Nils got home around midnight, and they actually got in a quick fuck before she passed out. The weekend, she remembered to mumble a reminder to him, had been claimed by his sister Kathy in exchange for babysitting favors. She had agreed to take the 7-year-old, a girl, and the 10-year-old, a boy, so Kathy and her husband could have a date night. Not to be outdone in conspicuous consumption of family togetherness, his sister Karen had then insisted the whole tribe get together to see the cherry blossoms Sunday after breakfast.
For Malone, the blossoms meant nothing but work, fighting for a decent shot and tripping over gnarled roots, and the only tolerable way to enjoy them had for many years been in the middle of the night, with a bottle of wine, and at Haines Point, not at the Tidal Basin. But that was out for the duration, even though Linney was something of a night owl and might have cooperated. Malone wondered if they would even let you hang out at Haines Point at night anymore, or if the ones fishing all night off that built-up fake island that extended into the Potomac were regarded as potential terrorists and were being run off, catfish swinging from the line as they went.
Saturday night she sent Nils out with his friends, a crew of ex-jock lawyers and tech bubblers. IT was an easy way to get double-plus good wife points. She pulled out her stash of percussion and the present she had recently bought Kaitlin, the little girl: a tinny sounding Barbie “rock star” microphone and stand. The children rattled and banged and fought over the mic while Linney hollered along from her bouncy seat. Malone pulled out the couch and set up the sleeping bags, cooked the frozen brick-oven organic pizza and popped the organic popcorn (by hand, no microwave; microwaves are poisonous) in olive oil, to be sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan. In the past, Kaitlin and Jonathon (always, always the full version; never think of calling him Jon) had looked to Malone as a potential unindoctrinated ally in getting them to McDonald’s once in a while, but those days were gone—she didn’t need the trouble.
She could always count on a good half-hour or so of the pair skulking around the living room and dining room, giggling and nudging over the “weird” photos on the walls. If it was transgressive, it was entertaining to them and a distraction, so Malone welcomed it, and their parents couldn’t very well ask her to take her own work off the walls, could they?
After the kids were down and Linney was bathed and nursed and down, Malone sank onto her own bed, drinking a decaf green tea and wishing it were a beer. There had been about an hour of fragile, big-eyed “I can’t sleep,” and some “I’m hungry,” because they hadn’t liked the pizza Kathy had insisted she get, so she made them apples and peanut butter. But at least there had been no clear indicator of failure: the brave visit, eyes swimming, throat working, and the words: “I need you to call my parents now. I can’t stay here.” That had happened once before, and it hadn’t been pretty. And no throwing up. And Linney had been her usual dream baby self. When would she turn into a pain? Malone wondered.
She remembered her own aunt, Kate, her father’s sister, in her tiny home that smelled like cigarettes, with the silent but kind husband, and the drum set in the basement and odd people coming and going at odd hours. She remembered Kate saying: “No, I’m not taking you home. It’s late and I’m tired. Besides, if you run out now you’ll feel like crap. Like you’re quitting. I’ll teach you a new word: Suck it up.”
“That’s three words,” 9-year-old Malone had observed, shakily.
“Do you WANT me to smack you?” Kate had laughed. “Come here, I’m gonna beat your ass right now.” And hugging her and giving her a couple little pats on her bony rear. She was about as different from Malone’s own mother as a woman could be, and one of the few people who had ever hugged her much. Aunt Kate would let Malone and her brother, two years older, who could explain things but never in a way that made them duller, stay up and read into the night, even from the stacks of magazines and comic books that had plenty of weird pictures. Rolling Stone, of course, but also Crawdaddy and CREEM and National Lampoon and Ms. By age 13, between her reading and her realization that people were smoking weed in the basement, she learned that sex and drugs would not kill you but could certainly piss some people off, so it was best to play your cards close, much as she did about everything anyway. By 14, Aunt Kate deemed her old enough to go to concerts, and she’d seen AC/DC, the Stones, Black Sabbath, and the Police at the Capital Centre, a cavernous arena that looked like an oversize stack of Pringles potato chips (which coincidentally was considered a main course in her aunt’s household). In turn, she’d brought in Pretenders, the Go-Gos, the Cure, Joy Division, the Crass, and Dead Kennedys (the one group Kate said no to). Kate had a good desk job at Motor Vehicles and her husband had a union gig with the grocery chain, until he dropped dead of a heart attack at 50, after Malone moved to college. Kate had moved to South Florida and acquired a string of old-man boyfriends and was hated by every widow in Hollywood beach. Malone had come down to visit her from time to time out of Brashton and once, to Kate’s endless delight, brought Lee’s then-band along, who filled the bill like a fine set of china found at a flea market—two good-looking guitarists, the tall and lanky Tommy on bass, and a crazy-ass drummer.
She heard the front door open, and a few minutes later Nils came in, a glass of soda water in one hand and a couple Tylenol in the other and a slight waft of bourbon in his wake. “Why are they sleeping in our sleeping bags on top of the blankets?” he asked.
“They like it that way. It feels like camping out.”
“The point of a sofa bed is that it’s a bed,” he said. “Not camping out. And there’s popcorn all over the floor,” he continued, not registering her. Whenever he felt things were getting out of control, he’d come home and see what he could micromanage to make himself feel better. Even his fucked-up-ness was predictable, balanced and usually easy to deal with. Her own was not—it was so diffuse and so sick with guilt and confusion that she couldn’t even make sense of it herself most of the time, much less expect a straight man to.
She settled back on the bed and said: “You know, you’ve got about ten minutes before I pass out. Do you really want to spend it talking about sleeping bags?”
He sat on the bed and pulled her head and shoulders into his lap.
“Right,” she said. “Did you have a good time at least?”
“Fucking Tech. They clutched.”
“Lose any cash?”
“No way. Not with these guys. I don’t even get close to the amounts they’re fucking with.”
“It’s dreadful to be poor!” Malone said the Little Women line in a little-woman voice. Nils didn’t get the reference, but he got the idea. He scooted himself around so he was lying next to her.
“Please don’t pass out now. Please, please get up and brush your teeth and take your clothes off,” she said.
“Two nights in a row, what a lucky man he was,” he said sleepily, starting to crawl over her.
“You’ve got about 8 minutes left to work with.”
In the morning, she pulled out what she had hoped would be her ace, chocolate chip pancakes. Sitting at the kitchen table, Jonathon had said: “My mom makes chocolate CHUNK pancakes. Can you make those?”
At that point, she reached for Nils’ coffee and drank the half-cup left, the one tiny strategic error that would set off a chain reaction that resulted in Linney going into a crying jag in the Jefferson Memorial, her howls reverberating under the dome as if centuries of oppressed souls seeking liberty had been given voice. Caffeine didn’t agree with her. People hovered and blustered and clucked, Kathy going so far as to start undoing the Snuggli, which sent Malone into a hissing fury, because she was standing up for god’s sake on a marble floor. She stepped back, methodically checked every clip on the Snuggli for firmness, and then slowly and deliberately walked down every last slippery marble step, Linney wailing like John Lydon on The Flowers of Romance, to the grass by the tidal basin, where Malone sat down on a tough tree root and took Linney out of the Snuggli and rested her on her thighs while she unclipped the Snuggli from herself, then held Linney up and looked at her and smiled. The baby farted loudly and smiled back. “Well, that was simple enough, wasn’t it, sweet girl,” Malone said, and cuddled her against her shoulder.
She’d have snot on her sweater and a lot to make up for with Kathy later, but for now a spring breeze blew and a few delicate blush petals fell on gently onto them.
The day wound up with dinner at Kathy’s that night, meaning a long drive through Virginia traffic on route I-66, a fucked-up schedule and a tired start to the week. Malone was never allowed to do so much as chop a carrot in this household, because everyone knew she drank Coca-Cola in the mornings and you can’t trust someone like that to understand food. Linney was still crashed out in her carseat shell, which they’d brought into the house and put in the darkened study. Malone lied and said she was expecting something from work, and could she check her email?
“Of course!” Kathy trilled, up to her elbows in Italian flatleaf parsley. “You want to make sure everything’s lined up for the big day!”
She left Nils to explain all about Linney’s incipient daycare commencement, and its complicated schedule involving three half-days of “orientation,” and then two days when she’d be “on-call” and needed to stay within a half-hour of the center. “All that for three days a week!” Nils was saying, while his sisters protested that it was a very good place, with Emilia Reggiana methods, and definitely worth all the trouble.
There was nothing new on her work email address, and little on her home one, so she just sat in the desk chair and stared at her baby for a while. She sent a quick email to Bebe: Coldplay. Ride My Seesaw. Progrock is coming back and man is it pissed. Then she sighed and typed in the AOL address she never used anymore—might as well kill out the spam. She was mechanically hitting the delete key when she saw the return address: HillorHighWater, the one Jackson used for his water-rights projects.
The subject line read: I still miss someone.
Johnny Cash, she thought, then noticed the date and noticed it had multiple attachments, and she pulled her hand back as if a palmetto bug had flown out of the screen. It was old--it had been sent out the same day he had gotten busted for so-called child porn. Was this part of the same batch? Were these the attachments that had gotten him busted? She found and hit the AOL logoff button and waited for the screen to clear, and sat back.
Her heart was pounding, but she didn’t know whether that was because she had nearly unleashed some king of alleged-not-exactly-child-porn virus onto her in-laws’ computer, or because of the subject line. She was floored, confused, and above it all, flattered. Then she grabbed for the mouse at a gentle knock on the door. It was Nils, calling her up to dinner. He came in quietly, and she conquered an impulse to hide the screen.
“Still sleeping?” he said, smiling at Linney.
“Yeah,” she said. “It would appear that I’m going to have to break some rules.” She meant the rule they had about never waking a sleeping baby.
“Yeah, we need you on schedule for tomorrow,” he said, sitting down next to the carseat shell and stroking the baby’s face gently. “Come on, little girl, gonna bring you upstairs for dinner.”
Malone turned back to the computer. “This is slow as hell,” she said. “I’m just going to shut it down.”
“Tom can fix it if you can’t get it going,” he said.
“No, I got what I need. I just wanted to check something else and it got hung up, but I’m fine. I’m going to have to go in to work for a little tomorrow afternoon, though, I think.”