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FICTION / No Mercy, $ir / Ryan Shoemaker

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Daniel LaRusso’s right foot, seemingly beyond his control, slammed onto the brake pedal of his rusted out Nissan pickup, rattling the bevy of plumbing wrenches, copper pipes, and plungers in the bed of the truck. His world had suddenly compressed into the wild palpitations of his thumping heart and the imposing sign fixed above a windowed storefront, a building, even after three decades, he couldn’t pass without a fierce dread paralyzing him and the phantom pain of bruised kidneys and leaking facial lacerations firing through his body. 

Behind him, a pink Cadillac’s brakes yipped, and the driver, an elderly woman with puffy hair the color and texture of cotton candy, screeched an obscenity and flipped a stiff middle finger as she passed. But Daniel could only see the building’s sign aglow in the full crush of the noon sun, the demoniac eyes and flicking cloven tongue of a cobra poised to strike. Over the years, the building had been a lactation center, a hot yoga studio, a colonic hydrotherapy spa, and now it was again what he remembered when first coming to the Valley as a brash, bony kid from Newark, soon to endure a savage smackdown on Zuma Beach, a shove over a cliff on his rad BMX bike, and another smackdown before Mr. Miyagi intervened with a cyclone of jabs and flying crotch kicks. A taut banner above the sign announced: Coming Soon. Cobra Kai Dojo. Pain Does Not Exist in This DojoUnder New Management.

Squinting through the sun’s brutal glare, Daniel could just make out a solitary, shadowed figure, somehow familiar in a sleeveless black gi,standing at attention in the dojo’s dim interior. Johnny Lawrence? Daniel’s molars scraped together. His left eyelid trembled. Could it really be his old adversary, whose meteoric rise in the business world and keen entrepreneurial shrewdness Daniel had jealously followed, year after year, in West Valley High’s annual alumni updates?

Daniel jerked the pickup to the curb, heaving out of the cab and across the heavy traffic on Ventura Boulevard, blitzed by a salvo of infuriated car horns and shouted profanities. His mouth hung open, his hands shook—a rage he hadn’t felt since 1984.             

Throwing open the glass doors, Daniel rushed into the dojo, straight for the figure that stood facing the wall. 

“Johnny,” Daniel puffed, “this can’t happen. I won’t let it.”

Johnny canted his neck to the side, then flung his muscled shoulders back, his vertebrae crackling. A black bandana circled his mane of corn-silk hair. He turned to Daniel, a sly, lopsided grin tilting his thin lips. Daniel flinched, retreating a step. He couldn’t believe it. In thirty years, Johnny hadn’t changed, not a wrinkle creasing his boyish face, not a gray hair on his head.           

Daniel saw himself in the dojo’s floor-to-ceiling mirror, a brown fecal smear streaking his right pant leg. He’d let himself go—he knew it. His doughy belly hung over his belt, ballooning the soiled front of his work shirt. And his face, battered by age: globby crescents of fat under his eyes, a giggly gobbler of crepe flesh under his jaw, and two dark creases on each side of his chin, trenching up to the corners of his mouth. He looked like a fat marionette doll. 

“Daniel LaRusso. I had a feeling you’d walk through that door,” Johnny said, his gray eyes sweeping over Daniel, then fixing on the embroidered LaRusso Plumbing patch sewn to Daniel’s shirt pocket. “I read your ad in The Little Saver, right before I used it to clean up a giant crap my Shih Tzu pinched on the Persian rug. Maids were off that day.”

Daniel felt an intense desire to crane-kick Johnny in the nose. Reflexively, his left knee lifted, then flopped down with a fleshy thump. An agonizing sciatic pain bolted down Daniel’s left thigh. With no health insurance, he’d been seeing an Uzbeki chiropractor who ran his practice out of storage locker in Panorama City. Lately, Daniel had begun to doubt the man’s credentials. “Johnny, this can’t happen again,” Daniel said, his mouth contorted with pain and his forehead sheened with a cold sweat. “All that Cobra Kai machismo, all that bad boy crap from years ago. It’s not good for the kids. God, don’t you have enough?”

“What is enough?” Johnny sighed. “A man can have his hedge fund and software company and biotech firm. He can only jack up the price of diabetes medication so many times before it’s just not fun anymore. He can carve out a piece of the world for himself, a mansion in La Jolla, another perched over a pristine beach in Maui, the caress of the warm sand on his feet, a blonde bombshell with huge cans at his side. But then one day that world just isn’t enough. ” Johnny’s hands knotted into two stony fists. “What that man really wants is an empire, a place in history, statues and parades, his effigy hanging from every street corner, anthems and hymns playing in his honor. He wants disciples.”

Johnny walked to the large storefront windows and gazed out onto Ventura Boulevard. “Look at them,” he said, flicking his sharp chin toward a passing gaggle of gaunt middle school boys, blanched faces and twiggy arms, their pencil-necks angled down, their eyes welded to luminous screens. “Coddled. Weak. Cream puffs. No killer instinct. All they’ve ever known is the screen shoved in their faces. And now their parents are desperate toughen them up before the world kicks their asses.” Johnny smiled. “Strike first. Strike hard. No mercy. With time, they’ll do whatever I ask.”     

Daniel jabbed a beefy, grime-stained finger at a urine-colored water stain on the wall. “Empire? Come on, Johnny. In this crappy storefront dojo? You’re delusional. You got a screw loose or something.” Daniel turned to leave, relieved, thinking that what Johnny really needed was a good hospital, a strait jacket, padded walls, and a handful of strong antipsychotics. 

“This”—Johnny lifted his arms. His eyes raised to the ceiling tiles—“this is just part of the origin story, Daniel. Every great empire has one. The humble beginning before eventual dominance. Next year, I break ground on the Cobra Kai Temple in Beverly Hills, 72,000 square feet of Italian marble and stained glass, eight golden spires rising two hundred feet.” Johnny’s tongue flicked across his lips. Air hissed through his flared nostrils. “And soon a whole line of Corbra-Kai merchandise and services will hit the market: nutrition plans, fitness guides, personal trainers, a clothing line, vitamins, and my self-published manifesto My Struggle to the Top: From Encino to Kickass Entrepreneur. These kids will be my distributors. And all that sweet revenue will fund the dozen charter schools I’m launching in Arizona, the paramilitary summer camps in Alabama, the Cobra Kai University in Las Vegas, and the monthly lifestyle magazine.” Johnny’s closed fists exploded into jazz hands. “The model’s solid, Daniel. Today Encino. Tomorrow L.A., Vegas, Chicago, New York City. Soon a Cobra Kai dojo in every state, in every country.”      

Daniel pushed a calloused hand through the thin patches of gray, wiry hair on his sun-ravaged scalp. His mind pitched and twisted with figures and terms. Cash flow. Net income. Return on investment. Diversification.

“And these,” Johnny said, lifting a gi from a colossal mound heaped over a wooden bench. “Dojo merchandise. I got a Vietnamese guy with a sweatshop in the Garment District cranking them out night and day on the cheap.” He flipped the giover. Fixed above the Cobra Kai logo was a band of glaring text: Ralph’s, Your Friendly Neighborhood Supermarket. “Volkswagen,” Johnny purred. “ExxonMobil. Pfizer. The Trump Organization. I got a dozen more companies buzzing my phone.”

Daniel blinked quickly. “How much advertising revenue do you project? Half a million?”

Johnny’s eyes were wild. “Millions! But that’s nothing. Think of the voting base once these kids turn eighteen, all that political power.”  

Daniel’s shoulders collapsed. The low rumble of traffic rushed in his ears. Somewhere, a siren wailed. With a stone-cold clarity, Daniel knew Johnny would make his billions, and Daniel watch, as he’d done for most of his life, from the fringes, the rise of others and his own lower-class immobility.

But then Johnny let the gi fall through his fingertips. “A great plan, damn near fail proof,” he said, staring down at his empty hand. “It’s just lacking one essential piece: An everyman, worn out and beaten up by life, but a fighter, a phoenix rising from the ashes, someone to draw in all the poor, fatherless kids from the crappy apartment buildings and tenement housing.” Johnny looked up at Daniel, the cocky smile and squinty glare wiped from his smooth face. “I need a two-time winner of the All-Valley Karate Championships. I need you, Daniel?”

“Me?” Daniel said, his hand rising to his heart. He suddenly felt unsteady on his feet, his garbled mind attempting to process both a feeling of exhilaration and repulsion. “You want me?”

“Yes,” Johnny said. “You. Daniel LaRusso. A champion, a proletariat, a man of the people. Of course, you look like shit, but we have a guy in Malibu for that. Hair plugs, facelift, neck lift, tummy tuck, liposuction, Botox, lap band. Six figures to start, and profit sharing. You’ll be wealthy beyond your wildest dreams.”  

Daniel’s bewildered gaze panned from his fat reflection in the dojo mirror, his eyes wide and his saggy marionette mouth slung open, out to his rattletrap Nissan pickup. The clutch was shot, and the backend, Daniel knew, would go out any day now. He thought of the unceasing stack of bills at home: school fees, mortgage, car insurance, utilities—all the crushing weight of domesticity. He thought of his wife, clipping coupons for cans of Vienna sausages and Van Camp’s pork and beans. He thought of their kids, of their yellowed, snaggle-tooth grins and threadbare hand-me-downs. He thought of his one o’clock at a UCLA frat house, thought of the inebriated, condescending voice that had called him at 4:00 am. The details of the job had been vague and disturbing. Chili-eating contest. Busted toilets. Shit geyser.A shiver of revulsion rippled up Daniel’s spine and lodged in his throat. He coughed into his hand.      

“Mr. Lawrence,” Daniel asked, lifting his droopy shoulders, “this job you’re talking about, does it come with major medical and dental? And maybe chiropractic?”

Johnny gripped Daniel’s flabby bicep. The hand was cool and smooth, reptilian. “Does a boxer with no arms get his ass kicked?” Johnny said, and then he threw his head back and laughed until his tan face glowed a deep crimson and tears poured from the corners of his eyes. And Daniel, too, couldn’t help laughing, at first a little titter shaking his saggy breasts and then great convulsions raking his body.   

And in that way it started, what historians would later call The Rise of the Great Cobra Kai Totalitarian State, an autocratic social and political apparatus so powerful that it penetrated every part of American public and private life with its nationalistic ideology of relentless ambition, obstinate tenacity, and brutal ruthlessness; helmed for a short time by John Lawrence, who died suspiciously in a golfing accident, and soon after launched to national and international dominance by Sensei Daniel “The Merciless One” LaRusso, whose ferocious maxim of  “Strike first, strike hard, seize all their resources. Now!” led to unparalleled American expansion and prosperity.        


Ryan Shoemaker’s debut story collection, Beyond the Lights, is available through No Record Press. T.C. Boyle called it a collection that “moves effortlessly from brilliant comedic pieces to stories of deep emotional resonance.” Ryan’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Gulf Stream, Santa Monica Review, Booth, Juked, and Silk Road Review, among others. Find him at RyanShoemaker.net.