This was written from a rough draft for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), November 2014. It's intended as the first of three (or more) novels with a series character. I'll write more if I find a publisher or get some cash. In the meantime, if you have fun reading it, consider a donation to National Novel Writing Month programs or the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
She took a swallow from her Bud longneck, almost choked, tried again. It worked. She brought herself back to where she was, let Lee’s soprano and soft piano chords take her. No matter how well you know someone, she thought, they always look like a stranger when they get onstage.
It wasn’t the right club or the right crowd for Lee, either. There was one benefit to people forgetting about Lee—Malone had plenty of space right in front of the stage. A skinny 5-foot-2 who never wore heels, Malone typically spent a club performance admiring some strange man’s shoulder blades or trying to avoid being bashed in the nose by his backpack. Or bike helmet. It wasn’t an elbow to the boob but one to the jaw that she usually had to watch out for.
She stood in the front of a knot of about 30 people pressed close to the stage, most of them of a type—fanboys, some lanky, some bearish, most wearing t-shirts worn fine as silk from years of washing, the kind of shirts people paid good money to get fake versions of nowadays. But these were the real thing, the t-shirts and the men alike genuinely aged. Even though she was just the opening act, Lee Ocala doing an acoustic show was rare enough to get the remnants of the cult out. They’d hassle with the parking or even take the subway and get their hands stamped and stand worshipfully, swaying slightly, nodding gently to the dips and leaps of her verses. They were the ones that knew the trivia, how she’d started at the Manta Ray in Brashton along with all the other ones who got big, how Seawall’s first, breakout single, way before they got too big, back when they were still good, had been written by Jackson Hill for her, how that other song, “Penny in the Pool,” by Seth Tower, was for her, too, the Jackson-Seth rivalry, the car crash in Memphis, the unreleased Steve Albini sessions, the disappearance in Tennessee, the transformation from ethereal beauty to coke-wasted wraith to the hearty, hefty woman in front of them tonight, laughing nervously and hitching her hips, trying to get comfortable on the piano stool. The voice was the same. The voice was better. The songs weren’t as strong. The songs were more authentic. They’d argue about it in emails.
Malone felt in her jacket pocket—just one stale cigarette in the pack left from over a year ago, when she’d quit. That day, she’d had a smoke while she waited for enough pee to build up inside her to take the pregnancy test, but even as she’d sat at her computer, inhaling deeply between tweaks at a portrait photo she was retouching, she’d known the test would say yes, that it was going to be her last smoke for a while. Now, hand in her pocket, she picked the cigarette’s flattened form loose; she could even bum another one later and smoke that too. It was a pump-and-dump night. She lit up, waved off a tiny spark from the crackle of dried-out tobacco, and sighed as she watched. She was always wound up nowadays, nervous, self-conscious about her size, all the changes. At least Lee would understand that, probably felt it herself, the way she kept giggling and retuning between songs. They could both use a Vicodin, Malone thought.
She’d saved the pills from the bounty that came after the c-section, keeping about 10 for herself and putting the rest aside for Lee and her other best friend, Bebe. It wasn’t so much that her OB was profligate with his scripts; it was just that recommended dosages were so far off from what a woman, especially one of Malone’s tiny proportions, could possibly need, short of a Civil War surgery situation. Even at her current excess post-pregnancy poundage the directed dose was ridiculous; it could have felled a 210-pound man. No wonder folks were getting addicted right and left, she had thought. You needed some solid recreational painkiller practice to be able to be able to handle a medically sanctioned dose these days. But her mother-in-law had been in charge of post-c-section care, and she was of the generation that followed doctors’ directions to the letter. She refused to let Malone walk downstairs or pick up anything but the baby, and she dutifully brought her two of the horse pills every four hours.
After the first few days of being dizzily stoned and dully hungover, she came around to lucidity. Her baby was passing out while nursing, blissed and stunned as Malone herself. Her husband’s sisters, who had plenty of advice, told her to put a cold washcloth on the baby’s face or snap a finger against her feet to keep her awake while nursing. Malone rejected this cruel prescription, instead taking an idea from one of the few maternal role models she could remember—Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. She palmed her pills instead of taking them, and smuggled them into the bathroom, where she wrapped them in tissue and stuffed them in a box that had once contained yeast infection medicine. She couldn’t even put them in an old pill bottle, because the sisters had insisted the house be cleared completely of any potential poisons, as if the infant would be clamoring up and into the bathroom cabinets within a week of birth, and Nils, her husband, had gone along with it. She realized after a while that she could have asked for even more painkillers; no one seemed to suspect a postpartum woman of “drug-seeking behavior,” though Malone was beginning to suspect such behavior might become a part of her future as it was part of Lee’s and Bebe’s.
Certainly she had enough reason to want to spend some time stoned, as the bliss of her baby began to wear off and the presence of others, the force of others, the opinions of others, began to invade what she had thought of as her life, apparently mistakenly. The incursions during pregnancy were only a prelude to the full-scale interference that had come as soon as the baby was a separate entity. Then, pile on the invasions on multiple fronts, new ones every day, since the attacks—don’t do this, don’t think this, get used to seeing troops in the streets and at the airports.
She finished off her beer, turned off her mind, and listened. This was the first time she’d seen Lee at all in almost a year and the first time she’d seen her perform in longer than that. Lee didn’t make the trip up from Brashton too often; she worked there as a nanny for one of the town’s most famous musicians, and besides that she hated to tour. She’d done these few dates just for Morris and to sell a few old CDs. Malone herself didn’t get out much either, obviously. This was her first club show since the birth. Her husband, Nils, had pushed her into it. Everyone seemed to thin she was being a little weird about the baby, refusing to be separated from her for more than an hour or two. It made her furious—but that was something she realized she would have to hide.
Too many people in the audience stirred, arrived, ordered drinks, chatted, smoked, headed for the back bar, roamed back toward the stage. A louder ripple of chatter went through the club, and Malone felt more people clustering behind her, as she caught on to what was happening. Lee was sharing her encore with Morris Lebatard, the headliner, the one most people had come to see, the one who had played beside her and even opened for her, years ago. He’d come up as she’d gone down.
Lee started a piano intro as bright as a day off school. It was a cover of one of the obscurities she and Morris alike were known for: Emitt Rhodes, “Fresh as a Daisy.” Bebe sidled up next to her and stooped to mutter in her ear a commercial parody in a fake Irish accent: “Douchey, yes! But I like it also!” Soloing on the bridge, Lee turned her stunning face upward to gaze at the more-famous musician, and Malone thought of Liz Taylor, and wished she had her camera.
Malone choked again, eyes stinging, tossing down the cigarette and elbowing the beer bottle into her body to leave her hands free to clap. Her friend Bebe, clapping as loud as she could, looked over at her, raised her eyebrows. “I’m fine,” Malone mouthed at her. She knew how Bebe would have written the review, if she’d been covering this show: “Spotty but sometimes stunning, a comeback a long time coming.” That is if they didn’t trim any reference to the opener altogether.
“Come on back for a lot more Morris,” Lee said sweetly into the mic, standing and giving a little bob of a curtsy before picking her way over the cords, guitar still strapped on, and off the stage riser and down the side stairs to the dressing room, as the club sound system came up, blasting some Barry White, of all things. It happened to be one of Malone’s favorites: “Never Gonna Give You Up.” RahnJahn, another transplant from Brashton, was DJing tonight.
“Way to clear the room,” Bebe said, shaking her narrow hips a little.
“Lightweights,” Malone said. “Want another beer?”
“Is it really OK for you to drink?” she asked. “Doesn’t the baby get drunk?”
Malone sighed. “I have this pump thing, it’s like two funnels with plastic tubes attached, and you plug it in, and it suctions all the milk out of your boobs. Then you throw the toxic milk away, and your body makes wonderful clean, wholesome milk for the next round. That’s the theory, anyway.”
“They call it ‘pump-and-dump.’”
“They have a name for it? An actual name.”
“You poor thing. You staying for Morris?”
“I’d planned to.”
“I don’t know. I’m not getting paid. He’s starting to get so NPR.” She shook her head. “Let’s go downstairs and drink for free.”
They pushed their way back to the stairs, past Lee’s sound man and Morris’ crew, who nodded and let them by, recognizing Bebe. At the foot of the stairs, they tried to push past a clump of kids blocking the door to the dressing room—Morris’ people, Malone assumed. Lee was in the back of the room, still wearing her guitar, talking to a tall, skinny man with long dreads, standing with his back to them. She spotted them and called and waved: “Ladies, ladies, special guest star!” The man turned around. No shit, thought Malone. The knot of kids turned to look at them and parted, awed, letting them by.
“Jesus. Jackson,” Bebe murmured, using the voice the two of them used to talk only to each other, the secret voice they’d perfected over years together at parties and shows. “Please tell me he is not gonna play.”
Malone had seen Jackson in this same dressing room at least a dozen times—but not for years. It had been at least three years since she’d seen him at all, and that was backstage at a massive venue; he’d stared at her, hugged her, and vanished. The change was far more than the whiteboy dreads he’d grown over the years; his aura seemed to claim much more space in the room. The people sitting on the ragged couches and spung armchairs around the room’s perimeter talked softly and drank from bottles and looked pointedly away from him, the way mortals do with the famous and singular—to keep from spooking them, to keep them from feeling how much you want them to respond. The knot of kids gawked, then shuffled and shoved each other and studied their shoes, then looked again—is he real? Really him? Jackson Hill, from Seawall, from MTV back when it was good, from big stages far above them? Really there?
“No way can he play,” Bebe said. “Maybe sneak an encore.” He must have come in the back, dreads under a hat, Malone realized, looking like any other old fanboy. No other way he’d have made it. The club owner was from the struggling ‘80s days, too. He’d have made whatever Jackson wanted work out without a hitch.
Lee pulled them over toward him. Jackson looked at Malone for a short minute, then reached out to her. As skimpy and indirect as he was with words, he was the opposite with his body when it came to his friends—a master of the sweet, full-body hug. “Miss Malone,” he slurred at her, and her tension fell off her like a shell at the feeling she remembered: soft flannel and ropy muscle.
“I like these,” she said, stroking his dreads. “Why are you here?”
“Water,” he said. He’d picked up international water rights as a cause and came to the city sometimes to lend his fading star to publicity or testimony. “You smell different.”
She didn’t take offense. It was typical, ingenuous. Basically, the guy’s a social tard, was how Bebe put it. She’d never believed his presentation was calculating, or drugged up, as those who didn’t know him claimed. She looked at the footage and the articles and saw the man-boy she had known in college, trying and failing to function at a news conference, while others saw his muttering and sullen looks as an arrogant pose, saw a sellout who’d been unsuccessful at hooking up with any mass-market buyers. Faux naïf was the typical accusation—but she always knew it wasn’t faux.
“It’s baby,” she said. “I had a baby. Born September 10.”
His strange, cold grey eyes widened. “Kid A,” he said. “How do you like it?”
“I’m crazy in love with her,” Malone smiled. “It’s sick.”
“Her name is Linda Lee, actually,” Bebe said, ducking in from the other side to get the full-hug treatment. Lee was giving excited little jumps, her enormous boobs threatening to upstage Jackson for a moment as the subject of awe. “Will you stay, will you play? Are you staying for Morris?”
He looked at his shoes, at the corner of the room. “I don’t know, I want to watch a little bit, but it’s…” he waved his hand listlessly around to take in the room. “I don’t know.”
“Stay,” Lee said, slipping an arm around his waist. “There’s cookies.”
He half-smiled sort of in her direction. “There are a lot of people around,” he murmured.
“Just do what works, sweetie,” Lee said, stroking his back. “It’s all good.”
“I liked the latest,” Malone said, feeling him start to slide away before he even left. “I liked the horns.”
“I’d rather hear her say that,” he said, looking at Bebe.
“Doesn’t matter what I say. Nobody’s printing it, nobody’s reading it.”
Bebe smiled, indulged him. “Ahh lahhked the hoe-runs,” she said, giving it the full southern.
“Well awww raht,” he growled softly back. He had come back a little.
The three of them leaned against the wall, lined up, as awkward as it seemed, and traded murmurs as the kids pretended not to stare. Lee bounced around the room talking and kissing people at random. Bebe filled Jackson in on what had been going down in DC and back home in Brashton, but Malone could tell he was barely pretending to listen. After a few minutes, he pushed away from the wall, interrupting Bebe’s monologue. “I have to go now,” he said.
Lee almost collided with him as he headed for the door. “Did you know I’m working for Pete Marshall now?” she said. “I’m his nanny, can you believe it? We take turns touring. I live in a little house out back of his studio. He’s producing Run Run Shaw now.”
“OK,” Jackson said, looking at the door. A few random guys Malone had assumed were Morris’s people detached themselves and came over to his side. He pulled his hoodie over his head and said again, vaguely, “OK.” And he walked out without looking back, the men flanking him.
Bebe leaned against the wall for a moment more and stared off after him. “That was more Jackson than Jackson ever was before,” she said in Malone’s direction.
“Hmm.” Malone pushed herself off from the wall and walked over to the cooler to get her long-delayed second beer. Better than the ones upstairs. She went back to the wall, where they could talk.
Lee was shaking her head. “Do you think it was…the last record?”
“Last three,” said Bebe. “Like he’d care anyway.”
“You care when you get dropped,” said Lee.
“He’s giving it away free now, anyway,” said Bebe. “He streams everything, he doesn’t give a damn. It’s not that. There’s something wrong. Really wrong.”
“That reminds me,” said Malone, tucking her hand into her bra and coming up with the packet of tissue, unscathed. She unwrapped it in her hand and palmed a bunch of pills into Lee’s hand.
“Oh—you don’t think it’s that?” Lee looked tragic.
“Of course not,” she said. “Just making a bad joke. He’s never needed chemical assistance to be weird.”
“Thanks, honey,” said Lee, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek. “I’m here for a couple weeks, at my brothers. We should hang out.”
“Don’t spend it all in one place,” Malone warned her. Lee had been a coke addict, not into downs, but Malone still worried.
“Don’t worry. I’m fine once I’m home. It’s just … you know ... all this.”
“Now you’re getting all Jackson on me,” Malone smiled. “I’m going to take a pee. See you upstairs?”
She climbed back up the narrow stairs and pushed her way back to the bathrooms, the women’s painted black and used-gum-pink, with a sticky floor and battered stall doors. She tried to avoid her reflection in the big cracked mirror on one wall. Her black hair had never been lusher, from the coursing hormones, but it was wildly kinky and chopped short to make it easier to deal with. Add the leftover belly sag and unwaxed eyebrows, and she was a little too close to Elvis in Vegas, she thought. Shit. At least her boobs were impressive, for the first time in her life.
In the stall, she saw a piece of graffiti: “Billy Silver has a micropenis!” Below it, she saw where years ago she had written “Untrue! Untrue! untrue!” with a proof marker. Billy had produced the one and only EP on which she’d performed, and though she had no firsthand evidence, Bebe had told her that his proportions were above adequate.
She dribbled some scalding hot water over her hands at the sink, staring into not her own image but that of another face haloed by messy black hair. The face was repeated over and over, like a tragic Andy Warhol, on dozens of fliers covering the entire wall. They weren’t concert fliers. They all asked the same question: Have You Seen Me? A young guy who had been in a local band. Someone’s son. He had had gone missing that summer. Still gone. The posters had new the last time she’d been here, in August, when she’d come for the Richard Buckner show and, with the advanced state of pregnancy, had been in to pee more than she’d been out watching the show. The disappearance was major news then; now he had really vanished. So many others who disappeared had taken his place in the news. She felt a surge in her breasts. Go home, she thought. You need to go home. Now.
She would miss the respectful praise Morris would throw down for Lee at the beginning of the show, and the encore he’d bring Lee up to share at the end—maybe an old George Jones, or “Phaedra.” “Wichita Lineman”? And the murmur around the crowd as people who’d come in later, just to see Morris, people who wondered, who was that girl on stage, anyway? ***
Overheated from the club, she left her coat open as she strode the streets back to her car, passing random clusters of kids, skaters, homeless. Her car, the Volvo they’d gotten when they got married, was old enough that she had to open it by hand. No bleep bleeping automatic opener here. She’d had to trade in her prize when she got married, the RX7 she’d bought used out of college, with its fishtailing rear, creaky doors and splitting leather. So low you’d about scrape your butt on the road driving it, but fast and sound. Couldn’t keep a two-seater when you might have to drive grandparents around. Or children. That hadn’t happened too fast; just as well. But it was good enough to have a safe, simple car now.
“I Will Dare” roared up as she started the car; she’d had it cranked on the way over. Only two of the six CD slots worked; she had Replacements and D’Angelo on rotation. Now she was nervous again and she cut the music. She wove her way home in silence, cutting down to the Mall, half-circling the Tidal Basin, looping alongside the river, running under the Kennedy Center overhang and into the park before branching up the hill climb to Massachusetts Avenue. She was waiting at the light, staring at the mosque across the street, when it came to her that all the warm smiley feeling she had toward Jackson was not only because he’d acknowledged her as a human he’d once been close to. It was that he was the first person in more than a year now who hadn’t tried to tell her what to do. Even her girlfriends had done it. But him? Not once. “Damn, I love Jackson,” she sighed.
As soon as she got home, she slunk upstairs into the little nursery room they’d constructed out of an oversize walk-in closet with a window. She barely dared to breathe as she watched Linney sleeping, zipped into a fleece snuggle bag, sleeves turned down and tucked over her hands, wedged between two triangles of foam specially constructed to keep babies from committing the death-tempting act of sleeping on their stomachs. Linney was still breathing. She was not hot, not choking on spit up or going into febrile convulsions or covered with red dots. Nothing Malone feared, her fears so numerous and detailed that she couldn’t even be bothered to mentally catalogue them any longer, but simply bundled them like a series of operations in an algorithm, defined by x, and saw that x had not come to pass.
“Did you get someone to walk you to your car?” Nils called out from their bed. He’d fallen asleep with his computer open on the bed next to him. “Shhhh. Don’t wake her up,” she whispered, and lied, “Yes.”
“She won’t wake up,” he said. “Shh,” she said again, walking into their bedroom. “I’m serious. I need time to pump and get a shower. When did she eat?”
“Eleven,” he said, no more softly. “Six ounces.”
“Cool,” she said. “I’m going downstairs to pump. Get some sleep.”
He sat up and opened the computer instead. She went downstairs, sneaking a look at her email on the computer set up on the dining room table before she got the pumps working. There was one from Bebe, subject: Barry White sings Theme from the Beverly Hillbillies.
Bitch, she thought. They had a running joke over the years where they implanted cover songs into each other’s minds. It had to be a terrible song to start with, then sung by someone wildly inappropriate, to really work. This one was good. It was likely to cycle through her brain for days. The email read:
clear off first weekend in may, book’s coming out, Seth wants big release party at that sick new place he’s got that fucking republican fuck. I’ll talk to lee. I’ll try not to get shot. Except by you. Seen some proofs and your stuff is good. They did right. Be there I can’t deal without you two. Love bb
Clear off. Easy for her to say. She closed down the computer, washed her hands and got out the pumping apparatus. She took a bag of milk out of the freezer, filled a glass with warm water and set the milk bag inside to thaw, then settled herself at the kitchen table to pump. As she sat down and settled the pump funnels over her breasts, Malone felt the twinge she’d get every time she’d think about The Book. Or maybe it was just that her boobs were full. Everything made her threaten to spill over now—happiness, fear, nervousness. The book was a good thing, certainly for Bebe—she needed the bit of money but even more, the respect. It wouldn’t do Malone much good, except for her morale. It would do that a lot of good. She didn’t like to think about it, because deep inside, she was hoping it would do a lot more good than that. And that kind of thinking was foolish. A book like that wouldn’t get her any points with any of the people who ran her life nowadays. It was a project born in the days before everything fell apart and the money disappeared. She had hoped it might jump start something new for her work. Now it just seemed trivial, even a little embarrassing. And it meant dealing with Seth. She didn’t like admitting that she liked his reflected fame, but she still didn’t like the guy.
The book had been Seth’s idea, but the time was right. A publisher attached to a record label that had been subsumed by a big-ass conglomerate had gone along on his idea to make a book/CD vanity project about the early days of the Brashton music scene. That was where they had all met, and where Jackson had made his name and created a sound that changed everything, for about 10 years, and arguably forever. Malone’s photographs had chronicled much of it, and about a dozen were being used in the book, all except the ones of Jackson in drag, which Malone would shield from any eyes until her death. But then again, if Jackson ever realized she had them, he’d probably do something nuts like release them on the Internet, just to make some kind of statement.
None of them had had any idea the scene would get so big. Or that Jackson and Seth would get so big. Jackson’s band was just what you’d hear at the surf bar on 12th street in Brashton, just down the road from the smudge-gray, 1970s brutalist architecture of the beach town’s liberal arts college. Sure, they were great to dance to, and then you realized that they were more than that—handsome and strange and they gave you something to feel and think about. But all the same, Malone was more interested in her project shooting homeless teens living on the beach.
Jackson’s band had started out calling themselves Seaward, a lame Beavis and Butthead joke. They’d switched to the less-offensive Seawall when someone called them that by mistake on a marquee, and that was how the word usually came out in Jackson’s slurry delivery anyhow. And by then there were some 20 other bands trying to sound like them, playing up and down the surf strip, and four other bands who didn’t sound like them, and who ended up in New York and Los Angeles, almost as big as Seawall themselves. Fliers plastered the buildings and the tarry telephone polls and blew down the sandy streets. Their black and white names filled Brashton’s smudgy alternative newspaper, and before long, fanzines and alternative newspapers up and down the East Coast, then all over, even in Europe, some of them:
The Privilege List
Ovalteens (who after their first LP and the letter threatening legal action became…)
Cabana Boy Beatdown
Louche Surf (which of course everyone pronounced to rhyme with “couch surf”)
Your Mama’s Chaps
The Early Bird Demons
If the names had a certain family resemblance, they came by it honestly: Bebe had come up with about half the name in town, and her grandmother’s tipsy ramblings were behind a few more.
Some of them ended up in L.A. or Portland or Seattle or New York; some of them ended up quitting and getting a real job. And there were those who stayed right there in Brashton but were rarely heard from after the scene died out, ones who people who knew said were better bands, and as few who rode it into a living as producers or session players. And one of these was Lee. She kept trying, like a moth beating against a screen door, and kept falling.
Even though no one had expected it, when Jackson and later Seth got so big, it then started to seem strange, sort of shameful, that the rest of them stayed so small.
Bebe had tracked the whole surprising rise, with her stack of demo cassettes and piles of old posters and fliers and original pressings. She was getting some writing work on the book as well, and maybe that would help her at the newspaper where she worked, maybe, even though she’d been passed over twice for promotions, as young dudes had leapt past her and she’d been given more and more obscure music to cover, and finally, in the last year and in the biggest indignity, local “arts and culture” features to write.
It wouldn’t help Malone any, she reminded herself. Her work now was shooting kitchens and bathrooms and the occasional portrait of someone famous-for-DC for the city’s glossy magazine. They wouldn’t care about rock and roll from down south two decades ago, though they might be interested in Seth, she thought, checking the levels on the bottles as they filled. Because the magazine did like people with money, and Seth made money.
Seth came along after Jackson had exploded and entrenched. Jackson had just started his company-unfriendly behavior patterns—refusing to tour, refusing to leave Brashton, protesting ticket-selling practices, refusing to put his name or picture on CDs. Seth, with his handsome face and hulking form, with his true Welsh baritone, appeared one day in Brashton as if the suits had Frankensteined themselves up a newer, better Jackson, a Jackson 2.0, hell, a Jackson 6.4.
Later, when they found out Seth could speak in more than tortured mumbles and metaphors, it was even better. And better still: Seth liked money, and he liked business and technology as much as he did music. And the music was hooky and far easier to take than the increasingly obscure noodlings Jackson had begun to indulge in. Everyone excused Seth’s right-wing leanings as libertarianism; his gun-rights and anti-tax lines began to look daring, even revolutionary. Like the angry white men in power, he could claim persecution, a stance often profitable in rock and roll. Jackson began, by comparison, to look weedy, his voice to sound reedy, his explorations to be suspect. When he had been younger, Jackson looked pretty in the right light (like Dylan), he touched enough on the topical to make him easy for media to parse when needed (like Dylan), he wrote melodies moms could love, especially when they were sung by the long-haired lovelies of his day (like Dylan). But he had the nerve to see something bigger, and worse, to pursue it, losing market share and breaking hearts and growing, she had to admit it, unlistenable (like Dylan).
But by that point, Jackson had gotten into film production, and his work there had gone a lot better than Dylan’s ever did. He captured the share of the indie dollars and minds that had abandoned his music, and kept him solvent enough to afford putting out music no one bought. He also found a sideline in supporting clean water rights for developing countries, and was well on his way to comfy marginalization in tribute shows and as a figurehead environmental ambassador, if he would just behave.
The pump sobbed and sighed, pulling at her breasts. If Malone’s luck held, Lynnie would sleep until five, even six; so with 10 minutes in the shower, she was looking at three hours of sleep in a worst case, four or five at the best. Not bad. She’d have the thawed milk in the refrigerator if she hadn’t built up enough when she woke up. Or she’d bring it along in case if the schedule didn’t work by the time she had to do the shoot tomorrow afternoon. But then she might miss a nursing opportunity, which meant either being too full or risking running dry. It was always a gamble to thaw one of the freezer packages; the stuff was like liquid gold. You couldn’t refreeze breast milk, and it was taboo to throw it away—unless it was full of nicotine and alcohol, she sighed, as she watched thin streams spurt into the bottles from her nipples, being stretched and released, stretched and released. She tugged the copy of Spin from across the table and skimmed an article about Outkast, stretching one hand out carefully to hold the pumps in place when she had to turn a page. She fought off sleep as her breasts got softer, emptier, the milk spurts less forceful. Thirty minutes, four hours, four a.m., every three hours, every four hours, shoot at 4 p.m., four hours sleep, three poops a day for Lynnie, eat, play, sleep, eat, play, sleep, eat, play, sleep, eat, bath, sleep, sleep, she thought, continued on page 147, and snapped back awake. Turn the pump off, put the thawed milk in the refrigerator, clean the pump, shower, oh my god I want to sleep. Please Lynnie please stay asleep. Please never get sick. Please gods five hours. Five hours would be so good. Come on. We can do this, baby. We can sleep.
The phone was ringing, the room was dark, and nothing near five hours had passed.
Malone grabbed and fumbled, furious at whoever could be behind a sound that would wake the baby. The phone was neatly on its hook all the way across the room, on top of the TV set.
She hit the button to answer before even looking at the number, just to shut the thing up. She heard fast breathing, and Bebe. “Is that you? Mal?”
“What?” Malone hissed angrily. “What the fuck is up.”
“The fuck!” Bebe said. “Yes! Jackson’s in jail! That’s what the fuck.”
“What are you talking about? Look. Wait. I have to listen.” She covered the phone with her hands and listened for any baby sounds. Then for any Nils sounds. He sat up for a second, looked pissed, said “what” and lay back down. Of course he said it out loud, not whispering. Fuck. She’d hear.
“What do you mean?” Malone said softly, into the phone. “Busted how?”
“You’ll never believe it. It’s got to be fucked up. I don’t fucking believe it.”
“He doesn’t even smoke weed,” Malone whispered, still confused and half-asleep. “What happened?”
“They’re saying—it’s so fucked up—they said child abuse.”
“He doesn’t have a child,” Malone said. “What are you talking about? Are you sure it’s him?”
“No, I mean, it’s child porn,” she said. “Yes, Gordo got a call—“ a photographer they knew—“saying be outside the Reginald, someone famous was going to get busted, and he got shots, he’s in cuffs and the cops have a laptop and it’s completely fucking fucked up.”
“You just know that didn’t happen.”
“No, of course it’s not true. Someone is fucking with him. Jesus. Jackson’s practically like a mushroom. He doesn’t fuck anyone hardly. I mean I know he probably likes guys more than girls, that’s kind of an open secret. Probably why things have sucked for him the last few years. Well, that and the music. Those little girls aren’t going to listen to listen to a big ol’ gay sing one note over a treated bassline for a half hour, or even a big straight for all that…”
Malone, whose memory of Jackson’s inclinations differed somewhat, let her run on. It sounded like someone had dipped into the stock of Vic already. That made her remember, and she cut in.
“Does Lee know? Is she OK?”
“Her brother showed up after the show and she went home with him. Maybe Jackson could use him.” Lee’s brother was an intellectual property lawyer with a big McMansion in Virginia, where Lee often stayed. “Who could be that big an asshole? Not her brother, I mean. I mean whoever did that to him.”
“Maybe it’s political,” Malone sighed. “Maybe it’s just a mistake.”
“This is going to be terrible. It’s bad enough for him already. His records are tanking, he’s giving them away anyway. He’ll be like PeeWee Herman or something!”
Malone heard a little yap and growl from the other room. “Whoa. Linney’s awake. I gotta go. I’ll call you when it’s normal.”
“Never again,” said Bebe. “Oh shit. Oh god.” There were snorts and huffs from the other end, and Malone thought she might be sobbing.“Candyman. I can’t help it,” she laughed and coughed. “Candyman, covered by Eddie Vedder.”
“I’m fucking hanging up.”
Nils groaned from the bed. “Don’t cuss so much around the baby,” he said.
Malone opened her mouth to shout FUCK’S SAKE NILS, thought better of it. She went into the baby’s room and picked up Linney, who was making little pre-cry squeaks and pops. She cuddled her into her shoulder and took her over to the changing table. The small room was toasty, so the baby didn’t mind it when Malone zipped down her fleece sleeper and lifted her legs out, pushing the sleeper aside. She took off the sopping diaper and Linney kicked delightedly, ready to play as always at 4 a.m. Just in time—the pee hadn’t soaked the sleeper. Malone wiped her down, dried her with a clean baby washcloth, and kissed her tummy and hands a little as the baby cooed. Then she gave her a fresh diaper and zipped her up again, picked her up and walked her back to her parents’ big bed.
“Map. Map.” The baby rooted against her stomach as she took the flaps down on her nursing bra. She wasn’t sure how much she’d have, but it would settle her down for another hour or two even if she was almost empty. Linney looked up with a big-eyed smile, then coughed and cried out before Malone could settle her into position and quiet her.
Nils sat up. “What’s, is she hungry? Are you feeding her? What are you doing?”
“Composing a symphony,” Malone said, adjusting the baby’s latch. “You?”
“Bebe.” She sighed. She’d have to tell him eventually. “Something really fu—weird happened,” she said.
“What do you mean? Is she OK?” Nils always said Bebe annoyed him, but Malone thought he had a little thing for her. Who didn’t? He hadn’t objected to her naming their child after her two best friends—Brandy Belinda, who hated her southern name and quickly abbreviated herself to B.B. in print, Bebe to her friends, and Lee, of course. The Velvets reference—to the song about being out on the corner, waitin’ for my Linda Lee—had escaped their families.
“She’s fine. We’re both just—in shock a little. You know Jackson?”
He nodded, stroking the baby’s head with one finger.
“Yes, you are a sweet girl,” Malone sing-songed softly to the baby. “Such a good lil baby girly … Well, he was at the club last night, at Lee’s show, and he was acting even weirder than usual. Really distant. But that doesn’t have anything to do with it,” she said quickly, immediately regretting having said anything. She had to watch every word around Nils. He’d seemed to have picked up from his sisters the suspicion of that strange dark woman he married, and where he was once on her side in everything, he now seemed ready to pounce on anything she said or did as being potentially harmful to Linney. As with Malone, the birth and the attacks combined had made a protective spirit run wild, turning the world into hostile territory.
“So what happened?” he said irritably.
“Well, she called to say he got arrested,” Malone said. Linney’s eyes were barely open and her sucking had slowed almost to a halt.
“Arrested? What, for drugs? DWI?”
“No—it’s got to be a mistake, or someone is trying to fu—mess with him. Something political, you know. Bebe said they arrested him for child porn. That they took him out of his hotel with his computer.”
“What, was there a kid in the room?” Nils said loudly, shocking Linney awake and into a Moray reflex reaction, flinging her arms out and whapping Malone softly in the chest.
“No, of course not, it was just something on his computer!” Malone said, although she knew she was just making an assumption herself, and didn’t know for sure about anything, really. She tugged a cloth off the bedside table and put it on her shoulder, then lifted Linney up to burp her. “Come on, someone’s trying to fuck him up, you know that,” ignoring Nils’ look. “You know Jackson, really!”
“I don’t know him as well as you do,” he said.
“Well, then, you see? You think I’d ever be mixed up with someone like that?”
“Jesus Nils, not that much! Come on!” She bounced the baby gently, patting her back, rocking her slightly against her collarbone and shoulder to massage the burp out. That was her best method. “It’s some fu—stupid Republican trying to mess with him, you know that. Some fan, even, some crazy fan or something.”
“Were you hanging out with him?”
“Last night? Of course I was hanging out with him! He’s an old friend, what am I supposed to do?”
“We need to stay away from him until they get to the bottom of this situation,” Nils said. She stared at him over Linney’s head, anger building “You never know,” he continued, studiously. “We have more than just what we want to think about now, you know.”
“What, do you think I’m going to take her down to the DC jail to visit him?” Malone said.
Nils would have laughed at that once. He wouldn’t even look at her, now. “That is not funny. I don’t want you anywhere near him.”
“Seeing as how I’ve only seen him once in the past six years, that shouldn’t be too damn hard, Nils. It’s not like he’s ringing the doorbell every day.”
He sighed furiously. “Will you agree.”
“Everything about this is ridiculous.”
“Will you agree.”
“I’m not going to see him! I never planned to see him! He just showed up, for god’s sake!” She rocked the baby back and forth slowly.
“And don’t get near him with the baby.”
She leaned forward, ready to carefully get out of bed and rock and whisper Linney back into her crib, tucked between her baby wedges, another technique she’d perfected to put her down without cries. “I wish you hadn’t spent all that time in asshole training,” she said. “I liked you better before you turned pro.” She softly and slowly waltz-stepped out of the room. “I liked everyone better before we turned pro,” she whispered to Linney as she tucked her little sausage body between the foam wedges and folded the ends of her sleeves, like mittens, back over her fists, to keep her from scratching herself by accident. “I love a little girl,” she whisper-sang. “You just do what you do and it’s always just right, baby, baby, sweet lil baby girl…”
When she woke up, three hours later, she was coming from another direction entirely. Since Linney had made her appearance, any moment that Malone came back into consciousness was a jolt, a gut-clenching wrench of “oh my god what happened where is she what did I forget” terror. Terror was the new wake up. And this morning wasn’t any different.
But what was different was that she had something to panic about, or so it felt to her. What were you thinking, she thought, as she picked up the little squawking bundle and strapped her in on the changing table. Of course you can’t go near Jackson. Fuck innocent until proven guilty. It’s too scary. Just stay scarce, and wait. The voices kept on as she sat in the rocking chair to nurse. So what if you know him. So what if you’ve slept with him, even. That doesn’t mean anything. Look at Ted Bundy. Lots of women slept with him and thought he was just fine.
Ted Bundy? What the fuck. Jackson isn’t Ted Bundy, she thought. Yeah, but you know. Just having that name run through her mind gave her a shiver and she cuddled Linney closer, as if the baby had somehow heard it. I’ll never let anything bad happen to you, she let herself think, though she knew it was a lie and an impossibility. Just being able to think it was a luxury.
When Linney had emptied one breast, Malone reached into the side pocket of the glider chair to get the remote. Nils frowned on TV while nursing, because his sisters had told them it was destructive somehow. They said nursing should be done in a darkened room with soothing classical music playing. There was no use protesting that when one was working and taking an infant to all the mandated enrichment activities it was no easy feat to find a darkened room, let alone a clean and private one, and that neither Malone, nor, it appeared, Linney, had any qualms about nursing anywhere they needed to, from a booth at a deli to the cactus room of the U.S. Botanical Garden. At least that place was warm. Malone remembered about a month ago, being there for a photo shoot, and after it was done, nursing Linney as a snow flurry started up beyond the greenhouse glass walls. They found their peace where they could get it.
She scanned the channels for news of Jackson. Through the next half hour of rocking, nursing, and burping she caught a tail end on a morning news show and a relatively long, two-minute report on MTV news, which for once wasn’t a few days behind and read off a publicists’ news release. It said that he had been “taken in for questioning” on “disturbing computer files” including “possible child pornography” and “emails about the shoe bomber.”
That was a weird one. Why the shoe bomber? What did that have to do with perv porn? Was it some kind of fetish thing? Jackson didn’t have a foot fetish. That was that other guy, the one who used to work for the Times-Herald and became a screenwriter. Everyone she used to know was doing really well for themselves—the men, at least. She was doing OK. She knew some people thought she was doing better than she deserved. But she and Nils were like the cooks and maintenance people in the castle. Not like the level of Seth, or Jackson, for that matter.
And look where that got him. She knew that voice—the voice of her mother, of aunts and uncles, every dour Irish who’d scrabbled their way out of Appalachia and into the District for defense work in World War II and had stayed, getting bigger houses and bigger TVs and bigger families and bigger churches but remaining solid in their small conviction that life was not any better for them and held no pleasant surprises. And though that pessimism had come under plenty of condemnation, from friends, lovers, Nils, even from Malone herself—she had to admit she found it preferable to the bottomless Amway-salesman optimism that seemed to be the only alternative offered nowadays.
In her recent months of sleep deprivation, she’d gotten used to the voices and images that floated through her mind, found them easy to disregard. All day, as she ferried Linney from place to place, worked and nursed, drove and shot pictures, a part of herself was reaching out to catch news reports, and another part of her was drifting through images and memories as if floating in the surf off Brashton Beach, the water she’d been in and out of for 10 of her best years.
Nils had headed out early that morning; his day was allegedly 9-to-5, though it often spilled over into the night, when he was called on to accompany athletes, broadcasters, managers, and agents in their pursuit of giant steaks or strip clubs. The last actually didn’t happen too often, because this was the Nation’s Capital, and visitors were on somewhat better behavior. Occasionally they’d even choose Italian over steakhouses. The nonprofit he worked for, with the calculatedly vague name of Excellence United, provided a way for those in the sports world who wanted to help causes and/or burnish their images do it in a way that wouldn’t come back to bite them. Many of them were absolutely sincere in their devotion to causes, and Nils accepted all of them as so, without question. Law and business minds saw to it that the association itself kept its overhead low and its giving high, and Nils’s salary as communications director reflected that. They both made a living that would have been astonishing in Brashton, but in DC gave them the status of people “in the creative professions.” That meant they were not lawyers. It also meant they were the ones whose children would go to public schools (it’s wonderful how they’re so involved in their community! people would say), and that if you asked them out, it would be to obscure restaurants in Wheaton or Arlington, Mexican or Ethiopian or Vietnamese, and that their home entertaining would mean lots of pasta and wines foraged from the ends of the sale aisle at the Rodman’s. But despite being “poor,” they’d have the best music and movies, and excellent weed, if you were so inclined.
As a communications director, Nils’s job was at least half the time that of handler or walker. Communications consisted of a bi-weekly news release on a visit from a personage, an annually late annual report, a website that jammed on its primitive flash intro, and photos from visits, both grip-and-grin and behind-the-mic testimony.
Nils had the gift of being able to associate with famous, talented, and powerful people without being fawning or annoying, an encyclopedic knowledge of all sports, and minor fame as a scholarship basketball player at Brashton before an ACL injury in his sophomore year. After that, he’d devoted himself to an MBA and to concentration on what had been Brashton’s major industry, and what still was to some generations: golf.
For Brashton Beach had been famous before it became the center of a music scene. Not famous under its own name, of course. Brashton Beach was only the staging area for the main event, the Magnolia Island Golf Tournament, a gathering so legendary and so white that it required identification by only one name, like Madonna, and that name was Magnolia. The old boys would sometimes party in Brashton Beach, and would venture inland to its strip clubs and fish camps, but the major action bypassed Brashton for the gated barrier island of Magnolia, just to the north. As you headed up Route 1, just miles before the Georgia border, a genteel hush would descend, your car would begin to fill with frigid air (to match the lobbies and bedrooms of the resort hotels) and you could just about hear soft clapping surround you. Magnolia was gently active all year around with resort visitors, the lucky and rich locals who were actual club members, and the rare visitors given the privilege to play. But for a few weeks in June, the dozing lion stretched and welcomed a sort of old-white-guy Woodstock. The magnolia would bloom (sometimes, it was rumored, forced by the application of hot air from hair dryers if nature did not comply with the tournament schedule), Cadillacs, Mercedeses and Lexi would pop out along the shoulders of the narrow beach roads like new muscles, and illegal Cohibas incensed the air.
This had been Nils’ playground, as in his role in Marketing he pocketed tips and cigars, accepted bottles of single-malt and pats on the back, and occasionally pilfered amyl nitrate poppers from the cardiac sufferers of the Magnolia club’s locker rooms. In return, he was a standup drinking companion, a maker of connections, a guide to the strip clubs, and a very occasional card player or scorer of coke and weed. He was pretty much doing the same thing now in DC, minus the poppers, coke, and the fantasy-perfect weather.
Little wonder he and Malone had been regarded as the least likely couple. She: tatted, pierced, knife-cut hair, playing bass at all-ages shows at the Surf Club with Evangeline’s Chiffarobe (lead singer and guitarist, Lee Ocala, a.k.a. the one with the talent), hanging out in squats with gangs of surfer runaways to photograph them, hanging out inland with Guatamalan women migrant strawberry pickers to photograph them, hanging out at Zook’s Fish Camp with the 80-year-old woman who had run it since before World War II to photograph her, hanging out with her camera around her neck until the people she was hanging out with forgot that she, and it, were there. Her way of capturing images took time and effort and money, all three given only occasionally and begrudgingly by the local newspaper, where she interned and part-timed as she made her way through Brashton University, and then worked full time after graduating. The newspaper covered a rapidly developing East Coast stretch of North Florida and South Georgia. It was owned by an old family that also owned a trucking line, a paper mill, a second-string chain of Southeast-region city and tourist magazines, a TV station, and the main resort on Magnolia Island—that is, they owned everything.
So whenever tournament time came around, it was all hands on deck, and Malone pulled back her hair and put on a polo shirt, less at the newspaper’s urging than at her own desire to blend in and be left alone. It was bad enough being a woman around that place and that bunch of jerks.
Nils saw her because he wanted something different than what he could easily have anywhere else, and Malone detected in him someone interesting hiding. And he was extraordinarily good looking, there was that—tall, tanned, blond and lanky. He had a little streak of catlike elegance and an unexpectedly decadent approach to sex, pleasing as it was surprising to her.
Malone had just broken off the latest stage in her serial monogamy, mostly out of boredom. Before that, two years before that, there had been the confounding interlude with Jackson, a hookup that was a rite of passage for anyone truly part of the Brashton scene. Jackson tended to glom onto someone for about six months, slept, ate, toured, played with them, without an inch of space allowed between them, until he dropped them cold. That was his way—and not different from Malone’s involvement when she was doing one of her photo projects.
Malone had spent her six months in Jackson’s little rented house in the dunes, with mangrove and saw palmetto grown wild all around it, so you practically had to cut your way through (if the palmetto didn’t cut you up first). The overgrowth blocked all the windows, so inside you felt like you were in a fish tank; by the end of their time together, she felt starved for light and air. She was almost glad when the drop hit her: At a random beach house party, she saw him squeezing into an armchair with a new freshman girl, one with an adorable fairy-face and wearing those little Chinese cloth slippers with the mary-jane strap that all the new girls seemed to be wearing that year.
By the time she’d met Nils, Malone was older: Really working, with a 401k and health insurance. Her credit card was occasionally pressed into service when Lee—now solo—was touring. She’d even used it to book a few motel rooms during Seawall’s early touring days.
They’d had a good four years, with the wedding in the middle of it. Just edgy enough to keep things interesting, with Malone even picking up some travel and fashion work as Brashton competed with Seattle, Portland, Austin, Athens, Detroit for the best scene. A lot of shows, a lot of surfing, and then the rogue wave knockdown: Death. Her brother, her father, both gone in the space of months.
The newspaper chain family owned a magazine in DC. She begged them for a job there so she could go back to where she had grown up and live closer to her mother, now alone and much farther down the road to dementia than her father had let anyone see. Nils made a few calls, got scooped up fast, and they left the beach behind.
In Brashton, she and Nils had been the grownups of the group. In DC, it got more obvious that maturity was relative to their surroundings. She had forgotten that people in DC were born old. For the first year at Capital Life and even beyond—even in the clubs at times—Malone was viewed with suspicion. Clothing and mannerisms that were normal for Brashton and that would have been seen as mildly “artistic” in New York were shocking in DC. Showing up for a shoot in her normal t-shirt, boy’s jeans and high tops wasn’t done—not more than a few times by her, anyway.
And she’d forgotten how much the people there cared about race and ethnicity. Malone had grown up blurring the line—no one had ever known if she was biracial, Latina, Indian, Native American, what. People sometimes used the word “exotic.” In Brashton, helped along with her usual outfit of tan and bikini, people tended to assume she was Hawaiian. In reality, she wasn’t sure what she “was.” Her father, Jordon Collins, had been cut off by his whole family when he turned Catholic just to get her mother, and he hardly ever talked about it. But when she was 12, on her first day of Catholic school, someone had called her an unspeakable word, the one she had never been allowed to say and had only heard once or twice on the street and never in her little neighborhood public school, where she’d been gently coddled by ‘70s idealist teachers.
“We’ve probably got some black in us, from way back,” her father said. “I’ve got no problem with it.” He told her his family was called “Melungeons. Like Elvis,” as she listened, thoroughly confused and fascinated. It was kind of like a tribe, he said. “A lot of them put on airs and say they’re Arabs, and maybe we’ve got some Indian, too. But it doesn’t mean much of anything,” he said. “It’s American. You’re American, that’s all there is to it.”
It all came down to “y’all.” She’d grown up saying y’all, everyone she knew said it, black, white, or whatever, and in Brashton it had served perfectly well as both singular and plural second person address. But when she moved back to DC, at the end of the century, all the “y’alls” seemed to have been wiped out. Everywhere there was tech money and government money, and she was expected to “dress.” She tried to keep up, but she was still a little backward about manners and mannerisms, and so she hid behind her camera, did her work as well as she could, and accepted the social place she was assigned, somewhere between intern and bike messenger.
Nils fit in as effortlessly, as he did everything.
Malone flipped channels and settled on a Behind the Music on Boy George, rocking softly as Linney dozed in her arms. Nils’s sisters said you weren’t supposed to let the baby sleep after nursing or she’d never learn to fall asleep on her own and would grow up to use food as a soothing mechanism and would become an obese child. Nils’s sisters said, Nils’s sisters said … bleh. Considering that she and Nils were both of the type of build that could give each other bone bruises in bed, Malone had opted to cross childhood obesity off her list of worries, and let Linney eat and sleep when she wanted to, whenever she could.
In about an hour, Malone knew, Linney would wake up and give a little squawk, to be changed. She’d change both their clothes and take her to the bookstore for the free infant fun time, feed her, have lunch and tea if the woman she liked to hang out with was there, while Linney nursed again or napped in her carseat, then drive out to her photo shoot, a new kitchen and home theater in a Great Falls pile, then back to the magazine offices, then to pick up Nils, then home to eat something, what, Jesus, what would they eat, then night. Then another day much like it, and then the weekend, with a lot of quality time with Nils’s sisters. She hoped there wouldn’t be any ice on the roads out in Great Falls. Even in March, it was freezing at night, and ice patches persisted in the shade out that way. She hoped Boy George would stay off the smack. She hoped Boy George could someday revive his career. She hoped she hadn’t slept with a monster, all those years ago.
Thursday mornings were Active Baby! times at the Independent Word, the large, determinedly non-chain bookstore down the street. Naturally, she called it Achtung Baby!, and it was a measure of how bad things were between she and Nils that he hadn’t noticed yet. The bookstore was the favored place for the famous-for-DC to inaugurate their book tours, and it was always ready with a banner on the podium, a signing table, and lots of setting up and taking down of chairs happening on the street level.
But the half-basement was babyland, with a jumble of expensive strollers set like briars around the castle to thwart any who came in the wrong door, looking for the former assistant undersecretary to the whatever reading his memoirs. Smart nannies knew to market themselves by including in their “positions wanted” ad on the Nanny Talk website that they “enjoy taking children to activities such as the storytime at the Independent Word.” The Nanny Talk website itself was made to talk about nannies, not intended as a place for nannies themselves to talk. It was created by a few underemployed DC mommies and included a forum where you could narc on nannies caught feeding their charges Utz and Yoohoo for snack or talking on their cell phones while a toddler got in a sand-throwing battle. All other things being equal, mentioning the Independent Word storytime could land a nanny a nice spot in a double-lawyer household with a Mercedes SUV at her disposal.
The bookstore was flanked by a coffee shop, where the mommies and babies went, and a bar, where the real people went. Malone knew her place. People had been mistaking her for a nanny for seven months now.
Storytimes were segregated by age in an attempt to avoid incident, but it was still like The Who in Cincinnati when the story lady took her seat. Any babies who could toddle to the front of the pack did, and they didn’t care who they had to crawl over to get there. Eighteen months was the upper range for Achtung Baby!, which was less about reading than about songs, sock puppets, exercise—stopping childhood obesity starts early!—and watching the reader make extremely odd faces and sounds intended to stimulate language development. Malone figured it got them out of the house, and Linney seemed to get a kick out of it.
She’d kept to the back of the pack the first few times they’d gone, to stay out of the fray. Now Jessica, another mother she’d become friends with, often sat back there with her. She usually wore a bandanna over her long hair and long skirts like a hippie and had a boy who was as big and healthy as Linney. At first, she’d thought her baby was a girl, because he had beautiful black curls grazing his shoulders.
“They look like they can hold their own in this crowd,” said the other mom the first they were there, as they watched their babies attempt to sit up, rock over, reach for toys and try to locomote across a small blanket Malone had put down to get Linny some “tummy time.”
“Is she about five months, too?” Malone asked, admiring the baby’s hair. Linney had been born bald and it appeared she’d stay that way, though she made up for it in eyelashes.
“He,” the mother corrected.
“Oh, I’m sorry, it’s the hair…it’s beautiful,” Malone said, feeling stupid.
“I can’t cut it until he’s three years old, so of course he’s born with a full head of hippie hair already,” she said.
“Oh,” said Malone, who wanted to ask why but never did for fear of being impolite. “Well, it’s beautiful. You could keep it.”
“Nah, it’s too much trouble. I’m almost regretting it already. I’m totally a Chinese menu Jew. I just take the traditions I like and leave the ones I don’t. But this one I like, despite the complaining. Everyone’s gonna think you’re a little girl for three years, and then they’re gonna think you’re in the army, buddy,” she said, letting her baby capture her finger and pulling him very gently into a little side to side rock. “We’re shavin’ you.”
“She’s five months, too. Were you…near that date?” “Yeah, I was right on that morning,” she said. Malone gave a sound of sympathy. “I was supposed to be at a birthing center, but they said I had complications, which weren’t complications at all, they were just afraid of getting sued. So they sent me over to Georgetown that morning, and nobody paid attention but the midwife, so I might as well as had a home birth.”
“I was the day before 9-11. Or I mean, it was about a week after I was supposed to deliver. I had to have a c-section.”
Linney had managed to sit up and was sucking on one fist and bouncing a little. “She loves the songs,” Malone said. “I had to stay in the hospital because of the c-section, but they said I wasn’t in a rooming-in room, you know, where they let you have the baby with you. But after the attack happened, they put her in a cart and wheeled her in and said you deal with her, we’re busy. That was OK with me,” she said. She remembered the hours and hours of labor, being forbidden to move because she might dislodge the fetal monitor, everything stuck in place and the headphones clamped to her head, listening to Radiohead’s Pyramid Song over and over.
“Are you OK with the c-section?” she asked.
“Yeah. I mean I wanted to go without it, but two days of labor and I never got past nine centimeters. I’m certain now it was just that I didn’t want to let her go,” Malone was surprised to hear herself say. If anyone else had said such a thing, she would have wanted to deck them, and on top of that, she was saying it to a stranger. “Of course, it might have been because she was 11 pounds.”
“Holy crap!” the other mother said, toning the second word down just in time to avoid too many startled looks. “And you’re so tiny!”
Jessica kept up their talk at the coffee shop after storytime, because Malone didn’t have an assignment that day, and it had become a routine. Jessica was a single mom. Malone wanted to ask her over but wasn’t sure how to do it, exactly. It was weird—how do you make new friends when you’re a grownup?
Nils was intrigued by her tales of Jessica the semi-orthodox single mom. He kept asking questions about “how,” and whether she was a lesbian, and teasing Malone about having a crush. She never asked questions about things like that; she figured people would tell her if they wanted her to know. Like when Jessica explained about the haircutting, that some Israeli parents don’t do the first haircut until the third birthday, and how for her it was tied into the old Lilith legends, which she had reinterpreted to mean an overprotective, overbearing feminine presence and wanted to exorcise from her life any tendencies to that, because she now had to be responsible for raising a boy.
They could talk about all manner of things like this, so Malone wasn’t going to endanger that by grilling Jessica on “where’s the daddy” bullshit. Today, as they sat in the coffee shop with tea (for Jessica) and decaf soy latte (for Malone), and the mellow melisma of Alicia Keys or some clone piped in (grating on Malone), nursing their children, they talked about vaccination. Nils’ sisters were against it, saying it led to all kinds of problems from autism to obesity, the latter a Crowleyesque evil in their parade of sins. Vaccination was one battle that she didn’t have to fight, thank god, because Nils thought his sisters were fucking nuts, of course you get a damn measles shot, it hadn’t hurt him any, had it?
“Look, with these two, we could pretty much swing them through a room full of chicken pox germs and they’d be fine,” said Jessica. “I mean we’re nursing, they’re big, no respiratory problems. The thing that gets me,” she lowered her voice, although there were naught but nannies around, all busy talking to each other, “is when an upper-middle class woman decides not to get her kids vaccinated, she’s relying on herd immunity. So her kid catches something, that’s bad enough. But then her kid passes it on to a kid who hasn’t had a vaccination, maybe has asthma, maybe HIV, and that’s the kid who gets really sick.” She leaned back and spoke in a normal tone again. “I was a red-diaper baby, can you tell?”
Malone was trying to think of a way to ask her over to her house sometime when she saw the time. She popped Linney loose and put her boob back in her bra, said her goodbyes, and headed out to shoot a brand new kitchen in a Great Falls home about 10 times the size of hers.
Washington, DC, is, as George Clinton sings, Chocolate City. Most of the people who live and work there are African-American. Many of those in the elite, in the powerful and educated classes, are African-American as well; it is the home of Howard University, considered the “black Harvard.” A few miles from where Malone had grown up, just over the DC line in Prince George’s County, has the largest population of African-Americans with the highest per-capita income in the nation.
So naturally, when Malone walked into the offices at Capital Life, the city magazine whose mission was to represent Washington, DC, the first person she saw was black. This was the receptionist, Jeannette. Unfortunately, Jeannette was the only black person she had ever seen working at the magazine. In the large lobby display of ten years of magazine covers, there were two black faces and three Asian ones.
And then there was Malone, who suspected she was being used to fill in a blank somewhere.
This was not something that was ever discussed, not by Malone or by Jeanette nor by anyone else Malone had heard, except her friend Andy, who served as the magazine’s librarian. No one paid much attention to either of them, and as a consequence, they could talk about anything.
Jeannette cooed over the baby, who Malone was toting around in her carrier, a shell that could pop into a carseat or the stroller or serve as a portable bed.
“Is everything OK?” Malone automatically asked. That was code for “has the publisher had a psychotic break?” which happened from time to time.
“Everything is fine today,” Jeannette beamed. “Oh, little smiley! Let me see that again. Let me see that again. Oh, such a cutie!” She looked up at Malone. “They were doing best bagels today,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “There are bagels all over the place, if you’re into that.”
Malone shook her head and walked back to photo. The magazine offices were usually deserted, except for one week out of the month. She stashed Linney between two desks, where she’d be less likely for anyone to trip over her, attached her dangle toy to the handle of the shell, and sat down and started loading photos off her camera and onto the computer, filing and tweaking, working too fast.
The entertainment editor walked in to look at some slides at the light table. “Hey,” he said. “There’s bagels.”
“Umm,” Malone answered. “Gotta finish this.”
“What’s that? Ohhhhhh,” he sighed, leaning over to look at the screen. “I love that range hood. And a pot filler!”
“I don’t get the whole range hood thing,” Malone said. “Everyone’s doing them now. There was one guy, he had downdraft ventilation but he put in a fake range hood, just for the look.”
“Oh, please. OK, so what do you think, Mary J. Blige or Placido?”
Malone snorted, clicking away a flare of light in the corner of the photo, speck by speck. “What do YOU think.”
A few squawks came from the floor between the desks. “Give that baby a bagel,” he said mildly, as he wandered out.
Malone saved and moved the last file into place and shot an email to the photo editor, recommending he use the one with the range hood as the lead. If it had attracted James, it had to be good. James had helped her get a handle on the foreign territory of interior design, and she was sometimes able to return the favor in entertainment. She wasn’t the only one at the magazine who was a misfit.
Some people thought Malone had a glamorous job and that she must know everyone famous-for-DC. Reading the magazine masthead, you would see all sorts of Washington names from politics and arts and media, past and present, listed under “contributors.” And occasionally these people showed up at events, or wrote a let the magazine print a book excerpt. But the ones who actually did the work were a bunch of invisibles.
If one could bring oneself to overlook the institutionalized racism, as Malone did, it wasn’t too bad. Better than the Brashton newspaper in a lot of ways. The publisher was insane—truly so, but it didn’t matter. He was a relative of the Magnolia clan down south, and he was permanently set in place. A few times a year, he’d disappear for “hunting trips” and “golfing trips” that were often actually hospitalizations. The editor was OK, though. He didn’t do pay for play; he kept the wall up between ads and editorial. Before Linney was born, he’d given Malone dispensation to spend three months with breast cancer survivors, doing a series of portraits, as long as she kept up with shooting bathrooms for the special design supplements. He’d once floated an excellent reporter through four years and two maternity leaves so she could trace corruption in the schools. And he’d kept the florid restaurant reviewer on salary and benefits for two years, letting him continue to savor sweetbreads and sniff out botrysis through prostate cancer, radiation, and a stroke, only taking him off the payroll when he died.
The editor never left his office during a work day, not even for lunch. Occasionally, he would have a criticism or a compliment. He would write it on a post-it note. She had received three such notes in three years, one giving her permission to do the cancer survivor portraits, one suggesting she try to make the bathrooms look a little brighter, and one reminding her to “never show the toilets.”
The editor had never said anything one way or another about her bringing Linney to work. That would be over soon. Starting next week, she’d have the privilege of working so she could pay for day care—working part-time, and day-care part-time. It made no sense. The idea is she’d do freelance during her other days, but once Linney started to crawl that would be impossible, she knew. But if she gave up her job, she might never get it back, especially after the way things tanked after 9/11. She had no illusions about being a particular protected favorite, nor was she distantly related to a Kennedy, a Bush, or a Magnolia. Going to part-time was the only way she could keep from being replaced althogether.
She hated the thought of leaving Linney. She didn’t care how good the daycare she’d scored for her was supposed to be. She wanted her with her, every second, whether anyone said it was safe or not. But soon Linney would be crawling. She had to let her go. She would make just enough to cover the bills for food and clothing, which for them were on the small side.
She picked up Linney in her carrier and walked back through a maze of odd hallways to see Andy for a second. The editor thought it was important that people have actual offices, and so the sixth floor was a warren of drywall, stapled cables, and flimsy doorframes. The photo department was the only open space. The big editors, and a few “names” who never showed up, had offices around the edges, the ones with the windows. Most of the offices had nothing but one empty desk in them and a name on the door. Why couldn’t she use one as a nursery?
At the back, in a long shotgun-shack lineup of drywalled former utility closets, was Andy’s den. He had a bed in there—a gray futon sofa you could barely see behind slumping stacks of papers, books, magazines, file folders, galleys, topped with old food wrappers and funky coffee mugs. He had two desktop computers but usually used a laptop, plus a Bloomberg terminal blinking out market numbers and business wire stories 24 hours a day. But all the paraphernalia wasn’t the point—Andy himself was the computer. Everyone called him for everything, from all kinds of publications, not just Capital Life. And not just the ones in the Magnolia-owned chains. The Post, the Times, the New York Times, people writing books, the television stations—he had secret “friends” everywhere, and they traded bits of information back and forth. Oddest of all for DC, he didn’t flaunt it. They were all just “a guy I know, somebody told me.” No name-dropping. Some people said he lived in the office, but she knew that wasn’t true, because he spent at least a quarter of his time at the Washingtoniana room at the MLK library, and because she knew he had a basement apartment on Capitol Hill, near the Tune Inn.
He wouldn’t have survived anywhere else, and he wouldn’t have been allowed to. The absentee leadership let him flourish, like mold. He had saved her ass on occasion, because he had a crush on her, and she let him have that crush and used it, because sometimes there wasn’t a point in doing anything else. The first few times she’d brought the baby with her, he’d seemed like he was actually afraid of Linney—and she’d been afraid to set her carrier down for fear of what she’d catch. But he’d evolved to the point of discreetly ignoring the infant, as if she were a cane or a crutch.
Part of Andy’s crush came from his deep fandom for some of the really obscure Brashton bands, the ones that only had an EP (as Malone had), and his feeling for her as a connection to that world.
He didn’t even need a preamble, starting up as soon as he saw her lean into the doorway, looking up from behind his glasses and tilting back his desk chair precariously, laptop looking small against his bulk. “The so-called terrorist emails were what really pushed it beyond credible. It was just a garden-variety Trojan horse. His bad luck, happened to be attached to an email going to Congress, next to the legit attachment, which was his testimony on water rights. The stuff that he was supposed to be delivering today. The virus hijacked a chunk of his address book. A guy I know at OnTech said it had everything stuck to it, just a big Velcro patch of heinousness, smiley faces that wouldn’t stop, praises to Allah, threats to the president, all coming from his computer to Senator VanSteen’s, about ten times, all night long.”
“Dismissed. Guy I know at Bates Henderson says probably he can sue. Of course, his reputation’s ruined forever. But if it had happened to say anything about anthrax, he’d probably still be in jail. Lucky guy.”
Malone gave him a smile for that, though she didn’t want to. When the first anthrax attacks were reported, the crazy publisher had had the whole office shut down and was still having all mail—even messenger deliveries—sent to a separate location for inspection. She’d still been gone on maternity leave but heard Andy had railed for weeks, sounding as crazy as the publisher himself. For her part, she had to thank the guy—his paranoia was her benefit, giving her one less thing to worry about when she had started bringing Linney to work that year.
“What was, the um—the child porn?”
Andy blushed and then blustered forward to cover it up. “That’s the most fucked-up thing of all. It was the Red Hot Chili Peppers! I mean, it wasn’t like Flea or anything, it was just one photo of some guys posed like that, with the tube socks, naked, with just tube socks, like it was a fake album cover.”
“Was it Jackson? I mean, like an outtake? Was he doing a Chilis parody or something?” She felt an almost swooning sense of relief, and immediately distrusted the reaction. And another thought flickered through the back of her mind: Really, Jackson, are you serious? The Chilis, they kind of suck. I mean Flea is an amazing bass player, but add it all up, and it’s repetitious, overproduced … She decided not to talk about that.
“No more details,” Andy said. “But the story’s done a 180. After all the damage is done. Couldn’t have messed him up better if they’d planned it.”
“Yeah.” Malone looked down as Linney set up a frenzy of kicking her dangling toy. “Thank you, Andy. I mean it. I didn’t know what to do with what I was hearing. He came by the show last night, you know?”
“Lee’s show? Got a set list?”
“I only stayed for Lee, not Morris, but I’ll email one to you,” she promised, picking up Linney’s carrier. “Morris came out for her encore. They did Emitt Rhodes.”
“I probably won’t see you again for a week. Thanks again, man.”
He returned to his typing. “And…that’s a wrap…” he muttered as she walked away.
She slid her ID to get out of the office suite, slid it again for the elevator down to the parking garage, and slid it again to get out of the garage and into the ugliness of a K street rush hour. Just another hour, and she could be home. She could stay home. She wouldn’t have to leave the damn house for three whole days.
It took hours to unwind her body after being out in the city with Linney. She tried to play it off—when Nils’s sisters or some alleged well-wisher or even a total stranger would say something like “How can you take her in the city, after what happened?!?” she would shrug and say, “You’re right, maybe we’ll move to Oklahoma.” She knew the stats, the logic, the probabilities behind the dangers, and she lived by them, and she didn’t believe a fucking bit of the numbers and the odds, because every second what she loved most in the world was under some vague threat, and that threw the equation right off, didn’t it. There were soldiers in the streets and guys with guns in the airports, and everywhere you looked there was a TV screen telling you: Everything is going to be fine, as long as you’re afraid all the time and never, ever relax again.
Then there was the other camp, who told her she was overprotective, giving in too much, that she should teach that child to drink from a bottle, put her in day care, and get on with it, that she was a “helicopter mother” hovering and worrying too much about organic food and lead in the water.
So she’d blown it off, and she’d worried, and she was wrong both times—and Linney was fine. She’d always gotten along by making herself invisible, the quiet one who disappeared behind a sketch pad or a camera until everyone forgot she was there. All she did was have a baby, something people do all the time. Why did that turn her into a target?
She bounced over the potholes and between the cement barriers of the K street service road for 10 blocks, to scoop up Nils at the lobby of his building. Linney was squawking, Malone hoped she wouldn’t start crying just as Nils got in the car, so of course that happened. They swung around the corner, baby howling like a siren, to stop outside a steakhouse to pick up to-go dinners Neils had ordered on the company discount. She was supposed to have red meat twice a week, because she’d been anemic since the c-section, and Nils’ company liked to give the chain business.
There was no place to park, so she angled into one of the valet slots. It was too early yet for the restaurant to get too pissed. She cranked her seat flat and slid into the backseat next to Linney’s carseat. “Hello, beautiful,” she said. Linney focused on her for a moment, then cried again, waving her arms to get the message across. Malone tugged the loose neckline of her sweater down, unsnapped the cup of the nursing bra, and whipped it out, plunking her nipple straight into Linney’s rooting mouth. Screw the valet guys, so they get an eyeful in return for letting her park here, she thought, as she and the baby relaxed. Whatever else happened, there was one thing they could take care of.
Then her cell phone rang. Nils, damn, she thought, and stretched one arm over to the spot between the front seats where she’d left it, picked it up and hit the button. It was a very crackly Bebe.
“I’ve kind of got my hands full,” she said, one hand holding the phone to her ear and the other holding her breast for the baby.
“Have you checked your email?” Bebe said.
“No, I have not, really!”
“It’s Seth,” she said, at the same time as Malone was saying “I heard Jackson’s out, is he OK?” not wanting to ask, really. Linney sucked as if her life depended on it, eyes shut tight.
“He’s OK, and it was all a total hoax, some kind of hacker thing, but that’s all I know. I’m trying to find out. But this is about Seth. He’s been emailing you and he didn’t hear so he started bothering me. He wants us to come out to his place tomorrow and strategize for the book party.” “Strategize. What the f—hell.” “I know, he’s being a dick rockstar, you know, but I can’t say no. Maybe he wants me to cater it. Clean his bathrooms. Can you come? We’ll drive, we’ll pick you up. Why don’t you ever check your email?”
“I do,” Malone said, distracted, as Linney stopped drinking and let go with a sigh. “It’s my other email, I think. It’s the AOL, that thing’s crap, I never use it anymore. He probably wrote to that one.”
“Well, we’d get you like, 11? Can you do it?”
“God, he’s where, Virginia? Great Falls again, fuck,” she said, forgetting she wasn’t supposed to cuss around the baby. “Look, I’ll call you when I get home, about an hour, OK. I’ll find a way. I’ll call you.”
“OK, please! OK? Bye.”
She pushed the button and tossed the phone back to the front seat, missed, and cursed again as it hit the driver’s seat floor. She put her breast back and snapped up. Linney let out a burp with a blap of milk Malone caught with the tail end of her sweater and a bit of coat. Linney smiled. “Of course I love a good girl,” Malone murmured at her. “Just a little bit of little girl time, here we go baby girl,” and scrambled back into the front seat, as Nils was opening the passenger seat to a blast of cold air, trying to balance a bag full of stacked food containers, wrapped up as fancy as a Japanese gift. “Jesus, I can’t get this—can you give me a hand with this?”
The Sisters, she thought. I’ll have to call on one of his sisters to babysit. Fucking Seth. And: Oh my god, I’m so hungry and thirsty I’m about to die right here on K street.
“It’s just fiiiiiinnneee,” said Karen, lifting a happy and wriggling Linney out of her carrier. “This pretty girl is all miiiiinnne!” she cooed, and Linney seemed agreeable to that.
“I really appreciate this,” said Malone, taking the bottles out of the lunch cooler and putting them in the (double-door stainless Sub-Zero) refrigerator. “Especially the short notice. It’s really a one-time thing, not my regular work,” but Karen wasn’t listening.
“You stay out as long as you want,” she said. “I’ve got the carseat for her when I go to pick up the kids at school, then Brittany has ballet, but you can watch the ballet class, can’t you? Do you want to be a little ballerina too?” She was, of course, addressing Linney, not Malone.
“I should be back by about three,” Malone said.
“Go have some dinner,” Karen said, lifting Linney up to her shoulder to rock her. “I’ll just hold onto this little bundle as long as I can. Makes me want to have anooootheeerrr,” she sang. She looked at Malone, very seriously. “We’re just glad we can help you,” she said. “It’s important for you to work. We understand that. Kathy and I will help any way we can. We know your work is important to how you feel about yourself. You need an outlet!”
It’s also important to paying the mortgage, Malone thought, but would never say. They didn’t get that part of things, just like they didn’t get why their handsome, successful brother would have paired off with that, well, she’s kind of like a hippie, but kind of tough, isn’t she? Isn’t she Italian? No? She seems like she’s Italian. Or from New York, anyway—and they’d turn and wipe down a counter, punch down a bowl of homemade bread dough, birth another child and redecorate the living room. People say she’s kind of an artist, so that must be it.
They’d invested in supporting Malone’s “work,” because it had gotten her some attention, and it was the only thing they could understand that could be appealing about her. They weren’t quite as clueless as their mother—who’d say things like “there are so many museums in Washington! Why don’t you sell your photographs there?” They’d come up a bit from Minnesota and landed firmly in Loudoun County, a land nearly as white and much more comfortable. They were pioneers in their own way, lobbying for organic food in the school lunches and early reading programs in the daycare centers.
Besides, thought Malone as she drove off to Lee’s brother’s house to meet the rest, this wasn’t a mortgage-paying activity. She could say it was to help friends, but truly, Karen had hit it: It was important to help her feel good.
March didn’t mean spring, not early March, at least. She accepted hugs and turned down coffee, then slid into the middle of the backseat of Lee’s brother’s cushy Secret Service-style black SUV, wedged between Lee on one side and Tommy, the bassist, on the other. Bebe was shotgun and Joey was driving, though nobody called him Joey anymore. He zoomed along the narrow, ice-choked roads expertly, steering with one hand, high on having a day off, just like she was, she thought. The radio was blasting the classic rock station, Led Zeppelin; that would be Bebe, who never put in a CD if she could listen to the radio, even though all the stations were preprogrammed now.
The opening bars of Billy Joel’s You May Be Right blasted out, and Malone cried out, in spite of herself, “Oh god no!” But Bebe was quick on the dial, and shot them into some Earth Wind and Fire, After the Love is Gone before any damage could be done. Malone sighed. “Thank you,” she said.
“He was never any good after he went all new wave,” Bebe said. “He was once the consummate craftsman,” she declared, hitting the “cs” pretentiously, as if she were Orson Wells shilling for Gallo. “Limning the kitchen sink narratives of the Italian subculture of a vanishing New York City, the Piano Man’s lyrics painted word pictures much in the manner of a kinder, gentler, Martin Scorsese. Some even went so far as to call him America’s Elvis Costello!”
“I’m gonna fucking kill you,” Malone said. “Plus I hate this song.”
She sang along on the whoa-whoa-whoa windup anyway, Lee joining her, continuing to climb octave after octave in some demented vocal warmup parody long after the song had finished: “After the love is GONE. Usedta be right is WRONG. Whoa-whoa-whoa,” until even Lee’s voice lost its clarity. She was the one that had the reach, whereas kind listeners used to say Malone “sounded a little like Nico.”
Tommy took out a small pipe, got Joey’s enthusiastic permission, and lit up. Malone wondered if the secondhand smoke wouldn’t be so bad that she might as well toke up anyhow, and how would she get the smell out of her clothes around the sisters, and then leaned back, deciding not to care.
The cold air and the hot car and the smell of a man in an old leather jacket and the weed and old tobacco were delicious to her. “How about Billy Idol covering Billy Joel,” Malone asked Bebe.
“He already did, what the fuck’s White Wedding,” she said, trolling the dial.
“You’re killing me, Bodeaux,” said Joey, reaching out to stop her hand.
“No way, all your radio is belong to us!” Of course he didn’t stop her. Any man let Bebe do anything she wanted, for all the good it did her. Malone remembered the way she glowed in the crowds at the Brashton clubs, a redhead who never tanned at the beach like everyone else. Malone and Lee, with their black hair, got dark and looked ethnic—and now were starting to look leathery, she thought, contemplating her hands. She wedged them in her pocket. “Go go Godzilla!” she sang.
“Ice-T covers it,” Bebe said.
“No shit,” said Tommy, interested.
“In my dreams, my love,” she said.
“You’re so ‘80s,” said Lee, taking the pipe and taking a hit and waving it in front of Malone.
“He’s an actor now,” said Malone. She had watched TV drama and Behind the Musics and the Marx Brothers marathon nonstop, anything but the fucking news, for what felt like three solid months after Linney had been born. Anything but the fucking news. We’re just going to hide right here, little girl, safe from the anthrax and the bombs and the planes. But she still heard the helicopters, day and night, the sound sometimes waking Linney up.
She reached out for the pipe the next time it came around. “You getting anything off that?” Tommy asked, with sweet concern. “Hey, thanks for the present the other night, by the way.”
“I do share and I do my share,” Lee sang, an old line from a Jackson song. And they all didn’t say anything for a little bit. They’d caught up on the latest earlier—he was back in Brashton, hiding out, if you could say that of a guy who was a recluse before this had happened.
“So, who wants to make this interesting?” Bebe said, switching the station to get Brittney Spears.
“Jesus,” said Lee.
“I like her! So bet how long before Seth starts looking all sanctimonious about Jackson and says something to the effect of how there always was something he didn’t like about that guy?”
“Yeah, that he’s talented,” said Malone. Tommy lit her up for another hit. No driving for three hours, pump and dump, be hung for a lion as a sheep.
“I would like to avoid the topic,” Lee said.
“Yes,” said Bebe, turning around to look at them, her green eyes wide. “Bless his heart, this is supposed to be Seth’s special day. Ain’t none of us going to ruin that with that kind of talk now, will we ladies.” She turned around and punched at the dial again. “You know what, though, we have to watch out for his shit. He talks to the papers all the time, he’ll use it for some bullshit political statement now that he’s a poor put-upon right winger, just standing up for his country, and he’ll make Jackson look bad. Worse. It’s what he does.”
“If anyone can make him look worse, now,” Lee said.
“It is Seth’s special time, it would seem,” Malone said.
“Wait!” Bebe yelled, and they all listened. It was Radar Love. Everyone but Malone began dancing in their seats, and even Joey banged on the wheel. She put her head back again and remembered a hot car on a cold night and the smell of weed, on one of many short tours, a cane-handle up the coast, Chapel Hill, Richmond, DC, Philly, Hoboken, around and back down South to Brashton again, with Jackson, back in the beginning. Changing the dials and getting their homeboy, or close enough for rock and roll, if the distance from Brashton to Macon were measured by motorcycle. It was Duane Allman on Layla, the guitar tracks rising, merging, twining. She was driving, Jackson dozing. But his eyes were half open, she saw, and he was smiling. “The great speckled bird,” he said, quietly, and she knew just what he meant. That was the hard part to give up—people you could get with just a few words.
“Is this the right place?” Lee asked. They had taken a turn off the main road, toward the river, and were jouncing over a gravel road, past some cleared lots and construction equipment. Piles of dirt and rock and random sticks topped by fluttering orange tape marked plats on either side of the road.
“Yeah, they’ve just turned this land loose,” Joey said. “Used to be one big estate. It finally got out of receivership and they’ve been selling it off in little pieces. They’ve got a big thing planned with a clubhouse, stables, whole nine yards.”
“Whoa,” Bebe said, looking up ahead at a half-built version of an Italianate villa looming over the road ahead.
“Whoa, Nellie,” giggled Lee. “Giddyup!’ she called softly.
“Does Seth ride? I didn’t know he was into horses,” said Bebe.
“He does all that stuff,” Lee said. “But mostly with him, it’s hunting. Anything with a gun.”
They came around a sharp bend between some woods that had been left standing, and drove beside the lots that overlooked the river, although all they could see of the houses there were driveways and small, discrete signs with elegant logos softly advertising the talents of assorted architects, builders, and landscape designers.
They pulled into one of these, naked of signs and with a real mailbox at the end of the drive. There was a small house on the right, about the size of Malone’s condo, she figured, but that was only the gatehouse. Ahead was a bizarre structure, a 19th-century farmhouse with a Georgian mansion grafted onto its right side, like a tumor that had overtaken the host.
“Whoa,” Bebe said, again. “Damn.”
Joey pulled into the circular drive and they climbed out. “Looks like he did alright,” Bebe said.
Malone wasn’t surprised that Seth had taken care of himself pretty well. She wiped her shoes on the gravel and followed the group to the front door, under a portico with a fake hanging lamp. She knew just what would be inside: Sweeping staircase foyer, Palladian windows overlooking a terrace to the river, granite, stainless, limestone tile master bath with double steam shower with rain heads. She made a bet with herself: powder room lav would either have fake river rock for that Japanese spa feel, or onyx bowl on a mock washstand.
A big man in a polo shirt and khakis and a windbreaker with a techy-looking logo opened the door. Was that a radio on his belt, or a, holy shit, Malone thought, as she and Bebe looked at each other in shock. Seth had a bodyguard.
The man looked the group over, counting them, it looked like, then gave a tight smile. “Hello there,” he said. “Please come in.”
Seth was crossing the foyer. He wasn’t a hugger. His face and voice smiled, but his body kept its distance. He did reach out to Lee, however, which made it all the more awkward.
“Here,” he said, opening a walk-in closet bigger than Linney’s nursery. “You can put your coats here,” and bustled over them as they settled themselves. He didn’t make them take off their shoes, at least—something that had happened to Malone on a few occasions of shooting houses like this one.
“I can’t believe all of you are here!” he said, effusive yet slow, somehow blurred. Was everybody hitting the Vic nowadays? Well, Malone could hardly blame him. Rattling around in this prefab House of Usher, with a gun in every drawer, must be a little scary.
“Come on downstairs,” he said. “I’ve got the proofs set up for you to look at. I’ve got the covers and some promo stuff I want you to see.”
She walked behind him. He was only a little wobbly. And despite the cold, he was in a wife-beater T with a flannel tied around his waist. He’d obviously had plenty of time to work out. He probably had a gym in the house, she realized.
They trooped downstairs to find a basement lair that ran the length of the house. The walls were an odd shade of flesh pink with an elaborate chair rail running around the whole, dark wood carved with chrome sticking out almost like a ballet barre, Malone thought. Plus crown molding, with dentals. She’d seen worse, in terms of being overdone, but there was something about the proportions that were disturbing. Or maybe it was the combination of dull wall-to-wall covered with patches of contemporary-figured rugs and, worse, two bearskins by the fireplace. The skins looked real and probably were. A pingpong table and a foosball table, both dusty and unused, took up a little of the room. A big table that looked like a new and expensive version of something from an ‘80s yard sale had the cover and poster spread out on it. She dropped her backpack on the floor and walked over to look at it.
“You remember the guy who did the Asphalt covers, in Minneapolis? I got him for these. There’s nobody any good in Brashton anymore, they’re all completely commercial. You know how it is, they just do the same things over and over, imitating what they’ve done before and hoping someone will go for it just because it worked back then. I looked at some locals, but they’re all too cute now, very hippie and flowery. You know it had more edge than that, but they can’t get themselves out of that hippie ecstasy raver shit. Very gay, not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that, you know what I mean?”
Malone, who thought it would have been nice to have a Brashton artist do design for a book about Brashton, nodded and looked things over as Seth babbled, still sounding like a 45 on 33: “It needed to have a sharper feel…” She thought the cover was fine, clean if somewhat ‘80s looking, but it was a book about the ‘80s, so that was fine. What was not fine were the words on the front. The title, The Wander or the Wave, that was OK, that was Bebe’s choice, from one of Jackson’s songs, of course. But what it said across the bottom, that wasn’t right at all: “Introduction by Josh Millstern.” And that was all. Nothing about Bebe’s writing or editing at all, though she was the one who had done it all. Millstern, a hip pop culture writer recently dubbed the Voice of His Generation, who was overcultivated as a source on cable news shows, had written—well, overwritten—about four paragraphs about what the Brashton scene and music had meant to him. While he was growing up. In Seattle.
Malone looked up and caught Bebe’s eyes. She looked back, blank and resigned. She gave a little shrug, shook her head just a little. “Yeah, we know what you mean, Seth.”
“Are you going to his thing, his reading next week? He’s coming in and doing some promotion and Matt Voorhess is having a party at Lava Lounge.”
“No, I didn’t know anything about that,” Bebe said.
“You weren’t invited? That’s weird,” Seth said. “Well.”
“It’s probably a working night for me,” Bebe said. She wouldn’t give him an inch, Malone saw, but if he kept it up, she might lose it yet.
“He really gets it,” Seth said. “You know the thing about Brashton, the thing that made it so great, was the way the different kinds of worlds came together there. It was a crossroads. That’s what Josh really captures in his intro. He really captures it. He gets the essence of the place and what it really meant, you know?”
She supposed, but didn’t say, that to someone who came on the scene when most of the noise was being made by a motorcycle revving up to jump the shark tank, yes, it might appear that a pretentious internet darling would “capture” the scene far better than Bebe could. Josh probably sounded mighty profound to someone like Seth, whom many people considered a one-hit wonder out of LA, not even a Brashton artist at all. Then she decided she would stop listening and just watch his mouth. Whatever drug he might be on, it wasn’t hurting his looks any.
“Here, wait, I’ll show you the rest like this. Sit down, I got this working—“ and he picked up a remote, and a huge wide-ratio TV screen over the fireplace lit up, one of those new ones you could hang on the wall, that only stuck out a little bit, like you were watching a slide show at a convention. It wasn’t the most elaborate home theater setup Malone had seen lately, but it was pretty sweet, she had to admit.
Seth scrolled through the pages as Lee oohed and aahhed and said nice things, and Seth occasionally groaned and talked about how “annoying” certain people on the scene had been. Bebe and Seth started to laugh at one page with a photo of a woman with disheveled hair topped by a tiara, hanging onto the lead singer of a minor scene band for life and trying to shout into the microphone. “Do you remember the time she fell into the drums and cut up her ass?”
Seth laughed. “At the Manta Ray.”
“She needed stiches in her ass!” Bebe said. “You know she lived with us for a while. Everyone started calling her Frankenstein, cause she kept lifting up her dress and showing everyone her stitches on her ass. ‘I was dancing on stage, at the Serial Bakers show! I got this scar from the Serial Bakers!’ ”
“I can tell the ones that are yours, Mal,” Lee said. “They’ve got so much happening in them.”
“You were so lucky,” Seth said. “You were always in the right place at the right time to get the shots. It’s like you were always there, always following the bands. Always Malone, you were always there. You must have had no other life!” he said, suddenly very concerned. “Are you still taking photographs?”
She thought someone had told him what she’d been doing. “I’m working for Capital Life magazine now,” she said. “I mostly take photos of kitchens and bathrooms. I don’t have to rely on my luck anymore. Toilets can’t move.”
“Oh, that’s right, that’s right,” he said. “Heh. Well. So, you think it works?” he said, turning to her with a sudden very-sincere air of seriousness.
“It’s a great book, Seth,” she said. “I’m glad somebody did it.” She didn’t say she wished somebody else had. It was a good book, though; she told the truth there.
“Because I know you’re hard to please,” he said, with a ghost of a leer. He couldn’t be serious.
He took them on a tour of the rest of the basement, the studio built in next to the wine cellar closet, then upstairs to room after room, many still empty. “When did you get this place?” Lee asked. “I thought you’d live in California forever.”
“I still have a couple places in Cali,” he said. “I’m all about the real estate, now. I had it all in tech, but before things started crashing I put it in houses and condos. I can always make more tech,” he snorted. “Besides, it’s you lawyers who make it all, anyway, right?” he nudged Joey, who laughed along with him.
“Real estate is smart now,” Joey said. “You gotta put it somewhere. The values are going to go up like crazy. Who’d you get it from?”
“I don’t know, I shouldn’t say. Well, you know, Brooks Sinclair, the congressman. I knew him from LA. He even used to surf. He put the studio in.”
“He’s on the IP and copyright committee,” said Joey.
Despite her work, Malone didn’t keep up with too many names and faces of the famous-for-DC. Sinclair, though, that was one everyone knew. He’d been named “Nuttiest in the House” by Capital Life two year ago, and you really had to be nutty to get called out for it by that publication. He and the publisher had had an epic phone shout-down, followed by hate mail, snubs, lawsuit threats, and pledges on both sides to urge “friends” in the Redskins management to withhold game tickets. He’d been tagged for offensive language against just about every group. He thought he was a rockstar and a playboy. That must be why the house felt so icky.
“Damn, I’m surprised there’s not a hot tub in every room,” Malone said.
Seth looked out over the lawn, distracted. “Oh. Yeah,” he said.
Another man in khakis, a black guy, was standing out there, in a field between the rocks and the river. “Thought I saw something out there. Those guys, they’re always smoking out there. I make them carry Altoids cans to put the ashes in. See, just cause I’m a libertarian doesn’t mean I don’t care about the environment!” he boomed at Malone, showing his teeth. “I care about the land, because I own the land!” he laughed. She didn’t, exactly.
“With these copyright changes coming, it’s going to be very hard for a musician to make any money at all pretty soon, Lee,” Joey aimed at her, as Seth led them into a cave of a dining room, with a long, narrow dark wood table flanked by too-tall, too ornate dark wood chairs. Too Dracula, thought Malone.
A housekeeper was laying out food and heavy plates (contemporary, square, in soft green, another discordant note) on the buffet, along with an ice bucket full of beers and a few bottles of wine. For all the ostentation, it looked exactly like a deli plate you’d get backstage in a decent club. Maybe he’d gotten so used to road food he didn’t go for anything else. Malone took a couple slices of bloody roast beef, and poured herself some water. Nils would have been pleased.
“We’ve gotta fight for our copyrights. But, you, you also have to control the means of production,” Seth said, laughing at his own joke. “Me and Marx, right? Everyone says, Oh, music should be free, so OK, so now it is. You’re gonna have to give it away. But if you own the how, the way you give it away, you get to keep the money. It’s artists like Lee who suffer,” he said, turning serious. “The only way you can make any money is touring. Or session work. Riggght? Like session work for me, maybe?”
“It’s so hard for me to get away,” Lee demurred.
Music was being piped in to the dining room. Buried in the current mix, Malone could hear The Chain, by Fleetwood Mac.
“Do you think British drummers are the best?” she asked Tommy idly.
“Maybe. In that era,” he said. “Ain’t no drummer nowadays can play for shit anyway. Not y’all, I mean,” he nodded at the table.
“I thought you didn’t eat meat,” Seth said. That was interesting, considering what he’d served.
“I have to right now,” Malone said. “I need the vitamins and all.”
“You getting enough, baby?” He turned toward Lee. “Try some of those mini-cheesecakes, they’re the shit. Seriously. Want me to go out and shoot a deer for you?”
“It’s all very good, Seth,” Lee said, smiling serenely and enjoying her lunch. Malone couldn’t figure out how she stayed so cool. She knew she wasn’t on anything—she’d seen Lee on pills plenty of times; they turned her dramatic and sobbing and mean. Lee only took them at night, when she was traveling, and all the old pains from the car accident got to be too much after sitting, lifting, sitting some more.
“Oh, sweetie, don’t kill anything on our account,” said Bebe. “We’ll be fine, really. It’s all just wonderful.”
Malone excused herself and took her backpack into the powder room, which she’d noted during the tour. She dug her hand pump out the bag and squeezed and squeezed the handle until she’d emptied both breasts. It took only about 10 minutes. She poured the pot- and tobacco-tainted milk into the onyx-bowl lavatory on the Florentine replica washstand, and rinsed the pump and the bowl clean and put them back in her pack.
As she got closer to the dining room, it was obvious they’d moved on to a different topic of conversation.
“Of course it’s hard for me to believe it,” Seth was saying, sitting close to Lee, who was looking down at her plate, miserably. “But at a certain point, it doesn’t matter what I believe. Who really knows anyone? Who knows what someone is capable of? Think about the kinds of things he writes. What about that ‘surf boy, you’re going down,’ thing? What was that supposed to mean?”
Bebe was furiously flicking ash off her cigarette, puffing smoke in exasperated snorts. “As long as we’re getting nostalgic about the wonderful Brashton days, you might remember who produced your first EP,” she said.
“He fucked the mix! Come on,” he said. “Look. I’ll always be very grateful to Jackson, but there’s just something wrong with him. He’s missing something. Listen. Listen to me. He was here, you know, it was back in August, right here—when Brooks still owned the house,” he said.
Brooks, Malone thought. First-name basis. Cozy.
“He closed the door then, Lee. We could have put something together, at least creatively, but he just shut down. He’d barely even talk to us! And with this stuff? Who knows? Nobody wants to get near that shit,” Seth continued, glancing up at Malone.
“There’s too much of that kind of thing going around. What about that missing boy? Do you hear anything about that at the newspaper?” He looked at Bebe and then at Malone.
“What do you mean?” Bebe said.
“You know, that kid who was missing. The local one, in the band. Did anyone report anything on him?”
“You think Jackson had something to do with that?”
“No, no, it’s just that this is the kind of scene we’re in, like Seattle, with all the heroin. That’s what it turns into when you let these kinds of things go. When you say, oh, it’s OK, I know he didn’t do anything. Malone, you must understand. You have a child yourself, now. That makes a difference in how you see things.”
“Yes, it does,” she said, and stopped right there under the arch that led to the dining room, not stepping in, not sitting now. “It really does make a difference. And I’m afraid I have to get back to her right now. Really right now,” she said, smiling a little, apologetically, in Joey and Tommy’s direction. “I’m so sorry, there’s just nothing I can do about it—I have to get back and pick up the baby from the sitter!” She pretended to laugh. It was the kind of acting Bebe could pick up on immediately, and she just shook her head and put out her cigarette.
“OK, let’s get her out of here,” Bebe said, and this time, it was only Malone who could tell she was talking not about herself, but about Lee. The guys stood up, a little confused but going with it, and Seth rose too, a little belatedly.
“The book looks amazing,” said Lee, as they all shuffled to the doorway, going into the closet one at a time to collect their coats. They each murmured their congratulations and how they were looking forward to the release party, then followed Malone, who had zoomed out first, better to avoid a hug. Lee stayed behind for hers, however, prompting Bebe to yell an ungracious “come ON” from the backseat of the SUV.
This time, the three women took the backseat, with Malone still in the middle, and there wasn’t much singing going on. She shivered despite the close quarters. The car jerked through stop-and-go early rush hour traffic as the watery sun faded. She wasn’t looking forward to driving home in the cold and the dark. Karen would probably make her stay for dinner. And Karen’s husband would be there. He was always trying to get her to talk about Brashton music or Capital Life, as if there were nothing else about her. She knew he was just trying to be nice and grab some reflected glamour; but there wasn’t a bit of glamour there to shine anywhere. So Karen would go on and on about a certain brand of organic juice she’d have to give her kids every day from now on. She just wanted to get home, give Linney a bath—she loved her bath—and feed her and rock her and sing with her.
“You know, she’s started singing,” Malone said suddenly. Lee and Bebe looked at her, completely confused.
“I mean Linney, she’s singing. I was giving her a bath the other night, about two weeks ago, and she started making this noise. I thought there was something wrong with her at first. It was like ‘wuuuuuh…whhhhhuuuuuu…” she demonstrated on a rising and descending scale, sort of, as Lee and Bebe continued to look at her as if she were insane. “See, she’s got this little music toy, and it plays You Are My Sunshine, and I realized she was singing along! It was so weird. I was afraid she was sick or something, but she was smiling and kicking away in the water. Now she does it whenever I give her a bath or change her. It’s like she’s so happy…”
Bebe was staring straight ahead again as Malone trailed off. “What an asshole!” she burst out—and immediately “Oh, god, no, I don’t mean the baby! God. Seth! Seth! Fucktard! There are people in Brashton who fucking hate his guts! There are people in Brashton whose fucking names should be on the credits of his last three fucking albums! They should be getting some cash. Everyone knows how he just came in at the tail end and stole everything, the big LA star. And now a book about it, how sincere and authentic the scene was, how it’ll never be the same—Jesus! Authentic. The bigger the fake someone is, the more they’ll tell you how authentic they are.”
“You wrote it,” Malone said, mildly.
“I had to keep tabs on his ego-tripping ass,” Bebe said. “And I need the money and the credit. He won’t put me on the cover, but I’m in there. He can’t change that. But now with him selling out Jackson, again, I can’t wait until this fucking thing is over.”
“He might need the money, too,” said Joey, stuck in a long line of traffic.
“The lord of the manor?” Bebe asked. “Fucking hell.”
“You heard what he was talking about rights and royalties,” Joey said. “When he tweaked that embed app to get videos to stream with his new songs, remember, how he was the first one to do that? The courts and examiners haven’t been going his way. He’s turning into a troll.”
“Turning?” Bebe said.
“It’s someone who files a bunch of crap patent paper from a lot of directions and hopes one will hit. It’s pretty much how Sinclair made his money,” Joey said.
“Him and Sinclair sound like peas in a pod,” Malone said.
Joey glanced at her in the rear view and said: “There you go. Sharpest in the shed, as usual.”
“Oh, my heart bleeds,” Bebe said. “Why did I ever get involved with this. What a clusterfuck this turned out to be.”
“It’s OK,” Lee said, putting her hand on Bebe’s arm. “I’m OK.”
Bebe felt guilty, Malone saw, for all kinds of old things that had gone down, that they hadn’t had anything to do with or had any control over. But guilt and anger were Bebe’s fuel, that and having to be smarter than everyone else. They hadn’t changed a bit since they’d met, even through everything they’d let happen to each other: Bebe was fierce and mocking; Lee was the kind one, the vulnerable one, the talented one; and she herself watched and waited, watched and plotted, listening for the right moment to capture—something.
“Bebe,” she said, reaching over to touch her arm. “Bonnie Tyler. Doing Enter Sandman.”
Bebe didn’t react for a second. Then: “Damn. That could really work.”