My husband John Dolan’s memoir Pleasant Hell has just been released as an audiobook, recorded at Telescope Audio with Brendon Anderegg. In celebration, here is a typically brilliant excerpt from the fifth chapter of the book. (Warning: there are graphic–not to say lyrical–descriptions of violence and mould!)
Karate. Empty hand is right. Hands don’t get no emptier. So I joined the Empty-Hand Club. The real scripture: Make of thine empty hand a club…and thy plowshares into fists. Tuesdays and Thursdays I bore my white fighting outfit up the hill to the old gym, to kneel on the hard wood floor, waiting for Sensei. It was weird to be among people outside of school hours. All around me there were people, off-duty, in their medieval Japanese bathrobes. I prayed that they’d talk to me, and that they wouldn’t.
Needn’t have worried. The class was run on the lines of an Imperial Japanese military academy circa 1939. Minimal chit-chat while waiting for Sensei, who always walked in late, like a pop star. He was Japanese, about five feet tall, perhaps a hundred pounds, and widely believed, by what I overheard in the locker room, to be made of titanium and able to kill with a glance. He ruled from the top of the room, seated on a little platform, and spoke to the multitudes through his lieutenants, two huge white guys. Very rarely he would descend to floor level and do someone the honor of miming their deaths for them, coyly brushing the edge of their windpipes with his open hand or snapping a kneecap backwards with his dainty foot. Those so honored went back to their places with a blush of pride.
I was not often so honored. I didn’t perform very well in the Kata, the mystic ballet which seemed to be the focus of the club. Real, full-contact sparring was very rare. I did very well at that—an instinct for how to hurt and be hurt—but this was not noticed. Sensei usually just sat on his throne and watched us perform the mystical kicks and punches which showed our “harmony,” or some such impractical tripe.
It bothered me to spend so much time on my knees. Not that I had moral objections—God no! But the Japanese formal kneeling position was extremely uncomfortable for my barrel body. Discomfort leads to heresy: I wanted to see Sensei up against a heavyweight contender, a 230-pound middling heavyweight. Not even the champion; just a very large, very quick black American who had spent his whole life hitting and being hit, rather than dancing this Zen ballet. I had my little doubts. I tended to see Sensei hitting the wall, a dainty Archeopteryx splatter of bones and blood. It was agony there on the hard wooden floor. My ankles were about to break—it was like balancing a refrigerator on a couple of wooden coat-hangers.
Each of us was trying desperately to become a warrior. There was no sense of community, though. What nerds want above all is to get the hell away from anybody who reminds them of themselves. Betray each other in a second. Not a very prepossessing lot, either: they were mostly short, skinny guys—I was a giant in that group—and high-school flinch still showed itself from time to time, along with its counter-move, the worthy nerd’s desperate courage and determination to die rather than be bullied again.
That Tao of flinch and defiance was admirable in the abstract, but kind of disgusting in person, simultaneously manifested on a hundred pallid, small-boned faces. Some of them were extraordinarily graceful, sweeping about in the Kata, but somehow I didn’t see them busting up muggers, becoming the stuff of urban or even suburban legend. The longer I had to spend on my knees listening to a hundred high-strung asthmatics mystically inhaling during our “meditation” sessions, the less I believed. And worst of all, I could smell my mould.
The gi, the ceremonial white fighting outfit, was the problem. Those karate sessions got very sweaty. We’d start out doing pushups on our clenched fists. This not only got us in shape, but was incredibly painful. The central notion of Sensei, this refugee from General Tojo’s staff, was that pain was good for you. Not inflicting it—which would have been fine—but enduring it, which I didn’t really need organized help with. Sensei, the Church, and the Irish martyrs of our Green Shelf were of one mind about the superiority of enduring pain to inflicting it: why do pushups on your open hands when you could crunch your knuckles on the hardwood floor? Then sit-ups and other exercises, retooled for maximum pain effect.
It got you very sweaty. Two hours of torture ballet under the gaze of Admiral Yamamoto and you were dripping. I was, anyway. I sweat like a pig, and the white fighting tunic was like a used towel by the time we were allowed to get up off our knees and shower. I understood showering but I didn’t get what you were supposed to do with the dirty clothes. My mother washed mine, I suppose. I think she did; at any rate they disappeared from the floor of my room, then reappeared, hung on the doorknob of my room like propitiatory gifts outside the ogre’s cave; and when they reappeared they bore a new non-organic smell. Presumably they had been “washed”; but I knew nothing of the actual process. I simply grabbed them and wrenched them onto my body, trying not to notice the implied waistline, before snarling farewell and heading off to BART.
But the gi was different. It was secret. I couldn’t let my parents know I was taking karate. Not because they wouldn’t understand but because they would. All too well. People talked about their parents not understanding them; I feared being understood.
Besides, discovery would ruin my secret war plan. An animate weapon was being built inside the tent-like quilted coat. And nobody was going to see it until it was too late for them to do anything about it. So I kept the gi zipped up in the ratty Pan Am bag in which I carried my unread textbooks and chewed-up, woad-dripping pens.
After a few weeks of this routine, I made a scientific discovery: sweat on white cotton medieval Japanese tunics makes a great medium for the incubation of green smelly mildew. Especially helpful is keeping said tunic zipped up tight in a flight bag. Mould cultivated under these conditions, we have found, shows astonishing growth rates.
At first I was puzzled at these big green spots on the armpits and the back of my fighting tunic. What was going on? Dye from the bag I kept them in? Some weird chemical reaction unknown to science? It was a deep mystery, and painful to contemplate because the Pan Am bag was a souvenir from a trip to New York when I was a little kid, when we still had money. And now I was dragging it around dripping pen-ink all over it, turning it green, wrecking it. Better get an XL Coke at the student union and not think about it.
After another week, the green spots merged, formed continents, and finally the bag actually began to leak spores. It was their smell which finally told me (and anybody else in the building or BART-car with me) that the the green continents were mould. If you opened up the bag, a whole season of spores rushed out to propagate their kind. The stench was pretty sickening, even to me. It was like opening up a storage shed full of old newspapers. I decided not to do anything about it.
Heads began to turn, or at least flinch, when I walked by, the old days of invisibility seemed a lost Golden Age. The air of decay followed me like the Reaper all around that sunny campus. Pepe LePeu meets Charon. I was the Johnny Appleseed of Berkeley, “Johnny Moldspore.” Benefactor of future generations, selflessly spreading a harvest of mildew, a zephyr from the crypt, through the public glades of Berkeley.
It was baffling what to do about it. Short of telling my mother. Well, I wouldn’t actually have to tell her—I wasn’t much on the direct-conversation stuff at home. “Say it with a snarl,”—that was my motto. I could just sort of stomp up and hand the karate outfit to he, in a “Wash this!” kind of way…but then she’d know about karate, and understand. And I couldn’t have that.
After weeks of intensive speculation, the gi had developed distinctive green continents, not unlike the shroud of Turin. Only greener. The sweatspots on my back and under my arms spread their wings, great Amazonian forests. Every day they got bigger until one night, kneeling before Sensei at the end of karate class, pretending to focus on proper breathing, I became uncomfortably aware of the intensity of the mildew smell radiating from my reeking body, and noted for the first time that no one was within twenty feet of me. It was a big room, but still…they were sort of clustered over there on the other side of the hall. I wondered dizzily, for a moment, if it was due to the antibiotic effects of mould: the whole room like an agar slide, with my penicillin mould keeping these organisms at bay. But there was a much simpler hypothesis, much more embarrassing and therefore true. I stank.
No wonder Sensei had sent me down after a few clumsy moves when it was my turn to do the Kata. I had probably dishonored the Emperor with my reek. Probably making a faux pas right now by not committing ritual suicide in front of the entire karate class, the whole Empty-Hand Clan.
My face instantly flushed with shame. Shame and stupid, for ever. You always have, you’re so stupid and stupid and stupid, you’re so stupid, God get me out, stupid, stupid, stupid—
I looked around for somebody to share the blame—anybody who might be greener and smellier than me. (The nerd’s instinct to deflect the group’s anger toward another victim.) Even one other greenie would help…but no. None! Not a single one of the other gi’s had even a trace, a little light lime-green five-o’clock mould shadow. Green belts, yes; but no green gi’s. Pure white. A flock of small people whiter than seagulls, unsullied. And they smelled different from me, too, now that I focused on it, trying to filter out my own Van Allen Belt of aromas. Yes, their smell was—not so organic. More chemical—like when you walk past a laundromat, probably comes from the stuff like “shaving cream” and “cologne” they advertised on TV. “Ban”: that was the name of an aerosol deodorant whose commercials I vaguely remembered. But how did people know about these things? Where did they acquire them?
It seemed unfair that they managed not to support even a little mould, to even things out. It should have been more widespread. After all, I didn’t invent mould; mould was a fact! Mould occurred naturally. In forests, for example. Part of the balance of nature—breaking down dead trees. How did they override mould growth? They knew something I didn’t. Their bodies were non-stick Teflon…differently-permeable membranes: dirt and smell slid off them, yet sexual partners stuck. Once again, the terrible gulf between their advanced technology and our slipshod peasant army, the non-fun of being your own third world. It was time to run away again, time for our conscripts to throw away their defective rifles and run for the hills. I cowered on my knees, waiting for the end of the session. Oh God I swear, I swear if they let me out of this room, I will run away and never come back, just let me get out, let them not yell at me in front of everybody…Just give me a head start down to the locker room and I swear I’ll be dressed and out, out of your way, in ten seconds: run out onto the street, jump in front of a speeding truck, something quick….
Time went by, presumably, while I knelt there waiting for Sensei to release us. Everybody was looking at me in disgust. I could see them through my eyelids as I pretended to focus on my breathing. We breathed. That’s what you’re supposed to do when you panic: breathe deeply. So I breathed.
This is a particular kind of moment which I remember well: the waiting to run away. Epiphanies in stories and movies generally cut directly to the action; there’s a quick cut from, say, realizing that you’re offending everybody else in the room with your smell, to you running away. But in my experience there’s usually a long time between knowing and being allowed to leave. I had to kneel there on the parquet floor making a show of deep breathing for a long time before I could run to the dressing room, stuff the gi back in its bag and walk down the path to BART.
But I went back to the next class. In the same green gi. I couldn’t quit. Sometime, I presumed, they’d have to get past the mystical dancing stuff and tell you how to really maim people. So I kept going. And nobody mentioned the green gi or the cloud of decay which followed me about. They just gave me a corner of the room all to myself. In this way the spores turned out to be very handy: they actually lessened the social awkwardness I felt. Kept the others at bay. I practiced by myself, even on the two-person drills. “By mutual consent.” So I had learned a sort of martial art in spite of myself: a clumsy, peasant form of chemical warfare, which worked on all the wrong people.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, consider buying the audiobook here!