Blind school and school school are still out for summer, the summer Tigre Velez is still going to be champion of the world, the summer Piggy Garcia still reads books. Piggy and Tigre, two-fifths of the 141st Street Bad Bengalis, are flat on their backs, sticky with sweat, stuck to the stoop steps like kicked-over colas. It's so hot Piggy's got his helmet off, that New York Giants helmet he wears in the out-of-doors to keep his big brain inside his head.
"Too hot for fighting flyweights," says Tigre, still breathing from the gym.
"Hobbes going to be dying today," says Tigre. "Wishing he was hanging with the penguins."
"I already said I was sorry," says Tigre.
"She wants to see a movie and the phones was all broke and we just went," says Tigre.
"Didn't even get any, a waste of money, a stupid night," says Tigre.
"You still not talking?" says Tigre.
Piggy, his world written all over with Tigre smells of gym sweat and glove leather and some Claudia something that smells like lemonade , decides not.
Piggy is called Piggy because in seventh grade his favorite book was Lord of the Flies, and he's got curly hair and can't see. Sometimes they call him Piggy and sometimes they call him Book. Today Piggy's fingers are parked on the page, melting down the dots. He's not reading because he already knows too much. The worst thing he knows is yesterday Tigre dissed him hard, went to the movies without calling, left him sitting on the stoop steps half the night. No, that's not the worst thing.
Tigre Velez, the baddest Bad Bengali, coughs his little nose cough, something he got from catching one too many punches. Tigre Velez, who has never been knocked down, not once, even when skinny and fighting guys twice as big, big guys like World Trade. Tigre's got his mochila full of all the tricks: relampago hands, dancing feet, a good-luck tiger, and, most important, an assassin's heart. Tigre is going to be champion of the world and make ten million pesos and buy a house in Piermont and get the Bad Bengalis out of this shitty place. The worst thing Piggy knows is he's in love with Tigre, always has been.
"What you reading?" asks Tigre.
Piggy's not falling for that one. And he's not forgiving Tigre.
Pluto scrapes down 141st as if he's been in the ring himself, beat to death, and is just looking for a place to fall. Pluto because of a mile-long nose, and because he still watches cartoons all Saturday morning.
"Pluto coming," says Tigre.
"From over there I'm thinking you guys been whacked," says Pluto.
He drops. Like the sound of folding clothes.
"Why we parked here?"
"Piggy locked us out," says Tigre.
"Yo, Piggy, what you do that for?"
Because all the Bad Bengalis are coming over to watch Gladiators on Piggy's mom's large screen. Because Gladiators is Tigre's favorite show.
"He's not talking," says Tigre. "He's pissed."
"Tigre try to call," says Pluto. "I saw. The phones was broke."
"I think he's in love," says Tigre.
Piggy's blood stumbles over the hurdle of his glass heart.
"No 911?" says Pluto. "No Gladiators? Now what?"
The book Piggy's not reading is all Darwin and evolution and survival of the fittest and from where did we get our big brains. About carnivores having bigger brains than herbivores. About how hunting takes more brains. About how maybe from hunting, from having to kill, comes love and grief and all the rest.
"Hot," says Pluto.
"My pops says Vietnam War weather," says Tigre.
"What's he know?" says Pluto.
"He's been there. Monsoons and shit."
What Piggy aches to read is Tigre. To hold him in his hands. To run Tigre skin through his fingers. To write chapters of himself in the book of Tigre. He breathes in when Tigre breathes out. He breathes the air of Tigre. He breathes Tigre, and hunts his big brain for how to punish him more.
August leans on the city like a dying King Kong. Like some kind of thick jungle air, heavy with expectation and violence. Like the blood-soaked weather at the top of the food chain. The last two-fifths. Tuna unheads his headphones, spilling tinny baseball speak up and down the street. Angel smells like a hamburger and large fries.
"He lock us out again?" says Angel. "I knew it. I almost didn't come."
"Yo, Piggy, should be you feeling bad for Tigre," says Tuna. "He spend seven-fifty, didn't even get any elbow."
"Piggy's not talking," says Pluto.
"Where's Hobbes's McNuggets?" says Tigre.
Hobbes is the Bengal tiger at the zoo. Angel always brings home a nine-piece so Tigre can feed Hobbes just before close time. When Tigre is champion of the world he's gonna buy Hobbes a new house, too, break him out of that shitty cement.
"Man, you got to quit feeding that tiger McNuggets," says Pluto. "You gonna give him a heart attack."
"My moms won't let us touch that stuff. She says it's a plot to kill black people."
"Right, Tuna, like they couldn't just drop a bomb on us."
"You ain't black," says Tuna.
"I ain't white," says Pluto.
Tigre comes up on his elbows, hurts the cement. Never a time Piggy isn't aware of the space Tigre's body takes. Every Tigre touch written in permanent ink on Piggy's skin.
"So where's the McNuggets?" asks Tigre.
"I quit," says Angel. "Pendejo con a pistola want ice cream. I trying to give him money and he nearly shoot me 'cause he don't want money, he just want ice cream."
"Who was that? You know him?"
"Angel, you got to quit that McDonalds shit, you should work White Castle. They got bulletproof over there."
"He already quit. You deaf, didn't you hear him just say?"
"Square hamburgers," says Tuna. "That shit would not happen in California. People way too hip for square hamburgers. My moms is crazy is what. Crazy to come here. Get me killed."
"Tuna, you just a feto ambulante."
"What did he call me?"
"He say you an ambulant fetus."
"A walking abortion."
"That fucking tiger gonna starve to death, no more McNuggets."
Trains lurch out of the city's arteries, spill messages of fight or flight. The sun gone from Piggy's skin and the air thicker, more liquid, a better conductor of sound. Girl laughs. You can hear them from half a block. Maybe Roxy. Claudia. Claudia for sure. She smells like lemonade. Love and grief and all the rest.
"Hey, Tigre, your paleta," says Angel.
"Lick her," says Pluto.
"Freeze your tongue off," says Tuna.
Tigre staggers to his feet as if to beat a ten count, steps off the stoop steps, crosses the street. Does she want to go to a movie? Only if he pays. The silver sound of Tigre emptying his pockets. A streetlight chatter it's hard for Piggy to hear over. Then Tigre shuffling back.
"Strike three," says Pluto.
"Shit," says Tigre.
He boots the lip of the bottom step, sits, closer, for a minute forgets to breathe. Piggy almost ready to forgive him, almost ready to fall in love again.
"And my Gladiators happening right now," says Tigre.
"Probably already Eliminator."
"Gemini, he's the baddest."
"Gemini, nothing. Take Nitro over Gemini any day."
"You guys all faggots," says Tigre. "Take Ice, let her crack me in half."
Glass breaking somewhere. Maybe Piggy's heart.
Tigre has said he is sorry, Piggy knows he is sorry, but Piggy needs him to be something more than that.
"They're not even real," says Piggy.
"Ha!" says Tigre. "You talked."
"What?" says Pluto.
"It's just a stupid TV show," says Piggy.
Humming air, buzzing lights.
"Real gladiators," says Piggy. "They fought against each other with swords. Two guys with swords. Or one guy with a sword against one guy with a net and spear, or against a lion or a bear."
The 141st Street Bad Bengalis, who are never given pause, are given pause again. Anyone else but Piggy they would call a liar.
"Why?" Pluto finally asks.
"Sometimes slaves," says Piggy. "Or rich men who lost everything, only way to get it back. Or for glory. For the glory of who was the baddest."
"Slaves? Like America?" asks Tuna.
"But who wins?"
Electricity arcs across an insulator, pops.
"The one that doesn't die."
Then Piggy turns to Tigre, to the space he knows holds Tigre. His naked elbows and his breathing.
"And the winner, the winner could have any woman he wanted."
A boom box booms, giving the air a heartbeat. Piggy feeling like he's in the middle of a four-way intersection, and something big is coming, only he's not sure which direction it's coming from.
"Do or die," Tigre finally says, as if he's found an answer.
Sometimes just Tigre's voice spills the air out of Piggy like that.
"What?" asks Tuna.
"Stand on the tracks, see who stay the longest," says Angel.
"That's played, that's tired," says Pluto.
"Grab the third rail, do a Sparky just to put me out of my misery," Pluto says.
"What's a Sparky?" asks Tuna.
"He's dead, he's cooked."
"Not on the tracks," Tigre says.
"Not on the tracks?"
Piggy, not yet sure why, not breathing.
"It's who gets in the cage," says Tigre. "That's the man."
"The zoo cage. Like Piggy said, we're the gladiators. We find the baddest animal, see who badder. Who get their props."
"Snakes. Snakes the baddest," says Angel.
"Fuck snakes, I ain't getting nowhere near no snakes."
"Snakes don't count," says Tigre. "They lock them up."
"Cheetah bad. One hundred kilometers an hour."
"Book, how much miles is that?"
"Like it's not dangerous enough already?" says Tuna. "Like we might not get shot for breathing?"
Piggy dangles on the zoo wall, his drumming heart drowning out a river of cars on the avenue. The bricks radiate heat like something alive. Everybody else already gone from the air around him, everybody else already kicked over. Piggy the only one who knows the way at night. He can still turn them back.
"Book," says Tigre. "Throw yourself, I'll catch you."
The air blurs on Piggy's fingertips. To a bump and a big Tigre laugh. Piggy sitting right on top of him.
"What happened, what?"
"Where's Piggy at?"
"Tigre finally been knocked on his ass," says Tigre. "By a blind man."
"Okay," Tigre says. "We're even."
Tigre laughs buzzing up Piggy's legs and thighs.
The air hangs on them like wet towels, and there is a dripping, as if someone wrings out the ends. Just their footsteps. Just their breathing. And the dripping night. Piggy runs his fingers over exhibit markers, tells them what they're not seeing. They are at the elephants. They have to go past Asia and World of Darkness and Jungle World. It's behind that.
"What's up if they catch us?"
"Nothing, like a parking ticket."
"If the crocodile don't eat you."
"The one they let out to guard at night."
"You shitting me, right?"
"How else you think they don't get everything stole?"
"If there's crocodiles, I'm not going."
"Tuna, there's no fucking crocodiles."
Raspy breathing from across wrought iron and dead water. As if someone files down a piece of metal on the dark. And still that steady dripping; drip, drip, the night is bleeding.
"Hear him," says Tigre.
"Hey, puss, puss."
"Something is stank. Something stank bad."
"Hobbes got bad breath is what he got."
"Hey, brush your teeth mister fucking tiger."
"Shhh, don't make him mad."
Piggy takes his helmet off. The flick and flaring of Pluto's lighter. Listening to them see.
"His ass is kicked is what. Just like ours. Too fucking hot to get up."
"Put that shit out."
The light leaving. Just Hobbes's breathing. And their own breathing. And the leaking light.
"Got to swim," says Pluto. "Only way to get across."
"I ain't getting in that shit. That shit probably kill you."
"Otherwise you go, right, Tuna?"
A spill of bootlace. The drag of shirt cloth off shoulder skin. Tigre's zipper run down tooth by tooth.
"Hold this," says Tigre.
The warmth of Tigre in the shirt and jeans. The smell of Tigre. As if Piggy is holding part of him.
"Tigre?" says Piggy. "You're not really."
"Loco," says Pluto. "Fucking nuts."
A pop of ligament and muscle. Air spilling from Tigre's mouth. The soft drop to the other side.
"Can you see him?"
"Don't talk, don't say nothing," says Tigre.
"You want light?"
A splash, like a rock in a puddle. Then a second dripping, a dripping behind the dripping that was already there.
"Yo, he's really doing it, he is. Yo, shit."
"That Hobbes better of ate already."
Piggy lifts the jeans and shirt to his face. The heat already gone. As fast as that. He turns his head one way, then the other. His own skin tight on the night, waiting to tear. The space between his heartbeats closing in.
"Tigre," Piggy hears himself say. "Tigre, come back."
When it happens, it's such an explosion that Piggy can't put together any kind of sound picture. There is a grunt, and a yell, a Tigre yell, must be, and air rushing into lungs, and air rushing out, and something sharp dragging across cement, and Pluto's lighter falling, and Piggy's helmet hitting the ground, like a skull cracking open, and something running, and over it all a guttural noise, an erupting volcano, a sound from the center of the earth.
The wrought iron rusts through in Piggy's fingers. Echoes off of everything.
"Tigre?" says Piggy.
A breathing something. It's at the water, at the bars, coming over the fence.
"Tigre?" Piggy says.
"What is it? What?" says Pluto.
"Run!" yells Piggy. "Run!"
They trip over each other, go down in a tangle of Bad Bengali arms and legs. Piggy throws his hands out in front of his face. Drops like rain on his prickly skin. Blood is all he can think. Then a big Tigre laugh.
"Pussies," says Tigre. "Pussy faggots."
"Tigre?" says Pluto.
"You thought Hobbes was coming to get you?" says Tigre. "Ho, ho, ho!"
"Who's the baddest?" says Tigre. "Who?"
"You touch him?" asks Tuna.
"Touch him? I pull his tail."
Piggy listens to Pluto and Tuna and Angel dance a circle around Tigre, slap the bare skin of Tigre, the brave skin of Tigre.
"You touch the fucking tiger! You touch the baddest animal. Shit, shit, shit!"
"Man, you large. You fucking large!"
"You hear him roar? He was pissed man, pissed."
All of Piggy's skin beating, like a heart, ticking, like time.
"Piggy?" says Tigre.
Tigre's okay. Everything's going to be okay.
"Where you at?" asks Tigre.
Piggy wipes his face with his sleeve. All the heat has run out of this place.
Piggy listening harder.
"I'm not hearing him," says Piggy.
"I'm not hearing Hobbes."
"Hearing him what?"
Their own breathing dropping away.
"Maybe he went inside. There's an inside."
"Something fell," says Piggy. "Something went down hard."
Pluto finds his lighter. Piggy at their shoulders, peering with the skin on his face. Quiet except the burning air. As clear a picture as his blind eyes have ever seen.
"Twisted funny-like. Like awkward."
"Hey, Hobbes, get up!"
"That fucking tiger ain't moving, he's dead."
"Dead?" says Tigre.
"Probably a fucking heart attack, all those McNuggets."
"Dead?" says Tigre again.
"Fucking Mc-Heart attack for sure."
Piggy has fallen off the edge of a flat earth, into a darkness he has never known. He stumbles with his hands out in front of him, as if groping toward the end of his life. He kneels, to hold Tigre, to not fall over.
"I'm sorry," says Piggy.
"I love that Hobbes," says Tigre.
"I'm sorry," says Piggy again.
"What am I going to do with no Hobbes?"
As if seeing himself for the first time. The taste of his own teeth in his mouth. Piggy, who already knew too much, knows more. We are the baddest animal, thinks Piggy. The baddest animal is me. The summer Tigre is still going to be the champion of the world, the summer Piggy still reads books.