Photo: Found in NYC Running
by Meagan Ciesla
Gretchen's face looked like a dog had eaten it for lunch. In the middle of her eyes, there was a line that slithered from the bridge of her nose, crossed part of her missing nostril and moved all the way down to the top of her lip. Her mouth slid to the left, which showed off the crater that emptied the right side that was missing. She had gotten her hair stuck in a grinder when she was ten. She was helping her fat Polish grandmother make homemade sausages when her braid became tangled in the blade and eventually dragged her face down with it. Gretchen has heard this story dozens of times. She knows that her grandmother threw down the thick sausage links and rushed her body towards the wall so that she could remove the plug. Her grandfather told her this story each time she asked. He was sitting in his wheelchair by the TV when it happened. He would tell her about the sounds, the horrible chopping noise he heard when her face fell in. But Gretchen doesn't remember a thing. When she woke up the next morning in the hospital, her grandmother was sitting by her side nibbling on mozzarella cheese.
Gretchen looked to her grandmother.
"Your hair got stuck in the grinder," the old woman said. She told her that she wouldn't be able to speak for a while and handed Gretchen a piece of paper and a pencil. Gretchen scrawled across the page "What did I do?"
"Maybe you were sleeping with your eyes open," her grandmother said.
Her grandmother always tried to make jokes.
Gretchen moved her hand to her face and felt heavy layers of bandages covering her.
"Will it grow back?" she asked.
"I will never be normal?"
Her grandmother let out a sigh and put another piece of cheese into her mouth.
Gretchen has the grinder story written down in a notebook she sets beside her bed. Though she tries, she can never remember how it goes - which went in first, the nose or the lips or what her grandmother yelled when she pulled the plug and yanked her away from the machine. She made her grandfather write it down for her a few years before he died. He always felt guilty because he couldn't move quickly enough to help her. He was the only one who had to sit still through the whole thing. To try and rid himself of guilt, he would recite the story over and over again, as though it could change each new time he told it – as though he could go back and make his legs work so he could jump up in the air and save her before she fell in.
Gretchen looked at her notebook on days when she looked in the mirror and thought she was dreaming. She read the details so she could remind herself that there was a reason that there would always be a hole where her mouth was supposed to be. She had to convince herself that no matter how hard she prayed for it, her face would never be able to grow. She had to tell herself that her lips would always be opened, gaping and empty.
Her fat Polish grandmother died while cooking sauerkraut two years ago. As she stirred the cabbage, she had a heart attack and keeled over and her face landed in the pot. She left Gretchen, her only living relative, her house in the will. When Gretchen’s eyes became red and puffy and her mouth filled with tears, she would hang blankets over the mirrors so she wouldn’t have to look at herself. She flipped through fashion magazines and ripped out ads for cars and liquor and jeans that showed close-ups of whole faces. She would examine them, smooth and flawless, then carefully cut the picture down the center and hang them on her refrigerator – the right side of Cindy Crawford or the left side of Nikki Taylor – and surround herself with half-faced friends.
Her grandmother’s house sat on the top of a hill and often felt too empty for one person. To offset her loneliness, Gretchen got a job at the Dairy Queen a few months ago and began to serve blizzards and chilidogs to kids who couldn't resist staring at her no matter how many times their mothers put their hands to their mouths and told them to stop. When she was on break they would watch her as she shuffled her straw to left side of her mouth, finished her drink and then poured the remaining ice into the right side hole.
"Are you a monster?" some would ask.
"Why, do I scare you?" Gretchen would say and her words would come out muffled, like large bubbles of air trying to escape from underwater.
Gretchen rushed into the Dairy Queen late for her shift to find Bailey fending off teams of sweaty ten-year old softball players. The girls shouted out flavors and sprinkle colors at the top of their lungs and pushed to move in closer to the counter. Bailey was busy sorting through a mountain of nickels and quarters, trying to count out the dollar and fifty cents that the red head needed for her soft serve. He counted them quickly across his palms as his eyes blinked in between each new coin.
Bailey was the guy at the Dairy Queen who knew how to fix things. He was a few years younger than Gretchen and his fingers were long and thin, which made it easy for him to reach things most people couldn’t. He could get into the cracks between the counter and the wall when a blender cap fell or when someone dropped the blade that went into the soft-serve machine. Beneath his nails was a ring of car grease from working nights at his uncle’s auto mechanic shop, and no matter how hard he scrubbed his fingertips, the stains still wouldn’t come off.
Gretchen slid behind the counter and tied her apron. “Who’s next?” she asked as the girls twittered and squealed.
“They’re ten. They all think that they’re next.” Said Bailey as he handed over a cone and wiped his hand on the rag next to him.
Gretchen looked towards a chubby girl with a freckled face. The girl stared at her as Gretchen asked her what she would like, but the words came out jumbled as if her mouth was stuffed with clumps of peanut butter.
“What do you want?” Bailey asked the girl again and the girl finally answered as she looked down to Gretchen’s stomach.
“You were late.” Bailey said as he wiped up a drizzling of hot fudge. “I was about to call you to see where you were.”
“My car broke down,” she said, “Had to take the bus.”
“Thought you went missing.”
“No such luck,” she said as she looked Bailey in the eye and smiled at him, trying to look natural.
Bailey and Gretchen began to scoop toppings and take birthday cake orders. They were busy the whole day with baseball teams and mothers who stopped in with their kids on the way back from the pool and Christian bible camp groups that sang “Jesus Loves Me” on their way in the door and out. The more customers that came in, the more Bailey and Gretchen moved around each other as if every action was plotted out beforehand, like a perfectly choreographed dance. They had developed a system where Bailey would take the order and Gretchen would stay towards the back, engrossed in blending and filling cups. She was the back girl – the one who did all of the work while Bailey stayed in front, chatting with single mothers and old women about how hot it was and how it must be a record for June in this town. He would tell them wild stories about the guys that come into his uncle’s shop and the women loved looking at him as he gestured with his quick hands, stopping only to grab the desserts from Gretchen and hand them over the counter. He was the Diary Queen’s unfailing front man.
A mother with braids and four kids clinging to her legs walked into the store. Her children each looked like she did – plain and innocent with a bit of curiosity in their eyes. The children couldn’t have been any more than five or six years apart and the youngest bounced around, bumping into chairs as if he’d just learned how to walk. They and each wanted a bare vanilla ice cream cone and Gretchen thought to herself how dull they must be when they ordered pizza, but lined up the cones side by side and began to pull the soft serve handle. As Bailey rang up the order, the mother threw a crisp ten down on the counter and rushed over to pick up the baby who had just bumped his head on the side of the table. The blonde-haired boy, the second tallest, stared at Gretchen as he wiped the side of his face with his hand, fingering his nose and his mouth.
“Mister, you got any needle and thread?”
Gretchen heard the boy and grabbed a full container of peanut butter sauce to take into the back. She needed something to do at that moment; something to make her look distracted, occupied, and distant.
“Why don’t she sew her face up if it’s got a hole in it? I don’t like it like that.”
Bailey looked at the boy and checked quickly behind his back to make sure Gretchen couldn’t hear.
“It’s not that easy,” Bailey said as the boy’s mother came back to the counter and grabbed the cones.
Bailey watched the woman arrange her children at the table and he began to feel bad for not shushing the boy or telling him not to talk about people like that. But the more he thought about it, the more he wished that the boy were right. The more he wished it could just be that simple.
Gretchen stood by the stove and reached for the drip pan that had filled to the top. She grunted slightly as she leaned in, underneath the counter, and stretched her fingers to grab the pan’s handle. The grease was about to overflow just as she made a determined lunge forward to grab it and felt a wave of heat beat against her arm. At first, it was comforting but quickly she felt her blood begin to throb and as she looked down she saw that the drip pan had caught fire.
Gretchen yelped and Bailey looked over to see the smoke slowly rise from underneath the stove into the air. He ran over to Gretchen and pushed her hard, out of the way. An older man with a corduroy suit had his grandson on his hip and stood watching from the other side of the counter as Bailey tried to grab the tray with his bare hand and then jump back from the way it scorched his fingertips.
“Hey, watch your mouth.” the old man said as if the fire was no reason for a bad language.
Gretchen ran to the sink and grabbed a cup of water. She lifted it to throw on the flame. “Stop!” said Bailey and he knocked her hand and splashed the cup of water all over Gretchen and the floor. He bent down beneath the counter, grabbed a box of salt and spread it over the fire, calming the flame like a tamer would to a snake. The two silently stared at the pan covered in burnt salt and dark charred grease as the old corduroy man and his grandson fumbled excitedly on the other side of the counter.
Bailey picked up the cup from the floor and handed it to Gretchen. “You can’t put out a grease fire with water. You have to smother it.”
“You didn’t have to push me,” she said.
Bailey smirked, thinking maybe that Gretchen was being sarcastic, but then he grabbed a towel from the counter and handed it to her to wipe off her shirt when he saw her looking down at the ground.
“I just have longer arms,” he said “Maybe I should change the pan from now on. You could have messed your arm up. You almost caught it on fire. ”
“I can do it.” She looked Bailey straight in the eye, begging him to not pity her, and then reached down and began to clean the drip pan as if to let him know that she could take care of herself.
“Excuse me,” interrupted the old man, still on the other end of the counter. “Could we get some service here?” He shifted his grandson to the other hip and held him over the glass in front of the toppings so that the boy could get a closer look. This had all been a free show for them. Bailey walked to the register to take his order, and Gretchen inched behind him and whispered “what an asshole” in his ear.
Gretchen and Bailey had always worked well together. Their pacing meshed and when one was slow, the other would take up the slack and vice versa. And though they worked side by side from eleven until nine, they knew very little about each other. When they walked into work they both became caught up in a world of blizzard sales and chocolate sauce, of supply checks and wiping down counters. Gretchen knew that Bailey was trying to make enough money to go to art school, but she didn’t know where. Bailey knew that Gretchen lived about fifteen minutes away by herself in an old Victorian house right by Target, but other than that, their personal lives were dropped at the door.
“I can fix your car for you, you know.” Bailey said, which made Gretchen stop walking towards the storage room and turn back towards the counter. “It’d be good practice.”
Gretchen didn’t know why he would go out of his way for her and she declined, saying that she could take the bus. “I’ve already got a tow truck coming tomorrow morning.”
Bailey started telling an involved story like the ones he would spout off to the old women that came in just to see him everyday. It started off with a friend picking him up and a car breaking down and having to call a tow truck, and at that moment, Gretchen stopped listening and instead began to imagine what it would be like for Bailey to be in her garage and wondered if he would turn on the old radio her grandfather used when he built model airplanes.
Just as Bailey began to tell the part of the story about the one-eyes tow truck guy, Gretchen began listening again and assumed that what she had missed of his tale was intended to be adventurous and scary, so she opened her eyes wider in order to look surprised. “So?” he said, pleading. “Tow truck guys aren’t safe, I swear.”
“Really, I’ll be fine.” She said.
“Gretchen, you can ask for help if you need it.” And she thought about this and resented the implication but mostly she was mad at herself for not accepting his offer the first time so he wouldn’t have had to say it out loud. “Come on. I love that stuff.” All of the sudden, Bailey’s eyes widened, his eyebrows arched and he had the look of an anxious little boy who loved to take things apart and put them back together.
“Alright, alright.” She said, immediately regretting her decision.
Just before closing, Gretchen became panicked and an unstoppable wave of embarrassment washed over her. She hardly ever had people over because she was petrified that they would find her home life odd or repulsive. It was as if she had a secret fear that everyone else knew how to live a normal life except her and that they would gather in groups at night and talk about it after she had gone to bed. She remembers feeling this way the first time she had her friend Nanci sleep over in the third grade. Her friend ended up calling her mother half way through the night because she was homesick, but Gretchen had always blamed herself as if she had done something wrong- snored too loudly or left a light on by accident – as if she had done something to offend Nanci. Gretchen doesn’t remember Nanci’s last name, but she does remember crying herself to sleep after Nanci’s mom picked her up.
Inside of Bailey’s Corolla, Gretchen looked out of the passenger’s seat window as Bailey kept his eye on the road and sang along to Bob Dylan. They had just turned their clocks back for the fall and it was getting dark by six. Gretchen bounced her glances between the street lamp and the white lines of the lane. They pulled up to her house and Bailey stopped the car but kept the engine running.
“So you live in that house all alone?” asked Bailey, turning down the radio mechanically as if he had planned on asking the question for a while.
“For a couple of years.”
“Why don’t you get a roommate or something? Seems too big for one person.”
“I’ve tried. No takers.”
“For a house like that? I bet you could get renters in a heartbeat.”
“Nobody ever comes back for a second look.” She said as she popped her door handle. Bailey shut off the engine and followed her.
Bailey stood in Gretchen’s garage, lifted the hood of the car and picked the grease from his nails as he leaned over closer to the engine. Inside the house, Gretchen picked up the mail and sorted through it. She was still amazed at how many pieces of mail came that was addressed to her grandmother and she had made it a habit of calling the person who sent them the very next day to fix the mistake. It was just another reminder to her that she was alone.
From inside of the house, Gretchen could hear the tapping coming from the garage and she walked from room to room. She folded the blanket on the couch and picked up a pair of muddy shoes she had left by the door. She flipped absent-mindedly through Gourmet magazine and wondered what kind of magazines Bailey got at his house and then decided that he didn’t seem like the magazine type. She became lost in her own mind as the garage tapping quieted and she asked herself questions about his life – if his room had paint or wallpaper, if he parked his car on the street or in a garage, what kind of ice cream he had in his freezer. She opened the door to her own freezer as if it would hold the answer and the cold hit her face and swirled around inside her mouth. She stood for a moment, trying to take in the air, but her teeth grew cold and began to ache, so she shut the door.
Gretchen yelped and jumped. Her heart started beating fast as she saw Bailey’s face on the other side of the door.
“What are you doing Bailey!”
“I told you I’d come out to the garage!”
“I knocked, but you didn’t answer. I think it’s your starter. So if we get you a new one, it’d run.” Gretchen stood in front of the refrigerator and listened to her heartbeat as her back pressed against the refrigerator door. With each thump, she could hear a faint rustling of papers behind her.
“What’s the matter?” he asked and she shook her head, trying to draw attention away from the sound of the half-faced pictures her back was covering. She tried to smile at him like an innocent child, but her breathing became heavier and the quick in and out of her lungs made the pictures make a swooshing sound. Gretchen swayed nervously from one side to the other trying to distract him as Bailey cocked his head to the side and stared at the refrigerator door. She thought to herself that it was too late and now he was probably trying to use his imagination to piece together the rest of the models and remember how beautiful they had been with silky white faces and perfectly curved lips.
“God.” Bailey backed away from Gretchen. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing…I’m.” She didn’t know what she was doing because this is what she had always done, to her, it was standard.
“You heard that boy today, didn’t you?” He said.
“What’s your point Bailey?” Gretchen straightened her spine and began walking towards him, almost threatening him with the eerie slowness of her motion.
“When you went into the back he asked if you could sew your face back together.”
Gretchen had heard all of this before. In school, kids would get into her locker and leave things like super glue and sewing kits with notes that read I think your face could use some mending.
“Why don’t you say anything to them.” And with that, Gretchen had figured out Bailey. His kindness was pity, his interest, guilt.
“Why Bailey, just so it can happen again next week? Why? Would it make you feel better? Would you feel more comfortable around me if I became some role model?”
“They treat you like you’re a monster, and look at this.” Bailey ripped down a picture of a left-eyed woman holding half a martini glass. “What are you doing to yourself? Do you look at these every day?” Bailey was no better than the kids in high school, she thought. He would never know that she couldn’t change. She took another slow step towards him and whispered almost into his mouth with a slight curve of her words “Get out of my house.”
“Gretchen, don’t do this. You can’t do this to yourself.”
“Can’t I? I’m ugly Bailey and I’m hideous. They treat me like I’m a freak because I am a freak. I’m unfathomable and I can never be fixed and you can’t fix me Bailey and I know that and I won’t even let you try. Leave me alone.”
“Look,” he said, as he reached out to tear the picture off the wall, “I’ll help you take them down.”
“No!” Gretchen shouted and slapped him hard and quick across the face. “Get out!”
Bailey’s eyes stung and he left as Gretchen watched him climb into his car and drive down the street. She ripped her pictures off of the refrigerator and tore them into tiny pieces and taped them onto the walls and the windows and took the blankets off the mirrors and covered them in pieces of people, all broken and torn.
I’m their scary story they tell on camping trips. She shouted savagely to herself. I’m their evil cartoon. I’m a wild untamed monster. I’m torn and I’m ripped. I’m broken and cracked.