Ralph’s Dojo was a beacon in a storm. A good way for me to feel like I had some kind of handle on my life again, like the next time outside forces wanted to send me in a direction I hadn’t planned on going I’d be able to do something about it, was to beef up. I needed to learn to protect myself. The best place to do that, according to the internect, was Ralph’s.
Ralph’s was new and small, started by some guy from New York. So far it was mostly unheard of and considering there were four other well known martial arts studios in town, Ralphs wasn’t on track to be popular.
And that, in my opinion, was a recipe for perfect. It would never be crowded, no one working there would know anything about me and, should anything weird happen during training, they wouldn’t know anyone in town to tell which should keep the rumors from spreading.
I couldn’t wait to get started.
Then I saw the place: folding chairs, one old metal desk and windows blocked out with brown paper. The ceiling was stained with yellow blobs and the concrete floor was a blanket of paint drippings that didn’t match any colors in the room. On one wall was a faded poster advertising a decade old karate match in Jersey.
The place was a dump. I was just about to walk out when from behind a prehistoric beaded curtain he appeared.
“Sorry to keep you waiting.” He smiled. “I’m still unpacking.”
He’d surprised me and I jumped. Then stared at him with suspicion. He didn’t look like a karate master. He didn’t look like a self defense guru either. In fact he didn’t look like anything. He was average height and average build. His hair was brown, eyes an indescribable green-blue-hazel, and his features, standard.
This guy was a sketch artist’s nightmare.
“New York.” Marco pointed to the poster. In the center was a blurry sketch of a guy in a white robe. It could have been anyone.
“I was hoping for Ralph.” I said.
“The dojo is Ralph’s but you won’t see him here much,” he said. “I’m your man.”
Marco didn’t look much older than me and this was starting to look like a bad idea. What could he teach me? He probably wasn’t even old enough to buy beer.
“I can assure you I’m a fine instructor.” Marco added quickly, responding to the apprehension on my face. “I trained with Ralph. He taught me everything he knows.”
“Oh, so you’re not from here?”
“Would it make you feel better if I said I was?”
“No just…” Marco might be an alright guy. This might all be fine, but how could I know? If I didn’t think it would send him running I would have wrapped his hands around my head right then and forced the truth out of him like only I can.
But that would probably end poorly. Anyway Margaret thought he was OK.
“Just I’d rather not have people know I’m doing this.”
“Are you in trouble?” Marco’s expression went serious.
“What? No.” It wasn’t completely honest but I just met this guy, what business was it of his why I wanted training? “People talk you know. Next thing you know you have a reputation for being that weird girl who can do weird things...” Tommy Spader’s ugly face, lips squished into a tiny donut, popped into my head and I trailed off.
“Listen there are plenty of people who prefer to train in secret.” He said gently. “I get it. You have my silence.”
“You have my silence on one condition.”
“What? Who do you think you are? You know what? Forget this!” I said. How could Margaret have sent me here? I wasn’t doing anything for this guy.
“Wait.” Marco laid his palms flat against the desk between us, like he wanted me to see he wasn’t crossing his fingers or anything. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Then how did you mean it?”
He leaned over, moving in until we were eye to eye, his face inches from mine. I expected to smell deodorant or aftershave but the air was clear. Marco smelled like nothing.
“There are a lot of bad people in the world.” He said to me, eyes glued to mine. “I can teach you how to stay safe most of the time, but only most of the time.”
I listened but I was having a hard time taking in air. Marco may have been the most forgettable guy in town, but his stare was not. If I had to describe that to a sketch artist I would have called it ‘hypnotic’.
“Most of the time?” I managed to say. Marco nodded.
“The condition is this.” He tapped on the desk. “If you are ever in real trouble, you must promise me you will get real help.”
“Fair enough.” I whispered and Marco smiled. He stood up straight and offered a hand.
“Do I get to know your name or is that secret too?”
“Violet.” I said, staring at Marcos steady hand. “And I’m not big on handshakes.” Marco turned his hand over and stared at it as well. There was a long thin scar across his palm that ran up his arm. Marco caught me staring and pulled his sleeve down to his wrist.
“Fair enough.” He tucked his hand into his pocked taking the scar completely out of view.. “It’s nice to meet you Violet.” His eyes honed in on me again and I smiled uncontrollably.
“Nice to meet you too.” I said. “So when do we get started?”