The question of what to do about the email intruded as she tried to follow the elaborate explanations of policies and requirements at the daycare center. There was one other woman with her for the “orientation,” a sleekly suited, high-heeled, glossily ponytailed lawyer, with a boy just three months old. She didn’t look any happier about the prospect of leaving her baby than Malone felt. Malone had also been handed a 40-page photocopied book and a sheaf of forms to fill out—even though she had already filled most of them out while she was still pregnant, and Nils had brought over the medical forms a scant week after Linney was born. She guessed she would have to do it again.
They toured the rooms for older children, then the three infant nurseries, just as she had before Linney was born, learning nothing more. She moved Linney from her carseat shell to a bouncy seat, strapping her in and talking with her as she tried to figure out where she was supposed to put her little cooler of bottles for the day and what to do next. The director, the woman leading the tour and the two women from the infant room were all cooing over the other woman on the tour and her baby.
Malone knew the score. Class, money, and the question of her race made for a weird mix. The daycare people would give women like the lawyer extra reassurance and a break if she showed up late, where if Malone asked for a bending of rules, it would be assumed she was just careless. On the other hand, she didn’t have to worry about being seen as a Miss Anne who expected the world to revolve around her and her problems.
She had come back to a DC where the racism was both sharper and more difficult to pin down. Growing up, many of her friends—and most of her boyfriends—had been black. Occasionally people had asked her about her race, and she’d passed along what her father had told her—that she didn’t know, but she might be part black, way back. But as Reagan re-segregated America, and the radio stations turned all-white or all-black again—where for a while there they’d played Al Green and the Stones back-to-back—and her black girlfriends gradually got “too busy” to get together. These days, she wondered if she really had any friends at all.
She’d been wrenched loose from her beach and pushed by strange tides ever since—her father’s hand yanked out of hers, her mother pulled away from her more slowly but as surely as by any undertow, her brother drifted off or tugged under; she would never know. She’d surfaced to find her friends too far away to wave to.
Just another one on the list of tell no one, she thought, as she drove with Linney down to the Capital Life office to see if she could get Andy’s help in opening the email. Add it to: My brother’s insanity might be my fault, because how come I could deal with all the drugs we took and he can’t, and why am I never addicted to anything but Lee ended up out of her mind on coke and will my giving her pills feed some new addiction, and is the only thing I love about Nils his dick, and why did I let my life get taken over by a couple of sisters from Prairie Home Companion, and how come the people who are supposed to be my friends are people I only see about three times a year, and why aren’t we friends like chicks are friends on TV, and am I supposed to make new friends? How? And how come my friends never want to talk about my baby, but everyone else never wants to talk about anything else?
And when the hell did women in Washington DC start wearing high heels and fashion? she thought, toting Linney in her carseat shell up in the elevator, and seeing herself next to a couple of the new breed in the polished mirrors that lined the cage. We used to go around in sensible skirts and running shoes. I look like I have childhood obesity, she thought; in her hightops and black jeans and black sweater, with her swollen boobs and saggy little tummy and skinny legs, she realized, she looked like a plump high school Goth boy.
Good enough, she thought, having a vision of opening Jackson’s email and having it pump the magazine’s entire computer system full of pornographic images and pseudoterrorist threats and god knows what kinds of viruses. Get me my 12-sided dice; I’m coming in to take this place DOWN, she thought, smiling broadly as she greeted Jeannette, who seemed a little taken aback at this uncharacteristic enthusiasm out of little, quiet, gloomy Malone.
“Most everyone’s gone home,” Jeannette told her. “Wine-tasting day.”
“Not for us!” she smiled, breezing to the back, where she knew Andy would be in his warren, avoiding the alcohol. Yet another addict, she thought.
The place smelled like a bar, with two overflowing wastebaskets full of plastic cups and more than a dozen empty wine bottles lined up on an intern’s desk, along with crumpled paper bags and scattered tally sheets. She registered a couple of expensive-looking labels; lucky day for interns. She wondered how strenuously the hot “media editor” had worked to cut one out of the pack today; maybe lucky for him, too.
Andy was careening between two screens, with music playing softly from a third computer; Steve Wynn’s Here Come the Miracles. “You’re too late,” he said, without looking up.
“I don’t indulge much at present,” she said, putting Linney and her backpack down, and taking out the activity string and strapping it onto the carseat shell’s handle. Linney squirmed and kicked at it, babbling and singing a little.
“Liking that?” she asked.
“Guitar noir,” he said. “Not bad.”
She wasn’t coming empty handed—or at least she had something to offer beyond a baby carrier. One of the things Capital Life was most read and most reviled for was its monthly listing of real estate transactions among the rich and famous-for-Washington. It named names. And listed purchase prices. Most of it was from public records, but if Andy heard about something early he could catch the details before they got spat out by the bureaucracy a month after the purchase. Both the editor and the publisher loved fresh real estate prices.
“I have a house for you,” she said. “And I need a favor.”
“What’s the house?”
She gave him the address. “The owner is Seth Tower.”
“Well! What brings that boy to our town?”
“Who the fuck knows. Reinventing himself as a gogo drummer? Or auditioning for Fugazi. He’s good at showing up after the party’s over and making it look like he was there all along.”
“And making some money off it,” Andy said, scanning his computer screen again. “But he really made his money the same way all the new people in Great Falls did, didn’t he. Tech bubble.” He gave the enter key a bear-paw smack and turned in her direction again. “And now it’ll be real estate.”
“It’s pretty empty—I mean, it doesn’t look like he’s really living there,” Malone said. “But yeah. He was into having me shoot it. It’s all design clichés, but people would like it. He sure paid enough for it. He said he’s got places in Orange County—that’s where he’s from—and North Carolina. And of course Brashton.”
“What do you hear from Jackson,” he said, looking down, acting casual, but she could tell he was really hungry for news. Maybe he just had a crush on Jackson. And here I’d thought it was me, she smiled to herself.
“That’s sort of why I’m here,” she said. “Do you know if there’s a computer that it’s OK to wreck?”
“You got a baseball bat? You could do this one.”
“I’ve got an email that may have a kind of virus,” she said. “A, um, Jackson Hill kind of virus.”
He looked at her then, his mouth in a silent “ooooh.” And steepled his fingers. “Hmm. Where is it?”
“I saw it in my old AOL account. It’s kind of dead, I never use it.”
“I can’t imagine why not, such a quality internet service provider,” he said, hitting save on something on one screen. “OK. I think I can fix you up.”
“Nobody can know, though,” she said.
“What? Can’t hear you,” he said, pushing back his wheeled chair and pulling his bulk to standing. “Rachel’s office.”
She picked Linney up again and stood back to let him pass. Rachel was the “lifestyle editor,” who had published several roman a clef romances set in Congress, another of the names on the masthead for show. Malone set Linney down in this new doorway and they pushed aside several plastic-wrapped baskets full of free-gift “spa” products that reeked of lavender and fresh-mown grass. Two computer setups balanced on top of another large box. Andy had her crawl back to plug in various cables and cords, and punched at some keys, and they waited, and waited some more.
“OK,” he told her. “You can open it up here. They’re gonna wipe these before they donate them, so just download it to the desktop, not to the internal server. That should be OK.”
“Stop fussing,” he said, squeezing past the boxes, but stopped in the doorway, reluctant to squeeze past the baby. Malone picked up the carseat and brought her farther into the office to let him by. She sat down and pulled up her AOL account. Linney sneezed. Malone knelt to wipe her nose and give her a kiss. Then she went back and pulled up the email.
Want to come to Bahia? it read. For the water. I need a photographer.
Well, she wouldn’t have been able to do that, but it was nice to be asked, she thought, slightly relieved.
Then she took a breath and downloaded the attachments to the desktop, and opened them, one by one.
Andy loomed in the doorway. She could tell he was embarrassed to stay, but he wanted to know. She solved it: “Could you stick around? I’m afraid this thing’s going to explode or some damn thing, infect every computer here with tuberculosis, you know.”
“Sure,” he muttered, shifting around uneasily, not knowing where to look. “Tuberculosis isn’t a virus, though,” he muttered. “Bacteria.”
She started with a Word document. It started in the middle of a thought, if you could call it that. She skimmed the sea of random capitalized words; the point seemed to be that the West had caused 9/11, nothing more than what you could hear any day on Democracy Now, if significantly less coherently stated. Three more files, all the same.
She closed them and went to the photo files.
“Oh for fuck’s sake!” she shouted, and slammed back in the desk chair. Linney let out a squawk.
“What?” Malone looked over at him and saw he was looking at the door, afraid to see what she was seeing.
“Who would ever think this was porn? Jackson’s life was ruined for this shit? You are shitting me!”
The lineup of five guys posed with tube socks and goofy expressions; three of them were doing the see-no-evil monkeys. The room was badly lit and oddly pink, but anyone could see it was just goofing. It looked like they were in a music studio—she saw part of a drum kit and a bass propped against the wall.
“I never liked the Chilis. That’s a nice bass, though,” she said, almost automatically playing with the enlarger to get a better look. It was one of those little Steinbergers.
She quickly opened and closed three more images, all variations, some with the guys lying down, pretending to be passed out, holding beers. They could have been guys she’d see at any shows, really young, yes, but not pubescent or anything, probably college age. Had to be legal, or very close to any technical definitions. Though that length of hair on the one was unusual, you didn’t see too many guys around with that.
“No wonder it all got dismissed so fast,” she said.
“Damage is done, though,” Andy said, shifting from foot to foot. Linney started to babble and bash at her toys. Malone knew her window was closing.
“Everyone keeps saying that,” she said. “It’s starting to get a little annoying. Look, if I print these out—will anyone be able to see them? Or find out?”
“There’ll be a record in the printer,” Andy said. “But I don’t think much else. Your call.”
“I’ll use the intern printer,” she said. “See what happens.” She didn’t know why, but she had a vague notion that she could confront someone sometime with this absurdity, it could make a difference. Tell Bebe maybe? Get her crusading? That was even more ridiculous.
But maybe—maybe to show Nils. To show him that there was nothing to it. And that maybe, in the future, she and Jackson really could work on something together. Maybe be friends.