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Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night

Then the music changed to Baby Face, and a boy in a red-patterned shirt began to dance alone. He came out of nowhere, down from the tiers of seats at the very back of the hall, the bleachers, which were completely shrouded in darkness. Skinny, shrimpfish, he stood out in the very center of the floor, caught by the swirling lights, and did one half of the Rope Hustle. Only half, of course, because the Rope Hustle cannot really be performed without a partner. So he twirled in irregular circles, his arms twining and unfurling about his neck, vaguely as if he were trying to strangle himself. And the Faces at the bar, without even seeming to look, began to snigger.

Hearing mockery, the boy flushed and lowered his eyes, but he did not back down. For twenty minutes, half an hour, he kept on spinning, wheeling, in total isolation. “Later on, he’ll have to leave,” said Vincent. “Now it doesn’t matter. Not yet.”

“Who is he?” asked the man in the suit.

“His born name is Paul. But he calls himself Dean. A very weird guy.”

“How come?”

“He cries.”

When at last the boy came off the floor, he sat down at the bar and stared directly ahead, towards the mirror. His face was pale and pinched, his Adam’s apple kept leaping in his throat, and he ordered lemonade. Over his heart there was a small tin button printed with black letters that said: “I believe.” He drank his lemonade in three clean gulps. Then he wiped his lips and went straight back on the floor, still all alone, as if to resume a vigil.

When the music turned to Wake Up Everybody, he spun too fast, lost control, stumbled. Then Vincent sighed and shook his head. “Funny guy,” he said. “When I was five, my father broke my arm. Twisted it until it snapped. Because he was drunk, and he hated me. But I didn’t cry. Not one tear.”

Gradually, the floor began to fill; the night embarked in earnest. The girls emerged from their booths, formed ranks, and began to do the Bus Stop. A band appeared in blue denim suits embossed with silver studding. Blacks from Crown Heights, who played as loudly and as badly as anyone possibly could, grinning, sweating, stomping, while the dancers paraded beneath them, impassive.

One after another the stock favorites came churning out. Bad Luck and Supernatural Thing, What a Difference a Day Made, Track of the Cat, each reduced to the same automaton chugging, interchangeable. Nobody looked and no one ever applauded. Still, the band kept pounding away, kept right on grinning. “These guys. Those shines,” said Vincent. “We wind them up like clockwork. We pay, and they perform.”

Outside, his companions sat in the car, Joey and Gus in the front, Eugene and John James in the back, drinking whiskey from a bottle in a paper bag. They still made no conversation, did not relax. But as the alcohol hit, they started to mumble.

“Mother,” said Eugene.

“Eff,” said Gus.

“Mothereffing right,” said Joey.

Sometime after ten, feeling ready, they stepped out on the sidewalk and moved toward Odyssey in a line, shoulder to shoulder, like gunslingers. Heads lowered, hands thrust deep in their pockets, they turned into the doorway. They paused for just an instant, right on the brink. Entered.

Vincent was already at work on the floor. By now the Faces had gathered in force, his troops, and he worked them like a quarterback, calling out plays. He set the formations, dictated every move. If a pattern grew ragged and disorder threatened, it was he who set things straight.

Under his command, they unfurled the Odyssey Walk, their own style of massed Hustle, for which they formed strict ranks. Sweeping back and forth across the floor in perfect unity, 50 bodies made one, while Vincent barked out orders, crying One, and Two, and One, and Tap. And Turn, and One, and Tap. And Turn. And Tap. And One.

They were like so many guardsmen on parade; a small battalion, uniformed in floral shirts and tight flared pants. No one smiled or showed the least expression. Above their heads, the black musicians honked and thrashed. But the Faces never wavered. Number after number, hour after hour, they carried out their routines, their drill. Absolute discipline, the most impeccable balance. On this one night, even Vincent, who was notoriously hard to please, could find no cause for complaint.

At last, content in a job well done, he took a break and went up into the bleachers, where he sat on a small terrace littered with empty tables and studied the scene at leisure, like a general reviewing a battlefield. From this distance, the action on the floor seemed oddly unreal, as though it had been staged. A young girl in green, with ash-blond hair to her shoulders, stood silhouetted in a half-darkened doorway, posed precisely in left profile, and blew a smoke ring. Two Faces started arguing at the bar, fists raised. The dancers chugged about the floor relentlessly, and the band played Philadelphia Freedom.


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