In July 1987 Rolling Stone Magazine published A Boy and his Dog in Hell. The first article published that described dog fighting and the cruelty inflicted on pit bulls to mainstream America. These articles shaped our view of pit bulls even today. It took some digging, but we were able to find a copy of Mike Seger's article in his Wounded Warriors essay collection. The following story contains profanity, descriptions of animal cruelty and drug use, reader discretion is advised.
A Boy and His Dog in Hell
The kid in the alley calls himself Zeke. He’s waiting for Beo, his older brother. It’s early yet, 8:00 in the evening in spring. Dogs bark behind a back-yard fence, rain drums on the hood of a car, rap rumbles from a boom box in an open window. Zeke cups his hand beside his mouth and lifts his chin toward the roof line. “Yooooooooo!” he howls—a lone, shrill note that pierces the rot smell and the amber light and echoes across the ruins of North Philadelphia. Once upon a time, this area was populated by Irish and Italian immigrants; they worked in the factories along American Street, turning out ball bearings and steel rollers and conveyor belts, little parts of bigger parts that made the machine age run. Today the neighborhood is called Little Puerto Rico. The factories have moved to the suburbs, the Sunbelt, offshore. American Street is wide and empty.
“Yoooooooooo!” Zeke howls again. He tilts his ear and listens. From a distance comes a faint response. “Yooooooooo!” Beo is coming. He’s got the dog.
Zeke crosses a vacant lot, crunching over the tin cans and car parts and bedsprings and pieces of foam and Pampers that cover the ground like mulch. He jumps atop an old washing machine and lights a joint. The rain is harder now. He tugs the collar of his jacket to his neck. It is a 76ers jacket, red and shiny and much too large for a seventy-five-pound kid. The waistband hits him mid-thigh. The sleeves keep falling over his hands. He took it from somewhere, he can’t remember; it was a while ago, before his last stretch at St. Michael’s School for Boys. A name is stitched on the left chest in white letters: SAUL.
Zeke has been home from St. Michael’s for two weeks. He likes being home, being free, doing anything he wants—like all day today, like tonight, a night sharp with the promise of dogs and drugs, blood and adventure. St. Michael’s was far away from the neighborhood, in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, in the woods near the mountains. They locked him in there, and he went to school, took baths, watched TV. They tried to make him eat, but the food was nasty, nothing tasted like nothing. Zeke didn’t know nobody but one boy. One night the boy tried to pinch Zeke’s ass. Zeke punched his lights out. Or so he says.
To hear him tell it, Zeke should never have gone to jail in the first place. It was his lawyer’s fault—his lawyer wouldn’t let him talk to the judge. Had he been able to talk, Zeke says, he would have got himself off. Like he told that lawyer, he didn’t fight no pit bull dogs to the death. He didn’t hang no dogs from no roof with no telephone wire after they lost a fight. And he didn’t know nothing about no ten dog bodies. He didn’t do nothing.
The lawyer told him to shut up. Zeke was appearing before the same judge who’d sent him away the last time. This time, his sixth at St. Michael’s, Zeke got five months. By his own rough count, that makes a total of three years that he has spent locked up in one place or another. He is thirteen years old. When he totals his time, he smiles and shows his dimples. He is a pretty boy, with high cheekbones and dark hair cropped close to his head. His eyes sparkle like the broken glass in the gutter.
Beo rounds the corner, issues a quiet “Yo.” He’s got the dog by a choke chain. It pulls him through the alley, weaving here and there to sniff and piss, wheezing a bit from the pressure of the chain around its neck. A young male pit bull, about one year old, it is fourteen inches tall at the shoulder, maybe twenty-five pounds. Its brown and tan coloring is called brindle by breeders and aficionados; on the street it’s tiger stripe.
He’s a good-looking animal, handsome in the same way a man can be—chiseled jaw and high cheekbones. His body looks like something by Nautilus, with a muscular chest and slightly bowed front legs, as if he’d done a lot of pushups and biceps curls. The waist is tapered, the ass small, the gait wide-legged and sturdy.
Zeke neither waves nor says hello. His expression says he doesn’t give a shit whether Beo showed up or not. He doesn’t even look at the dog. In Zeke’s world, he says, “If you want something, you don’t get it.” Zeke don’t want nothing from nobody. If he did, he’d take it himself.
Beo is fourteen, the oldest boy in his mother’s brood of seven children by three fathers. Beo is four-foot-eleven, one inch taller than Zeke, five pounds heavier. He’s wearing a leather jacket with the hood pulled up over his head. As he comes closer, his soft face and big brown eyes put you in mind of the time Tom Sawyer wore a bonnet to fool the old lady. Like Tom, Beo is a legend, at least around here.
“We tried to catch this kid for two years,” says Sam McClain, a Philadelphia police officer. One morning at 6:00, McClain came to Beo’s house with warrants for theft, receiving stolen property, dog fighting, cruelty to animals, and killing or maiming a domestic animal. The fire department set up ladders on either end of the block. Fifteen police officers covered the rooftops and the street. “Somehow the kid got away,” McClain says, only half-grudgingly.
Around the neighborhood, the stories about Beo have reached mythic proportions. One time, it is said, he was running through an alley, trying to elude the cops, and a pit bull flew out of nowhere and locked onto Beo’s back. He flipped the dog over his shoulder and crushed its skull with a brick, never even breaking stride. In the next block, a stray German shepherd clamped onto Beo’s leg. He beat it to death with a board. In the end, the cops found the two dead dogs but could not catch Beo. Or so it is said.
According to McClain, Beo is now wanted in connection with a murder. In March, a kid answering Beo’s description rode his BMX bike past an old woman at high speed and snatched her purse, knocking her down in the process. She died later from her injuries.
Beo says that he owns four pit bulls at the moment, scattered at three different houses in the neighborhood to protect them from confiscation by the SPCA. They are named Voltron, Hitler, Murder, and Atlas. By his own account, over the past three years, Beo has had, for varying lengths of time, literally hundreds of pits. He has fought them all, many to the death. They are never around for very long. In one recent five-day period, Beo and Zeke had eight different pits in their possession. Most of the dogs are stolen; sometimes the boys will trade, either dog for dog or dog for dog plus considerations, like maybe a little cocaine.
Both of the boys earn money selling powder cocaine on a street corner—they both have regular shifts. Like dedicated managers, Beo and Zeke put their dogs in training. They fatten them on twenty-five-cent-a-can dog food and leftover beans and rice, run them around the block behind their bicycles, feed them chicken blood to make them game, take them on safaris around the neighborhood hunting for cats and strays, shoot them up with black-market penicillin and vitamin B12 to help heal their wounds, rub them with motor oil to make their fur grow back over scarred areas.
Unlike his big-shot brother, Zeke has no dogs at the moment, though he had one last night—a white bitch he’d stolen to celebrate his return from St. Michael’s. He named her Canna, short for Canna Be Stopped. She was a good fighter. But she wasn’t as good as Beo’s dog, Murder. The fight lasted only five minutes.
After the fight, Beo and Zeke threw Canna’s carcass on a trash heap, then went hunting for a new dog. A couple of miles away, in a back yard, they found a black pit. They stole it and named it Blade. They knew the guy who sold Blade to the man in the house, so they passed the word through the streets: If Blade’s original owner wanted him back, he could come see Beo and Zeke. He did. A trade was arranged. That’s where Beo has been this evening. Now he’s back now with the goods.
Beo lets go of the choke chain and the tiger-stripe pit makes a bee line for his little brother. Zeke jumps off the washer and kneels on the ground. The dog is all over him in an instant—licking and wagging and strutting.
Zeke swats the dog on its side, pulls its ears, ruffles its fur and makes him growl. He kisses him on the snout. “What his name?” he asks his older brother.
“Shit, I don’t know, man.” Beo’s voice is husky, his dialect a mixture of Puerto Rican Spanglish and black Ebonics. “He crazy, though. He went after two cats on the way here.”
“He fat,” Zeke says. “He look good!”
“I gonna train him up. He gonna be a champ!”
“What his name?” Zeke asks again.
Beo bites on a hangnail, studies his brother for a moment. “What? You want him or somethin’?” Scuffing his toe on the ground. “You want him or not?”
“No, man,” Zeke says. “You keep him.”
Beo grabs the dog by the scruff of its neck, lifts him to eye level and growls. Then he looks over at his brother. They share a room together. Since they were little, they have always been together, side by side, best friends and worst enemies. The only thing that has ever kept them apart is St. Michaels. “If I give him to you, you gonna take good care of him?” Beo asks.
“You won’t let him get skinny?”
No answer. With Beo, you never know the right thing to say. Usually, it’s best to say nothing.
Beo flings the dog at Zeke. It knocks him over; the two tumble as one across the wet cobblestones.
Zeke sits up, delighted. The dog licks his face. “We’ll call you Diablito,” he tells his new pit, Little Devil.
“We’ll make him a champ!” Beo proclaims. He kicks Diablito in the hindquarters, sends him sprawling. And then he laughs, “Ah ha HA!”, the way he always does when he’s around the pits: head back, eyes wide, left hand squeezing his balls.
According to the New York Times, North Philadelphia is “the 'dog fight’ capital of the East Coast.” But this story could just as easily be set in New York or Miami or Detroit or Los Angeles. Wherever there are men and boys who need something to be proud of and known for, there are people fighting pit bulls.
On the hard streets of the city (and in the mall parking lots of the suburbs), you are what you own: your moped, your boom box, your sneakers, your bling, your pit. Having a pit is not like having any other kind of dog. Pits do more than eat and shit and walk on a leash. They fight. They are perfect for places like Little Puerto Rico—small enough to keep, tough enough to survive.
“The attraction is basic. Kids need an outlet,” Officer McClain says. “You go home every day, you live somewhere shitty, your mother and father are fighting, you got your ass kicked last night. You need a pit to impress your peers, to make you feel good about yourself. With your pit on the street, you’re somebody. You’ve got an enforcer at your side.”
Pit-bull fighting has traditionally been the domain of skilled professionals— a mostly rural cult of outlaw aficionados who fight the dogs in regulation pits according to rules. They train and care for the animals as they would prizefighters. (More recently, the illegal sport has made headlines in stories involving rappers and athletes, most notably former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.)
“Pit bulls have become the new macho dog of choice in the urban centers of the country,” according to Randall Lockwood, the director of higher education for the Humane Society of the United States. More and more pits are being seen on the streets and in the neighborhoods of the nation’s cities and towns. As their numbers grow, so does the litany of horror tales. Law-enforcement officials have reported the increasing use of pit bulls as weapons in crimes ranging from street robbery to rape. “And I know of some cases,” McClain says, “where police will hesitate to raid drug-selling sites because they are guarded by an army of pit bulls.” “Nowadays,” McClain says, “you walk your pit down the street and people clear the way. It’s about power. It’s a fad. Every era has its fads. This era has pit bulls. This era is pretty twisted.”
Pit bulls trace their ancestry to the English bulldog, to a sport called bullbaiting. During the early nineteenth century, peasants would gather for an afternoon, tether a bull to a long lead, cover its horns with pitch, and poke it with sticks. Then they would let two or three bulldogs attack it.
With the passage of the English Humane Act of 1835, which outlawed bullbaiting, dog versus dog became a popular sport, especially in the coal-mining areas of Staffordshire. When the bulldog was brought to America, it was bred, successively, with the terrier, the bullmastiff, the Rottweiler, and the Rhodesian ridgeback. The result of all this selective breeding is known, variously, as the American pit bull terrier or as the American Staffordshire terrier. It is a dog that has been genetically engineered for fighting.
Most wild and domestic dogs, according to research by the Humane Society of the United States, fight to drive away rivals for food, mates, status, or territory. First, the dogs will square off and bluff—growling, barking, baring teeth. Fighting is usually a last resort; the engagements are brief. A fight ends when one of the dogs withdraws or surrenders by
exposing its neck and belly.
Pit bulls, however, rarely bark or growl. They will attack without provocation. The gamest of them will fight for hours, until complete exhaustion or death. They wrestle with muscular front legs, lock on an opponent with sharp teeth and powerful jaws. They crush bones, puncture flesh, tear it free from the skeleton. If a dog shows his belly to a game pit, the pit will disembowel it.
A 55-pound pit bites with a force of 1,800 pounds per square inch. The average German shepherd or Doberman bites with half that force. And the pit’s jaws have become specialized over the generations, so it can lock on an object with its front incisors and chew with its back molars at the same time.
According to researchers, pits have been genetically equipped with a higher tolerance for pain than most animals. Pit bulls can climb trees or hang from a tire by their teeth for hours. In Holland, a forty-pound pit recently pulled a two-ton trailer 100 meters along a straightaway.
Defenders of the breed speak of a highly misunderstood dog. Like gun enthusiasts, they fault the human element—the pit-bull owners who misuse their dogs. They extol the virtues of the pit bull—innate intelligence, loyalty, and fine character. In an eloquent paean to the pit bull that appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Vickie Hearne, a writing instructor at Yale University, rhapsodized over “the seriousness of mind of this breed,” its purity of heart, its “awareness of all the shifting gestalts of the spiritual and emotional life around” it. The article—entitled, “Lo, Hear the Gentle Pit Bull!”—portrays the pit as a complex, highly refined dog that is capable of acting with “moral clarity,” the result of “qualities that have to do with real love, love with teeth.”
Only in the latter part of the twentieth century did the pit bull become maligned. In the early 1900s, the pit was portrayed as the canine embodiment of American virtues—a dog of independence, ingenuity, tenacity, cooperation, and good humor. Petey from The Little Rascals was a pit bull. A famous 1914 painting by Wallace Robinson depicts an English bulldog, a Russian wolfhound, a German dachshund, and an American pit bull terrier. Each dog wears the military uniform of its country. The American pit bull is at the center of the lineup, the hero of the piece, which is entitled I’m Neutral but Not Afraid of Any of Them.
Nine in the evening. Beo and Zeke are in the living room of their family’s row house. Beo is pounding a screwdriver repetitively into a piece of cardboard. Bang, bang, bang. Zeke is smoking a Newport cigarette. Diablito is asleep at his feet.
“Who ax you?” Beo laughs his maniacal laugh, “Ah ha HA!”
“You shut up!”
“I’m gonna bust yo ass,” Beo says, and then he smiles, huge and toothy. They both crack up.
“Hey, pussy,” Zeke challenges, “who put the soda in their Cheerios with milk?”
“Ah ha HA! I only did that so you wouldn’t want none.”
And so it goes, another night of non sequiturs. Beo and Zeke don’t go to school. They’ve never been to a movie. They don’t know what a magazine is; they’ve never heard of Rolling Stone—or the Rolling Stones, either.
When they have money, they go to the “Indian store,” the only business in a several block radius, a liquor store and general market owned by a Pakistani. They have never seen an answering machine, have never used a computer or played a video tape. Their television gets only three channels. The only time they’ve ever been out of this part of the city was when they had to go to court or to jail or to St. Michaels. Most of what they know comes from rap songs, TV, and life on the streets. Neither one of the boys reads very well, but between them they know every hiding place, every abandoned house, every path through every alley in the neighborhood.
When they are engaged in illegal activities, they set up lookouts like a team of well-trained guerillas, covering all lines of approach. If someone says scatter, they’re gone like smoke in the wind.
The origins of the Puerto Rican community in Philadelphia go back to 1943, when a number of workers—who had come to the mainland on labor contracts with the Campbell Soup Company in Camden, New Jersey—took up residence in Philadelphia. By the late 1940s, as economic conditions on their home island worsened, many others followed, hoping to find high-paying jobs in the area’s factories. By the early 1950s, there were direct air flights from San Juan to Philadelphia, making it an attractive alternative to New York City, which already had a thriving Puerto Rican community of its own.
Unfortunately, the influx of the Puerto Ricans coincided with the end of the great days of manufacturing in Philadelphia. As was the case in the rest of the industrialized Northeast, factories were shutting down or moving out. During the 1970s, the number of manufacturing jobs in Philadelphia declined by 40 percent. The population of the city declined by 13 percent. The number of Puerto Ricans increased by 76 percent.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, Puerto Ricans had the lowest levels of education and income and the highest rates of teen pregnancy, infant mortality, and criminal arrests in the city. According to a report by Temple University’s Institute for Public Policy Studies, there was little hope for relief. “Puerto Ricans have a hard time in Philadelphia. . . . As serious as [their] needs may be, they are only one group among many poor people living in a city with limited means to help them.”
Despite their disadvantages, when you spend time with Beo and Zeke, it doesn’t seem that they mind being semiliterate and truly needy. They wear name brands like Adidas and Lees. They have fancy BMX bikes. They have regular employment in the shadow economy—their shifts on the corner selling cocaine. And now they have a new pit bull, Diablito. It doesn’t seem to matter that they have no future. This is life as they know it. It’s the only one they have.
The living room is dark and warm. Heating is included in the rent, which is good, considering that their last house burned down after one of the little cousins got too close to a space heater and caught her dress on fire. There is a water-stained hole in the ceiling, beneath some bathtub pipes, and you can hear the leak—drip, drip, drip—mixing with sounds of laughter and shouting and the heavy bass of rap songs that filter through the shaded front windows. As the evening wears on, the rest of the Garcia brood lands in the living room with Beo and Zeke. Mami and Popi remain upstairs. You hear them occasionally, like Charlie Brown’s parents in Peanuts, but they rarely make an appearance.
Sister Angelina is sixteen. Her baby is thirteen months old, named Nikki after a character on a daytime soap. Nikki’s eyes are bandaged because Angelina accidentally used the lice shampoo instead of the baby shampoo.
Renata is fifteen. She’s just come back from the store with a bottle of soda called Malta. She says that if you’re pregnant, you can drink a Malta and take two of these pills called Cortal and you won’t be pregnant anymore. Her boyfriend is named Angel. Beo and Zeke refer to him as their brother-in-law. He brings presents all the time; he is allowed to sleep in Renata’s room. He deals coke for the Blue Tape Gang up the street. In Little Puerto Rico, gangs are identified by the color of the tape that is used to seal the little glassine envelopes of cocaine—blue, red, black. The gangs control their own corners. White people drive into the neighborhood, catch a runner on a corner to score. The coke is mostly powder, with a few small rocks, a bad burn.
Both Beo and Zeke work for Angel. On the corner where they stand, there are a few scraggly trees with white crosses spray-painted on the trunks, places where kids Beo’s age and older have been shot to death in the gang wars.
Ten year old Maria is busying herself at the coffee table in the living room, using a butcher knife to cut apart an imitation pearl necklace she found somewhere in the neighborhood. Seven year old Elena is playing roughly with a little kitten, throwing it up and down like a ball. Elena says the kitten has already used up three of its lives. One time Popi threw it out of the third-floor window. It didn’t land on its feet, it didn’t move. But then, after a while, it got itself back up and climbed the front steps into the house.
Another time, the baby sat on it. It seemed dead, so Angel soccer-kicked it into a wall. But two hours later it came back to life and walked shakily to its bowl and took a drink of water. Elena can’t remember the third time but she knows it happened. The kitten is cross-eyed. It has no name.
Beo watches idly as Elena plays with the kitten. All of a sudden, he snatches the kitten by the scruff of its neck and starts teasing Diablito with it. He bounces the terrified, cross-eyed kitten on the dog’s nose, throws it at him, picks it up before the dog can pounce. The kitten shrieks.
Elena shrieks at Beo. Zeke shrieks at Elena. Maria shrieks at Beo. Angelina shrieks at Maria. Then Renata hollers that she’s gonna punch somebody out if they don’t shut up. She sounds serious. A scuffle ensues, the volume maxed, everyone shrieking and screaming and laughing and scowling and swatting, literally bouncing off the walls . And then a bellow from above—Popi! The stairs shake. Boom, boom, BOOM!
Juan Garcia is the father of the four youngest children, including Beo and Zeke. He came here from Puerto Rico in the late 1950s. He says he works for a Jew, landscaping rich people’s houses on the Main Line—when there is work. Popi hates the dogs. Last week he called the SPCA. They came and took away three pits. By the time his feet hit the living room floor, Beo and Zeke have vanished.
“Tell ’em, Zeke, tell about Tough Boy,” prompts Beo.
“Tough Boy—he tough,” Zeke says proudly.
“Tell about that time with the bike.”
It’s nearly midnight. Beo and Zeke and Diablito have fled to their basement hangout down the street. There are seven boys in attendance, ranging in age from thirteen to sixteen: Sam, Emilio, Macho, Louie, and Li’l Man. All of them have pit bulls. The basement is downstairs from where Louie lives. The kids crash here all the time.
It’s decorated with old mattresses and sofas, posters of professional wrestlers, a boom box that Zeke stole out of a car the other night. As the hours pass, boys come and go from the basement. Each time there’s a knock at the door, everyone freezes. Every boy in the room has done something illegal today—stolen something, received stolen property,
bought or sold drugs, fought their stolen pit bulls, gotten into a fight, snatched a purse. As Beo likes to say, “You ain’t broke no laws ’til you get caught.”
“Check it out,” Zeke says, happy for once to have center stage. “I was riding my bike in the alley, and Beo had Tough Boy. And Beo say, 'Sic him!’ you know, so Tough Boy runs me down and grabs my back tire, flips me right off the bike. Then he just held the bike straight up in the air, you know, by the rim.”
“Ah ha HA!” Beo laughs. “He strong. Zeke was teasing me, you know. He was tellin’ me how Tough Boy was a mutt and shit. But really he was jealous of him.”
“I was not jealous of him!”
“Yes, you was. You used to talk a lot of shit.”
“I hated that motherfucker!” Zeke says. “I hated him.”
“Only ’cause he kilt that pit of yours. Tell ’em how Tough Boy kilt that pit of yours.”
“Check it out,” says Zeke, “I had this pit, right? He a champ. Name Terminator. He eat up one of Beo’s dogs, a tiger stripe named Buzzsaw. After the fight, Beo had to carry his shit home. His ears was hanging off and shit.”
“Das right,” says Beo, taking up the story himself. “So after that, I went and I traded this boy dog I had—he was all white, name Cocaine. I went to this guy I know and say, gimme a real killer. So I gave him Cocaine—plus I gave him a gram of Blue Tape—Cocaine plus cocaine! And that’s how I got Tough Boy. I come back with him and tell Zeke that Tough Boy gonna kill his dog. And Zeke say, 'No, man. No way.’
“We went to the third floor of this old house and they rumbled. Tough Boy and Terminator. Tough Boy shook him all up. He hit him on the neck. He crunched him on the leg. He bit his fuckin’ ear off. Terminator be hollering and screaming, bleeding and pissing and shitting, trying to run away. Ah ha HA!” Beo laughed. “That lousy ass motherfuckin’ mutt almost jumped out the window!”
“He did jump out the window!”
“’Cause he a little pussy like you, motherfucker!” Beo says.
“I got a champ now,” Zeke says. He raises his chin. “Diablito gonna tear your ass up! He gonna tear your shit right up.”
“Let’s bang ’em!” calls Macho.
“Let’s rumble!” says Sam.
“Let’s shake ’em up!” yells Louie.
“Ah ha HA!” laughs Beo—head back, eyes wide, left hand squeezing his balls.
The boys walk through the alley in a hard rain, across a vacant lot toward a fenced-in schoolyard. Beo has Diablito, Li’l Man has Voltron, Louie has Death Man, and Macho has Darth Vader. The dogs pull the boys through the alley, wheezing from the pressure of the choke chains around their necks. Zeke tries to take Diablito’s leash out of Beo’s hand. “Give him here,” he implores. “He’s my dog.”
“Who give him to you?” Beo sneers.
By the time they reach the schoolyard, the rain has begun to let up. They find a dark spot near a fence. The boys form a ring. In the center, it’s Diablito versus Death Man, Beo versus Louie.
The boys stand five feet apart, face to face. They keep the dogs between their knees, squeezing to hold them in place, meanwhile riling the dogs, pinching and scratching at the fur behind their ribs, hissing into their ears, “Ssssssssssic, ssssssssssic.” Shortly, the dogs catch on and nature takes its course. They growl and bare teeth, strain forward. The boys let go. The dogs charge. Beo laughs and squeezes his balls, “Ah ha HA!”
Bang! They collide. You feel the ground shake.
Death Man gets a deep neck lock.
Diablito cries and disengages. He turns tail and runs.
Zeke’s face falls. He doesn’t say a word.
Beo corrals Diablito, sets him up again between his knees, facing Death Man.
Again, a neck lock. Diablito utters a squeal so horrible and wrenching that it turns your stomach. He shakes free and runs again.
“Pussy!” everyone taunts.
Zeke looks like he’s about to cry.
Darth Vader is next, a black pit with distended teats, a new litter. She’s fast. She locks Diablito just behind the head. There is much growling and squealing. There is blood.
Next is Voltron. He is Beo’s dog, midnight black. “Ah ha HA!” It is over quickly.
Diablito is lying on his side on the fissured concrete of the basketball court. His breathing is shallow. His blood mixes with a puddle of rain water. His brown eyes, fearful and confused, search the faces of the boys and dogs that surround him.
Beo calls Zeke a pussy.
Louie calls Zeke a pussy.
Macho calls Zeke a pussy.
Li’l Man calls Zeke a pussy.
Zeke kicks Diablito. He calls the dog a pussy.
Then the boys head back to the basement.
Late afternoon the next day, Zeke’s living room. It’s raining again. It’s quiet. There is no one around. Beo is working his usual shift on the corner, selling cocaine. Zeke has taken the cushions off of the sofa and placed them on the floor against a heating vent.
“When your dog lose,” he says, “you probably get a little mad, ’cause everybody sayin’ your dog lost and your dog a pussy and you a pussy. You get a little mad, but you don’t get embarrassed. No way. ’Cause everybody be laughin’, right? But you know you’re gonna come back with revenge. Bigtime revenge. You gonna tear their shit up. You gonna shake up their dog. You gonna kill their shit. And that’s when you start bragging, too. That’s when you be havin’ a big smile on your face.”
“Diablito was a mutt. Motherfucker wouldn’t fight. Kept turnin’ his back. Shit. He was a pussy. He don’t deserve to live noways.”
Zeke closes his eyes and takes a hit off a joint. Diablito is certainly dead by now. Someone has probably called the SPCA; they will come and collect the body from the school yard. Zeke had Diablito for less than one day. Like he says, “You can’t care too much about shit, ’cause sooner or later, it be gone.”
Spending time with him out in the streets, you almost forget Zeke’s age. He seems as street smart and savvy as any grown man, drinking and snorting and smoking, fighting dogs in a schoolyard, selling drugs for money to buy dog food, committing all kinds of crimes, petty and otherwise. But here, in the warm darkness of his family’s tenement living room, it is easy to see Zeke as he really is—thirteen years old, seventy-five pounds, curled up in the corner in a stolen 76ers jacket that is way too big for him.
“When I get older,” Zeke says, his voice soft and dreamy, “I ain’t gonna hustle or nothin’. I’m gonna buy me a car, a little Mazda with one of those racing engines. I’m gonna buy me a house, some furniture. I’m gonna put the house in the city, but far, far away from my family. I don’t want those motherfuckers coming to my house."
“I’m gonna have slaves in my house. I’ll sleep late, and I’ll have lady slaves fanning me, rubbing my back. I’ll wake up, they’ll wash me up, wash my hair, hook me up. Then I’ll be ready for them to carry me to the kitchen so I can eat my breakfast. And I’ll be fuckin’ all the lady slaves, too. Some badass bitches. All of them Puerto Rican. And some black ones. And some white ones. Different ones all the time. I ain’t gonna have no company. Nobody can visit. It the king’s house. Nobody visits the king. Like, if you come over, they open the door, my slaves do, and they say, 'What you want?’ And you’ll say, 'This is Mike, King Zeke know me, I’m baldheaded. I brought some drugs to give to Zeke.’ And they’ll say, 'All right, but you gonna have to wait.’”
“If I decide to let you in, I’ll tell ’em all right. Then my slave will come back down. He’ll open the iron door, bang. He’ll open the wood door, bang. He’ll open the screen door. Come right on in. See the king. Me. I’m over here. You kneel.”
Zeke giggles, then he closes his eyes. The pot is low quality; it makes your lids heavy. Cradled in the lullaby of the dripping rain, he nods for a while, a beautiful, mocha-skinned boy with long, thick eyelashes.
Outside the window, someone walks past with a boom box. The boy stirs from his nap, stretches, and yawns. Zeke picks up the beat from the passing song, makes it into his own. He taps on the wall with his knuckles, blows a bass beat through his lips, beatboxing. Then he begins to recite. This is Zeke’s Rap.
My name is Zeke
I’m at the mike
I’ll tell you ’bout
My whole damn life
I fight the pits
I’m number one
Look a me havin’
So much fun
To the beat ya’ll
To the beat ya’ll
To the beat ya’ll