Rice stared at the ant. Or, more accurately, Rice had been staring at the ant for quite some time. He had found it in his room. He and Johnny Cash had been jamming out some blues when the ant caught his eye. Rice could have crushed it then and there. He didn’t. He watched it. He laid on the edge of his bed and observed the tiny black speck crawl across his floor, and Cash watched along with him, holding the strings of his guitar mute. Once the ant had reached the doorway, Rice stood up and stalked after it. Stalked was the right word: one way or another, this ant was Rice’s game. He followed it down the hallway, careful not to get too close. Cash flanked the game, uncannily silent in his boots. As if the ant had already scouted the apartment in advance, it crawled straight for the kitchen. Poacher. Rice knew what the ant was after from the beginning, but to catch it from start to finish in the act, Rice liked the way it felt under his tongue. Poacher, poacher, poacher. Rice stared at the ant as it picked a crumb off of the counter. He stalked closer and towered over the ant, his shadow dominating it, and still—still—the ant picked up the crumb. It was brave. Rice couldn’t fault it for that.
Ruben entered the apartment as the ant was securing its crumb. He walked to the kitchen counter and stood beside Rice, joining the hunter in stalking the game.
No, stalking wasn’t the right word anymore—not for Ruben anyways. Ruben did watch the ant, but Rice knew that he didn’t watch it in the same way. Rice watched the ant drop the crumb and saw a time to pounce. Ruben watched the ant drop the crumb and weighed whether or not the ant would want help picking it back up. He must have decided that the ant wouldn’t. Probably because if it were Ruben who had dropped the crumb, he would rather struggle with it himself. Ruben would struggle for the rest of his ant life with that crumb.
Which gave Rice a question.
“How long do ants live?”
Ruben didn’t take his eyes off of the insect. Days, Ruben thought. How could it be any longer than a few days? In the grand scheme of things, what was there for one ant to do?
Rice crushed the ant with his thumb. Ruben’s soul cracked under that calloused digit just as readily.
For fuck’s sake, Ruben thought, at least give the damn thing its days.
He let out a pointed sigh.
“Oh, what?” Rice questioned. “No wonder I could never take you hunting. Hell Ruben, it’s an ant.”
Mentally, Ruben crushed Rice under his thumb. He flattened Rice against the floor. He pulverized Rice’s muscles and bones as though he was folding a crisp new crease into a piece of construction paper.
But on the outside Ruben shrugged, and mentioned, “It’s Sunday. Don’t you have church to be going to?”
“As a matter of fact I do,” Rice said, and he walked to the couch. It wasn’t a long walk from the kitchen to the living room, because for all intents and purposes, the two were one in the same. One was linoleum and one was carpeted—the only difference between the kitchen and the living room was that one was harder to clean when Rice tracked in dirt.
It was something Ruben marveled at more than anything. He watched as Rice sat on the couch to lace up his boots, and he wondered: where in Manhattan does this man find so much mud to walk through?
“You coming?” Rice asked.
“Someday you might,” Rice assured, and he offered Ruben a smile.
Ruben, for once in his life, smiled back at the notion of finding God.
“So Katie dumped you?”
“Against all of my desperate pleading,” Ruben conceded.
Rice shrugged, and stood up to give Ruben a rough punch on the shoulder. “What country are you moving to this time, buddy?”
“France, and stop knowing me so well.”
“Never gonna happen. Send me a letter when you get there, one with lots of words I don’t understand,” Rice encouraged, and with that he and Cash walked through the door. Hopeless romantic son of a gun.
He and Cash arrived at the elevator on the far end of the hallway. Rice pressed the call button while Cash fiddled with the pegs of his guitar, trying to fix some minor abnormality in the tone.
It works for him though, Rice decided. He needed a little heartbreak. He practically runs on the stuff.
The elevator doors opened and Rice stepped inside. As his foot tumbled through the pitch black of the empty shaft, Rice had one more thought: Oh.
Cash took a firm hold of Rice’s shoulders and yanked him back into the hallway. Rice stumbled backwards through the tilting hall, farther and farther, no distance being safe enough from the breech in what was possible in a civilized goddamn society. He collapsed with his back against a wall, trying to find the breath to pray with.
Thank you, Rice mouthed. His breath refused to obey him, even for this. Lord Almighty, thank you.
Cash, with one hand gripping each elevator door, leaned into the dark shaft and had a look. First down. There was blackness on all sides as he looked, though at the very bottom of the tunnel, at the very end—there was the light. Next Cash looked up, and was quick to get his head back into the hallway; the elevator slid down into place, and as it did, it let out a little ding.
A thought of Rice’s which was shortly followed by another: Forgive me, Lord. If this is because I’ve been cursing, I’ll never curse again in my life. I’ll never even think to.
And for the rest of his life, Rice Henderson never spoke nor thought nor tolerated another curse word.
Rice made a beeline for the stairwell at the other end of the hall. Cash stopped holding the elevator door open and followed, a wry smirk plastered across his lips. It was lost on Rice, but found on Dylan, who grinned back from his spot beside their apartment door. As the two passed by Dylan, the next door down the hall swung open. Out stepped their neighbor Terrence, dressed in cutoff shorts and a pink tank top, and heading for the elevator. The lord was testing Rice two times that afternoon.
Rice watched Terrence strut down the hall. Say nothing and you never have to see that faggot again—Rice didn’t consider faggot a curse word.
Cash watched Rice. He watched the creases appearing in the middle of Rice’s brow, and the corresponding wheels turning as diligently as they were able.
“Hey Terrence,” Rice said.
Cash gave a nod.
Terrence turned, as did Freddie Mercury, both of them flaming with curiosity.
“Take the stairs with me,” Rice offered. “The elevator isn’t working right now.”
On the way down the five flights of stairs, Cash and Mercury never said a word to each other. Cash was turning peg after peg on his guitar, but with every adjustment he made, the guitar just went further out of tune. Mercury wanted to speak. He wanted to sing! He wanted to shout! Yet for all of the times he had pictured this very opportunity, he just couldn’t think of what to say. For the life of him, he just couldn’t think of what to say.
© Ray Underscore Thompson, November 2015