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Everybody knew her as Gretchen, but that wasn’t her real name. That was just what her brother Tommy called her—had called her one time when they were teenagers—and it had stuck. Gretchen Fetchen is a character in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which is a book about a bunch of hippies in the ’60s taking acid and traveling around the country being irresponsible. Everybody called her Gretchen. A lot of people didn’t even know what her real name was. Sometimes even she forgot, only for a second, less than a second. But even so. Her real name was Kathleen. Her mother had named her for the old immigrant song “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” the only song her mother could play on the piano from beginning to end. She’d learned how to do it, she liked to explain in her annoying fake brogue to customers in her [End Page 125] luncheonette, by following the movement of the keys on a player piano in a house where, when she was a girl, she’d worked for a short time as a ladies’ maid. The implication was that she was now a woman of some substance: a woman who not only owned a luncheonette and also the building the luncheonette was in, but a woman so substantial she could even keep a piano in that luncheonette and play it whenever she felt like it.
Gretchen herself had come to a somewhat different place in her own life. In fact, right now she was walking from her job at the CVS in Coolidge Corner to an AA meeting in Brookline Village, a meeting she attended every Tuesday evening and which was held in the basement of Saint Joan’s Roman Catholic Church. She’d been going to meetings for about a year and a half. She could be doing better than the CVS, she well knew; she could get a job in a pub as a waitress or working behind the bar drawing pints, she had the looks for it and also the experience, but she couldn’t be around that anymore.
So she worked a regular day job in the CVS at Coolidge Corner. It was annoying as hell—what is more annoying, for anybody, than the CVS?—but that was what she had to do right now, and right now didn’t mean forever, that was one thing she’d learned and had to keep in mind. She went out for a sandwich or to the movies afterward, was thinking about enrolling in one of the small colleges in the area, maybe Simmons or Wheelock, but first she’d need to get her GED. She’d made some mistakes—going with Patrick while she was still in high school was not very bright—but she’d fallen for him, and that’s how it was when you fell for somebody. Everybody said he’d end up in jail and then, what a surprise, he’d ended up in jail! One and a half to three in MCI-Norfolk—the lawyer said it was a pretty good chance he’d be out in two, he’d only had the juvie stuff on his record before this.
And of course he’d left her with a child to take care of, no education either one of them. Before Patrick had gone inside she’d worked as a dancer making real money, but it hadn’t taken her very long to find out what that kind of life was about. So now she had to work a minimumwage job and live in the two-bedroom apartment above her mother’s luncheonette in Southie, the same stale, cramped apartment where she was born and raised. She lived there with her mother, who sat either on the sofa in the apartment or on a high chair behind the cash register of the luncheonette, and her daughter Lily, and her brother Tommy, too...