One night my father said, "Son! It is time to arm you against the evils of the world. You honor me by following me on this quest." Shrugging, I followed him out my bedroom window and into the night. It was dark out, and I wished I'd thought to bring a sweatshirt. But we were ninjas, immune to the cold, creeping in shadows and hoping Mom wouldn't catch him breaking the terms of the custody agreement.
"We could go out the door?" I suggested, peering down at him.
"We sure could," Dad gritted, stumbling down the lattice, "but this is probably the path of least resistance."
So I followed him down the lattice, and after we landed in the tomato plants, he motioned for me to stay low to the ground.
"Hey," he whispered, tapping his nose twice "if I make this signal, it means we're in mortal danger and to run, got that?"
I nodded, grinning, anxious for the signal.
We ran heel-to-toe down the empty streets, past the ice-cream shop and the video arcade until we reached Sabah San Karate and Laundry Services, a dojo/laundry mat tucked tightly between two Chinese buffets in a strip mall.
"We have arrived, my son," Dad said proudly, wrapping an arm around my shoulder. We stared up at the glowing neon ninja sign.
"So . . . why are we here?" I asked. "For laundry?"
He looked me straight in the eyes: "So we can become mighty warriors, my son."
The bell jangled wildly upon our entrance. Karate trophies were scattered throughout: on shelves, a coffee table, atop the vending machine. Mirrors coated the surrounding four walls, and on the far side, a few washers and dryers remained motionless. Dad turned to the bald Asian man behind the counter.
"Sensei," he began, leaning close, "you honor me by accepting us as your students." The Asian man put down his crossword puzzle, nodding slowly, as if deciding whether or not he had come to the same conclusion. He wore a karate gi and puffed small circles of smoke out the end of his pipe.
"You honor me," Sensei nodded at last. "Do you require any additional laundry services?"
"No thank you, just the karate lessons."
Sensei nodded, then eyed Dad's tomato-stained pants.
"Perhaps your pants . . ."
"Just the karate," he repeated. "Thanks."
"Please, honor me with any major credit card."
My father handed him an American Express, and the small man swiped it through the machine. We waited, Dad clicking his nails on the counter while I flipped through Karate Magazine, admiring all the kids half my size busting watermelons with their fists.
"Very good," Sensei said, handing Dad the receipt. "Your card was approved. You have passed the first test. We will begin your training immediately."
Dad stuffed the receipt in his pocket, offering Sensei a bow as he led us to the blue mats.
"Please," he said, extending a hand, "make yourselves comfortable."
Dad and I sat with our legs crossed and our backs erect.
"First, we must clear the mind of any distractions."
Dad inhaled and exhaled once.
"Done, Sensei," he said. "Now what?"
"Now, we begin breathing deeply," Sensei began, "as we practice the ancient art of mokuso."
"Ah, yes, the ancient art of mokuso," Dad whispered to me. "This'll be fantastic."
We continued mokuso-ing for another fifteen minutes while an elderly woman bypassed us, setting her clothes on spin cycle and taking a seat with her magazine. Eventually, the washing machine buzzed and Dad interrupted.
"All right, now look: I didn't just pay 75.00 to sit on a mat and breathe. When do we enter the ass-kicking portion of our training?"
Noticing us for the first time, the elderly woman glanced over the top of her magazine. Then, she switched her clothes to the dryer.
"Soon," Sensei nodded, "soon. But we must not be hasty on our path toward understanding."
A few minutes later, once we stopped being hasty, he taught us the standing bow and how to properly greet our opponents.
"You must honor them," Sensei informed us, demonstrating a proper bow.
"Sure, fine," Dad said irritably. "But let's say, God forbid, we're involved in some kind of street brawl. Fists everywhere. Eyeballs popping out. People pissing themselves. What then? We still got to honor them and all of that nonsense?"
"You must first . . ."
" . . . and when are we going to learn the Flying Dragon Kick?" he interrupted, demonstrating what he believed to be the proper execution of that particular kick. "Or how about the Panther Touch of Death?" He wiggled two fingers in the air.
"In time, my son," Sensei chided. "Patience is the first virtue of karaté."
He rolled his "-r" the way Señor Mendoza taught us in Spanish class.
"You mean karat-ee," Dad corrected.
"Yes," Sensei agreed, "karaté,"—the rolling -r intact.
"Whatever you say, Boss. It's your show."
"You would honor me by returning next Tuesday night."
"Yeah, we'll do our best," Dad grumbled. "Assuming we'll be learning a bit more about mortal combat."
"Mortal combat," the elderly woman laughed as she brushed past us with her laundry basket. "All you kids ever want to learn these days is mortal combat."
She pointed to my father.
"Man your age, he should know better."
Dad struck his Flying Dragon pose.
She scurried away with her laundry.
We left the dojo, walking directly into the Chinese buffet to our left. The Dragon King. Ninja stars clung to the walls.
"Now this place has promise," Dad said, holding the door wide for me.
We took our seats beneath a picture of a waterfall and Dad ordered number 53 while I took 27.
"Gotta refuel," he informed me. "After strenuous activity like karate, it's always important to refuel and drink plenty of non-alcoholic beverages."
We ate our lo mein and chicken friend rice, Dad spitting noodles as he discussed how much he wanted to get his hands on some ninja throwing stars.
"You ever throw an axe?" Dad asked, still eyeing the ninja stars.
I admitted I hadn't.
"Well I bet it's a lot like that, don't you think? Or like throwing a hatchet, maybe."
The waitress wandered back to our table to refill our waters and Dad said, "Pardon, miss. How do you think we could come into possession of a couple of those ninja stars you got there?"
The waitress smiled, offering no indication that she understood us.
"Throwing stars," Dad repeated, pointing to them. He made a throwing motion and then thrust his hands to his neck as if one had hit him.
"Ah, yes," the waitress said. "Of course."
She held up a finger and slipped into the steaming kitchen.
A moment later, the wok master waved us in.
I'd never stepped foot within a restaurant's kitchen before, and I was nervous about entering. But Dad didn't seem to mind, bursting through the swinging double doors, shouting, "Hey, some great lo mein you got here. I just had to tell you."
"So you wanna weapon or what?" the wok master asked. He was no-nonsense. He was also the only fat Asian man I'd ever seen, aside from sumo wrestlers.
"It would honor me," Dad said, offering a slight bow.
"All right, rule number one: none of that honor bullshit," the wok master cut in. "You're not the karate kid. All right? You're a middle-aged white dude with his kid. Got it?"
I nodded too.
"All right, then," he said, digging beneath the counter. "Think this will work for you?"
He pulled out a pair of black nunchucks.
"And that's really mahogany," he said, tapping the ends together. "Real nice quality."
"Oh," Dad cleared his throat, "well we were expecting something more along the lines of throwing stars but . . ."
"Naw. you don't want any of those piss poor things. If you want to give someone a good thumping, you'll need these. Trust me. They'll get the job done, guaranteed."
Dad rubbed his chin, pretending to ponder just what "job" he needed to get done.
"Forty bucks," the wok master answered. He spit a cheek full of tobacco into a Styrofoam cup in his opposite hand. The stir fry sizzled as the waitress rushed in and out of the swinging doors, pressing orders to the metal clips.
"Hey, hurry it up, pal. This General Tso's chicken's not going to stir fry itself," he said, nodding to the wok.
Dad pulled his wallet from his back pocket.
"It would honor me if you accepted twenty dollars."
"What? You already forget rule number one, cowboy? And no, forty. Not a penny less."
"So how do they work exactly?"
The wok master rolled his eyes, then put his spit cup down and began a nunchuck routine straight from the movies. The black mahogany blurred as he swung them back and forth across his body. He gripped the flying handle, then continued, eventually swinging it above his head before catching it square beneath his elbow.
"Sold," Dad said, shoving the forty dollars toward him and grabbing the weapon. "Come on, Bryce," he mumbled, walking us out of the kitchen. "Now we've got to sell your mother on these."
On mom's orders, for the past two months, my father had been living in Uncle Tim's basement, which he called a "top-notch bachelor pad" and a good place to keep his "harem of women."
We were walking back to the house when I said, "Hey, maybe I can stay with you tonight? Say hi to Uncle Tim."
He raised an eyebrow.
"Well, what I mean is, it would honor me if . . . "
"Cut the crap," Dad smiled, punching my shoulder. "Naw. You can't stay with me. Sorry, kid. I don't care if it would 'honor you' or not."
"Oh," I said, stuffing the nunchucks into my belt loop. "Well why can't I?"
"Well, what would I do with my harem?" he joked.
"Maybe you could ask them to leave?"
He laughed but I didn't get it.
"Come on, Bryce. Uncle Tim's basement smells like cat piss. You know that. We're talking serious cat piss. He's got all those ferals, right?"
"Plus you wouldn't want to have to sleep on a rollaway with your ol' Dad, would ya? Not when you're up to your knees in cat piss, right?"
I nodded again because I knew that's what he wanted.
"Good man," he said, clapping my shoulder.
As we walked through the streets, the streetlights shone brightly all around us, stretching our shadows. We walked a couple more feet before Dad stopped, turned his hands into fists, and in his best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice, shouted, "Ve are mighty varriors! Come on, say it, Bryce!"
I smiled. It sounded fun.
"We are mighty warriors!" I tried, my high voice screeching into the night.
"Ve are mighty varriors!" Dad repeated, louder this time, turning his hands into fists and puffing out his chest.
"We are mighty warriors!"
It felt good to shout, so we shouted a few more times until someone from an upstairs apartment told us to shut our traps or he'd kick our asses.
"Oh yeah? We'll I'd like to see you try, tough guy," Dad shouted to the buildings. He removed the nunchucks from my belt loop and waited.
After it was pretty clear no one was coming out to kick our asses, Dad smiled at the nunchucks, handing them back to me.
"See?" he said. "What'd I tell you? These things pretty much pay for themselves."
Half an hour later, we sat in the living room while Mom continued to shake her head no.
"No," Mom repeated. "I just don't think it's a very good idea."
"But Mom . . ."
"It sounds like a good way to knock yourself unconscious, Bryce. That's all I'm saying."
"What if I promise never to knock myself unconscious?" I asked.
"What if he promises never to knock himself unconscious?" Dad repeated.
Mom shook her head no.
He tried a more diplomatic approach.
"Tell you what, let's just sit down, drink a little tea and discuss the matter further." Mom sighed but put the teapot on.
Dad stayed late that night, demonstrating all the cool things you could do with nunchucks. I nodded in support of everything he said.
"And you can swing'em like this," Dad said, swinging them slowly in the kitchen. "And you can swing'em like that . . . "
Mom sipped her tea, continually unimpressed.
"And when you're really good, you can even swing'em like this," Dad said, working on his finale.
He tossed them high in the air.
They clattered against the kitchen counter, shattering a glass.
Mom bit back her laughter.
Wincing, Dad turned to me.
"Hey kid, how about you let your old mom and pop discuss this a bit further," he said. He gave me the "Go to your room, I can handle this," wink, so I did.
I'm not really sure how late he stayed, but I heard voices downstairs for another hour or so.
"But the best part about nunchucks," I overheard him through the vent, "is that when you get a good handle on'em, you can really just let loose and . . . "
Another glass broke.
"Aw, shit. That one's on me. I'll buy you another. You got change for a ten?"
"Just please be more careful!"
"I was being careful, Jesus!"
They were yelling, sure, but at least they weren't fighting.
The following Tuesday, Dad and I strutted down the street in our new gis. He'd picked them up half price at a Halloween surplus store.
"Damn, Bryce," Dad glanced at himself in a storefront window, "we look like a couple of ass kickers, huh?"
"Mmhmm," I agreed, strutting even harder.
Sensei was honored to see us, and he was honored to introduce us to a man named Paul and to Paul's son, Yancey, fellow ninjas-in-training.
"It is an honor to meet you," Dad said, trying his newly learned standing bow.
"And it's an honor to meet you," Paul repeated, shadowing Dad.
Yancey, who was about ten times fatter than me, lifted a Milky Way to his lips, remaining silent.
"Today," Sensei said, bringing his hands together, "we begin the true art of karaté."
"Karat-ee," Dad corrected.
First, Sensei taught us the Ghost Throw, which is when you put a hand on your opponent's wrist and then throw him over your knee. Next, he taught us the Spirit Toss, which is sort of just like the Ghost Throw, only with a different name.
"We must practice," Sensei said, so Dad and Paul began chucking one another across the dojo, and they seemed to enjoy it. I tightened the belt on my gi and asked Yancey if he would be honored to throw me first.
"How about you throw me?" he offered, stuffing the remainder of his candy bar into his pocket. He was a pretty big kid, sort of bursting out of his gi, so I said, "Nah, that's all right. You can just throw me."
Shrugging, he put his hand around my wrist and tried to set his feet.
"Okay. This is the part where I throw you," he warned.
"Yeah," I agreed. "Whenever you're ready."
"Hi-ya!" he shouted, attempting to drag me across his leg. I didn't fall. At least he didn't make me fall. Still, I sort of flopped to the floor when I was supposed to because Sensei was watching and I didn't want Yancey looking like a moron on his first try.
"Okay, your turn," Yancey said proudly, bracing himself, holding out his wrist. "Do your worst."
I didn't "do my worst," but I still managed to fling him halfway across the room. He hit the wall and fell like a pile of garbage, the candy bar seeping through his pocket. Almost immediately, he began sobbing. I ran over to him.
"Hey, you would honor me to stop crying, Yancey," I whispered. "Hey Yancey, you would really honor me . . . "
He only cried louder.
"What the hell's going on over there?" Paul asked. He had my father in a headlock. Dad was trying, quite unsuccessfully, to bite and kick and curse his way out.
Paul pulled my father's head upright.
"Your son just kicked the living hell out of my son," Paul said.
"It was the Spirit Toss," I explained. "Sensei said I should practice it so . . ."
Yancey erupted even louder, rocking on his butt, gripping his knee.
"I think he broke my kneecaaaaaap!"
"I didn't break your kneecap." I turned to Paul and my father. "I didn't break his kneecap."
"Tell your kid to apologize to my kid," Paul said, tightening his grip on my father.
"Tell your kid," Dad gasped, "to stop . . . being such a . . . pansy."
Dad slipped out of the hold and returned to his fighting stance.
"Time to mokuso," Sensei said hurriedly, his attempt at diffusing the situation. "Please, if we might all take our places on the mats . . ."
"Panther Touch of Death!" Dad cried, jabbing Paul in the neck with his middle and index fingers.
"What kind of pussy shit was . . ."
Dad sucker-punched him in the face.
"Seriously!" Paul cried, covering his nose with his hands.
Dad landed another Panther Touch of Death, but then Paul wrapped his meaty hands around my father's neck and began the art of strangling.
"Please!" Sensei begged, "Please! You honor me to stop! You honor me . . ."
The woman doing her laundry hardly bothered glancing up.
Yancey turned quiet, watching our fathers fight. He pulled the remainder of the Milky Way from his pocket and filled his mouth with chocolate. He offered me the last bite, which I gladly accepted.
I sat beside him, chewing.
"Which one you think will tire first?" I asked.
Dad shouted, "Karat-ee chop!" and landed a blow to Paul's forehead.
"Probably my dad," Yancey admitted, pulling at the caramel stuck to his teeth. "He drank a couple beers before we came."
"Ve are mighty varriors!" Dad shouted, running headfirst toward Paul like a battering ram.
Paul held his arm out, exploding Dad's bottom lip.
They were grateful for a reason to quit.
As we left the dojo, Sensei turned to my father and said, "It would honor me if you did not return next Tuesday."
"Sorry, Sensei," Dad said, wadding up his busted lip with his fingertips. "We still got three more lessons to go."
Three weeks later, after our final karate lesson, the Sensei awarded us our tie-dye belts.
"It honors me to present you with this," he said. He draped the belts across our outstretched hands. Dad took one and tied it around his forehead.
"Like this?" he joked. "Like Rambo?"
"Thank you, Sensei," I said, offering a standing bow.
"So what is this?" Dad asked. "Like one step down from black belt?"
"Of course," Sensei said. "And if you would care to honor me with your credit card once more, perhaps we continue our pursuit in obtaining the true ways of the black belt."
"Nah, we're all right, chief," Dad said, demonstrating a few kicks. "I think . . . we learned . . . all . . . that we can." He said, "Hi-ya," and broke an invisible brick. "Plus, we already got some nunchucks, so we should be all set."
We left the dojo, walking down the street, past the restaurants, past the streetlights. It was dark then, and the trees threw their shadows in different directions. We were still in our gis, looking like we were going to kick everybody's asses. Every time we passed a small tree, Dad would karate chop it or try a Flying Dragon Kick.
"Judo-chop!" he called, smashing his hands into the branches. A spray of twigs shattered to the ground.
We walked home through the dead part of town, out where the factories were, and Dad and I threw rocks in the broken windows of the abandoned buildings.
"Pretend it's a ninja star," I said, making a whirring sound as I chucked one. The rock clattered into the building.
"Nice aim, kid."
Dad let me hold the nunchucks for the entire walk home. So while he was busy kicking trees and karate chopping bushes, I practiced my routine. In the past few weeks, my nunchucks skills had really improved. At first, Dad had wrapped them in foam to ensure that I kept my promise to Mom and I didn't knock myself unconscious. But he'd since removed the foam, saying that even if I did hurt myself it would most likely be a "good learning experience" and that he encouraged learning in all of its forms.
So I swung them slowly but often, trying to find a rhythm.
I guess it was sort of a nice night. It was warm, at least, and there weren't any clouds. The stars looked like the kind of stars you might see in a painting. Dad was still living in Uncle Tim's basement, but he'd told me that he'd gotten rid of the harem and that he was now a one-woman kind of guy.
"And that woman is your mother," he informed me as we walked, "whether she knows it yet or not."
He gave me a noogie and I tried smiling, even though it hurt.
"Hey, maybe I can stay with you sometime," I suggested. "I mean, not tonight or anything, but maybe sometime . . . "
"Sure, kid," he agreed. "Sometime sounds perfect."
I probably could have just swung those nunchucks forever. Like I said, it was a really nice night, and my routine was going well, and I was still pretty proud of earning the tie-dye belt and all.
"Hey, think I can kick down that tree?" Dad whispered, pointing to an unsuspecting sapling straight ahead.
"Try it," I said.
He wound up for the kick and then landed a roundhouse Soaring Falcon.
It looked textbook, but somewhere along the way his foot got tangled in the branches and he went down hard on his arm.
"Are you okay? Are we in mortal danger?"
"Naw, it's just my . . ."
I stopped listening. I just jumped in and started attacking the tree with the nunchucks.
"Hi-ya!" I shouted, "Hi-ya!"
Somehow, I managed to wrap the nunchucks around the branches. I freed them, then took another swing. This time, the nunchucks wrapped around the branch and hit me squarely in the face.
"Bryce, language!" Dad cried, still in pain himself. He was clutching his arm, and I stuck a hand to my face.
"Knock out a tooth?" he winced.
"No," I said, then noticed the blood dripping from my mouth. "No wait, yeah, I did."
"Baby tooth or adult tooth?"
"Nutsucker," Dad hissed. He scraped his feet against the concrete. "Come on, help me up."
I did; one hand on my bleeding mouth, the other in his palm.
"On three," he gritted. "One, two . . ."
I leaned back and together we heaved him up.
"Did you . . . break it?"
"Maybe," he said, cradling his arm. "I don't know. What's a break feel like?"
"Like throwing an axe?" I guessed.
"Hey, untie my belt," he ordered. "I saw this once on television." I loosened it from his sweaty brow, then tried tying a sling as directed. "Fold it around the elbow now. Fold it again. Easy there. Careful with the tie-dye."
Afterward, I slipped my adult tooth into my pocket and tongued the bloody gouge.
"We better get us to the hospital," Dad said. He'd twisted his ankle in the fall and shuffled slowly when he walked.
"Wait. You need a doctor or a dentist?" he asked.
I thought about it.
And then, he just started laughing. I don't know why, really. He laughed, so I laughed, and every time I did, a little more blood spilled out.
"Who would have thought," he winced, doubled over. "Who would've thought that two tie-dye belts . . . that two tie-dye belts for crying out loud . . . a damn tree." He closed his eyes and tears seeped out from their corners. "We're mighty warriors, for crying out loud!"
"We are mighty warriors!" I repeated.
"Ve are mighty varriors!"
More blood. More gushing.
I tried karate chopping those nunchucks for all the trouble they'd caused, which only made Dad laugh harder.
We limped back to the house so Mom could drive us the rest of the way to the hospital.
"You can't tell her," he warned as we shuffled within a few blocks.
"What? That we're mighty warriors?" I shouted to the night.
"Shhh," he hushed. "No, you can't tell her that we got our asses handed to us by a maple tree."
"I think it was a sapling."
"Yeah, okay. Whatever it was. Just tell her we got jumped, huh?"
"You know, mugged."
"By the sapling?"
"Of course not. Say it was a gang of gangsters."
"Like . . . Tommy Guns gangsters?"
"Like brass knuckles gangsters. Flame thrower gangsters. What kind of gangsters you think live around here anyway?"
I didn't know for sure.
Eventually, even with his limp, we stumbled back to the house. We stood on the porch, and he motioned for me to knock.
"Remember," Dad whispered, tapping his nose twice, "gangsters."
Mom opened the door.
"Bryce! Jesus . . . what happened?"
So I told her. About the street gang, and how Dad had defended my honor, and the family's honor, and Mom's honor too. I told her how they brought out their Tommy Guns and were like, "Give us all your money! And your wedding ring!" and how Dad wouldn't budge, especially on the wedding ring. How he'd fought them off the best he could, and how I'd manned the nunchucks.
"I was like, 'boom,' 'pow,'" I explained, demonstrating.
"Uh huh," Mom said, ushering us toward the car.
"And then I was like, 'Take that! And that'"
She buckled us into the car, telling Dad to be careful of his head.
"You should've seen the way we kicked'em in the nutsacks," I continued, wiping the blood away with my arm. "You should've seen us. They were in a lot of pain, I bet."
"Uh huh," Mom nodded, not even scolding me about the nutsack.
She started the engine.
In the front seat, Dad nursed his arm, staying quiet, and stared out at the passing streetlights. He put a hand on the top of Mom's headrest and she didn't tell him not to.
For the entire ride to the hospital, I did most of the talking. So I told Mom everything. Everything I was supposed to. About the gangsters and the Tommy Guns. About our honor. How we'd kicked and chopped and fought our way to freedom. How we'd done it together, as a family, and how we never could have done it alone.
"Uh huh," Mom said. "Is that so?"
I nodded, repeating the best parts, explaining how we'd defended everything we could with all we had, hoping it was enough.