If my name weren’t Gretchen

Matilda Macsworth, after working for several years as a cashier at the local used bookstore, realized suddenly, that she had no interest whatsoever in the written word. Just like everything else, she saw books as an opportunity and the bookstore as something of a watering hole. She liked the way the men looked at her when she was pouring over some volume of some obscure writer (made less obscure by the frantic online searchers of her would be suitors), but had no real interest in anything the volumes held.
Matilda was of the sort who could, all at once, appear to be agile of thought, startlingly innocent but hyper sexualized with her tight cardigans and subtle use of red lipstick and black eye liner. It was no accident. She intended it. Yet, she had not read the masters. She had not read anything, and simply used a catalog to find whatever a customer fancied. Anything your heart desired, a couple of choice key words typed solemnly, “thoughtfully”, into the system, and Matilda would flit away with the appearance of determination. She could not comment on this author’s style, that illustrator’s mood swings, or that playwright’s affection for liquor, but she could bite her lip and nod knowingly in an idiosyncratic way that made the heart melt and made the male member swell with thoughtless, ignoble passion. The final thought of each man leaving the store was “What a gem. A priceless, worthwhile gem. Someone to while away the hours, sitting up in the evening citing passages of love and tumultuous lust from Neruda, getting drunk on kisses and the best wine. My darling, my love, my Matilda.”

After days, weeks, months of carrying on in this way, in the used bookstore—having read no books since her freshman year of high school (a cool eight years prior)—she disappeared abruptly one fall morning, much to the chagrin of her coworkers and regular customers. She was found, sometime later, off the coast of Spain, with a man of immense popularity, affluence and influence, married and happy and completely, mind-bogglingly drunk off her ass, laughing at jokes she didn’t understand and being felt up by intelligentsia.
And so ended Matilda’s reign as the girl who worked at the bookstore. The end of her reign marked the beginning of another, as each dynasty that falls is oftentimes replaced by something new. This new dynastic leader was me—fatally less glamorous, far more bookish and something of a homely, boorish sort. But, my passion for stories bordered on obsession, and I had enough friends to go mostly unnoticed by outside influences. I kept to my friends, and they kept to me and that was a good world for a 24 year old. A great world. The best world.
To my own delight, I was hired mere days after Matilda’s disappearance, the owner muttering something about being understaffed. He did seem truly heartbroken that Matilda had gone. I would catch him muttering to himself, and practically hear him thinking “How could she? I had given her so much. My love, my darling Matilda.” Devastated, clearly, that she had not, somehow, hopped on board his own weak mustachioed, balding ginger-headed train to love and excitement and become the Lady Chatterley to his self-abhorring lover.
It seemed odd to me that it was so easy, being hired, but then, I’d never applied before Matilda left. I’d hung around often enough, tracing the smooth spines of the books and trailing my fingers along the shelves. I was a regular fixture before they paid me to be there. Twice a week, I would plop down between the role playing game section and the cooking section, the small nook that seemed reserved for my own small frame. I would fold myself into something like a packet—a packet of a girl named Gretchen—and sit and read the books I could not quite seem to afford; even at their reasonable, gently used price. A library would have been better, truth be told, but I didn’t bother anyone, and they did not bother me, and on cold days, I would bring coffee to share with Karl, who had been a former friend or begrudged lover or something from a high school incident where there was an accident or a bond or something that I can’t seem to remember.
It happens often enough, that I forget the most important bits.  How I meet people most of all. I remember the vague things. The way a smile curls, or the fingers tap, or the ash collects too long on the end of the cigarette then slides off to tickle the carpet with gray and black and white and orange.
And, being folded up that way, my knees up to my almost non-existent breasts, my hair, (always stringy, as it were) falling in greasy, sloppy spirals and bunches from my haphazard ponytail. Nothing in the right place, but I fit there, between the gaming books that no one touched because they were outdated and replaced by more streamlined versions with better math, and the low carb cookbooks that one might look at momentarily, consider buying and then realize that cutting out carbs means not eating bread.
Folded like a packet. Over, over, over, under, over, under, this side, that side. And I remember that. The hair out of the corner of my eye, and Karl at the counter with a smile and a wave, his blonde curls falling like some dread baby cherubim that would catch me in my throat. Had I kissed him? I couldn’t remember.




I can recall, vaguely, my lip being bitten, and the smell of blistex. But, which night? And it must have been him, because I recall his eyes closed and then open, and his lips, dry and cracked and peeling  (even with the smothering, waxy medicated lip balm) against mine. And then the smell of whiskey, and my hair pulled back from my face, and the taste of sick and the smell of toilet and cleaning products wafting into my nostrils as I wretched (however violently) into the toilet. And that bitch, Nancy, laughing—and she left with Karl that night—and I suddenly recall why I hate remembering.
And Karl looks up and I’ve been staring for way too long, and I blush and return to whatever book I’m reading, inhale the words, and try not to think about being seventeen with horrible acne and kissing an angel.
It was around this time that I moved into an apartment with Ada and Adrian; two people who on the outside seemed like perfect matches, but upon moving into the apartment simply plagued me. It wasn’t that they were bad, but they were blunt. And it wasn’t that they were cruel, they were rude. And, it wasn’t that they were dirty—they were out and out filthy. This supplied a daily amount of anxiety, only cured by Ativan, Maalox, and a fresh string of complaints each morning for Karl as we opened the store.
“Why does she even have a cat?” He asked me.
“I don’t know. I’m cleaning up after it. I’m feeding it. I’m holding it. It just sort of hisses and spits at her. I don’t even want a cat.”
“You have to understand. No, listen. The litter box was fucking filthy. There was no littler left. Just shit and piss and I gagged dragging it down the stairs. I couldn’t even use the scoop. I had to dump the whole thing in the dumpster out back.”


Little things.

She’s afraid to get on the plane to Baltimore. What she’s doing is illegal, and she knows it.

M.A. hasn’t given her all the details, but, she knows she’s visiting a doctor and picking up prescriptions for percocet that she’ll take back to Pittsburgh. She’ll give the scripts to M.A. who will then hand them off to a man whose name she doesn’t know. She gets paid 800 dollars for every trip she makes, and she makes them three times a week.

This time, she’s afraid to get on the plane.

Her friends and family think she’s a secretary for a law firm, because that’s what she’s told them. But, really, she works for one of the most well paid distributors in the country. Her 2400 dollars a week is nothing in comparison to what M.A. makes, and his 40,000 a month pales in comparison to what the man Kate will never meet makes monthly. The figures are in the hundred thousands.

Kate does this because she needs the money. Because she never had the money. Because at one time, she was a prostitute, and got out of the illegal stuff all together–tried to make money in a legitimate way, and never could seem to come out on top. She worked so hard. Depression swallowed her up, she lost her job. She tried again. Again. Once more. Nothing. Always debt. Then she found out that M.A made 40,000 a month, and that she could work for him. She could start making 1800 a week. She could get her savings together, get out of debt, plan for her future.

Kate was 21 when she started her job, she made 1800 a week. Now, she is 23, and makes 2400 a week, and she is still waiting on Patrick to fly from Manchester to see her. After three years, she still waits for him.  She saves enough to visit him twice a year. He promised they’d move to Texas and get married. He promised to take a job with a prestigious liberal journal in Austin where he’d do all the web content. He is 29. He graduated from Salford University with a degree in journalism. He listens to punk rock music and writes (unpaid) reviews for a horror blog and gets drunk every night. She loves him, and he swears to love her. They fight when they’re not with each other. sometimes, she doesn’t hear from him for months. He makes his money by distributing heroin to students in Manchester. Neither of them know that the other has their hands in something that could get them sent to prison for life.

Patrick does it because he knows that eventually Kate will leave him. Find out that as a secretary at a law firm, she will be too good for him, and he’ll have nothing to show for his life. Kate does it because she never had the money, and because she’s saving for her wedding that she doesn’t know won’t happen. They will never move to Austin. They will never have a Star Wars themed wedding. They will never have children whose heads are slightly too large and whose eyes shine like their mother’s. This will never happen, because when Kate makes this flight to Baltimore, she will be arrested. She will die in a car accident on the way to the police station. This will never happen because Patrick will try heroin for the first time tonight, and he will overdose, causing him to go into a coma and have severe brain damage for the rest of his life. These things will happen because the world told them no. No no no no no.