Chapter 13

“Sly Stone does not deserve this,” Malone said, with what was probably more precision than necessary, to Bebe, as they sank side-by-side into the couch in Seth’s basement chamber. She felt as if she’d been staring at the ugly chair rail, while pretending to watch the slide show above it, for an hour, but it had only been through the duration of the third gin-and-tonic, which was more like 40 minutes.

She had to pace herself. The first had gone down quickly as they watched Seth’s “acoustic set,” under the big party tent in the yard. He’d shambled his way through a couple of his own songs, muffing a verse of “Incredible Time,” and then attempted a couple covers—a half-assed “Sloop John B” and then a Pete Marshall obscurity. All the frosted sweetness of Pete’s song had dissolved under Seth’s gloomy assault. He’d even managed to slush up the structure. Bebe had been furious, and Malone couldn’t stop sipping at her drink to try to hide what she was thinking. She’d come out of it with an empty glass, even the ice cubes chewed and gone.

But the worst part was all the mutters of “Jackson” Malone kept hearing whenever they pushed by a knot of people. They should have known everyone there, she thought. But no one involved in Brashton or even in the book was there. Instead, it was a sausage festival, nothing but boys, mostly from the Hill or dot-commers. The few people she talked to told her they were from Texas or Orange County (as their wingmen sneered and snickered). “He should have just had this thing in Fairfax,” Bebe had muttered to her. “It’s the pop-collar mafia.”

Seth had surrendered the stage to a DJ doing mashups, whose work was getting piped through the house, too loud everywhere but here. The current sonic adventure combined “Hot Fun in the Summertime” with “Give It Away” by the Chilis.

“Everything Rick Rubin touches sounds like it went through the Starbucks coffee roaster,” Bebe said. The slide show on the giant TV above them stopped, backed up, froze, and showed the same slide again, a blurry stage dive. It had been malfunctioning steadily since they’d sat down, and just moments after one of the Texans had proclaimed how far Seth was ahead of his time in home theaters and security technology. He’s got them all thinking he’s freaking Steve Case, Malone thought. And his shit works just about as well.

“Let it mellow,” she said to Bebe. “So when someone’s got a crush on you, and you keep leading him on even though you both know nothing will come of it, and you like him but you don’t like like him—“

“Jesus, what did you just say, like like? Are you like in second grade?”

“Oh, you know what I mean,” Malone said. “I’m too tired to be complex. So is it wrong?”

“No,” Bebe said. “If he doesn’t love it, he can leave. Why is it your responsibility to manage his emotions? You do it with Nils, too. Don’t make Nils mad, don’t get Nils upset,” she said in a whiny girly voice. “When anyone can see he’s the one who’s terrified you’ll get pissed and walk.”

“I don’t know where you get that,” Malone said, looking at her drink, to avoid looking at the photos or the chair rail. “Plus, I’ve gotten plenty pissed, and I’m not walking anywhere. And if I left, he’d be free to go off with a nice tall blonde lawyer. Skinny. Who knows how to clean house.”

Bebe shook her head. “You’re wrong,” she said. “You’ll see. Plus, she’d pay someone else to clean. Let’s go out under the tent. I need to be in some photos. Why don’t you take some?”

“Fuck that,” Malone said. “Unlike you, I still have a shred of journalistic integrity. I don’t shoot when I’m part of the story.”

“Lazy ass.”

“I’m actually shooting this place next week, I think,” she said, looking around her as they went up the stairs from the basement. “It’s gonna be hard to make anything of it.”

“Just shoot the bathrooms,” Bebe said.

“I love limestone tile. It’s so cool against my face when I pass out on the bathroom floor,” Malone said, using her boy’s voice to sound like a drugged-out Seth. They were squeezing past a clump of artfully scrubby looking guys to get to the tent on the lawn where the main party activity was going on. Two of them overheard her and gave her a strange look. She looked back and tried not to stumble. Stupid heels. There was a not-too-obvious ripple among the crowd as the two women walked through. There it was again—the slap-and-hiss of his name: “Jackson.” “Jackson Hill.” “Sicko.” “What was up with that?” And then, the new mantra, the words she was already tired of hearing and overhearing: "If you didn't do anything wrong, you shouldn't have anything to worry about."

“This is why,” Bebe sighed, planting herself in line for the bar. “This is why I wasn’t so hot on this. Where the hell is Lee, anyway?”

“Why did I mention bathroom?” Malone said. “I’ll be back.”

She turned away, and rather than pushing back through the gantlet between the tent and the French doors at the back of the house, she walked toward the side, intending to take the long way around and come in the front door. The wet grass soaked her shoes as she stumbled a little on the stony, rooty ground, and she shivered despite the tuxedo jacket. It had miraculously begun to fit again—not perfectly, but OK. She must be getting back to her normal size somehow.

Spotlights set off by her movement seemed to blaze at her every step. That Seth and his security fetish. She stepped a little unsteadily, half-worried she’d set off some kind of trip line that would bring out sirens, dogs, bodyguards. In front of her now were cars lining the circular drive and a few figures on the front portico. You couldn’t call it a porch, she thought. Or a stoop. A stoopico. She snickered to herself a little, then, as she walked between blinding spotlights, slowed down as she realized who the people were. Found Lee, she thought. She was out here, talking to Seth.

“It’s too late now. I can’t change any of it,” he was saying, whining, almost crying. “I can’t take any of it back. You don’t understand. You’ve never had it this bad, so much shit happening to you. Even when it was bad, everyone was on your side.”

“But I have felt like that,” Lee said, kind, sympathetic, soft. “It just feels like it’s the worst that could ever be. But feelings aren’t things.”

“Huh. Money’s a thing. Having people ripping off everything you’ve got, that’s a thing!” He flung his arms out like Bono doing his patented Christ-on-the-cross move. Patent, Malone thought drunkenly. You violated Bono's patent. That’s funny.

“First the government tried to take everything, and now these other guys are after me! And then that guy in there talking about poor Jackson, being so misunderstood? What the fuck! What about me, who’s been catching shit for years, and I never did anything wrong. All I did was state my beliefs. I just live my beliefs. But because I don’t do concerts for the whales they all come after me.” He swayed and windmilled some more. “He even managed to fuck this up, you know? It’s like he just reached in, like he didn’t even have to say a word, and just fucked up this whole thing, too. He has to cockblock every last thing I do! It just never fucking stops! You never had this kind of persecution. It is persecution!”

She tried to be extra noisy on the gravel as she walked toward them. Seth almost fell as he started at the sound.

“What the fuck!” he yelled at her. “What the fuck—were you sneaking up on me?”

She caught the fear on Lee’s face and that, along with too much experience with dealing with unreasonable men under the influence, showed her how to play it.

She laughed sweetly and slipped an arm around him, saying: “This place is so huge I got lost. Maybe me and Lee’ll come live here and you won’t even know it,” she said, letting herself sound drunk, feeling him calming and his control restoring itself. “We can all have our own rooms. Two rooms. We’ll just bake a cake for you once in a while and leave it in one of the rooms for you,” she said.

“What’s your favorite cake?” Lee said, slipping her arm around his other side. “I know he won’t eat no carrot cake.”

“Chocolate,” Seth slurred, leaning on them both as they walked him back into the house. “Chocolate cake is freedom cake,” he said. She could feel how strong he still was, underneath the long-sleeve surfer shirt and the drooping jeans. He smelled like bourbon, on top of that that sweet dusty smell opiates give a body. She looked over at Lee and saw that she looked old, suddenly. It wasn’t just the bright lights of the big pretentious chandelier in the foyer. It was worse than she’d thought at first sight. Just like Seth.

“Freedom cake. That’s a song,” Lee said. “You gonna write it for us?”

“You take it,” he said. “I don’t write songs no more.”

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