Janey goes to the big city and finds herself
“I just don’t understand, dear, why do you have to go to the city? Can’t you play your music here? I’ve seen that YouTube program on the computer, couldn’t you do that in Pine Gap?”
“Pine Gap is nowhere, Gramma! Everyone here is half-asleep! I need energy, bright lights — I need an actual life so I’ll have something to sing about.”
Janey McCown loved her Gramma Rose, but she despaired of explaining the music business to her. No one would ever pay any attention to the hick songs she played for friends and family in Pine Gap. It felt great when people praised her talent on guitar and her beautiful voice, but she needed a total makeover to really stand out.
Even her name was boring. She’d decided to perform as J’Nae when she got to New York, so that’s what she’d penciled over the name printed on her bus ticket. She was going to be a new person and play new music in a new city. The first thing on her list was to find a hip stylist. She wanted a hot pink upsweep to evoke punk-rock roots with a touch of anime charm. She’d also get some piercings. J’Nae had to look the part before she could even think of looking for a big-city gig.
“I know young people need to spread their wings, I just wish you wouldn’t go to the city,” Gramma Rose said softly, bringing J’Nae back to Janey and Pine Gap. “Can’t you just go to the community college in Windom?”
It wasn’t Gramma Rose’s way to get angry or to shout, but Janey knew she was upset. It was probably because of mamma. Gramma Rose just got stern and quiet whenever Janey asked about her, and Janey had eventually given it up. She did know that mamma had been drawn to the glitter of the big city as a teenager. It ended badly, and Gramma Rose always blamed the city for taking her daughter.
Janey had only vague memories of mamma and the city. She remembered monkeys at the Central Park Zoo and a sticky ice cream cone melting in too-small hands. She remembered anxious nights with loud music and strange smoky smells when mamma had locked her in the bedroom. The men’s voices had been frightening, mostly because she didn’t know who they were or what they were doing with her mamma. Her first really vivid memory was the morning that mamma wouldn’t wake up. The pale, pockmarked arm had felt so cold when Janey tried to shake her awake. That was when the social workers had brought her to live with Gramma Rose in Pine Gap.
“Well, if you have to go, then take this,” Gramma Rose said, handing Janey an envelope stuffed with small bills.
“Gramma!” there must be a thousand dollars in here,” Janey exclaimed. “I can’t take this!”
“You’ll need more than that, I’m sure,” Gramma Rose sighed. “Just promise me you’ll find honest work and not get mixed up with those . . . men.”
Janey felt a twinge of conscience when she saw tears glistening in Gramma Rose’s eyes.
“Don’t worry, Gramma, I’ve got my savings from the diner and I’m going to work and I’ll sing, and — I’ll make you proud, I promise.”
“I’ll always be proud of you, honey,” Gramma Rose said warmly, gathering Janey into her arms for a good-bye hug.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Okay, you can sing after your shift — so long no one complains,” growled Mr. Tarkanian, acting tougher than he really was. “We pay singers on weekend, but you we pay to wait the tables. You can put out tip jar, but no bugging customers passing the hat. Got it?”
Janey was excited to perform on a real stage, even if it was just a stepped-up corner in a dive coffee bar. The audience seemed intimidating, at first, but Janey soon realized that few of them were really paying attention. She furnished background noise for laptop authors working on the next Great American Novel or the gen-Z version of Howl. Her songs were a minor annoyance for real estate agents trying to close a sale, but didn’t even register on students lost in their earbuds. They all became a blur as she focused on her music and lost her self-conscious hesitance. And, once in a while, someone actually listened.
“You’re pretty good, kid, you got representation?”
The question caught Janey off-guard.
“I, uh . . . no,” she stammered.
“I’m Jerry Feinbaum,” the middle-aged guy introduced himself. “I rep singer-songwriter types and I might be able to get you some paying gigs. If you’re interested, call Moira and make an appointment to see me next week.”
Janey took Jerry’s proffered card, wondering if he was for real or just some old perve trying to hit on her.
“Okay, I’ll think about it,” she said to his back as he turned and left. It didn’t feel like a come-on, maybe this was a bona fide break.
* * * * * * * * * *
Janey thought the audition was going well, but Mr. Feinbaum stopped her as she started into her third song. Janey had done her best to show off the new look and her angriest sound. She’d put it all out there, but Jerry seemed unimpressed.
“Look kid, I got plenty of punk-rock wannabes with sugar-pop voices who haven’t a damn thing to grouse about. You got anything else to show me? How about that song you did last Thursday, sort of a folk thing?”
Janey wasn’t sure which song he meant. She had several from Pine Gap that she considered filler. She used them to round out a set or provide a chance to catch her breath between the punk rock screamers. She decided to play Gramma Rose’s favorite; it was full of lost dreams and broken hearts, but ended with a happily ever after.
“Now that I can market,” Jerry said approvingly. “The gentrified hipsters in Brooklyn lap up that old-time stuff like craft brew. Lose the piercings, get an Amish housewife dress, and I’ll get you some real gigs.”
“But, I’m really . . .”
“Look kid, I don’t care what you really want to play. You got the look and the voice, so let’s just milk it for what it’s worth, okay?”
Jerry was as good as his word. J'Nae got paying gigs, and the pay got better as the clubs got bigger. He even helped her find a small studio where she made a CD to sell to her new fans.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Girl, you wanna be wit André, you gone have to give it up.”
André was big and bold and beautiful. Janey had never met anyone quite so . . . exotic. He seemed like a force of nature, carved from a solid block of ebony. He’d appeared at the merch table one night with effusive praise for her performance. Janey had been swept away by his good looks and smooth talk, and now he was pushing hard for more.
“Hey now, don’t havta be shook, a li'l sniff a this shit an’ ya’ll feel jus fine,” André cooed suggestively.
Janey recognized the white powder even though she’d only ever seen it on TV. She froze for a moment, as the memory of mamma’s too-cold arm flashed through her mind.
“No, please,” Janey shook her head and tried to pull away from André’s grip. “I have to go.”
“Easy now,” he said with a rougher tone. “It’s time to show André what you got.”
“No, I can’t,” Janey almost screamed, fighting a rising panic.
“Hell wit dis noise,” André sneered and dropped her arm. “Plenty more like you, bitch!”
Janey fled the bar, half sobbing with fear and shame. For the first time, she truly understood what had happened to her mother.
* * * * * * * * * *
Janey, what are you doing here?” Gramma Rose was surprised and concerned when Janey appeared at the door. “What happened, are you okay?”
“I’m not hurt Gramma,” Janey snuffled tearfully, reaching for a hug. “It’s just . . . a guy tried to . . . and then I remembered mamma . . . she was so cold . . . she OD’ed, didn’t she?”
“Yes dear, she did.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Gramma Rose looked away. “I was ashamed and didn’t want to talk about it. Maybe I should have. Your mamma took up with a bad man. She used drugs and she did . . . things. You were so young . . . I hoped you wouldn’t remember.”
“Why did she run away?”
“I don’t know, your mamma was a restless, headstrong girl. Maybe she would’ve left anyway. Maybe I’m to blame. I was angry and sad after your grandfather died. I didn’t take the time . . ."
"It's not your fault Gramma. Bad things happen in the city. I know that now," Janey said bitterly.
"Oh, honey, don't blame the city. Your mamma was too young, she didn't have your talent or your good sense. You've got what it takes to succeed - in Pine Gap or New York."
Janey felt a sudden sense of peace. Gramma Rose was right, where didn't matter at all, success would come from within.
Author's note: ▼