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Suspicious River, Page 10

Laura Kasischke

  The sun is weak, but it shines, and I can feel it flush my face—a cool November sunburn—as I lie on my back on the ground. It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m six. From inside the house I can hear the distant tin of TV—a crowd, angry or ecstatic, as my father and Uncle Andy watch the Lions buck and clap against the Chiefs. After dinner, they’d sat down exhausted on the couch, side by side. My mother had her hands in gray, soapy water in the kitchen, feeling the bottom of it carefully for a knife, rinsing it off when she found it. “Leila, why don’t you go outside? It’s nice outside,” she’d said.

  I am wearing a plaid jumper with an old, shrunken sweater of my father’s. The red sleeves are loose around my wrists, like tongues. I feel how solid and flat the earth is against my back, and I put a forearm over my face. But I can’t smell my father in that red wool at all. Just the rusty autumn sun, winter on the way.

  I stay out there, on my back, until the sun becomes colorless, threadbare, dipping a cool tin spoon behind the branches, spooning a watery glaze across the sky—and when I go back, slip in through the back door of the house, I see them in the kitchen, but they don’t see me. I stand near the hooks where we snag our coats—my father’s beige salesman one, flaccid, close to my face—and I watch them around the corner with my eyes nearly closed, holding my cool breath in my mouth and throat.

  My uncle unbuttons my mother’s blouse, puts his mouth on her breasts. Her skirt is pushed up over her hips with his hips between her legs, moving. His shirttails are down over his thighs, but still I can see the inch of naked flesh there. My mother is pressed up against the sink, her fingers clinging and relaxing at his collar, white as bones in his black hair. I hear the front door open then, and my father hollers, like a question, “I’m back?”

  Where has my father been?

  My uncle pulls away from her fast. Maybe two minutes pass, slow as heavy church doors with a frantic crowd behind them and maybe someone has shouted, “Fire!” When my father steps into the kitchen, he holds up a sack of, what? Beer? He looks hurried, but he stops dead when he sees them.

  What’s different?

  They already have their clothes pieced together, sloppily, but buttoned. Still, it’s there. Electromagnetic. Whether my father notices or not.

  The refrigerator kicks in to its automatic humming, square and white, and my uncle picks a dishtowel off the counter and squints at it as if something’s written there in a small, cramped hand. My mother is already up to her elbows again in cool kitchen water. “Daddy,” I say, and they all turn to see me standing there, and they all look relieved.

  “Hey,” he says to me. “I got the beer,” he says to them, offering the brown grocery bag of it to his brother and his wife.

  The expression on my father’s face could mean anything, I suppose, but I imagine it means hope. For a moment he’s a widower reaching sheepishly into a casket to feel his dead wife’s throat for a pulse: a last-ditch effort. Who could blame him for trying?

  Hope. My father’s expression is blank as the expression of a scarecrow crucified in corn—trampled with crows, their orange wire feet stamping over his face, and a big storm coming, while my father pretends not to notice.

  That, or he doesn’t notice.

  From the back seat of the car I’ve seen those scarecrows in all the fields around Suspicious River all year long—flapping their plaid farmer flannel in the wind, mouths stuffed with straw.

  Even as a child I see that nothing is scared of those.

  Pretend men.

  Ransacked by the seasons, each season with its own slow torture—rain or snow or burning sun.

  Those scarecrows are the ones who are scared to death. Standing out there with their arms outstretched like fathers, stiff and dumb.

  By eight o’clock I’d checked four couples and a family from Chicago into the Swan Motel.

  The family had been a happy one.

  A two-year-old leaned against his father’s leg with his face behind the knee, sucking his thumb with loud sloppy sounds, weaving sleepy in a walking trance, looking up with his eyes half open as if from underwater, as if an inch of Vaseline on glass separated that boy from the world. His small forehead was so pale I could see blood under the thin skin, light blue, and looking at his eyes made my own eyes watery and tired, too.

  It had grown dark before I noticed, and the air in the office was cold. It tasted like river water when I breathed it, and I wished I’d brought a sweater. I turned the heater on and listened to it hum and shudder. Then, a man began to push into the office through the glass door—until he saw the handle, pull—but I knew what he was there for before he even managed to get in.

  “Hi, honey,” he said, taking his wallet out of his back pocket.

  The man was tall, wearing a jean jacket and a red baseball cap. He had big white hands, perhaps he was handsome. Thirty-five, I guessed. Blond hair, trimmed blond beard. Six feet tall. “Can I get a room?” he asked, leaning across the counter.

  “No problem,” I said, “You don’t have a reservation?”

  “No. Did I need one?” He sounded worried.

  “No.” I shrugged. “We have plenty of rooms.”

  I took a check-in card out of the drawer.

  He cleared his throat and inched closer across the counter, his chin in his hand, gold watch ticking at his wrist. He said, “How about reserving some personal time with you, sweetheart? Is there plenty of that, too?”

  I held the pen in air, hovering over NAME on the check-in card, then I looked at his eyes. Weak blue. I said, “You don’t need a reservation for that either.” I tilted my head toward him, maybe smirking. “But it’ll cost you.”

  “How much?” He lifted his blond eyebrows, nearly invisible, as if he were amused.

  “Well.” I had this part memorized, “The room is sixty dollars. I think the company would be worth that, too. Don’t you?”

  “I sure do,” he nodded and grinned.

  He told me his name was Barber, Charles. I wrote it on the check-in card and then he paid for the room in cash and said he’d give me my own sixty dollars when I came on over to 31—a room I’d given him generously, a room with a sliding glass door to a patio only a few feet from the river itself. He hadn’t asked to be on the river, and he wouldn’t be able to see the swans at night anyway, but I thought maybe he’d like to listen to the river splash past his glass door like a frantic swimmer as he slept. He looked to me like the type of man who might like that—a hunter, maybe, or a helicopter pilot.

  “See you in a minute,” I said.

  I locked the cash drawer and put RECEPTIONIST WILL BE RIGHT BACK on the counter, then took the phone off the hook, turned the heat up another notch, hoping it would be warmer when I got back. I stepped outside, and the air smelled moldy and cool, thick as moss, and I felt it crawl across my back and chest. I crossed my arms over my breasts, holding my shoulders in my hands as I ran around the back of the motel into the damp grass there.

  Back there, I could hear river and, beyond it, highway. The sound of tires and wind. There were no stars, just a low frayed blanket of clouds cold in the sky. I rapped on the plate glass of his patio door, and he slid it open for me.

  “Here,” he said, handing me the sixty dollars, but he seemed angry to be giving the money to me. He seemed different than he’d seemed in the office just minutes before. Not so casual, not friendly, as if a twin had taken his place—this one all business, grudge, spleen.

  I slipped the money into my shoe, which was damp from the grass, and I could feel a cold numbness, like river, settle itself into the white flesh of my feet.

  It was cold in his room, too. He pulled the curtains, then came up behind me and grabbed my hair, yanked my head backward until he’d pulled me to the floor. He straddled my hips and held my wrists against the carpet. I could hear it out there, churning and wheezing, when he spit in my face.

  He held me to the floor with his weight, tore my blouse and came on my bra, then he slapped me so hard I could taste ba
d coffee on my molars. But it must have been blood. I’d bitten my tongue. When he got off of me, I rolled onto my side and held a hand over my face until I felt I could stand up, wiped him off my breasts with the edge of the bedspread, fixed my blouse the best I could, and left.

  Outside again, the river was invisible in the dark, but I could feel it swell and sink beneath the lawn as I ran back to the office, as if the earth were a membrane, a blister, filling up fast with water or blood, as if I were running across the back of a bruise, thinking it was the world.

  It was a three-hour drive to Grand Rapids, a two-lane highway through a tunnel of pines. A deer ran across the road outside Ottawa City, white tail flagging and falling in front of our car, then vanished into the woods on the other side of the highway, and I slowed down after that, afraid I’d come that close to hitting another. I’d been so near to that one I could see the sleek muscles tensing on either side of its ribs as it ran.

  My father was asleep with his mouth open in the passenger’s seat beside me. The weather was cool for May, but bright as milk and shimmering with new leaves. Further, then, outside of Ottawa City, I saw two black puppies sprawled in dirt at the side of the road beneath some dusty wildflowers wagging baby blue above their corpses. The puppies looked peaceful there, like boots, not bloody and ruined like roadkill. They looked as if someone had flung them, dead already, out the window of a slow-moving car.

  Here and there a turkey vulture soared and spiraled. A crow landed on a telephone wire, buoying it with black weight, while the milkweed pods just nodded at each other in ditches, dumb as swans.

  The cauliflower fields between Suspicious River and Grand Rapids were dank that day, and every few miles there were clusters of small migrant shacks huddled at the edges of those fields. No windows, and their plywood sides had gone gray-green, maybe rotten, through the winter and spring rain.

  Soon they would be back—dark-haired children licking popsicles and thin men with straw hats scattered around the shacks. Occasionally in the summer a migrant family might be seen at the grocery store in Suspicious River, looking shy and tired under the bright lights in the narrow aisles crowded with cans, holding tightly to the little ones’ hands. But they were seen rarely, and never anywhere but the grocery store—except out there, in those fields, like a human crop.

  The migrants had quit coming into Suspicious River and the surrounding towns for anything other than emergencies and bags of bread three summers before when a Mexican boy had been beaten and left to die after a fight at Trim’s Bar & Grill. The fight had started at the pool table and ended in the alley between the bar and the branch library—a small room filled with old books that smelled like wet hair and fire-salvaged dresses behind a plate glass window. Just that one Mexican boy—seventeen, the paper said—against a gang of white drunks. He died, slowly, later, in the Ottawa County Hospital of massive head injuries, and the attitude in Suspicious River seemed to be that it was that boy’s own fault, being beaten to death—an accident, like falling off a roof—for having come downtown at night. For having asked for a beer in a bar.

  It was the biggest bar in town, and that night the owner, Trini, had been there herself. She was an old woman by then, a grandmother who wore her long white hair in a braid pinned at the base of her neck in a tight circle, a blue feather stuck into it on special occasions. She only came into the bar on weekends. Then she’d take a seat, reprimand the bartender once, drink a White Russian, hobble out to her long, pearl-gray Lincoln Town Car, and drive back to the nice retirement village on the river where she rested, in peace.

  Trini had even been there when the fight broke out, but when the police came around her retirement village asking questions the next morning, she wouldn’t give them a single name of a single man who’d been in the bar when the boy had been hauled out the door—grunting, vomiting blood before they’d even stumbled to the alley. All the men in Trim’s were locals that night, except the dead Mexican boy. Well known, regulars, and there was a relief that spread through the town like a minty sigh when their names weren’t printed in the paper, never mentioned, never even rumored about at the drug store. Everyone knew one of those old boys at least, or one of their wives, or their mothers—blue-haired and knitting on a porch next to yours. It was said that boxes of flowers and chocolates were sent to Trini for her loyalty, and she told the other old ladies at the retirement village that she’d defend any white man, no matter how bad he was, against any Mexican or Indian or colored with her life.

  Time passed. The boy was taken away somewhere and buried, and no one was ever arrested, no trial ever took place, and Trini died, still peaceful, in her bed that winter of pneumonia—suffocating sweetly, bird soul stepping out into the moist fog of her own lungs, blurred, with Morpheus bearing a torch for her through town before they slipped away together, no expression on his face.

  But there was a big smiling picture of Trini in the paper the next day above the obituary, the names of fourteen grandchildren were listed, and a large cement angel with concrete wings, too heavy to fly away, was erected above her grave.

  When my father and I got to the Grand Rapids city limits, we had to pull over on Division and look at the map to see where we were and where the clinic was.

  “Here,” my father said, pointing to a thin gray line. “Here we are. We’re almost there.”

  The clinic waiting room was pink and empty, and the woman at the receptionist’s desk looked happy to see us. She Smiled a lot with long wet teeth and looked me straight in the eyes, called my father Sir, asked if we wanted any coffee, and we did.

  My father fidgeted with his watch, winding. He was wearing a thin plaid cotton shirt with a white T-shirt underneath, and he looked old. Maybe even poor, with his short hair over his ears and his heavy black shoes—the one on his right foot scuffed with dust from dragging his dead leg. The chairs we sat in were overstuffed, and my father couldn’t seem to get comfortable in his, sitting so low. When the receptionist handed each of us a styrofoam cup of bitter, scalding coffee, she said the nurse would call for me in a minute, still smiling widely. I could smell peroxide. When I looked over at my father, he was wiping something invisible out of his eye with the tip of his finger. When he noticed me watching him, he opened his mouth. Then a woman spoke my name.

  “I’m the counselor,” she said, and smiled, though the corners of her mouth turned down when she did.

  I followed the counselor’s black braid into a small purple office without windows. It was cluttered with books and fancy stuffed animals, brand-new and immaculate. A walrus. An exotic-looking polar bear with a smaller bear in its arms. She collected endangered species, it seemed. There was a poster on the wall of an old woman in a long black dress, skipping rope, and I imagined it was supposed to make me feel good—this old woman so full of life, this hopeful future in a long black dress waiting for me with a rope. The office was warm and dark, and the counselor’s voice sounded distant, though she was only inches from my face as she spoke.

  Leaning forward, the counselor whispered was I sure this was what I wanted, and I felt sleepy. Did I have any problems at home? Had I told my sexual partner? Was I scared? Did I feel sad about this? Did I want to talk about that? Did I have any questions?

  I tried to think of a question to offer into the silence. I looked up and asked, “How big is it?”

  The counselor raised her eyebrows. “What? How big is what?”

  “The baby,” I said.

  “Oh.” The counselor shrugged. She held a hand up and pointed to the tip of her pinkie.

  I looked at my fingers, which were longer and thinner than the counselor’s, and cool.

  The counselor sighed then and said, “Usually on Wednesday mornings the right-to-lifers camp outside. They know that’s the day we do the procedures. If they’re here—which we expect they will be—there will be some staff outside to walk with you and your father from your car to the back door of the clinic. If you don’t see us, just wait in the car, with the
car doors locked. We’ll get there. We’ll be keeping an eye out for you.”

  “How much will this cost?” I asked, whispering.

  The counselor looked at me a little sad then and smiled. “You don’t need to worry about that. The secretary looked at the income statement your dad filled out, and you qualify for aid. You don’t have to pay.”

  I didn’t want to cry, but I did. I looked at the counselor’s poster again, the one of the old woman skipping rope, and I imagined, by now, that old woman had to be dead. The purple walls throbbed around me like kindness, like kidneys, and I felt sick. She handed me a tissue, and it smelled like wet white roses, and it felt damp before I even wiped my eyes.

  I COME INTO THE KITCHEN in my nightgown. The red rosebuds on it might look like petals of blood from a distance, and the lace around the wrists still itches. I never get used to that lace.

  There’s sun coming up through the kitchen window, turning the cold February air to tin. These mornings are tinged with something steel-bright, and silver polish, and it hurts my head to smell it. Waking every February morning into that smell is like breathing frost from the glass coolers at the supermarket. A mouthful of frozen smoke.

  My mother is there, sitting in my uncle’s lap with her arms around his neck at the kitchen table, and she doesn’t move, doesn’t even look, when I walk in.

  “Morning, sunshine,” my uncle says, and I just stare at him.