Jemmie McKinley rationed herself one cigarette per day, that she smoked with great delight and often left out on her coffee table to remind herself that something soothing awaited her.
Jemmie McKinley once told her mother to go fuck herself and meant every word of it.
Jemmie McKinley was an anthropology student of the lowest order and spent the majority of her school time dodging lectures, avoiding professors, asking for extensions on papers, or citing some new sort of learning disorder that necessitated more time for test-taking and disallowed pop quizzes. She fudged doctor’s evaluations and was prescribed cutting-edge, corrective pills (supply) that she sold to her attention-deficient peers at a moderate markup (demand).
Jemmie McKinley wore vintage T-shirts emblazoned with the faces of conservative pundits in an ironic way. She kept a dog-eared copy of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword in her purse at all times but had yet to read past the preface.
Jemmie McKinley had a small, pursed mouth full of straight, white teeth that hadn’t required braces. When people caught sight of them they immediately went about gaping open their mouths, pointing out this incisor or that bicuspid, describing in graphic detail their own orthodontic horror stories, romantic entanglements, professional befuddlement and subsequent defeats in life.
For this reason, Jemmie McKinley avoided smiling.
She spent most of her spare time and all of her weekends with her boyfriend, Maxwell, in the seclusion of his apartment: drinking pots of coffee, listening to public radio, randomly engaging in protected sex and arguing in great detail about how this whole country was going straight to hell in a handbasket.
They’d been dating for three months, still engaging in the latter stages of feeling one another out, slowly muddling through the awkwardness inherent in new things with new people. Max was gangly and tall, wiry and despite the immense amounts of food that he ate, never seemed to gain weight. He resembled a basketball player from some European country that she didn’t know or couldn’t pronounce the name of—an Eastern one, whose indigenous people had dark, curly hair, large noses, and often neglected showers.
She liked Max because of the look on his face when a particularly engrossing piece of information flashed across the newswire at the bottom of the television screen. She liked how little he knew about foreign policy and how distressed he became when profiles of endangered species were shown on the nightly news. She liked him because he seemed like even more of an underachiever than she was, yet somehow managed to wear it more graciously. When people asked him what he did for a living he replied that he was “in between things” or “weighing his options” rather than simply saying “unemployed” or, more accurately, “uninterested.”
They over-ordered takeout on Friday nights which typically lasted through Saturday evening. On Sundays, they scraped by on untouched cartons of white rice smothered in soy sauce, fortune cookies, and bags of fried wanton strips. There were times when Jemmie would look across the kitchen at Max as he hunkered down to the microwave, entranced as the food on his Styrofoam plate hissed and popped, and decided that she would be more than content if this cycle of things could last forever.
He enveloped her when they slept in the same bed. He was so much larger and longer than her. She loved that stuff.
Jemmie heard a faint ring and then Max left the bed. He quickly shuffled over the cold tile floor into the living room to answer the phone. This was the first weekend that they’d forgotten to unplug the telephone. She pretended to sleep but couldn’t ignore the low rumble and burr of Max’s voice. She could see him pacing through the living room. He was only wearing his underwear, obviously cold, trying to hurry the conversation along. He was using his artificial tone, answering in short sentences, laughing, punctuating nearly all of the other party’s statements with “no problem,” “absolutely,” and “awesome.” Max “mmmhmmm”-ed and “sounds good”-ed no less than four times before finally hanging up the phone. He returned to bed and enshrouded himself in covers facing Jemmie. They faced one another but didn’t speak. The warm pocket of blankets and sheets was disrupted. She groaned at his touch but didn’t avoid it. Jemmie was amazed at the way that Max fit her. His hands seemed perfectly designed to the proportions of her breasts. No deficit. No surplus. She smiled at the very real possibility that his genetic profile was designed with her specifically in mind. She didn’t bother asking who it was.
“Your sister,” he kissed her forehead. “Told me to remind you that it’s ninety-nine percent perspiration. She said that you’d know exactly what that means,” he struggled to get back into his prior comfortable position. “She also assured me that she was certain that this was the year that you were going to find the thing that really set you off and that there would then be hell to pay. To whom,” Max huffed. “I do not know.”
Jemmie covered his mouth with her hand. She could feel the soft sucking sensation of his lips against her palm. It reminded her of the sound of goldfish sucking at the skin of water when feeding.
“I don’t understand those people,” Jemmie said. “Any of them. All of them. They think that just because they’re rearranging themselves that Jemmie has to drop everything that she’s doing and jump on board with it and I don’t see that happening whatsoever. It tears them apart that I have something that’s mine and that they can’t latch on to.”
“Give her the benefit of the doubt, Jemmie. They obviously love you,” he struggled to fight away a yawn. “Exceedingly.”
It was too early to get out of bed yet. Max’s apartment was drafty and cold usually up until noon. The silky cobwebs in the corners of his ceiling fluttered with each gust of wind. He employed a single space heater, which supplied a steady stream of warmth to a very limited area.
“Well, what else did she say?”
“She said that she was thinking of dropping by to see you sometime.”
She raised her head. “How soon is ‘sometime’?”
“She wondered if the latter part of next week would work.”
“And let me guess, Max, you thought that was an ‘awesome’ idea?” She was out of the bed, searching for her clothes on the floor. “You really don’t get it, do you?”
“And what exactly was I supposed to do? She tracked you down to my apartment and called me on a Sunday morning to ask if her sister was still alive, Jemmie. She knows where you are. She could have easily just stopped by and waited you out.”
She hit him with her jeans. “Margot likes to play both sides, Max. I really think that she and George Jr. get together and do nothing besides laugh at me and do impressions of me. I really do. I’m certain they do, actually. I’m positive. She probably needs some new material.”
“I find that highly unlikely,” Max said.
“They think that because they’ve finally found careers and are starting to pay off their student loans that they’re the ones who’ve panned out and that all of a sudden that I’m the dud. Just like that now,” she clapped her hands. “I’m the runt. And I am not the runt, Max. Every time I talk to Margot she makes it seem like I’m two steps away from the Nobel Prize or something. She pretends to be so happy for me. And she does this thing where she . . . she, pats me on the shoulder, like in a ‘Oh, sure you are, kiddo. Sure you are. There there.’ kind of way, like she doesn’t have the heart to disagree with me or tell me how silly I am. I just want it to stop. All of it. I’m not the one who wanted to take those stupid fucking tests. My parents did. I feel like reminding all of them that sometimes. I didn’t have any say in the procedure besides identifying sequences.”
“Well, if she didn’t call and ask about you then you’d be complaining about how no one ever cared and how you had so much potential and how no one ever challenged you or believed in you or expected anything out of you.”
“She started it.”
Jemmie surveyed the room. Maxwell made no attempts at moving or chasing after her. “What else was she talking about?”
“The recession,” Max rolled over and faced her. “She’s really broken up about the recession. The oil spill, too, really. She said that she’s thinking of going down to help clean. But, she didn’t go into a lot of detail. She doesn’t really know me. I think she was gasping at straws, you know?”
“Fuck the recession,” she clasped her bra behind her back with one hand. “What did she say about George Jr.?”
“She didn’t say anything about him at all. Didn’t mention him once. She obviously wanted to talk to you but I told her that you were out getting groceries.”
“There’s no way that she believed that, Max.”
“It’s the thought that counts.”
“My parents?” she studied herself in the mirror, smoothed her hair out behind her ears.
Maxwell turned to face her and looked to her as if to make sure that she’d been the one who broached the subject. She widened her eyes to reinforce the fact that she’d not only asked him a question but was waiting for its answer, hands placed firmly on her hips.
“Your mother’s gingivitis is improving, slowly but surely,” he smiled, shielded his eyes with his arm. His voice was still froggy from sleep. “Your father was training for a 10-K and twisted his ankle pretty bad but its nothing terribly serious. Nothing to worry yourself over. She assured me.”
Quadrilateral slats of light were poking through Max’s Venetian blinds. The space heater churned in a low-pitched hum.
“Well, is he going to run the race or not?”
“I assumed from the way that your sister talked that it was severe enough that he was advised not to run in the race.”
“So, he did all of that training and then ‘No’, just like that?”
Max covered his head with a pillow for a moment, then removed it and reclined against it.
“Give me a cigarette,” she rummaged through her purse. “I’m all out, give me one of yours.”
He reached for his pants and then flung the carton just past her. It skidded across the floor. “You’re not going to have anything to look forward to if you smoke one now,” he reminded her.
“I’m not going to need anything to look forward to if I smoke one now, Maxwell,” she corrected him.
“You’re lucky to have your niche already carved out for you and all.”
“You’re lucky that your family gives you basic space. That’d be a godsend.”
“My parents aren’t giving me any more money,” he motioned for his cigarettes.
“What do you mean?” she pulled the carton back away from his reach.
“They’re cutting me off at semester.”
Max nodded in agreement.
“Why now? Why all of a sudden?” Jemmie asked. There was a small lilt in her mouth that hinted toward disbelief.
“I haven’t gone to any classes since, what, the second or third week of school, Jemmie?” He struggled to laugh. “Finals are just around the corner and I have absolutely no intention of squeezing those textbooks into this melon. Not gonna happen.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I haven’t cracked a book all semester. I just thought that . . . I hoped, rather, that you’d already connected the dots.” His black mop of hair was misshapen and matted from sleep.
Jemmie’s eyes searched for the punchline as if he would soon smile, then crack into outright laughter so that they might return to the problem at hand. She searched the bed-spread, then the floor, and then tried to straighten herself out as if to prove that she’d expected this much. “Then what?” she asked.
“I’ll move out. Move home. Hang out. Try something else. Beats me. Get a job. What about you?” he was now sitting upright in the bed. The scraggly hair on his chest was only dense in the spots where his T-shirts didn’t rub. It created a pattern that she didn’t recognize.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what are you going to do with yourself?”
“In the future or right now?” she managed to ask. She’d always hated answering a question with a question.
“Both,” he said. “Either or. I dunno. You stopped going to classes before I did. ”
This was the first shadow of doubt that Max had expressed toward her. She had become somehow dependent on his belief that she was smart enough to pull off anything and that she somehow transcended worry. This lapse in reverence registered on her face, furrowed her brow.
“I guess I’m going to go study,” she said, searching for her backpack. “Make a go of it, at least. Maybe if I don’t sleep for the next few weeks I can pull off a miracle.”
“Guns blazing,” Max nodded in agreement at her. “Sounds about right.”
“I don’t even know when my finals are,” she confessed. “Thanks for the heads-up on everything else, though.”
“It isn’t like that, Jemmie. There just isn’t a right way to say some things,” he crossed his hands behind his head. “Most things, actually.”
“All the same,” she removed the cigarettes from his carton. She twisted the filters off in one twist and then rolled the tubes together between her palms as if she were trying to start a fire. The tiny brown filaments of tobacco chafed and spread over the floor. She didn’t bother closing the front door on her way out.
Jemmie’s hair was oily. It hung limp and shiny like a pelt on her shoulder. She holed herself up in the campus library for two hours in a small cubicle, but couldn’t focus on any of the readings from her Cultures & Traditions seminar. She flipped through her notebooks struggling for a starting point. Most of her notes were scattered with doodling, sketches, scattered lyrics to songs. She read the first page of “Coming of Age in Samoa” nearly ten times and had both underlined and highlighted it in its entirety. She took a Valium and became frightened when she didn’t feel any relief.
She went to the bathroom and locked the door behind her. She splashed cold water on her face and the back of her neck, then drank straight from the faucet. Stop being ridiculous, she thought. Stop freaking the fuck out. Jemmie was experiencing the sort of queasiness and anxiety that too much caffeine combined with too many cigarettes elicit on an empty stomach. She wanted some sort of relief. She placed her two predominant fingers into her mouth, without over-thinking and gagged immediately. Then she heard someone knock on the door and say, “Is everything alright in there?” The person sounded annoyed, not concerned. For a brief moment, Jemmie considered climbing out the small window overlooking the single stall but realized that it was painted shut and that the muffled conversation outside the door was about her. The person knocked again and then tried to open the door, hastily. Jemmie fixed herself in the mirror and rinsed her fingers off. She left a wet hand-print on the door when she pushed it open. Outside, were a young man and woman on either side of the door. Jemmie raised a sheepish, apologetic hand and avoided eye contact, from a distance she heard him say “. . . with sugar on top and a million cherries.” By the time she was a comfortable-enough distance away to look back, a hand was pulling the door closed behind them.
Jemmie gathered her things quickly and stuffed them into her oversized bag. She hurried down the stairs. There was a bust of the school’s bald-headed founder in the middle of the library’s main floor. She quickly swiped her hand across his bronze dome for luck and hurried out the doubl -doors. It was the type of balmy, Midwestern evening that she hoped that she would have gotten used to by now.
Students were walking across the mall in poofy, unflattering ski jackets and sweatpants, carrying Styrofoam platters full of cafeteria food along with them. She could see their warm breath condensing in the air. The chapel bells were clanging. All of the lights in the Humanities building were on. She decided that her only viable resort was to throw herself onto the mercy of any available faculty member who would listen and explain her circumstances. If I have to, I’ll tell them that my grandfather died last night, she thought. I’ll tell them that I just found out that I have a rare, incommunicable disease of the liver and/or pancreas.
She hadn’t run in quite some time and the air stung at the back of her mouth and into her throat. She instantly got the feeling that the flu was sinking into her. Jemmie climbed the steps quickly and tried to breathe warm air into her fingers. At the top of the stairs was a cluster of bulletin boards. It was full of advertisements for internships and off-campus study. There was also a section dedicated to the Polaroid pictures of students who were majoring in the Humanities. Only the pictures of juniors and seniors appeared, underclassmen majors’ names appeared on a typed sheet of white paper. Jemmie found her name and rubbed her finger over it to blur the ink.
The doors to the faculty offices were wide open. She surveyed each room and found them all empty. Jemmie could hear the groan of a vacuum cleaner on the far side of the building, saw its plug extending from the outlet next to Ms. Dodson’s office—the department chair. She knocked on the door to be safe and then ducked into the office. There was a worn spot in the wooden floor as soon as she stepped inside. She remembered how nervous she was during her first meeting with Ms. Dodson. There were no novelty shrunken heads or suggestive fertility statues in her office like she’d remembered.
There was a black sports coat on the back of the door that Jemmie exchanged for her flimsy jacket. Ms. Dodson was much larger than Jemmie and the coat nearly engulfed her. Ms. Dodson had a small closet that Jemmie perused and found nothing of interest in. Jemmie then sat at her desk. She looked through the drawers. She wanted to find her grade book, perhaps her old tests, aspirin, something, anything. What she found was a large container of pretzel rods in the bottom drawer along with a jar of peanut butter.
She surveyed the pictures Ms. Dodson had on her desk. In the first, Ms. Dodson was fighting off a handsome man playfully attempting to kiss her. In another, Ms. Dodson was waving at the camera while on top of a camel with the pyramids in the horizon. The last picture was of Ms. Dodson in the middle of class, she was pointing a finger out to a student, chalk in her hand, licking her upper lip with happiness. Jemmie placed this picture face-down on the table, then the others. She picked up her phone and listened to its dial tone. She could call anyone, right this second, and it would be official university business.
Jemmie grabbed Ms. Dodson’s oversized glasses from the table and put them on. She walked outside the office and unplugged the vacuum. She followed its cord into the Religion department. By the time she got to the vacuum, a young black man was on the ground with the vacuum flipped onto its back. He was rotating the spool of the machine’s underside. A screwdriver was next to him on the ground.
Jemmie cleared her throat and startled him.
“Is this absolutely necessary, sir?” she asked. The security of Ms. Dodson’s coat somehow made her more comfortable.
“I apologize. I don’t usually clean this one. I’m usually in the science building. The usual girl quit. She usually does it really, really bright and early. I just can’t swing it yet.”
“Why did she quit, Danny?” Jemmie asked, removing the glasses and examining the embroidered name on his shirt pocket.
“I think she just found something better,” he seemed flummoxed. “She probably just didn’t like it here.”
“What didn’t she like about it?”
“Between you and me, most people in this line of work are burning the days.”
“Well, I’m doing parent conferences over the phone right now,” Jemmie said. She clutched Ms. Dodson’s pair of reading glasses in her hands as if it were some bobble of rare antiquity and great value. “And I can’t quite concentrate with all of this going on.”
“I’ll be out of your hair in less than half an hour,” Danny hunkered back to the vaccuum.
“Could you do me a huge favor?” Jemmie asked.
“It depends on the favor.”
“It’ll only take a second.”
When they reached Ms. Dodson’s room Jemmie motioned for the man to sit down across the desk from her. She picked up the phone and cradled it between her neck and shoulder. She punched in ten numbers and then waited for the dial tone.
“I think you might have to dial ‘9’ to make outside calls, professor,” he smiled at her.
Jemmie slapped an apologetic palm to her forehand and redialed the number.
“These people are notoriously rude and I think that the man of the house might well be a misogynist,” Jemmie held the phone’s receiver. “He won’t accept any criticism about his daughter. And I’m really worried about her.”
“Ma’am,” the custodian raised his hand to slow the situation. “Let’s both show our cards here.”
“What do you mean?” Jemmie asked.
“You aren’t any more of a teacher here than I am.”
Jemmie plopped into the plush, leather office chair. “Was it that obvious?”
“You barely look old enough to attend here, let alone teach,” he rubbed his head in disbelief. “You could have at least used one of the adjunct offices. I could have maybe possibly bought that one.”
“I could be a teacher here if I wanted to,” Jemmie said. “They certainly aren’t reinventing the wheel.”
“Who were you going to have me call for you?” Danny asked.
“Does it matter?”
“It might. Try me.”
“I wanted you to call my parents and tell them that you’re worried about me, or that I’m failing my classes, or that you think I may be pregnant. I wanted you to scare them a little is all.”
“Are you really failing your classes?” Danny asked.
“Famously,” Jemmie placed her hand over her chest as if taking a pledge, reciting some sacred vow.
“You aren’t pregnant are you?” he asked.
“Not that I know of.”
“Do they at least have it coming?”
Jemmie heard her father’s groggy voice on the other line and shoved the phone over to Danny. She covered her mouth in mild disbelief. He flared his eyes, which let her know that he didn’t know what to say.
“McKinley’s the name. Tell them that their daughter is struggling in your anthropology course and most of her other studies that you know of,” she whispered. She held her hands over her mouth.
“Sir,” he began. “Yeah, your daughter isn’t doing so hot in my class. Well, yes. She’s already explained that to me.”
Jemmie waited for her father’s reaction.
Danny’s eyes flared again.
Jemmie coached, “Tell him that you’re just calling out of concern and, as a parent yourself, you felt compelled.”
“Well, sir. I’m just calling because I’m worried is all,” he twirled in the office chair. “I’ve got kids myself and I know how it is.” He covered the phone’s receiver for his next direction.
“Tell him that she doesn’t seem to have any regard for herself, anymore. Tell him that she has all the talent in the world but doesn’t choose to do anything with it. Tell him it’s the most egregious abuse of talent that you’ve ever witnessed. Tell her that you’ve never encountered this problem in all your years of teaching. Tell him that you’re just so frustrated that you felt you had to touch base. You wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight if you didn’t get in contact with someone.”
Danny extended his finger to halt her diatribe. In turns, Danny agreed with Mr. McKinley, shook his head in commiseration, and audibly sucked his teeth in disbelief. He cupped his hand over the mouthpiece and whispered to Jemmie, “His wife just picked up on the other line.” The only way she resisted laughing out loud at this was turn around from the man and bite the insides of her lips together. She rose from Ms. Dodson’s chair and looked out the window. She heard the young man agree, “Yes, ma’am,” Danny said. “Most definitely. More than you could ever imagine, ma’am.”
Jemmie wanted to be home. This minute. This moment. She wanted to watch her parents in adjacent rooms argue with themselves about themselves in front of this sanitation engineer. Then they’d hang up their respective phones and meet at the dining room table. Her father would drop two tablets of seltzer into a large glass of warm water. They’d remain silent and watch the fizzing. Mrs. McKinley would grab his hand and squeeze it in a reassuring way. But, he wouldn’t squeeze hers in return. They would remain that way. To a casual observer, they would seem to be two people submerged in prayer or entrenched in the inaudible frenzy of mourning. And that, Jemmie decided, would be more than enough.