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.