Flights, edited by Al Sarrantonio (Roc, 2004). Cover by Steve Stone
In December I told you about my magical meeting with Peter Schneider, author and owner of boutique publisher Hill House Press. During the course of one of our many conversations since, Peter let me know he had written a short story called “Tots,” which he thought I would like. It had originally appeared in a 2004 collection called Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy edited by horror and science fiction writer Al Sarrantonio. In the introduction for “Tots,” Sarrantonio states that Peter’s sense of humor is reminiscent of National Lampoon. When Peter sent me a copy of original manuscript of “Tots,” I absolutely agreed. I’ll also add that it’s just the right amount of wrong and knew I had to share it with you.
So, reprinted here with Peter’s permission, I am excited to share…
By Peter Schneider
It is 2:45 a.m., in the parking lot of one of the massive superstore shopping centers that have sprung up like a series of mushrooms across the country. But the action at this time of the morning isn’t in the Barnes & Noble or Home Depot–it’s in an isolated corner of the lot, surround on two sides by security fencing and hemmed in on the remaining sides by a variety of vehicles, circled like wagons and facing inward with their headlights shining. The halogen illumination reveals a ring, roughly twelve feet in diameter, crudely outlined on the pavement with a can of purple spray paint. Outside the circle perhaps fifty or sixty people, mostly men but including a smattering of well-dressed women, stand and watch. Money changes hands here–big money. But their attention right now is on the two combatants standing within the ring, long and deadly sickle-like blades strapped securely to their right arms. One fighter takes a tentative step in the direction of his foe and raises his hand in preparation to strike. He’ll have to get in closer, however–his four-year-old arms aren’t long enough to deliver a killing blow from such a distance.
This is the world of totfighting.
Totfights are the latest craze to hit the parking lots of malls and churches across a broad swath of the southern states–though lately they’ve been seen as far north as Ohio and as far east as Virginia. The rules are simple: two four-year-old boys toddle into the circular arena — only one toddles out alive.
Many aficionados of the sport see it as a logical extension of the vastly more popular cockfighting–though truth be told, totfighting probably originated long before mankind had domesticated roosters.
It took me several months to make the necessary contacts to gain admission to the inner sancta of totfighting. Needless to say, most of the names in this article have been changed.
One of the leading exponents of this bloody sport will identify himself only as “Charles Reilly of 14 Ellwood Court, Macon, GA.” “Totfighting has gotten a real bad name lately,” muses Reilly as he leans back into the Naugahydy comfort of the battered La-Z-Boy in the bar area of his Winnebago. “And that’s too bad, cuz there ain’t nobody I love better than my boys. Ain’t that right, fellers?” he yells out to the seven or eight well-developed toddlers playing a spirited game of “Candyland” on the floor of the motor home. But they’re too involved in their game to take any notice of the man they call “Pops.” Reilly laughs as he opens another can of Mr. Pibb, pours out about half of it into a well-used spittoon next to the chair, and then tops the can up with Midori melon-flavored liqueur. “I got to hand it to them boys. They sure learn fast. That’s the first thing I teach ’em–don’t pay no attention to people yelling at you outside the circle, ’cause the minute you look up, you’ll get a ‘lollipop’ (the commonly used term for the six inches of highly honed forged steel) right across your throat.”
I ask Reilly if he doesn’t see any irony in the fact that by the next day at least one or two of these boys could be dead, buried in a shallow grave in the weeds behind a Denny’s restaurant whose parking lot served as the arena the night before.
He responds to my question with a glare and a defiant gulp. “You listen here, mister,” he says slowly and deliberately, brandishing the can as if it were one of his tot’s lollipops. “There is no one in God’s great world that loves these boys more than I do. You think I stand out there in bitter cold nights in some godforsaken parking lot and don’t worry like hell that one of ’em ain’t goin’ to come home that night?” He turns his head away and wipes at his eyes with a stained shirtsleeve.
I consider bringing up the fact that he stands to lose several thousand dollars when one of his kids doesn’t make it out of that circle, but then decide to retreat to a safer topic. I ask Reilly to explain the various and arcane rules that govern totfighting.
“Well, that’s sure a good question,” he says, leaning back in his La-Z-Boy and loosening the belt of his Tuffskin jeans. “But afore you can understand the how of totfighting, you gotta understand the why.” Reilly pauses for a minute as he guzzles the last drops from his Midori-and-Mr. Pibb. “It all started back in the ‘50s — the name of the game back then was monkey-fighting. Now these weren’t just any chimps you’d find in someone’s garage — these were real warriors — Jamaican Massacre-Macaques, bred real special by them potheads down in the Islands. Now you put two of these fellers in a ring, and put some razor-sharp Eye-talian switchblades in their hairy little hands. . .why, it wouldn’t be thirty seconds afore one of ‘em’d be lying there dead. Now that may not sound like fun to you in-tee-leckchuals but boy oh boy, you could make some good scratch on them monkeys. Now it wasn’t always like that, to be sure.. .the real money didn’t start showing up until that ol’ Shirley Booth got into the act.
“Shirley Booth?” I interject. “The actress? The star of ‘Come Back, Little Sheba’?”
“I don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout no E-gyptians,” Reilly snorted. “I’m talkin’ ‘bout Hazel. You remember her, right? That hot little maid from the TV show? Or mebbe you’re too young to ‘member gettin’ a stiffy when she walked into the room and said, ‘Yes, Mr. B.?’ Hoo-boy, that lady had class, lemme tell you!
Anyway, Shirley was one of the first ones to start bettin’ big money on the knife-fightin’ monkeys. And there for a while it got so that nobody wanted to put their ‘feller’ up against Shirley’s guy, Lloyd. I mean, this monkey was mean as the day is long. You even looked at him wrong, he’d be up on your shoulders a’gnawin’ at yer jugular like a cat eats tomatoes. So Shirley, she’s bettin’ all her ‘Hazel’ money like there was no tomorrow — she was rakin’ in some pretty big green. But she didn’t count on ol’ Reilly, that’s for shore. I did some lookin’ around, usin’ my noggin, you see,” he said, tapping his temple. “I found one o’ them labs where they was ‘sperimentin’ on monkeys with some kind o’ atomic stuff. I slipped a few bills to one of the guys working there and that night he left a cage outside the door. When I opened that cage up, out came the damndest thing I ever saw — it was a monkey, all right, but it didn’t have no hair on it — looked kinda naked, ya know? But more important, he had big ol’ sharp teeth comin’ every which way out of his mouth. I called him ‘Mr. Menick,’ after my poor old gramps who died the month before — may he rest in peace.” Mr. Pibb can still in hand, Reilly makes a sloppy sign of the cross and some of the viscous contents of the can slop out onto his shirt.
“Anyway, the next night I took Mr. Menick to Shirley’s mansion. She’d offered 25 G’s to anyone whose monkey could take down Lloyd. Well, we went down in the basement and put them fellers in the ring. Old Lloyd pulled out his blade and started circlin’ around Mr. Menick, lookin’ at him like he was easy pickins — but Mr. Menick just sat there, all quiet like, lookin’ like he was smilin’ with all those teeth. Lloyd started to make his move, and then wham — all we could see was what looked like a red snowstorm with them teeth a’whirlin’ and blood a’flyin’. Ten seconds later Lloyd was just a mess o’meat on the floor and Mr. Menick had jumped up into my arms, a’cooin’ and strokin’ my hair. Well, that did it for ol’ Shirley — she hit the bottle hard that night and never looked back. Last I heard she was sellin’ her tail out in Wichita, dressin’ up in her old Hazel apron for old winos who ‘membered the show.”
“Mr. Reilly,” I ask, “this is all fascinating, but what does it have to do with totfighting?”
“I’m gettin’ there, son,” he replied. “You wanted to know how this whole thing started, right? Well, I’m tellin’ you. Anyhoo, in about six months Mr. Menick and I had cleaned the clocks of every monkey fighter west of the Mississippi. I had me a roll o’ dough that could choke a horse. Then, one night I was over at my daughter’s house and I was playin’ around with one of her kids — a little 4-year-old called Teddy. I started cuffin’ him around the head some ‘cause he was bitin’ my leg. Man, that kid turned mean in a split second — started whalin’ at me with his fists and bitin’ me all over. I never saw a kid so riled up. As I was washin’ out my wounds later on, it was like a light bulb comin’ on in my head. If folks would pay big money to watch monkeys fight, you can bet yer life they’d pay even bigger money to watch kids fight.
“Two weeks later I’d put together a stable of tots and taught ‘em how to jab and stab and dance ‘round the ring like they was that Mohammed Ali guy. Finally, Teddy got so good that I decided to put him in the ring with Mr. Menick. At first Teddy just wanted to play — ‘Nice Mr. Monkey,’ he says holding out his hand. But Mr. Menick wasn’t havin’ none of that — he jumped up and cut a big gash in Teddy’s shoulder. Teddy looks at the blood runnin’ down his favorite shirt, then he throws back his head and starts screamin’ ‘I-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi,’ and then he goes to town on Mr. Menick. Next thing you know, he’s cut off that damn monkey’s tail. Mr. Menick, he just looked up at me and I swear that hate was pourin’ outta his eyes at me. Then he leaped up to the window, smashed it with his elbow, and ran off into the night. Teddy just looked at me with a big smile on his face and said, ‘Bad monkey-man gone.’ And that, my friend,” Reilly exclaimed, slapping his knee, “is how this whole damn thing got started.”
I looked up from my rapidly-filling notebook. “One thing my readers will want to know, Mr. Reilly, is just how you choose your ‘tots.” Will any four-year old make a good fighter? Or do you have some sort of system to identify the best candidates?”
“Well, son, lemme tell you ‘bout that. The most important thing you gotta know is that pedigree is the most critical element in any ‘chick’s’ value. If’n you’re buying a chick for ten grand, then you’re gonna want to know what kind of stock he came from. Our records go back at least three or four generations. We don’t take just any little kid–they’ve got to have what we call a ‘spirited’ background before we make the decision to bring ’em in. I mean, the difference between Manslaughter and a Second Degree Murder conviction in a child’s parentage can mean the difference of two grand, easy. And believe me, we don’t just put ’em in the circle cold. There’s at least two months of intensive training that goes into these boys before they step one little toe over that purple line. Weight training, reflexology, all that stuff.
“Another thing,” says Reilly as he pops open another Mr. Pibb, “is that we have certain ironclad rules. First and foremost is, a chick cannot step foot in that ring until the day he turns four years old. And for those who make it to their fifth birthday, that’s the last day they fight. Why, we’ve had kids crying and throwin’ tantrums cause they wanna fight some more but they can’t cause they’re too old. There’re rules and regulations, just like in any other sport, bud, and when the birth certificate says they’re five, then that’s it, no matter how damn good a fighter they are. Now there’s been some talk about putting together a senior league, and I for one think it’s a good idea. But you know how contrary some people can get about changin’ the rules.”
I ask Reilly what kind of future awaits those boys lucky enough to make it to their fifth birthdays, after almost a quarter of their short lives have been spent maiming and killing their peers. Reilly stares at me with incredulity.
“Why, son, I can’t believe you’d ask me that. These boys have got the right stuff, you bet your mama, and there’s just thousands of companies out there waitin’ to pick these kids up when they’re of age. Why, I can’t believe that there’s any company out there that wouldn’t want a former chick as one of their top guys. I mean, these kids have proved themselves where it counts. If you’re the head of some Fortune 500 company and you’re lookin’ to hire a new Sales VP, then who’re you gonna pick? The kid who’s spent his whole life bein’ pampered and given stuff and never had to fight for what’s his? Or the kid who knows what it’s like to be out there and get things done?”
At this point one of the boys toddles up to Reilly and tugs on his pant leg. “What you want, Rocky?” the man says with undisguised affection in his voice. “You want another soda pop, you go right ahead and take it out of the fridge.”
“No, sir,” replies the boy in the sweet tones of a four-year-old. “I gotta go make mess.” Reilly laughs, then heaves his bulk out of the chair and leads Rocky to the bathroom. “I swear, I love these little buggers like there’s no tomorrow. Now ‘member, son, you gotta start takin’ care of this yourself, cause you ain’t allowed no Pampers in the circle. That’s called ‘unfair padding advantage.’” Reilly then turns to me and says, “Okay, mister, I hope you wrote everything down in that little book o’ yours ‘cause we got a match comin’ up tonight and we gotta get ready. You gonna be there, right?”
I stand up and stow the notebook in my briefcase, as Reilly stands there tousling the hair of the smiling little boy who may or may not live to see the sun rise tomorrow morning.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I say.
The match that night is held in a J.C. Penney’s parking lot in Abingdon, MD. Cars start showing up around 1:30 a.m., and within half an hour there are perhaps one hundred people milling around the purple ring illuminated by the glare of headlights. I start for a moment when I see a group of policemen approach, but I soon realize that they’re there for the show. Large wads of cash exchange hands all around me. I politely decline when I’m approached by a fresh-faced young girl who asks me if I “want any action.”
Finally the crowd quiets as Reilly strides to the center of the ring, pulling little Rocky along by the arm. “I got ten grand tonight, people,” he exclaims, “and I’m puttin’ it all behind this little warrior. Now we was supposed to be fightin’ Joltin’ Joshua right about now, but he hasn’t showed up. Prolly dumped a load o’ Mars bars in his britches when he found out he’d be fightin’ Rocky here,” Reilly snorts in laughter. “So I got any takers? Anybody brave enough to put their tot in the ring with Rocky?”
An excited buzz rises from the throng as a small, cowled figure emerges into the ring. He pulls back the hood of his robe and the crowd falls silent. One woman shrieks, and an older fellow with the face of a basset hound yells, “God-damn, that is the ugliest kid I ever seen in my life!”
And indeed, the challenger is a particularly grotesque specimen — his nose is a bulb-like monstrosity, resembling a muzzle. His brow is immense, bulging over his beady little eyes like some infant Neanderthal. Reilly turns to look at the newcomer and then, I swear, his jaw drops to his chest. “What the hell. . .” he mutters, and then a glint of recognition flashes in his eyes. “Why, this ain’t no tot,” he yells. “This here is. . . .”
Reilly’s next words are soundless, for his larynx — indeed, his entire throat — has suddenly been slashed into what looks like a julienne salad. At the same moment Rocky bursts into tears as he pulls at Reilly’s arm, crying, “I don’t wanna fight that boy, pops. He’s too mean and ugly.” The blur of the challenger’s whirling blade ceases, and the crowd gazes upon the grisly tableau — the sobbing child, Reilly’s slowly-crumpling corpse, and the grinning, tooth-studded simian face of the misshapen figure — for indeed, it is now apparent that it is not human, but some sort of ape. And then, in a flash, Mr. Menick (or so I assume) leaps from the ring into the crown where, once again, he vanishes into the night.
Hours later, as I sit in my car scribbling the last of my story, the parking lot is once again a vacant plain. The first few rays of the rising sun are reflected in the puddles of water left by the hoses used to scrub away the purple ring and the remains of Reilly. The only vehicle present other than my own is the battered Winnebago sitting a few spaces over. The stillness of the morning is suddenly broken by a child’s wail, soon joined by other cries born of hunger and dirty diapers, all echoing from the windows of the motor home.
I snap my notebook shut, take a deep breath, and leave the car to walk over to the Winnie. I open the door and a miasma of sour milk, Midori, and diaper pails hits me in the face. I can go no further.
As I hurry back to my car I hear the hesitant steps of little feet hitting the pavement behind me. “Mister, oh mister,” come the soft, bleating voices of little boys. “Where’s Pops, mister?”
The starter catches, the engine roars to life, and I pull out, heading toward the mall exit.
I do not look into the rearview mirror.