|Ryan Michael Faist|
|Not Quite a Ninja|
When I was seven I learned ninjitsu. I mean I was seven when my friend Jon started training me in the art of Shaolin Long Fist Kung-Fu. I didn't become a real ninja until I was older. You can't become a ninja overnight; there's a lot to learn. For three years I dedicated every Saturday and Sunday, which I always spent at my dad's house, to training.
Jon led the gang, then me, then Reese, his little sister. Reese was a year younger than me, three years younger than Jon. She's who I beat up during training. Sometimes Jon would hold me down so she could practice her kicks and punches, but for most of 1986 Jon taught me and her how to take a beating together. My first busted nose. My first black eye.
Life was tough for an eight-year-old in my neighborhood. It made sense to make it tough for everyone else. We'd patrol the gravel alleys of South Bend's south side looking for dares. Garage windows learned their lessons, believe that.
Adam and his three ugly brothers rivaled us. They lived two doors down from my dad; four houses down from Jon and Reese. Once upon a time we all played hide and seek together, but those days vanished sometime when I was wasn‘t looking. I remember playing with Adam and his brother on my porch one summer night and they got into a fight. The first fight I ever saw. Adam grabbed a fist full of dirt from my dad's porch garden and hurled into his brother's eyes, sending him to the floor--blind and screaming. Ever since, Adam was the last kid in the world I ever wanted to have to fight. Besides Jon, I mean.
My dad knew about Jon. But, as I found out years later, being a hippie-turned-businessman, he recognized the social benefits I could get by expanding my childhood associates beyond those who lived in my mother's neighborhood. He always knew I was shy. My mom knew it, Jon knew it, Reese knew it.
Jon was my best friend. I respected him more than the president, and I really liked Ronald Reagan. I think my dad had several private conversations with Jon during those years, but they didn't matter. Me and Reese still had to make sure we could snowball the driver-side window of a car speeding down Miami Street every single time. We were good, too. In spring of '87 we advanced to rocks.
"To be overbearing when one has wealth and position is to bring calamity upon oneself." --Lao Tzu, 14th Century
I learned a lot about life during those years, more than just martial arts mastery. I know it now. Courage was vital. Risks were respected. One winter I was called upon by my sensei to crouch behind a bush next to the corner bank's entrance and wait until the first person came out of the doors.
"You blast the next fool that comes out with this ice-pressed snowball. Some stupid college girl, probably," Jon laughed. "Hit her in the tits if you can."
But the maintenance man didn't have very big tits, so I blasted him in the face, which is when and where I got the small scar above my left eyebrow.
"Tell her you fell off your bike."
Every now and then there was trouble. Part of being a ninja is being ready for trouble. We had two spots in the alleys we could go if we ever got split up or something happened. And they saved our lives more than once, believe that.
About a block south of my dad's house were two garages really close to each other. I mean really close. But if you could squeeze yourself between them, and shuffle a few feet back, you'd find a 5' by 5' opening completely sealed off by the two garages and one giant shed. Nobody ever found that spot.
But the one we used most was the roof of the garage directly behind my dad's house. The weirdos who lived there vanished one day. Nobody knew why they left or if they‘d ever come back, so Jon and me and Reese moved in. We had the place looted within a week, couch and all. I bet we had more great times on that roof than most people have in a lifetime. In fact, I remember more of that roof than I do of any other part of my life.
"Michael, I think your dad smokes pot."
"No he doesn't. I know it, he doesn't do that."
He shrugged his shoulders, "I've seen his pipe before."
"My dad doesn't do that dude, trust me."
He dug some chew out of his gums and watched his loogie fly off the roof. "Want some?"
"You're always trying to get me to do stuff, Jon."
"Lay plans for the accomplishment of the difficult before it becomes difficult."
On my tenth birthday my dad gave a skateboard. It was a red and white Veriflex with a green cobra on the bottom. That's all it took for me to start skating. Besides Jon, I mean. And you better believe if you can't ride backwards down a hill on a skateboard in pitch black you're less of a ninja than me, believe that.
About the best thing Jon ever did for me was teach me how to skate. First in the grass, then on the sidewalk, and finally in between lanes of rush-hour traffic. It took about nine months to get the hang of it, during which Jon began smoking cigarettes, rocking a green and yellow mohawk, and railing impressive stair rails with his skateboard. I liked the mohawk the best, but my mom told me if I ever did that to my head I'd be showing how dumb I was. So instead I told Reese I could rail a stairway too.
"My brother rails that one by the liquor store all the time."
"And the one at the bank, too."
"Can you rail that one? I want to see."
Luckily, her bitch of a mother happened to be coming around the corner. "Hey! What'er y'all doing way over here? Get on home! Go on!" Even though I always hated their mother, that particular afternoon she saved me from humiliation and broken balls.
That bitch even had the nerve to bring it up to my dad while we were all sitting on our porch one night. "…yeah don't you know Bill there's lots to do across Miami Street…"
It didn't matter. That was still the last time anyone ever bitched at me for crossing the street.
At eleven-years-old I could kick your ass with a stick, bat, staff, bottle, rock, ball, anything. Good thing I never had to. We did beat up a couple people, though. Definitely Adam and his brothers, countless times. And because I was advancing in ninjistu quicker than Jon ever expected, he left me to run the gang while he was 'kicking it with cooler cats.' I hated cats too, so I understood and accepted the responsibility.
But Reese didn't skate, and that was a problem. And then she started liking me, and I didn't know what to do about that.
"So do you ever wonder why Reese waits on the stairs for you while you use the bathroom, Michael?"
"I think she's got the hots for you."
"Huh… Reese is stupid."
One time Jon was missing for six days. My dad told me the high school had stopped calling for his excessive absences, and that the only thing his mom and dad ever cared about was him going to jail. So Jon agreed to at least call every time he wasn't coming home. Out of respect, I guess. But when six days went by without even a word, his mom let everyone know.
"He's stealing, I know he's stealing."
"He's with that girl, that's where he's at."
"Maybe he's already in jail."
"Maybe he's never coming back."
Jon came back on the seventh night, hiding a ten-inch purple hickie that stretched all the way down his stomach. He showed my a few days later, after it began to heal, and it was still the coolest thing I'd ever seen since Jon jumped off my dad's roof and broke both of his legs. Jon's dad felt differently--three bruised ribs, two busted lips, and an arm in a homemade sling.
For some reason I never made a move on Reese. I guess years of ninja training made us war buddies, even after she told me she wanted to have sex with me. We'd still hang out though, and sneak into Jon's room when he wasn't home.
Jon was a great artist. I should have said that a long time ago. We used to make a martial arts magazine. He'd pencil little sequence kicks and takedowns, and I'd trace over them with a pen. I still have some. He painted murals too. You could see our gang sign on the backs of garages all around our side of town. A black ninja star with "South Bend" inscribed in the center let everyone know who was in charge. But it was the water color of Jesus Christ on the Cross that worried his folks in a new way. I'd say Jon gave up about five teeth for that spectacular painting.
He also had brass knuckles, which beat the old Chinese finger-cuff trick out of the fucking water. And nun-chucks, which is why I have two fake front teeth. And a .22 caliber pistol, but nobody's supposed to know about that.
But the darkest, scariest, least talked about thing Jon ever had was the Black Book. Reese warned me never to open it or else tortured souls would wage war on me. It was Satan's bible.
"He was reading it last night."
"In his room. He was naked, too."
"He was, I swear."
"Does he always get naked when he reads it?"
"I don't know, Michael. "
But I never asked Jon about it. He would've probably asked me to help him conjure up a spirit or something.
Finally his mom asked a preacher to come to the house. Someone to talk to Jon from a new perspective. But enemies never seem to make very good advisors. And when Jon scattered soul-black soil all over his bedroom, the preacher could do nothing to harm him.
"In chopping wood on behalf of the master carpenter, there are few who escape without hurting their own hands."
Me and Reese weren't allowed to be seen with Jon by our parents anymore, and my skating had become too much of an outlet for things between me and her not to change. My mom moved to a suburban neighborhood where I was thrown into the mix with a bunch of yuppies. Kids who got off on smoking cigarettes and talking about each other's moms. Naturally, I felt a certain amount of superiority as a fourth-degree black belt.
By seventh grade I found drinking was the easiest way to feel good. I joined the wrestling team with some new friends and started starving myself like everyone else. But despite all the training I had gone through, I still wasn't prepared for all the changes. Like nightmares.
It was 1988 and Jon was fifteen or so. We were skating in circles on the old blacktop behind the bank. I distinctly remember him wearing a black hooded sweatshirt that darkened his face, even in the broad daylight. We kept circling each other, each time coming closer and closer to colliding with each other. But every time we would just barely miss each other, and I would get a glimpse of the skeleton of his face. Then, we slammed into each other.
His face was so black and skeletal that all the next morning I kept thinking of Skeletor from He-Man. He looked at me the way you hope nobody does when you're nine.
He tugged on my chest.
I didn't even have time to say anything.
He kept getting angrier and angrier and kept touching me and pulling me.
"C'mere Michael. It's okay. I'm just gonna take you in this back room and…"
When I woke up I cried so hard I was afraid my mom would hear and want to know what was wrong, but she didn't.
Meanwhile, I was discovering things like Goldshlager, scooters, and other ways to spend my mom's money. By then I'd grown out of the whole weekend trip to my dad's house. I'd go there every couple of months just to say hi. And when I did, Jon was never there. He'd been through so much trouble, I figured he was in jail or dead. A few months later I learned his dad had been taken away for nearly beating him to death when he caught him getting rear-ended by some old man in the basement.
That summer changed everything. I realized I didn't champion South Bend Ninjitsu Gang Culture, and I became aware of the gangs bigger than mine. All seventh-graders did.
Jon's conflict with his parents taught me that my parents really didn't know everything, like I once pretended, like they still pretended. And when I thought about it, I concluded there wasn't much difference between me and them other than age.
"You don't pay bills, boy. Maybe you should."
But I was smart for my age; As and Bs without even trying. "Believe me, mom, if I have to pay bills, it sure as shit won't be to live at home."
After the first few suspensions from high school for smoking and fighting, trouble was no longer a concern. My dad liked to hear about my fake girlfriends over the phone: Tracy, Michelle, Lisa. My mom never cared; As and Bs kept her happy.
I quit the wrestling team. I decided obnoxious boys really pissed me off more than anything. I fell in love with whiskey and starting getting in more fights with skater-haters.
"Through compassion, one will triumph in attack and be impregnable in defense."
One June night, 1995, while eating some drunk breakfast with a few friends at Denny's, I stumbled into the bathroom. I looked up in midstream and saw him for the first time in four years. It was most certainly Jon. He was wearing red lipstick and had blue yarn in his fucking hair.
"Michael?" he said. "Why hello. Long time."
"Shit," I burped.
"How are you?"
"Well," I said dizzily, "I don't feel right talking to you knowing both of us got our hands on our dicks."
"Oh." He went to wash his hands.
"What happened to your Mohawk?"
"My dad ripped it out… before he left."
But I was too fucking drunk to feel sorry for him. This was the same piece of shit who kicked my ass for three years. Who got me to let him watch seventies porn in the basement while my dad was outside mowing. Who got me to show him and his shithead friends where my dad's liquor closet was. Who got me to let them take turns passing Jack Daniels around and ollying over me behind the garage. Who got me to stand under icicles while he executed somersault snowball drills during winter. Who got me to steal cigarettes and garbage pail kids for him in the summer.
And now he stood before me with his homopolitics expecting sympathy? I wanted him buried. And what a poetic opportunity it was to demonstrate what my ninja training had been preparing me for all those years.
I zipped up and bounced back, feet strong, but loose.
The first punch shattered the towel dispenser. He blocked the second and third, but the fourth connected square in his nose, erupting blood like a busted fire hydrant. But he didn't fight back. No usual side strike to my gut followed by a round house to the back of my skull. Instead, he just stood there, holding his nose and staring at me. It was the only kind of offense I hadn't prepared for.
Panic struck, and I fell backwards into the stall behind me. I remember gasping for breath, confused at the confusion, desperate for a forearm side strike or something--anything. But three eggs, extra cheese, and salsa scrambled out of my mouth and into the toilet. "Goddammit," was all I could mutter while brown slobber splashed against my face.
After a final dry heave I kicked the door open. And there stood Jon, delving into my eyes.
He pressed his hand against my chest and sat me down. Then, very softly, he pressed his lips against mine. It could've lasted two seconds; it could've lasted two days. When I opened my eyes, he was gone.
Not much more needs to be said. I grew to be a fine little heterosexual and made my parents proud. But they still don't know about my ninjitsu. Or the only reason in the world I would ever use it.
"To retire when the task is completed is the way of heaven."
"I am a proud native of Indiana who spends as much time as possible reading and writing outdoors. I graduated from Indiana University in 2002 with a B.A. in English, and am eager to further my education with graduate studies in creative writing." E-mail: Ryanfaist[at]msn.com