Suspicious river, p.1
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       Suspicious River, p.1
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           Laura Kasischke
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Suspicious River

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Table of Contents







  About the Author

  Copyright © 1996 by Laura Kasischke

  All rights reserved

  For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

  The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:

  Kasischke, Laura, date.

  Suspicious river / Laura Kasischke.

  ISBN 0-395-77397-0

  ISBN 0-395-86002-4 (pbk.)

  I. Title

  PS3561.A6993S87 1996 95-46801

  813'.54—dc20 CIP

  eISBN 978-0-544-46493-3


  for B.A.—

  Plan A

  I would like to thank

  Lisa Bankoff and Dawn Seferian

  for their assistance

  and support.


  THE FIRST TIME I had sex with a man for money, it was September—still like summer, but the heat in the motel room was on and it seemed to coat my throat with dust. The man was dull, small-eyed, no taller than myself, but he seemed afraid. He wouldn’t look at me. When I asked him what he wanted me to do, he said, “That’s your job.”

  There was a powdery film between us, the glare of the one lamp on the nightstand making haze of the artificial heat. I could see my own image through that haze, above the dresser, reflected in a mirror the length and width of a coffin—a silver one, lined with mercury and sterling, a stainless steel table in an operating room, or morgue, propped up against a wall:

  That was my own body floating in that mirror, I thought, reflected in sharp triangles of light. My body in a closet of pure flat space, like a piece of bent sheet metal abandoned on a beach.

  Still, I looked young. I had shiny black shoes on my feet and a clean, new blue cotton skirt, a white knit top with lace around the throat, and I saw myself glance sideways out of that glass, standing still and blank-faced in front of a man as thick-armed and short as an ogre, hairy—though the hair on his body was blond and nearly invisible, curling in tangles, white and sticky as the threads of a spider’s web, pushing out of his black T-shirt, up his neck. Sickly tendrils climbing the post of a fence. His face was pink and square, a canned ham, and the skin of it was unlined, damp—a fresh baby’s—though his teeth looked yellow and forty years old.

  Already, the motel heater rattled, mechanical, and it blew moon dust between my knees—those two dead and bone-white satellites—and between my body and his.

  Two total strangers in a motel room, in a mirror.

  I got on my knees and unzipped him. It lasted no more than a minute. Finished, he just sat down heavy, steak-faced, and exhausted on the edge of the bed, his pants around his knees, shaking vaguely, and wouldn’t look at me.

  I’d gotten my sixty dollars up front, and afterward I went straight home.

  But the next day, I did the same thing with someone else. Sixty dollars.

  And the next with someone else, and someone else.

  A hundred and twenty.

  A hundred and eighty.

  Two hundred and forty dollars by the end of the third day.

  Three hundred and sixty by the evening of the fourth.

  As I’ve said, it was September. One day would be muzzy, the sky white with haze, a weakening sun in the middle like a cool fried egg.

  The next day there would be sheets of gray rain followed by a velvety purple light beyond the orange leaves.

  Other than that, every day was the same:

  I was making money, saving money.

  I was saving money for something that glistened a bit in the distance—slippery mirage of water on the road ahead of me on a hot, dry day. Something that rose and fell in a fog, changed shape and size, something I might have glimpsed once from the corner of my eye as a child.

  Sometimes that thing floated over me and spit out colored light—a mushroom cloud.

  Sometimes it was just bright chrome, a hill of sugar, or a pillar of salt.

  Sometimes it rose to the surface of my dreams like a second skin, a kind of foreskin floating to the top of a pan of scalded milk or dragging the snow in a long white robe.

  I assumed I’d recognize the thing when I saw it.

  I assumed I’d see it when I’d saved the money to buy it.

  “Where have you been, Leila?” my young husband would ask when I came home a little late again. He had dark circles under his eyes:

  He was getting thinner as I got richer—though there was still a snapshot of him pinned to the refrigerator’s slick door with a black magnet, and in it he was forty pounds overweight, smiling widely, a pliable white purse of belly hanging friendly over his belt.

  “You know,” I shrugged. But he didn’t.

  Though Rick made me a sandwich every morning to take to work every afternoon, he’d quit eating bread and butter himself in favor of raw vegetables months before. All that bushy color shoved into the crispers at the bottom of the fridge smelled fresh and stiff, smelled more like the white tissue they wrap your new shoes in than food, smelled like nothing; and that nothing was his only meal, as far as I could tell—all he ate all day. Even his breath had changed. Now it was like cold air and dry white rice mixed up in a plastic bowl.

  All I wanted of the sack meals my husband made for me was the can of diet Coke, warm and stinging the roof of my mouth by early evening. But sometimes I’d eat a cheese sandwich if there wasn’t any butter on it. Occasionally a homemade cookie tasted good after a cigarette.

  The motel where I worked wasn’t seedy. It was the kind of place you’d like to take your wife, if you had one, and your kids. There would be things for them to do—swing set and picnic tables by the riverbank behind the motel and a miniature golf course across the street with a mini-waterfall and greenish water that slapped the plastic rocks all day and night.

  It was simple and easy to golf there. You could do it in your sleep. From the front desk of the Swan Motel, I could hear children screech every few minutes, their parents shouting “Good one!” in triumph—voices sifted across the light traffic of Riverside Drive.

  But winning that game wasn’t even a minor accomplishment, not even a lucky break, it was just the way the course had been laid by some intelligent out-of-towner who knew that tourists always want to seem to win the games they pay to play. Therefore, it was as if the holes just sucked those golf balls into earth with a whoosh of wind and tongue. Even when you’d barely grazed your ball with the club or sent it rolling in the wrong direction, you’d end up with a hole in one.

  I imagined those white balls tunneling through cardboard shafts underground like legless mice in a kind of dry, deaf hell.

  And the Swan Motel across the street was fresh and clean—starched sheets, beige carpet, decent white towels we sent to Ottawa City in a pickup full of olive green trash bags to be bleached twice a week. Out back, Suspicious River ran swirling and black, but the water looked clean, and there were swans who congregated on the motel lawn like a tea party of rich old women and movie stars, stretching and honking along the river’s clammy banks, a few lounge chairs scattered around where you could recline with a bottle of Orange Crush or beer and watch those long birds extend their subtle necks, open and close their wings, slowly lift and lower their webbed and prehistoric feet as if they had somewhere to go—deciding once again not to go, pressing their feet back firmly into the damp mud and grass.

  Those swans wa
nted desperately to be fed—anything—even stones, even styrofoam—and they watched the motel guests from the corners of their eyes, waiting for a soft flash of bread retrieved from a clear plastic bag, a glimpse of something tossed toward them, edible or not—a greasy palmful of old potato chips, a crumpled coffee cup. Always ravenous, they stood stiff as angelic soldiers, slick-eyeing the motel guests, feigning nonchalance. Then, fed, they’d slosh away, bread sloppy and calm in their orange beaks, slippery feet churning up the dark water of Suspicious River, quiet as death.

  Still, you might never know by looking at the Swan Motel, with its blond bricks, white shutters, glassed-in office, pink neon (NO) VACANCY sign sputtering at the street. You might never know, as you stepped inside the office door, where the air conditioning would first hit you in summer, refrigerator-cool, a bit like ether or 7UP but mixed with canned air freshener, kiddy-cocktail sweet, or the buzz of electric heat making a gray towel of the air in winter:

  You couldn’t know, as you passed the rack of shiny postcards toward the front desk girl, you wouldn’t even suspect what she was doing, or willing to do, for sixty dollars. You’d be tired from your drive up North. You’d be looking at the number on the plastic key she’d handed you, not at me.

  But there are all kinds of people in this world, and they’re not all like you. Some of them come to a small motel up North, and the front desk girl is the first thing they see.

  There’s a way to ask her what you want to know, and a way for her to answer.

  The Swan Motel was a good place to spend a weekend, as I’ve said. Simple, and quiet. Its riverbank boasted the swans’ only nesting ground along all sixty-four miles of Suspicious River. Between 1857 and 1859, seven hundred and seven swan skins had been snagged at that very spot, sold to Hudson’s Bay Company, shipped to London where they’d been sewn into wedding dresses and spinsters’ hats, pillows, pens, strippers’ boas and tails:

  Imagine. Hundreds and hundreds of white and muffled shipping trunks of dead feathers shifting around beneath a boat’s wet deck as it crossed a choppy ocean.

  But this was 1984, more than a century later, and the swans still came to town two by two each March, building their nests in cattails in the marshiest part of the water—that swollen lip of mud and river behind the Swan Motel. There, they’d float around slow as pleasure boats all summer, then rise up in October, listening to something in the distance, and fly off all at once—necks and wings stretched out, looking crucified against the sky, making one low bassoon noise together as they flew above our trailers and houses and Burger King, 00-00-00.

  Behind the Swan Motel there was even a rickety dock with warped and splintered boards, slithering with deep green and weedy hair, where you could sit in the summer, dip your feet into the darkness of Suspicious River, see how lukewarm it was. But you wouldn’t want your wife or children to swim in there. They’d come up covered with bloodsuckers, sticky as black scabs. You’d have to burn those off with a match while someone you loved squirmed and flinched beneath your hands.

  Rick had been fatter when I married him, fatter even a few short months before, and I preferred that—preferred the way his belly had felt between us in the waterbed when it was there, familiar. The way he’d smelled a bit damp between his shoulder and his ear, a little like Wonder Bread, fresh from the plastic package—clean and soft. We’d been married for six years, and it had been his extra flesh I’d gotten used to feeling for in the dark across the rolling motion of our waterbed when I still thought he loved me, when I thought maybe I was the one who couldn’t love.

  But lately I’d find him at least once every day standing shirtless in front of the bathroom mirror, pinching the folds of his lost belly together with the fingers of both hands. He’d study that skin from three angles with something like love or fear on his face.

  “You’re not fat,” I’d say, and he’d turn to look at me—the new, sharper bones of his face pulled back into a stranger’s smile, faked. He was tall and dark-haired. When he was overweight, he’d looked charming, boyish, a high school football player gone soft the very afternoon he turned twenty-one. But, thin, he looked like a young salesman—a bit frantic, or hostile, new on the job, an angry Christian.

  For lunch he might have a salad with just vinegar on it, no oil. For dinner he’d have carrots sliced onto Saltines and an apple cut up into wedges like miniature canoes. He’d eat those boats slow and one by one while they turned pale brown and glazed over like wounds just starting to heal. Then, at night, he’d toss around in the waterbed as if he were swimming laps at the Y. Slow at first, as if to save his energy, but faster as the night wore on—more like drowning than swimming by morning, more like swimming in a high and ice-cold river than swimming in the gray and murky pool at the Y.

  After a while, I couldn’t sleep with him anymore, so I slept on the couch. Still, in my dreams there would be that background noise of the waterbed splashing and rolling—just the way I could hear Suspicious River splash all afternoon and evening past the Swan Motel from the front desk there.

  “Your room is just above the ice machine.”

  I handed him a key with 47 on one side and the imprint of a swan on the other.

  This one was wearing plaid pants. A bright green golf shirt. He had a beer belly and a pink tan, a white belt on and white shoes. Fifty, I guessed. I guessed his mother hadn’t warned him not to wear white shoes after Labor Day.

  His fingertips touched mine when he reached for the key, and they felt moist and dry at the same time. He looked a little winded, like someone with high blood pressure who shouldn’t drink beer, but did—maybe in secret, in his basement at night while his wife was asleep with a head full of tight pink curlers upstairs.

  “Thank you, sweetheart,” he said.

  His teeth were small and smooth.

  It was about four o’clock on a Tuesday in the twenty-fourth year of my life. I’d started my shift at three, and I had seven hours to go. September, it was bright and humid outside. I looked past his shoulder through the office glass to be sure no one was just that moment pulling into the semicircular drive with the hushed purr of a tourist’s American motor, and a film of light like TV glare or wet glue painted the parking lot white in my eyes. I had to squint to see out there, and my own reflection in the window got in the way.

  I wanted to think my hair was red, but maybe it was brown. In the window glass, all colors were gray. It was thick, though, and wavy, and it hung in three fat, knotted ropes—one on each side of my shoulders, one heavy down my back. I believed I was thin and pale enough to be pretty but too pale and thin to be beautiful, so I preferred clothes that made me look young, still or again like a little girl—lacy, with ribbons. I liked clothes, and even before there was so much money, I’d buy a new wardrobe every month at the skinny strip mall in Ottawa City:

  One new skirt and one new shirt and maybe a pair of pantyhose or short white socks. I’d walk down the gray tunnel of that mall between J.C. Penney’s and Sears and imagine one day I’d work at one of those department stores, when I got tired of the motel, or fired. Maybe I’d work in Lingerie. I’d imagine myself wrapping pink silklike slips in tissue paper and slipping them into my purse when the manager took her coffee break.

  At that mall, I always felt dimly full of hope for the future. Someday, I thought, I’d get a job there, and the petty thieving would keep me from looking as bored as the girls behind those counters looked—bored as mannequins or topless dancers, pale under too much fluorescent light. Those girls were all born and raised in the blond skirts of field or the cleared forests around Suspicious River, Ottawa City, Fennville, and their snow boots sat lined up, panting and black, in hall closets all summer while they shivered in the mall’s dry air-conditioned air. Their nipples stood out stiff against thin summer dresses as they waited for you behind their counters, arms in front of their chests. They stared toward the bright glass doors to the parking lot when they weren’t smiling at customers or squinting at the braille numbe
rs on your credit card, with a smirk.

  The man in the green golf shirt took his time looking at me.

  There was one reservation for that night, and he was it. The owner of the motel, Mrs. Elizabeth Briggs, came in only for emergencies during my shift because she trusted me. I’d worked there without incident for years, and Mrs. Briggs needed her rest. It was all too much for Mrs. Briggs. She suffered more than she let anyone know, she said.

  There was the swish of lukewarm autumn wind through emptiness outside. The whole town had already closed down—boarded up, it seemed, for winter. Just me and this golfer, this paying guest, alone together in the glassed-in office of the Swan Motel like the plastic bride and groom knee-deep and stiff in stale cake behind the bakery window.

  He let his eyes move over my shirt slowly, and the eyes were yellowish, but I could see they used to be bright-white blue. He set his elbow on the desk and sighed.

  This is usual. If the front desk girl doesn’t want to do anything next, she’ll take a small step backward, maybe look down at the pen in her hand. But if she’s willing, or willing to think about it at least, she’ll look straight into your eyes. She’ll lean forward a little. It might even surprise you to realize your hunch was right.

  Then you think about what her breasts would look like bare. You might imagine that she is pushing them toward you, whether or not she is. She’s wearing a white blouse, and you think maybe you can see a tuck of lace at the V of her bra—one of those glued-on rosebuds?

  Maybe your heart speeds up if you haven’t already done this a million times—a bloody nest in your chest, soggy, like something dredged out of a river: Your heart, you never want it to stop.

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