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Suspicious River, Page 11

Laura Kasischke

My uncle’s face is my father’s face, prettied up. A little feminine, but his eyes are narrow. When he lifts his dark eyebrows, my uncle is an actor. When he bites his lower lip, he’s a young soldier in an old movie, a stubble of beard on his chin to let you know he’s not a boy—though he still looks sweet and fiendish as a boy.

  “Can’t you be nice to Uncle Andy?” my mother asks and pulls his face a little closer to her own with her fingers clasped at his collar.

  My mouth is empty when I open it. I just keep my gaze on him. My eyes blink like a plastic doll’s.

  “Look at me, young lady,” my mother says, but I don’t.

  She says, “You look at me. You be nice to your uncle Andy.”

  My mother stands beside him then, sets the edges of her top teeth against the swordtips of her bottom teeth and smiles as if she could hiss. There’s ice melting outside, and it runs down the kitchen windows in sparking threads. My mother is wearing red high heels that match her extraordinary lips, a black skirt and white blouse, and it isn’t even nine o’clock on a Saturday morning yet.

  “Don’t worry about it, Bonnie,” my uncle says.

  “No.” She turns to look at him, her hands on her hips. “I will not forget about it. This little princess needs to learn some manners.”

  She looks at me. Her voice is stretched tight as a telephone wire, and she says, “You apologize right now to your uncle Andy.”

  “No.” I pout it. I look at him hard and blank, and my mother leans down then and grabs my nightgown, balls it into a fist, and drags me closer to her. Her eyes are wide and blue. She slaps me and slaps me again—a windmill twirling its stiff arms, a sailboat spinning in little manic circles on a small, calm lake. I’m caught in a funnel of feathers and violent air. She slaps me with her small white hands until he pulls her off of me.

  “Now apologize,” my mother says to me, breathless, glaring over his shoulder.

  “Bonnie.” He takes her arms in his hands, shakes her once, gently, tries to meet her eyes with his.

  “I will not just let this go, Andy. She needs to learn. She’s got to have some respect for you if you’re going to be her father. She’s got to learn to be polite.” My mother’s voice trails higher and higher, a white kite slipping into a thin white sky.

  My uncle drops her arms and his shoulders sag. “Bonnie.” He shakes his head, “Don’t say that again.”

  “What?” she asks, her mouth open wide, then her teeth closed together, “What?”

  “Don’t say I’m going to be her father.”

  She inhales. “Why?”

  My uncle sits back down at the kitchen table and puts his hands on the Formica, shakes his head, looks up at her staring down at him, “Because it’s not right.”

  “What the hell are you talking about?” She grips her own arms in a cage of fingernails, hard.

  “Jesus, Bonnie, stop it,” he says.

  “Stop what?”

  “Stop talking about this.”


  He looks down at his hands then, still shaking his head, biting his lower lip. “Because you’re my brother’s wife.”

  My mother takes a step back, inhaling sharply, then breathing hard. She exhales through her nostrils, her eyes widening, and then she smiles with one side of her mouth and spits, “Did you just fucking figure that out?”

  “Bonnie,” he says.

  My mother walks past me fast, the sound of heels and breeze.

  My uncle stands up, follows her into the bedroom. There’s screaming behind the closed door. Something thrown and broken, someone, muffled, struggling, and I hold my breath so I won’t cry until there’s silence. Then I climb onto the kitchen counter and take down a yellow plastic bowl, pour Cocoa Puffs and milk into the bowl, and spoon them into my mouth.

  The cereal tastes good—something dark and sweet in sour milk.

  When I got back to the office I dialed 42, and Gary Jensen answered before I even heard it ring.

  “Leila,” he said, “Is that you?”

  “Yes.” I hadn’t meant to cry. “I need some help down here.”

  “What happened?” he asked, loud. “Jesus, Leila, did some creep do something to you?”

  “Yeah.” The word was a sob. “Gary, my shirt’s all torn. Can you please bring me a sweater or something—to wear over my blouse?”

  “Oh, baby, yes,” he said. “Yes. I’ll be right there.”

  He was breathing fast when he got down to the office, but it took him a long time to get there. By the time he hurried in, I’d stopped crying, but I knew my face was a mess. I crossed my arms over my chest so he couldn’t see the ruined blouse, but he came behind the counter and pulled me into his arms, making small noises in his throat like awful grief while he did, petting my hair, making little circles with his fingers on my back.

  I leaned forward, weakly, and put my face into the white cotton of his shirt and smelled smoky leaves and deodorant inside his clothes. I looked up and saw the scar just under his beard. The beard had grown even darker in the few days I’d known him. His lips were thin and dry, and when he kissed me I thought I tasted medicine in his mouth. His eyes were nearly closed, a fringe of lashes, a dark stitching of brows.

  Then he helped me slip the brown wool sweater he’d brought with him up my arms, buttoning the buttons up the front for me as if I were a child headed out into the cold without a lunch, my arms useless at my sides. The sweater was his, and it nearly fit. Afterward, I clung to him. I couldn’t help it. And I began to cry again.

  “Look,” he took my hand and led me to the vinyl couch, gently pulled me down to sit beside him on it, put both his arms around me and pulled my face toward his own narrow chest. He kissed my hair and cleared his throat. “Look,” he said into it, “Leila. It’s very important that you tell me who did this to you. I won’t do anything crazy, sweetheart. But I got to know.”

  I was quiet a long time. When I closed my eyes, for an instant I saw an attic full of violent secrets with wet black wings. But I took a deep breath. “31,” I said, “Around back.” I pointed toward the river with a cold, trembling hand.

  Gary Jensen kissed my hair again—a copper shower curtain of hair, tangled as a dragged doll’s.

  Then he said, quiet, “You go clean yourself up a little, baby. I promise I’ll be right back.”

  Gary kissed my lips. He even slipped his tongue between my teeth and moved his hand over the brown wool sweater, his, and felt my breast, rubbed his jaw against mine, and I felt his beard like dry mown summer grass on my neck.

  The nurse eased a needleful of blood out of my arm, shook the vial, and then touched my hand and said, “How old are you?”

  “Sixteen,” I said, “I’ll be seventeen next week.”

  “Have you ever been pregnant before?”

  “No.” I shook my head. I thought the nurse would know that from the form I’d filled out in the waiting room.

  How many pregnancies____live births____stillbirths____


  I’d written zeroes, oval and careful as eggs, in every blank.

  “Well,” she asked, “You’re sure you are?”

  “Sure I am?”

  “Sure you are pregnant?” Her smile was patient.

  The small room we sat in was clean and empty enough to ice skate through in one clean swoop. It was where the smell of peroxide had drifted from, into the waiting room, and it reminded me of frogs. It reminded me of the biology teacher at school pinning one to a board, slicing its gray stomach open in a smooth movement like a grin and, in there, those miniature coils and pouches of frog guts—dry, clean, pink, and perfectly formed.

  The light above us buzzed.

  “Yes,” I said, “I’m sure.”

  “Well, sometimes girls think they’re pregnant, but they’re just late. That’s why we take the blood.”

  I said, “Oh.”

  “Have you decided what kind of birth control you’ll be using after this? Did you talk t
o the counselor about it?”

  “Yes.” I cleared my throat and looked over the nurse’s shoulder to a poster of a skeleton on the wall. There were arrows pointing to each of the bones with the names of the bones in small black letters under the arrows. I said, “She said they could give me an IUD.”

  The nurse made a check mark then on a piece of paper, and I looked down at the pencil in her hands. The pencil was yellow and stunted, and the nurse’s hands were small, too, and chubby, though she was tall, and her body was muscular and lean. Her chin was square, like a man’s.

  “They can put that in right after the procedure,” the nurse said, looking up at me. “The doctor will have a note of it. You shouldn’t eat too much before the abortion, O.K.? But you want to have a little something in your stomach at least. Toast, maybe, O.K.?”

  I wondered where I’d get toast before seven o’clock at the Motel 6, but I nodded. I hadn’t eaten breakfast for eight weeks, since I’d first felt the strange new thing bloat in me, sickened with it, dizzy. I thought about my father then, alone out there in a soft pink chair in the waiting room, waiting.

  “Did the counselor tell you about the protesters?”

  “Yes,” I said.

  When my father and I stepped out of the clinic, there was too much air and light. It was four o’clock in the afternoon, and the sky was May-blue, too stone blue to breathe.

  Gary Jensen came back to the office one hour later, exactly, and he was smiling. He held his hands up as if to show me they were empty. “I didn’t hurt anybody, honest, but that motherfucker won’t be back around here, baby. You can rent that room to someone else.” He laughed. “I gave him a nice big mouthful of the carpet, too, before he left.”

  I could smell whiskey between us like old apples. Headlights rose outside and receded. Someone leaving. My whole body sagged, or settled, like an exhausted barn.

  Then a dark car pulled into the circular drive. The thump of a bass coming from the stereo in it. Gary aimed a finger at me like a gun and clicked. “Remember,” he raised his eyebrows, smiled, “You’re comin’ up to 42 when you’re done.”

  I nodded, tried to smile in return, while a man in a blue suit eased past Gary.

  “Excuse me,” the man said.

  Gary nodded at the man, aimed at me again with his finger, and said, “Check her out. Ain’t she a hot little number?”

  “She sure is,” the man said, but he sounded bored, or annoyed, looking at the brown sweater I was wearing. His blue suit looked expensive, and he had a black briefcase in his hand. The silver handle on it flashed like a handcuff. The man was tall, with graying hair, distinguished you would say. Refined, like processed flour. Next to him Gary looked even more like a con man, an eager mechanic, a minor league baseball player, a little drunk.

  Gary said, “She could make you one satisfied customer,” and smiled widely at me before he left.

  After what had happened in 31, I was afraid, and I felt a hot trickle of acid in the soft red purse of my stomach as I knocked on the door. But when I’d seemed reluctant to come up, the silver-haired man had offered me a hundred dollars, said he’d heard about me from a salesman he worked with, that he’d never stay at a dump like the Swan Motel if he weren’t there specifically to see me, or someone like me. I’d stood mute and staring, feeling stiff and ugly in the brown sweater behind the office desk. His face was shaved so close to the skin it looked like chalk, or the underbelly of a woman’s wrist. His eyes were plain, indifferent, and he spoke to me with the kind of privilege I’d always understood as money.

  There was nothing I could do, I thought, but what I always did.

  The lamplight was pale and made a white zero, like a single headlight, on the ceiling above it. I felt stunned by that small light when I stepped into his room, and I noticed the black briefcase, unopened, on the bed.

  He was still in his blue suit—a respectable older man with something pricey to sell, something good, American-made, built to last. He didn’t touch me or even loosen his tie, but he wanted me to kneel down in front of him while he sat against the sink so he could watch himself slam in and out of my mouth in the full-length bathroom mirror behind me, and I did.

  IT’S NIGHT, dark as death in my bedroom, but lights blaze through the rest of the house.

  It’s summer, and the windows are open.

  I hear the rustle of leaves like the chattering of a thousand women’s teeth, and the sky is far away. It sways with stars—a black hammock sagging under the weight of space. Lights cross it and fall from it. Flash, spiral. A meteor. A firefly. Lightning in another state. Missiles, crescents, asps. Wind gathers itself up in a warm corner and billows my bedroom curtains, sings through the screens.

  “How could you do it, Bonnie? How could you fuck someone else?”

  My uncle isn’t shouting, but there’s a swell of energy like an x-ray, an ultrasonic surge that seems to vibrate the wall between us like a tuning fork. A radiant zap.

  An angel with a small electric motor buzzing in its guts. A froth of movement and light.

  There is fear in my mother’s voice when she says, “I didn’t.”

  Smell of metal. A cat growls in the neighbors’ garden.

  She says, “I lied.”

  But the blond hair on my arms shivers with static and rises.

  My uncle says, “I’ll kill you.”

  He must be touching her because she gasps.

  He says, “You know that.”

  She whimpers behind her teeth.

  He says, “I’ll cut your pretty throat.”

  I know the moment he touches her neck with his hands because my own eyes dilate in the dark, and I imagine a hum of light blazes above our house but no one sees.

  Samantha came in at eleven o’clock with her thermos of grapefruit juice and her stack of mothers’ magazines. She smiled at me and said, “My turn, I guess. Oh well.”

  The roots of Samantha’s hair were brown, a stripe across her skull like a scar where the blond was growing out. Her cheeks were flushed, and she kept one pale hand on her big pregnant belly all the time, making slow, soothing circles with her fingers.

  I took the red purse out from under the counter and said good night.

  Gary was watching TV when I got to his room. At the foot of his bed, President Reagan looked worried and tired, confused, answering questions with a stammer, shuffling a piece of paper nervously on a podium, but Gary turned the TV off and took me in his arms. He took my hand lightly, and I sat on the edge of the bed beside him. I closed my eyes while he unbuttoned the sweater he’d loaned me and slipped it down my arms. Then he unbuttoned my ruined blouse. He unsnapped my bra, and I stood up so he could unzip my jean skirt, and I stepped out of it after he eased it down my legs and then eased my legs out of my plain white underwear.

  There was a chill in the room, and I could feel my skin pull in closer to my bones with it, tight around my nipples, which he tasted with his teeth. But I felt far away from my skin, and, at the same time, only my skin where he kissed it. The rest of the world seemed to shrink and recede like a comet’s tail from that room, something dropping vaguely into the shadows out there—a metallic bird slipping out of the sky. I knew Rick would wonder where I was.

  Gary Jensen looked at me and said, “Leila, you are a goddess.”

  Something caught like a fishhook in my throat when he said that. I couldn’t swallow. I felt like something feathered and skinned being dragged out of a river, breathing. He ran his hand up my thigh, pushed a finger into me and said, “I want you to show me every place that motherfucker touched you, and I’m going to kiss it away.”

  That night I thought about Rick while I lay awake in the double bed next to my father’s double bed in the humming dark of the Motel 6. I could hear a dog bark in a room somewhere above us—maybe a puppy. It sounded excited and wild. The bedspread was thin and the sheet was tucked so far into the end of the bed that I could barely pull it over my shoulder, so I slid down, shivering.

sp; I wondered what Rick might want to name a baby if he had one. I imagined Rick bouncing a baby on his knee. I watched them together, from a distance, on a plaid couch—the baby laughing, Rick’s hands under its fatty arms, a bright look on both their faces. Then I saw myself with the baby, rocking it in my arms, looking at its moist gray eyes. The baby smelled like oranges, or candied aspirin, but I was wearing my mother’s black, strapless heels, the patent leather ones she was wearing when she died. I held the baby close to my breasts, wearing those heels, and suddenly I was standing on ice, trying to keep my balance, but I couldn’t. I felt the baby slip out of my arms before I woke up that morning to the tiny bells of the travel alarm.

  My father woke up with a red crease slashed across his face from the pillow. Even after we got into the car, it was still imprinted there. The road was slick with rain and it glistened like snakeskin. There’d been a storm the night before, and the wrecked splendor of apple blossoms and magnolia petals was scattered like chicken feathers now on the hoods of cars. Spring, skinned, was plastered to the ground.

  We were blocks away from the clinic, and I could already see the headlights and hear the commotion. A megaphone. Someone’s voice, frenzied, crackled over the quiet damp. When my father and I pulled into the driveway, a surge of bodies pressed up against our car, pink palms slapping at the windows. The sleeves of their jackets were slippery and bright. My father whispered, “Jesus Christ.”

  We locked the car doors quickly after someone tried to yank the passenger side open, while the windshield wipers gasped back and forth, hypnotic in front of our faces. There were two women standing at the back of the clinic, close together beneath a black umbrella near the glass door. When they saw us they dropped the umbrella on the concrete and ran toward our car with their heads bowed. One of them was the counselor I’d met the day before. My father just stared straight ahead into the inky rain.