“Janeva.” The Black Warrior Review 6 (1979): 41-49. Fiction Prize 1979.
Janeva moved out of the apartment upstairs on a Friday. I threw up at work like I do every Friday and came home early. Then I went up and picked the lock on her door.
Harry, who is my brother, taught me to pick locks when we were kids because our mother locked us out of the apartment every day. Harry is a doctor now and has two children by a blonde wife. The wife is pretentious, and the children seem normal.
Last year Harry bought Mother a house. The rooms that she preferred to lock herself into got smaller and smaller. The kitchen, the bathroom, then the hall closet. If she had settled in the bathroom it would have been more convenient, but it has never been like Mother to be considerate. Harry hired a nurse to take Mother out of the closet every day, bathe her, and make her eat. Neither of us could stand the thought of her wasting away among her peers in some nursing home.
A few months ago I picked the closet lock and carried Mother out and put her in a chair. She smelled like ammonia and talcum powder; it made me feel sick. She said two things to me. She said, “Who are you?” And she said, “You are not my child.”
I pretended that Janeva’s apartment was the tomb of an Egyptian princess past forgetting, but there were no relics there to be treasured. There was just a malnourished, wailing kitten inside and a half-empty box of MN face powder. There was a crumpled up piece of notebook paper with a note on it as well. It said: “Janeva–Here is the money. Later. Billy Ned.” There were also some stale cornchips scattered on the couch. I ate two and left the rest. Then I sat there until it started to get dark. I have a queer sort of curiosity about disinhabitation.
When my father left I was three and I pressed my face every day into the suits and shoes he left in the closet until Mother sent them away. But I had already tricked her. I had taken his shaving brush from the bathroom. I would lock my bedroom door and smell that shaving brush. When I did that my father’s big cleanness would fill my head and I would feel safe in spite of the fact that he was dead to me.
Harry explained to me that Daddy wasn’t dead, he was just living in Arizona. Harry probably explains to his children that their grandmother isn’t dead, she is just living in a closet. They are all dead to me. Now, Janeva too.
Janeva looked like a country singer all the time even when she wasn’t working at a place called “Cocktails” because that’s all its sign said and it had changed hands so often that no one considered naming it. When she was working she wore black satin shorts and a vulva-pink western blouse without many snaps snapped. There was this thick black continuous line of eye-liner around her eyes all the time, and I never saw her without the short hair on the top of her head kind of puffed up like a rooster’s comb and the long hair on the back of her head curling down almost to her waist, creased here and there from her electric roller pins. Her breasts were so big she seemed always to be falling forward.
I know she sounds awful already when she really wasn’t. At certain times you could almost see a sweet child’s face underneath that MN mask. She was beautiful when she sang along with the radio or when she’d just taken in a new stray cat. And she had a charming way of drinking a co-cola.
Janeva looked so gentle and vulnerable at those times that it made you want to throttle her the way you feel sometimes when you’re holding little babies. But even then her delicateness was mostly negated by the predominant images she aroused–images of sentence fragments scrawled on all-night diner bathroom walls beneath rusty prophylactic dispensers. They were all about Janeva. She had a million names and telephone numbers. What a misfortune her body was.
This place where she worked had a yellow neon cocktail glass out front that poured pink and blue neon cocktail onto the sidewalk, and the sidewalk in answer gave off a faint odor of whiskey and piss and cigarette butts. I was there one time drunk. I sat out in front in a Mustang with goober-faced Mike Weans from my office and he said, “I usually don’t like chubby broads but you’re OK.” Then he stuck his hand down my shirt and put his tongue in my ear. He very politely drove me home when I started to cry.
Janeva was a real prude about talk. Dirty words made her blush and make fanning motions in front of her face with her hands. This was somehow not incompatible with the soap operas that she watched or the confessions magazines that she read. Her sexual operations were decidedly covert. I never heard any bed-grinding overhead. But I frequently heard her singing when she got home from work, and sometimes she didn’t get home from work at all.
Sometimes I had dinner with her on her night off. I always knew Janeva had me up for dinner because she felt sorry for me and was a good Christian girl. And I went up because I was bored with reading historical novels and science fiction and masturbating. I guess we cared for each other the way that lonely people always care for one another without ever really knowing one another. The way people in hospitals, wars, and prisons care for each other in movies. Sometimes we had tunafish casserole; sometimes we had canned spaghetti; sometimes we had fried chicken from Dodie’s. While we ate we always watched a show on TV about a young female advertising executive who always looked good and rarely had her heart broken.
That show amused me. I am a clerk at Dowing Advertising Agency, Inc. I have worked there for over a year, and I make $400 a month before taxes. They told me when I got the job that there was room for advancement. Whatever that means. I was an eager worker for a couple of months until I realized that I was simply doing all the stupid, despicable work that no one else in the Agency wanted to do, that the only place I was ever going to advance was down the hall every day to give W.C. my mail-outs, and that I never should have learned to type.
I washed dishes in a restaurant one summer when I was in college and the black man who taught me how to wash dishes told me: “Now, remember, what you don’t know how to do, you don’t gotta do.” That made me laugh at the time. I didn’t know then what it means to do dull, pointless work day after day after day. Now it is too late.
I type and file and mail-out from eight till five, and I eat apples in the videotape storage room for lunch. There are five duplicates of every piece of paper that crosses my desk. I file two duplicates and send the original and the other duplicates to the executive secretaries and the business office. My files are just back-up files in case a disaster occurs in someone else’s filing cabinet. I hate all of the executives except for Mr. Spangle. He smiles at me and we have an understanding: he is too human to be an ad executive and I am too human to be a typist. We have mock discussions of my various talents, none of which are required at Dowing.
One night Janeva and I drank a lot of gin and decided to go to the Red Lounge and drink some more. We got hooked up with three big, grinning guys named Billy Ned, Coyt, and Eddie. Billy Ned had new alligator boots on and put his feet up on the table to show us. Janeva went off and jerked and bumped around on the dance floor with Billy Ned, and Eddie said to me, “We flipped a coin to see who’s gonna dance with you and I won.” He jerked me up from the table and made me dance with him until I told him I was thirsty and he said, “You drink lack a fish.” He repeated this bit of cleverness several times back at the table.
Everything was funny to Eddie and Coyt. I asked Eddie what sort of work he did, and he said, “Why, I don’t do nothin’ but raise Hell!” He and Coyt began to hoot and bang their fists on the table.
Coyt turned to me and said, “Eddie here is a fish trainer. He charges duded up city folk ten dollars a piece to take ’em out to catch fish down to Toola Lake. The fish’ll jump up into the boat if you set there long enough. But Eddie don’t tell ’em that. He’s got them big fish trained to play around with those folks and jump off their hooks at the last minute so they’ll get mad and feel like they ain’t got their money’s worth when they take in a medium-size cetch. Then they come back later to try and catch the big ‘uns.” Eddie looked at me with pride. “I see,” I said. They laughed.
You may think I am strange to do work that I despise. But I am certainly not unusual for that. You should hear all the sighing that goes on at Dowing and you should see the number of secretaries who weep in the bathroom for lunch.
I guess I’d be in there with them if I didn’t take what Janeva calls “nerve pills.” I had worked at Dowing for a month when my hands began to shake and I couldn’t sleep at night and I always felt like I wanted to cry. Dr. Cowley, who brought me into the world and feels obligated to keep me here even though I don’t particularly care to stay, gave me a prescription for Valium and I have faithfully taken four blue tablets a day ever since. My work now is peripheral, hence, bearable. I have been able to perceive and accept with a certain degree of righteousness my true function at Dowing Advertising. My true function has nothing to do with typing and filing and mailing-out. My true function is simply to be on the bottom. At Dowing, money goes up, and shit goes down.
When I excused myself to go to the bathroom Coyt yelled, “Don’t get none on ya!” I could hear Coyt and Eddie yukking it up on my way to the bathroom. When I got there I threw up and then sat on the toilet for a long time listening to two women discussing the virtues of various bleaches and comparing the frequency with which they had to touch up their roots. I stared at the graffiti that had been etched into the mauve stall walls with some sharp object. There wasn’t much. “Do you like to do it?” “Girls–call 696-9696 for a good time.” Then: “U prevert! U OTT 2 B N Whitfield.”
I had vomit on my shoe that I had to wash off after those women left. Janeva came in when I had my foot in the sink, and she re-teased and re-sprayed her hair and offered me some mascara and lipstick.
She said, “Honey, we was worried about you. You look like a scared rabbit. I’m in love with Billy Ned.”
Janeva looked at me for minute, then she looked at herself in the mirror. She said, “They don’t mean nothin’ by those things they say. They just want us all to have a real good time. Don’t you want to have a good time? Girl, you don’t never have no fun!” She paused and watched me wet a paper towel and wipe a speck of vomit off my skirt. Then she said, “They don’t want nothin’ off a you. Come on now, don’t you want to have a good time? I’m in love with Billy Ned.”
Billy Ned, Coyt, and Eddie stood up when we got back from the bathroom and remained standing until we sat down. Billy Ned finished telling an involved and stupid dirty joke. Janeva blushed and fanned her burgundy-nailed hands in front of her face. “Woo,” she said.
When the Red Lounge closed we all got in Billy Ned’s Cadillac and went to the Mainliner, which stays open all night if the cops don’t close it. As we walked in we passed a fellow clutching a bloody bar towel to his face. Coyt said, “Looks lack he’s been hit,” and the three boys laughed and slapped their thighs and pinched Janeva and me on the ass. We all drank shots of tequila except for Janeva who was sucking on Singapore Slings and feeding the cherries to Billy Ned. A man passed out on the dance floor and a woman pulled her skirt up to her waist and hop-scotched all around him in her platform heels. At the table next to us this guy shoved his hand up a waitress’s shorts and she hit him over the head with a beer mug. Drops of blood spattered over onto our table. Janeva and Billy Ned went to dance. I went to the bathroom and threw up.
When I got back to the table Janeva and Billy Ned were still dancing. Two women had joined Coyt and Eddie, who were loudly arguing about the accuracy with which they could shoot fish with a rifle. After they had made a bet and set the date for a contest Coyt said, “This here’s Edie Louise, Janeva’s friend from her work, and this here’s Jo Lynn who works over to the hospital.” Edie Louise smiled at me and Jo Lynn kind of smirked. Eddie said, “These ladies ain’t danced all night. An’ Coyt an’ me’d hate to see ladies go wantin’. You don’t mind do you, sugarfoot?” He winked. “Have a good time,” I said. It was late. The band had begun to play sloppy, slow, soulful tunes. I was glad to be let off the hook.
I watched Billy Ned and Janeva slow dancing. She was something. She leaned into him hard and he navigated by her ass. God knows what fixed mark Janeva had her eyes on.
Seven of us left the Mainliner in Billy Ned’s silver Cadillac. More jokes, more fish stories, more laughter. Janeva quiet, leaning her hair against Billy Ned’s neck as he drove with one hand. Janeva turning around to me, saying, “You having a good time?” “Yes,” I said; “yes.”
They dropped me off at my apartment. Janeva stayed in the car. As I got out they all waved goodnight and Coyt said, “Hey.” “What?” I asked. “Hey,” he said, “Don’t get none on ya.”
Janeva got in the next morning as I was dragging myself to work. She was singing a tune the band had played the night before, but I never have been able to understand the words.
After that night at the Red Lounge and the Mainliner I didn’t have dinner with Janeva anymore, hardly even saw her. She went out with Billy Ned on her nights off; I saw his car out front a couple of times. I guess she was in love like she told me that night. Sometimes she didn’t seem to come home at all.
W.C., the mail clerk, has been at Dowing for twenty-eight years. He sits in the mail room with his feet on the table and reads the heavily-edited local newspaper which is sarcastically referred to by anybody who has seen any other paper as the Clerical-Error. He picks up mail-outs from everyone in the Agency but me. I take my mail to him. I knock on the door and he says, “Entree.”
One day I went in and put an armful of labelled tape boxes down on his table. I said, “W.C., would you please put postage on these for me and send them out?” “Hmph,” he said. “Thanks, W.C.,” I said, and I started to walk out, but I changed my mind, turned back and looked at him.
“W.C.,” I said, “how come you been working here all these years?” W.C. slowly folded his paper shut, slowly leaned forward and placed it on the table next to his feet. He looked straight at me with a mildly amused look on his usually inscrutable face and said, “I ain’t particular. Are you?” I stood there looking at him. He sort of glanced at the door behind me then looked straight in my face again. “You know,” he said in a very matter-of-fact tone, “I would have been an executive if I hadn’t been a nigger. But people always gotta make you be what they think you are. There ain’t nothin’ special about what them fat nervous men in those big offices with soft chairs out there do. There ain’t even nothin’ smart about it. Fool could do it. All this,” he said and paused to wave his hand toward all the tapes and letters and manila envelopes waiting for his stamp machine. “All this ain’t nothin’ but bullshit. Makes a lot of money.”
W.C. raised his eyebrows–either for confirmation from me, or just to emphasize what he’d said. I stood there looking at him, waiting. “I was born too early,” he continued, “and my skin was not of the right color. But you. You. It don’t make no difference when you were born. You’re a little white girl alright, but you ain’t nothin’ but sof’ness. An’ that makes you a new kind of nigger for them. Even gone to college.” He chuckled then, leaned back in his chair, and laced his fingers together over his stomach.
“But W.C.,” I said then, “I hate them all. Hate them.” W.C. picked his paper up and put it in his lap. He looked at me and said, “I know that. I do too. But I’m too old now, and I gotta be here. You don’t gotta do it.”
I went into the bathroom and cried for the first time in a long time after I talked to W. C. Then I felt like I was going to throw up so I just left without saying anything to anybody. I lay in bed when I got home and read Nefertush, Egyptian Princess: Part OneThe Papyrus Plot. About mid-afternoon I heard Janeva get in upstairs. I took two cold co-colas up thinking maybe I could visit with her a while and find out what she’d been up to lately. I missed our occasional dinners.
Janeva’s door was open so I went in calling her name. She didn’t answer me. I stepped inside and stood there listening. Then I heard her in the bathroom babbling and cooing to herself in sing-song, and I knew something was wrong. People don’t sound like that unless there’s something wrong or they’re crazy.
Mother used to babble to herself like that whenever she got it into her head to fix dinner. She didn’t lock the door those days. Harry and I would get home from school and Mother would pinch our cheeks, kiss us, push our hair out of our faces; she would sing and babble and put candles on the table. When the roast or the chicken began to burn in the oven and vegetables began to ooze hissing over the sides of pots and make sticky globs on the stove, Mother would sigh and wander off to her chair next to the window and her box of tissues. She would sit at the window cooing to herself and weeping, and Harry and I would fix ourselves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches like all the other days.
I went into Janeva’s bathroom. That same ratty kitten that Janeva would leave behind had fallen into the toilet and was sliding down the sides of the bowl and crying. Janeva was slouched naked in the bathtub with snot and tears dripping onto her breasts, and a little mushroom cloud the color of Singapore Slings was blossoming over her pubic hair and her belly. “My baby,” she gurgled. “Love.”
Then these animal sobs came out of her chest. I put the co-colas down under the sink. “Janeva,” I said leaning down to her face. I was afraid she would slip out of my arms when I pulled her up from the water. I wrapped a towel around her under her arms. “Will you help me?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said; “yes.” She put her arms around my neck like we were slow dancing and I picked her up, carried her out of the bathroom, and put her in a chair. The thin delicateness of her in my arms shocked me.
I kind of wrapped her up in an old quilt that was on her bed, carried her downstairs, put her in my car. I had to go back in to get my keys. I grabbed a pink towel out of the bathroom too. I draped it over her wet head when I got back in the car. She was very quiet, but she was breathing kind of fast, and that scared me. I told her to stop breathing like that. Then I drove her to St. John’s.
When they carried her in, I went in too. They wheeled her away from me down a long corridor. The towel fell off her head. I walked over and picked it up but I couldn’t see where they’d taken her. I stood at a window for a long time while this big fat nurse asked me questions about what was wrong with Janeva and who she was and who was going to pay. I told her what had happened. I told her I didn’t know. She said, “Hmpf,” and kind of glared at me. The hospital smelled like antiseptic and old floor polish; it made me feel sick. I asked the nurse where a bathroom was. Then I went and threw up. I put the pink towel in a garbage can before I left.
When I got back to my apartment I went up and found Edie Louise’s phone number on the back of Janeva’s phone book and I called her and told her what happened. She was nice on the phone, told me she’d go to the hospital and see about Janeva. I went downstairs and got in bed. I finished Nefertush and started Hysteria, Queen of Mars. I thought about calling Harry but I knew he would just ask me again when I was going to stop slumming it, knew I would hear his wife in the background saying “who? who?” So I wrote him a long letter detailing the million ways in which I’d lost my nerve. Then I tore it up and went to sleep.
I didn’t see Janeva after that. If she came to her apartment, she came while I was away. She left a package at my door one day. It contained one of those ceramic plaques saying “friendship is . . .” in hot pink letters. It had a drawing of a naked kid and a dog on it. I remember that Janeva had lots of those plaques on the walls of her bathroom. There was a note as well. It said: “I just wanted to thank you for what you done and tell you that I’m fine now and staying with Edie Louise. Am moving to Milwalkie next week.” Early one Friday morning before I went to work I could hear Janeva and another woman upstairs jabbering and laughing and throwing things in boxes. I didn’t have anything to say or ask, so I went on to work
Now I have this goddamn cat named Janeva. A newly-married couple moved into Janeva’s old apartment upstairs. Newly because they act like they like each other. Married because they moved a washing machine in with them. Everything is more peripheral to me now, except for dreams–dreams in which I am the woman dancing in Billy Ned’s arms, dancing through still and clammy air, dreams in which past his blank, handsome cowboy’s face I can sometimes see Harry and my mother when she was young before she started to cry all the time and W.C. all standing together on the bandstand and singing, but the words are all garbled and they don’t make any sense, dreams in which Billy Ned pulls me up close to him and I press my face into his shirt and I hear Mother singing with Janeva’s voice, singing “Who are you” and Harry singing “When are you . . . never touched,” and W.C. singing, almost whispering “but you, you, you ain’t nothin’ but sof’ness.”