It was a couple years after I quit Kenpo when I saw Sensei Roberts for the last time. Just before college.
“Dad, we never shop here,” I said.
“Well, we don’t need to paint the shed that often.” He and pickup’s idling engine waited for me to open the passenger door, at the entrance of Nielsen Custom Paint and Flooring.
“You can pick the color, as long as it’s brown. I’ll wait out here.”
Sensei Roberts’ rough chest stretched for acres in front of my nose. We were in his dojo - an activity room inside of the town’s only gym. Management had allowed him to install hooks on cables anchored to the twenty foot ceiling. During class we hung punching bags from them so that the room resembled a meat locker swinging with very, very old beef sides. The smell of sweat, feet, and studied aggression.
He threw a theatrically slow fist past my right ear, which in theory I was supposed to dodge. His arm, like the rest of his body, could transform into reinforced concrete at will - I knew this from holding the bag while he threw real punches for demonstration. He was the real deal, fifth dan i.e. five red stripes on a black belt. Did you know that there were levels higher than black belt? I didn’t, until I started training with Sensei on my dad’s urging.
Sensei’s arm sideswiped my right ear and jaw at about two miles per hour. I stuck out my right arm and clutched the collar of Sensei’s black gi, as requested.
“Harder, like this.” He grasped my collar and pulled me off balance. I turned my head to avoid my nose touching his blonde chest hair. He wasn’t singling me out; this was Sensei Roberts’ Kenpo - if you don’t train serious, you won’t fight serious. But even after the hundredth such routine, the tips of my ears reddened.
“Again.” His nostril twitched as I man-handled his collar again. I smelt it too. Something rank. We both ignored it.
“That’s better.” He looked up at the semicircle of students after we finished the movement. “No need to be gentle; iron sharpens iron. Good work today. Now line up.”
The line of many and the line of one bowed to each other.
“Iron sharpens iron,” he repeated, looking into the middle distance, then back at us, smiling expansively. “When I got out of the Navy, I didn’t have anyone to sharpen my iron. Six pack of Bud in the evening, and that was just work nights. I lost a construction job because I was hungover. But I found God, and Kenpo. Turned my life around.”
God appreciated strong men, and men are made strong by Kenpo among other things, so that made sense. The second part was confirmed empirically: Sensei trained Navy SEALS – SEALS – in Iraq. As in, the Navy would fly him out there for special training seminars. The elites learning from the elite. Exactly how did he transition from dissolute indignity to glory? We never found out, beyond his vague anecdotes.
Sensei let his homily percolate into the row of boys*, then we scattered to find our shoes and toss the boxing gloves into the communal bin. At the start of each class, each student picked a pair of boxing gloves from the bin for bag work. The bin functioned like a sock drawer, with the washing step indefinitely postponed. The gloves never smelled great, but today my right hand smelled funky - really funky.
“Do you know what Sensei drives?” Whispered Dixon, a white belt with droopy shoulders. He was not my friend, but we held body shields for each other during practice.
“A convertible?” I asked. The one in my mind was a Dodge Viper, crimson.
“A Humvee,” insisted Dixon, eyes shining. “Like, the original.”
“Have you seen it?”
“No, Chris told me,” said Dixon, wilting slightly.
I thrust my hand into my right-hand glove one more time, and fished out a sandwich bag, the source of the smell. Inside the bag was a glob stale male ejaculate – dried to a grayish tacky white. Someone’s idea of a joke. Or perhaps, the anonymous masturbator believed that honor was zero-sum – that by making me lose face, he must necessarily be elevated. Dixon looked over at the bag, then at me.
“What’s that?” He asked.
“Just some trash.” I lied.
Someone else’s old sperm had been crawling around my fingernail cuticles all session. As casually as possible, I sidled over to a garbage can and threw the sandwich bag away. I let the humiliation burn off my scalp. Mentioning the trespass to Sensei would have dishonored him – I couldn’t let him know that one of his students was capable of such a disgusting thing. I told myself that honorable people should not be dishonored. Or rather, this was a foregone conclusion for me back then, not a conscious thought.
I let my gi hang open as I stumbled, sweaty, into the summer evening.
Nielsen Custom Paint and Flooring was nearly empty. A coin-operated bubblegum machine to my right; buzzing tube fluorescents above. It was a simple rectangular warehouse, offering a faint tang of grease and industrial solvents. Overtop the islands of retail shelving I could see the checkout counter, where a customer, back towards me, was speaking with an associate. Neither of them looked up at me.
“… the mix is off…” The customer pushed a color swatch across the counter, along with two gallon buckets of paint. “Like, way off.”
The associate pushed his glasses up his nose and nodded, thoughtfully. His tan company shirt was buttoned neatly. On the left breast, an embroidered badge read “NIELSEN’s – SURPASSING SERVICE”, underlined twice in red. A retractable ballpoint in the shirt pocket caught the light.
“Sorry about that sir. Give us 10 minutes to re-mix, no charge.” Sensei Roberts looked up at the customer apologetically, with that expansive, winsome smile. Then he pushed some buttons on the cash register, absorbed in his work. I turned on the balls of my feet.
“What, no paint?” Asked my dad when I returned to the running car.
“Nah, the colors didn’t look great. Let’s try Home Depot.”
*Also, a girl named AmyBack