The Supermarket

The Supermarket
 

It was a long day. We had traveled up to Vancouver, British Columbia to do a demonstration. As it turned out, the show wasn't until late afternoon so we pretty much had nothing to do the whole day. That, combined with having to sit through the four hour drive to Vancouver had us both a bit edgy when our time came to perform.

Not to worry, it turned out fine, or should I say, as well as could be expected.

When you work with someone as long as I've worked with Mr. Kwan, you know there are days when the technique and execution is perfect, and days when it is not. On this day, it was not. Kwan was troubled, maybe it was the drive, maybe the delay. Who knows? His mind was elsewhere.

Twice, I nearly kicked him doing my attacks. During the knife demo, he missed a block on a straightforward knife thrust. Fortunately, few, if any in the audience noticed the error. As we wrapped up, Kwan said, "Let's get our stuff and hit the road. I'm exhausted." He wanted to leave fast, his discomfort obvious. Kwan had a sense about things, I respected that. If he wanted to leave, then we would.

Within thirty minutes, we had crossed the border and were back in the states. We were both thirsty, and pulled off the interstate to a small town supermarket where we went for soft drinks.

It was Kwan's treat, so while he was in line waiting to pay, I ventured over to the magazine rack.

A headline about an extraterrestrial having impregnated several Kansas farm girls immediately caught my attention, as did the feature about Hollywood pets contracting aids. "How is that possible," I thought, puzzling over the implication inherent in the headline.

As I reached for the tabloid, I was jarred from behind by a passing customer. While my body instinctively positioned for potential trouble, my senses focused on the surrounding environment to sense whether there was a threat.

The air was heavy with a beer-on-old-clothes flavor. Focusing on the scent, my head turned to the right, where my eyes tracked to a fleshy hulk, dressed like a lumberjack. He was big, easily dwarfing my two hundred pounds. Eying him, I also picked up the sour combination of tobacco, and metabolizing alcohol.

He was headed toward the express line, right where Kwan stood.

He looked to be 6'6" tall, and weighed at least two hundred and fifty pounds. As he closed on the express line, he was Paul Bunyan, relative to the other shoppers. Especially relative to the diminutive Kwan, who stood in line holding a bottle of juice and a six pack bananas.

I ignored the bump, just not important enough to have trouble over, especially considering what my senses just told me.

In the few seconds I saw him, I knew he was a drinker, not drunk, but fueled to reckless confidence by the amount of alcohol still flowing in his veins. He was short on tolerance and quick to react. Energy permeated through his body and threatened outward into the surrounding environment.

One of my early teachers had taught me to read opponents carefully. There would be days when we'd go to the market place or to the mall, and do our character studies. At tournaments, we observed how people moved, then mingled with them to learn close up. Sensei used to say he could see a mental image of an opponent's side kick by listening to the inflection in his voice. In time, different faculties evolved within me to assess and process the information my physical senses gleaned. Before long, without knowing how, I could intuit profiles of people I had been studying. Sort of like a horoscope, without the newspaper.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Kwan had noticed the man, and was already rolling his eyes skyward. I could almost hear his thoughts, "What a firecracker this character is!"

There were five people in line, with Kwan third from front. Mr. Lumberjack walked immediately to the head of the line. A large, matronly black woman faced him down, stared, then scolded, "You can't just walk in front of people, there's a line here!" She pushed on by the man, and now he was in front of the next shopper, a frail looking granny.

He was clearly riled, but he was also confused about what to do with the matron. Granny broke the confusion when she spoke up, "Why don't you go to the end of the line like everyone else, and wait your turn?"

His face flushed red, and he bore into her with a frightening stare. "Jesus," I thought, "He's going to hit her."

She timidly, but courageously, stepped forward, making it clear she would say nothing more, then waited to pay for her loaf of bread and leave.

Mr. Lumberjack, again entered the line, now between Granny and Kwan.

Kwan, turning to me across the distance, played what he called his simple  Poncho character, shrugging his shoulders, turning his hands outward, and rolling the sides of his mouth down with a mockingly concernful "What do I do now?" look.  He had once lived in Mexico, as well as Taiwan, and was fiercely proud of both indigenous cultures, though he wasn’t above having some fun with people’s pre-conceptions.

If the lumberjack had asked me, I would have told him. If he were my friend, I would have warned him without the asking. I would have said, "If you're going to get in that line, don't get in front of the short, latino looking gentleman. You'll have to take my word on this, but if you trigger his switch, he'll hurt you."

Kwan tapped him on the shoulder. "Sir, you'll have to go to the end of the line. Others are in front of you."

The lumberjack retorted, "Who's gonna make me? You?"

The line edged forward. The cashier attended the second customer, and the lumberjack laid his goods down on the checking stand platform. Not smart enough to leave it alone, he turned toward Kwan, "Listen Jose, I'm in a hurry and I don't have time to waste hanging around here in a line. If you want to protect this line and be some kind of a hero, that's fine, but as far as I'm concerned, no two bit Mexican greaseball like..."

Then I saw what I feared most. Two lightning strikes to the giant's head where the nose connected to the brow. He instantly crumpled to the floor, and his face was covered with blood. When I say instantly, I mean no one appeared to even see what happened. Immediately behind Kwan was a lady struggling with her child, who refused to exit the baskart seat. Immediately to the front, Granny was completely ignoring the rude gentleman who had frightened her just moments before. At the rear of the line two men admired the curves on a passing shopper.

I put down the tabloid, and went to help Kwan deal with the situation, when I realized he had done this while still holding the six pack of bananas, and the bottle of orange juice tucked under his left arm. Kwan stepped over the sprawling body, which lay frighteningly still on the linoleum. He mumbled, "I'm Chinese you asshole, if I were Mexican, you'd be dead!"

When I got to the register, he was paying the cashier, and matter of factly remarked to her, "You'd better call the manager and do something about him." He pointed to the floor with his chin. The cashier, leaning over the platform, looked at the sprawling mass and exclaimed, "Ohmygod...what happened to him?"

Kwan again shrugged his shoulders, did the simple Poncho and said, "I don't know Miss, he smells like he's been drinking. He just went down."

We began to make our way for the door as the cashier telephoned the manager, and there was considerable commotion as others in the line finally noticed the body on the floor. The sounds of "What happened?" or "He was standing there arguing with a lady just a minute ago." filled the air as we discretely made our way out the door. As we left the store, Granny was by the exit and winked at Kwan as we walked by.

Kwan didn't have much to say as we downed our juice and bananas headed toward Tacoma.

Thirty minutes down the road, I turned and asked, "What the hell did you do to him?"

"I don't know, I really don't know. Don't even remember, or care to remember. I would have let him have my place in line, but that wasn't enough for him. He needed some learning.

"He wanted my dignity, my self esteem. That, I could not let him have. He talked. He moved. I reacted. I hope he's okay."

“You know, you weren’t nearly that sharp earlier today.”

“Yeah, I knew something was coming, I felt the ripples even then. I kept asking myself  what could possibly happen? But as soon as I saw him, I knew he was coming for me.”

It's times like that when I believe in the cosmic guiding hand. Who knows how many dignities were sacrificed to satisfy the lumberjacks' twisted needs in the past? Who knows what combination of events made it happen that for an instant, everyone's attention was diverted elsewhere, as some huge hulk turned to intimidate a little dark skinned gentleman standing in a supermarket express line? Who would have expected the little man to be Kwan?

It's as if it had been scripted, arranged to happen precisely as it did by some knowing spirit, intent on transmitting a needed lesson to an uncaring brute, and perhaps something about restraint to my friend Kwan.

It was a long difficult day. As usual, Master Kwan pulled something out of his hat to make it memorable.  A few miles further down the road, we found a night spot where we stopped for a quiet meal.

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