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.