Editor’s note: Welcome to The Root’s Sunday series highlighting the best in black fiction writers: It’s Lit! Each week we’ll feature a new story across all genres—from Afrofuturism to those stories that will bring a tear to your eye. Want to submit your short story? We’re looking for well-crafted works of fiction of no more than 10,000 words. Simply fill out this Google document and we’ll contact you if your story is chosen. And yes, if it is picked, you’ll receive a payment for it!
Janice limply heaves the thick unabridged dictionary into the metal trash can at the corner of Vandam and crosses the street. Leaving the Shine office with the large Webster’s in her arms is a pathetic act of payback, she knows. But Janice brought the book with her when she started and she would be damned if she’d let them continue to profit from her goodwill while she was out on her ass. If Pratibha Mirchandani hadn’t been off at some sycophantic yoga class with who knows what celebrity this week, Janice might’ve slapped the bitch across the face on her way out.
Janice thanks heaven for small favors when her Miata starts. The car’s faded, weather-beaten paint job resembles the damp blob of blood on the Kleenex in her hand as she turns the key in the ignition with a little prayer. Janice’s diminutive nose always bleeds out of nowhere when she is under stress, and stress seems to be everywhere she turns these days. Her right nostril drips annoyingly apace from her parking space on Wooster all the way to the West Side Highway. Which is knotted in traffic.
She rubs her hands together and reaches for the heater, flicking the switch before recalling that, as of last week, the car has no heat. Reflex action. Like a plume of blunt smoke her long sigh clouds before her big brown eyes, teary now with anger and frustration. Janice jumps at the honk of the Pathfinder behind her.
Spring is late this year, a metaphor for Janice Johns’ whole existence right about now—like when is this goddamn winter going to end already? It seems to Janice that there’s only one place where the weather is warm all year-round; it’s always seemed that way to her. She promised herself at 16 that she wouldn’t try to go there before her time ever again. She promised herself a second time at 19, after breaking the first promise swallowing sleeping pills at Dartmouth over Elliott Wills. And now it’s April and the temperature is still brick cold.
Janice stares at herself in the rearview. Her straight black hair just grazes her shoulders, and she’s spent many patient years getting it to grow even that long, fighting tooth and nail with damaged split ends. Her brown eyes are wide, even wider when she gets angry, which she’s been doing more often as of late. Her pert nose is too small for her face, a fact she’s been acutely aware of her entire life. The tip wiggles up and down when she speaks, as conversationally animated as her full lips. Janice has the little beak that Janet Jackson’s nose job achieves; she’s always dreaming of surgery to attain fuller nostrils.
A motorcycle zips through the creeping autos on the highway. Snowflakes slowly start sprinkling the soiled windshield of Janice’s two-seater. She remembers last summer, when Pratibha Mirchandani phoned her Fort Greene apartment talking of her own appointment to editor of Shine and her need for a second-in-command. And though the perpetual indie-magazine-that-could couldn’t pay much, the unemployed, “freelance” Janice volunteered her services as executive editor. At 27, Janice felt dangerously close to steering onto the road to irrelevance backed up with so many other previously “promising” young writers. Editors’ calls tapering off now, her byline appearing less and less where it was once omnipresent. Shine was never shit, but Pratibha Mirchandani spoke of a relaunch, of a possible pickup by Hearst if they could just get a few issues fabulous-looking enough.
Pratibha Mirchandani was humble at that point. She felt guilty offering the pittance Shine could afford for Janice, for an editor of her caliber. Pratibha Mirchandani came up in the glossies at the same time and rate as Janice Johns. Peers then. The two puffed joints together in clubs before Mayor Bloomberg’s smoking ban, complementing each other’s articles with the flatteringly spurious, chatty equivalent of air kisses. The two managed to run their mouths without actually sharing very much. Janice knew from Pratibha Mirchandani’s self-promoting pieces that she was born in Mumbai and moved to America at 12, the same age Janice moved from Co-op City in the Bronx to suburban Elmont, Long Island. Pratibha Mirchandani was tall and slim, lanky enough to call attention to her bony frame. Her eyes were dark, with a permanent-mascara look that recalled for Janice the kohl eye makeup of ancient Egyptians.
Janice assumed the two could work well together, could improve Shine to a level where one day they’d be collectively awarded corner offices, big bucks and book deals on the back end.
Shine blew up and Pratibha Mirchandani got extra.
Janice remembers the Village Voice episode as the first sign. The arts weekly covered Bollywood, with an insert featuring young, gifted and Indian movers and shakers in New York City—people like Jhumpa Lahiri and Pratibha Mirchandani, who brayed about her fame in the SoHo studio Shine calls an office for weeks and carries around the article in her handbag to this day.
Another indication was the Ford modeling gig Pratibha Mirchandani secured for her 5-year-old nephew, snarky nepotism at its worst, Janice thought. And then the actresses she began befriending, who naturally ended up with favorable items in Shine, started stopping by the office for long lunches. Pratibha Mirchandani never once introduced any of them to the skeleton staff.
Janice triggers her windshield wipers, cutting obese arches against the snowfall. Shivering, she clicks on her radio—“Everything’s Not Lost” by Coldplay—then clicks it off. She rummages through her purse to find Lubriderm for her parched hands. She wants some distraction to put a halt to running all this through her mind yet again, pissed off. Her subconscious has its own agenda.
Janice shudders (from the cold?) remembering the gruff Con Edison men at her door coming to seize the electric meter. She bet on paying her sizable past-due bill when the Hearst ship came in to rescue Shine and she’d lost the bet.
Her petite nose drips blood onto the paparazzi page of the Shine in her lap. She flings it violently at the foot of the passenger seat and pops the glove compartment for some napkins. Dabbing and pinching her nostrils, she recalls navigating her chilly candlelit apartment for over three weeks, editing front-of-the-mag pieces from computers at the Brooklyn Public Library. No more Shine assignments now. Her résumé circulating with no takers. Verizon restricted her outgoing—but not incoming—phone privileges, her mobile long since disconnected. When her landlord handed Janice an eviction notice one morning—she owed two months of back rent—she’d already packed boxes to move uptown to her boyfriend Drew’s place in Harlem.
Yesterday was the lowest blow. Pratibha Mirchandani informed Janice by email that Hearst finally picked up Shine, but that her services as editor at large were no longer required. She parks in front of 555 Edgecombe Ave. after an hour of snaking up the West Side Highway nursing a nosebleed. Nightfall now.
The lights inside the Lincoln Tunnel streak past at mad velocity, reminding Janice of the Millennium Falcon warp speed on the “Star Wars” video arcade game she used to play at Green Acres Mall.
“I can feel!” she sings loudly, surprisingly in tune with Bono intoning from her speakers at full volume.
Janice’s weighty troubles fade behind her like the skyscrapers of Manhattan in her rearview, shrinking to a dot and then gone. A guitar churns, the solo kills. The Edge is a motherfucker. Her heart beats fast, pounding out of her chest. Her body struggles to process the methamphetamine and mescaline from the seven X tabs in her bloodstream. The narrow passageway to New Jersey is near empty. The Miata’s speed is ungodly.
“Hello, hello! I’m at a place called Vertigo … ”
Junior and his live-in boyfriend aren’t expecting little sister Janice. Her visit will be a surprise, assuming she makes it that far, all the way to Summit. Janice loves this version of herself, the keyed up, bright, bouncy Janice Johns who first entered the world when her Elmont High girls made her acquaintance with coke, ’shrooms and blotters of acid (“Under your tongue like this,” they schooled) at 14.
She fiercely nods her head to the drums, tresses shaking wildly, zooming through the Lincoln Tunnel. Approaching headlights on the opposite side of the road blind her a bit, making her a tad faint at the wheel, even with her adrenaline rush.
Janice hated leaving her friends in the Bronx, hated being the only Mary J. Blige fanatic in her new world of Guns n’ Roses groupies. Her dad promised Janice she’d thank him later, Mom always going along with the man of the house up until their ultimate divorce.
Janice jets past an 18-wheeler like it’s an opposing TIE Fighter in a galaxy far, far away.
Kaleidoscopic colors coil from a black nebula, an expanding universe packed inside Janice’s inner eyelids. (Rubbing her eyes? But isn’t she driving?) Automobiles are known to drive themselves when their owners are … incapacitated, especially when they’re named. But Janice’s blood-red ’91 Mazda doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t even have antifreeze. Only an ignition problem and an ominous, persistent green leak from underneath the hood, spewing more smoky monoxide exhaust than usual from its tailpipe just this minute, like the Batmobile.
And Drew doesn’t know anything about cars and it’s a wonder the Miata starts every time Janice cranks it up, especially in this bitter cold. Is consciousness drifting away yet? If she has to ask, it probably isn’t, she decides.
Was she this high when she took her father’s straight razor to her wrist, a week after her old Bronx day camp crush Tyran Brown told her after sex that she wasn’t black enough? Janice couldn’t win—too ghetto for Long Island, too Oreo for Co-op, vainly hiding facets of one ethnicity in the company of the other. And what the fuck is that noise? Honking? No E-ZPasses to heaven?
Fuck! Janice stirs, eyes aligned with her steering wheel. What happened? Where’s the air bag?
Craning her head around, vibrant DNA-like helixes clouding her vision, she still makes out a Hummer parked behind her, and an SUV behind that Hummer, and another Jeep and more, all blaring their horns. Heads in knit hats jut out of windows, cursing. The Miata is smoking, dead.
I swallow seven Ecstasy tabs and my car dies before I do, she thinks, the funniest thought she’s had all day.
Hazard lights? Sure, why not.
From her private patch of concrete in the Lincoln Tunnel, Janice sees streetlights at the mouth nearby, Jersey 200 feet off. She cracks the door, slams it behind her. Smiling beatifically, the Hummer leading a trail of autos curving around her busted ride, Janice walks toward the light.