Chapter 16: Ring Finger
Five artists approached Cascade on foot. Malcolm was wearing a tuxedo, as per his fiancé’s advice. It fit him exactly.
“You look sharp,” had been Susan’s comment. Like a knife had been Ruben’s. Because Ruben knew things about Malcolm. Better yet, he knew things about Mal. Malcolm was clean. Mal was an addict. When Malcolm painted, he was a realist, and he scorned himself for that. That was why Mal existed. Mal was high. Mal was extreme. Mal’s mind was on another level. When Mal painted, he was abstract and in love with himself. Ruben didn’t go to Cascade to have a good time: he had called Rice a faggot for even suggesting it. Ruben went to Cascade because he knew Mal would be there, and for Susan’s sake, Mal had to be assassinated that night.
Susan itched for a cigarette, but on account of Malcolm’s rehab, she had agreed to quit. She hated him for that.
Terry walked beside Susan, talking fashion. It had been Rice’s idea to invite Terry, and the performer had jumped on the opportunity. Between rehearsals and work outs, he hadn’t been out in too long. Plus, it was an opportunity to get to know Ruben. He really did want to know all of them. Rice had proven to be a friend, against all odds.
Double file, the five artists entered Cascade, and The Music fell over them. Lady Gaga and Kurt Cobain led the way to the dance floor, and were followed by Johnny Cash and Freddie Mercury. Bob Dylan split from the pack and posted up at the bar. He told himself he was there to stand guard: to stop Kurt from setting foot near a slippery slope. To pass the time, he ordered himself a drink.
Kurt and Gaga found themselves at the center of the dance floor. They circled each other. Gaga’s eyes flashed over Kurt, scanning for a fault in his appearance. To both of their dismay, Kurt was dressed like a gentleman. He went through the motions she did, but The Music didn’t have him under any trance; he had built up a tolerance. Few things could get him to feel alive anymore, and slowly but surely—oh-so-very surely—Gaga herself was fading from that list.
Cash and Mercury found a corner to dance in, though their versions of dancing were distinctly not the same. Cash stomped his feet, while Mercury glided on his. Cash clapped on every fourth drum hit, and nodded his head on every second. Mercury turned with the trancing rhythms, with the beat serving only as a framework. All in all, they were both impressed with how quickly the other had dissected the song. Cash decided there really was nothing too worth hating Mercury about. Mercury decided that by the end of the night, he would dance with Cash.
Already, Dylan had downed several drinks. And, noticing that the man beside him was wearing a zebra-print suit, he felt it was only appropriate to comment. “Hey brother, the Serengeti is that way.” Dylan smiled as he ordered another drink. He had forgotten that he was only black in Wisconsin.
The lights went ballistic and the dance floor followed. Gaga moved furiously, hitting a new move at every flash of the strobes. With no mind of his own, Kurt followed her example; every pose she hit, Kurt would strike it in the next flash of light. There was nothing abstract about it. Every new movement felt fake. But Kurt kept up, because he couldn’t help it; he was compelled by Gaga. He had to follow her every pose.
Mercury moved closer to Cash. He danced right beside the man, until—on occasion—they brushed against each other. Mercury meant nothing by it. He wanted to kiss Cash no more than he wanted to kiss Gaga. But he was fascinated by Cash all the same, and he wanted to see what the cowboy was capable of. So he moved closer yet again, until the cowboy did something distinctly new: he took Mercury’s hand. He took it and swung the dancer all around, waltzing it seemed, and that was just perfect for Mercury, because as long as it was any dance—any real dance, with rules and form—Mercury could keep up. He and Cash flew around each other, two bodies in orbit, and neither was quite sure how the other had become so locked in their pull.
Kurt no longer followed Gaga: he challenged her. He beat her to the punches. He dared her to keep up with him. And she moved just as reckless, the two of them blurs even in the strobe lights. Fucker, Kurt glared. I changed my goddamn mind. You’re not taking everything away from me.
Gaga felt the same. She moved towards him, hurling her body at him in a way that was violent. Had she a weapon, Kurt would be killed.
At the bar, Ruben noticed more and more people glaring at him. Mostly people of color. Real people of color. He avoided eye contact and ordered another drink.
Cash had spent his breath. Mercury, with a devious smile, pulled him off of the dance floor and through a side exit: one that led directly to an alley, cool and quiet. The two walked farther down the dark pathway. Rice’s head was still spinning from the dancing, and Terry was simply enjoying himself too much to worry.
“Do you think I love you?” Terry asked.
“Not really,” Rice told him, and then he pulled the queer closer.
As Rice and Terry kissed, their musicians faced one another. Cash reached out for a handshake.
“Freddie Mercury,” the highwayman said, “I admire your work.”
Mercury blushed profusely, and returned the handshake with a sweaty palm.
Terry pulled away from Rice. “What in the hell was that, cowboy?”
“An apology,” Rice said. “I got lost in life a long time ago. And I’ve been trying to find my bearings. Thanks for helping set me straight.”
Inside, Kurt and Gaga couldn’t be separated by a laser-guided buzz saw. They swung in tandem parallels, perfect mirrors. People cleared the floor around them, cheering on the unprecedented performance they were witnessing. Then The Music stopped, and the artists fell to pieces.
“I love you.” “I love you.”
Kurt and Gaga left the dance floor. They took a taxi home, and they held each other for a long time.
Dylan was dragged away from the bar, and out into a cool, quiet alley. Rice and Terry heard a scream that made their blood run with ice. Rice’s blood ran just a little bit colder.
Years earlier, Rice and Ruben had met on the road. Rice was heading for the east coast, and Ruben was leaving Wisconsin. On one particular night, the two happened to stop into the same bar. It didn’t take long for the artists to recognize each other as such. They hit it off immediately. Ruben had nowhere special to be, and by the next morning, it had been decided that the two would be travelling to Manhattan together.
The next night at the next bar, Ruben felt cocky. He borrowed Rice’s knife, and with the attention of all staff and patrons, he spread his hand out over the counter. He called it pinfinger. Others said five finger fillet. Regardless of the details, Ruben was a well-practiced champion. He could play by any rules. To demonstrate, he stabbed the spaces around his fingers from thumb to pinkie and back again, repeating a few times, picking up speed. Then, when everyone had no choice but to acknowledge the crazy motherfucker with the knife, he asked them for challenges. Someone called out Australian, and so he stabbed thumb-pointer-thumb-middle-thumb-ring and so on. Someone said English, and so he did the same thing in reverse. From the back Ruben heard Lower Slobbovian, and so he smiled as he jumped the knife between his fingers at complete random. Rice said Taiwanese, and Ruben took a tenth of a second to recall how they played it in Taiwan. In that tenth of a second, Ruben’s ring finger was severed and the bar was stained red.
Rice’s blood had run cold when he heard Ruben scream—really scream—for the first time. And in the dark alley outside Cascade, Rice knew whose scream he was hearing again; his buddy was in deep shit.
“Where the hell are you going?” Terry demanded.
The cowboy didn’t answer. He didn’t stop sprinting. Not for a goddamn second. He had to stop the screaming.
Two men pinned Ruben against a brick wall. Duke Cane stood before him in a zebra-print suit, dragging his claymore of a knife down Ruben’s torso, over, and over. Ruben’s shrieks haunted the island of Manhattan.
Duke Cane was making his first cut into Ruben’s face when the cowboy arrived.
Rice saw white.
When he came to, Duke Cane was dead on the ground. Ruben sat against a brick wall screaming, his blood mixing in the alley with the pimp’s. Rice’s knife dripped nigger blood. And the muzzle of Terry’s pistol was smoking.