“Oh-hoho, man!” Rice said, jittering into a ball on the couch.
Ruben smiled. “It’s good, isn’t it? First time in TV history that a hero shot an unarmed villain.”
Rice stood up to get another beer. “You know, I’m glad you chose tonight to get depressed and watch reruns, because that was something special.”
Depressed, Ruben thought—and still smiling. It summed things up about right. The phone rang, and he stood up to get it. The next thing he knew, he was bracing himself against a wall, with a faint ringing in his ears.
“Hey, Ruben, you alright?”
And then Ruben had to try very, very hard to remember why he had just stood up.
“Okay then. I’ll get it.”
Ruben stood in the living room. He knew that much. The carpet under his feet waved like grass. His mind went back there, to grassy fields, where he’d spent countless days with Peggy. Being the only two black kids in a less than liberal county, Ruben and Peggy Craig had spent a lot of their time together.
Didn’t even realize we were black, Ruben thought, standing in Manhattan and looking down over Wisconsin. That was the kicker. Mom had to find a picture of Grandpa Craig just to convince us.
Rice hung up. “That was Susan,” he said. “Malcolm’s in the ER.”
“Come on, let’s go. It’s not far from—Ruben!” Rice shouted, and he rushed to pick his friend off of the ground. “Come on buddy, I didn’t think you had that many. Hey, listen: we’re going to go see Malcolm and Susan, alright?”
Rice helped Ruben get his shoes on, while Cash grabbed a coat for the fall weather. The carpet continued to wave under Ruben’s feet. He and Peggy sat beneath an oak tree. Usually they climbed it, but that time, they were sitting underneath it. The oak was a pillar; it was the only thing that stood tall amidst the prevailing grasslands of their hometown. Ruben and Peggy sat with their backs against the bark, and with shoulder touching shoulder. The cars in the distance were black specks against the light of day. Peggy opened her backpack and pulled out their lunch boxes.
The oak was a pillar; as Ruben and Peggy sat in the field, all alone, it was the oak which protected them from the wind. It gave them shade as they ate their sandwiches. When the lunch boxes were empty, the tin containers rested against the tree, just like Ruben and Peggy Craig. They sat against the oak and watched as the black specks on the highway turned into flashes of light in the dark.
Ruben held Peggy’s hand. The oak was a pillar; as they fell asleep underneath it, the oak felt like a reason for the grassy field to exist. It was the focal point, as Ruben’s art teacher would insist on calling it. Peggy would just call it the oak tree.
Outside, Dylan didn’t sing a song about an oak tree. He sang a song about a dragon.
Rice gave Ruben a hearty pat on the shoulder. “Come on,” he said, and he helped Ruben to his feet.
Dylan stood outside of the door, which was to be expected. What wasn’t expected was Terrence, standing side by side with Mercury. Rice noticed the bruise on Terrence’s cheek, and in truth, he didn’t care all that much about how the queer had gotten it.
“I heard something going on over here,” Terrence explained. “I just wanted to see if everything was alright.”
“Pretty far from it,” Ruben said. He stumbled past Terrence, headed for the elevator.
Rice turned him towards the stairs instead. “We really don’t have time to talk, Terrence. A friend of ours is in the emergency room.”
“Oh my god,” Terrence said, raising a hand to cover his mouth. He dashed back to his door, and before the door had finished closing, he was back in the hall with a set of keys. “Let’s go.”
Rice sighed and started walking, doing his very best to shepherd the gaggle of musicians down the hallway. “Thank you Terrence, but really, we’re fine.”
“You’re drunk,” Terrence countered. “I’m driving and I won’t hear it any other way.”
Mercury stood at the end of the hall, blocking the stairs. Rice was tempted to borrow Cash’s guitar and use it as the most literal blunt instrument imaginable, but he didn’t, because Terrence was right—he and Ruben were wasted.
“Okay,” Rice conceded. Mercury stepped out of the way. “But you are going to speed the whole way there. Deal?”
Terrence sped so fast that Rice would later swear all three of them had been drinking. Ruben sat shotgun, and with each screeching turn, he became a little more sober. Eventually he was sober enough to realize that emergency rooms weren’t always for dying people, and this idea felt worse to Ruben. Malcolm was an artist: if he were dying, there would be poetry in it. But emergency rooms weren’t always for dying people. They could be for people who were just plain broken, and if that was the case, then Ruben decided he would sign his name in the hospital’s guestbook—right under Malcolm Sanchez.
Then Ruben giggled to himself. A guestbook in the emergency room. Shut the hell up brain, you’re drunk.
Terrence drifted to a stop in front of the hospital doors.
Actual drifting, too, Rice noticed. “Thanks, Terrence.”
“Call me Terry.”
Rice laughed and shook his head. “I had a girlfriend named Terry. That makes you Terrence, Terrence.”
Ruben and Rice walked into the hospital, flanked on both sides by their musical counterparts. Dylan lit a cigarette, solely because nobody was going to stop him. The four walked by the line of people at the front desk, and Ruben put his hands on the counter. “We’re here to see Mal.”
“Sir, please wait—”
“Malcolm Sanchez!” Ruben insisted, and Rice had to pull him back.
“My friend is exceptionally drunk,” Rice told the petrified receptionist. “And so am I. Could we get a room number for Malcolm Sanchez please?”
The four weren’t given a number, but instead, their very own security escort to the waiting room. Ruben sat still. Rice sat still. Dylan and Cash set down their guitars.
The oak was a pillar. Even after Peggy stopped walking out to the field, the oak had held strong. It still shielded Ruben Craig from the wind.
“Did I tell you that I looked up your question?”
“No, you didn’t,” Rice said. “Which question did you look up, buddy?”
“The one about the ants. The worker ants can live for years. Some queens live as long as horses. But even the workers can get a few years.”
“That’s interesting, Ruben. Thanks for sharing.”
And at that time, Terrence walked in. He sat down right beside Rice and let out a heavy breath. “Sorry I took so long. When I got in here, they had no problem pointing me to you two. But parking was such a bitch—”
“Hey!” Rice shouted, standing out of his chair and backing away from Terrence. “There are kids here! Watch your language, come on.”
Terrence stared blank up at Rice. “I didn’t realize—”
“There’s a lot you don’t realize, Terrence.”
Ruben sighed. “Take it easy. He was nice enough to give us a ride.”
“Oh, and why do you think that might be?” Rice asked, looking Terrence dead in the eyes. Not Terry. It had to be Terrence.
The look Terrence gave back was a lot of things. It was emotional, first and foremost. To tell which emotions they were though, Rice wasn’t qualified to say. Terrence’s eyes were trying to hold a lot back, and the worst part was that as fruitless as the effort appeared, his eyes were actually quite successful; Terrence hid his iceberg of hurt like a champ. Mercury glared.
“Christ Rice, I want to know you,” Terrence said, standing up. Rice was surprised to find that, face to face, Terrence was just a fraction of an inch taller than him. And from that immeasurably advantaged position, Terrence repeated himself. “I want to know you. And Ruben. And all of the other people who I see in passing every single day of my life. But that doesn’t mean I want to fuck you Rice. Pardon my French.”
As Terrence walked away, Dylan’s poorly stifled laughter was the only sound in the waiting room.
“A focal point,” Mr. Knight had said, “is the center of a piece. It is, at any given moment, what the eye is most drawn to.”
“He’s fine,” she told them. “And if he doesn’t go to rehab, then I’m leaving him tomorrow.”
© Ray Underscore Thompson, November 2015