by Susannah Carlson
“Le chien est retourné à son propre vomissement, et la truie lavée au bourbier.” (Henry V, Act V, Sc. 3)
“I want pizza,” my stepson says from the backseat.
It is eight-thirty in the morning.
“Maybe after your test,” I say, knowing the test will last at least until dinnertime.
“I want pizza now,” he says, his tone an emotionless command.
“Well, Michael, we can’t do that. We have to be at Seaside in ten minutes.”
“I’m hungry.” He kicks the back of my seat.
“I gave you breakfast, Honey.”
“I hate pancakes.”
“You like them when your father makes them,” I say, sweetly as I can.
“I hate your pancakes.”
And I hate you, I think. “I don’t know what to do about that, Michael.”
“I’m going to tell my dad you didn’t give me a good breakfast before my test.”
In the rearview mirror, I see he’s holding his cell phone. My throat clenches. I swallow. “I gave you breakfast, Michael.”
“Nothing good,” he says, giving my seat another kick.
I tighten my hands on the steering wheel as if it were His Majesty’s spoiled little neck.
In my past life, I delivered lunches to Silicon Valley tech companies, lugging stacks of insulated carriers full of scrumptious numnums for engineers and executives and their peons. I made so little back then I often couldn’t afford lunch myself. Now, on a full stomach, in new clothes, my nails ground down to the quick and replaced with long, blunt, white-tipped acrylic, I steer my husband’s silver Volvo into a space in front of Seaside Taekwondo. I glance in the rearview at The Dauphin, who glowers in the backseat in his starchy white gi and danbo belt. He hates taekwondo almost as much as he hates me. It’s mutual.
Perry is going to miss the Little Prince’s big day. He’s off in Prague or Belgium or someplace, doing someone, or possibly something pertaining to motherboards, leaving me to bring His Highness here for his black belt test.
Before I met Perry, I lived in a studio apartment I could barely afford on a drab street in downtown San Jose. Now I live in a big house by the beach in Capitola and travel to Paris, the Bahamas, Belize. You’d think I’d be grateful and happy to do my step-motherly duties, such as this today, and I would have thought so, too, before it happened to me. Things are always so different when you’re the one inside them.
God’s Gift gets out of the car and strides into the crowd in front of the studio, subsumed in a sea of white gis. I check my makeup, put on a smile, and force myself out of the car. People politely nod my way and I nod back. I bring His Lordship here three times a week, so they know my face and they know I am married to Perry, but they don’t know me, which is just the way I like it. I see Master Richardson bowing to a couple of gi-clad old Asian guys they must have imported from over The Hill to judge the test. His blonde hair glints in the summer sun, and as he bends, his paunch folds over his worn black belt. The Dauphin stands beside him, his back straight, his face as hard as his wicked little heart. Master Richardson had cautioned Perry not to push the kid to go for his black belt so young. He said a twelve-year-old’s bones aren’t developed enough for some of the tests, like breaking a brick. But Perry insisted the fruit of his loins was ready, and for what he’d shelled out over the years for classes, Little Lord Fauntleroy was going be the youngest black belt in the history of Seaside Taekwondo, and possibly the WTF itself. I am guessing Master Richardson is arguing The Prince’s case to the imported Asian grand masters. I make my way into the studio and duck into the bathroom, where I sit for as long as I reasonably can, enjoying the privacy of my putty-colored stall.
When I come out, the studio is full and all the chairs are taken. The candidates stand stiffly in front of Master Richardson and the grand masters. Master Richardson shouts something in Korean and the candidates all bow, arms at their sides. He shouts something else and they all sit down, row after row of them, forming a circle where the kicking and huffing and keeya-ing will take place. There must be fifty of them. With the candidates on the floor and their parents or spouses or friends on the chairs, I’m stuck leaning against a wall. It is going to be one long, uncomfortable, mind-numbingly dull day.
I scan what I can see of the candidates’ waists and only see two danbo belts: His Highness and a guy who looks like he should be playing college football. If it was any other kid, I’d be worried for him. As it is, I secretly look forward to the sparring.
First, we have to get through the forms, starting with the white belts, of which there are five: four kids ranging from maybe kindergarten to third grade, and one woman who looks to be about sixty. The kids go first, each one rising and walking alone to the center of the circle, bowing stiffly to their pudgy instructor and the grand masters, and slowly, in time with their master’s barked instructions, moving through their forms, giving little jerks and huffs, and shouting keeya when it’s called for. I have to admit, the little ones are adorable in their concentration, their seemingly mature and impeccable motion. The old lady, not so much. When they finish they clap their arms to their sides and bow to Master Richardson, then turn and bow to the grand masters, who are seated at a folding table with bottles of water and notepads in front of them, then they turn and bow to their fellow candidates, and finally they sit down. It’s hotter than a roast duck’s guts in the studio. I envy the old men their libations. My feet hurt.
Two hours later, it is finally time for the danbos to show their forms. Michael and the football player are the only two who stand and bow when Master Richardson shouts whatever he shouts that makes them do that. As the big guy goes through his routine, I look toward the lobby and see a table has been set up with a cooler on it. I’d give my left ovary for a bottle of water, but I know I have to wait. The break should come once the danbos finish their forms. Big Boy finishes his routine and bows and bows and bows and sits. Master Richardson barks and His Lordship steps into the ring. He looks at me and smirks. He launches into the same routine he has done in the living room every night for years, and every time he turns my way his eyes glance up, checking to be sure my attention never wavers from the wonder that is his huffing little self. He knows I hate this, and he loves it.
When the Boy Prince has bowed and bowed and bowed and returned to his seat on the floor, Master Richardson turns to the audience and I expect him to announce a break but instead he announces that the sparring will begin.
Again the adorable white belts, two by two, leaping like baby rabbits, kicking each other in their padded little chests, falling down, getting up, jumping, spinning, and kicking again, their high pitched keeyas muffled by mouth guards. Then it’s grandma’s turn. Because there are five of them, she has to spar with Master Richardson. They circle each other and I think I see a twinkle in the old lady’s eye as she gives a spinning leap and lands a roundhouse kick to Master Richardson’s head that sends him reeling into the seated students behind him. A laugh escapes me and I pretend to cough.
Time has slowed, as it does for the suffering. I sneak periodic glances toward the lobby, watching as another table is set up beside the first and a cash box is placed upon it. My stomach growls. I’m thinking of ham sandwiches and iced tea and maybe the chance to sit down for a few minutes, when I see the food arrive. A man in a familiar red cap and orange vest stacks insulated orange totes on the waiting table and a volunteer pulls out plastic-wrapped sandwiches. The vest and the hat are the same ones I wore when I worked for Luscious Lunches in the Valley. My heart pounds. Master Richardson announces the break and we head to the tables, to the food and the water, and the meager breeze whispering through the front doors.
I look around for Michael and see him on the other side of the room, talking on his cell phone. I wave for him to join me in line but he just glares and turns away. Fine, I think, grabbing a ham sandwich and a bottle of water.
Outside, I see the delivery guy sitting on a bench, smoking a cigarette. I take a seat beside him.
“Luscious Lunches,” I say. “I used to work for you guys back in San Jose.”
He looks at me, “At Corporate?” he says.
“Nah. I was a driver.” I chew, swallow, sip my water, and hold out my hand. “I’m Melanie.”
“You’re a long way from San Jose,” I say.
“We just opened a branch here,” he says. “In fact, if you know anyone, we need more drivers.”
“I might,” I say. “Hey, could I bum a cigarette?”
He taps one out for me and lights it. I take a long drag and cough. “Sorry, it’s been awhile.”
“I’d better go pack up,” Dan says, standing.
“Thanks for the smoke,” I say.
I stand and pace in that cool way smokers have, looking through the windows at all those people I recognize but don’t know. I see The Dauphin heading toward the doors, his cold, child eyes on me, cell phone still in hand. He’s talking before he reaches me. “I’ve been looking for you,” he says. “The good food is already gone. You were supposed to buy me something.”
“Of course,” I say. I pull a twenty out of my pocket and hand it to him.
“I told my dad you didn’t give me breakfast. I told him you were out here smoking cigarettes. He wants to talk to you.” He hands me the phone.
I take it, hit the End button, and hand it back to him. Then I pull my keys out of my purse and hand those to him, too. “Go get your lunch. Your big tests are starting soon.”
I turn and head back to the lunch table, passing Dan on his way out with an enormous salad bowl. I reach the table, and in a smooth, practiced motion, I gather up the last of the delivery bags, sling them over my shoulder, and head for the door.
Dan’s standing at the back of the Luscious van. I reach around him and hang the bags from their hook. I don’t have to look. My hand knows where it is.
“Hey,” he says, startled.
“Hey, yourself,” I say. “Can I hitch a ride back to Luscious?”
He raises an eyebrow and shrugs. “Yeah, sure.” He closes the rear doors and I head to the passenger side and swing onto the seat like I belong there.
The van smells like mine used to. The seat feels the same, too. I close the door and buckle my seat-belt, happy as a fish thrown back into the sea.
Susannah Carlson’s work has appeared or will soon appear in Sequoia, Pebble Lake, Red River Review, SFSU Review, Sixfold, and Narrative Story of the Week, among others.
Susannah lives in Sunnyvale, California, where she facilitates critique groups in fiction and poetry and wishes the rents were lower. She can be reached via her Facebook page.