Monday, December 5, 2011

The Death of Title Fights

So in case it wasn't obvious we haven't been answering the phones here at Title Fights HQ for a while. But just to make the obvious painfully obvious, Title Fights is dead.

It's been a great ride, everyone.

BUT, fear not, true believers. Like the true cycle of nature, this death has served as the fecund soil to foster a new life. That's why we, the editors of Title Fights, are proud to bring you

THE BAR: Bellows American Review.

Please refer there for all your future free electronic literature concerns. And who knows, if you keep an eye on it, you may someday see Title Fights sprout back up. Its hard to keep a fighter down.

For everyone who supported us for the brief time of our life, we owe you an immeasurable gratitude. It's been a hell of a ride, but fear not. Like Winston Churchill once said, "This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

Monday, May 16, 2011

Blue and Smells Like Red Paint by Case Q. Kerns

The flowers were all potted. They could be planted after. Her father always thought the idea of killing something for decoration was somewhat demented. Even at weddings, he felt that arrangements and bouquets of cut flowers seemed a celebration of death more than love.

Then, the body. Don’t bury me in the ground, he would say. He hated the idea of taking up so much earth. Tombstones were not morbid to him. They were assets. As if the deceased were saying, ‘I may be gone, but I still own something.’

He wanted his ashes dispersed to five different locations, all within a couple hundred miles of each other. The three of them would make this journey together – Stacy, her mother, and her brother, Patrick. She would organize this later, after the funeral.

There would be no wake or church service. The whole event was going to take place at The Red-Tail. It had been the only restaurant that they could always agree on as a family – the prime rib with horseradish cream sauce and smashed red bliss potatoes was one of her father’s favorite meals. Stacy rented it out for the whole evening. The regular menu would be served, but no bottles of ketchup. He never liked it on the table.

She had his Victrola brought in for the event so it would sound like their house. People would be encouraged to stand up and say a few words, if they wanted, but there would be no podium.

There was an hour until the doors at The Red-Tail opened for the event and Stacy was on her way to pick up the final piece.


She had commissioned a painting of her father by a local artist named Fred Hall who specialized in photorealism.

After a night spent sifting through family albums, there were a few fallbacks, but nothing that captured what she was looking for. Then, she noticed it in a small frame on the side table at the far end of the couch, half hidden behind a lamp. It was the most recent photograph of him when his smile was still his own and not partly a stranger’s.

It had been taken four years earlier at his seventy-third birthday party. Stacy knew this because of the movie poster for Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ on the living room mantle behind him. It was a joint family gift that year and he hung it up in his study the next morning.

When she had dropped off the photograph to Mr. Hall, she emphasized the importance of the piece - that it needed to be an exact recreation of the photograph. The artist assured her that this was his expertise. She stressed the point, again. He told her that he couldn’t walk on water, but he most certainly could paint a photograph.

And she knew that he could. She had studied his portfolio, thoroughly. She just had to make it clear.


The studio was a fifteen-minute drive from The Red-Tail. She would have to hang the painting and then make the rounds to see that everything was in place. It would be tight, but as long as she held it all together and stayed focused, there was no reason to fall victim to anxiety.

Mr. Hall was cleaning his brushes in the sink, rubbing Murphy’s oil soap into the bristles. She asked him if it was finished and he said he just put on the final touches, but it was still wet in places and to be careful while transporting it to the restaurant.

He handed her the photograph and asked if she would like to compare the two. She took it between her fingers and felt queasy. He went over to his easel and rotated it so she could see the painting. The canvas was eighteen inches by twenty-four inches. She had asked that it not be too large, but not so small that it couldn’t be seen across the room.

Stacy glanced from image to image. They were the same. She narrowed in and examined smaller sections, but could find no differences and then looked at the painting alone.

“Wait,” she said.

“Is there something wrong?” Mr. Hall asked.


He was confused and doubtful.

“The eyes are red,” she said.

“Just like the photograph,” he said.

“My father’s eyes were blue.”

“You asked for an exact recreation,” he said. “And his eyes are red in the photograph. It’s the effect of the flash. I thought that’s what you wanted.”

She looked back to the photograph. She hadn’t scrutinized it enough. She had seen the look on her father’s face and didn’t realize that somewhere along the way she stopped looking and was just remembering at the photograph. And now she had a portrait with red eyes.

“If it’s a problem, I can change them to blue,” he said. “It will only take about twenty minutes.”

“There isn’t time,” she said.

Mr. Hall apologized for the misunderstanding and she told him it wasn’t his fault and that he really had done a remarkable job, it was perfect.

She took the painting to her car and started driving towards The Red-Tail. She had forty-five minutes until the memorial started.


She remembered her father’s seventieth birthday party. He had just retired three months earlier and was trying to learn how to spend his days relaxing and enjoying life. He was always looking for new hobbies, or ‘positive obsessions’ as he called them. The transition was hard on him.

The unveiling of Patrick’s gift had been the grand event. It was in the middle of the living room, obelisk-like and covered with a white sheet. The sheet was pulled off and it was their father’s Victrola, which hadn’t worked in years. It had been overhauled and refinished. There was even a set of unused needles. It sounded as if it had never been played before.

While Patrick selected the next record to play, Stacy and her father danced to a 78 of ‘Mood Indigo,’ performed by Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra. “Your brother understands the importance of details,” her father said to her, quietly.

‘Patrick’ had been the last of their names that he started to forget.


The painting sat in the backseat of the car behind Stacy, but she wouldn’t look at it, not even in the rear view mirror.

The eyes were still drying.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Jewish Man Calls His Mother by Holli Downs

In 1986, outside the boundaries of the synagogue, Beth Shalom, it was strange to meet another Jew in Kansas City. My father and I lived there in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom, pink townhouse squeezed next to several others, exactly the same. He had owned the townhouse since 1973 when it was built and pastel colored plastic siding was groovier than it was feminine.

He had bought it for my mother. The place always felt a little off to me once I was old enough to notice things like that. I never knew her to be a part of the house, but she was still there. Her cross stitched “Home is Where the Heart Is” hung above the oven in the kitchen. Her lava lamp was hidden in the back of the closet until I was sixteen and took it out for mood lighting. Dad never talked about her sober, and I wasn’t the kind of kid who was brave enough to ask. I knew March 30 was her birthday because Dad got drunk and cursed at photo albums after I went to bed.

“God damn woman,” he said. I was nine or so one of these times, and he was getting kind of loud. It scared me. He looked surprised I when appeared in the doorway, “Come here.”

This night, under belches of whiskey, I learned about my mother.

I learned she wanted to be an artist. My father told me about finding out I was on the way. She had thrown a pregnancy test at his dorm wall.

“You’ve never seen a woman so angry,” he laughed.

I wanted to ask if she wanted me at all, if she missed me, if she remembered me. I didn’t. I was afraid it would break the spell. I was afraid of the distance between me and my father when he talked about her.

“So, I guess you were about six months old.” he had fallen into a kind of stupor and the room drew close on us, “I came home and her bags were packed up. She said the strangest thing. ‘I can’t remember how old I am’ she said. Isn’t that bizarre? Nineteen, I told her, nineteen! But she went to her mothers.” My father started crying. It was uncomfortable. “She didn’t come back for us, Isaac,” he said

I don’t remember ever really hurting for anything. My father was never a very good cook and we sat over ranch-style beans and dark toast for most of my childhood, but we could always pay the bills. At least, if there ever was any trouble, I didn’t know about it.

I did know that he wouldn’t give away a penny he could keep. Even though the women at George’s, a second-hand clothing store downtown by the movies, made him uncomfortable he took me there when I needed new things for school. My father has always been a very handsome man. We had as much help as he could handle when we went out together.

“Time to go, Isaac,” he would whisper at me from behind the racks of neon jump suits.

“I don’t know, Dad. Maybe a few more.” I would pretend I couldn’t make up my mind, try on another suit and stride out of the dressing room to a friendly audience.

Ranch-style beans, and George’s was good enough for me until June 1986. MTV started airing a new show, “120 minutes,” and Bar Mitzvah daydreams took on less of a Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” look and more the Cactus World News’s “Years Later”. I wanted my leather jacket and my black square-framed glasses, and I wanted to be the first one to put them on.

At first, Dad hemmed and hawed at the idea of paying $40 for something I would “just use the one time and never be seen in again” but a month before the party I found a Schott’s black leather jacket laying on my bed when I got home.

It was the most amazing thing I had ever owned. I wore it until someone stole it from a party on Avenue C during my first semester at NYU. My wife, who I had been dating for a couple of months by then, swears she had nothing to do with it, but admits she was relieved when it disappeared from our lives. “Our lives,” she says. Like us together is the most natural and perpetual thing in the world. We haven’t decided to have any children.

My father worked most nights managing the twenty-four hour self-serve car wash place a few blocks down. Sometimes, he would bring home the things he said people threw out of their backseats and into the trash. Mostly it was just junk: pens, old travel mugs, maps, obsolete 8tracks. Once that summer, though, he carried in a pair of jungle boots, gripping each one by the sole, and held them against my feet. “Looks like this should work,” he said.

The boots were dirty enough to suspect they were authentic. The leather had creased and cracked and been worked to a shine again so many times that when my foot slid in them they didn’t bend. A few of the eyelets were missing, and one of the strings was so short it could only be fed to the third hole from the top. There was one stain on the heel of the left boot- kind of a yellow smear, like new pollen on your fingers. I told the guys at my Bar Mitzvah it was left over mustard gas. They didn’t believe me so I challenged them to smell it and no one would.

The girls were a foot taller and more interesting than interested when we were thirteen. They all came to my party, though. I told them the DJ knew Billy Crystal from his work on SNL. Kids spent all night at his table asking him if he got to stay backstage with the cast. The DJ told them he didn’t know what they were talking about and my classmates nodded conspiratorially. Of course, he wouldn’t be able to say, I had told them, you know how it is with famous people. They knew.

I had just finished convincing Brittany Barnett to let me kiss her when my father walked up.

“I would like to speak with you,” he said.

“Dad, can it wait?”

He looked from Brittany, blushing up to her roots, to my assumed of wary superiority and smirked, “Five minutes. I will meet you in the lobby.”

My wife makes me tell this story at dinner parties now, but she never lets me get to the part that happened next, “and he missed!” She howls with laughter. I missed. I went to kiss Brittany Barnett on the lips, but closed my eyes and fell against her neck. I picked the wrong girl to kiss. She told everyone how I had done. Sometimes, I think that story is my wife’s favorite thing about me.

When I got to the lobby my eyes were still red, but Dad didn’t say if he noticed. He was standing by the check-in desk speaking in low tones with an attendant wearing a maroon bellboy hat and a service smile.

“Dad?” my voice broke.

My father motioned to the man that he’d be right back and guided me to a bench on the wall. The sun streaming through the windows was hot. I took off my jacket and laid it in my lap.

“You are a man now,” my father looked me in the eyes and I looked away.

“Come on, it was just one kiss, I mean- I don’t need you to-“

“This is not birds and bees, Isaac. Be quiet,” my father was rarely stern. His tone surprised me. The ache of distance between us solidified.


The sounds of my Bar Mitzvah leaked through the hall to where we were sitting. The DJ was encouraging everyone to do the chicken dance.

“This is your mother’s number,” he said, handing me a crumpled flyer from the car wash, “The man said you can use his phone for a minute.”

I stood up to scream at him. I was going to tell him how he had tricked me, how he had betrayed me. How he had known and never said. But my father suddenly looked fat in his suit, his trimmed and combed hair out of place on his head.

“Dial this number,” I said to the clerk and slid the paper over. I looked up, daring him to question me. If anyone was watching they were going to know I was certain.

The first ring echoed in my ears and I leaned against the counter. I was biting my tongue and forgetting my language.

The pause seemed long. “Hello?” I jumped when the second ring interrupted me.

The line opened up.

My mother said, “Hey Rhonda! Sorry about that, I wiped the phone right off the counter. The baby was crying. He’s been so fussy lately.”

A Priest and a Rabbi Walk Into a Bar by Brian S. Roe

A Priest and a Rabbi Walk Into a Bar

by Brian S. Roe

“Hi there, Michael.”

“Oh hi, Uncle Danny. I mean, Father Daniel.”

“Either’s good, nephew. How’s my sister?”

“Mom’s fine. Still working third shift at the hospital, but she says she wants to see more of you. Says she’s tired of taking mass at the hospital chapel.”

“We’ll have to do something about that then. Many things that we need to do something about lately.”

“A drink, Uncle Danny?”

“Yeah, bourbon and branch. You know my brand.”

“Is this barstool occupied?”

“Hi there, Jacob. I’ve been holding it for you.”

“Not much of a crowd tonight, I see.”

“Hi, Rabbi Lowen. Care for a drink?”

“Well Danny, do you have any tea?”

“Sure. Lemon and honey, right?”

“You’ve got a very good memory, son.”

“How’ve you been, Jacob.”

“I’ve been feeling very cold lately, Daniel. Very cold in my soul. And how have you been?”

“Burning up. Rage and anger. Hard to preach peaceful words when I’ve such anger.”

“Strange how we both feel such polar temperaments for the same base emotion.”

“Yeah, it’s hard to control sometimes. When did things get this bad?”

“When Rosen took over the 12th Street Boys, I think. Such a grubber yung. He led them down ever more dark paths.”

“And Flynn had already had them headed down some pretty dark paths from the start.”

“Strange how these kinder that grew up blocks from each other used to fight each other so violently just because of their last names.”

“Flynn, O’Malley, and Cavan versus Rosen, Goldman, and Zimmerman.”

“Cohen, Abramson, and Horowitz versus O’Neill, Doyle, and Buckley.”

“I remember seeing them on the playground of the school going after each other with tire irons and chains. One sadistic bastard had a bullwhip. Who knows where he got it. He was none too pleased when I took it from him. He should be glad that I got to him before one of the nuns did.”

“I can imagine. But apparently the desire to do evil was strong enough to bring them together. What I still can’t understand is how they’ve grown in such power recently. It’s as if no policeman will come anywhere near the neighborhood. Our young nishtgutnicks seem to be running riot with no one to monitor them.”

“Before Flynn got cut out he made a deal with some friendly cousins within the Blue Brotherhood. Apparently those deals are still valid. You know how insular we Micks can be. ”

“Can you hear them in the back room? Like a pack of mongrel dogs.”

“Another drink please, nephew. How long have they been here?”

“Since this afternoon. They’ve been playing cards and talking about um, business.”

“They haven’t been out here harassing you?”

“Not so much. My boss has some connections that they might not want to test quite yet. Bigger dogs still scare the little dogs. They took Theresa with them as a waitress and a couple of cases of booze. Sent out for food about an hour ago. I heard some of them snoring earlier. But mostly they’ve just been loud. Drove out all of the other customers.”

“Not a bad thing at this point, Daniel.”

“It might be a good idea for you to close early tonight, nephew.”

“I see. It’ll take a few minutes to get my closing stuff done.”

“You might want to be about it then. Have you been to the hospital to see Miriam lately, Jacob?”


“Sorry to mention it.”

“I... it’s still so hard to see her like that. She was so lovely and alive, and now she just lays there, broken.”

“The doctors are good there.”

“Yes, but for her, it would take a miracle. And it seems miracles ceased to happen a few thousand years ago. And what of the little girl that was run over?”

“She died.”


“Her parents buried her two days ago. I’ve never seen such pure sadness in all my years. Only the good Lord gave me strength to finish the service. A couple of Rosen’s boys were at the funeral. They were laughing and chewing bubble gum. The girl’s father went after them and now he’s breathing through a tube and shitting into a bag. Sorry for the language.”

“Such things often require that kind of language.”

“At the girl’s funeral, I realized what had to happen. What I had to do.”

“Then it seems that we are both thinking similar thoughts. When I realized that no one was willing to identify the beasts who hurt Miriam, then I felt truly alone. But now I just feel very cold. Like the edge of a sharpened sword.”

“What? Oh my God. Theresa! Are you all right?”

“Poor shikse. She ran out without her coat and most of her blouse.”

“God damn it. As if we needed a more clear signal.”

“Michael, the bar should be closed now. And please pull the shades and lock the door behind you.”

“Good night, Uncle Danny, Rabbi Lowen. God bless you both.”

“Good night nephew. Kiss your mom for me.”

“It’s time, Daniel. Do you have what you need?”

“Here. My father’s old Thompson from right after the war. He kept it in the same box as his badge and uniform. Tested it out last night and it still sings.”

“A friend in Israel sent me this. Sinister looking, isn’t it? He calls it an “Uzi”.”

“It sounds like they’re getting into some kind of scuffle in there.”

“Then now is a good time.”

“This is all happening so damned quickly isn’t it?”

“Mentsch tracht, G-tt lacht”

“In all my years as a priest, I never thought I’d be damning myself to Hell like this.”

“Only G-d can forgive us. Perhaps he will be merciful.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll hear your confession.”

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Inside a Dog it’s Too Dark to Read by Amanda Hartzell


The night before he puts me in my car and tells me to drive for the mountains, I was crushing peanuts for Malcolm Lamp in his one-room apartment. They’d come in a paper bag, the peanuts, and when I pressed my thumb between the pods they snapped with a dusty pop. The brittle shells I set aside in the desk drawer and the nuts I scraped with my fingernail, removing the thin brown film of skin. The testa, it was called, Malcolm said. That skin. I’d been at this for hours. Malcolm liked things precise. Sometimes, when I woke up in the middle of the night and listened, I’d catch him repeating words to himself, measuring the distance from his tongue to the back of his front teeth. Testa was a good word to say in rapid succession, I’d learned, because it made the tongue jump to the roof of the mouth, like something suspended on a string and lunging back to the source.

His window was open and Albuquerque’s night humidity lugged itself through. He’d promised me dry heat when I moved out here, something sandy and thin, but I hadn’t felt it yet. There were too many bike paths and red mountains and apartments with aluminum siding. From the back entrance of Malcolm’s building complex I could hear the round yip of coyotes, but out the window, facing the front, came only traffic. Malcolm had told me all about the animals here, the wild dogs and roadrunners sprinting over stone fences, the turtles with mottled shells in the grass. So far I hadn’t seen anything.

I brought the citronella candles from my father’s house to keep away the bugs. They were lit now, green-yellow-green, a row of light throbbing on his desk by the window. In Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, they kept the mosquitos and box elders from the porch. I used to peer over the candles and watch a flickering hover of bugs a few feet away, in the yard. I’d feel the wicks’ heat on the inside of my nasal passages.

“Be careful,” said Malcolm, from the couch. He lifted his chin at the peanuts between my fingers. “You’re missing spots.”

If I broke them slowly enough, the shells flaked off in separate layers. Malcolm Lamp had me memorize each part—the outer, pericarp hull, and the three thin layers beneath of exocarp, mesocarp, endocarp.

“Right,” I said, “I’m watching.”

Malcolm rose and crossed the room towards me. It was a small space, and it only took him five steps to move from one wall to another. I measured it once with my feet, too, when he’d asked me. I put my left heel to right toe, right heel to left toe, and worked across the room painstakingly, with precision. I was a tightrope act. He’d said so. I’d wanted to smile but saw the discipline of his face, and I couldn’t break that. It took me fifteen steps to make it across the room, heel to toe. I’d gone so slowly for Malcolm Lamp that it took me a half hour to do it.

Now he crossed the room in seconds and was at my elbow, rummaging through the desk drawer and scattering peanut shells. I tried to stay very still until he needed me. He paged through my month-old hiking pamphlets from the welcome center, photos of rocks he’d overdeveloped to whiteness, ads and coupons we hadn’t cut up yet because they made him feel situated and routine. It was precision Malcolm liked, not predictability. Peanut pods slid into my palm. I turned them over like pebbles.

I said, “What are you looking for?” and he stalled, repeating my name end on end. Katharine, Kat, Katharine. I liked the sound of it, rare, out of his mouth. It let me know I was more than just the tasks he wanted done, the curiosities to settle.

“And the peanuts,” I said. By then I had a whole pile, stretched at the base of the citronella candles. “What do you want to do with these?”

“Are you tired yet?” he asked. “Do you want to go to sleep?”

The citronella candles were burning low, almost smoking. They were the same ones my father had had since I was a girl, and the wick was a stump above slick wax. The inside walls of each jar were filthy. Outside the window an insect hooked onto the screen. Its body was segmented in two, like the peanuts, and it had thin black wings that came unsheathed from its back. I didn’t recognize it.

Malcolm’s hands skittered through the drawer. He glanced at me.

“It’s up to you,” he said. He paused. “Or I can decide for you, if that’s easier.”

I split a peanut between my fingers and popped one half into my mouth. I didn’t bite down. I hid it beneath my tongue until the salt was too much. He didn’t react and I knew the tasks for today were done. He was tired, too.

The couch pulled out to a bed and I sat there cross-legged, leaning into him, until he relaxed and rested his head in my lap. We’d only slept together once since I moved to Albuquerque. He said I shouldn’t worry so I didn’t. The humidity lacquered the room, reduced us to one sheet with patterned red hibiscus, and from the foot of the bed his metal fan swiveled its face back and forth on us. To move at all was an effort. The breeze lifted the damp, curling hair at the base of my neck. I wanted Malcolm Lamp to prearrange my thoughts for me, to stack them up piece by piece so my mind would know where to go when I closed my eyes.

But instead he started telling me about the reservations, about the Ute and Apache and Navajo, how he wanted me to see them. How our bodies were stacked together, right now, like hillside pueblos. My ears felt clogged and distant, picking up sounds from miles away.

“Where are you?” Malcolm said then. His mouth moved drowsy against the bone in my knee.

I was not in a pueblo. I was scattered far beneath the earth, my body closed in on itself like a seed. That part of a peanut, the part to eat, was called the germ. And my arms wrapped around my legs and my knees pulled beneath my chin, and I was sheathed by testa. As I shifted the clay earth drew closer. I could wait. I could wait awhile. Soon light would burrow its way through the earth towards me, find me, like ropes of light dropped down for me. And through the clay the runoff of water would come, too, trickles at first, then grow into rivers that could move the earth and unplant me.


The next morning when I woke Malcolm had already gone to work. For an hour I walked around in his boxers only. Sweat gathered in my shoulder blades. I crouched down to eye-level with the desk, so the peanuts I’d unshelled looked detailed, almost moist. I could see the scratches my nails left in them. The window was open but we were so high up there was no one to watch, or watch me. I changed into clothes with permanent creases, still in my luggage because Malcolm Lamp said he wanted me to move in slowly, to be a traveler for as long as he could drag it out. I ate one peanut, flicking it around my mouth until it softened.

At noon I left the apartment and walked through ribbons of heat to his office. He worked for the water authority and sat behind a desk where he trained new hires. None seemed to be in today. His fingers punched data entry and plucked phones and sliced complaint letters. I’d never actually been in the place before. When I walked in the air conditioning broke across my skin and settled, heavy and sharp. I felt dizzy. The carpet was low and crushed. Malcolm was in direct line of sight from the door. He looked up, smiled once, and gestured for me to wait off to the side. The phones did not ring and although he had a stack of papers in front of him, he only referenced them now and then. He sat there and passed a few minutes buttoning and unbuttoning his shirt to his neck. He did not look at me again.

I stood beside the cooler, watching the occasional bubble belch and wobble to the surface. The walls were covered with corkboard and tacked with signs explaining policy, billing, and customer satisfaction. I read silently and took deep inhales of the air conditioning, as if I could store it somewhere in the cavity of my lungs or stomach for later use. A few of his co-workers passed me, asked if I was being helped, and I nodded. Malcolm said nothing. I pushed a little. I complimented a woman on shoes with jade decals that were too tight on her ankles. I asked a man what time it was and pretended to adjust my watch. When Malcolm Lamp didn’t object I knew it wasn’t a silence test, just a patience one.

I slipped one foot out of my sandals and screwed it into the carpeting until I rubbed out a brush burn. Then I asked out loud, but not to Malcolm directly, how much water there possibly was to manage in Albuquerque. I hadn’t seen a single river since I crossed into the state. On the four-day trip out to him, I drove over bridges that stretched above only more dipping, dry land. These rivers had cracked soil, gray bushes, Indian names. My hometown, Jim Thorpe, was named after an Indian, too.

“There are reservoirs,” said Malcolm. His voice was thin and light. “Some places have private wells, but mostly water comes from the reservoirs. It’s redirected from the Rio Grande. And the Colorado River basin.”

“Sure,” I said. I didn’t put my foot back in my shoe. “But how does it get here?”

“How does it get here?” Malcolm lined up his paperwork. “I don’t know. A tunnel system, I think. There’s a map of it somewhere.”

He was asking for a detail. I looked around the corkboard for it. I found it, too, a white map with blue lines. The names for water and borders were in Spanish. A thick black line linked the rivers together and transported water to several reservoirs denoted by black trapezoids. 26 Miles of Tunnels, the black line read.

Malcolm pushed out his chair. “Okay,” he said, “are you tired of standing?”

I nodded. My skin was still speckled with sweat from the walk to the office. His looked fresh and dry. Half-awake this morning, I’d heard him in the shower beneath all that transported water. There was a communal bathroom at the end of the hallway. The pipes in the walls announced when it was occupied, and sometimes there was a line. Sometimes Malcolm Lamp told me to stand in it and, right when I got to the front, to circle back to the end. I’d report to him with the minutes and hours people passed under the beat of the showerhead. The data eased him, stabilized him. I liked how tense he made me.

“Okay,” he said again, standing up. “Come take lunch with me.”

He talked about a restaurant but when he opened the front door and saw my face struck by heat, he redirected us back to the office break room. The air conditioning was too good. He took out a ten from his khakis and fed the snack machine, brought to the table air-filled bags of potato chips and sourdough pretzels, a box of raisins, something cheese-flavored and two bottles of soda. He asked me what I ate for breakfast. I told him.

“That’s not what the peanuts are for,” he said sharply, then looked guilty and bought me fruit snacks. He let me pick which soda I wanted, too.

He told me the water authority was looking for paid interns. He asked if I thought I had enough experience to apply. He could put in a good word. We could always use the extra money. I thought of my brief stint in community college years ago but said I could work up a resume. In Jim Thorpe I’d worked some reception in the tourist shops, done waitressing in an ice cream diner. I’d volunteered at the visitor center, too, memorizing pamphlets for hiking and kayak adventure tours. Malcolm had come in one day six weeks ago, tan and fresh from the Southwest and visiting friends. It was raining in Jim Thorpe. The climbing streets and anthracite mountains were slick, black, and the air mildewed. We’d talked about Indians, how the athlete Jim Thorpe had to give back all his Olympic medals, as I walked Malcolm down to the river. I’d decided to skip the rest of my shift and he asked if I was a very impulsive person. We watched the kayaks slice through water pebbled by rain. I asked how long he’d be visiting, and he asked me how long I could wait.

We finished eating. There were pieces of chips ground into my molars, and when I ran my tongue over them I tasted salt grains. Malcolm kissed my cheek and arranged our chairs back under the table when we stood up.

“I have to work until six, but you can stay outside for me, right?” he asked.

It was two-thirty. My skin was cool now, confident and bloated with the soda’s refrigerated carbonation.

“Sure,” I said.

“I think there’s a bench across from the parking lot,” Malcolm said. “When it gets closer to four the sun hits just right and there’s shade then, too.”

“All right.”

“And the peanuts,” said Malcolm Lamp. “Don’t worry, we’ll use them after work.”

I could tell he didn’t want me to press for more details. Still, I almost opened my mouth. He saw it on my face and tried to be serious, but I caught his lips quirking in one lapse of a smile. I wished I hadn’t.

“You’ll see,” he said. He pushed an unopened bag of pretzels at me, asking me to eat all but exactly five before he finished work. I nodded. I thought of the pockets of air conditioning boxed inside my body. I pictured myself tightening the lids, screwing the air in.

As Malcolm sat down at his desk I stepped outside, and the heat unlatched my boxes and out flew the cold. I blinked against the afternoon, found the green plastic bench, sat down. The sun was huge and white above the water authority and kept shadows at the base of buildings and trees. For a little I watched people pass in tank tops and shorts and crinkled cotton dresses, then I leaned back and let the heat suspend me.

I dozed. I thought.

I saw of us both hunkered down inside a mattress.

We were mattress spelunkers, explorers of the world of bedding and springs. Malcolm had dug a hole right in the center of our pull-out sofa, through the covers and downward. He was sitting on the edge of it, his legs dangling in. He held out a rope made of bedsheets, the ones with the hibiscus print. He hadn’t let me buy them until I could confirm they were anatomically correct. It had taken me hours at the library, comparing encyclopedia diagrams of the petal and sepal to the ads in the paper. Now he extended the rope to me. I had to follow the tunnels. I tied the rope around my waist as he told me how to make a bowline knot, square and overhand, a clove hitch. I asked him how he knew so much and he said he didn’t. He guessed at accuracy by watching my face, watching my skin redden under rope. Tighter, he said, but he wouldn’t do it himself.

My neck hurt from the angle on the bench and it pulled me out. A shadow of bur oak stretched near my feet as the sun angled lower towards the red mountains. I checked my watch just as Malcolm emerged from the office, his top button undone, looking easy and disinterested. He walked a few blocks away before stopping and turning around to wave me towards him. I got up and the bag of pretzels, forgotten, fell from my lap. I ripped them open and dumped them all out on the ground, then picked up five and put them back in. From this distance I didn’t think he would notice that I’d eaten none. Still, it felt like cheating, and I almost wanted to get caught.


We were back in the apartment, the fan buzzing. It was getting dark and the room smelled like sweat and legumes. They overpowered the citronella.

On the walk home he hadn’t made me count the pretzels at all. He’d taken the bag out of my hand and tossed it with almost an apology. Maybe I’d misjudged him. I thought he needed strictness, needed my submission for stability. But without it now he was casual, making me nervous, like he thought the tests were just games. It made it hard to stay empty.

“What do you think?” he asked.

I looked at him from the edge of the desk where I sat. My sunburnt legs swung, taking turns, and the movement was making my head wobble. I thought of the pretzels and chips, peanuts and soda. All that sodium in me. I felt dehydrated, like the salt of the earth.

“About Albuquerque,” he said. “I mean, I’m glad you’re here.”

And he said, “I’m glad you took the trip.”

And, “I just feel like it’s not what you expected.”

He was moving quickly around the room, excited. He tossed a backpack onto the bed, added water bottles and refilled the brown paper bag with all the peanuts I’d cracked and cleaned for hours the evening before. He swiped them in with two strokes of his hand. He folded the top closed and zippered up his pack.

I watched him from far away, through earth, from the bottom of a tunnel’s cavern.

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“We,” he said. He opened the desk drawer and it bounced against the back of my calves. He took out the hiking pamphlets and flashed them in my face with a grin. “I told you about this place, but I want you to really see it.”

“I can see it,” I said. I didn’t know what we were talking about.

He said no, that I hadn’t, that I’d only really ever heard it. I’d heard him talk about it in Jim Thorpe, that day along the river. I’d heard it in the names of the places in New Mexico, the roads and bridges named after tribes. I’d heard it in the way the words sounded wispy and hollow like shells, in the coyotes from the back of the apartment complex. But that wasn’t enough. The heat was confusing things, keeping Albuquerque at a distance. I’d come so far to be with him, he said, to be here. It wasn’t fair, this heat. Tonight he wanted to break through it. For me.

We took my car away from the city. I hadn’t driven in a month, since I arrived. The gas was low but Malcolm Lamp told me what streets to take, what lights to run, and we didn’t stop until the four lanes widened and the median ran out and the strip malls shrank back to clay earth and blue-gray grasses and pear cactus. The mountains came barreling down on us. The sky was dark, and huge. My ears popped with the elevation change, and once we pulled free from the rich adobe homes nestled at the base of the cliffs Malcolm said to stop, pull over.

In the dark I couldn’t make out the lift that ran from the welcome center at the bottom of the mountains to the peaks. They weren’t like the eroded, quarry-gutted mountains in Jim Thorpe. These were massive shapes that curled over top of my body as I approached. I expected Malcolm to walk in front of me but instead he was at my elbow, step for step. He smiled, but it was annoying, and disappointing, that he thought he could provide the details.

And now this, this is where we are.

In the periphery I see things move, dart. I slow, put my heels to toe.

Malcolm doesn’t rush me. He swings his backpack off his shoulders.

I want to look skyward but the heat has transferred from the air to beneath my sunburn. In my thighs it rolls and shudders, and I have the urge to stretch out my legs and peel off in layers. I want to be parsed apart by heat, have light focus enough to inspect each segmented part of me—the parts of want, when I keep myself just skin and air for the waiting. And I will walk towards the mountains on land that isn’t mine, land I can’t pronounce, and Malcolm will only stare after me. He’ll realize I am doing what he wants even before he has instructions ready, because it’s already mine premeditated.

Now he’s ripping open the brown paper bag. He’s scattering the peanuts at his feet. I think at first he’s misconceived of seeds, how to properly transplant a growing creature. But then he’s talking about attracting wild things, what he’s told me about—the roadrunners, the turtles, and the coyotes that follow other movements. He keeps looking at me. He looks at a loss, waiting for correction.

Nighttime bugs nick off my cheeks. The mountains still. I sidestep the peanuts and wait for something in the distance to shift, then follow after it. It’s strange, all this wanting. Malcolm stays behind and does not repeat my name over the rustle of the paper bag. But I know already I will turn around. I know already the dry ground, and the heat that keeps it cracking.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

"Pat" by Eric Beetner

I felt the tips and the unclipped nails of a finger gun poking into my back before I heard, “Stick ‘em up,” in the voice I had known since middle school. My cousin, Pat. Again. God dammit.

I understand it, partly. I was the guy ten years older with all the friends, the cool car, the steady girlfriend and the healthy rumors that I’d slept with my friend Bobby’s Mom (no comment). As Pat grew up he idolized me. I’m not being conceited, he did. And I get it.

When I started doing jobs, getting a bit of a reputation as a hardass, I could always sense Pat in my shadow. If I was DeNiro he was my Harvey Keitel. See now, that sounds conceited again. I swear I’m not.

He was a gangly kid, socially awkward. I read some article on Asperger’s syndrome once and it sounded like they were describing Pat to a T. I felt bad for the kid and maybe that’s why I never shooed him away like a mosquito even when he buzzed in my ear.

Alway inserting himself into my business, Pat was. After I got my own apartment he’d show up unannounced just to, “Hang out.” We were cousins for fuck’s sake, not brothers or anything. I always had to chase him away by saying a girl was coming over, not that three guys with a half million in coke are coming by to divide it up on my glass top coffee table and hand me a bag full of hundred dollar bills for the pleasure. By the way, tell Aunt Joan hi for me. Not gonna happen.

I had nothing in common with the kid, nothing to say to him. He’d ask me all about the jobs I was working and I’d make up some bullshit that he and I both knew stunk up the room. Still, he was in friggin’ high school back then. Harmless, right?

So he graduates, goes off to college and I don’t hear from him or about him for a couple of years. Felt like I dropped twenty pounds. His Mom and my Mom never got along and since my Mom died there was no reason to get updates about how he was doing at school or anything. Out of sight, out of mind.

Those were good years for me. I rose in the ranks. Got my own crew. I stayed out of trouble while making a hell of a lot of it. I remember the first time I realized I had the juice to get a guy killed. I said something in passing about a jerk off who hadn’t paid his bills and two days later he turns up dead, then little Jimmy Callaway comes into my office in the back of Fantasy Island (all nude, two drink minimum) and hands over the thirty-two grand the guy owed and says to me all cocky in that way of his, “It’s taken care of.”

I’d ordered a hit and I didn’t even know it. I thought sure as shit I’d catch heat from above but they never even mentioned it except once about three months later at a big ten meeting when Alvy said, “Take Viggo here, he makes his own decisions. Doesn’t bother me with the petty shit. And he produces results and earnings.”

Pretty decent endorsement, I’d say.

So I had autonomy, I inspired the right amount of fear in my crew due to years of proving myself capable of whatever it took which, by my count, added up to 127 broken fingers, four deaths, sixteen shattered kneecaps, two dead family pets, eight burned cars, two burned establishments, sixty-four broken noses (an estimate, actual numbers are hard to confirm) and workouts with a baseball bat, pistol butt, bowling pin, crowbar, tire iron, bricks and one high school soccer tournament trophy.

On my thirty-fifth birthday I treated myself to my first tattoo. It reads BADASS across the back of my neck just under where I grew my hair out.

While my hair was still growing is when Pat showed up in my life again.

He came out of the shadows like a recurring nightmare you think you’ve left behind once you stopped wetting the bed. He’d gotten tall and strong, but to talk to him was still an exercise in awkwardness. He still had that blank hero worship stare you get when you look at old pictures of Mark David Chapman.

And Pat wanted in.

I told him no, of course. But, same as high school, I didn’t tell him strong enough. He kept offering his services even though I said time and time again that we were full up and didn’t need the help and he should go get a decent job. I asked what he studied in college and he told me video game design. Perfect. Why not do that?

The only job offer he’d been able to get wanted him to relocate to San Francisco and he’d never been out of the state so he turned it down. Idiot. Being locked in a cubicle with other nerds would be like a homecoming to him.

It started to get bad when he showed up at places other than my office or my apartment. An apartment, I should mention, that had changed three times since we last saw each other and I know for a fact that Aunt Joan doesn’t have the address. Persistent little fucker, Pat is.

People started asking questions. First they came from my crew wanting to know if this little pissant was going to start taking some of their action, accusing me of nepotism.

“Of course not,” I said. “He’s my cousin.”

“Well, I think he’s fucking retarded,” said Jimmy.

One time I came back to my apartment and he was inside. I walked right in talking with Aldo Cruz about getting some new firepower for my boys. The stock they were currently carrying had passed its expiration date. I don’t know what Pat heard, but it didn’t make a good impression on Aldo when I appeared obviously shocked the kid was there and he started in to talking like he was my assistant or something.

After Aldo left Pat tried again to join up on my crew.

“You need guns, man? I can get you guns. Cheap too, cuz.” Fucking hated it when he called me “cuz” but he did it all the damn time.

When he said shit like that I knew he was poking around into more than just me. He knew his stuff. He knew names and faces of players like he was studying a baseball roster trying to pick a fantasy team. He was always trying to prove that he belonged in my little criminal empire. I told him it wasn’t up to me. I may seem big time to him but I was still tied to strings someone else was pulling.

He just didn’t get it. I’d say shit plain as could be right to his face and he’d keep on talking like I hadn’t said a word. Again, if he wasn’t my cousin I would have seriously fucked him up and thrown him out of a moving car fifty miles out of town.

But I didn’t. Idiot (me this time).

So here’s how he fucked it up so much that no one could ignore it any more: I went with two of my guys to pick up the delivery from Aldo. Twenty new pieces, clean and untraceable. Who shows up a second before the money drop? Pat. What does he have? Twenty new pieces, clean and untraceable. So he says anyway.

And what does he do? Starts offering me a discount. Says he’ll beat whatever price Aldo is, and I quote, “Raping you for.”

To this day I don’t know how it didn’t erupt into a bloodbath right then. I think everyone involved was just so damn confused.

Aldo left, insulted, and took his merchandise with him. Pat stood there grinning like a fucking moron. You’d think I just told him he won our game of D&D, not that he fucked up a big money deal with an important person who could have me killed with one phone call.

I sent Pat away. I finally tore into him. By the time he walked out his face looked like I’d kicked his dog, fucked his prom date and pissed on all his Buffy The Vampire Slayer DVDs.

The next day I was summoned to see Alvy.

“You now we gotta do something here, right Vig?”

“I know.”

“You know you gotta be the guy to do it.”

“I know that too.”

“Aldo’s pissed. Took all I had to talk him down from doing it himself.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“So you’ll take care of this?”

“Yeah. I’ll take care of it.”

“Good boy. And hey, before you do, find out where he gets the guns so cheap. Aldo and me go way back but business is business.”

I nodded and left to go kill my cousin.

His apartment was as big a shithole as I figured it would be. It confirmed my theory that college is for suckers.

I figured the only way to do it would be to do it quick so I knocked on the door with my 9mm drawn.

“Who’s there?” he asked through the door. In this neighborhood, smart move.

“It’s me, Pat. Viggo.”

I heard two deadbolts and the handle lock undo before the door swung open. In a tight t-shirt with faded jeans and without the usual slump in his shoulders Pat didn’t look as geeky as I remembered. Maybe being in his own space without that shitty perma-grin on his face trying to impress me with how much of a smart crook he could be served him well.

He stayed in the door, not inviting me in. “Hey, cuz. What’s up?”

Hearing that word helped me pull the trigger. Two in the chest and I followed him inside as he fell.

I locked the door behind me and turned to him, lying on his back trying desperately to get a breath that would never come. I contemplated putting one in his brain to end the misery, but I swept my eyes over his apartment first. No other people – like I thought – just an orderly space devoid of much personality or character.

I’d started to let the doubt creep in. There was no evidence of the Pat I knew, or thought I did. No comic books, no movie posters on the wall. There was a TV across from the sofa but no gaming system hooked into it. Must all be in the bedroom, I thought. Or maybe he’s just dirt poor because I won’t let him join the crew and he doesn’t have a job as far as I know.

I realized I no longer heard his choking gasps. I looked down. He was still.

A floorboard creaked, made more obvious in the new silence. I spun to face the bedroom door just as a young man came out, a .38 leading the way. I fired twice. One caught his chest and one in the neck. He went down spraying blood in a wide streak on the wall.

The .38 skittered under an ottoman and I knew I wouldn’t have too much time after four shots to get the hell out of there. Even in this neighborhood a gun fight would draw at least one call to the cops.

My eye was drawn down to something shiny. On the belt of the man I’d just killed, some friend of Pat’s – maybe the guy who got him the guns? – was the worst thing I could have seen. A badge.

I moved at hyper speed. I gathered as much as I could from the apartment and the two dead bodies inside. My cousin Pat was a fed. Video game design my ass. He’d been at the academy. Sneaky fucker.

I found a file on me and similar files on my whole crew. He’d been at this for a while. Since the day he showed up in my life again with his little finger gun in my back, he’d been angling to take me down.

Jealousy? Bitterness that I never let him? I didn’t know what it was that motivated him, but I couldn’t help feel like it was personal. He’d gone down the route of law enforcement with one goal – to take me out.

He must have sold the brass on his “in” with me from the very start, otherwise he’d be pushing papers for years before he got a plum assignment like this. All the questions he asked made sense. Hell, all the answers he already had like who everyone was and what Aldo was selling. And why he never busted me outright, that all came down to what I’d told him about someone else pulling the strings.

God damn. The little geek.

A knock at the door. I’d wasted too much time.

No one called out “police.” No one ordered me to open up. That meant it wasn’t beat cops called in by a neighbor down the hall. Fuck if I was going to wait to find out what flavor badge he’d be flashing.

I aimed three shots at the door and heard a body fall as soon as the echoes from the shots faded away.

I hopped the fire escape, left my car where it was and made for a safe house and a new car for just this purpose. That was two weeks ago.

In the back of your head you always know you might have to leave it all behind in an instant like that. You never think you’ll have to actually do it though.

I’m headed west. Maybe San Francisco. At first I hated him even more, but now I’ve come around to some kind of respect. It turned out the dumbest fucker I ever knew was really the smartest. I guess college is worth something after all.


Eric Beetner ran out of paper when he was writing this. So he used the back of the constitution and the front of the Mona Lisa. We're glad he did.