The State of Janey Tyler
by James Valvis
Janey Tyler’s husband has been dead one year today, but it’s just another workday. It’s 6:47 in the morning and she’s late getting out of bed. She brushes her teeth, takes a shower, pausing a long moment to see if she’s showing. She decides she isn’t, that it’s just her pot belly, but at five months she fears that’s just wishful thinking. Janey puts on her white robe and combs out her long brown hair with a pink brush. She steps into her slippers and opens the bathroom door. A cold gust of air hits her pores. She sighs and heads for the kitchen. Feeling woozy from the night before, she wonders if maybe she’s still a little drunk.
Janey starts coffee, adding an extra heaping scoop, which she’s not supposed to do, coffee being so dear. It’s cheap coffee anyway. You’d think, with what she pays them in board, her parents could afford buy something better than generic coffee. Janey pushes the button and hears the water begin to percolate. She raises her fingers to her temple and rubs them, her eyes shut. It wouldn’t surprise her if she fell back to sleep, standing there. Janey opens her eyes, shakes her head briskly from side to side, and pushes down one venetian blind. Outside it’s raining. Great. Just great. She reaches into her robe pocket, pulls out a Marlboro, lights it, and checks the coffee once more. It’s not ready and she curses.
After an interminable wait, Janey pours the finished coffee into an extra-large sized car mug, adds milk and sugar, and screws on the cap. She takes a quick sip, then starts for her room. On the way she looks in on her son, Aaron, who is almost two. He’s sleeping, sucking on his right forefinger, blanket bunched up at his feet. She walks into her room and dresses. She lights another Marlboro. From there she knocks three times on her mother’s bedroom door, softy so as not to wake Aaron. When that doesn’t work she has to knock harder. “What?” her mother says. Janey hears Aaron start to cry behind her. If he hears her voice, she’ll never be able to leave the house. “Mom, I’m ready to go,” she whispers. Her mother grunts and the bed creaks. Her father says something. Janey walks into the kitchen and grabs her keys, purse, and work nametag. She clips the nametag onto her blue uniform. She takes a sip of coffee and smashes out her cigarette while her mother stumbles from the bedroom. Her mother is an ancient woman, a mummy wrapped and preserved in coupon clippings, though she’s just fifty this year. Janey is twenty-five, washed out in a college town, practically a crone compared to the eternal stream of blithe students that push through on Daddy’s Visa, but even though the stretch marks she got from Aaron have to be covered at all times Janey believes age is a state of mind. “I made coffee,” she tells her mother, and she hears Aaron begin to scream. “It’s strong. Please don’t tell Dad.”
“You’re in enough trouble,” her mother says. “Dad wanted to throw you out last night and he might have if it wasn’t for Aaron. I’m starting to run out of excuses for you.” She looks at Janey significantly. “You’ll get an earful later.”
Janey nods, but does not look at her mother. She feels ridiculous. She is an adult and she still has to apologize for having a few drinks. It wasn’t as though she’d been driving.
She feels her mother staring at her, measuring her, trying to see if she is still drunk. Her mother is a human breathalyzer. That’s what happens when you live with an alcoholic for thirty years, even if he’s been clean the last ten. You can smell it on somebody, if not a mile away, then certainly across the table. Janey lights her third Marlboro. “Jeff’s dead a year today.”
“That’s no excuse,” her mother answers. “You know how your father thinks. He’s not going to put his sobriety in jeopardy.”
“I know.” Janey hears Aaron scream again. Normally it would drive her crazy, but just right now she’s happy to hear it. It means she can get away now. “I better go.”
Her mother nods and pulls out one of her generic cigarettes. “Come right home after work.”
“I will.” Janey stands, pulls her keys out of her purse, and starts walking toward the door. She turns on the porch light. “Bye,” she says, but her mother doesn’t answer. Aaron screams again. Outside it’s dark and raining.
Janey drives to work. She owns a nine year old Pontiac Grand Prix that is falling apart. The brakes are giving out and there is so much slack in the steering wheel she can no longer make sharp turns. The transmission slips too. Before he died, Jeff had rigged it eight ways till Tuesday. Now she uses the car just to get back and forth to work and her friends take her everywhere else. She can’t afford new wheels. When the Grand Prix breaks down for good, she’ll be back to riding the bus.
The radio still works fine, however. She listens to WRXL, Country 101, all country, all the time. By now she has memorized the entire program loop. On better mornings Janey sings along with the radio. She imagines herself in Nashville singing a duet with Garth Brooks or Hank Williams Jr. For some reason she prefers the men singers over women. She goes for their Southern drawl and the way they seem to moan for girls who have always done them wrong. Janey Tyler has never been loved like that. She never had the opportunity to do a man wrong because the men she got involved with had always done her wrong first. Including Jeff. Especially Jeff. Just when she was set to leave him, he flipped his truck on the off ramp of Interstate 9. Driving to work today, Janey doesn’t want to sing along. Her head is pounding now and she feels sick to her stomach. Hangover? Morning sickness? Both? She doesn’t know. Janey keeps the radio turned down and steers. The last thing she needs is a morning after DUI.
Janey works assembling IVs for Mercy Heart Hospital. It isn’t hard work but she has to be on her feet all day. And she can’t make a mistake. You make too big a mistake putting together IVs and somebody dies. That’s why she is making nine dollars an hour when most of her friends are making minimum.
Janey doesn’t mind working. She’d rather work than take care of Aaron. She’s doesn’t care for kids. They scream and smell. They want to watch idiotic cartoons over and over. She has no patience for the trouble they cause and the messes they make. She’d go out of her mind if she had to sit around the house all day. Her brother does that now. He sits in his room dabbing paint on canvases, imagining himself some great artist. Ha! The paintings—(if you call them that)—don’t even look like anything real, just squashed up circles and triangles. But Eddie—that’s her brother—he gets away with murder. Janey’s father had once seen a documentary on the Learning Channel about Vincent Van Gogh. In this documentary they said after Van Gogh died his mother used his paintings for kindling and to mend broken fences. Today those paintings would fetch millions of dollars. Janey’s father repeated that story at dinner. “The woman had no appreciation for art,” her father said. A week later Eddie quit his job and now he paints in the day and at night he goes out with his friends. No one says anything. But if Janey goes out for one night and has a little fun, hell rains down from heaven. This is what occupies Janey’s mind while she makes the IVs.
At lunch Janey runs into Alex. He is a short and skinny guy who works in linens. He has dirty brown hair and he dropped out of high school in the tenth grade. He has a crush on Janey, which she knows about but doesn’t let on. Alex is friends with Robbie, who fathered her second baby, the one in her belly. That’s the main reason she still talks to Alex—to find out what’s going on with Robbie. Has he seen him? Has he heard from him? Where is he hanging out these days? It’s all over between them, of course, Janey tells Alex, but she wants to know he’s not dead.
Alex tells Janey about a party he and his friends are having tonight. They have one every year when the President gives his State of the Union Address. They don’t care about politics or nothing. It’s just an excuse to down a few brewskis and spit spitballs at the television. The college kids started it, but they took it over.
Janey tells him she doesn’t think she can make it, that she has to get home to Aaron, and besides today is the one year anniversary of Jeff’s crash. Alex looks down at his feet and offers an apology that makes Janey want to puke. She tells him it’s all right and asks him if he has seen Robbie. Alex tells her he hasn’t, but he might be at the party. Janey says she will try to make it after Aaron is in bed.
On the way home from work, Janey comes up with a plan to deal with her father. She will go in and start getting Aaron ready. She’ll tell her father they are going to go visit Jeff’s grave. It is, after all, the anniversary of his death. Then she will take her son and the two of them will go to Sky Hearts Cemetery. She doesn’t know why she didn’t think of it sooner.
Janey’s father confronts her the minute she steps into the house. His face is bright red and his voice is full of cancer. Who does she think she is? After all they’ve done for her. They cook and clean and change Aaron’s shitty diapers and this is how she repays them. This is unacceptable, Janey’s father yells. I won’t allow this in my house. Blah, blah, blah.
Janey sits down. She does not say he’s one to talk. She doesn’t say that for years he allowed it in his house, but it’s different now that it’s not him. She doesn’t tell him that she was happier living with Jeff, even though Jeff laid hands on her and was a no-account. She doesn’t tell her father she hates his guts and that she wishes he’d have another heart attack. Janey fumbles with the mail she has brought home. She waits for him to finish. She knows, if nothing else, sooner or later his shortness of breath will silence him. Finally, he does finish, and he sits across the table from her and plugs the oxygen tubes back into his wrinkled and splotched face. One splotch, the one on his left cheek, could pass for a red beard.
“I’m sorry,” Janey says.
Her father wants to go through it. He wants to hear about everything she did last night. He wants to know what happened from the moment she walked out the door until the moment she came home in that condition, blabbering that nonsense, smelling of beer and lipstick and puke.
But Janey doesn’t know what happened. She’d blacked out before she left the party. Blacking out is nothing new to her; most of Janey’s life is blacked out. Janey has memory problems. She doesn’t remember a thing before high school graduation. If she didn’t have photographs to prove otherwise, she’d never believe she had a childhood at all. She can’t remember the cat that slept with her from the time she was six to the time she was fourteen. She can’t remember her high school prom. She can’t remember a thing before she grabbed her diploma. It’s as if she was born right at that moment, reaching out to grab that worthless piece of paper. But even things closer to now seem cleaned out of her memory. She can’t remember her wedding or her honeymoon or even Jeff’s funeral. She can no longer remember how Jeff sounded or what he felt like in her arms. She cannot really remember how he looked. Sometimes she can remember his eyes and sometimes his nose, but other times he’s a dark shadow moving through the empty rooms of her mind. In her memory he’s disappearing one feature at a time, like her whole life is disappearing one moment at a time, like the women in the country music lyrics. It doesn’t upset Janey that she’s this way. Nothing bothers her long. No demon can chase her long enough that she can’t outrun it, each step the demon growing weaker and Janey running on, running on.
She tells her father she doesn’t want to talk about it, but it will never happen again. Then she tells him she’s taking Aaron to visit Jeff’s grave. She gives him his mail, stands up, and goes to dress Aaron.
Aaron is happy to see her. Aaron is always happy to see Mommy. She tells him they are going bye-bye. Aaron yells, “Bye-bye, bye-bye, bye-bye!” She dresses him but he fidgets and fusses and she can’t get his diaper off without getting dirty. “Hold still,” Janey says. But he kicks at her with the diaper half off. “Hold still!” Janey yells. She pulls him by his legs and points a finger in his face. “Aaron, so help me!”
Once he is dressed they escape out the door. Janey feels relief. She puts the car in drive and pulls away. “We’re going to see Daddy,” Janey says. Aaron is in the car seat. He is playing with a toy shovel. “Bye-bye,” he says.
“Yes,” Janey says. “Bye-bye.”
Though the cemetery is only four miles from where they live, Janey has not been back since the funeral. Not that she can remember anyway. When they get there, the grave looks like one that has been around for decades, not one dug just last year. There are no flowers, and Janey has not thought to bring any this time.
“Here’s your Daddy,” Janey says. She drops Aaron and he immediately crawls to the grass by the grave. He has carried his toy shovel out with him. He pokes at the dirt with it. Janey turns and looks at the other tombstones. She looks at the sky. She feels bored.
Sometimes, when she thinks about it, what Janey wants to do is to meet some rich man who doesn’t expect a whole lot from her, some old guy with loads of cash he no longer can use. She would maybe travel, see the world, and phone home once in a while. She’d get a boat and sail the seven seas. She’d follow Hank Williams Jr. around the country and sit in the front row of his concerts and one night he’d notice her. They’d do it back stage, she’d give him the fuck of his life, and in the morning Janey would leave him forever. Hank would be so broken hearted that he’d write a hundred songs about her, all of which would be played on WPLX, Country 101, all country, all the time. She’d memorize the words and sing along.
Janey sighs. She doesn’t care to admit it—even to herself—but she’s happy Jeff is dead. Janey Tyler has got dreams and Jeff wasn’t exactly a dreamboat. Besides, Robbie makes good money and he’s more exciting. Robbie has it over Jeff any day of the week. She was sleeping with Robbie two weeks after Jeff’s funeral. He had been Jeff’s friend and he took comforting her to be his personal obligation. It’s a small miracle really that it took seven months for Janey to get pregnant. They never used protection—(Robbie said it made his dick go soft)—and they did it like bunnies. Yes, she loves Robbie, and she is sure deep down he loves her too. He’s just going through a difficult time in his life right now. She’ll have to make due until he comes around.
Janey looks down at Aaron, and she can’t believe her eyes. He is digging a hole in his father’s grave with his toy shovel. It is amazingly deep. Janey yanks him off the ground by his arm and gives him a good pop on the diaper. She gives him another one. “Bad!” she yells. The boy cries loudly and she slaps him a third time, missing his diaper and getting him on the back. “Bad! No dig! Bad!” She gives him one more and pulls him, crying, toward the car.
She and Aaron spend the rest of the afternoon at a friend’s house, and at 9 p.m., when she knows her parents will be in bed, she drives Aaron home and places him in his crib. She kisses his sleeping head and turns around and trots back to the car. She can’t wait to see Robbie. This might even be the night she tells him. As soon as he hears, Janey knows he’ll do the honorable thing. Robbie’s an honorable guy, a regular Hank Williams Jr., and that’s one reason she loves him.
The pounding in her head and the sickness in her stomach are gone now, have been for hours, so she turns on the radio and sings along with the songs. She decides she’s not going to drink at the party. She’s not there for that. She’s just there to talk to Robbie and tell him what he needs to know. She doesn’t need the hassle anyway. Where is she going to find a babysitter as good as her mother? She can’t. Janey drives and sings along with the radio.
The party is going full force when she arrives. The President is giving his State of the Union speech and everyone is drinking and spitting spitballs at the set and laughing. Janey is standing in the kitchen, which has a patio door that leads into the backyard. There is a keg, and five or six people wait to get to it. She feels fat. She wonders again if she is finally starting to show, if it will all come at once, the way it did with Aaron. She looks around for Robbie but doesn’t see him.
Out of the corner of her eye she sees Alex. He notices her too and puts down his beer and leaves through a side door. Janey bumps her way through the crowd and opens the door just in time to see Robbie get into his car. “Robbie,” she yells out, but the car skids away loudly. She thinks she sees someone in the passenger side window, long hair, face pale. She watches the car fishtail around a corner. The night is very dark and to her left there is a man passed out on a folding chair. Now Alex is walking up to her. He approaches as if he never saw her. “Janey,” he says. “You made it.”
Janey heads back inside the house with Alex right behind her. He didn’t see me, she thinks. No, he saw me all right. He saw me just fine. The woman with him saw me also.
Janey hates him now. She doesn’t know what she ever saw in him. She is at a loss. She hopes he rolls his car like Jeff flipped his truck. She tries to remember how Robbie looked and is comforted when she cannot really remember. The room is loud with catcalls. Alex moves alongside her. He is holding two cups full of beer and he offers her one. She takes it and wraps both hands around it. The President says, “God bless America,” and a huge volley of spitballs fly around the room and bounce off the television screen, the antenna, the walls. Janey Tyler takes a sip of her drink. Then she moves into the crowd and everything behind her disappears.