Sunday, June 29, 2008

Gretel

Gretel snatched off her clip-on earrings, pulled her hair back in a tight bun, and buttoned up her white blouse, concealing the black Scorpions T-shirt she had bought the day before. She left the phone booth and headed through the blowing leaves toward the bakery. God, I’m fourteen, she thought. What good is living in America if you can’t dress like an American?

From the minute Gretel got off the plane last fall, her Aunt Marjorie had watched her like a hawk. Marjorie always said, “A pretty peach is easily bruised-—so I handle you with care.” Gretel had to laugh at that. It was sweet. But Marjorie simply couldn’t be everywhere all the time.

Marjorie managed the Strudel Haus, and had gotten Gretel a summer job there. Since Gretel worked the counter, she didn’t have to be in until eight, but up until last week, Marjorie made her wake up and go in with her at five anyway. It took endless wheedling, but Gretel had finally convinced Marjorie to let her start walking to work by herself--it was only twelve blocks! Marjorie bought them each a cell phone and said, “Well ... Okay.”

It had been a struggle, living with Marjorie, but Missy had given Gretel hope. Missy was a lifeguard at the Rec Center, where Gretel took swimming lessons. After only a few short weeks, Missy had won Marjorie’s complete trust. She could be incredibly polite and mature when she wanted to be, but underneath she was actually just ordinary--and she knew something about boys.

Gretel tucked in her shirt and turned the corner, and saw Marjorie waiting out front as usual. Gretel liked Marjorie, even though she was a worrier. Like Gretel, Marjorie didn’t have much of a chin, but it didn’t seem to bother her. Her eyes always seemed to have a little light behind them. Gretel liked working at the bakery. Her hands were constantly busy, but her mind was often free to wander.

Today she thought of yesterday. While wrapping muffins for the day-old shelf, she replayed the events that led up to her first kiss and lingered on the memories of the county fair: the crowds of strangers; the music, like a soundtrack; the orange lights strung along the Midway; the wind, the dust; and the warm evening air that smelled both sweet and spicy.

Having run out of plastic wrap, Gretel left her daydream and the muffins and went to look for some more. She found a big commercial box, already opened, on the supply shelf. With effort, she hefted it up and headed back to her workbench. Coming around the dishwasher she slipped, and one end of the box went into the air. As it came down, the serrated edge cut across her left wrist like a violin bow, and Gretel’s mouth went dry as blood sprang up above her arm in a ghastly red fountain.

"Marjorie!" she managed to call, looking straight ahead, "Marjorie!"

Marjorie put the phone down, grabbed a towel from where it hung on the oven door, wrapped Gretel's wrist, and firmly held the girl's hand up, above her head, reassuring her all the while with a gentle stream of talk. When she saw that Gretel was sturdy on her feet and beginning to calm down, she said, "Keep the pressure on it and keep it above your heart. I'll get my car keys.” She moved swiftly away in her stooped-over fashion and returned sooner than Gretel had expected.

"You must really want a day off,” Marjorie joked as she knocked the big metal back door open with her shoulder. Glossy autumn sunshine colored the parking lot. Gretel's arm felt warm under the towel, and cool and sticky around it. As they drove out to the hospital, her mind settled back upon the events of yesterday.

Gretel and Missy were walking together. The sky was streaked with pink; time was running out. Gretel had her hooded sweatshirt on, with the hood up, although it was still quite warm. They decided to check out the arcade--an assortment of video games standing together under a blue tarp--to see if anyone they knew was still hanging around.

Gretel was filled with adrenaline. The day had been long and her body was tired, but the roller coaster was still on her mind. She had managed to avoid it all day, had gently steered Missy away from it, until finally Missy caught on and insisted they ride it together. But Gretel couldn't get herself to do it. It felt like when she was little and had tried to pull out a tooth that wasn't quite ready. In spite of the pain, she continued to command her fingers to pull, until they simply refused to obey. She lost her grip on the tooth, and then it was like her whole arm got too tired to hold itself up. Her body had resisted gently at first, but eventually declared a total mutiny against her brain.

In fact, getting on the roller coaster seemed like suicide, and her feet wouldn't let her get near it. Missy nagged her about it for awhile, said she had to face her fears. They bought donut holes, and Gretel spent her last twenty dollars on the Scorpions shirt. Eventually they found themselves in front of the arcade, so they went in to see who was around.

The machines flashed in the growing dark and their intermittent sounds mixed with the two pop songs that blared from opposite ends of the Midway. Missy found Dan, a guy from her grade, and latched onto him.

Gretel watched them talk for a minute, then stepped out from under the tarp and looked off down the Midway. Nothing stood between her and the roller coaster. Up on the elevated track, the cars had begun their ascent toward the final summit.

"Gretel.” She could hear the machinery straining as it pulled its load upward. "Gretel. Hey." She became aware of her legs, stiff with adrenaline, then the ground beneath her feet, and then the boy who had come up to stand beside her. "Gretel, I need some money. I'm out of quarters. You got any?"

She looked up--it was Cliff--and smiled. His tan was dark and even over his torso and he had on that leather string with the shark's tooth hanging from it.

Cliff was Dan's younger brother. He was a farm kid, and seemed more susceptible to the attractions of city-made things because of it--he loved machines. Gretel had seen him sit and tinker with the insides of a computer for hours while other kids watched TV. He was also a video game junkie. He'd been playing a new game since noon, he explained rapidly, but couldn’t get to the third level, where the alien king comes out.

"Gretel, if you have any money I can borrow I can pay you back double next week--"

"I only have tickets left,” Gretel said. Cliff glanced around a bit, but his obsession seemed to fade quickly, as if he accepted the fact that his streak was over. Gretel thought that was cool.

"So, what're you doing?" he asked, turning his attention to her. Gretel stared ahead. The roller coaster had just dropped its passengers over the top of the last hill, and they had all fallen together, giving out a single, thrilling scream. Now, some spent and some jubilant, they staggered out one by one through the turnstile, and Gretel strained to see their faces.

"I'm gonna ride that roller coaster,” she said, giving him a fierce grin.
"Haven't you yet?" Cliff asked.

"No," she answered. She glanced back at Missy and Dan. Missy leaned on the game, laughing, while Dan played. A cloud of dust blew past. "You can come if you want, for support,” Gretel said. Cliff shrugged and grinned. Gretel yelled at Missy: “Wait here. We’re gonna ride the Scream-a-tron!”

Gretel knew Cliff had been on the ride a hundred times, and now she'd have someone to steady her nerves. She tugged his arm, and they ran up and got in line. The smell of grilled sausages and something sweet hung in the air. She handed the carnie their tickets. “This’ll be great,” she said quietly.

Pushing through the turnstile, Gretel saw that several cars were open, so she had her choice. She knew enough to know she didn't want the first car, so she was a little relieved to see that the one farthest from it--the last car--was still available.

The Scream-a-tron delivered what its name had promised. Two hills and a few curves into the ride Gretel was ready to call it quits, and after the first big hill she balled herself up against Cliff and wrapped her arms around him. The two of them were lifted clear out of their seats on the descents, although Cliff did his best to keep them steady, bracing his big boots against the front of the car and pushing back hard against the seat, with one arm holding the safety bar and the other holding on to Gretel. During the last ascent to the final summit, Gretel became vaguely aware of a high, whimpering sound that accompanied each shallow breath she took. A tear ran down into her ear. Her heart galloped, and it felt like the whole world was hanging from her by a rope. Then the weight was gone, they were falling, and Gretel heard a new voice shrieking with the wind. Then it was over.

The car jerked to a stop. Gretel sat up quickly, but needed a minute to get her legs beneath her. On the way out she kept her head down and kind of felt her way through the turnstile. After a few shaky breaths, she realized that the danger had passed, but felt a hot rush of shame as scenes from her performance on the ride flared up in her memory.

Cliff examined his boots for a minute, then looked up at Gretel. "You did it,” he said. She saw his eyes were lit with admiration, and her embarrassment dissolved. Yeah, she did do it, she thought, she rode that bastard, and she would never have to do it again.

"Yeah, I guess I did do it,” she gloated softly. Her hood was down. She let it be. Cliff had his eyes on her teeth, and he smiled.

Gretel smiled back. The way he looked made her realize what she was to him--older, and fine--and she saw an opportunity to live up to his image of her, and to become that person. She gave him a bump with her hip, and he laughed quickly, and so she continued to nudge him along, until they found themselves under the roller coaster's steel framework. Then she put her arms under his and placed her open palms against his back. His face changed, and that made her more confident. She placed her lips on his, and his mouth opened softly. She gingerly pushed her tongue in past his braces, and there was a slight taste of cinnamon--then his tongue came back pushing past hers. It was all new and pleasant and it continued until Gretel felt something wet on her chin. She pulled away and wiped it with her sleeve, and Cliff wiped his with the back of his hand.

"That happens sometimes,” she said, and gave him a reassuring look. Cliff smiled back at her. His face was wide open, like he was lying in a field and looking up at a sky full of stars. As the last of the fair-goers headed for the main gate, a dangerous-looking group of older kids passed by, but in their place in the shadows, Gretel and Cliff went unnoticed.

***

Now she watched as the intern used a curved needle to stitch the grisly flap of skin back down over her wound, and listened as he pointed out the arteries and ligaments that ran down her wrist. It looked like she'd tried to kill herself.

The intern’s jokes and small talk faded. Gretel's mind turned to the bakery. I do a good job there, she thought. In a few weeks Stacy, one of the bakers, would be leaving. Gretel decided she would ask for her job.

Marjorie gave her a ride home. The sky was lit with purple and black. There's no one like you, Gretel sang, to herself. Under the snug white bandage it felt like the blood was still trying to pour out of her wrist.