No Cuts to Swell It
In the street, I saw Charlie already talking with Coal from the
Rez whose mother worked nights at the hospital. I
hadnít seen Coal since he went away to rehab. When they
first took him, Charlie silk-screened some protest shirts that said
"Free Coal," but we were long past any feelings of that nature.
We were going to kill Coal. Or at the very least, cut him so bad
heíd wish he was dead. Certain things had come to our
attention while he was gone. Coal had clowned us. Coal had lied.
Coal had told everybody how he got over on us, stole from us and
I slid up next to Charlie and blew into my hands. The
night was cold. Our breath came out in fists. All of us had
skinny legs, goose bumped and bruised. I threw my hood over my
ears. Coal was high already. His eyes were dry and
I said, "Fresh out and right back at it. Classic."
"It was nothing but B12 and baking soda."
There was a street lamp bolted to the wall above his head. He
bobbed in and out of the light.
"Thatís what you get," said Charlie. "For going to 8th
Coal couldnít buy from the regular kids on the other side of the
park. That struck me as one more reason, beside his new sneakers,
that I should cut his face. There was no place for him
in this world.
"What about you?" Coal asked me. "I feel like Iíve been
gone for so long."
He put his hand out for me to shake. I turned my knife over
in my pocket. The handle was wet and sticky from my
"Iíve been wearing my t-shirt," I said.
With my free hand, I pulled up my first shirt to show him the one
underneath. There was a group of cars gathering at the
stoplight. The air was sweet with their exhaust.
It all started a few days earlier with the jewelry Coal took from
Charlieís motherís jewelry box. We had seen a girl on the city bus
wearing pieces of it. Under the awning at the taqueria, Charlie and
me discussed the possibility of killing Coal. Charlie
was making a racket beating the tray in front of him with his fists.
I told him to calm down and stop making a scene.
He said, "Even a fucking Indian should know thereís some shit you
There were some things you did that you were guaranteed to get
taxed for was what I think he meant. Iíd have given him that there
were plenty of good reasons to kill Coal, but this wasnít one of
them. Over his motherís only pair of designer sunglasses
and some costume jewelry.
The problem with Charlie was he was kind of artistic and that
made him sensitive. He got fired up for the worst reasons.
It was hot that night, but Charlie was wearing his jacket anyway.
His jacket with the spray paint stencil that I hated. He bought the
jacket from the thrift store and spent a week, six different test
stencils, to make sure the design looked right. He sat on the floor
of his room. Cut the design out of old shoe boxes. When he finally
settled on the version he liked, he spray painted the back of the
jacket, then wore it every day, no matter what the heat, until it
was covered in grease and dirt. Together with his bird neck
and the bushy hair heíd been growing, Charlie was starting to look
like one of those kids from the east valley who wore tight black
jeans and make up.
"Whatís with that coat?" I asked. I flipped his collar. "Youíre
starting to look like a fag too."
"Whatís that mean?"
"Iím not saying anything."
"Yes you are. I know because youíre always saying something."
"Maybe you just overestimate me."
He went on about how heíd make Coal pay. I couldnít listen. He
talked about killing our ex-friend Coal. All I could think about was
snatching the jacket off his back. He looked filthy. He was an
That thought got lost though. I thought about Rachel from school.
Sheíd just had a loud, public arrest. She shook her two newborns so
hard they ballooned up with blood. The photograph of the babies made
the front of the weekly. I cut it out to put in my pocket. In the
picture, the babies were side by side in the crib. Puffy and pink
like cooked shrimp.
"Everybody knows about it," said Charlie. I snapped back to the
conversation. "If we donít do it, everybodyís going to know we let
The red lights from the freeway turned and dipped, rose up in the
distance and moved down towards the center of the city. I took out
my knife and carved my name in the orange plastic that coated the
After we finished eating, I waited while Charlie tried to talk
with a girl. Her boyfriend had stepped inside to order food. She
blew him off. He showed her some cartoons heíd drawn on a napkin.
She laughed. Her hair was up in barrettes.
Charlie wasnít paying attention when the boyfriend came out. The
boyfriend whipped him so hard the thin denim of his jacket spilt
along the seams. Charlie hit the ground and rolled. I hit the
boyfriend from behind with both fists. He never saw it coming.
On the walk home, a section of Charlieís jacket was flapping in
the breeze. He was upset, on the verge of crying. He said, "It took
me so long to make this."
"I know," I told him. "Iím sorry."
"Everybodyís gonna know, man. Everybody."
We discussed the possibility of setting Coal on fire.
We stopped in the market, bought a bottle of lighter fluid just in
case and put it in a bucket behind the building in a bush.
My mother was always saying things like, "you can do whatever you
want with your life," when she passed me in the hall. If I didnít
acknowledge her, she would follow me into the back room.
Iíd say, "Thatís an awful lie youíre telling me." I would lay out
on my couch, my blanket pulled over my face, the fabric heating up
from my breath. I would try to ignore her. I didnít want to be
thought of as different.
We were getting into bigger fights those days, which had to be
accepted. I accepted that this was the way to settle debates. You
couldnít explain anything to anyone. I accepted the violence. I
accepted that everyone seemed to be saying bigger, more serious
things. I wanted conflict. I wanted neighborhood honor. I carried a
knife, and a can of mace. I carried spray paint to write my name so
everyone could see it.
My mother would pull the blanket off me and make me agree with
her. Which I did after she pushed me. Pushed me until she was
slapping me, over and over again, across the back of the head and
neck, like I was ten again and had called her a name that she said
no one had the right to call her.
Coalís hands were tense as he asked if we could hook him up. Just
this once. Charlie gave him what he had left of his stash.
"You donít want to fuck with Hollywood Coal?" he asked.
"Of course not," said Charlie.
Coal squeezed the baggie in his fist and fished out what he
could. After he finished, he got a satisfied look in his face. It
was like he had just gotten his favorite meal set in front of him.
Coal held out a road flare that he had fashioned into a homemade
"I made this for you," he said. "Itíll smoke a lot
more than itíll pop."
I sniffed the end. The taste of gunpowder hit the back of my
throat. I coughed.
"Wow, thanks." I threw the flare back.
My hand returned to my knife. I tried to imagine what it
was going to be like when I brought it out. I remembered that it had
to be done. Iíd accepted it, that there was just no trusting him.
That I was going to have to cut his lying mouth.
"Youíll never be able to stop," I said. I pressed
the edge of the blade against my thigh. "I suppose you should go
ahead and give up."
Charlie said, "My shirts were a hit at school." He took out his
lighter and began to spark it. "But no one will remember
"Itís like you were never here."
Coal slumped down on the closest wall. His shaved head was nicked
along the hair line. His eyebrow was separated by a pink scar. The
street lamp was in power save mode. It cast him in an orange glow.
He put his head in his hands. He said, "My mom wants to take us
back to the reservation. She took a job so we could move back
His knees stuck out from his chest as he balanced against the
brick, shifting his weight on the balls of his feet. We
moved closer. I stood over him to where I could see the chain he was
wearing. I thought that it wouldnít be much to reach down and snatch
it off his neck. He cleaned the corners of his mouth with his nails.
"I just got back. Itís not fair."
"Theyíre making you go?" I asked.
"Iím gonna be nothing."
There were more cars piling up at the stoplight, their engines
were loud and I could hear the belts whining.
"Iím fucked," he said. His face was turned up to us. He wanted us
to say something. When we were silent, he pulled his t-shirt over
his head so that we wouldnít see him cry. His heart was beating
beneath his ribs, almost popping out of his chest like a scared,
"Youíre completely fucked," I said.
I wanted to hate him but it was hard while he was in that
condition. I tried to remember something that I liked about him, but
I was drawing a blank. It did occur to me that maybe we
shouldnít go through with it, at least not right then. A car started
honking, the driver was slumped down so I could only see the top of
Charlie was ready. "God, will that light ever turn green?"
The streetlampís timer clicked on. The block was lit up in a
bright, yellow burst. I could see scars on Coalís stomach. They were
thick and white and ran up his belly like ladder rungs.
"Where did you get those?" I asked.
Coal fingered his scars. "My mom did that," he said. "Before.
When she was drinking."
Coalís head was hanging loose at the neck. Charlie gave me the
signal but I shook him off.
"Why not?" asked Charlie.
I took my hands out of my pockets and pointed to the same spot on
"So?" asked Charlie.
Coal said, "I donít know what Iím going to do." The steam from
his breath rose out through his shirt. He rubbed his thighs.
"Itís not worth it," I said. "The planís no good."
"Itís a fine plan," said Charlie. He mouthed a few more
words, but I pretended I couldnít understand.
Coal took his shirt off his head so we could see his face. His
eyes were wet with tears. He smiled. He held up his homemade bomb.
"Iím just gonna set this one off right now," he said.
I said, "Sounds good."
"Can I get you back for this stuff later?" asked Coal.
"Donít worry about it. We know youíre no good for it."
Coal took out a blue wick and stuffed it in the top of his flare.
He turned to Charlie.
"I could go burn down your gook motherís house with this," he
said. He laughed.
There was nothing I could do then. Charlie slammed his foot into
Coalís mouth. The kidís hands never went up to protect him.
The back of his head made a hollow thud against the brick. A driver
who was stopped at the light pounded on the horn. Coal
tipped over unconscious and hit the sidewalk. His eyes rolled
up into his head and for a second I thought that might be it for
him, but he came around quick, wiped the dirt from the side of his
cheek and said, "What happened?"
"You donít know how fucking lucky you are," I said.
The driver of the car was leaning on his horn. "Fuck him up,"
yelled the driver. "Fuck him up."
"Iím never gonna get to see you guys again."
I took the knife out of my pocket and put the tip to his face. My
jaw was tight. The muscles in my arm were so tense they
"You have a big nose, you know that?"
"But I wonít have anything once we move," said Coal.
"Donít come back," I said. "You shouldíve never come
Charlie gave him another kick and we ran off, sprinting so hard
my chest burned.
When we were down the street in a neighborhood, Charlie said, "I
canít believe you let him get away with that."
There wasnít much to our corner of the city, but I loved it.
The gravel behind the Arab market had old couches sitting in the
shade of the overgrown bushes. The park was long and
narrow, dark at night, with a lake that turned black from algae in
the winter. I knew which houses had motion sensors, which
stoplights never changed, which lazy dog owners let their animals
run untethered around the neighborhood.
Me and Charlie split up when we got to the end of the street. Him
towards his house, me to mine.
is a writer from Arizona. ďNo Cuts to Swell ItĒ is an excerpt from
his novel The Opposite of Family. He currently works
construction in New Orleans, Louisiana.