Stubb is behind the wheel talking about martial arts. Between swigs from a bottle of Beefeater gin he tells me about Grandmaster Itosu.
Hokkaido, like 200 years ago: Little Itosu’s father, Mr. Itosu, a low-level politician of noble descent and feeble constitution, disgraces himself in a municipal scandal involving what would today be termed public lewdness and is sent to do time at a work camp far out in the Japanese archipelago. To cope, Mrs. Itosu develops the unfortunate habit of drinking herself into a real frenzy and laying into her young son with a wooden cane.
“So,” Stubb continues, taking the car up the ramp and swinging onto the Garden State Parkway, “one day, little Itosu sets out to cleanse his family name by way of a great pilgrimage, which in those days means crossing the sound and hopping a train into the continental hinterlands. But first, this pent-up anger from all those years of getting his ass handed to him needs to resolve itself. And resolve itself it does, at a brothel in Vladivostok, where Itosu ends up shooting a violent drunk right in the heart, and even though he feels justified in doing so, now he realizes he has to escape not only his past but also the law, sort of like that movie Dead Man– seen it?”
“Of course,” I say. “Johnny Depp. Neil Young.”
“Right, right. Now imagine instead of the old west a place far, far east– this great mystery of woodland shrines, road bandits, and sacred weaponry. Imagine the treacherous forests, wild beasts, close brushes with death. Where do you suppose a man finds the strength to carry on in a world like that? Lifting logs? Reading books? I’ll tell you what saved Itosu: The Way of the Hand and Foot.”
I bring the windows down. Off on our right, the sun sinks behind a neat row of industrial structures. Tall fencing ribboned with razor wire cuts through emptied lots, clean across the New Jersey marshland and into a railroad junction where freight trains move soundlessly around the tracks. The weather is clearing up, the black clouds withdrawing northeast, back to where they belong: New York City. There, at 224 East 10th Street– maybe even right beneath one of those pernicious-looking tendrils reaching down from the cloud cover– is Sylvie, not returning my calls, being a child.
Stubb catches my eyes in the rearview mirror. I’m riding in the back: here I can put my feet up and lay my head down and pretend I’m physically ill, not just an idiot.
“Do you know what Grandmaster Itosu said about dwelling on the past?” he asks.
I hazard a guess that Grandmaster Itosu’s views on past-dwelling were harsh.
“Basically it will destroy you and everyone you love,” he says.
Stubb fancies himself a truth-teller. He’s from the rough-and-tumble, the breadbasket plains where dreams burn up fast and love demands effort, a crop to raise and reap. What others call tact, he calls dawdling. He finds it flat and circuitous, and he hates it. Instead of tact, Stubb has grit. The capacity to make hay. By the time I was gearing up for my first year of law school, moving from Ithaca to Morningside Heights and bracing for another six semesters of student loans, Stubb had already made and lost money on stocks, futures, furniture, horses, greyhounds, Greyhound buses, lotions, tonics, pay-per-view, ride-sharing, and woodworking. He’s now the majority stakeholder in the most savage extermination business in all of Garden State. Every day at 11 o’clock, he calls me on my work cell to soliloquize about public policy, push insider stock tips, or just shoot the shit. Now we’re headed to his new beach property in Fort Lauderdale because I’ve told him I need to get away, to forget. Stubb has spent most of his life getting away, and so is always keen on helping others do the same.
Somewhere outside Trenton, we stop at a gas station to pick up some more beer. Woodland extends on either side of the road. The parking lot is empty save for a hulking Budweiser truck idling in the tungsten glow of a streetlight. As Stubb shuffles over to the forest edge to relieve himself in the darkness, the truck suddenly falls silent, and a man wearing what looks like a suede fringe jacket and a stockman hat climbs out of the cab. He gives me a nod as he crosses the lot, then disappears into the shop.
Inside, Stubb picks up a bag of potato chips.
“Crumbs,” he declares with something like disgust and tosses it back on the shelf. “Go get the Yuengling. We’ll stop somewhere else for food.”
Two aisles over, the Budweiser man piles an assortment of candy bars into a rolling basket. When Stubb connects the store’s inability to carry quality snacks with another anecdote about Grandmaster Itosu, the man looks up from the shelf, careful not to turn our way but clearly at attention, like he’s heard his name uttered in public by a voice he can’t quite place.
We pay and walk back outside, where the night has advanced to reveal a moon bright enough to throw long shadows across the lot. I propose a break, a cold one on the hood of the car. Suddenly it’s all quite grand: The State of New Jersey, all too often labeled a shit place, admitting us into a pocket of nocturnal mystery, the air around us alive with the sound of a million cicadas trying to fuck in peace after a lifetime underground. Maybe I don’t need Sylvie. Maybe I don’t need a job. Maybe I don’t need anyone, anything at all.
“You’ve got the Pleiades right there,” I say, stabbing in the darkness with my index finger, although I really have no idea. I’ve only seen the Pleiades in tattoo-form, on the shoulder of a palm reader in New London.
“Did I ever tell you the story about Grandmaster Itosu and the seven sisters?” Stubb says.
“Is it gross?”
The Budweiser man emerges from the store, chewing deliberately and bearing on us with a stare. Stubb salutes him with a nod.
“So, you guys talking about Itosu?” he says, throwing a candy wrapper in the general direction of an overflowing trash can.
“That’s right, brother,” Stubb replies without taking his eyes off the moon.
“They should teach kids about that man in school.”
“A statue in every home,” Stubb agrees, dipping into the bag for more beer.
The Budweiser man, who introduces himself as Melvin-San, offers cigarettes and candy bars and some hard facts of his life. It used to be, in the ’80s and ’90s, one could make a solid living in martial arts, support a family by teaching the values and mastering the moves. It was inspiring and fresh, and students were galvanized by the promise of spiritual fulfillment through sheer discipline, raw character. For years Melvin-San made good money running dojos across the southeast. He blithely staked his reputation and happiness and finances on the operation, working tirelessly and putting every penny earned right back into his business. Perhaps the novelty wore off. Perhaps everyone just got fat and lazy. At any rate, the empire eventually crumbled, as empires do, into shelterless ruins and toxic dust, leaving Melvin-San with nothing but crippling debt and marriage-torpedoing hurt. Now he’s hit rock bottom and taken to drinking daily, made drinking central to his job, he says, laughing joylessly and pointing to the truck. He’s hitting distributors all the way up to Poughkeepsie, then it’s a straight shot by Amtrak up to Harpswell, in Maine, where his ex-wife is visiting “relatives” that he believes are really just this one guy named Dennis, a suave Best Buy sales associate with whom the two of them did acid on a cruise ship in the twilight of their marriage.
“Maybe you should just get away,” I suggest. “Take some time, be alone.”
“Like Itosu,” Stubb says, nodding.
“You’ve misunderstood,” Melvin-San replies, smiling wearily. “Itosu never ran away from the past. He was running towards it.”
Martial arts can no longer pay his bills, but Melvin-San believes it can still heal. It heals through lightning-fast punches to the solar plexus. Trigger points that shut down the nervous system faster than a snake bite. Tornadoes.
“Tornadoes?” I say, swaying lightly.
It is explained to me that, when a young warrior promotes himself into the upper belt colors, his Sensei will teach him the Tornado– a spectacularly lethal derivative of the traditional roundhouse in which you come around heel-first with one leg, then pivot over, mid-air, with the other, straight through a totemic configuration of cinder blocks.
Melvin-San is quick to offer a demonstration. He plants his feet firmly on the ground, then he lets himself loose, upward into the air, twisting like a flying fish. He lands gracefully and bows in deference to the darkness.
Stubb, of course, is next. He steps up, eyes bleary with gin. Melvin-San labors over his posture like a golf instructor. Stubb shrugs him off, then tucks into an awkward pirouette and springs into the air. He catches Melvin-San right in the jaw with his heel, sending them both tumbling across the asphalt.
The men scrabble to their feet furiously, Melvin-San probing along his jawline with the heel of his one hand and groping blindly with the other for balance. Something tremendously dark has come over his face.
“Melvin, man,” Stubb says, turning his palms out apologetically.
Melvin-San silences Stubb with a stare.
“Again with these amateurs,” he says. “It’s sloppy fucks like you who drove me out of business. You people sent Itosu on the run.”
“Let’s go easy,” I say.
Melvin-San doesn’t ease up. Instead, he produces from his inner pocket a slender three-pronged weapon encrusted with gemstones. Stubb hesitates for a moment, then strikes a baroque stance reminiscent of a mantis.
“Two drunks flapping around, throwing kicks they don’t master,” Melvin-San says, waving the blade hypnotically as he crabwalks around us. “Bushido is action. It’s about tough situations, about dealing with them head-on.”
Neither Stubb nor I speak. Somehow, this absolute nonsense strikes a real chord.
Melvin-San looks over at the shop window, where the clerk stands rapt, fidgeting with his cellphone.
“Looks like it’s your lucky day, chief,” Melvin-San says, slowly lowering the blade.
I want to assure him this is certainly not my lucky day. I’ve had family funerals and audits that compare favorably to this day. Melvin-San should really just end it right here. He’s got one of those refrigerated trucks; he can just chop us up into little bits and hide us among cases of America’s choicest hops. We’ll be halfway to Mexico before anyone notices we’re gone. I imagine a modest ceremony, in absentia. We are gathered today to mourn the abrupt departure of C–, who has left us after a long battle with stupidity. He leaves behind a family he doesn’t often call enough and an ex-fiance who’s somehow put up with him for years.
“Do it, you son of a bitch,” I slur, throwing my beer on the ground.
“You don’t deserve it,” Melvin-San replies with a grin, laughing maniacally as he retreats to his truck.
When Itosu, low on supplies and hounded by forest wraiths in the Far Eastern Taiga, chanced upon an opportunity to assert his character, he didn’t waste any time. No sir. Picture a bear: one of those brawny National Geographic-grade yearlings perched on a rock amid the rushing waters, swatting at salmon the size of wakeboards. Now imagine Itosu slowly inching out on a willow limb, reaching for a beehive. He needs the honeycomb to complete a boon requested by some plain peasant girl. Right when he’s about to grab it, the branch snaps, sending him tumbling into the underbrush below. We’re talking prime bear real estate: Honey. Salmon. The occasional drifter sporting for the bounties of the wood. But Itosu can’t just give it up. He can’t just sacrifice the comb and tell the lass sorry– maybe I could bring you something else; maybe you could ask for something more reasonable.
“Not so,” Stubb says, gunning it down the Parkway. “Not Grandmaster Itosu.”
I chuck another empty can out the window, but this time the physics seem a bit off. My inner ear alerts me to a disturbance, and suddenly the car is in real trouble. We come up on the guardrail with a scream, bound out across the meridian, the rigor of the road falling away beneath us. Points of light stretch into long threads, threads that tangle in a complicated skein: it all rises out of the ground and onward into the darkness above. Then I am asleep, dreaming of treasures and conquest and grace.
When I come to, the car is upside down, the windshield blown out across the road in glassy pellets. I’m flat on the asphalt, staring up at the sky. Stars pass in and out of focus like prokaryotes under a microscope. On my left, Stubb is squatting in the high grass, peering into the distance.
“What happened?” I ask, stumbling to my feet.
“It was Melvin-San, that snake,” he says, scanning the dark field ahead. “Came up on us with the headlights off. Then he hit me with the high beam and wiped us out. Right off the road. It’s a miracle we’re alive.”
Stubb puts his ear to the ground.
“We should get going,” he says.
“Where?” I say, looking around. “There’s nothing out there.”
We cross the shallow ditch separating the road from the woods. After just a few steps, the wreckage sinks into the darkness behind us. We grope our way through the trees and reach a clearing overlooking a moonlit field of tiny octagonal blossoms. There, on the other side, across what strikes me as an incalculable distance, a thin plume of smoke rises from the treeline.
Stubb puts a boot on a moss-covered rock, squints into the night.
“Haven’t gotten far,” he says.
We shift through the shrubs, ground cover infringing on our career across the land, the path winding wildly and tapering off into a band of matted dirt no wider than my foot. I stop to catch my breath. Up ahead, the blue-black forest edge is interrupted by the light of what looks like a campfire. Stubb tries to communicate instructions with motions of his hands and eyes: it’s time to get down and crawl. I quickly realize this way of moving is significantly noisier, especially when you’ve been drinking and possibly concussed by road trauma.
The camp appears to have been abandoned quite recently. It isn’t much: a few lawn chairs, some shelter-like configuration of tarpaulin and blue twine. Soiled napkins and remnants of substance abuse litter the ground. Stubb bends down and picks something up.
“He can’t have gotten far,” he says, holding up an empty can of Budweiser between his thumb and index finger. “How’s your leg, by the way?”
Now that he mentions it, it feels like my left leg is broken in at least three places. Stubb proffers a mickey of bourbon. I guess it’s been on his person all along. I take a drink, feel it burn, my thinking mercifully blunted. Stubb takes a seat in one of the chairs and leans back.
“You stay here,” he says, closing his eyes. “You stay here while I go find and kill Melvin-San. In the morning, we’ll bring his head into town, present it to the king, and all of Trenton will rejoice.”
I reach for my phone.
“You stay here,” Stubb says, yawning. “You know what you have to do.”
I have two missed calls, a half-second voicemail recording of what sounds like a sigh, and a text message that’s just a long string of knife emoticons.
“You do what you have to do,” Stubb slurs.
I nod and put the phone to my ear. This time, Sylvie answers right away.
“I’ve been trying to call you,” she says. “I’ve been trying to call and tell you to stop calling me.”
I shift the chair, trying to cross my legs and immediately realizing they’re not bending very well.
“Where are you right now?” she asks.
“Fort Lauderdale,” I reply. “It’s everything the bards made it out to be. Big sky, turquoise waters, free land, loose women.”
“You’re drunk,” Sylvie observes, accurately.
“Not anymore. Now I’m alive.”
“Is Stubb with you? Can you put Stubb on the phone?”
I look over. Stubb is either asleep or dead.
“So, did you figure it out?” she asks, speaking softer now as if the lights are out and she’s lying down. “Did you figure out what’s next?”
“I’m going to write,” I hear myself say.
“But your life isn’t interesting enough to write about,” she replies.
“I’m going to write about Grandmaster Itosu.”
“Of course you are.”
High above, the stars tell stories of adultery, of senseless warfare, and of marvelous metamorphoses.
“Talk more,” she whispers. “Talk about Itosu. Talk until I fall asleep, please.”
At the end of his great pilgrimage, Grandmaster Itosu comes across a forest shrine bearing an inscription he cannot read. Undaunted, he enters through the narrow passageway, descends into the bowels of the earth. Down in the depths, he meets a hideous six-eyed ogre wielding a club made from mastodon femurs tied together with human hair.
“When will you ever learn, Itosu?” the ogre bellows, lifting his club above his head.
Itosu draws his sword, straightens his posture.
“I never learn,” he says. “I never dwell. Therefore I don’t learn.”