moved off down the street. Rob sighed. He had a lot of potential; Rob could tell just by looking at him.
The boy visited on a Saturday that summer, looking tired and bedraggled. Saturday was the day Rob cleaned the dojo. Brian offered to help do windows and vacuum the carpet. He even took his shoes off and bowed to the masters’ portraits on the front wall before stepping onto the rug.
After introductions, they started cleaning and Rob asked him, “Have you ever thought of practicing karate, Brian?”
“I don’t have cash,” Brian said.
“That’s not what I asked.”
The boy shrugged as he wiped down the mirrors with blue cleaner and a paper towel. “Yeah, I do,” he said, “a lot.”
“Why?” Rob asked, wheeling the vacuum back into the janitor’s closet.
“Protection, I guess,” Brian answered. He finished with the mirrors and carried the cleaner back over to the closet, threw the paper towels in the pail beneath the sink. “For myself and for others.”
“Why not take a self defense course at school?”
Brian frowned, shook his head. “It’s not the same,” he said. “There’s something more to this than swinging fists, right?”
It was a good answer. Rob offered him Saturday lessons if he would help with chores every weekend. He even let him borrow one of his old uniforms after that.
* * *
Arthur was sitting on the couch like he lived there, watching television. Martha was pulling a sheet of breadsticks from the oven.
“I thought we were having penne,” Brian said, lifting the lid of the pot on the stove.
“Your father wanted spaghetti,” Martha said, her sunny smile a little clouded as she pried the breadsticks from the pan and dropped them in a wicker basket.
“So you went shopping—again?”
Martha shot her son a hard look as she arranged the bread, but said, “Dinner will be ready soon, Brian. Wash up.”
Brian glanced into the living room, then nodded.
“Okay, I’m gonna shower real quick.” He ran from the door past the living room at a sprint, so he wouldn’t have time to return Arthur’s wave, then he hit the stairs and punched his bedroom door shut as the man laughed loudly at something on TV.
After supper, Brian wiped dishes. Martha washed.
“Why does he have to stay with us?” Brian asked when the television was too loud for them to be overheard.
“Brian, he wants another chance. He’s doing better,” Martha said.
“Just like last week he was,” Brian said, picking up a chipped glass and twisting a towel in it. “You do all the shopping—and all the work. He sits around—He wanted a chance before, he doesn’t need more chances. He needs jail.”
“Brian, things could work out this time.”
Brian set the glass in the cupboard. They had very few glasses. He frowned at the shelf and changed the subject: “Hey Mom,” he said, “would you mind if I started taking karate lessons with someone?”
“We don’t have much money, Brian,” she said.
“Oh, I know, but I don’t mean official classes or anything.”
“I don’t like the thought of you hitting people,” said Martha, rinsing another plate.
“It’s not about fists—it’s about learning to help people,” Brian said. “That’s what Rob said anyway.” He shut the cabinet.
“Rob?” Martha let her hands soak in the sink.
“Rob Fidelo,” Brain said, “from the Shuri-Te place downtown.”
Martha plucked her sponge out of the water and resumed scrubbing slowly. “I’m sure he can’t afford to give lessons for free, Brian,” she said reasonably.
“I’ll help him with chores on Saturday. It’d be reimbursement,” Brian explained.
“Did he offer or are you hoping?” Martha asked, narrowing her eyes in suspicion as mothers are wont to do.
“He offered when I stopped by today to look,” Brian carried a plate over to the cabinets. There was plenty of room for it. “You can sign a liability form and everything if you want.”
Brian continued drying dishes and Martha continued washing dishes. Brian glanced into the living room. Martha stared into the sink.
At last she drained the sink, and said it was fine.
* * *
One month later, Brian threw out a straight punch from his ribs, twisting his fist like a corkscrew. Rob was no longer standing in front of him, however. Brian felt a pain in his wrist and a beat somewhere behind his elbow, then the room turned upside-down and he hit the floor.
When the stun wore off, he laughed out loud at the ceiling. “What just happened?” he exclaimed. Rob gave him a hand up. “What did you do?”
“Just do the motions the way I showed you,” the teacher told him. “All the strength in the world is nothing if it has no target. You try.”
“I’m not strong enough to beat you,” said Brian, rubbing his aching arm.
“I’m not strong by most standards,” said Rob, pulling up one leg of his trousers a moment. His right knee was hugged by a brace made of wire mesh and blue cloth. Brian stared at it. “Got that in high school,” Rob said, pointing at it. “Fellow student picked a fight and I still had too much ‘kekki’—‘hot blood,’—back then to walk away.” He dropped his trouser leg and went through the fluid motions again. “Such is life.”
Brian was watching Rob’s steps and arm movements. “Can you show me that again?” he asked.
“What, my knee?”
“No the”—Brian waved his hands—“thing.”
Rob smiled and stuck his fists on his waist. “I just did.”
“Help me practice then.”
“All right. I’ll punch first.”
“Wait—show me one more time,” Brian said with a touch of panic.
Rob laughed and lowered his fist, then nodded.
Brian mirrored Rob in the air a few times, then Rob threw slow punches and guided the boy through the process, gradually increasing the speed of his attacks.
Over the past few weeks, Brian had proven to be a quick learner whose enthusiasm had refreshed Rob’s love of teaching. Rob had realized how fatigued regular classes had made him over the past years, and how much he’d wanted a student who understood there was more to karate than throwing out punches in the space between schoolwork and dinner. The protocol of respect Brian paid Rob was heartfelt and serious, and, once Brian had realized Rob was human, they’d been able to laugh and talk in something like friendship soon after.
After a number of tries, Brian put Rob on the ground. He had little time to exult in this small victory, however, because as soon as he relaxed, Rob stuck a hand in the back of Brian’s knee and brought him down. Brian turned and caught the teacher’s arms, locked a joint and managed to pin him to the floor, but then Rob freed a hand and twisted around to put Brian on the rug.
“This wasn’t in the drill,” Brian said.
“A true karate-ka must learn to improvise,” Rob laughed, then grew serious again. “Stay on guard. Use your techniques. Your enemy isn’t down ‘til he’s out.”
Brian twisted and kicked Rob backwards in the gut and the grappling continued. At length, Rob put Brian on his stomach and sat down on him sideways, pinning one arm behind his back, and dared another grin.
“You’re doing well for your first day with one-on-one kumité,” he remarked, then stopped and looked up as the front door opened and Martha walked in.
Brian twisted his head around and grinned. “Hey, Mom,” he said.
Rob said nothing at first. Brian was at a disadvantage and could not see his teacher’s face. He could only look along the carpet at the door.
Martha was smiling rather fearlessly, a thing that Brian could not remember seeing her do. She folded her arms loosely across her chest and addressed Rob. “Discipline, character, and something about being serious about ‘the art’,” she recited. “It looks like I’m just in time to sign those liability forms…”
Rob stood up, looking uncharacteristically chagrinned, lifted Brian to his feet and patted him on the back, but his eyes were toward the door.
“Hello, Martha,” he said belatedly.
Martha ducked her eyes and looked around the place, a little more somber now. “Brian mentioned something about the forms about a month ago….,” she said.
Rob nodded. “I’ll be right with you then,” he said. He and Brian bowed to the masters and then to each other to end their class, then Rob gave Brian’s shoulder a light punch. “Keep going over your stuff, a’right?” he said, then he pointed Martha to a small door that led into his closet of an office. “The office is over here…”
Martha hesitated at the carpet’s edge and Brian pointed at his feet and made insistent gestures behind Rob’s back. Martha smiled a little and warily complied to these signs by slipping off her shoes and making a slight bow before she walked onto the rug. Rob smiled as he caught sight of Brian’s pantomime in the mirrors, then met Martha halfway and they crossed to the office in a deliberately businesslike manner.
Brian gave their retreat one last glance over his shoulder before continuing his drills.
* * *
Martha shut the door of the small office of the karate dojo and hugged her purse, tucking away her smile. “Sorry it took so long for me to get here….” She hadn’t a decent excuse so she didn’t give one.
Rob put the desk between them and dug slowly through a drawer as if any sudden movement might startle her. “I have the forms here somewhere…,” he said. He narrowed his eyes at the papers, then reached over to his desk to pick up his reading glasses before continuing his search.
“I’m really glad you’re doing this for Brian, Rob,” Martha said over the rustling of the papers.
“He’s a good kid, good student,” Rob said, smiling a little. “It’s rare these days.” He pulled three pages of paper from a folder, then picked up a pen. “Here you are.”
Martha took the items, set her purse on the desk and leaned over the pages, bracing her hands on the desk. “Rob, you should let me pay you something for this,” she said before signing.
Rob shook his head. “No,” he said. “Just don’t let word leak out that I let my students do windows.”
“Can you afford it?” she asked, scrawling out her name. “I mean, you have to live upstairs, don’t you?” She flipped the first page.
“I choose to,” Rob assured her. “It isn’t Okinawa, but it is home enough. He smiled at and then took off his glasses and busied himself searching for their felt case around his typewriter. “How have you been? I don’t see you around anymore.”
“After sixteen years one would think you’d stop looking,” said Martha with a shake of her head. Rob shrugged. She added, “I get by.”
She finished with the paperwork. She was thinking about how after high school Rob had been gone six months with his teacher to visit some masters halfway across the world, and how his mind had been longer in coming back from there than the rest of him. She capped the pen and handed him the pages. Rob received them like they were made of glass and carefully slipped them into the drawer of a filing cabinet.
Martha picked up her purse again.
Rob ventured, “I don’t suppose you would like to stay for tea and catch up.” He leaned his arms on the open drawer and looked at the air above it.
“Thanks, but no,” Martha answered. “Arthur is at home, waiting for supper.”
Rob slowly closed the drawer and frowned at the wall. “I wouldn’t want to impose on family,” he replied respectfully. “You have a good night, Martha.”
“Thank you,” Martha said, then she turned quickly to the door and opened it. She lingered in the doorway, then added, “It was good seeing you again, Rob.”
He smiled a little. If the door had not been opened, he might have asked why it had taken so many years to, when they lived in the same neighborhood, but he could ask himself the same question, so he only said what he could. “Good to see you too, Martha,” he replied. The words were genuine. He followed her out onto the dojo floor with a bow.
Brian was pantomiming the recent drills with a wrinkle in his forehead. When his mother returned he straightened, bowed to the portraits of the masters up front, and then headed to fetch his shoes.
“See you later, Brian,” said Rob with a wave.
“Sayonara, sensei.” Brian waved back, then bowed more formally.
Rob watched them go, then crossed the room to lock up for the night. Then he walked over to the corner by the weapons display. There stood a makiwara board: It was a wooden plank standing upright near the wall. Its top three inches were wrapped in twisted rope. Rob’s teacher had built it himself.
It was not a tool for strengthening punches, as inexperienced students and laypeople thought. With a furrow in his forehead, Rob punched the board lightly with his right hand, then his left, feeling the force of its resistance in his wrists. The point of a makiwara was to teach a student where he was still weak.
* * *
“Don’t eat any junk food, Brian—it’s almost dinnertime.” That night Martha strained the pasta at the sink and the steam wafted up and misted her eyes. She leaned over to the stove and stirred the sauce.
“Mom, isn’t Rob awesome?” Brian was leaning into the refrigerator, sifting through Tupperware and packages of lunchmeat. He pulled an apple from its colony at the back of the lowest shelf.
Arthur put in from the living room, “That guy was throwing punches when we were in high school—ain’t he got over that yet?”
Martha glanced at Brian and dared an exaggerated roll of her eyes. Then she answered her son. “You two certainly seemed to be having fun,” she said.
“It’s not about fun—I’ve never ached so much in my life.” Brian pulled a stool up to the counter and turned the apple in his fingers. “It’s great,” he added brightly, then bit the apple.
“You’re getting stronger,” his mother observed, still in a neutral tone.
“It’s not about the strength,” said Brian, swallowing. “It’s what you do with it.”
Martha nodded. She was rinsing the penne. “And what do you do?” she asked.
“Help people,” said Brian. “I think that’s important.”
Martha stared at the wall above the sink for awhile. When she shut off the tap, Arthur called from the living room, “Is dinner ready yet?”
* * *
Brian sat at his desk, books open before him and a list hanging off the side of his old computer monitor. The list was titled “Prerequisite Reading: English 301.” Brian leaned his head on one hand while he read. With the other hand he tightened his fingers into a blade like shape, and slowly hit the edge of his palm against the side of his chair.
He heard a floorboard creak and some of the light in the room from the hallway was lost.
Brian stopped his hand and gripped the edge of his seat. He glanced up, then back down at his work. “Hey.”
Arthur lingered in the doorway, then walked in and sat on the edge of the bed and hugged its post. His sober self was more restrained, but it insisted on attention. “What are you up to?” the man asked.
“Studying,” Brian said.
“It’s reading ahead for English.”
“Ah,” Arthur said. “That’s, that’s good.”
He didn’t leave. Brian hunkered farther down in his seat to make a point of studying.
“So, you’re taking karate,” Arthur said after a moment of staring at him.
“Yeah.” Brian felt his lower back stiffen like a metal rod. The man had invaded his life and his house and now his room. What else was he trying to take over?
“Tried that once. One class, didn’t like it.”
Silence, and still the man’s presence at his back. Brian had trouble thinking of him as anything but a selfish slob now that dinner was over.
“Your mom and I knew Rob Fidelo when we were in high school.”
Brian’s frown deepened. Why did Arthur have to taint everything? He had broken trust as a husband and a father—He had no right trying to be part of Brian’s life, or to bring Brian into his. Brian still looked down at his book. “So?” he replied.
“Not that it matters,” Arthur added. He lay back on the foot of the bed and put his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. “So you’re into that Kung Fu stuff?”
“I like it,” Brian reiterated, as if he were defending his right to it.
“You know, when I was in the air force, we had better self-defense training from a lieutenant on our carrier than I ever saw at schools around here.”
“I suppose that’s why you can hit so hard.” Brian stared at his book.
Arthur sat up and knocked a fist on the bedpost. “Don’t get fresh,” he said.
Brian’s grip on the chair reddened his fingers and whitened his knuckles. He stuck his tongue in his back teeth to keep from replying and drew a deep breath quietly to calm himself. He needed to not be angry. He needed to not yell. If he spurred Arthur on to another night at the pub, he might as well be throwing the fists at his mother himself.
Brian loosened his shoulders and shrugged them. “Sorry about that.” He forced a light tone.
Arthur stopped glowering. “All right,” he said. Then he grinned. “We should hang out sometime,” he said. “Maybe I’ll show you some of my old moves,” Arthur grinned. He clapped his hands once and stood up, kicked the air low. “Pow!—There goes the knee.” He snapped his foot back, then dug his hands into his pockets. His eyes stared at the ceiling and the floor and the walls, and at last once more at his son, who still showed no interest. “Well,” he said, “don’t stay up too late, even though it’s summer.”
“I won’t,” Brian said.
Arthur walked out.
Brian heard the other bedroom door squeal softly shut, then in a burst of action he picked up his book by the edges and stood to fling it against the wall.
But he stopped, remembering the creaking floorboard. Brian gripped the book’s edges tightly so it would not leave his fingers. He sat back down, closed the book between his knees and then dropped it on his desk. Then he shut the door to his room. He locked it. He moved back to his desk, to his closet, undressed to his boxers and pulled Rob’s old uniform from its hanger. The material was like heavy linen, a pair of loose trousers and a jacket. He left his folded white belt hanging over the hanger. It was incorrect protocol to wear it outside the dojo. He pulled on the uniform, stretched a bit and then ran through his drills and kata, using his shadow as a mirror.
Kata were older than the drills, patterns of defense moving deliberately from one motion to another. They contained everything; one step, one strike, or a combination of both, could have ten or more applications.
Whenever Brian practiced, he felt he was moving within something older than himself, something stronger, something that had existed before everything had been broken into pieces.
* * *
That night, Brian hurried his mother out the kitchen door and across the backyard. They made their way toward Elizabeth’s apartment by the back alleyways, climbed up onto the fire escape when they heard a car squealing out on the main street, watched the Buick swerve a bit on the main road. Then they sat in the cold of the gathering winds of a coming thunderstorm.
“I didn’t have time to hide the keys,” Brian admitted as they huddled against the cold metal rail.
The next morning, per routine, they came back to the house through the kitchen door and swept up the broken glass. The Buick was parked on the lawn. Arthur slept until noon.
* * *
Martha watched the card tower stack its pyramid higher and higher between Arthur and her son. She hung in the doorway, one ear tuned to the pot on the stove where the vegetarian chili was cooking.
“You’ll sort all the decks out afterward, I hope,” she ventured.
“No problem, Mom, we used a red and a blue,” Brian informed her, carefully shading his mouth with one hand to prevent his breath from toppling the weak scaffold.
Arthur dared to reach over and Brian endured the man tousling his disheveled red hair. Arthur glanced over at Martha. “Dinner ready yet, love?”
Brian flinched visibly as if he’d been hit. The word was growing trite, a curse word used too much to mean anything anymore.
“Soon.” Martha brushed her fingers across a bandage on her elbow. She watched Arthur and Brian pile up another tier as a crease deepened between her eyebrows.
“We should have Liz over one of these nights,” said Arthur. “You know, your old gal-friend? I just found out she lives just three blocks from here—We should invite her.”
The structure started to tip. Both Arthur and Brian yelped and made a futile attempt to stay its fall. Martha watched the cards come down in a flurry of red and black and blue.
* * *
It was a cold Saturday that next week. The winds howled along the windows of the dojo and rattled the glass. The radiator in the corner piped and gurgled agitatedly against the draft that slipped beneath the glass front door.
Although Brian had been practicing all week, he felt disoriented. His eyesight faded in and out as he stepped through the series of motions in his kata. He felt disconnected. Though he tried to focus on breathing at the right intervals, and though his punches were straight enough, Brian did not feel the same kind of control he was used to. At one point, he missed the count entirely. His vision blurred again.
“Did you eat enough this morning?”
Brian nodded in answer to his teacher’s question. Rob came around and took a hold of Brian’s fist, redirected it, then said, “Throw the punch again.” He caught the blow in his palm, redirecting with his other hand when Brian’s aim fell short. “You all right?” he added.
“All right.” Rob frowned. He held up his palm again. “Punch it—Now kiai!”
Brian couldn’t get out the shout out of his throat. Rob caught his arm and met his eyes.
“Kiai means ‘spirit shout,’” Rob said evenly. “What’s holding you back?”
“I don’t like getting angry,” Brian said.
“It’s not getting angry,” Rob said, releasing his arm. Again he raised his hand. “It’s putting your willpower into your voice. You have a strength in you, now let it out—hit again—kaia!”
“Hai—” Brian coughed, as if the thing were clawing in his throat to avoid being thrown out.
“From your gut—punch.”
He disengaged its grip. “Kai!”
“Good…,” said Rob. “Keep that up—Now to the chest, punch—to the stomach, punch—ribs…”
They went on like that for about twenty minutes, Brian throwing out punches and kicks while Rob played a living makiwara board, occasionally parrying a blow with his strikes.
Presently, Brian winced and dropped his right arm.
“Yamé”—Rob gave the command to stop. He took up Brian’s wrist. “What hurts?” he asked.
Brian gritted his teeth and bowed his head. There were so many answers to that question. “It’s just numb,” he said.
“Again, power over strength.” Rob drew his fingers in circles down a few tendons. “Your wrists probably need more strengthening. You don’t have the training yet to hit so hard,” he observed. “You’ll sprain it or worse if you do that too soon.”
Slowly the feeling came back into Brian’s hand and wrist. “Thanks,” he said. He flexed his fingers, still ducked his head. Rob frowned and looked over his arm again for injuries.
Then he stepped back. “Seiretsu,” he gave the command to line up. Then they knelt side by side and bowed to the portraits of the masters. Neither Brian nor Rob said anything for a long time after that, but protocol required Brian stay seated so long as he teacher did and Rob made no move to rise.
At length, Rob said, “When I was a young man, I went away for half a year after high school, to train with my sensei in Japan.”
Brian listened respectfully. Rob’s stories about his own sensei always interested him, and they always had lessons.
“I was still upset”—Rob patted his right knee—“because of this, and it just kept getting worse, no matter how much rehabilitation I did.”
Brian frowned as he listened, staring at the masters’ portraits and the small banner beneath them that listed the style’s core principles in columns of Japanese kanji and hiragana. His eyes rested on these as Rob continued,
“Finally, Isao-sensei told me, ‘Rob-san, you are crippling yourself. He kicked you once. You kick yourself a thousand times since.’ Old teachers are full of metaphors, and they’re usually right.” Rob concluded, “Moral of the story, resentment will eat at you if you let it.”
Brian took a few moments to absorb this idea, then he said, “Can I ask you something?” Rob nodded. “You and Mom went to the same high school, right?”
Rob frowned. “How did you know that?” he asked curiously.
“My parents mentioned it,” Brian explained. “And you knew my… dad?” He had trouble with the word.
Rob nodded. “Vaguely,” he admitted, scratching his right knee absently.
“I just want nothing to do with him,” Brian said, still staring forward. “I don’t hate him. I just want him gone.”
“I don’t want to be like him, so I don’t want to be around him,” Brian explained. “I feel like have to push him away.”
“Can you forgive him?” Rob asked. “Just let it go?”
The thought had never occurred to Brian, but because Rob had asked, he would think hard about it. “I don’t know,” Brian admitted presently.
Rob stood and so did Brian. They exchanged bows.
“We have a few minutes,” Rob said afterward. “Would you like some tea?”
It was a tradition most Saturdays so Brian agreed.
Some time later, Brian sat at the counter that split the kitchen from the living room of Rob’s three-room apartment, a small space neatly kept but for its overstuffed closet. The jacket of Brian’s uniform hung on a coat peg and he sat in his white trousers and a t-shirt. On his way to fill the kettle, Rob had dropped a blanket across Brian’s shoulders against the cold. (The landlord wouldn’t turn on the heaters until October.) Brian pulled it tighter around him with one hand.
He did not mind the silence. Brian watched Rob’s face whenever the man crossed his field of vision, as the teacher gathered leaves and sugar and milk. He looked serious and thoughtful. At length, they both sat down over cups of gold-brown tea. The teacups were the small white china sort one had to lift by the brim. Brian looked into his cup and thought of Elizabeth’s kitchen and about irony.
Rob asked if he could know any specifics. Brian gave a nominal list of the basic routine. Afterwards, Rob stared at the syrup of sugar filling the bottom of his cup. He did not answer at first. He tilted his cup on its edge and continued to study its contents. “I don’t think you have to worry about being like your father,” he said presently.
“What do you mean?” Brian asked.
Rob set the cup aside and clasped his hands before him on the counter. “You don’t hide in your room and wait for the fight to be over,” he said; “You go towards where the fists are thrown. And you don’t go there to hurt anyone—you do it to help.” He looked up with his calm green eyes and shook his head. “You’re not like your father, Brian.”
“I get angry…,” Brian admitted.
“Yes, as do all humans. It’s understandable,” Rob told him, “but it sounds like your father drinks to run from dealing with his problems, because nothing else lets him get angry enough about them. Then he misdirects his anger and nothing is solved.”
Brian felt something like a stone sink in his gut. His skin felt like a prison.
Then Rob said, “You’re not like him, Brian: When you have a problem, you do something about it.”
Brian watched as his teacher tilted the cup upside down and cleaned out the sugar in one gulp. It was his habit, and the penchant made Brian smile a little. He tugged at the blanket again, then frowned.
“But I still run away after,” Brian insisted, though he wanted to believe his teacher was telling the truth. “What if someday I just can’t handle the problems anymore?”
“You’re not running away; you’re getting out of danger,” Rob pointed out. “There’s no shame in that. And you come back. I think you’re strong enough, Brian.” He slid off of his stool and took his cup to the sink to rinse it clean. Brian watched Rob’s back like he was reading the words off the man’s t-shirt. “You’ll be all right.”
Brian pulled at the blanket’s corners again, took another sip of his tea. The scent of it cleared his head and dried up the back of his eyes. He sighed quietly and watched the steam curl in the air in front of him.
From downstairs there came a glassy knock.
“Your mother’s here,” said Rob, turning toward the sound. Brian stood and brought his cup to the sink. He laid the blanket over his stool and followed Rob downstairs.
“How do you know?” Brian asked.
“She knocks like she’s afraid to break something.” Rob coughed as he tried to laugh.
Brian shot his teacher a querying look as they bowed at the bottom of the stairs and stepped into the dojo, but Rob kept his eyes forward. Not for the first time that summer, Brian wondered what connections this man had with his family. Still, he wouldn’t get any answers today. There was no time to ask. Brian crossed the rug to collect his shoes.
Rob waved to Martha with a forced smile that only gathered half of his mouth. Martha smiled kindly, but in spite of the cold wind, she waited out on the sidewalk for her son to finish with his shoes. The wind blew her broken hair around and she put her arms around herself and rocked on her heels like an uncertain schoolgirl.
* * *
In late August, Brian ran down from his room at the first scream. He stumbled on the stairs and caught the rail, heard Arthur swearing in the next room, and hurriedly picked up his feet again. There came a crash of china and more swearing and crying.
Brian turned the corner as Arthur picked up the shards of a broken white plate in his clumsy big fingers. He flung the handful at the crumpled woman on the floor, then picked her up by the arm and shoved her hard against the kitchen island. Her back hit the counter’s edge and her sobs pitched to another brief cry. Arthur threw her down again.
“Dad!” Brian shouted. No effect. He hurried over the linoleum and the shrapnel. Three months’ training and some adrenaline helped Brian to pry the big man off. Brian shoved him into the living room. Arthur fell over his own feet and Brian tried helping his mother to stand. Her left ankle gave; it had twisted under her in the fall.
Arthur recovered and stumbled back into the kitchen, slurring curses, his hands balled into fists. Brian dodged the first blow Arthur swung and he pulled his mother out of the way after him. Arthur followed them to the screen door and pushed his way into their path. Brian tried to shove him aside again, was caught by the arms and they struggled. Brian was hit, then thrown on the floor and Martha shouted.
Unfortunately, Arthur seemed drawn to noise in his inebriated state. Brian pulled his feet in and hurried to intercede again. Again he was grabbed. He managed to put an elbow in Arthur’s stomach, then wrested his other arm free and punched the man hard in the face.
Arthur stumbled backwards into the counter and slumped to the floor, but he stirred again, not quite out for the count yet.
Pain stabbed through Brian’s hand from the knuckles inward. He tucked it to his chest and with his other hand took his mother’s arm and helped her stand. They hurried, as best they could with Martha’s sprained ankle, across the yard and through the hedge, down back ways to Elizabeth’s apartment. Around the corner from Elizabeth’s hallway, Brian stopped short and made signs to his mother to keep quiet. A moment later, she heard why.
The first voice discernible was Elizabeth’s: “My goodness, Arthur, what happened to your face?” she was saying.
“Shut up, Liz, where’s Martha?” Arthur’s voice snapped next.
“I don’t know, Arthur,” she said. Her tone was careful to match his fury with composure, “but I can call Betty and ask if she knows.”
“It’s closer t’ come here.”
“Yes, and I wonder why she would do that this late at night,” Elizabeth countered as if she were agreeing with him. “I’ll just make that phone call. You wait out here, or I’ll call the police.”
Brian hurried his mother back down the hall into the stairwell as Arthur began fuming at the door shut—and locked—in his face. They started down the stairs and Martha stumbled on her bad foot. Brian held her to keep her upright. He stared across her shoulders at his hand. Red tracks of blood ran in shining lines down his fist from the peak of his knuckles. He still could not close his hand. As his adrenaline wore off, he realized it had begun to throb.
What had he expected to happen, hitting his father like that? Wasn’t he just like the man now? He hadn’t even needed the beer.
Brian realized they had reached the bottom of the stairs, glanced up the flights toward the floors above, disoriented. “Will Liz be all right?” he asked.
“She’s a nurse; she can hold her own,” Martha informed him numbly.
Brian tried to close his fist again and winced. “Mom, we have to go somewhere,” he said.
Martha nodded dejectedly. “I don’t know where…,” she said sorrowfully.
Brian tried to unbend his fingers. Nothing felt broken, but everything felt out of joint and his wrist throbbed horribly. Brian had no idea how to treat it.
“We’re going to Rob’s,” he said at last.
“Mom,” Brian interrupted her protest urgently, “we’re going to Rob’s.”
Martha shut her eyes tightly and sighed. She, too, looked at his hand. Then she nodded. Brian led her up another back alley toward the neighborhood’s main street.
* * *
Rob had opened the alley door for the boy and his mother a little under an hour ago. It had been after midnight. Brian had been out of breath, Martha in pain. Rob had seen Brian’s bleeding knuckles and guessed what had happened. He’d let them in and carried Martha up the stairs to his apartment, Brian coming quietly after him. So far he hadn’t asked them any questions.
Rob handed Martha a small cup of steaming chamomile with the right amount of sugar in it and then found her a blanket in the closet. Her ankle and Brian’s wrist had been wrapped in elastic bandages.
Rob pulled small bags of crushed ice from his freezer and distributed them as needed while Martha sat at the counter, staring into her teacup or at the potholders above the sink. She looked down as Rob tied a small bag of ice to her ankle with an old green scarf.
“I can’t believe you still have that old thing,” Martha said in a whispered laugh.
“You know me: I never throw anything out,” Rob dismissed it, standing.
“I’m sorry by the way,” she added, more softly than before. Brian pretended he hadn’t heard and stared up at the half-closed blinds of the windows behind the couch.
Rob had been about to move back into the kitchen. He paused. “For…?”
“For being weak, as always.”
Rob set a hand on Martha’s shoulder and shook his head. “You’re not weak,” he said quietly. “You’re just afraid to be strong. You can get past this. You have it in you.” And that said he rounded the counter for the kitchen again and left Martha staring down at her injured foot.
Brian sat on the couch in front of the coffee table where Rob had lain out a collection of first aid devices. He frowned deeper than before. Rob was the sort of man who believed in people, and believed in his belief in people. Did he really think saying that would make Brian’s mom any stronger than she was? Would it?
Brian looked back down at his wrist. Both his wrist and his hand were badly sprained and the skin was split at his knuckles; but Rob could tell what required a hospital and what could be tended at home. Now that it was cleaned, none of the cuts throbbed or stung. The bones had already shifted themselves back into place. It would heal in time.
The phone rang and Martha and Brian started. Rob reached over the counter and picked it up off the wall. He answered neutrally. A moment later he thanked Elizabeth and hung up the receiver.
“He’s passed out in the hall,” he informed them quietly: “Everything’s all right for tonight.”
Martha hunched her shoulders and shivered. He set a hand on her shoulder again as he passed back to the couch.
“You’ll be all right.”
She tried to smile at him, failed.
Rob crossed the area rug and yawned a little in spite of himself. He dared not look at the clock.
“You’ll be fine,” he told Brian, gathering the extra medical items up off the table.
“Should I have hit him?” Brian asked. He was staring hard at his bandages.
Rob studied the damage and breathed a small sigh. “Would you have been able to stop him any other way?” he asked seriously.
Brian shook his head.
“Then it’s all right,” Rob said.
The tension in Brian’s shoulders eased somewhat. Then he said, “I didn’t want to hit him.” He smiled a little sadly. “I actually didn’t want to hit him, Rob.”
“I’m glad of that,” Rob said quietly.
“But I did.”
“So you learn control,” said Rob. “Don’t be afraid of getting stronger. If you fear it and stay weak you’ll never know how to deal with power when it’s handed to you.”
“I’m afraid deep down I hit him because I hate him,” said Brian.
Rob drew breath through his nose and sighed. “Only you know that. Don’t second-guess yourself. If it’s hatred, learn to forgive.”
Again a pensive silence.
“How long did it take you to forgive him?” Brian replied. Rob looked up at him in surprise. Brian glanced toward the kitchen. “Mom told me he’s the one who kicked in your knee,” he said quietly.
Rob sighed and shook his head. “I should have walked away,” he said. “It’s my own fault, you know.”
“But how long did it take you?” Brian repeated.
Rob drew a deep breath and sighed again, looked out the window, thinking. “About a year—I was mad at him for many things.”
Brian lowered his voice. “Did he steal your girlfriend?” he whispered.
Martha heard nevertheless and looked over her shoulder. She and Rob exchanged an amused glance. Rob shook his head. “No,” he told Brian.
“Get some sleep,” Rob told Brian. “It’s safe here.” He stood up to cross to the counter and put the leftover ointments and bandages in a drawer. Brian sighed, but at least his mother was smiling again. He lay down on the couch, pulled up a blanket and pretended to fall asleep, his wrist pillowed by the ice.
Rob gently set a hand on Martha’s shoulder.
“You can have the bed. I’ll take the recliner, keep an eye on Brian,” he said.
“It’s like I’m back running from my father’s house,” Martha admitted. Rob gave her a hand up and set the ice packs on the counter.
“The past is the past,” he said, lending her an arm. “We all make mistakes. We’re always learning.”
She sighed and let Rob help her to the bedroom. She sat on a stool by the window while he pulled new linens from the closet and set to making up the disheveled bed for her.
Martha told Rob presently, “I’ve decided to divorce him.”
He stopped setting pillows and looked at her as if she’d just pronounced a miracle.
“For Brian,” she explained. “Arthur never swung at him before.”
Rob nodded and set to tucking hospital corners in the sheets. She’d always put others before herself, even in high school, partially because she was kind, partially because she never valued herself much. “You won’t go back there tomorrow?” he asked, hoping the miracle was real.
Martha shook her head, shivered. She stared through the window blinds. “Oh God, he could have killed him,” she whispered.
Rob crossed to the window as she tried to stand. “Try not to think about it now,” he said. “You need to sleep. Liz can come by, pick you up in the morning.”
He moved to help her to the bed but she wouldn’t move. She had her face in her hands.
“What is it?” he asked.
She shook her head. Rob realized she was crying. She folded her arms and stared out through the window blinds. “You were better than him,” she said, “you always were.”
Rob took a Kleenex from the bedside table and pressed it into her hand. “You know that isn’t true,” he insisted, then he carefully knelt at her feet to take her other hand. “I would have done you no good back then,” he said. “It took anger to get me to do anything. I was a coward, just like Arthur.”
“You always got angry for the right reasons,” said Martha quietly.
“Yes, but I never handled my anger very well,” Rob pointed out and squeezed her hand.
“Not back then, no,” said Martha. She tried to smile. So did he. At length he helped her stand again.
Rob hugged her and kissed her forehead. “Don’t get too attached to me,” he reminded her.
She tried to laugh, let him help her to bed.
Rob found her more blankets against cold and fatigue and another pillow for her foot. Then he stumbled back into the living room, picked the spare blanket off the stool and carried it to the recliner. He paused to carefully remove the ice from around Brian’s wrist and placed it on the coffee table. He would take care of the mess in the morning. Rob turned to the recliner. He heard Brian stir behind him.
Rob paused, the blanket spread before him. Had he been awake all this time? Rob turned and braced himself for the worst.
Brian’s smile was a little sad, but not so cynical as it had been that first day at the windows. His complexion was tired, but clear. Even his eyes seemed lighter: They’d dropped their guard some time ago, and Rob found he was relieved to see the boy hadn’t built up the defense again.
Brian said, “You’re a good teacher, sensei.”
Rob tried to smile, wondered what the boy meant. “You’re a good student, Brian,” he said. “Better than good.” He pulled a small pillow off the floor and looked out the window.
Rob looked down again. “Yes, Brian?”
Brian closed his eyes again. His bandaged hand was still over the edge of the covers. “I think I’ll be all right now,” he said.
“I’m glad, Brian.”’
“Thanks for helping us.”
Rob’s smile stretched a little more. “Anytime,” he said.
Brian sighed and Rob watched him fall asleep, then he sat in the chair and shut off the lamp. For awhile he lay pondering at the ceiling. Then at last he sat again and rolled his jeans up to carefully peel his knee brace off for the night. He held it in his hands and stared at it a moment in the near-darkness of the room.
Rob wondered if this time in the morning Arthur would admit he remembered his rage.
Rob set the brace aside on the table, lay back in the recliner and watched the ceiling until his eyes closed on their own. It didn’t matter if Arthur remembered. It only mattered if the man faced what he saw in himself. Or one day, he would wake up to an empty house with nothing to throw his fists into at all.