Martial Arts by Neva Bryan
"There’s nothing better than biscuits and a Bruce Lee movie on a Sunday morning.” Cherlyn sprays biscuit crumbs onto her t-shirt when she speaks.
“Stop talking with your mouth full,” I tell her. “You know it makes me sick.” I shake my head at my sister, who’s staring at the television.
Enter the Dragon is Cherlyn’s favorite movie. We watch it at least once a month. She never gets tired of it. I’d rather watch a news show but she always grabs the remote control while I’m fixing our breakfast.
I make all our meals. Cherlyn is a sorry excuse for a cook. That’s okay, though, because she can hang drywall like nobody’s business. And lay tile. And put up siding. She’s a full-fledged contractor, the best in three counties.
I’m her apprentice.
When the movie’s over, I turn to Cherlyn and say, “You do the dishes.”
“Fair’s fair, asshole. I’m heading outside to the driving range.”
“Meet’cha in a few,” she says.
The driving range is the far end of the yard behind our house. Our property butts up against the back of an old junkyard, a car salvage business that’s really a front for a low-level drug dealing operation. Cherlyn and I have bought our fair share of weed there, but truth be told, we’ve spent more money on the golf balls that we hit into the junkyard.
I stretch for a few minutes while I wait for my sister. When she comes out of the house sooner than I expect, I shake my head. I’ll have to rewash every damn dish in the drainer.
She pulls a nine iron from a nearby rusty barrel, then takes a few half swings as she squints at the junked cars in the distance. They’re piled high, easily visible above the grey wooden fence that separates the two properties.
I go first. I choose a cream-colored Volvo. It looks to be a mid-seventies model. I point at it, then aim for the passenger-side mirror, square up, and swing. Cherlyn comes up next to me and we watch the ball arc. It misses the mirror and breaks off the antenna on a Chevy pick-up.
When Cherlyn laughs, I round on her and pretend to swing the club at her head. She ducks and drops her nine iron then comes up in her Bruce Lee stance. Vocalizing like the martial arts star, she thrusts her fist at my face but pulls back at the last second. I can feel the air move across my nose.
“One of these days you’re really going to hit me and I’m going to kick your ass.”
“I’d like to see you try.”
We both laugh, then I ask, “Where we working tomorrow?”
“Charlotte Peavey’s place.”
“Shit. You’re charging her top dollar, I hope.”
“Hell yeah. She can afford it. She married up.”
“I don’t know, Cherlyn.”
I tap the golf club against the heels of my boots, knocking off dead grass. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this job.”
“That’s because you’re not comfortable around rich people.”
“And you are?”
“Their shit don’t smell any better’n mine.” My sister wraps her arm around my neck and puts me in a headlock, then kisses the top of my head. After that, she shoves me away. She says, “I gotta go put gas in the truck. I’ll see you later.”
The next morning we load up the truck and head to work. Charlotte Peavey’s house is built on a hill that overlooks the town. It’s set off to itself, much like Charlotte herself. I remember her from high school. If her nose’d been any higher in the air, she would’ve drowned when it rained.
I can’t understand it. We grew up hard, but Charlotte’s family had been worse off than ours. At least we had a house. Charlotte lived in a single-wide trailer until she graduated, but you would’ve thought she was a princess by the way she acted.
“She lucked up, marrying into money,” I say.
“I don’t know that luck had anything to do with it,” my sister says.
Cherlyn pulls into the circular driveway and cuts the engine. Neither of us makes a move to climb out of the truck. The engine makes a tick-tick-tick sound as it begins to cool.
“Reckon she’s as stuck up now as she was in school?”
Cherlyn scratches her jaw as she looks at the house. “Worse, probably.”
“Let’s get this over with.”
We hop out of the truck and grab our gear. Charlotte meets us before our feet touch the bottom step.
“Hello,” she says. She’s wearing a fancy pantsuit, a face full of makeup, and diamond earrings as big as kernels of corn.
“Morning,” we say.
“The materials are at the back entrance. It’s closer to the kitchen. I don’t want you scuffing the hardwood floors.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Cherlyn says, drawing out the vowels.
Back in the cab of the truck, I say, “Off to a good start.”
A few minutes later we’re standing in Charlotte Peavey’s kitchen. It looks bigger than our entire house. The white tile and stainless steel appliances give it a sterile look. I wonder if this is what operating rooms look like.
“How long will it take for you to install the new countertops?” Charlotte stands in an interior doorway like she’s trying to block our entrance to the rest of the house.
“I don’t know. I’ve never installed enameled lava stone before.”
“Are you sure you can do it?”
Cherlyn smiles. “Yeah.”
“Well, be careful with it. It’s imported and it’s very expensive.” She frowns, then turns on her heel and disappears into another room.
“It’s imported,” I say in a mocking tone, but I whisper it.
“And very expensive,” Cherlyn says. She doesn’t whisper.
I grin at her and we set to work.
Charlotte comes to the door about every half hour to check on our progress. I can tell it’s getting on Cherlyn’s nerves, but she don’t say nothing. Just mutters to herself. We work fast with that woman breathing down our necks and by the end of the day, we’re done.
“Man, I think we set a record!” I pull the bandana tied around my neck up to my mouth and wipe away the sweat.
“I think you’re right.” Cherlyn gathers up some of her tools and stows them in our cases. “I’m taking these out to the truck. Sweep up, will ya?”
“Yeah.” I poke around the kitchen until I find a narrow closet that contains cleaning supplies plus a broom and a mop. I haven’t seen a maid the entire day, but I can’t imagine Charlotte Peavey pushing a sopping mop across the floor. I picture her riding the broom, though, and laugh to myself as I grab it and the dustpan.
Cherlyn makes a few more trips between the kitchen and the truck as she retrieves the rest of our stuff. I’m just finishing my chore when she returns for a final scan of the room. She stands with her hands on her hips and surveys our work.
“Looks pretty damn good.”
She pulls out a carbon copy pad from her back pocket and begins figuring out the labor for the day. “Go see if you can find her majesty so she can pay her bill.”
The house is so quiet I have to fight the urge to tiptoe. I take a deep breath, prepared to shout her name
“Okay.” Broom still in hand, I wander into the next room, a dining area outfitted with a huge mahogany table and eight chairs. Two walls are lined with glass shelves that hold vases, figurines, and other knickknacks. “Mrs. Peavey?”
I feel stupid addressing her like that, but I’m sure old Charlotte don’t want me to be overly familiar. When she don’t answer, I call to her again. “Mrs. Peavey?”
The house is so quiet I have to fight the urge to tiptoe. I take a deep breath, prepared to shout her name once more.
“Where’d she go?”
Cherlyn’s voice startles me. I jump and spin around, cursing. As I turn, the broom handle skims one of the glass shelves and knocks off a vase. The crash isn’t loud, but it summons Charlotte immediately.
Oh. Shit. I drop the broom.
She stares at the shattered crystal, then looks at me. Her eyes are wide.
“I’m real sorry,” I say.
Charlotte stoops and picks up a clear shard. For a second I think she’s going to stab me with it. Instead, she says, “You idiot!”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Cherlyn strides across the room, palms out as if warding off an aggressive dog. “It was an accident.”
“I’ll pay you for it,” I offer. I feel sweat bead on my back even though I’m shivering.
Charlotte drops the piece of broken vase. “How? An installment plan? Do you know how much this is worth?”
I swallow and shake my head.
“Nearly fifteen hundred dollars!”
“Shit.” I know I don’t make nearly enough money to pay her back. “I didn’t mean to do it.”
Charlotte looks at Cherlyn. “I’ll not give you a dime for the work you did today.” She returns her hot gaze to me. “Stupid white trash—”
“Hey, now,” Cherlyn says. “You, of all people, got no call talking to my sister like that.”
“Of. All. People.” She repeats the words as if they’re a food she’s tasted and found to be bitter.
“Charlotte,” Cherlyn says, emphasizing her use of her first name. “You’ve got above your raising. You might deny where you come from, but that don’t stop the rest of us from remembering.”
“Get out!” Charlotte points toward the kitchen. As I walk past her, she grabs my arm. When I turn, she hauls off and slaps me. “Maybe you’ll be more careful from now on!”
I’m so shocked that I just freeze. My cheek feels hot.
Cherlyn steps between us. Her face is red but the skin around her mouth is as white as a boiled egg. “Screw you!”
My sister drops into her Bruce Lee pose and utters a high-pitch “Aieeah!”
Cherlyn’s leg shoots out, just missing Charlotte, and her steel-toed boot crashes into a glass shelf. The shelf collapses and everything on it, all made from glass, explodes when it hits the floor. Charlotte screams.
Just like me, Cherlyn freezes, but only for a second. She spins, runs across the room, and dropkicks another shelf. Glass crunches beneath her shoes as she steps back. She moves forward again and punches the remaining shelf on that wall. When she pulls her fist back, blood streams from her knuckles down her arm.
“You’re crazy!” Charlotte’s voice is so loud it hurts my ears. “I’m calling the police!”
“Go ahead, bitch!” Cherlyn flicks her hand, speckling the floor with her blood. “Come on, Sis.”
I follow my sister through the house and out of the kitchen. We run to the truck. We scramble into the cab and the truck starts rolling before I even get the door shut. Cherlyn shifts gears and stomps on the gas pedal.
We’re miles down the road before it feels safe to breathe. I turn to Cherlyn and find her smiling.
“What the hell is so funny?”
She snickers. “The look on her face. I’ll never forget it.”
I laugh. “You Bruce Lee’d her ass!”
She wipes her bloody hand on her jeans. We laugh some more, then both of us get real quiet. After a few minutes, my sister pulls the truck to the side of the road and parks it.
She leaves the engine running. I can hear the turn signal: Clicka. Clicka. Clicka.
Cherlyn stares through the windshield. I can tell she’s seeing what’s in front of us and it ain’t the road. She looks tired.
“Well,” she says.
I don’t know what to say back to her. I feel sick at my stomach.
Cherlyn speaks again. “Well, damn.”
Then, more to herself than to me, “Damn it all to hell.”
Neva Bryan’s work has appeared in many publications, including Appalachian Review, Still: The Journal, Minding Nature, and the Anthology of Appalachian Writers (Wiley Cash). She has led workshops at the Southern Literary Festival, Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, and Virginia Writers Club Conference. Neva lives in Southwest Virginia.