The thin man with bruised knuckles had sprawled out across a vintage creaky green and yellow plaid La-Z-Boy with one knee slightly bent so his bare feet could avail themselves of every last square inch of fully extended footrest. Lounging in a wife beater tee and duck patterned boxers, the mid life crisis poster child was nothing more than an unlikely American tourist turned writer who found himself holed up in a two bit three story urban hotel, hiding from the worst of Asian gang elements in the seediest section of Omaha's famed Chinatown district. With the back of one hand draped across his forehead and a wince of pain still evident from the wrinkled corner of one eye, Howard Whizzer began to accept the fact that he had just placed himself in mortal danger.
Gang members could still be heard shouting at each other from the cracked hotel room window facing the street. It was clear in his mind, though he couldn't understand a word of Mandarin, that they were still looking for him.
The extra week of paid time off he had saved up for this supposed inspirational vacation had indeed taken a turn for the worse, and placed Howard Whizzer in most certain peril. He had rolled out of the stained recliner to take a position closer to the partially open window. Peering from the corner of the once painted wooden frame, Whizzer watched as the last worrisome character still left on the sidewalk below, wandered down the street and away from the hotel.
Snow had started to fall and the air was crisp enough to freeze the snot on the muffle of a rat looking to take refuge in Whizzer's room, courtesy of the exterior ledge. Even with the window cracked open, the circa 1920's steam register was inconveniently stuck in the fully open position and was baking Whizzer meatloaf quite handily. In a way, Whizzer didn't mind. He was a boxer and tee shirt kind of guy anyway. He liked the idea of providing little Howard and the twins that extra skosh of freedom as he walked. The heat never seemed to bother Whizzer either. Gang member threats of death? That was a different story.
No one ever understood Howard's affinity for the QWERTY keyboard. His family and friends had advised him on several occasions to seek a career more suited to his physiological limitations. When he decided to go into the field of information technology, Whizzer's mother lovingly asked, "Don't you think you might have trouble, you know, typing? Doesn't programming requiring the use of a keyboard, dear?" It was true really. Howard Whizzer had hands the size of bone-in Hams.
He was teased incessantly as a child. With modest frame and small feet, Howard's massive hands adorned with fat stubby fingers, stuck out like, well, like a sore thumb. When balled into a fist, Howard's hands only had to come in contact with an intended target once. Something he had learned to do after verbal teasing had turned physical. Howard's hands were ad oddity to be sure, but an asset given other more precarious circumstances. That, and they made for great nut crackers during the holidays.
Howard's mother had recognized that her loving son was the frequent target of peer abuse and had enrolled him into a local Karate school by the age of 10. Howard's sensei, was a small man of mixed race who also doubled as a plumber during the day. "I never use pipe bending tools", said the owner of the Kuntao Martial Arts Center, Sven Takata. "I bend pipe with THESE!" Takata would punctuate his sentence by holding his arms out and clenching both fists. It would make sense to Howard later, when understanding that the practice of "Kuntao", meant "The way of the fist". When Howard was 17, Takata had modified his signature "pipe bending" phrase for the older audience by adding, "Or unless you have a girlfriend who's into that sort of thing". By then, Whizzer was a black belt in Kuntao but had no idea what Takata was talking about.
The memory of Takata made Whizzer smile for a moment but the corner's of his mouth turned south again upon recognition of his current plight in Omaha.
All he ever wanted to do was take a break from his hum drum I.T. cubicle life and write a book about the origins of Kuntao. Whizzer innocently saved his vacation time and booked the trip to America's heartland to find Chang Jin Ma, reportedly the only true North American master of the style. That was when the rotting contents of the kimchi pot hit the fan.
Whizzer had ventured into the Chinatown district of Omaha, which was nothing more than a family owned Pagoda Chinese restaurant and a Panda Express carry out about a block down. Sitting at the bar of the Pagoda Restaurant, Whizzer placed both hands on the counter and innocently asked the bartender, "Do you know where I can find Chang Jin Ma?"
The bartender paused, reached under the bar top to push something, pointed to Whizzer and then curled his index finger inwards in the international sign language for "follow me, asshole". Whizzer innocently followed the bartender to the alley and was then confronted by 5 younger men with fists clenched and scowls a plenty. Whizzer tried not to mimic his own name by wetting his pants. He did however, need to fight his way out of the circle without knowing why.
Echoes of muffled thumping noises and groans bounced off the walls of the dark alley, as one by one, bodies fell to the snow dusted ground. After five minutes passed, only two remained standing and one of them was Whizzer. His pants, thanks to a punch to the kidneys, were nicely soaked down the front. With a clear view of an exit from the alley, Whizzer chose the only brave option open to him. He ran away like a crack whore after breaking into gumball machine for loose quarters.
An hour later, Whizzer had finally stopped sweating and with the street now empty below his window, he crawled back to his plaid La-Z-Boy and pulled its handle for full recline. 15 minutes later, a confused and exhausted Whizzer had closed his eyes.
The cheaply framed poster on the wall next to his hotel door began to bounce on its hook as a "wump wump wump" pounding noise grew louder. Whizzer shook the cobwebs and loose rice noodles from his head and called out from his chair, "Who is it?" There was a pause but a voice eventually responded in broken English, "Master Ma will see you NOW".
Whizzer reluctantly opened the door and took three steps backwards as a short old man entered with three guards blocking the exit from the room. The man never introduced himself, but his hands were clearly large in proportion to his frame.
"You don't look like a man who would be sent here to kill me. I say that because you are dressed very much like a redneck shopping at Walmart in July, and an assassin could afford to stay at the Marriott instead of this dump."
"That is because I am only here to find you and learn from you", said Whizzer.
"Likely story", said Ma. "But, your hands however, are quite impressive"
Ma motioned his arm with open palm backwards towards one of his body guards, causing the man to flinch and take a step back. He was also sporting a fresh black eye.
"You've bested one of my personal guards. Not easily done unless you have hands like THESE!" Ma thrust his ample fist outward towards Whizzer, the breeze generated from the motion blowing a few hairs back on Whizzer's head.
"With whom did you study", demanded the master.
"Master Takata in Blooming-Normal, Illinois", said Whizzer. "Master Ma. I am only here to learn from you, to learn about the origins of Kuntao, and to write a book about the art form".
"Master Takata? He is merely a student. I am the master. He has an impressive Norwegian mother as I recall. Ample was she". Ma appeared to wink at Whizzer. "I believe you, young man with fists of Ham. I feel that you have respect for the olden ways, and for your elders. I will be available to you for the rest of this week only. Ask me your questions then".
Whizzer relaxed his shoulders and felt the tension ease throughout the rest of his body. "Thank you master Ma, you will be a great help to me in my quest. But, why are you only available this week?"
"Because I still have to put up the damn tree and the exterior lights before Christmas Eve. The old lady has been hounding me all month long, playing the Chipmunks holiday CD in a loop just to piss me off, the kids are coming for the holidays, I just won't have any time for you after this week, OK?"
"This week will be enough of a gift for sure. Thank you, master Ma".
Before turning back towards the door, the old white haired man gave Whizzer one more look up and down. "You have as much trouble wiping as I do?"
"These hands are a curse" said Master Ma.
The remainder of the week was spent in the back of the Pagoda Restaurant at Master Ma's private table. The table location provided Ma a view of the kitchen, the back door and the swinging red door leading out into the restaurant. While speaking about the history of Kuntao, Ma provided colorful examples of Chinese masters he had encountered, each gifted with the "Hands of Death". He spoke longingly about the countryside and the tradition surrounding Kuntao training, he reminisced about young love found in America after emigrating, and an annual holiday visit to the Chicken Ranch in Vegas. "Sometimes the hands are not a curse", chuckled Master Ma.
As the week unfolded and his recording device had filled, taking notes with a pen was a fruitless endeavor; Whizzer was more than satisfied with his gift of time from the Master. They both gave each other a bow of respect, through Whizzer was sure to bow deeper at the waist. As the two men were about to part ways, Master Ma reminded Whizzer, "Remember, one with fists of Ham. They are Hams of DEATH! That alone is the basis of your power and earned respect. Now go forth, write your book, I'd recommend voice translation software instead of typing though, and of course, go decorate your own tree!"
Howard Whizzer skipped returning to his own apartment, and headed directly home to his family in Bloomington-Normal. It was the day before Christmas Eve with nothing left to do or decorate. It was the best of casual and comfortable circumstances. A warm shower, clean clothes, his own comfortable bed waited upstairs for him, and hugs were exchanged all around upon his arrival. His father extended his own massive hand in greeting but the two men laughed at the impossibility of clasping each other's puffy stumps.
He showered, changed, and headed downstairs to share stories of his adventures in Omaha with Master Ma. His smile was back and his conviction seemed strong when speaking of the book that now needed to be written. Howard's mother smiled back, seeing some new found self-confidence in her son.
"Howard honey?" asked Mrs. Whizzer. "Can you break up these walnuts for me? I'll make you a nice batch of chocolate chip cookies if you do".
"With pleasure mom", said Howard. And with the slightest effort between thumb and fore finger, the walnuts were cleaved and the meat fell to the awaiting bowl.
"You see, they are useful tools after all. Thank you, honey".
"I know that now, mom", Howard smiled. "Hey mom?"