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Case Miller

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 cheated us.

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 swollen.

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 street."

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 palm.

"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 donít do."

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 embarrassment.

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 him slide."

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 table.

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."

"I know."

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 bomb.

"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 them."

"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 there." 

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, skinny cat.

"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 his head.

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 my stomach.

"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 were shaking.

"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 back."

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.   


Case Miller 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.

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