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Suspicious River, Page 20

Laura Kasischke

  Rob leans over me then with his elbows on either side of my face, kissing me with his dry lips. “Don’t worry about her,” he says, sitting up again. But he doesn’t explain. He finishes putting on his clothes, tucks his white shirttail into his jeans, pulls his boots on and tugs the pant legs down over them. Then he blows me a kiss and shuts the bedroom door behind him. Still, I hear her voice rise and fall on the other side. A wind instrument. Someone practicing a clarinet. Sounding frantic, but no words to go with it.

  A few days after my father’s funeral, Mrs. Schmidt said, after breakfast, after Rick and his father had left for the day, stumbling together across the back yard to Mr. Schmidt’s car, taking long steps through the deep snow in their big boots, “You need to think about your father’s house now, Leila. You need to think, about selling it. Or renting it out. It shouldn’t sit empty very long.”

  A silver sun had risen that morning in a clear sky, surprising and blinding us all. I’d thought of my father in a drawer at the morgue: It was too late, or too early, in the winter to bury him, they’d said, and I imagined him in his blue suit on a slab in the dark. Perhaps he would be startled back to life when they pulled him out again into the glare of those lights. A thin, hibernating bear without fur. His white coffin, in storage, would be unbearably bright. The way my own eyes could barely open in the glare of that new day, after so many weeks of gray.

  “Maybe we should go over there today, Leila, and at least bring in the mail. Do you want to do that, honey?”

  I nodded. “I’ll do that,” I said.

  “I’ll go with you,” Mrs. Schmidt offered as she brushed toast crumbs into her palm. She kept a clean kitchen, decorated with flowers and swans. Thick, pink sashes held the curtains apart like braids, or arms, tacked to the window frames. Mrs. Schmidt had never seen my father’s house, and I could already imagine the look on her face when she saw that kitchen. Naked.

  “No,” I said, “I’d rather go by myself.”

  Mrs. Schmidt asked over and over if I was sure, and I was.

  When Gary comes back into the bedroom, I have my blue dress on again, my knees pulled into my chest, my back against the pillow, my feet under the sheet. He has a beer for himself and one for me, just like the first time, when he’d made the joke about my job, that I couldn’t drink on duty but I could have sex with strangers—the time he’d slapped me, twice, across the face, and I’d heard something with silver wings fly over the Swan Motel.

  “Thank you,” I say when he hands it to me. The bottle’s smooth and green. The glass numbs my hand as I hold it.

  Gary sits at the edge of the bed with me, and he fingers my knee, pushes the dress over it to touch the bare, blank face of the knee itself.

  “Look,” he says, “I have to tell you something.” He stares straight ahead at the yellow wall as he says it, and I watch the side of his face. Under his thicker beard, I can no longer see the bones of his jaw. No trace of the scar, like an earthworm buried back in the earth. He draws a breath. “Look,” he says, “my wife is here, and she wants me to go back to her place with her tonight. To see our boy. You understand?”

  He looks into my eyes, and I nod.

  “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He smiles. He says, “I love you,” and he closes his eyes when he kisses me.

  My own are open. There is a bright flash from his wristwatch. 8:12.

  He turns the light off when he leaves, and I sit up in the bed, in the yellow dark.

  My new life, I think. Right now, I should be behind a counter at the Swan Motel. Instead, I’m here—headlights rising and falling against a stranger’s bedroom window and the ink-wet sky, wavering and radiant as UFOs or saints. I hear the woman’s voice once more, a syllable, in the front yard. She says, “Wait.” Boots through leaves. The dog is running free, now, with his chain dragging against the ground. The sound of damp air in and out of its lungs. Then nothing. Rob must have gone, then, too.

  I finish the beer, every drop. There is something comforting in the last sip of something bitter. My own apartment seems far away. The car, the rusty Duster. The Swan Motel. This is like being born again. At the very bottom of the bottle, the beer tastes sweetest—sugar and amber on the back of my throat. Some harvest long ago, melted. A whole bronze season in it. A farmer with a pitchfork smiling beside his sour wife.

  I wait a little longer before I stand up from the bed, open the door, look down the dark hall into the dark emptiness beyond it, and step out.

  THERE WERE ANIMAL TRACKS in the driveway where my father had collapsed—his heart squeezing shut, I imagined, with the sound of rusty hinges on a cellar door.

  Cat feet. Hundreds and hundreds of them in the snow. The glare of the bright sun on those paw prints made them shimmer like new coins—coins and diamond chips scattered all over the snow in the spot he’d died. Someone had propped his shovel up against the fender of his car.

  Coming into the house out of so much light, my eyes could barely adjust, but when they did, I saw nothing I didn’t already know was there. I could have kept them closed.

  I got on my knees and touched one of my father’s bedroom slippers. It was under the kitchen table. Old and plaid. Still warm, I thought, before I realized it couldn’t possibly be. I smelled it, but there was nothing other than rubber sole in there. I’d forgotten why I was in my father’s house. The slipper felt foolish against my heart, where I held it, so I put it back on the floor. Then I remembered the mail.

  The box was stuffed with it, all junk. MR. JACK MURRAY, YOU MAY ALREADY BE A MILLIONAIRE. Mr. Jack Murray, subscribe to TV Guide now and get seven issues FREE!

  But, slipping between the slick pizza coupons, there was an envelope that felt small and plain in my hand. I turned it over. It was addressed to Miss Leila Murray in black felt pen.

  “Hi,” he says when I step into the living room, and it startles me. It’s been so quiet, and I hadn’t heard anyone pull into the driveway. He’s sitting in the La-Z-Boy with his feet up.

  “Hi. I’m Leila,” I say, holding my hand up in the air and waving it in a little circle.

  “I’m Gary’s friend. Andy.”

  He looks uncomfortable, but I sit down on the couch across from him with my legs pressed together, and I smooth my thin dress down over my knees. Maybe he’s thirty, but he looks younger. Brown hair with sloppy sideburns. A weightlifter. He’s wearing a light blue T-shirt with TAWAS BAY printed in white letters across the front, a line drawing of a boat’s sail, and his big arms and chest are pressed across the T-shirt from inside, bulging, making it look like a second skin. Outside, night rustles around the house like something creeping secretly closer.

  My purse is still on the couch where I’d tossed it when I followed Gary into the bedroom, and it looks strangely familiar there, like something I’d owned in another, longer life. Or something I’d thrown away years ago, mysteriously returned. I pick it up and put it in my lap like a pet, a red vinyl pet, while Gary’s friend looks at his wristwatch, watching it. I can hear the watch tick, fast, a tiny machine gun. Or a small white rat scratching rhythmically at an empty tin can. Or rain. And when I unzip the purse I’m not surprised to find the money’s gone. The whole green fist of it. The whole green paper heart of it, gone.

  I think of the ballerina, paused forever in my jewelry box.

  The tinny waltz, smothered.

  Now, the emptiness of the purse makes a sound of its own. A cool yawn. A broom sweeping baby powder off the floor. White wings and air.

  Twenty-three hundred dollars.

  The car keys, too.

  Now, it just smells like old cigarettes in the stomach of that purse, but there aren’t any cigarettes either. No matches. No ashes.

  Suddenly, the diamond-shaped window in the front door fills brilliantly with light. Headlights. The sound of motors, killed, car doors slamming. But as I walk toward the beaming diamond in that front door, it goes black, and I think maybe I’ve finally bought what I’d been saving that money to buy.
br />   When I turned sixteen, I went to the Ottawa County Library to look for my mother. It hadn’t occurred to me before. Then, suddenly, the clear idea of it was right in front of me, obvious as a dead rock dangling in the sky—the thing I’d always dreaded and longed for filling my empty palm with mercury and moon.

  The librarian was a red-lipped man with soft white hair down to his shoulders. Even when he smiled, he appeared to be a sad clown. Delicate, with long fingers, his skin was soft, as if the outer layer had been peeled off, as if he’d been buried in mud or wrapped in wet bandages for years in the library’s basement, then dug up, unwound. He touched my elbow with those soft fingertips when he showed me where the microfilm was kept—in small cardboard coffins lined up in a file cabinet with miles and miles of old newspaper in it. I told him the dates I wanted, and he clicked his long pink nails against one of the metal drawers. “Here,” he said.

  “What do you mean?” I ask. He holds the doorknob tighter in his hand and doesn’t look at me. He moves in front of the door, then, with his wide, weightlifter arms. “Why aren’t you supposed to let me leave?”

  He shrugs, as if he is embarrassed, and says, “This is Gary’s business. I’m just doing what Gary says to do.”

  The voices outside grow closer, and there are more headlights now in the driveway. The sound of bad brakes squealing to a stop. A man laughs. Another shouts, “Yeah!” Someone turns the doorknob from the other side of the door and pushes into it with his shoulder. When it opens, I smell cold air and whiskey, a stiff wind of it rushing past Gary’s friend into the house.

  The man who steps into the living room first has red hair, a quart of beer in his hand, a cigarette in his mouth. I recognize him from the Big City Bar. When he sees me, he doesn’t smile. Half-open, the door is a crack into pure darkness now, and when it’s opened all the way, Gary’s friend turns his back to me with his arms out at his sides like a crossing guard—to keep me from running through that door, I suppose, though I haven’t even thought of running, or why I would want or need to run, or where I’d go if I did, with no car, or money, wearing a thin summer dress on a cold night, lost and obvious as a white rat under thunderous wings and an owl’s black nest.

  I sat on a hard wooden chair in front of the microfilm newsprint, buzzing and glowing warm on my face, and I pressed a button which made the pages whir fast across the screen, like wind blowing evening papers out of the paperboy’s hands—gray headlines and obituaries and comic strips whipping past a kitchen window while an old woman looked out, doing dishes, thinking of something else: whole years. Thin, fragile pages of them, too fast and light to catch, dragged with the rain, the leaves, the snow, through dusk, utterly lost.

  But it was easier than I thought it would be to find my mother there. There she was, a familiar photo—her high school yearbook portrait, black V of her dress, and a strand of pale pearls. She was smiling, a smudge between her breasts.

  And, in another, later snapshot on a page buried deeper in the paper, she stood with her back to a crowd. The faces behind her, small and gray, were smeared with motion. Was it a parade? Was that a float behind her, cluttered with tissue roses? Was a homely prom queen waving over my mother’s shoulder, or was that a plaster Christ stretched out on the cross, hefted into grainy air?

  Whatever it was behind her, my mother smiled widely, not seeing it, into the sun, her own hand at her waist. Her arms were long, bare, and her sleeveless top was scooped low on her chest, which was all white skin. Only her collarbone caught the shadows in front of her, and that was sexy. You could see why they printed that photo over and over in all the papers—Grand Rapids, Detroit, Kalamazoo. One of her shoulders was lifted slightly, a pose, as if she might be joking Take me, I’m yours—if this wasn’t a photo. If she weren’t dead. A glamour ghost.

  And they were right, you’d buy this paper. If you were a man, you might sit in an armchair with a glass of wine or beer while someone fried chicken for you in the kitchen, and you’d look at her picture for a long time. If you were a woman, you might study the photo and wonder why she was beautiful, and whether or not you were. You might pin your hair loose to the back of your head that night after your bath, like her murdered hair in the news, not sure where you’d gotten the idea to do it. But you’d also think, no matter who you were, This is what happens to women like Bonnie Murray. No matter who you were, you’d know her name by now. By now her name belonged to the whole county, like the library, open to the public, like the name of a busy crossroad. Meet me at the corner of blank and blank, you’d say as easy as you’d say her name.

  I looked at the photos but read nothing beyond the captions under them and the headlines, which I couldn’t miss. SUSPICIOUS RIVER WOMAN STABBED TO DEATH BY LOVER/BROTHER-IN-LAW. Bonnie Murray, 24, murdered. CRIME OF PASSION? Suspicious River Murder Victim Was High-Priced Prostitute, Police Reveal. Sang every Sunday in church choir.

  After the news of October, there was the news of November. An earthquake somewhere. A pile of bodies in a ditch in another country, all of them boys in blue jeans and white tennis shoes, T-shirts with the names of American baseball teams in white block letters. Militants, government sources say. A plane crash somewhere. 47 bodies recovered. 87 missing. Scattered over 44 acres of harvested corn. An unidentified woman told reporters, “It just burst into flames above my head. I heard the roar, then looked up. The sky was white. At first I thought it was the sun, that the sun had exploded in the sky.” Nearby, a closeup photo of a high heel and a child’s stuffed rabbit near a huge, silver wing, fallen in the field.

  Then, on another page, I found my uncle, stunned by flashbulbs, stepping awkwardly out of the back seat of a black car with his ankles tethered.

  I stopped.

  Ladies’-man killer receives a hundred love letters a day from women all over the state, prison officials tell reporters.

  I stopped and stared hard at the photograph of my uncle, who looked handsome even in his gray prison uniform, hands cuffed at his crotch. I could see why they wrote to him. His hair was long, though he must have tried to grease it back, even in his prison cell. It still fell damp into his eyes. I could imagine secretaries passing the newspaper between them in a lunch room, their pilled sweaters loose and pink around their shoulders, a cold November pressing down on the long, white bones of their necks—stretching, laughing, the pale fringe of a lettuce leaf left at the edge of someone’s cellophane, a wet crust of Wonder Bread. Maybe they’d take turns reading the article out loud, looking over each other’s shoulders to study his picture, interrupted when some short man in a blue polyester blazer said, Time to get back to your desks, girls.

  In one photograph, my uncle’s eyebrows looked darker than they were in real life, knitted together. He looked desperately tired, ill with desire, like a man who would stab you if you didn’t love him enough. A man who would press your wrist against the wall and tear your blouse if you told him no. A man who could seduce you away from your ordinary husband—your ordinary husband who would never make enough money to take you on vacation somewhere warm, while November curled the edges of the horizon like frozen steam rising from an iron as it passes over a man’s cotton shirt, pinned to the ironing board. Seven months of winter on the way.

  “You better get back in the bedroom,” Gary’s friend says, looking at my bare feet as he says it. A few more men are waiting on the front steps to come in. Quiet, but I can hear their boots on the stoop’s wood planks. I can hear them breathe.

  I turn off the light in the bedroom when I go back, and I get in the bed, roll onto my stomach, and press my face into the pillow. I close my eyes, and I don’t open them when I hear someone open the bedroom door.

  I don’t open them when he sits at the edge of the bed.

  I hear him kick off his shoes. “Take off your dress,” he says, and I roll onto my back and unbutton it, fold it, put it at the foot of the bed, on the floor, so it won’t get wrinkled, my eyes closed tight the whole time. Hovering above my body, ready to be

  Ladies’-Man Killer. There he was. Pleads guilty to manslaughter.

  Killing was accidental, he claims.

  High cheekbones. Boyish, murder-you eyes: He is the handsome, younger one, the spoiled and sexy one with a fast red car, the one who doesn’t care that your husband is his brother. He wants you that bad. He’s a man you will never meet, a man you can think about as you type, or cook dinner in a skillet, or drive your children to school in the dark, in the morning, in November, after another hard frost has finally killed everything.

  Even I could see that, and why those women wrote to him in prison, why they probably sent him tins of oatmeal cookies that never made it past the prison guards. Even I could see that, and I was the one who’d also seen him sitting dull-eyed, with his mouth open, at the foot of a bed, my mother’s blood on his chest.

  I peered into the microfilm—a lost month, a decade earlier, projected and lit up in front of me while the librarian chewed his fingernails in the silence—and, in it, I could also see a hundred women a day sit down with ballpoint pens at their kitchen tables while their infant daughters slept and their husbands read damp newspapers in dens. You don’t know me, they might begin, but I read about you in the Kalamazoo Gazette.

  Those women thought they wanted a man like that, but what they really wanted was to die.

  THE LETTER was written on both sides of one piece of notebook paper with jagged edges. The printing was small and hard, all capitals, and black. It said: Dear Leila, You probably will not remember me since you were just a little girl when I left. But I am your father’s brother. I have just learned that my brother Jack died last week, and I wanted to send you this letter to tell you I’m sorry. He was a good man, and I’m sure you must be missing him. You probably know that I was in jail for eight and a half years. Manslaughter. But I have a new life now in Indianapolis. I am enclosing my phone number if you ever need anything I hope you will call. Despite all that has happened I am still your family. I will be thinking of you during these hard times, sincerely, Andy Murray.