The music changed to light rock, and Kendra said, “Oh, I love this song!”
“No, you don’t,” Bert told her. He’d had a few Jack and Diet Cokes, and no luck making passes at her, and so he’d left behind the polite portion of the party.
“You don’t know what I love,” Kendra said. She was toying with belligerence, but Bert had been with the firm a lot longer than she had and it was possible this would come back on her. For now, she kept her tone amused and her eyebrows raised. “I love Tom Petty.”
“No, you don’t,” Bert said again, and his voice was maybe a bit loud. “Nobody loves Tom Petty!”
Ned faked a laugh and put a hand on his arm. “Take it easy, huh, man?” He’d been nursing the same beer all night.
“You don’t understand,” Bert said, sloughing the hand off his sleeve. “It’s impossible to love Tom Petty.”
Matty muttered, “Aaaand, there he goes again.” She let go of Ned’s hand and breezed off toward the crudites platter. They’d been at the company holiday party last year, and she didn’t need a repeat of the rigatoni incident.
“Don’t try and tell me who I can love,” Kendra said. Her voice was even, but her eyebrows weren’t as high as they’d been. “You ever hear ‘Wildflowers’? Everybody loves Tom Petty.”
Ned, still trying to keep the mood light, crooned low. “Everybody loves Tom Petty sometimes.”
“Knock it off,” Kendra said. Ned had joined the company at the same time she had. She didn’t have to be nice to him. She clanked her drink on the glass tabletop. Grapefruit soda and vodka with a dash of bitters. It was possible she’d had as much as Bert.
“What I’m trying to teach you,” Bert began, “is that we overuse that word. ‘Love.’ It’s a strong word. It’s supposed to mean something. Use it for freakin’ Tom Petty, it stops meaning anything.”
“Well, in this case, it means I love Tom Petty.” She narrowed her eyes at Bert. “Why wouldn’t I love Tom Petty?”
Bert lifted his shoulders in an elaborate pantomime of helplessness. “I don’t know,” he told her. “Maybe because you never met the man?”
“I’ve listened to his lyrics.” Kendra was pointing now, her fingernail long and polished. “I know his soul, everything he pours into his music. That’s what I know, and what I love.”
“You forget he’s a showbiz phoney,” Bert reminded. “Think he means what he says when he sings? He sings from the heart? Those songs are carefully crafted at a corporate level to appeal specifically to you.”
“Works pretty well, then,” Kendra said. “I went to his last concert. Sat right up front.”
“Oh, really?” Ned asked. “I bet that was a great time.” He tried to step between them, but Bert swung an arm to cut him off.
“I don’t care if you went backstage and kissed Tom Petty on both cheeks,” Bert declared, “you still don’t know the man.”
“So what is it I need to have done to officially know someone,” Kendra asked, her lower teeth showing now. “Bang him?”
“Oh, dear,” Ned breathed.
“There it is,” Bert put in, clapping his hands once, but the music was loud enough that possibly no one noticed. “Perfect example. Let’s say I take you to see a concert –”
“Pfft. Fat chance.”
“– and I get you backstage to meet the star, and then he bangs you –”
“Ooookay, guys,” Ned tried. “Fun’s fun, but…”
“Now if it’s Prince, I got a story. If it’s Johnny Cash, I’m telling everybody.” Bert leaned forward, and Ned braced himself to catch the man. “My girl got banged by a legend and I couldn’t even be mad about it!”
“’Your girl’?” Kendra glared through lowered lids.
“But if it’s Tom Petty? I’d be embarrassed!” Bert flung a hand wide and jangled the crystal fringe on the pendant lamp over the dining table. “What’s more, you would be, too.”
“All right, that’s about enough,” Ned said, putting a nervous hand out to still the chittering lamp. “Don’t want to make a scene.”
“I would, would I?” Kendra stood now, a bit unsteady.
“Now, if it was Jagger? Or Elvis?” Bert nodded at her, certain she understood what he was saying. “That’s one you treasure the rest of your life.”
“Because, a legend?”
“You got it.”
“You have no problem with ‘your girl’ getting a little backstage-lovin’ as long as it’s from a legend, is that it?”
“I’m just saying, it’s an issue of magnitudes.” Bert put a hand out flat between them, horizontal. “Tom Petty-level? Now, that’s what you call like. Strong-like, even.” Then he raised his hand up over his head. “But legend-level? That there? That’s when it’s love.”
Ned scanned the room. Was Jackie from HR watching?
“So, if I took you to a David Bowie show,” Kendra began.
“Verifiable legend,” Bert affirmed.
“And I got you backstage to meet him,” she continued.
“I’d be delighted,” Bert agreed.
“And he bent you over an amp-case and railed you like the 10:16 from Tulsa,” she put in, “then we’d both have a story we’d be talking about to our grandkids?”
Bert pulled his face back a thoughtful moment. “Now, that’s a bit problematic.”
Ned waved for Matty, who was outside by the pool now, talking to Terry and Brenda. He gave her the sign, time to go.
Kendra said, “Let’s go tell everybody about the time Bowie and Freddie pulled a train on you backstage at Live Aid in ’85!”
“Kendra,” Ned warned.
“Legendary!” she shouted, just as the song ended, and then she slumped back onto her chair and was quiet.
Ned was pretty sure Jackie from HR was looking now.
Bert’s head and torso seemed to trace different arcs as he patted his pockets. “I should be getting home.”
“I think you better not drive tonight,” Ned advised.
Matty got there just in time to hear Ned suggest he drive Bert home, and she made a face, and mouthed “Again?” But what else was he going to do?
They made it down the walk and got Bert into the backseat of the car without smacking his head on the doorframe. He was snoring before they got him belted in.
Ned went to open Matty’s door for her, but she got into the passenger-seat on her own and slammed it.
He started the car and pulled from the curb and said, “Sorry.”
“Every damned time,” Matty told him.
He knew that was all he’d hear about it. That, and much of anything else for the night.
He turned on the radio. A Linda Ronstadt song.
From the back, Bert snorted in his sleep, “I love this song.”
Her face toward the window away from Ned, Matty said, “Legendary.”