by Chuck Palahniuk.
Printed in Columbia Journal of Literature and Art
Issue 26 - Spring 1996
ALL SUMMER, I wanted someone to ask me what happened to my face.
"Birds ate it," I wanted to tell them. "Birds ate my face."
I don't remember any of it. The people, the folks who let me go ahead of them in the emergency room. What the police said. I mean they gave me this hospital sheet with "Property of Providence of Memorial Hospital" printed along the edge in indelible blue. They gave me morphine, intravenously. Then they propped me up on a gurney.
I don't remember, but I've seen those pictures they took.
In the pictures, these big eight-by-ten glossies as nice as anything in my portfolio (black and white-thank you, God), but in these eight-by-tens I'm sitting up on a gurney with my back against the emergency room wall. The nurses spent ten minutes cutting my dress off with those tiny operating room manicure scissors. The cutting, I remember. It was my cotton crepe sundress from Esprit. I remember that when I ordered this dress from the catalogue I almost ordered two, they were so comfortable, so loose with the breeze trying to get inside the arm holes and lift the hem up around your waist. You'd sweat if there wasn't a breeze, and the cotton crepe stuck on you like eleven herbs and spices, only on you the dress was almost transparent. You'd walk onto a patio, it was a great feeling, a million spotlights picking you out of the crowd, or into a restaurant when outside it was ninety degrees, and everyone would turn and look, like you'd just been given some major distinguished award for lifetime beauty achievement.
That's what it felt like. I can remember this kind of attention. It always felt like ninety degrees.
I remember my underwear. Sorry Mom, sorry God, but I was wearing a thong. Just this little patch up front with elastic strings that ran high up over the top of each thigh and came together at the top of my ass with just one string running down the crack and back around to the bottom of the patch up front. Flesh tone. That one string, the one down the crack, butt floss is what everybody calls that string. I wore that patch underwear because of when the cotton crepe sundress goes almost transparent. You just don't plan on ending up in the emergency room with your dress cut off, propped up on a gurney with a morphine drip in one arm, detectives taking your picture, and a Franciscan nun screaming in one ear. "Take your pictures. Take your pictures, now. She's losing blood."
No, really, it was funnier than it sounds.
It got funny when there I was sprawled on this gurney, this anatomically correct rag doll with nothing but this little patch on my face was the way it is now. I've seen the pictures.
The police, they had the nuns hold this sheet up over my breasts. It's so they can take pictures of my face, but the detectives say are embarrassed to have me sprawled there topless.
Later, when they're showing me the pictures, one of the detectives says that if the bullet has been two inches higher, I'd be dead.
I couldn't see it.
Two inches lower, and I'd be deep-fried in my spicy cotton crepe sundress trying to get the insurance guy to just waive the deductible and replace the car window. The, I'd be by a swimming pool, wearing sun block and telling a couple guys how I was driving on the freeway in my Stingray when a rock or I don't know what, but my driver's side window just burst.
Another detective, the one who searched my car for the slug and bone fragments, that stuff, the detective saw how I'd been driving with the window half open. A car window, this guy tells me over the eight-by-ten glossies of me wearing a sheet, a car window should always be all the way open or all the way shut. He couldn't remember how many motorists he'd seen decapitated by windows in car accidents.
How could I not laugh.
That was his word: motorists.
I couldn't not laugh.
After there were the pictures, people stopped looking at me.
Kevin came in that evening, after the emergency room, after I'd been wheeled off on my gurney to surgery, after the bleeding had stopped and I was in a private room. Then Kevin showed up. He sat looking at the black-and-white glossies of my new face, shuffling and reshuffling them, turning them upside-down and right-side up the way you would one of those mystery pictures where you have a beautiful woman one way, but when you turn the picture over you have a hag.
Kevin said, "Oh, God."
"Oh, sweet Jesus."
The first date I had with Kevin---Kevin was a model, too---we went sailing. My best friend, Evie Cottrell, she's a model. Evie says that models should never date each other. Together, they just don't generate enough attention. Evie say there's this whole shift in the beauty standard when two beautiful people are together, Together, as a couple, you're less than the sum of your parts.
No one really gets noticed anymore.
Still, here I was taping this infomercial, one of those long, long commercials you think will end at any moment because after all it's just a commercial, but it's actually ninety minutes long. Me and Evie, we're hired to be walking sex furniture. We wore these sequined dresses that when you get them under a spotlight, it's like about a thousand reporters taking your picture. So glamorous. I had to stand there in this twenty-pound dress, doing this big smile thing and dropping animal wastes into the plexiglass funnel on top of the Num Num Snack Factory. This thing would just poop out little canapés like crazy, and Evie had to wade out into the studio audience and get folks to eat the canapés.
Folks will eat anything to get on television.
Kevin is the male spokesmodel, and Kevin goes, "Let's go sailing," and I go, "Sure!"
So we go sailing, and I forget my sunglasses so Kevin buys me a pair on the dock. My new sunglasses are just like Kevin's Vuarnets, but mine are made in Korea not Switzerland and cost two dollars.
Three miles out, I'm walking into things. I'm falling down. Kevin throws me a rope, and I miss it. Kevin throws me a beer and I miss the beer. A headache, I get a headache like something God would do to you in the Old Testament. What I don't know is that one of my sunglass lenses is darker than the other, almost a opaque. I'm blind in one eye because of this lens. I have no depth perception.
I don't know this, why my perception is so fucked up. I think it's the sun so I just keep wearing the sunglasses and stumbling around with my headache.
The next time Kevin visited me in the hospital, he told the eight-by-ten glossies of me in my white sheet, Proper of Providence Hospital, that I should think about getting back into life. I should start making plans. You know, take some classes. Finish my degree. Kevin suggested I take one of those seminars where about two hundred people get together in big hotel ballrooms. Sort of like an infomercial, only this time I'm the audience.
Kevin says, "Archive those cover-girl dreams."
This was what I did before the accident. I told people I was a college student. If you tell folks you're a model, they shut down. It's like all of a sudden, they realize they're having an interspecies conversation with some lower life form. But if you tell folks you're a college student, folks are impressed. You can be a student in anything and not have to know anything. Just say toxicology or marine biokinesis, and whomever you're talking to will change the subject to himself. If this doesn't work, mention the neural synapses of embryonic pigeons.
At one time, I was a college student. I have about sixteen-hundred credits toward an undergraduate degree in personal fitness training. What I hear from my parents is that I could be a doctor by now. Sorry Mom, Sorry God.
There was a time when Evie and I went out to parties and bars and men would wait outside the bathroom doors to catch us. Guys would say, "I'm casting a television commercial." The guy would give me a business card and say, "What agency are you with?"
There was a time when my Mom came to visit. My Mom smokes, and the first afternoon I came home from work, she held out a matchbook and said, "What's the meaning of this?"
In the matchbook was a guy's name I didn't know and a telephone number.
"This wasn't the only one I found," Mom said. "What are you running here?"
I don't smoke. I tell her that. These matchbooks pile up because I'm too polite not to take them, and I'm too frugal to just throw them away. That's why it takes a whole kitchen drawer to hold them, all these men I can't remember and their telephone numbers.
The day after Kevin's last visit, Evie and her fiancé, Allen, stopped by the hospital. Evie and Allen look at the glossies and talk to God and Jesus Christ. Allen Skinner is ugly enough for Evie to risk loving.
"You know," Evie says to the Japanese iris she and Allen brought, "I talked to the agency and they said that if we re-did your portfolio, they'd consider taking you back for hand work."
Evie means a hand model, modeling cocktail rings and diamond tennis bracelets and shit.
Like I want to hear this?
I can't talk.
All I can eat is baby food.
No one will look at me. I'm invisible.
All I want is someone to ask me what happened.
Then, I'll get on with my life.
Evie tells the Japanese iris, "You can come live with me at my house when you get out."
Allen is staring at Evie like Evie's just lost half her face.
Evie says, "Kevin's moved out of your old place. We had to put your stuff in storage."
After Kevin dumped me, and after Evie and Allen talked to my Japanese iris, a priest stopped by and asked me what was the matter. The priest takes my hand and talks to the name on my snap-on plastic bracelet, such a hand model I am already, cocktail ring, plastic ID bracelets so beautiful even a Man of God can't take his eyes off them. He says, "What's the matter?"
This is hilarious.
I had half a face.
If I slept on my side, my face would still bleed tiny little spots of blood on my pillow case. The nurse who had to peel the pillow case carefully off my face would tell me my wound was still weeping. That was her word.
I still can't talk. They gave me a pad and a pencil.
I have no career.
I can only eat baby food.
No one will ever look at me like I've won a big prize again.
Nothing. I wrote on the pad, Nothing's wrong.
"You haven't mourned," the priest said. "You should try to cry and then get on with your life. You've been too calm about this."
I wrote, The nurse says my wound will weep.
Okay, someone had noticed. I was calm. I never, even panicked. I saw my face in the rearview mirror the moment after the accident, but hysteria is impossible without an audience. Panicking by yourself is like laughing alone in an empty room. Even if you're watching t.v., you feel really silly.
I knew that I would die if I didn't take the next exit, turn right on Northeast Glisan, go twelve blocks and turn into the Providence Hospital Emergency Room parking lot. I parked. I took my keys and my bag, and I walked. The glass doors slid aside before I could really see myself reflected in them. The crowd, inside, all the people waiting with broken legs and choking babies, they all slid aside, too, when they saw me.
After that, the intravenous morphine. The tiny operating room manicure scissors cut my dress up. The flesh-tone little patch panties. The police photos.
The detective, the one who searched my car for bone fragments, the guy who'd seen all those people get their heads cut off in half-open car windows, he comes back one day and says there's nothing to find. Birds, seagulls, maybe magpies, too. They got into the car where it was parked at the hospital, through the open window. The magpies ate all of what the detective called the soft tissue evidence. The bones, they probably carried away. You know Miss, he said, to break them on rocks. For the marrow.
On the pad, with the pencil, I wrote Ha, Ha, Ha.
Two months after the accident, I started with a speech therapist who said I should thank God that my tongue was unharmed. The therapist, she taught me how to talk the way a ventriloquist's dummy talks. You see, the ventriloquist can't let you see his mouth move. He can't really use his lips. So a ventriloquist presses his tongue against the roof of his mouth to make words.
If you can't make a certain sound without using your lips, substitute a similar sound, the therapist said; for instance, use the sound eth instead of the sound eff The context in which you use the sound will make it understandable.
"I'd rather be thishing." The therapist said.
"Then go thishing." I could talk.
"The lisp," the therapist said, "Your lisp will go away."
The therapist said, "Have you seen Father Lawrence, lately?"
"Hath you theen Thather Lawrenth, lately?"
The therapist shook her head. "No, don't repeat. I mean, has Father Lawrence been talking to you?"
I shook my head.
"He's worried about you, " the therapist said. "Maybe you can tell me what's wrong."
I can only eat baby food.
My fiancé left me.
I have no career.
I'm mutilated, and I will never be able to Saskatchewan.
After I could talk, three months after the accident, I left the hospital for a walk. This was August, and my catalogue order had come from Esprit, a new cotton crepe dress. The same old eleven herbs and spices wrinkled all over me. I couldn't wait to start sweating.
One of the Franciscan nuns stood over me all morning with a curling iron until my hair was all heaped up in a big off-the-face butter crème frosting hairdo. All this nun looked at was my hair while I did my eyes. Evie had brought some stuff by. She didn't bring any lipstick. Thank you God that you let Evie forget the lipstick.
The first time I felt like I was missing something was when I went outside. I mean, a whole summer has just disappeared. All those pool parties and lying around on fiberglass speed boats. Catching rays. Finding guys with convertibles. I got that all the picnics and softball games and concerts were over, trickled down into a few snapshots that Evie wouldn't have developed until around Thanksgiving.
The world was all color after the hospital. I walked up to the supermarket, and shopping was like a game I hadn't played since I was a little girl. Here were all my favorite name-brand products waiting in a big surprise party for me to buy them. All those colors, French's Mustard, Rice A Roni, Top Ramen, everything trying to catch your attention.
The whole world was out to meet me.
All that color. A whole shift in the beauty standard so that no one thing really stood out.
The total being less than the sum of its parts.
All that color all in one place.
Except for the name-brand product rainbow, there's nothing else to look at. When I look at people, all I can see is the back of everyone's head. Even if I turn really fast, all I can catch is someone's ear turning away from me.
And folks are talking to God.
"Oh, God," they say. "Did you see that?"
Everyone is very busy reading the labels on French's Mustard and Rice A Roni.
I take a turkey.
I don't know why. I don't have any money, but I take a turkey. I dig around the big frozen turkeys, those big flesh-tone lumps of ice. I dig around until I find the biggest turkey, and I heft it up like a big baby in its yellow plastic netting.
I haul myself up to the front off the store, right through the check strands and no one stops me. No one's even looking. They're all reading those tabloid newspapers as if there's hidden gold there.
"I am taking this turkey," I said. "And don't try to stop me."
No one looks.
"Twenty-five pound turkey," I say. "I am taking this turkey."
No one even talked anymore. Maybe just the clerks talked. Do you have two pieces of ID? They were asking people writing checks.
"Somebody want to stop me?" I say. "Here I go. I'm going."
Then it was, it was right then a boys says, "Look!"
Everyone who's not looking and not talking stops breathing.
The little boy says, "Look Mom, look over there!" That monster's stealing food!"
Everybody gets all shrunken up with embarrassment. All their heads drop down into their shoulder the way they'd be on crutches. They're reading tabloid headlines harder than ever.
MONSTER GIRL STEALS FESTIVE HOLIDAY BIRD.
And there I am, deep-fried in my cotton crepe dress, a twenty-five pound turkey in my arms, the turkey sweating, my dress almost transparent. My nipples are rock hard against the yellow-netted ice in my arms. My under my butter crème frosting hairdo. Nobody looking at me like I'd won anything.
A hand comes down and slaps the little boy, and the little boy starts wailing.
The boy's wailing the way you cry if you've done nothing wrong but you got punished anyway. It's getting dark outside. Inside, everything's dead except for this little voice screaming over and over: Why did you hit me? I didn't do anything. Why did you hit me? What did I do?
I took the turkey. I walked as fast as I could back to the hospital. It was getting dark. I stopped by Father Lawrence's office.
"This is for you," I said. I dropped the big sweaty turkey in the middle of the green desk blotter, and I put a sarcastic curve on what I said. "You've been an enormous comfort to me."
*Submitted by Cult member Wade Vonasek, November 2005