Two nights out in a row, Malone thought, staring into the dregs of a watery vodka tonic. Though last night didn’t count, it being work, she thought, despite Nils trying to pass it off as a date night. And a Saturday night out at that. Vicodin, weed, coke, shots of tequila; the alternatives floated through her mind and on and gone; no action required. It was all under control. A man in a bright blue clown wig and a smoking jacket was singing karaoke to Styx’ “Babe.”
“The big blue ox,” Bebe muttered into her ear.
“Time for Me to Fly?” Malone said, trying to guess what Bebe was going to sing. Bebe had to do a trend piece, so she’d asked her and Lee to come along to a place RahnJahn was running a costume karaoke night. With their recent fights fresh in his mind, Nils had practically shoved her out the door, determined that she would get out and have some fun with her own tribe if it killed her.
The singers had to wear costumes provided by the bar, with the song list heavily weighted to '70s lite and '80s hair-band ballads. Lee had already torn the place up wearing a hard hat and a Mama Cass caftan and singing “Delta Dawn.” Malone had met a somewhat less enthusiastic reaction in a cheerleader outfit, doing a Shonen Knife-style “Strawberry Letter 22.” RahnJahn, providing stripper-bar style MC commentary, had seen her offstage with a kind “domo arigato.”
“Journey,” she said, trying again.
“You know my fucking specialty,” Bebe said. She was up next, and had on a studded plastic-leather jacket and a feather boa, which she twirled idly. “The Village People gave up a lot so we could have this experience. I expect you to honor that, and you go fucking bringing up Journey. You have no appreciation for sacrifice. What’s at stake here.”
“You’re buying the drinks,” Malone said. “You should get combat pay for this shit.”
“I’m up!” Bebe said, and weaved her way up to the stage.
“You certainly are,” Malone said, toasting her with the last ice cubes. She knew full well what Bebe was going to perform. It was the only thing she ever performed in public, but it was always a little different. It had been a standard on the House of Beef canned music, and she’d come up with variations for years, based on whatever was going down at the time.
“She’s getting that acoustically sincere look up there,” Malone said to Lee.
“I taught her how to do that,” Lee said.
Jesus blows up the boom all day
Sits on the porch swing, swattin at flies
She used a white-girl blues slur, and laid on the expressive wincing eyebrow action. It was calibrated to make people think she was serious.
And Jesus, he wants to grow a penis
Leave leave it far behind
Put up the loom
I’m going sailing
While Levon, Levon’s shootin dice
He was born a pompatus of love on a Christmas Day--
Malone looked around and was happy to see that the performance appeared to be making some people uncomfortable. Bebe would be happy.
“Give it up for Brrrrrrandi!” RahnJahn announced, trying to drum up applause as Bebe walked off the stage. “You’re a fiiiine girl, girl.”
Bebe came back to the table after dropping the jacket and boa at the costume table. “Jesus, those things are hot,” she said, dabbing at her neck with a napkin.
“Drinks,” Malone said, and got up and went to the bar.
On her way back, she saw Bebe and Lee, huddled together, heading for the back and the bar. She caught them and followed.
“You up for this?” she asked, handing Bebe a drink.
“Fuck,” Bebe said, her phone in one hand, her purse strap and drink in the other. “I have to work. I mean besides doing this.”
“What happened?” Malone said. She caught herself before saying anything out loud about whether someone else got busted for kiddie porn.
“They found that guy,” Bebe said. “That boy. They found a body, and it’s him.”
“The missing kid, the one in the band,” Lee said. “You remember.”
“Oh,” Malone said.
“Over on the Virginia side. Below Great Falls,” Bebe said. “They don’t know how it happened yet.”
She looked down at her phone, then handed Malone her drink and started going through her purse. “They want me to get some comments from local music people. Because he was in the band and all.”
“Talk to RahnJohn,” Lee said.
“I don’t want to,” Bebe said. “But yeah.”
Malone felt a stab of panic. She put her untouched drink down on the bar. “You can take this,” she said vaguely to Lee. “I have to go now.”
Lee hugged her, hard. “Are you sure you’re OK?” Malone nodded. “Call me later?” Malone nodded again.
She somehow got the bulky Volvo out of the tiny parking space, though she was shaking. Lee and Bebe thought they knew, thought they got it: She would be upset because someday she was likely to get a call like that about her brother, and she didn’t know whether the prospect was welcome or it was better never knowing.
The few people who knew about her brother and knew her well would be kind. The ones who knew about it but didn’t know her tried to be kind, but there was something behind their flaccid “concern” that implied Malone herself wasn’t concerned enough. People didn’t understand that you couldn’t just send out the cops or the dogs or whatever forces they expected her to rally. You couldn’t chase down a grown man who chose to vanish, whatever disorder this doctor or that one had labeled him with. It was his choice. She chose to respect it. And that made her suspect.
The Oscar Wilde line about “to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness” could still make her smile. What does it look like to lose everyone? It must look like you don’t have a care in the world.
The bit of anger growing in her steadied her. She was jealous, in a way. After all, the people who loved that boy had gone through only a few months of not knowing. They had their answers long before all the “missing” posters had been torn off the walls, leaving only shredded bits behind.
Bebe did not want to talk about the dead boy. She told Malone that first thing, when she called Monday. Malone was at work, trying to line up some “outdoor kitchens” to shoot for a special section in August. It promised to be lucrative for the magazine, and somewhat less so for her, but how she was going to get bright and summery shots at this stage she didn’t know. The outdoors were silver and spare green with late-April rain; daffodils and barbecues didn’t work so well together.
She’d yesterday barely getting off the couch. Even Nils had blown off his workout. They’d read, surfed sports channels, taken turns playing with Linney. The week had worn them both out; they felt old. Malone wasn’t looking forward to going out again Thursday night—especially since the gig was at Seth’s house, for the promotional party for the book. She wanted a few more weeks time, to get her hair done and get a new stomach. Maybe she could wear the same thing she’d worn to the Dome Smoker. Maybe with all the other people around, Seth would have other people to pick at.
And now Bebe wanted to talk about going out again, to some place she had to do a story on. She held the phone away from her mouth as she yawned. Just two more hours until she could go pick up Linney.
“So it’s a bar, but you can bring babies,” Bebe was saying. “They have a special stroller moms happy hour. I guess I mean parents happy hour. You want to go? The place is totally fucking hipster. We can go and laugh at them. You can go undercover pretending to be hipster mom.”
“I am so exhausted,” Malone said. “I don’t think Nils would go for it, me taking the baby to a bar.”
“It’s what people are doing now!” said Bebe. “What is he, a fucking Mormon? I always knew he was a secret Mormon. All those North Dakota people are Mormons, out there being all pioneer and polygamous and shit.”
“Minnesota,” Malone said, cutting and pasting another url onto her source list. Patio Wonderland. That sounded promising. “And they’re Lutheran.”
“Whatever. Tell him to become a Catholic so you can at least have a cocktail once in a while.”
Bebe sounded like she had had one herself, Malone thought. “Are you at work?”
“Busted. No, I went out to lunch. Carlo’s in town.”
Carlo was a reporter from the last paper where Bebe had worked. And he was married.
“Oh,” Malone said.
“Oh, yes. No, but I have to work tonight is why I wasn’t working today. I’m resting up. I’m so pissed off. It’s another fucking feature, on this group that does like—have you ever heard of the Dances of Universal Peace?”
“Is that a band?”
“No, it’s a cult. No, not really. It’s these people, they think by doing these sort of super-slow hippie square-dances they can bring peace and love and Dick Cheney’ll turn into Santa Claus.”
“Beautiful. Does it work?”
“What do you think?”
“I think they’re fucking undercover Mormons,” Malone said. Grilling Universe. That sounded scary. She pasted the information into her file.
“It’s like shape note singing, or kickball. Raising chickens. All those things hipsters are doing because it makes them feel authentic. Wilco. Authentic reconstructed sincere folk music.”
“Don’t you be saying that too loud.”
“I know. I’ll probably have to move to Chicago if I ever want to actually write about music again. Except if there’s even one job left, it’ll go to someone in his 20s.”
Malone sighed. “How about Natalie Merchant doing ‘Seasons in the Sun’?”
“It’s good, but it’s really too obvious. But you know what I mean. It’s a completely transparent reaction to the attacks. Let’s go back to the old days, when things were real. Except we’ll have our real realness with the Internet and plumbing and antibiotics. We’ll have alternative realness. Which came first, the alternative chicken or the alternative egg?”
“The alternative hash browns,” Malone said. She was hungry. As always. Nursing meant being hungry and thirsty every second. But she was still dropping weight without even trying.
“That’s what you get at the Waffle House. A hash brown three-way. But like with Carlo today—“
“You had a three-way?” she asked, only too late seeing an intern passing by gaping at her. “Hash browns!” she said. “Hash browns three way!” Made it worse. Now she just sounded insane. Well, it was what the magazine was known for.
“In his dreams. But he kept talking about how ‘authentic’ and ‘alternative’ Baltimore is, and we’re at the Owl Bar, which with the exception of the stained glass could be a Marriott, for fuck’s sake. But what’s real? What’s honest? He’s the last one who would know.”
“Then why see him.”
“You know why,” she sighed. “I don’t need a real relationship. And it doesn’t concern me what degree of authenticity he might have. All that matters to me is that I’m honest with myself. I know what I’m doing. What I’m talking about—what he cultivates, what the hipsters do, the whole thing—it’s creating the illusion of honesty. An authenticity simulcrum. You know how you do that?”
“How?” Malone said. Barbecue World… and More! She cut and pasted. What more could there possibly be? she wondered.
“You withhold,” Bebe said. “Being inarticulate means you’re not being some kind of intellectual trying to manipulate everyone. Don’t show anyone what you know. Don’t use too many instruments, no production. The more you hold back, the more honest you appear.”
“Appear,” Malone said.
“Yeah. You get it. And this new crop, in music, you know, they were taught by the master, right? Who never lets two intelligible words come out of his mouth anymore?”
“Does it always have to come down to Jackson?”
“No, it always comes down to Elvis. OK, I have to catch a shower before I go do the Dances of Uni-fucking-versal Peace. Lee said she can drive us all to Seth’s Thursday, OK?”
“Our designated driver. All right.”
“I told her we’d dress up like her bodyguards.”
“Seth won’t recognize us anyway. Later.”