What Salmon Know
hree nights a week I teach a women's self-defense course at the YWCA. It is my job. My students are mostly middleaged women, ten to fifteen pounds overweight--normal everyday women with varicose veins, sagging breasts and dimpled thighs. They are tired and want something more from their lives besides cooking chili mac and looking after screaming children.
My class is not that something.
So what if I am no more qualified than the next guy to teach self-defense to a bunch of scared and lonely housewives? I lied and I got the job and there are moments, when I am looking out over my class as they struggle with leg raises, thigh muscles jiggling with pain as they wait for me to give them the ten count, that this deep sense of happiness comes over me and I think to myself that I am blessed among men.
I don't believe in all that karate and kung-fu bullshit. What I give my students is good old commonsense advice. I tell them to avoid dark parking lots and being alone. And they want to hear this. Because nobody wants to be alone, especially women. Because to be alone is to be afraid and to be afraid is a terrible thing--something we must defend ourselves against.
I have them do jumping jacks and push-ups from their knees as I walk around the gym's wooden floor, counting out the reps, listening to them grunt and sweat. After warm-up I go into the equipment closet and pull on my attack suit. It is a heavy canvas thing with padding everywhere and sweat stains in the armpits and a bellshaped helmet with reflectors over the eyeholes. But the real gem of the suit is this small battery-operated reflector unit in the crotch that the previous instructor installed shortly before his departure. The unit is rigged so that any direct hit causes it to light up and flash like a fire engine.
In the cramped men's locker room there are several framed photographs of my predecessor, Gordon, standing in front of graduating classes of women. He is an avuncular-looking man with chest hair popping out of the collar of his shirt and leathery skin that reminds me of why too much sun is a bad thing. Two months ago when I applied for the job, I was told that he'd quit to join the Scientologists and later moved to Utah with his third wife, a former student. It was the former student part that got him trouble.
I met Mary Renfrew, the Y's director of activities, on my second interview. Mary is a burly woman on the downside of forty and has one of those broad, unhappy faces that seem to always be wincing or squinting at something in the distance--the sort of woman that if you passed her on the street you wouldn't think twice about.
I followed her into her office. My hands were sweating and I was having a hard time breathing. I needed the job.
"Sit down," she said, pointing at a rickety maple chair that sat just beneath a tattered poster, a photo of Billie Jean King frozen midstroke, her jaw set firmly, forearms rippling with effort. "I'm looking for a people person," she said. "Somebody who shares the Y's vision. Not one of these Johnny-come-latelies. "
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair and watched as she tugged a striped tube sock up to her flabby knees.
"I mean situations may arise," she said. "This is, after all, a coed facility, not like the YMCA across town, but we do have our share of men."
"I have a girlfriend," I lied. She stared at me, fingering the worn brass whistle that hung around her neck. I felt Billie Jean's disapproving gaze and I knew that Mary was most probably a lesbian and that she too was surrounded by temptation.
"Do we understand each other, Mr. Lamarr?" she asked.
"Do I have the job?" I said.
She twisted her face at me until it resembled something close to a smile.
"Welcome aboard," she said. Then the smile dropped from her face as quickly as it had appeared. She reached into a drawer in her desk and handed me a thin blue booklet.
"Look this over," she said.
I asked her what it was.
"Rules and regulations. There aren't many male instructors here," she said. "Besides, I don't want another Gordon on my hands. That little incident caused quite a stir with the board of directors."
"You can trust me," I said.
She laughed and showed me to the door. "I don't trust anybody," she said. "Least as far as I can throw them. That's why we have rules and regulations."
I thanked her and wandered out through the chlorine-scented halls into the daylight, happy to have a job. When I was sure she'd gone back into her office I dropped the rule book into a garbage can that was overflowing with candy wrappers and smashed wax cups.
Now, whenever I see a woman slapping barefoot down the hall, Speedo riding high on her hips and broad midwestern smile plastered across her face, I think of Mary Renfrew's flabby knees and of Gordon in Utah with his third wife and I look away. But I am not always so good and pure and sometimes I linger around the pool area, admiring the self-conscious swell of a mother's shoulders as she lifts herself out of the deep end and looks around before pulling her suit down over her hips or tucking in a stray breast. I finger my plastic name plate that announces me as an official instructor and pretend to look at the trophy case. But there are women everywhere. The neatly tiled hallways are full of their smells: talcum powder, hand lotion and sweat. And I know that I will somehow manage to screw this job up.
I begin the course by telling my students that the most effective way to stop a would-be attacker, when all else has failed, is to aim for the groin. They titter and laugh into their hands and talk among themselves. I feel awkward and out of place standing before them, because what I really want for them is to never have to be in a position to defend themselves. But the newspapers are full of reports of attacks, rapes and abusive husbands and they've paid their membership dues and registration fee for the class. So I teach them the proper way to punch and kick, show them how to exhale and scream when they strike. I raise my arms menacingly and let them kick me with everything that is not quite right in their lives--the dirty diapers, half-full beer cans left to ring end tables, expired coupons, stretch marks, phone solicitors, husbands who sit on La-Z-Boys watching football and that little paunch that happens after the second child that won't go away no matter how many sit-ups they do. They kick and hurt me and I understand because it is my job.
On Monday I pretend to be a would-be rapist. I stand a couple of mats up like walls and creep around the corner in my suit, making Darth Vader sounds through the face mask. A few of the volleyballers on the other side of the gym laugh and make jokes as Fran Darden sends me to the floor with a heavy kick and a few punches just like I have taught her. I congratulate her on her form and she lights up, sashaying to the back of the line, her broad hips and chubby arms shaking with excitement as the rest of the girls high-five her. Jill Olsten is next and she forgets to finish me off with a claw to my eye reflectors.
"Jill," I say, pointing to my head.
"Ohh," she says, biting her lower lip. "I forgot."
I line her up again and come around the corner, arms raised, breathing heavy like some desperate lust mad assailant.
"Get the bastard!" Fran says from the back of the line. Several others hoot and cheer. This time Jill kicks me in the crotch twice with her heel. The reflector unit goes haywire and she stands over me, her jaw clenched tightly, fists pumping the air. I roll to my feet for the next one.
On Wednesday we watch a video on parking lot safety. Most of it's crap--terrible production values, illegible titles, to say nothing of the actors who look like out-of-work porn stars. But Mary has ordered them special for the class, so I show them. This one is particularly bad. The actor playing the attacker is a hard-won fifty and potbellied. He looks like Captain Kangaroo after a bender. He bumbles around several parked cars, hairpiece shifting in the wind. Sharon Oates, a skinny, shy woman with hair the color of carrots, says the man reminds her of her ex-husband. Fran, the self-appointed mother of the group, puts an arm around her shoulder and coos, "Poor baby."
Sharon watches and sighs as the man throws his flabby arms out, lunging like a professional wrestler at this pale actress in a wrinkled business suit. The woman ducks and the man misses, bouncing off her Eldorado just in time to catch a high heel to his upper thigh.
After the video, I feign a car assault on Diane Dross. She rakes my face mask with a fistful of keys and follows up with a series of kicks and knee thrusts which catch me in the spleen and send me flopping to the mat.
On my list of women whom I'd most like to see naked, Diane is number one. She speaks four languages and has three children, named Tommy, Joe and Belinda. She has thick maple-colored hair and long red nails, one of which has a real diamond stuck through a hole in it. She is the kind of woman men are both afraid of and crazy for. And I am no exception.
Whenever she talks to me she touches my arm and I feel good all over, like I'm underwater and there is blue sky above me. But there is the job and my promise to Mary Renfrew, not to mention Gordon somewhere in Utah.
To make matters worse, Diane is happily married. Her husband, Charlie, forecloses on loans 9:00 to 4:30 five days a week at Great Lakes Bank. I hate him even though I have never met him.
Sometimes Diane stays behind and we talk, long after the rest of the class has hit the showers. I tell her about my life before this. How I had a little place in the Florida Keys, taught scuba diving and loved a woman named Tina. Things looked sunny and bright. But then two students croaked and I had to leave.
Diane listens and in a perfect world she would be mine, but in this world I settle for the two of us talking in an empty gym and her touching my arm.
Two weeks ago she told me about this man who had his house taken away from him by her husband. I was out of my suit. Diane was practicing her elbow thrust, which required me to bear hug her. She said that the man would call their house late at night and say bad things to her. "And that's why you're taking this course?" I asked.
"Maybe," she said, pressing her teeth against her bottom lip as she followed up the elbow with a near-perfect knee thrust to my chest.
"You can't hurt, me," I said, rolling up from the mat.
"Don't be so sure, Mr. Happy Jack. There are more than a few ways to hurt a man."
I smiled and positioned myself behind her, wrapped my arms around her. It was all so easy. I was her teacher. The gym was empty and I could smell her hair and feel the slick of sweat on her shoulders. Then I heard the clomp of Mary coming around the corner, bouncing a red, white and blue basketball. The dribbling stopped, and for a moment we locked eyes--she squinting, me not there at all. Then Diane struck, screaming as she rammed her elbow into my sternum. I went down holding my stomach and Mary started dribbling again, happy to see me in pain and not in a social way with one of my students.
"You owe me," Diane said as she helped me to my feet. "I just saved your job."
I nodded and watched her walk off to the showers. A1ready I could feel a bruise forming under my rib cage where she'd hit me. One of the janitors came in and began clicking off the lights. I sat there for a long time in the darkness, thinking about Diane and her go-getter husband, Charlie, and had a corner on the happiness market. I wanted Diane to come back and let me hold her--no punching or kicking this time. Only there are rules, and I am her instructor--a people person and I am thirty-five years old, never married and living here in the Midwest. I have a student who calls me Happy Jack and touches my arm.
On Friday when I walk into the gym, the class is already assembled on the far side, and for once there are no volleyball players.
"Hello, class," I say.
"Hey, Jack," they say.
I look at Diane and she winks at me. I smile and retrieve the body armor from the equipment closet and drag it out onto the mats as if it were a dead person. I get the class started on jumping jacks and then some kicks. Diane is in her skimpy cotton number and I can see her belly button when she stretches. I remind myself that I must show her no more attention than the next woman. So I walk over and stare at Mrs. Tuchovny's spastic kicks until the sight of Diane's belly button fades.
After they're warmed up I say, "Today we're going to work on personal space."
"How personal?" Diane taunts. Everybody laughs.
"You made him blush," Fran Darden says. "Isn't that cute?"
I wait for them to quiet down before summoning Selma Schwartz from the front row and telling her to stand next to me. Selma is a large nervous woman who moves as if she might break something.
"Like this?" she asks. I nod approvingly and ask the class what they would do if a stranger suddenly tried to grab them. Then I demonstrate on Selma, raising my arms in front of me like Boris Karloff as Frankenstein chasing down the girl with the flowers. I want to scare her, let her know how real this could be and that she shouldn't roll over and be the perfect victim, that I have taught her to save herself or go down fighting. Instead Selma panics and nearly falls.
"Run," someone says. But Selma is still trying to regain her balance.
"Okay," I say, motioning Selma back into position. "What if you can't run?"
"You smash him," Mrs. Tuchovny says.
"Smash where?" I ask.
The class is silent for a minute until Diane steps up to the front and places her palm on my throat.
"Here," she says.
Her hand is smooth and warm and I start sweating. "Good," I say. "Selma?"
Selma looks at me and nods.
"How would you do it?" I ask.
Diane pulls her hand away. "Like this," she says, swinging the heel of her palm toward my face. I flinch and Diane giggles and goes back to her place in line, leaving me all alone with Selma in front of the class.
"Okay, Selma," I say, slightly rattled by Diane's touch. "You can get back in line."
Selma lets out a long sigh and waddles back to her place in line, happy to be out of the spotlight.
Then I put on the suit and tell them to practice their kicks. They take aim and for five minutes I am kicked, scratched, batted and pawed. Shirley Thanos goes eight-for-eight on my crotch, red lights every time. And after a while the desire is beaten out of me. I am the man in the mask— whatever bad thing they want me to be.
I end class with another video, and nobody says much of anything. Diane doesn't hang around after; instead she darts off to the locker room with the rest of the women. I wait for her to return and when she doesn't I put the television and video player away, stack the mats in the corner and go out to the parking lot without showering. I put the key in the ignition and watch as women go to their minivans, clicking keyless-entry devices, shifting duffel bags over tired shoulders.
I wait until Diane comes out, her hair streaming out behind her like a wet cape, long red nails catching the streetlamp glare. She climbs into her Lexus without looking around her--something I've warned the whole class never to do--and roars off.
And I follow. It is that easy. I just slip into traffic behind her. She drives down a series of side streets, the houses getting larger as the address numbers descend. I open the window and the moist, heavy air reminds me of Diane's hand on my throat.
Finally she slows the Lexus and makes a right-hand turn into a drive that leads up to a dark three-story house. Small lights line the drive like a runway. The yard looks black and full of trees. I drive around the corner and park next to a small playground circled by Cyclone fencing. A dog barks somewhere as I walk slowly toward Diane's house, my palms sweating.
I walk straight down her driveway and head for a large oak tree that looms over the house, splashing it with an even darker shade of night. There are windows everywhere. Abandoned bicycles and plastic buckets dot the yard. I close my eyes, and when I open them I am staring into a room illuminated by a narrow strip of light coming from somewhere out in the hallway. The room is bare, save for a plant stand with a sick-looking fern perched atop it and a carved armchair in the opposite corner. I move around to the back of the house, my shoes picking up dew from the grass. I come to a bathroom. Everything is white, even the bath mat. There are towels hanging from white porcelain hooks on the back of the door, toothbrushes under the mirror, pill bottles and a hairbrush with long hairs twilled through its teeth--Diane's hairs, I think. Or perhaps her daughter's. I put my hand to the glass and let out a breath as a shadow darkens the hallway and then passes. I can hear people inside, but I can't see them. I keep moving and come to a set of double glass doors that open onto a wooden deck. Leaning against the deck, I can see into the kitchen. It is also empty. Then I see my distorted reflection in the glass.
I wait. It's as if Diane and her happy family have retreated to some heart of the house that I will never be able to see into. After a minute I sneak around to the other side. There are no trees, only a few shrubs. I find the family room. The television is on, but the couch is empty; a puzzle lies scattered across the thick Oriental rug and I can see a suit jacket slung over the back of a chair. I press my forehead against the window, and that's when I see her come padding into the room. It is Diane's daughter, and she is in her Snoopy pajamas, ratty-looking teddy bear tucked under her arm. She looks just like her mother, only softer and the sight of her frail body overlapped with my ghostlike reflection in the glass makes me realize, a moment too late, what I have done. Just when I am about to turn and go she sees me.
I watch it all in the reflection--the little girl and me, the strange man, with my desire--hoping to see what?
For a minute neither of us moves. Then the teddy bear hits the floor. Her mouth opens. "No," I say. "No, please." I hold up a finger, but it's too late, and I feel the scream before I hear it. I stumble backward, tripping on a rhododendron bush, landing face-first in the bark mulch, before regaining my feet and scrambling down the driveway.
I run past mazelike hedges and fake split-rail fences until I am lost. There are no couples out for nightly walks or people with dogs on leashes. Just empty streets and well-lighted houses.
Finally I spot a car and run after it, hoping to get directions, the little girl's scream still ringing in my ear. The car slows for a moment and I can see the driver checking the rearview mirror before speeding off. I walk and walk and nothing looks familiar. Then I hear the purr of an engine in the distance. I follow the engine sound around a corner to see a large white truck with two yellow tanks mounted to its back idling in front of a two story colonial. Bright orange caution signs hang from a series of shiny rods just above the bumper. An even larger sign on the side reads: DANGER MOSQUITO CONTROL SPRAY--KEEP SAFE DISTANCE AND AVOID FUMES.
The truck pulls away from the curb and begins making its way down the street slowly. The pipes and rods come to life, blanketing the pavement behind it with this beautiful white cloud. I keep running anyway, thinking if I can only ask directions I'll be okay--that I will stop following students home and looking in their windows because of the way they touch my arm or the color of their hair or because I want to and I am lonely.
But the poison seems to crawl out of the hedges and grass, enveloping me in its wake until my eyes begin to water and my nose burns. The truck pulls farther away and I stop running. A steady rain of dead bugs fall out of the sky like ash. This is the consequence of desire, I think, to be lost, lonely and poisoned. The truck disappears around the corner and I start walking until the moon slips behind a cloud. Just when my lungs begin to clear and the sour taste leaves my mouth, my car suddenly appears in the distance.
When I get back to my room I sleep and watch television for two days. I think of Diane and see her daughter screaming at me, a stranger in the window--the teddy bear crashing to the floor--and I know I've done damage to their happy home and that I will have to face her in class and she won't know--can't know--that it was me.
On the night of my class, I take a long shower, shave and go to Denny's and eat a Grand Slam Special before heading down to the Y. I tell myself that I must go on as if nothing has happened. I am the instructor. I will be in front of the class and Diane will be there and it will be okay until I have to touch her.
On my way to the locker room, Mary steps out of her office and invites me in. She smiles as I take a seat under the watchful gaze of the Billie Jean King poster. She's in a chatty mood and asks me how I'm getting along.
"Fine," I say.
"One of your students," she says, pausing to look about the room.
I cringe, half expecting her to chew me out or fire me.
"Yes," I say.
"One of your students came up to me the other day and wanted to say what a great job you were doing, that you took them seriously."
"That's all," she says. Her face scrunches back up. "I just thought you would appreciate the feedback. It's always nice to know when you're doing a good job."
"Don't believe a word of it," I say. She laughs and that's how I leave her, thinking what a great funny guy I am.
In the locker room, I get dressed and then go out to the gym. My class is waiting for me and there are volleyball players on the other side of the gym. When one of their balls rolls in front of me, I kick it.
Diane is in the front row and she looks tired and I know that is because of me and what her daughter saw.
"Okay, class," I say. "Let's warm up."
We do exercises and after ten minutes it's like it's always been, except that I can't stop looking at Diane, wondering if she's the one who put in a good word for me or if she knows I was outside her house.
I pull on the suit.
"Okay," I say. "I'm in your home and I've just surprised you coming in from the den. There is a brief struggle, ending with me holding you from behind."
"Ooh, Jack, you're scaring us," Fran Darden says.
I ignore her and continue. "I'm in your house. I've got you from behind."
The class goes quiet a moment and I do not look at Diane.
Finally Jill Olsten raises her hand. "Do we elbow or kick first?" she asks.
"First you drop your center of gravity," I say as I prepare to wrap my arms around a quivering Selma.
"Center of gravity?" Mrs. Tuchovny says.
"He means your hips, honey," Diane says.
Mrs. Tuchovny makes a fist and shakes her short black hair back and forth. Selma does okay and I let her go without incident, even though I know that if the situation were real she wouldn't stand a chance. I work my way down the line, fitting my arms around the different women until I am nearly in a trance, because Diane is next and if she knows I will still have to hug her and pretend like everything is okay and I am her instructor and she is to defend herself against my imaginary advances.
"Let me go," Fran says when I won't let her out of my arms no matter how many times she kicks at my shins or tries to throw her elbow into my padded gut. I snap out of my trance and let her go and start to apologize when my words are cut short by a swinging side kick from Fran that smashes into my knee and sends me screaming to the mat.
When I don't get up, Diane is the first to break out of line and kneel beside me.
"Are you okay?" she asks.
I point at my knee, rocking, hoping the pain will go away.
"Oh, my God," Fran says, pushing Selma out of the way and kneeling beside Diane. "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I thought you were ready. I thought you wanted us to defend ourselves."
"I did," I manage to croak. The pain starts to ebb a bit and I flex my knee a few times.
"Don't move it," Diane says. Her hair falls off her shoulder and pokes through the holes in my helmet. I am torn, both by my urge to prove to them that I am invincible and by my desire to let them coo and touch me for a few minutes more. Fran helps me to a sitting position and the pain in my knee flares up into my thigh before disappearing.
I pull the helmet off and rub my face and feel a hand on the back of my neck. I look up, hoping it is Diane, but instead I see Selma's smooth white arm.
"I'm okay," I say, shaking my leg for them. "See?"
"I'm so sorry, Jack," Fran says. "But . . ."
"I know," I say. "That's what they pay me the big bucks for."
Everybody laughs. I pull the suit off and limp around behind them for the rest of the class as they practice joint locks on one another. When the clock above the Peg-Board hits 8:30, I dismiss the class. They groan and shuffle toward the locker room. Just before Diane makes it to the doorway I call out to her.
"Want me to show you how to get out of a submission hold?" The words hang in the drafty gym as I limp toward her.
"How?" she asks, coming closer. I start to sweat. There are a million ways this can play out and in all of them I am the bad guy. I half expect her to tell me about the strange man outside her window. Part of me wants her to so I can nod and look concerned and maybe give her some safety tips. But she doesn't and her voice sounds flat and a little bit tired and she doesn't touch my arm when I move behind her.
"I'll show you the move," I say.
"I don't know . . ." she begins, but I cut her off.
"Like this," I say, wrapping my arms around her throat until I can feel the soft beat of her pulse against my skin and her body tense up as her hands go to her neck.
"I know," she says.
For a minute I'm not sure if she means the submission hold or if she knows that I've been looking in her windows. So I tighten my grip a little bit, and before I can ask her what she knows, she kicks my unpadded crotch. As I release her she sends two quick punches to my throat.
I go down and I feel as if I am underwater, my lungs full of ocean as the pain radiates through my stomach and up into my chest. I want to ask her what she knows, but when I roll over, she is gone and I am alone on the mats, holding myself, waiting for Mary to come in and help me to my feet.
Excerpted from What Salmon Know by Elwood Reid. Copyright © 1999 by Elwood Reid. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.