Mary Gaitskill’s short story, “The Woman Who Knew Judo,” first appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review in 1982.
I met Jean Taylor when I was five years old. She was the tallest woman I had ever seen, and she walked slowly, with her head up and her shoulders back, her hips moving like the hips of a slender cat. She wore black slacks and she had big feet which seemed to me very graceful, especially when she wore her straw sandals with the artificial cherries on them.
She started coming to our house to take my mother to the ‘Y’ where she taught my mother how to swim. When they returned from the lesson, their hair wet and sleek against their heads, they’d hang their swim suits on the backs of kitchen chairs to dry in front of the stove while they sat with their feet up and talked. I used to sit in the kitchen and draw when Jean visited my mother. I loved to show my completed drawings to Jean. She made me feel as if I’d discovered an elemental truth, or shown her something vital. Once, when I handed her a picture I’d done of a yellow lion with spindly legs and huge round eyes, she looked at it with consideration and said, “You know, it doesn’t look like a real lion. But I think you’ve caught the spirit of a lion here, and that’s a lot more important. This lion has lion-ness.”
My father liked Jean too. When he heard her come in, he would hurry to the living room to greet her. He looked at her warmly, especially when she walked, and he teased her about “that little black bathing suit” of hers. He called her “good old Jean” and he always wanted her to sit down and have a beer and listen to his opera records. Jean would sit and listen in his black leather chair, her auburn hair piled into a loose twist on her head, her slender face resting on her long hand, her cat-eye glasses tilted to one side. I thought she looked like she knew everything. I thought she was beautiful.
I was nine when we began visiting the Taylors regularly. My brother David and I became friends with Jean’s daughter, Julie, a tiny, nervous child two years younger than I, and we often went to the Taylors’ house to play with her. Jean’s husband, Tom, was a scientist, so the house was full of exotic creatures and things. There was a stuffed wildcat with green glass eyes crouching and snarling from the top of a bookcase, jars with rocks and fungus in them, flat dishes with invisible animals growing in them, and microscopes sitting in the window sills. There was a human skull on the desk in the guest room where I would sleep with Julie when I spent the night. We could see the skull from where we lay in bed even when the lights were out. It could’ve been scary to sleep in a room with a skull in it, but at the Taylors’ house, the skull was as benign as Frankenstein on TV in the afternoon, or dinosaur bones in a museum. I liked to touch it, and to think what it would be like if it came floating through the air one night chattering its teeth.
Mr. Taylor worked a lot, and he was very shy, so we didn’t see him very often. Sometimes he brought home cages of hamsters or white rats with pink noses and put them in the basement. I had the feeling he tortured them in the name of science, and I knew some of them wound up as frozen bodies in the Taylors’ freezer, so for awhile I didn’t like him. But once, when I spent the night at the Taylors’, I came downstairs early and saw Mr. Taylor eating breakfast in the dining room by himself. He was eating eggs and raisin toast, and he was letting the two house cats sit on the table and lick egg off his plate. I had never seen an adult let animals eat from his plate before. I stared, fascinated. He looked at me, smiled shyly and said, “Hello Freckles,” even though I had no freckles. Then he stroked the cat. At the time I could not understand how a person could put one little animal in the freezer to be dissected, and then let another eat off his plate, but I couldn’t help liking Mr. Taylor better.
In the summer, we visited the Taylors on the weekends. My mother and father would sit in the back yard in green and white lawn chairs drinking iced tea or beer, and Julie, David and I would run around the yard acting out scenes from “Combat!” or “The Outer Limits.” When we ate lunch there, Jean would bring out a small beige card table for us to sit around, and put cheese sandwiches cut up into little squares on it, along with sliced carrots and celery and chocolate milk. When we sat there eating our sandwiches and carrots, I would listen to our parents’ discussions with interest and satisfaction. They seemed to gather in the back yard to set right the wrong in life, and to make it all clear and understood, in its right place.
Jean would sit back in her chair in a relaxed attitude, her head cocked to one side, her loosely pinned-up hair falling on her shoulders and her long, thin legs folded like griffin’s wings….
Read the rest of Mary Gaitskill’s short story in our Archives.