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.