Firing Jennifer Johnson
Jennifer Johnson was too busy writing her epic to bother with just about anything else. Tongue poking from the corner of her lips, her pen scratched across the page that filled up line by line with some poem that overflowed the margins and never seemed to stop or even slow down. She sat hunched in a cone of light at the corner table, jotting and scratching until the music needed changing. Changing the music was the only real responsibility she had, but sometimes an hour would go by before she realized that the gallery had gone silent. She’d put her pen down like it pained her and come into the office to stand before the music cabinet like a teenager in front of an open refrigerator. The selection of discs and vinyl ran the narrow gamut from mellow to smooth. Jennifer Johnson tended towards smooth, with detours through groovy: Miles Davis, Jobim, Marvin Gaye. She spoke in a smoky whisper through bangs that were longer than the rest of her hair. “Hey, Norma. Do you mind if I spin ‘Kind of Blue’ one more time?”
I didn’t mind. I was trying to figure out if and when and how I was going to fire her. She had great taste in music but not a prayer of holding onto the gallery job. The gallery job was the best gig on campus because all you had to do was sit at a table in a back corner and change the music and watch the art. The art never did anything. You just had to make sure no one tried to steal it or piss on it. There was nothing wrong with the way Jennifer Johnson did her job—a scarecrow could have done it. The problem was that she made no effort to maintain passing grades in her classes, which was the one condition for a work-study job. But she showed up like clockwork for the gallery shift, notebook in hand, pen behind her ear. That was why she was bombing her classes: she was too busy writing her epic to do any coursework. I was the one who used that word; she would never say what it was she was writing.
“How’s the epic coming?”
“Huh?” she’d say, looking up from her lines with bloodshot eyes. She didn’t wear glasses yet but she’d need them soon. I motioned at the notebook. “Oh, this,” she said. “It’s nothing. Just lines of stuff.”
Lines of stuff. That’s what Byron was, too. And Sylvia Plath. There was an awful lot of lines of stuff out there, and some of it was pretty good. That was why I couldn’t fire Jennifer Johnson: I wanted a look at that notebook.
Other people wanted different things from her. Boys wanted her naked. I overheard a sporty freshman in a baseball cap sneer to his buddy as they passed the gallery entrance, “Check it out. Chick’s got an undercover rack.” It was true. Despite her baggy clothes you could occasionally get a glimpse of some form stretching the fabric smooth across her chest in a telltale way. From that information, and with the help of a trigonometric imagination, you could construct a mental model of her body which was otherwise as hidden and unknowable as a geisha in a kimono.
Lesbians also wanted her naked. This was because her hair was short and spiky in a grown-out way, and she never wore a trace of make-up. And then there were the tattered men’s suits, hanging on her body like a windsock on a dead still day. Pin-stripes, neckties, trousers, wing-tips. It all added up to a tantalizing sexual ambiguity. The lesbians may also have been impressed by that same trigonometric effect that so cowed the frat boys. She defied category. Everyone lusted for her. She had no friends. Her notebook was her constant companion. And every day, in the spotlight that lit up her table, she opened that notebook and put pen to paper.
As for the gallery, there wasn’t one painting in the place. An old boiler room had been converted to drywall sectionals with exposed furnace pipes and dangling spotlights. Everything spotlit was an installation piece. One of them was a café table with coffee cups that filled up by themselves with blood. The blood overflowed, ran across the surface of the table, and drained off the edge in rivulets. It never stopped flowing, continually recycled through hidden tubes. Another installation was a hanging cube made of geo-survey maps wired with fiber optics. You ducked under and stood inside the cube and watched little lights blink here and there pinpointing all the places in America where sex crimes had been committed. And then there was the Mona Lisa video: stills of da Vinci’s painting intercut with porn movies and words like ‘ambiguity’ and ‘Gioconda smile.’ Sometimes you wonder if artists are just running out of ideas. All this—and the background music—was under the vigilance of Jennifer Johnson, three to nine, five days a week. I think she may have been the only person alive who could concentrate with all that madness going on around her.
She sat at her table in a cone of light as if she were an installation piece herself. Sometimes all that moved was the end of her pen bobbing like a metronome to the rhythm of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” She chewed the inside of her cheek. She stared into space, then into the page. From my office at the back of the gallery I could watch her through a mirrored window. Sandy hair. Pale skin. Green eyes. One red zit on her chin in the shadow of her bottom lip. These two things so close together—that lip and that zit—struck me as synecdoche for everything about her: beauty on the edge of a precipice, like a Diane Arbus portrait. I know that sounds overheated, but overheated was how I felt about Jennifer Johnson.
I never told anyone about her. If I told my husband he’d just conclude that I’d finally gone lesbian on him. He’d been waiting for that for years. He’d look up from his model train universe where HO scale engines pulled clickety-clackety boxcars reproduced down to the last hinge and flywheel, and he’d grin. “You don’t say,” he’d say. Then he’d crouch over a plaster hillock garnished with sponge-form trees and eyeball the Consolidated National as it raced into a tunnel, already appearing out the other side as if nothing had happened at all.
The head of the art department didn’t care who was a lesbian and who wasn’t, she just wanted everything by the book. She made it clear that this Jennifer Johnson was not to continue working in the gallery. “That girl hasn’t attended a single class since midterms. She’s beyond probation. Other students want that job, and what’s more – they have a right to it.”
I knew my credibility and maybe even my tenure candidacy were at stake, but I couldn’t bring myself to fire her. I thought about some future biography of Jennifer Johnson and the snide entry in the chapter on her misunderstood youth: “She was fired from her fruitful gallery job while in the midst of finishing her Epic by an exceedingly shortsighted faculty lecturer at X College…” That would be me, the faculty lecturer. Intro to Art History, and Women Artists of the Twentieth Century. Like most people who major in art, I planned on spending my time in a studio, doing art. Instead, I was given class lists and put in charge of the campus gallery. When you spend ten years lecturing, you begin to forget that there are still people out there doing things, and not just talking about it. Jennifer Johnson had never taken any of my classes. She was among two dozen students to ask for the job. I hired her because she said this: “I just want to work someplace quiet where I can write.”
The place where I could write was the Flying W café. Coffee thick as blood, and a bowl full of sugar cubes. Afternoons on Tuesdays and Thursdays I’d be in the front booth where you could see a stretch of Pearl Street and the people going by in the twilight. Candy was always the waitress and she never even gave me a menu: just coffee, thanks. I dipped a sugar cube in the mug where it sucked up the black liquid and turned beige and then I popped it in my mouth and sucked it dry, down to the grains which melted on my tongue. This could get distracting. Sometimes I consumed a whole bowlful of sugar cubes until they were all gone and Candy refused to bring me more. “We oughta put those damn things on the menu!” she said, strutting past with her coffeepots, one in each hand.
Candy the waitress reminded me of a girl I’d once had a thing with. I call it a ‘thing’ because there isn’t really a word for what it was. There came a moment when we happened to be sitting at the counter of a truckstop in Gallup, New Mexico, me and this girl in the midst of a transcontinental camping-trip-slash-drug-binge. Somehow our souped-up conversation had come around to the point where I found myself having to choose between staying with her or going and living a normal life. I couldn’t make up my mind. “Grow up,” she told me, disgusted. Right when she said that, a waitress went by with two coffeepots in one hand – one decaf, the other regular – and now every time I see Candy pouring coffee two-fisted at the Flying W, I’m reminded: Have I grown up? I certainly tried. I went back and finished college. Married an ex-boyfriend. Got a job. Had no more things with no more girls. That’s a working definition of growing up, isn’t it? But I wonder: Have I chosen decaf, or regular? Candy kept that question in the front of my mind just about every other day. Anyway, the Flying W was the place where I could write.
Not that I was writing an epic. It was more of a longish letter which would never be sent. The point is, I wasn’t getting paid for it. As far as I could see, Jennifer Johnson was the only person on earth getting paid to do what she really wanted to do.
I knew from her work-study file that she had no family in the area. Her father had been a longtime resident of a mental institution in Denver, but he’d been dead for five years. That was probably where she got the clothes from, the pin-stripes and the tweed blazers. I also knew she lived on Pine Street, off-campus in the old part of town. There was a coffeehouse in that neighborhood, and I started going there in the evenings instead of the Flying W. I brought stacks of mind-numbing Intro to Art History essays and checked them perfunctorily while some of the very students who had written them lounged about smoking and playing chess. After a while I’d pull out my never-to-be-sent letter and add a paragraph or two. I fantasized that this was my job and not my free time. I tried to move the swinging tip of my pen in time with the bebop on the speakers. Then the imaginary presence of my husband, uninvited, butted in. “What the hell is it with this Jennifer Johnson character? What, are you going lesbian again?”
I sat with my half-cocoa, half-coffee drink, staring into the half-reflection of café interior in a twilight streetscape. I wouldn’t answer. What was it with this Jennifer Johnson character? I wasn’t in love with her – I wanted to be her. I tried out an explanation. “I’m thirty-four and all I’ve ever done is keep a job.” But that was all I could think of to say.
“You know what your problem is?” my husband says, jutting a finger at me as a model train whistle blows. “You regret shit. That’s what your problem is. Stop the regretting! Feel better!” Sometimes he talks to me like a cabbie shouting through the plate-glass. Hey, lady! Feel bettuh, awright? Jesus!
Jennifer Johnson stood in front of me and the vision of my husband disappeared. She stepped up to the other side of my table while the café door swung closed behind her. A thin vapor of breath was dissipating from her lips, either the last puff of a cigarette or the traces of cold outside. “Hey, Norma,” she said with a smile, which I’d never seen from her before. “I didn’t know you hung out here.”
“Well,” I said, “I didn’t know I hung out here either.” Made me sound like a square. “Just having a cup of hot cocoa on a cold night.” Should have said coffee. Why didn’t I say I was having a cup of coffee? Would have sounded tougher, less quaint. Outside of the gallery, Jennifer Johnson suddenly made me nervous as a schoolgirl.
She pulled out the chair opposite and slid down into it, setting a stack of books on the table and rubbing her gloved hands together. Her grin was a motel sign on a dark street. She peered at my notebook and raised her eyebrows. “Your epic?” she said.
“Just a letter,” I said. “Nothing special.”
“A letter can be very special, if you’re writing to someone who knows how to read it.”
Yes. She would know how to read it, if she ever received it. Which she won’t. But she’d know. I didn’t want to bring that up with Jennifer Johnson and so I just smiled. “Have you got any cigarettes, Jennifer? I don’t want to ask anyone else in here because they’re all my students.”
She dug a crumpled pack of American Spirits out of the folds of her pea coat and shook one out for me with her gloved fingers. Then she poked one between her own lips. Unlit, filled with promise. “Too bad this place is just a coffeeshop,” she said, “and they don’t serve booze. ‘Cause I could use a warmer-upper.”
A warmer-upper. Twenty minutes later we were stepping into the Coachlight Tavern where the air reeked of a generation’s worth of spilled beer and stubbed-out cigarettes. A basement bar, no windows. Beer lights buzzing, and guys with mutton-chops. Jennifer Johnson and me, old enough to be her mother. A round of shots, a round of beers, another round of shots. Cigarettes each, every ten minutes. She put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed, either a gesture of camaraderie or an effort to keep herself on the barstool. “Norma,” she said, “you’re my hero. You know that? I mean it, you’re my hero.”
I watched her. I was shaking my head, but mostly I was just watching her.
“No, I mean it,” she said. “Look. I was talking to this guy in that class you do. He told me about how in this one class he was dissing Cindy Sherman ‘cause he thought she was all trite. But you turned him around. He said you totally straightened him out and told him what was up with those, you know, portraits or whatever. You know?”
Who should feel good about that? Me? The guy? Clearly, Cindy Sherman was the winner of that particular scrimmage. I couldn’t even remember the occasion she was talking about. “What do you think about Cindy Sherman?” I asked her.
She shrugged, shook her head. “Nothing, really. Just what that dude told me. I don’t think he really gets it yet, to be honest, ‘cause he doesn’t make much sense when he talks about it.”
He doesn’t make much sense, I said to myself, ‘cause all he really wants is to get a hold of your tits. Don’t let him, Jennifer, don’t let him. He’ll say anything. They all will.
Then she started telling some story that lost my attention after the first mention of a boy’s name. Her stack of books – Tropic of Cancer, A Season in Hell, something by Roland Barthes – lay there on the bar between our beer mugs and shot glasses, and on top I spied a familiar notebook. The notebook. It was one of those Comp Books, with the mottled black and white cover, and in the square in the middle she had written this: J. X. Johnson. I interrupted her story. “What’s the X?”
She shot me a surprised look before covering the notebook with her forearm. I watched her mulling it over, deciding what to say. I knew that whatever came out of her mouth next would be a measure of whatever she thought of me. If it was something cute and frivolous it would mean that she didn’t give a damn what I thought. Something bizarre and difficult would bode better. “X,” she said, “stands for my former identity, as in ex-Johnson. I don’t want that name anymore, you see?”
I didn’t know what that meant, but at least it wasn’t cute. “So what name do you want?”
She watched me. She blushed and a dimple appeared in her cheek. “I’ll never tell. No one will ever know. I’m planning on leading a double life.”
With that she put away the rest of her beer and burped into her fist. A double life. Jennifer, I wanted to say, why should you have two lives while I have none? I didn’t say this aloud but the whiskey understood me so I swallowed it to keep it from talking. Suddenly I had to pee, but she had already stood up from her stool. “Be right back,” she said, weaving off towards the bathroom. I sat at the bar with our empty glasses and my stack of essays and her stack of books. The notebook. I signaled for another round. In the mirror behind the bar I spied her and her outgrown spiky hairdo going down the hall to the bathrooms. As soon as she disappeared, I slid the notebook across the bar top, navigating past the wet rings. I slipped my finger between random pages and peeled it open.
He made love to her that night. “Doucement,” she whispered, and he was, though their languages – their tongues – were as distinct as beast and prey. And he was gentle, in the sense of graceful—graceful like the toro charging the cape that whirls hypnotic before its oily black eyes brimming with rage, plunging its twin pronged horns into the undulating folds that conceal it knows not what foe. Gentle like the roots that penetrate the soil, like the sun that burns the dew from virgin leaves—gentle like the violence of nature. And she was sated.
Who wouldn’t be? Six lines, six metaphors. Paging through, it was more of the same. Adjective-to-noun ratio of one-to-one. When my peripheral eye registered her coming into the mirrored room, I let the notebook fall closed and slipped it back onto her pile of books among the puddles of booze on the bar. She slid onto her stool. “There’s a guy puking in the ladies room,” she said. The dimple had charmingly become a permanent feature of the drunken Jennifer Johnson.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, “and puke in the men’s room.”
Two in the morning, frost on the windshields. We’re pacing circles in the parking lot while I try to decide whether I should risk driving or not. I can’t make up my mind. A whooping siren from close by convinces me. “Screw the car. We’re on foot.”
Jennifer Johnson doesn’t care. My Corolla stays snug in its spot as we walk away half-swooning. It feels natural when she puts her hand on my shoulder to steady herself on the ice. The sidewalk is slick beneath us, the air stinging cold. It feels like I’ve been cheated out of something, like opening a huge silver-papered gift on Christmas morning and finding just a pair of socks. Should I give her writing advice? Like, Cut the metaphors, all the metaphors? I put my hand in the small of her back to guide her footfalls over the pavement.
Block after block over icy sidewalks. She lives at the foot of the mountains in a cabin she shares with a ‘roommate’ named Travis. What does that mean? It was fifteen years ago that my lover told me to grow up in a truckstop in Gallup, New Mexico. Have I carried out the order? Jennifer Johnson has no idea what she’s putting me through. She turns to me as she’s sliding the key into the lock. “You can come inside, Norma. Do you smoke?”
She doesn’t mean American Spirits. Is she leaning closer to me? We’re both breathing visible vapor and our breath is mingling like clouds under the cold porch light. Do I smoke? I did. Do I anymore? I shouldn’t. Have I grown up? I honestly can’t answer that question. She’s watching me. There’s a terrible intelligence to her face, the way she looks at you, exactly what’s missing from her writing. Why can’t she write what she’s living? “Are you okay, Norma?”
I give her a smile. Then I give her a kiss, but on the cheek, just near the corner of her mouth. “I envy you, Jennifer. You have a lot of choices to make.”
Her eyes twinkle and her drunken dimple puts in an appearance. “Envy’s a sin, isn’t it?”
There are a lot of sins which really don’t hurt anyone, and a lot more things that ought to be sins but aren’t. But there’s no point in saying that. She’ll figure it out, and it will make her a better person, or at least a better writer. Very tiny snowflakes are beginning to fall. “Goodnight, Jennifer,” I say and the ice underfoot aids me in turning around. Ahead the pavement through pools of streetlight is coated with ice and treacherous. “Take care,” she says from behind me. I go down the sidewalk. If I lose my footing I’ll freeze solid in the night and they’ll find me that way in the morning. The door behind me closes. The stars are cold points of ice. So this is growing up. No smoking, no sex, just turning to make your way home to some husband. Feel better, alright? Fine. “Jennifer Johnson,” I mutter with cold-cottoned lips all the way home, “you’re fired, Jennifer Johnson, you’re fired.”
A.C. Koch’s work has been published in a variety of literary journals such as the Columbia Journal, Exquisite Corpse, and Mississippi Review, and has twice been awarded the Raymond Carver Short Story Award as judged by Robert Olen Butler and Ben Fountain. He teaches at the University of Colorado at Denver, and moonlights as a guitarist and vocalist in the bossa-pop group Firstimers. Denver is his home town.