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Suspicious River, Page 12

Laura Kasischke


  The women opened our car doors when my father and I unlocked them, and the counselor, her face close to mine, shouted in at us, “Hurry. Come on.” The sound of rain was deafening as static behind them—a rattle, the clatter of small, damp tap shoes.

  I stepped out of the car into the soaking dark, and I couldn’t see anything, just the counselor’s red jacket in front of me and the long braid like a rope ladder down her back. I could smell spilled oil in the parking lot, and then a hand reached through the rain to touch my hand.

  When I turned, I saw the face of the man who had taken my hand, holding it gently, at first, like a lover. He was pale, a stubble of black on his thin chin. He held my hand tighter as I tried to pull away. His suit looked new and gray, and he wasn’t wearing a raincoat over it: That suit will get ruined in the rain, I wanted to say.

  The man fell to his knees in front of me. He was crying, or there was rain on his face. “Don’t kill your baby,” he begged, the fingers of my hand twisting pink and wet now in his, stinging. “Don’t kill your baby.”

  The counselor pushed him out of my way with her hip, blocked a path for me to step around, but I was stunned, looking at that man. His eyes were small and white, but he had them open wide, and they were glassy. He looked drunk, or enraptured. Then someone rushed at me with a poster and pushed it toward my face before I could see what it was. But as the counselor pulled me away in the direction of the door, I looked over my shoulder to see the poster.

  It was a blown-up photo of something small and bloody in a rubber glove—a handful of blood with a small human face, like a cupid. Its little mouth was open, only big enough to slip the tip of a pinkie in. If that was human, the hand that held it was big enough to be God’s. What would you feel, I wondered suddenly, what leftover breath would you feel if you put a finger in that mouth?

  My father was already in the waiting room when I came through the door like something gasped up by a wave, the counselor’s hand still clinging to my own. Where had the other hand gone? His had been clammy as a dead man’s. I couldn’t adjust my eyes to the light, but it was warm and dry in the clinic, and it glowed like pink light filtered through powdered milk, or ashes.

  My father looked at the floor, shook his head. The counselor put an arm around me and squeezed. Then she and the woman who’d helped my father through the crowd went back outside. More headlights. Someone wailed over a megaphone, “Abortion is murder,” and then a grown man’s voice imitating a child’s, “Mommy, Mommy. Don’t murder me. Don’t let them butcher your baby.”

  “Jesus,” the receptionist said, rolling her eyes.

  “I should go,” I said to Gary.

  His head was on my chest.

  I’d had my fingers in his hair, and the hair felt soft between them, like a dark web. I felt blunt and numb between my legs, as if I were in love, but my heart was still beating hard in my chest, and it nudged me to get up. It nudged me toward home, though I could barely remember where that was.

  Gary looked up at me and said, “I want you to sleep here with me tonight. In my arms.”

  “I can’t,” I said, though I wanted to sleep in his arms.

  I felt lazy, stupid, my body strung to his with thick wet threads.

  There was something about his voice that was as familiar as my own when I heard it. Something about the smell of his beard, the soft stitches of black hair across his chest. His body was no larger than mine. He was thin as a child, and when I clung to him while we made love, I could feel his ribs where they wrapped around his back. His sweat didn’t smell like a stranger’s.

  “I don’t want to go either,” I said, “but—”

  He put a finger over my mouth and said, “I know. You have to go. What time will you be back tomorrow?”

  He took his finger from my mouth then and pushed it between my legs. I couldn’t answer, gasping. I couldn’t even open my eyes. He said, “No, Leila. I’ll tell you. You’ll be back here by two in the afternoon.” I opened my eyes and looked at him. His face had moved closer to mine. He said, “You belong to me tomorrow.”

  “It’s my day off,” I said.

  “Not anymore,” he said.

  Rick was asleep when I got home. I took my clothes off and threw them on the floor in a corner of the bathroom, and I put on a T-shirt of his that had been hanging on a hook behind the bathroom door. I pulled the afghan on the couch over my legs, up to my waist, and I woke in what seemed like one flash to the acid smell of coffee.

  It was morning, and Rick was drinking a cup of it in the kitchen when I came in. Sun poured over the white appliances, and they pulsed with light.

  “Leila.” He didn’t look up. “Where were you so late last night? I called the motel and Samantha said you left right at eleven.”

  “I did,” I said, pouring the black water into a cup. Weak steam rose in a rippling stripe from the coffee pot. “But I got invited to a party, and I went.”

  “At the motel?” He looked up then, astonished or confused, and his eyes looked sticky, still, with sleep. His shoulders were bony as a scarecrow’s under the cloth of his thin T-shirt.

  “Yeah,” I said, closing my eyes as I swallowed the hot coffee.

  “Well, Jesus, Leila, you could’ve called.” He sounded exhausted as he said it, and I knew he wouldn’t argue.

  “I know,” I said, “I’m sorry.”

  “You know, it’s not a big deal, Leila, but I don’t like to go to sleep not knowing if you’re coming home or not.” He turned his hands up on the table. “I mean, I really think we should look for another job for you. Something with regular hours so we can have a regular life, Leila. This is ridiculous.”

  “I have to work this afternoon, too,” I said, opening my eyes wider when I looked into his.

  “What?” He made a V with his eyebrows, but he didn’t seem angry. Until that moment I hadn’t noticed how much larger his eyes had become as he’d become thinner. He looked like an animal, starving, but not frantic. Calm, or blank. Like a hungry animal crawling out of a hole into the light.

  “Yeah,” I said, “Millie’s sick.”

  “For god’s sake, Leila, doesn’t Mrs. Briggs think you have a life?”

  “I don’t think Mrs. Briggs cares.” I shrugged.

  “What time are you supposed to go in?”

  “I have to be there by two.”

  “Great,” he said, picking his coffee spoon off the kitchen table, putting it back down. “Great.” He shook his head.

  I looked into my cup. A funnel cloud rose out of it, but I was thinking about Gary Jensen’s hands on me. How he’d spread my legs on the bed in his room and said, “Show me, sweetheart. I’m going to kiss it away.” When he’d said that, my body had felt used up and brand-new at the same time.

  I looked back up at Rick, and his body looked that way, too—something entirely new, remade from the waste of the familiar same.

  I HEAR THEM through the bedroom wall. My mother’s crying.

  “Shut the fuck up.” His voice cracks as he says it. “You stupid piece of ass.” Each word is a breath: “Shut—the—fuck—up.”

  “I’m sorry,” she gasps it, “I didn’t mean for it to happen.”

  “How the hell could you do this to me? How the hell could you do this to me? Jesus, Bonnie. I thought you loved me.” Now he sounds like a child, “But you’re a whore is all. You’re just a stupid whore.” Helpless. He sobs.

  “Andy.” Her voice is high. “Don’t say that. Please.”

  “God.” He’s sobbing harder now. “Look at me. Look at me, Bonnie. I’ve been running around for years with my brother’s wife. Sneaking and lying like a goddamn snake, thinking it’s bad enough you’re still sleeping with him, and I find out you’ve been fucking some lawyer on the side the whole damn time.” He breathes in short, fast stabs, then he continues to sob, “Why? Bonnie? Why?”

  Silence.

  Silence, then his sobbing.

  Maybe she is enjoying his wet gasps. Now she knows he love
s her, no matter what she does, that she is the one killing him.

  There’s a fresh edge to the silence, and my mother slashes it, emotionless, saying, “Andy, I haven’t been fucking him the whole time.” She even sounds impatient. “A couple times. We need the money, Andy, you know that.”

  He cries harder, higher, more like a child, “I’d have given you the money. You didn’t need the money, Bonnie. Just admit it’s all I’m asking you to do. You just wanted to fuck him. That’s all. Just admit it.” But it sounds as if he’s begging. Pure gold fear. A dog about to be kicked.

  Her voice is lower when she speaks again, lower, like something rising from a small lake in the middle of the night. Dark ghost voice. Liquid, and someone else’s entirely. Afterward, she even starts to laugh:

  “O.K.,” she says, “Andy, you’re right. If that’s what you want to hear. I wanted to fuck him, and I fucked him a hundred times and loved it.”

  She doesn’t scream when he slaps her laughter in the face.

  I hear him slap her and slap her again; I hear just him, a low groan in his throat each time he slaps her.

  I listen to it in the green dark of my bedroom as if it were something on a television in another room, canned.

  Or the sound of the radiator kicking off and on.

  The washing machine, rocking hard, learning to walk.

  Not caring whether or not it will ever stop.

  On the way out of the apartment building, I passed the woman from upstairs as she came into the building. She was carrying a plastic bag of green apples. The apples looked small and sour in her hands, and her hair looked gray in the bright light. I hadn’t noticed the gray before. I’d thought her hair was the same color as mine. The woman was pregnant now, too, and she walked with her head thrown back, as if her spine ached, leaning into the emptiness behind her like a swan.

  It was Indian summer again. After the day of rain, another dusty afternoon of sun in Suspicious River. A prism of it moved back and forth across my arms as I drove, and it clamped my wrist for a moment with light, then slipped up my elbow like a bangle.

  I slowed down at the corner as a long funeral procession of Oldsmobiles and Lincoln Town Cars passed, led by a hearse which crept and bulged like a black snake that had just swallowed a small child, whole. I could see a casket in the back behind a ruffled curtain. Mahogany, and bright. Little orange flags with black crosses flapped from the antennas of the marked cars, and those flags filled the air with the sound of snapping wings. I waited at the side of the road, counting, until they were out of sight.

  When I pulled into the parking lot of the Swan Motel, it was 2:30, and I parked as far from the office as I could, hoping Samantha or Millie wouldn’t see the car, or that Mrs. Briggs wouldn’t notice it if she happened to come in that afternoon to reprimand Millie.

  An older woman from Fennville took our day-off shifts, and she had my hours that evening. But if the woman from Fennville saw my car, she’d think nothing of it, I knew. She didn’t notice much. When she wasn’t working part-time at the Swan Motel, she ran a beauty shop out of her basement, styled hair—though her own hair was long and unkempt, hanging down tangled over her shoulders the way I imagined my mother’s Spanish moss had hung sticky and clotted in the Louisiana trees.

  The woman from Fennville complained a lot about the Swan Motel and its guests, with a sneer like someone terribly depressed, someone who’d barely managed to get out of bed that day, who didn’t wash her coffee cup, who wouldn’t pull up the shades in the living room because she hated the weather, no matter what it was—someone who couldn’t help but blame her bitterness on all the smiling people on vacation in their coordinated outfits in Suspicious River at the Swan Motel.

  When I thought about that woman, I didn’t want to live to be forty.

  Gary Jensen was sitting on the hood of his Thunderbird with the heel of one boot up on the fender, smoking a cigarette. He looked up when he saw me pull in, and then he walked around his car, got in the driver’s side; his face disappeared behind the glass as he slammed the car door shut, vanishing, then, into the belly of all that silver, steel, and smooth chrome flooded with sun.

  I ran across the parking lot toward his Thunderbird, so much light bouncing off the car that I had to squint, even with my hand like a visor at my forehead, clutching the red vinyl purse against my stomach with the other hand while I ran. I pulled open the door like a big steel wing, and I slipped into the passenger’s side beneath it, next to him.

  He’d already started the car. “You’re late,” he said.

  He looked perfect, a little slouched at the wheel like a man with supple bones and no worries. Blue work shirt and jeans. The brass buckle of his belt was dull, but glinting. He smiled with half his mouth, and it was sexy and lean.

  Until that moment I’d never felt the need to stare at a man the way men seemed to need to stare at women—women on the glossy covers of magazines, their hips thrust forward and their slick mouths open, or on billboards—women peering suggestively out of television sets while husbands in their armchairs tried not to stare in front of their wives, but did. At the drug store, those men would be lined up around the magazine rack all day, thumbing through slippery pages of women they’d never meet, never touch, whose voices and names they’d never hear: flattened, one-dimensional women who fingered their own nipples and stared back at the nothing. The oblivion ahead of them. Splayed, those women were just angles and lines and light against shadow, and, looking at them myself, I’d remember reading in a social studies book in high school about some lost and primitive tribe who wouldn’t let the white man photograph them, who believed their souls were snatched by cameras.

  These women were proof of that, I thought: The world was nothing but a fake backdrop, as if nothing before or behind them had ever existed, or ever would.

  But when I looked at the side of Gary Jensen’s face that afternoon, I suddenly knew why they stared. Gary gazed into the windshield as if I weren’t beside him, and I understood in a flash how it was to want someone whether he wants you or not—just imagining, under clothes, skin, and how it would feel to press your own skin into it, and under that skin, blood—a human heart bobbing warm and soft, a carnal apple. I knew, then, that I’d want him no matter what. Even if I had to pay.

  Finally, he said, “Hi,” looking over his shoulder, backing up.

  There was an inhalation of breeze through the car windows as we pulled out into the road, and then he touched the bare skin above my knee with the tips of his fingers and looked at my face. He smiled. “Well don’t you just look like a fine little slut this afternoon,” he said.

  I breathed.

  I looked out the window.

  I could feel blood climb my neck, and something hot and liquid seemed to laminate my lungs, like phlegm, or shame. I’d worn a short black skirt and high heels, checked myself twice in the mirror before I left. Tight white blouse with black buttons. I’d felt sexy. Looking at myself in that mirror, I’d thought fleetingly, but with pleasure, of a dry, abandoned field set on fire by a homely little girl.

  “Hey,” he said, looking at me as I turned my face away, “I was just kidding, baby. You look fine.” He squeezed my knee, higher this time. “Mighty fine.”

  Still, I couldn’t look at him. The sky was perfectly blue through the windshield. A shock of red against it in the trees. As we passed the gas station, I caught a glimpse of a girl I’d gone to high school with—a woman now, I thought. She must’ve been twenty-four, by then, or twenty-three. Once, she’d been a pom-pom girl. All breasts and bleach-blond. Now, she was filling up her black Pinto with gas, frowning, her face turned against the fumes. Rainbows of old oil at her feet. I thought I saw a baby strapped into a baby seat in the back of that Pinto. Its mouth was open and pink—yawning, or surprised.

  “Mighty fine,” he said, lifting my hand out of my own lap and putting it on his pants, under the brass buckle, pressing it down on his erection. “Feel that?” he asked. “You must lo
ok hot, huh?” He leaned toward me as the red light changed to green and said, “Look at me, Leila,” his hand still pressing against mine. The car roared when he stepped on the gas, and I looked up at him, and then he smiled. “That’s my girl,” he said. “That’s my precious.”

  Gary Jensen drove straight down Main Street until we were out of Suspicious River. He kept his hand on my hand against him all the time, and I said nothing. It was just my hand. I looked down at my bare knees. Just knees. And I felt tired. When I closed my eyes I saw Rick against my lids. He was naked, a skeleton, with arms crossed over his ribs. It’s my body, he’d said, with an authority that staggered me. The sun felt warm on my legs and in my hair.

  “Leila,” Gary said, “you know, you would give any man a hard-on. You know that don’t you?” He pressed my hand against it more lightly, then harder, and then he shifted a bit in his seat and moaned. “God, baby. I want your body for my own.” He was breathing hard. “Baby, is it mine?”

  I couldn’t look at him again, but I tried to smile ahead of myself, at the sky, the tree, the speed limit sign.

  “God, Leila. What man could resist your body, baby?” He glanced at my legs and then at my face. “I bet many don’t even try to, do they?

  “Do they, Leila?” Pressing my hand.

  Still, I just smiled at my own blank smile in the windshield, but he was waiting.

  “Do they, Leila?

  “Do they?

  “Do they?”

  I bit my lip hard between my teeth because I couldn’t smile anymore. I had no idea what my answer should be. I didn’t know if he wanted my body to be everyone’s body or only his. I didn’t know if I should be modest or bold about my body. I wanted to please him, but I was just guessing at what would please him. A stab in the dark. I shrugged. I said, “I guess not.”

  It was the right answer, and I was relieved when he grinned then and said, “You got the most incredible body, Leila. There’s some men might say you just look like a cheap whore, but that turns me on, Leila. Thinking of you going down on all them guys makes me hard.”