Leah told this man who’d been her mentor at her first firm: “Saul’s on it, so…”
“So it should be fixable,” Ralph said.
“Has she said anything about why?” Debra asked.
“Ask her,” Leah said. “I hope it’s OK, but we didn’t want to leave her at home alone, so she’s getting dropped here after…in a little while.”
“Let me get this straight,” Ralph said. “She spray-painted black graffiti on the computer store wall in downtown Bethesda. ‘Rage Against Moloch’?”
“Exactly that,” Jesse said.
“I Wikipediaed it,” Leah said, “worried she was rebelling against being Jewish…”
“Ginsberg,” her non-Jewish husband said. “Howl. I’m more a Vonnegut guy.”
“Well, at least she’s using her education,” Ralph said.
“We should have sent her to private school instead of B-CC,” Leah muttered. “There they know how to finesse scandal. And maybe she wouldn’t have…”
“Naw,” her husband said. “She was always going to blow.”
A squat Salvadoran woman named Evita interrupted them to beam “Hola!”—more to Leah than Jesse—and hang up Jesse’s black leather jacket. Before Evita quit cleaning their house because Alison’s anarchy made the work not worth it, Leah had loved using the Spanish she’d perfected during her pre-law school year spent building houses for the poor and surfing in Mexico to chatter with Evita.
Debra said: “You two need a drink. Aren’t you glad liquor is back after all those years of just wine?”
Leah told Jesse: “Only wine.”
“Maybe Jesse needs to get drunk!” Debra joked.
Seeing the horror on Leah’s face, she led her away to hear more.
Jesse knew he stayed in Leah’s eyes as Ralph led him toward the liquor table. He recognized the bartender in a black vest and white shirt as Evita’s son.
Ralph kept his voice low. “Just keep Alison in school for as long as you can. Doesn’t matter what for, it’s the paper that counts, not what you know. If you don’t have the right paper, you’re going nowhere.”
The bartender gave Jesse a Diet Coke. He felt Leah approve.
Guests bustled in. Ralph introduced Jesse to a corporate captain of a software company, a man in his mid-60s who’d adapted early to the cyber world.
“This is my first Guy Fawkes party,” the software captain said.
“We’re in our fourth decade,” Ralph said. “A bunch of us came to D.C. being told we were going to burn down the establishment, so we embraced that as a joke. And since Guy Fawkes, who tried to torch Parliament, was a madman—”
“Back then,” Jesse interjected, “madmen were cool.”
“Plus,” Ralph said, “that was during Nixon, when changing the government was more than a mandatory campaign slogan.”
“It’s always more than that,” Jesse said. “And it’s always the same.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” the software captain said.
“The party is supposed to be on Nov. 5,” Ralph said. “Lot of years we make it. But Halloween and Thanksgiving, elections, games, weekends, grandkids…”
Jesse said: “That Guy Fawkes, what a flexible guy.”
Ralph shrugged. “You have to be flexible if you want to be an icon.”
“Change or be changed,” Jesse said. “Every politician loves the Founding Fathers. You can get them to say anything. Or get away with saying they said it.”
“It’s the American way.” Ralph turned to greet arriving guests.
The software captain guarded his lips with a sip of red wine as he stood alone with Jesse. Who merely smiled.
“So, ah…you work with Ralph?” the software captain prompted.
“My wife did. Years ago.”
Stop being a jerk, Jesse told himself, but before he could speak, the guy asked the inside-the-Beltway question.
“So…what do you do?”
“I used to be a reporter.”
“Hell of a thing, isn’t it?” said the software captain, whose industry armed the massacre. “Newspapers, I’m going to miss them.”
“Me, too,” Jesse said.
Before he needed to say more, he picked a plate off the buffet table. Wrapped a white napkin around a metal knife and fork, stuck them in his black jeans pocket so his hands were free. He skipped the roast turkey, took a slab of salmon, orange cheese cubes and a smear of Brie, crescent moons of fresh pineapple, a triangle of pita bread, two spoonfuls of tan must-be hummus, raw broccoli flowers and told himself he wouldn’t visit the pyramid of brownies. Jesse stood in a corner where he could appear too busy to approach, filled his mouth with food as the crowd filled his eyes.
What with the public policy foundation Ralph ran, the art gallery Debra had opened between a yoga center and a gourmet pie store, their neighborhood, their married children’s friends’ parents, lawyers from Ralph’s past, plus his foundation’s dollar-givers and dollar-getters, the crowd at the party challenged labels.
The black couple were professors at George Washington. The stocky man with the lean wife had been a White House aide for a long-gone president. He joked with an ex-congressman from “the other party” who was on his third wife. Jesse recognized a Post reporter who battled into her job as he took the buyout for his. Saw her husband, who did something in some initialed federal agency. That red-haired woman ran a nonprofit, her husband worked at Justice. The good-looking man in the gray suit was a retired Marine general—Jesse forgot how many stars. His new wife had protested the Vietnam War. The gay stockbroker had a new man on his arm, while a guy who owned a car dealership kept his arm around his wife, who Leah said had—thank God!—beaten cancer.
Jesse spotted a laughing couple his age, a big-bucks, white-collar criminal lawyer and his wheat-field blond wife, who wore her silver-threaded hair in a French bun. Her dark blue dress failed to subdue a voluptuousness three children hadn’t tamed. She had the Connecticut grace that came from going to all the right schools before most of the people she first met in D.C. understood such currency. She and Jesse had tumbled together for nine days when they’d both been new to town. Their spouses knew and it didn’t matter because we all have a past, but still they both preferred sharing only smiles from across a crowded room. Next to that beautiful blond wife, Jesse saw the gaze of a divorcée who’d graduated from high school several rock star generations before him note no band of gold on the left hand of a silver fox Homeland Security consultant. Her cosmetics showed a brave complexity and a hopeful ruby smile.
Ralph appeared in Jesse’s corner.
Was it Debra or Leah who sent him to check on me?
Ralph nodded to a husky 40ish man and his effervescent college sweetheart wife and whispered to Jesse: “When Mac stopped taking a personal draw from his development company so they wouldn’t need to lay off as many people, his partner didn’t.”
“And Mac kept being partners with him?” Jesse said.
Ralph shrugged. “You’re in the deal you’re in, you do it how you do it.”
Jesse shook his head. “Remember when every party was about real estate?”
“And before that, tech stocks. We came back from that bubble pop; real estate will come back, too. Though everything inside the Beltway is now one bought-up city.”
“Lucky for us we’re in the already got something part of town,” Jesse said.
“Lucky for us we didn’t need to be born here to get here.”
A corporate lawyer named Ben and some artsy eyeglasses Yvette came over to greet their host, but 10 seconds after they joined him and Jesse, Debra summoned her husband to the kitchen.
Ben asked Jesse: “What’s new?”
“I saw an owl yesterday,” Jesse said.
“Can you believe the deer?” Ben said. “Coming home from work after dark, I’ve gotta slow down on Rock Creek Parkway to keep from hitting them.”
“Deer are the new rats,” Yvette cooed.
“You know,” Ben said, “I’ve never seen a rat. All these years since I came here from Kansas, even my couple years on the Hill, never saw a rat.”