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Suspicious River

Laura Kasischke

  That night we slept in Rick’s childhood bed. It was narrow and the springs, when we shifted, squeaked like a small dog being beaten with a stick.

  We had to be quiet because his parents were sleeping together on the other side of the wall, so I put my face in Rick’s pillow to cry. I thought about my father alone now in our house, sleeping alone in the bed where my mother had bled to death. I didn’t know if there was blood on that mattress. I’d never looked. But the smell of blood had never gone away. We’d grown used to it. Like the taste of well water. A red fox sneaking through the snow and a coop of ruined chickens: I missed the smell of that house.

  Rick rubbed his hand up and down my spine. “It’s O.K.,” he said over and over, sounding far away or shrinking. “O.K.,” he kept saying, “O.K.”

  When we woke up, it was still just June, and the lawns on the Schmidts’ block were scattered with shredded petals, smelling like newly cut hay—scratchy and sweet in the breeze that carried it in from the miles of farmland that circled the town. Daisies swayed under an impenetrable sky.

  “Oh shit,” Gary says when we pull back into the parking lot of the Swan Motel.

  I recognize her pickup.

  He says, “My wife is here.”

  “It’s O.K.,” I say. I want to make things easy for him. It’s been a long day. I say, “I’ll go home.” My head hurts from the whiskey anyway, and it’s past two in the morning. I’d planned to spend the night with him; I’d wanted to, but maybe this is just as well. I have no clothes with me to wear to work tomorrow afternoon. And Rick. Our apartment, with its white shelves.

  “Look,” Gary says, putting his arm around me. “You did great tonight. I’m so proud of you. You made a lot of money for us, baby. Tomorrow we’ll split it up. Whatever you think is fair.” He leans over to kiss my hair. “You and me are gonna be so happy when we straighten everything out.” He nuzzles into my neck, groaning a little. “Leila, you were so hot. God, you don’t know how much that turns me on—all those men wanting you, and you’re all mine.”

  He kisses me long and hard on the mouth. It’s warm. I hold on to his shirt loosely with my fist. I think, is there anything that belongs to me under my skin that couldn’t just as easily belong to him? Or am I empty? A gift box of tissue. I’ve even stopped thinking, dreaming. Just snow, now, smoke. When I close my eyes, I am alone.

  Earlier, I’d even gone to the Ladies’ Room at the Big City Bar and tried to think. I’d looked at my hands, but they didn’t look like hands, and the bathroom tile was cold beneath my bare feet. I hadn’t bothered to put my shoes back on or button my blouse because it didn’t matter who saw. I was a white wall. I tried to think, but the thoughts were only bits of branches tugged along with river water as it rushed through a narrow tunnel. I couldn’t see anything separately or long enough to understand what it was, so I’d gone back to the room, pushed through a crowd of men who touched me as I passed. I left the door open behind me, took off my clothes again, and lay back naked on the couch in that room’s dull light, waiting. I imagined silver coins in my stomach, melting into mercury, pure liquid sterling, and I felt cold. I even spread my legs.

  Let them see it all, I thought. Let them have it.

  I don’t want to let go of Gary’s shirt, but I do when he says, “I got to take care of this now, Leila. I’ll see you tomorrow. O.K.?”

  As I walk from his car back to my own, I see that she’s just sitting in her pickup alone, in the dark. Not even the light of the radio is on.

  MISS LOVETTE paced in the principal’s office, taking small hard steps in her wide black pumps between his desk and the chair I sat in across from the principal’s desk.

  Miss Lovette was large, and her skin smelled sweet, doughy. Maybe she was only thirty years old, but she could have been any age—all smooth skin, earth mother, like a mown hill. Her hair was neither blond nor brown. She wore it short, and her ears were small as a baby’s, pink and smooth as shells.

  There was a cold wind coming into the principal’s office through a crack under his window, even a little snow, a few flakes of it blowing across the room before disappearing into the air above the radiator’s thumping. He sat square behind his desk, chin rested on his fist, his hair oily and black. There was a photograph near his elbow of a thin blond woman and two dark-haired children sitting together on a sunny day at the edge of a pool. One of the children, a boy, was splashing the aqua water with his feet. In the photo, light and water frothed beneath the boy. The blond woman looked annoyed. I could tell that woman and the children belonged to the principal. They all resembled him.

  Miss Lovette said, “It’s not a problem. Leila can stay with me until everything’s all settled. O.K., Leila?” She smiled, but she still looked worried. She knelt down at the side of my chair, squeezed my wrist with her hand. I looked down at that hand, noting the skin over the bones, how it was clammy and thick, how those bones seemed fragile and lost in flesh, though her fingernails were full of little rising moons.

  She spoke quietly to me, “You understand that everything’s fine, don’t you? But your daddy had some trouble on his way home from Benton Harbor, and the doctors have to make sure he’s going to be fine before he leaves the hospital. He’ll just be gone for a little while. But he’ll be fine. Tonight we’ll call him from my house.”

  Fine, I thought, and Miss Lovette said, “Won’t it be fun for you and me to spend some time together?”

  I nodded and tried to smile, but the air coming up under the principal’s windows was like raw iron. It hurt my teeth, my shoulder bones. The windows seemed to bend with it, but eventually February would shatter those windows altogether. In a few weeks, an ice-heavy branch would be blown by wind into the plate glass, and then it would be as if the sky had fallen onto the principal’s desk and exploded into a million jagged pieces of blue light.

  One minute the principal would be looking at the nice photo of his children splashing in a motel pool, and the next he would be sitting in the sky.

  Snow in his hair, in his eyes.

  A dust of frost on the dark sleeves of his suit.

  Rick gets up and comes into the bathroom while I’m taking off my clothes in the dark. In the first flash after he flips on the light, I feel like something captured. And his image in my blindness is an x-ray. A negative. I see his bones blaze in the glare, his skeleton standing in the door. I’m naked in front of him—my own body doubled, but brighter, behind me in the mirror.

  “Leila,” he says. His face is a blank. As he loses weight, his eyes seem to creep back in his face like animals retreating to their caves. “You’re having an affair again, aren’t you?” he asks.

  I pick a limp T-shirt of his off the bathroom floor and slip it on over my arms, then look at him. I bite my lip, swallow, and say, “Yes”—feeling merciful, thinking it’s better than the truth.

  “Is it Bill again?” He doesn’t look angry or afraid, just tired. He looks the way my father used to look when he had the first pains around his leg. As if a drink, a pill, a few hours sleep were all he wanted or needed on this earth.

  “No,” I say fast.

  “Someone else?”

  “Yeah.” A whisper.

  Rick exhales and steps back, shaking his head as if to shake something annoying out of his hair. A little bird. An insect building a web. “Jesus,” he says, “Leila.”

  He goes back into the bedroom and sits at the edge of the bed. When I step into the room, he looks up at me. I must be featureless, framed in light from the bathroom behind me. A silhouette. The kind of tracing the TV policemen make around a body on the sidewalk where it’s found.

  “I’m sorry,” I say.

  “You’re sorry,” he says.

  I catch my breath. His voice has changed. It comes from a deeper part of him in this moment, as if it has echoed in his ribs awhile before rising from his throat.

  I lace my fingers in front of my stomach and look down at my feet. They’re shiny, white, cool as two skinned doves. />
  Rick looks at my feet, too. “Leila,” he says, “I can’t keep on living this ridiculous life.”

  I exhale, then, from my nose. Perhaps it’s a laugh. Rick looks at me, quick and angry.

  “You think that’s funny.” He doesn’t raise his voice. “Well, it’s not funny, Leila. Not anymore. I’ve been taking care of you for years while you just drag your body around this town and screw every man who crosses your path. And everyone around here knows exactly what you are and what a dumb fuck your husband is for sticking around.”

  Under the silence there’s an electric hum. For a moment I think it’s coming from Rick’s bones.

  “Look,” he says, apologetic now. “I just want out. That’s all I want. I’m not jealous. I’m not angry. I’m just nothing. Maybe it’s not even your fault, but I’m done with it, Leila. I’m done feeding you and waiting for you. I’m done doing what other people tell me I should do.”

  MY FATHER had been driving too fast for the conditions, they said. He’d been trying to get back to the house before I got home from school. It was February. The roads were slick, and there was too much on his mind. The car spun across both lanes before it hit the median, and then February crumpled up his Ford like something childish in a huge, white glove.

  He would be fine, though. Just a few days in a hospital. Just a simple procedure on his leg, and he’d be home again. Until then I could stay with Miss Lovette.

  After school, she drove me to my house, and we got in the back door with a key we kept hidden beneath a brick of concrete outside. I showed Miss Lovette where we kept that key. Then, when we were in the house, I showed her where I kept my clothes, and she grabbed underwear and socks by the handfuls out of the dresser drawer and put them in a paper grocery sack.

  The house was dark without my father there. Without the TV on. And Miss Lovette seemed nervous. In a hurry. She seemed like a different woman than the one who taught my second-grade class—quicker, less polite than she was when she was at the school. There, she smiled and spoke in a high, singsong voice. Here, she looked harder, out of place. Her voice was low when she spoke.

  We hadn’t taken our coats or boots off, and scraps of gray slush melted onto the floor beneath us. Miss Lovette seemed to shiver in her bear coat. When she had two paper sacks of clothes and my toothbrush, she asked if I could think of anything else I might need that week, and I couldn’t think of anything at all.

  Maybe, then, Miss Lovette smelled old blood.

  I was standing in the hallway when she turned to look at me. The house was quiet and gray-cold. Outside it was getting darker, and the sky looked thick with fog, Brillo blue.

  At first she hesitated. But then she seemed to sniff the air and said, her voice still low and unfamiliar—as if she didn’t want anyone to hear, although no one was there to hear—“Show me where you found your mother.”

  For a moment it was as if the wind had been knocked out of me by wind. As if someone had pushed my face into the freezer, fast. But I moved through the hallway of the house, blind, through a blizzard of quiet, and I opened the door to my parents’ bedroom to show Miss Lovette what she wanted to see.

  It was deep blue in there. The shades were pulled. The bed wasn’t made. The imprint of my father’s head was still pressed heavy into a pillow. Miss Lovette walked into the room with her mouth open.

  Still, she seemed to be smelling.

  I looked up at her face.

  Miss Lovette’s lips were wet, and she looked hungry. But her eyes were narrow. Like someone who imagined being kissed.

  She went over to the bed and smoothed her hand across the rumpled sheet, then turned to me with her eyebrows raised and asked, “Here?”

  I nodded, crossing my arms over my stomach, feeling empty. I remembered my bare bottom in the classroom when Miss Lovette had pulled my underwear down and wiped it with a paper towel.

  The other children had seen that, hadn’t they?

  They’d pushed their faces up against the glass to see it better.

  I thought of my face, screwed up and puffy in the newspaper, the fuzzy photos making me look younger than I was and fading quickly away.

  It was as if I were inside out. Nothing private, not even in my guts. Was I naked, I suddenly wondered, or wearing clothes? Maybe my dreams could be seen hovering above me in my sleep. Maybe my thoughts were all out loud. What difference would it make? Miss Lovette looked excited, sexual, and I remembered how most of the people at my mother’s funeral I’d never even seen until that day. They weren’t crying, either. Instead, they’d peered carefully over the edge of my mother’s coffin. Curious, full of desire. They’d watched me, too, hadn’t they?—though they’d looked away fast when I looked back.

  And only a few days before, an older boy had cornered me on the playground and whispered, leaning into my face until I could smell waffles on his breath, “Your mother was naked with high heels on when he stabbed her and stabbed her.”

  How could he have known?

  That boy made a stabbing motion toward my stomach with his fist while he said it, and I was exposed in my own clothes. Even with my coat zipped up.

  “Is this the same bed?” Miss Lovette asked, looking down at it.

  “Yes,” I said.

  She was breathing hard, touching it, and sniffing.

  “I’m out of here tomorrow morning, Leila. You understand?”

  “That’s right,” I look up, feeling a stab of anger, but it’s dull. I say, “It’s your life. It’s your body.” Then the anger’s gone.

  Rick nods. “That’s right,” he says, “and it’s the same with you.”

  There’s a barn owl outside somewhere. Or an old lady laughing. We get in bed as we always have, but Rick sleeps on his side all night, quiet and still for the first night in years. I keep my arms around him, my body curled like warping wood into his back.

  I can feel his ribs.

  I can feel his spine.

  I can feel how cold the shoulder bones are under the thin skin, how simple what we’re made of is.

  I can feel where the bones are fused to one another.


  Elementary as a kit.

  He is a skeleton, after all. We all are.

  I sit up in the dark to look at Rick’s face, and it’s all skull. A candle flickering behind his eyes, flickering out. I hold him in my arms all night, and he gets thinner and thinner in his sleep. Until, by morning, he’s completely gone. Just some dust, a few dark hairs left on his pillow. T-shirt and boxer shorts lying without his body in them where his body had been the night before. Nothing in my arms.

  I go to sleep again while the sun is coming up cold-steamy, pink against the tooth-rim of the sky, and when I wake it’s two o’clock in the afternoon, and I’m going to be late for work. I hurry to take a shower in water so hot my skin itches afterward, red as meat, and I put a blue dress on over no underwear—a cotton dress with small pearl buttons and a full skirt. No hose. Flat black shoes. I can feel the dress against my nipples. Material slippery and close.

  I open the bottom drawer of my dresser and take the money out of the jewelry box. I look at it, smell it—old green pages—and I wad it into my purse. Today, I think, I’ll buy that flat white thing:

  The thing that’s flashed and receded like a horizon at the back of my mind every day for months. A smoke signal. A flare. Something projected into the air. A missile. Or a weather balloon, moving slowly over the sky:

  Vinyl. Chrome. A piece of bent sheet metal reflecting water, or snow.

  Something carved out of soap, enlarged.

  A sandblasted statue.

  A slab of marble.

  A huge bowl hollowed out of bone.

  When I put the jewelry box back into the drawer, it feels light and empty in my hand. Then I hurry down the stairs and out into an afternoon as bright and vacant as my hope. Hopeless. Hopelessness.

  There’s even a hook of day-moon hanging coatless over me in the sky.

S THE BOY who’d known my mother was wearing high heels when she died.

  He’d known that at first it had looked to me as if she were wearing a red slip pushed up above her breasts, but it was blood.

  I must have told someone. Maybe the police. Maybe the detective who’d rocked me in his lap while I cried—though I didn’t remember telling anyone that.

  I was walking home from school when that boy caught up with me. It was a bright, cool March day. By then I was eight years old, and the boy must have been nine or ten. The snow had begun to melt, but the boy had a gray handful of what was left of the snow—bits of sticks and mud in it. He was wearing mittens and I wasn’t. The boy grabbed the back of my coat and yanked me to him, pushing the handful of snow to my mouth.

  At first I tried to spit it out, but I couldn’t breathe, so I just let him keep the gloved handful of snow, finally, against my face. I opened my lips and let him shove it in, and I could taste it—dirty water melting against my teeth.

  Later, in April, that boy would ask me to pull my shirt up in an empty garage, and I would do that, too. Passive, just the taste of old snow on my tongue. What difference did it make? No part of me was private, I could tell. I’d heard someone say “sacred cow” on TV, and I imagined cows on thrones. Cows with gold shawls over their heaving sides, all animal breath and the dank smell of mashed grass in their mouths.

  But the cows in the fields around Suspicious River weren’t sacred at all, standing stiff as junked stoves and freezers at the dump under a plain white sun.

  The garage where I took off my shirt for that boy smelled like garbage. An animal had gotten into it and clawed open a styrofoam container of old chicken. The thin bones of it littered the middle of a dried puddle of oil, and I stood for a long time with my shirt pulled over my small pink nipples—the place where I didn’t have breasts yet, where I didn’t even suspect I ever would.