The Dome Smoker started out duller and more nervewracking than she had feared. After a half-hour of kneeling and shooting grip-and-grins, she had actually started feeling sorry for Michael Jordan. He should be excused from ever paying taxes again for this kind of charity work, she thought; grown men were actually shaking with awe when they went up to him.
Not that she was doing much better. She was shaking from exhaustion. Getting searched and having to dismantle her entire gear bag had been bad enough and it had almost made her late.
Everyone was pissed about the search lines, so there was much commiserating and exchange of horror stories. Malone was pretty sure that if she told her stories, she’d be a runner-up. After the baby was born, she’d twice taken a plane instead of driving to see her mother, because Nils didn’t want her alone in the car that long, in her typical almost-falling-asleep state. In each puddle-jumper plane trip to Chattanooga, she couldn’t believe the number of times she’d had to detach her child from the sling, the Snugli, and, in one memorable instance, her breast, to stand for a search or the benediction of the x-ray wand, to defend the contents of bottles (they’d at least never made her sip them), or explain where she was going and why. And all for an hour-long visit with someone who was not her mother anymore, but beautiful pale shell who smiled at “that beautiful little boy” and told her the story of St. Bernadette.
In the stunned postpartum state, she’d simply accepted it all as part of her new reality, as if searches and questioning and the invasion of the bodies of loved ones by alien forces were inconveniences on a par with the breast pump and night wakings. She would simply have to accommodate, and she did; it was as if she’d always known life would be like this, or she was recovering habits from way back. She knew she was prone to hiding her thoughts, to not revealing anything that could be used against her. But maybe she was just being paranoid. That was a phrase that ought to come at the end of any number of thoughts or actions nowadays, sort of like the “paid for by the committee to elect x” notice that came at the end of campaign messages. Or “your milage may vary.”
The only women there were working—she and a few other photographers and writers, and the cheerleaders, waitresses, singers and models hired to decorate the party. The place was so hazed with cigar smoke it made her dizzy, and Harlan was on a high. He had grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her, laughing and cawing like an old crow: “You one of mine? You one of mine? Do a good job tonight, or I’ll fire you! Ha ha ha!” He turned to the tuxedoed stick by his side and gave him an arm punch. “I’m gonna fire em all and sell the whole thing to Bill Regardie! Ha ha ha!”
She anticipated an interesting week at the office ahead, with Harlan taking the express mood elevator to the manic penthouse. Being part-time had its advantages. She’d have to hide out shooting master bathrooms until he either crashed or got sent out of town on a “bass fishing trip.” It was too bad, really, she thought, after the media had been shooed from the Jordan VIP area and she followed him around, shooting as he embraced random buddies. He was a handsome, charismatic guy, really. You’d think he was the next Clinton if you only saw him for five minutes, then he’d scare the shit out of you.
She rubbed at her shoulder—he’d actually left a mark. She was wearing an old sleeveless black beaded top with an empire waist. It showed off her temporarily generous boobs while keeping her stomach hidden. She’d let a pair of black bootcut stretch jeans pretend to be evening pants and gotten away with it in the dimly lit ballroom. She had a vintage tuxedo jacket she used to wear when she had to shoot things like this, but she hadn’t shrunk quite enough for it to fit her yet.
She spotted Harlan manhandling a blonde woman and pushed and scooted her way toward him, to try to avert an incident, or at least photograph it. “Why don’t you come back to work so I can fire you!” Harlan was saying, giving her a few shakes, before Malone recognized the object of his torture. It was Alexis Templeton, who had moved on from Capital Life to the big time—Celeb magazine, a national weekly that pretended it wasn’t a tabloid, mostly by running an article about a disabled child or a recovering addict in each issue. The Magnolia guys had brought her up to DC from a little paper they had in Macon, and in a year she’d written two very good articles on women in the capital, and a few short profiles of cave dwellers. A combination of a luminous fragility and Southern sorority connections seemed to work well for her. Harlan had then authorized her to take a year’s leave so she could write a memoir of her 24-some years on earth. “Summer’s Glow Is Gone,” was a southern gothic about anorexia and finding out her fiancé was gay (Andy always accidentally-on-purpose referred to it as “Suddenly, Last Summer”). It had brought her fame-for-DC and the job with Celeb, in Los Angeles, and an open-invitation gig as a talking head whenever the subjects of eating disorders or gay boyfriends came up.
Harlan got distracted by something shiny and pinballed across the room as Malone walked up. “Hey,” she said to Alexis.
“Oh, how are you,” Alexis said, her eyes darting around and toward Malone’s chest. Malone had no illusions—Alexis did remember her, but not her name, and she was trying to get a look at her credential.
“Malone,” Malone said, flipping her credential around to face Alexis briefly, then flipping it backwards again, so people couldn’t see she was “only” with Capital Life. “Need any photos? Harlan fired me a few minutes ago, so I’m free.”
“I’m sorry I forgot your name,” Alexis said, smiling weakly and giving her a shoulder hug. “I’m so jet-lagged.”
“I was wondering what you were doing here,” Malone said. “You didn’t come in just for this?”
“Oh, no,” Alexis said. “There was a hearing.” It was on insurance coverage for eating disorders, she explained, and a young actress, whose work playing a young girl in a mental hospital apparently qualified her to speak on the subject, had come to testify.
“That sounds interesting,” Malone said. She lifted her camera and randomly shot at a table off to the side, where a white-haired man in a tux and bolo tie was toasting a tequila shot with a very young, very good-looking young man. They were so far back from the VIP area, though, that he might not be anyone important, but the good looks of both of them put them as not being from DC, so it didn’t hurt to get a shot.
“So you’re getting pretty good stuff to do?” Malone asked. “It’s hard to tell, the way they lump you all’s bylines up.”
“Yeah, it’s mostly body after baby. They’re just obsessed with body after baby out there. How soon will she get her body back? What kind of diet is she on?”
Malone smiled. “I had a baby six months ago, and I don’t have mine back yet,” she said.
“Oh, but you look good!” Alexis said. “You’re just naturally skinny.”
“I’m more worried about whether I’ll ever sleep again,” Malone lied, to get off the subject. That was pure evil on the part of Celeb to put that poor girl on such a beat, she thought. Then she eyed the bolo-tie and handsome-boy couple again. They were leaning closer together, talking confidentially.
“Looks like someone might be getting his dome smoked tonight,” she said, only half realizing she’d said it aloud.
“Who? You mean him? You think—“
Malone lifted her camera and shot a few more as bolo-tie let his hand linger and drift over the other man’s butt.
“Duh,” Malone said. “Could see that one a mile away.”
“Oh, well,” Alexis said. “With my record…”
Malone remembered the topic of the memoir and wanted to take back what she’d said immediately. Two insensitive blunders in a row—she shouldn’t be allowed out. But at the same time, it was hard to believe this girl would be so insecure she would think Malone was making fun of her. “Oh, no, no way, I didn’t mean that!” she said. “Look. Your book was fantastic, you know. You’re in LA already. And you’re what, 26?”
Alexis nodded and smiled. “They want me to do online work now.”
“That’s great! You’ve got tons of things ahead,” Malone said, then stopped when she heard herself, and tried again. “There’s so much more than body after baby for someone with your talent. You’ll see.” She felt idiotic taking an avuncular tone with someone who was obviously so much more successful than she was, but Alexis seemed to like it. She reached out and hugged the young woman’s shoulders in a sort of coach-y way. Nils suddenly surfaced in front of them, his eyes lighting up at the sight of the women hugging. She wondered if this was how he felt, trying to encourage athletes, many of whom could buy and sell him five times over, but who were afraid of looking foolish in front of a bunch of policy wonks.
“Do you remember my husband, Nils? He’s with the Uplift Foundation,” Malone made introductions. As they said hello, she took a few more photos of the May-December couple. She nudged Nils: “Hey, do you know who that is?”
“Who?” he said, staring into the crowd.
“Don’t look!” she said, at the same time as Alexis said, “Oh, that’s Owen Sinclair. He’s from LA, too—“
“Oh, fuck me,” Malone said, as she saw him get up and head toward them, looking like he was off to shoot a coyote. “Don’t tell him I’m with Cap Life. He hates Harlan. Those two about like to rip each other’s throats out.”
She faked a girly smile after this, Alexis following suit, so they could look like they’d been having social talk.
Sinclair came up close and peered at Alexis’ credential. “Celeb? Far from home, aren’t you?”
“I could say the same for you, Senator Sinclair,” she said, with as little flirtation or depth as a Boy Scout reciting the pledge.
“Nils Edinger,” Nils said, extending his hand, to take the heat off Malone. “Uplift Foundation.”
“This is your shindig, isn’t it? Where’s Jordan?” Sinclair asked, craning his head toward the front of the room.
“Working the room, trying to get some votes,” he said. Sinclair went with the joke. “How come you’re looking for him? Want him to come to LA and make another movie?”
“I have as little as possible to do with movies,” Sinclair said. “We leave that to the Hollywood liberals. I’m after something bigger than that. Here,” he said, hugging Nils’ shoulder, “take our picture, Miss Celeb.”
She tried not to laugh out loud. This asshole was actually hitting on Nils. He was either drunk or as crazy as Harlan. She ought to put them together and see if they could get a cage match to end the evening. But as she raised her camera, the strap got caught in her credential, and she had to pause to untangle things.
The senator, posing, suddenly lost his smile. He dropped his arm from Nils’ shoulder and reached out for her. “Don’t you dare put my picture in that piece of shit,” he hissed. “Give me the film.”
She pretended to be shocked and flustered. “But—um--it’s not film. It’s, like, digital.” She turned big eyes to Nils and Alexis for help.
“Oh, no, sir, she’s working for me right now,” Alexis said. “These photos are for Celeb, not Cap Life. Really, sir, there’s just a misunderstanding about the credential.”
Sinclair looked directly into her eyes, furious. Then it was as if something had turned off inside him. He was suddenly cold and blank. “OK. I’ll be in touch.”
He walked away from them toward the VIP section.
“That was weird,” Alexis said. “Did anyone else think that was weird?”
“Talk about Hollywood,” said Malone. “What a diva.”
Nils hugged her. “He just realized all the sudden that he was drunk. He almost did something stupid. Good thing, too. I don’t need that. It’s not like he ever gives up a dime to anyone.”
He wasn’t worried, she could see. The power tonight rested with the ones who were going to give money, not the ones looking for it.
“What’s his deal?” Malone said.
Nils shook his head. “There’s a couple of them like that, they think having a poker game and a hot tub means they can be Charlie Wilson or something. But Sinclair doesn’t have the brains. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong party.”
“He looks the part,” Malone said.
“Yeah, but he doesn’t give a damn about anything but himself, his people, his company.” Nils shrugged. “You saw. No charisma, no nothing.”
“Paranoia and self-preservation are two entire different animals,” Malone said. “I’d call that the former. You should keep an eye on him,” she said to Alexis. “You know something weird? Seth—“ she stopped talking. She didn’t want to give away the tidbit she’d brought Andy, about the house.
“Seth Tower? What about him?”
“Oh—he does some business with him, that’s all. A tech thing.”
“Oh, that’s right! You know Seth Tower, I remember who you are, now!” Alexis said, as Malone winced. “Did you go out with him? I mean I remembered you, but I didn’t remember who you really were. Oh my god. You know Jackson Hill from Seawall. Oh my god. What is going on with that?” Alexis was beside herself.
Nils looked professionally bland and shook his head in a way that could be construed as tsking over the whole mess, but taking no allegiances.
“I don’t know,” Malone said, following his lead. “I mean of course, it can’t be true. It has to be some big horrible thing where someone hacked his email. I heard he’s suing someone, but I don’t know anything more than that.”
“Who said he’s suing someone?” Alexis asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s just a horrible thing. God, this music. It’s been making me cringe all night. I feel like my head is retracting like a turtle. Why are they so stuck in the 80s?”
“Look who’s talking,” Nils said, half a dig, half to restore some lightness.
“You bitch,” she said to him, laughing. “Go get that Senator Sinclair and go home with him. He likes em big.” She turned to Alexis. “You should keep an eye on him, really.”
She saw Alexis doing just that, staring across the room, pointedly casual and sharp at once.