At fifteen, Mel cut out her tongue. It reminded her of a snake, writhing inside her teeth as though it had an agenda separate from her own. She used her mother’s good kitchen knives to hack at its root, careful to leave her teeth unharmed. Not being able to spit and swallow quickly enough, she almost choked on the blood. Almost, like the way her father almost survived the noose he’d hung in their garage the year before. Almost, like the way her mother almost gave a damn.
The doctor asked what had become of the tongue. Mel couldn’t remember, and this frightened her. Perhaps the severed tongue had escaped, inching out of the bathroom like a worm, able to live a severed life, like a worm. The nub at the back of her throat still moved on occasion, which fit her worm theory, though the doctor didn’t seem to agree, and she stopped writing answers for him. His gray mustache, thick-haired like the bristles of a toothbrush, wriggled in frustration at her unmoving hand, though her eyes said it all: “fuck you and leave me the fuck alone.”
The nurses there handed her pills. She feigned the inability to swallow. They didn’t seem to comprehend and offered shots instead, trying to appear helpful, understanding, compassionate, words that meant nothing where she was. She could see the malevolence in their pearly eyes. She’d swallow the pills and make a violent face afterwards, always, like she’d been punched or stabbed. Sometimes it really did hurt, the sticky coating pulling at spots of raw flesh around her missing tongue.
Halfway through her stay, one of the older nurses retired and a new nurse hired on. This new nurse smelled like laundry and synthetic berries and asked Mel to stick her tongue out after swallowing. Two of the other nurses observed while the bright-eyed, laundry-scented nurse distributed pills. They were “training” her, but had failed to warn her about Mel, and Mel could see this in their glinting eyes and gold hoop earrings, which Mel knew they weren’t supposed to wear. She would rip one out one day, she thought as she opened her mouth.
At seventeen, she was released into her grandma’s care. They were mutual parasites. Mel zapped the old woman’s strength with her refusal to communicate, and the old woman leached Mel’s youth, depending on her to descend the steep basement stairs with the laundry basket, to drag the trash cans to the curb, to grocery shop in the winter, when the ice consumed the two blocks between their one-and-a-half story bungalow and the two-brand-of-peanut-butter neighborhood store. Sometimes Mel would buy the things on the list, but more often she’d pick out hard vegetables, thick frozen garlic bread, and caramel-packed desserts, things neither of them could comfortably eat.
At first, Mel found herself waking at odd hours, bumping around in the dark kitchen to hold her face under the icy water, her grandma waking to find her sitting on the linoleum, hair dripping, eyes still. But as Mel settled into the routine of an old woman—watching television during the day, taking naps at will, and wandering around outside, just to be outside—she began to sleep through the night, and her grandma relaxed into her own wordlessness. The house was silent, the only human noises duplicated and fake and creaking out of the old, square set.
Barb, one of Mel’s aunts, showed up at eight in the morning to get the house ready for the party. Mel’s grandma would be turning eighty. Barb proclaimed Mel helpless, though maybe she meant hopeless, and maybe both were true. Mel couldn’t even drive, not that the neighbor boy didn’t try to teach her, pushing her down in the trunk of his station wagon, the hatch open to let out the July heat, pushing her down with one hand as he undid her belt and fly and his belt and fly. She didn’t like him, or the trunk, or the Smarties’ wrappers and schoolbooks he pushed her down onto, but he quickly learned not to kiss her, not with his tongue at least. When she first bit down, he put a hand under her chin, clamping her jaw shut like an alligator’s, and turned her over. It felt better that way, anyway. Once, they fucked in his bed, but that had been an accident. Every other time, it was in the trunk with the hatch open.
“Mel, where are the serving spoons?”
Mel sat at the table with a bowl of cereal, her knees pulled up under her chin. She stared at her aunt. Barb was “setting everything out”, as she put it; pretending to be important, as Mel thought it.
“Y’know, big spoons.”
Barb was tanned and blond and had nicotine stains on her pointy teeth, fake nails on her already too long fingers, and sequins on her shamelessly low-cut blouse, the same kind of blouse she had lent Mel at the last family function. Mel had tried it on at her aunt’s insistence, satisfied when it proved too small for her chest. But Barb had left the shirt anyway, despite Mel showing off how it squeezed her breasts into thick pancakes. Mel’s mother had also been there, had cornered Mel in the kitchen, alcohol seeping into her words, “Honey, you’re so beautiful. Be careful.” She did not say, “Honey, you’re so beautiful. Come home with me.” She would never say that.
“Mel, honey, c’mon. Big spoons. You have big spoons, right?”
Shoveling cereal into her mouth with a fisted spoon, Mel glanced at the drawer beside the sink then glanced back at her aunt, stared really, as if she might’ve been trying to eat her aunt instead of the cereal. Mel often had a carnivorous expression.
Barb began opening drawers. “We’re going to need something for your Aunt Charlene’s pasta salad and the beans.” Eventually, Barb did pull out the correct drawer—not far enough—and slammed it shut, the metal, and the plastic, and the wood creating secondary bangs inside. When all of the drawers had been opened and similarly shut, Barb went to her purse. She’d hung it on the hooks by the backdoor when Mel had opened if for her an hour earlier. While the backdoor led to the kitchen, the front door led to the living room where Mel’s grandma had just begun watching Mass on one of the local channels. She never made Mel watch, though sometimes Mel did. Mel liked it when the cameraman would pan out over the congregation, liked watching the faces, dead and still, while the bread and wine turned into body and blood, and the mothers fussed with their babies, and the older children thumbed through the hymnals or, better still, drew pictures inside. Mel could hear the processional hymn now, and the bodies as they rose from the pews. Though Mel’s back was now to her aunt, Mel could also hear Barb snap open her cell phone and dial with her fake tips.
“It’s fine. Could you bring serving spoons too?” Her aunt’s voice punched into the phone, a mixture of squeaking Styrofoam and a horse’s stale neigh.
Mel crunched louder then slurped the sugar-stained milk.
“Next to the oven.”
Mel rattled the spoon in the bowl as she brought it to the sink. She dropped the bowl into the basin, the thud reminding her of heads cracked against cement, and ran the faucet at full blast, watching the last lick of milk foam and bubble, the white dissipating as the bowl overflowed. Clinking, the spoon bobbed.
“The other side,” Barb said, raising her voice to be heard. “Look, just look around. I’ve got stuff to do.”
Barb had just finished washing the un-rinsed dishes that Mel had let pile up. Mel always let the dishes pile up, even though the kitchen had a small dishwasher that seemed to work better with off-brand detergent and had a broken bottom rack. Now, Mel went so far as to squirt some green apple dish soap into the bowl under the still howling faucet, watching the milk foam surrender to the new green bubbles.
Her aunt’s voice rose. “What stuff? Have you seen this place?”
The priest’s voice rose, Mel’s grandma employing a generous hand with the remote and its volume button.
Smiling, Mel left the kitchen, left the faucet still powering down on the spotless bowl. Mel left the house, left her aunt’s voice still raised, letting the door bang against its frame without latching. Mel left the yard, cutting across the weedy lawn, barefoot, though unremarkably so to her, and traveled two blocks, leaving the quiet neighborhood and traversing the nearby main road. She walked purposefully. The concrete sanded the bottoms of her cracked feet, and the sun scratched through her thin pajama shorts and thinner camisole, adding another layer of brown to her Caucasian skin. Her grandma called her part Indian and pointed to her dark skin when she told neighbors about their Indian princess ancestor. She never said Native American; she even said colored sometimes.
The tarred parking lot singed Mel’s heels. Her toes quivered against her will, but she tried not to notice. The doctor had assured her that she needed her toes. Being a Sunday, the entire town was either sitting for Mass or hiding their faces until Mass was over. The store was, for now, quiet, two cars and a pick-up parked outside. She considered escaping, jumping in the pick-up’s bed, a runaway, like Rogue in X-Men or Shirley Temple in Stowaway, but she also considered that her hair was not quite ridiculous enough: brown, dark brown, and straight, cut and lying dead at her collar bone.
She pushed on the door. Inside, the store’s tiled floor cooled her feet. She could feel her skin relax. The lights tinted the store’s interior yellow-green, like stepping back into the nineties. The little toy section near the register even had one of those mini Cabbage Patch dolls, which almost surprised Mel who had owned several as a child, perhaps still did in her bedroom back at her mother’s house. Also near the register: a plastic can with a curled photograph of a young boy in a wheelchair. The entreating words were disfigured by spherical watermarks, but the idea was still clear. Leave money. Save the boy. Mel wondered if her grandma had ever tried something similar, but doubted that anyone would sympathize with a closed-mouth teen straight from the bin.
Everyone noticed her.
The clerk was the twenty-something redneck who usually swept or restocked while the old man or his wife rang up customers and felt for the shotgun when she walked in. They must be in church, she thought. In the middle aisle—there were five aisles and the shelves rose chest high—a round blond woman and a mixed, nearly as round, teenage girl rifled through the Kool-Aid packets. Another, a man old enough to be her father, pointed at cigarettes, and the boy, the clerk, rang him up.
Everyone noticed her.
But the tiles cooled her feet, and the air, not cold, but cooler than the air outside, touched the sweat under her arms and sent a shiver up her neck. As she walked, her feet stuck to the sea-foam-green tiles, making the sound of stickers as they pulled away. The mixed girl mouthed something to the blond. The blond nodded her chin down into her rolls. The man pocketed his cigarettes and left. The clerk half-grinned, slipping a hand beneath the counter.
Mel walked down aisle two, passing the barbeque sauces and mustards on one side and the soups and pastas on the other. Briefly, she wondered if her aunt needed anything for the party.
Both the blond and the mixed girl turned their manatee heads to watch her as she passed by. This wasn’t something new. Everyone in town knew about her. Yet Mel felt the painful urge to part her lips, and lower her jaw, and tilt her chin to the fluorescent lights, and show the miss-matched twins the knob of flesh fighting at the back of her throat. Instead, she kept her gaze straight ahead, not even giving them a sideways glare. They, however, continued to gawk, though the blond began tossing items into their nearly empty cart without even looking down to see what she was tossing.
Mel continued on to the back of the store, to the cooler where the store kept milk, eggs, butter and, beside the cooler, packaged sweets. She bent to pick out a box of miniature powdered donuts, two boxes, balancing them in the L of her elbow. She turned and walked back down aisle one towards the counter, the filthy clerk fiercely and amusedly watching her, stroking his half-formed beard with one hand, the other hand resting on the register. As she got closer, Mel could see that his lips were broken into sections where the skin had split in the dry air. His cheeks were crater-filled, creating curved shadows on his raw dough skin. His shoulders, bare in his grayed wife-beater, were round like a Ken doll’s, and budding muscles ran down each arm all the way to his knobbed fingers and cracked nails.
She put the donuts down.
“Three seventy-nine,” he said before punching in the numbers.
She knew he knew about the unfilled hole in her mouth—probably wanted to fill it. Standing there, she could feel his eyes drifting to the points of her nipples, which were softened in the heat but still showed through her white cotton top.
Her face remained still, though his grin hesitated as she pulled his hand from his beard and pushed it down onto her left breast, mashing it around then simply holding it there, feeling his fingers twitch in response. He looked down at his hand, but did not attempt to remove it. Her eyes focused on his until she was sure he understood.
She heard a female gasp.
“Jesus,” he hissed.
Letting his hand drop, she picked up the donuts and left.
Outside, only one of the compacts remained, a rusted-out four door with a pink stuffed kitty in the back window. The car must belong to the blond and her mixed daughter, sister, cousin, Mel knew. She considered stripping and lying out on the hood, her bare ass sticking to the rusted metal. At the very least, she could sit on the hood with her boxes of donuts and wait for them. She also considered that the round bitch would call the cops.
And so she headed home to where her aunt’s car still sagged in the driveway. This time, Mel used the front door, entering by the living room, where her grandma still sat, slightly hunched, watching Mass. The priest recited the announcements for the week. Mel sat beside her grandma on the 1973 yellow velvet couch and opened the donuts, offering one to the old woman, who took it without questioning.
“Mass has ended. May you go in peace.” The priest raised both arms.
“Amen,” droned the congregation on the screen. “Amen,” whispered her grandma beside her, a puff of powder escaping her mouth.
Mel took a donut for herself and bit down, pulling back her lips, the powder sprinkling down between her thighs. She let the donut melt into a sugary paste before swallowing.