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Suspicious River, Page 13

Laura Kasischke

  I pleased him.

  I looked out the window again, feeling better. We were nearly as far as Fennville, and the pine trees shivered in the breeze like poisoned arrows. Poisoned arrows, I thought. Poisoned sparrows. A huge bird circled over the highway in a funnel of air, tunneling further and further down to earth, slow as a bad idea or a sharp, black kite. He said, “You going to go down on some guys for me today, Leila?”

  We pulled off the exit to Fennville, and Gary turned left, tires spewing up gravel and crunching it like jaws. I’d never been down that road before. I had no idea where we were.

  Still, his hand on mine.

  “Huh?” he nudged. “You know you’d like that.

  “You’d like that, Leila. I know you’d like that. There’s nothing wrong with liking that, baby.

  “Leila? You gonna turn some tricks for me today?”

  I swallowed and squinted—just dust in my left eye, or an eyelash swimming loose across the pupil, turning the world in that one eye to water.

  “Answer me, Leila.” He squeezed my hand so hard against him that it hurt, little bird bones. “Are you gonna, or do you want to go back?”

  I shrugged again, again not sure what I should say, feeling naked and ashamed, but I tried to smile.

  He pulled over then and unzipped his pants, pushed my face hard into his lap, holding onto my hair. I thought I’d cough, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t even taste him. I didn’t even need to breathe. I was that far away, barely tethered to myself by a thin, white thread—though Gary was pushing, alive, in total control, taking over for me. I recognized my body as I hovered above it, but it wasn’t my body. It was just a glimpse of someone I’d known once, changed—like the pom-pom girl at the gas station. I closed my eyes. Afterward, I wanted to be slapped, but he just kissed my numb lips softly.

  It wasn’t enough. I wanted to hurt, the way that blond man in 31 had slapped and dragged me back into this world. A newborn. The way Gary had, that first time, knocked me into my skin from the oblivion where I’d been—seeing stars, bloated, colorful planets, comets dematerializing as I passed back into the atmosphere, bruised, landing on his carpet in my red shoes. I wanted something to suck me into my body, knock me back to earth, make me feel. I was high, like a white moth caught in a gust of wind—helpless and thrilled at the same time, farther above my small hometown than I’d ever dreamed of being. I was too precious, too delicate and bright-winged now, too much sweetness in me, like a wedding dress on a laundry line, that moth landing in a swaying ocean of lace—or a clear plastic bag of sleep, opened, sparkling in the breeze. Like Rick, all crisp bones, ready to be blown away. I wanted to plunge down into the dirt. I dug my nails into his neck, and he snapped me back by the shoulders with his hands. He didn’t slap me, though I was gasping for it, bending closer. Instead, he murmured against my neck, into the curve where it met my chest, “God Leila, god, I’m falling in love with you.”

  My eyes stung, my heart was a poisoned sparrow. I wanted to throw myself against the windshield glass, then, like a bee, stinging and droning myself to death against the impenetrable sky. But he’d turned soft while my heart fluttered in its bloody nest. Something passed the car, and the hood of it flashed with light: It was a trailer with a white horse lashing its tail at a cloud of dust behind it.

  I was cold, naked to the waist on a table. A nurse, the one with the jaw like a man’s, was squeezing my hand. The whir of kitchen machinery between my legs, and I heard my mother scream, perfectly, above me. From the round ceiling light, or from the huge glass jar of cotton balls on the counter next to the tissue box and rubber gloves, I heard my mother scream, “You’re killing me.”

  A last electric hum, and it was done.

  Quiet, shining, empty weight, and that round light in my eyes.

  “Are you all right, sweetheart?”

  The nurse leaned down to me to say it, and the light behind her head blacked out her face. I didn’t say anything, but I held tight to the nurse’s hand. She said, then, “It’ll just take the doctor a few more minutes to put the IUD in, then we’ll take you to another room to rest.”

  Rest, I thought.

  Water was running in another room. From one room to another room. From a distant source, fast, maybe miles and miles away, and the rush of it passed through pipes in the wall near me, sounding pressurized. A river. A warm flush. The doctor cleared his throat between my legs and prodded me open with his rubber gloves and with something metal like the barrel of a gun. A door, half closed—he was propping it open, saying nothing. I couldn’t see him, and I thought of the dentist, his face close to mine while he ran his fingers over my teeth. Our breath on each other, mingling—his, airways warm and yellow—and I’d close my eyes so the dentist wouldn’t have to look into them while he leaned seriously across my body, into my face.

  But the IUD felt like a fishhook going in, and I caught my breath. Snagged, I thought. The ceiling light seemed to reel me up out of darkness, blinding me with air, as if I’d suddenly been born—wet with sweat, not screaming, spilling bloody onto a stainless steel table into a stranger’s sterile gloves. And I never did see the doctor’s face—just his back as he left the room, the loose blue surgical scrubs hanging off his bony shoulders, angular as a mannequin.

  The nurse left, afterward, too, so I could put my clothes back on. I stood up and dropped the white hospital drape on the table where I’d been lying. The table was wrapped in white paper, like a mummy, a gift, or a steak. I slipped a spring dress with pink flowers over my arms, and then I held tightly to the edge of that table so I wouldn’t fall, and I touched myself between the legs before I slipped my underwear on. Blood. On my fingers. On the linoleum under me. I took a tissue out of the box on the counter near the glass globe of cotton, and I leaned down to clean up the floor. Glare, a rush of liquid in my ears and then the rush of an empty cup. The blood was nearly black on the tissue, and my chest ached.

  In the room where the nurse led me to rest, a girl was crying softly to herself while an older woman, the girl’s mother, I thought, squeezed her knee as they watched a beautiful blonde mouth words about bleach on the TV. A white sheet flapped across the screen. The blonde’s teeth flashed. Pristine, or sterile. The sound was turned all the way down. I looked at the mother with her daughter for a while, and when I looked away from them, they looked at me.

  The counselor came in, smiling shyly, like the hostess of a disappointing party. She was wearing a thick purple sweater that looked homemade. She handed me a Dixie cup of purple Kool-Aid with a napkinful of Wheat Thins, and I could feel blood coming out of me faster—my own blood passing out of me, spreading warm through the Kotex between my legs, then turning cold into the world.


  SHE SCREAMS, “You’re killing me.”

  I sit up in bed when the damp smell of leaves presses down into my sleep like a slinky piece of sky.

  It’s October, and I’m seven.

  Black wings, black fur, mulch outside in the midnight blue-black as grass. The clammy hair of a pumpkin, all guts in the carver’s hands. A slash of moon in the crack of curtains, and the musky smell of an animal’s stomach.

  I’ve smelled those guts before: once, when my mother cut open a yellow melon, and it was rotten—and once while the neighbors cleaned a doe in their back yard the second day of hunting season.

  That tearing sound of a small-toothed comb through long blond hair when they opened the doe. Dogs sniffing around with their hot, hollow breath while it swung from a rope and ran with rusty water—though the dirt soaked it up like an old blanket, old leaves turned to rags, wet for a while, then stiff with it.

  I follow the scent to my parents’ room. I see my uncle, first, sitting at the edge of my parents’ bed. Blood on his white T-shirt. It’s steak pink, and it smells like mud and meat, tang of iron in tap water, a dark layer of decay just beneath the ground.

  My mother is in a red silk slip on the bed.

  A red silk slip yanked up over her b
elly, just covering her breasts, naked legs. Black patent leather heels on her white feet. Naked arms. Black V of hair between her legs. Mouth open. A pink froth.

  But it’s blood, not a slip, sleeving down over her breasts like silk.


  SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL—like a mannequin in her casket, which was quilted in satin and flashed its glamorous hinges at the church ceiling. She was wearing her favorite black dress, a sweep of chiffon, light as crepe or charred lace over her long legs. Nails painted dusty rose. A string of pearls around her swan-white throat. When flashbulbs snapped in my face, they left black stars behind my eyes, and each star had a thin filament of light in the middle, like the bright spine of a moth.

  I stood with my hand in the minister’s in front of the church, and I cried gently while they carried my mother down the stairs into a purple late-October afternoon—two men on either side of the casket. I could hear my mother shift inside, and someone rushed in to photograph my tears:

  There I’d be the next day in black and white on the front page of half the newspapers in the state—my face screwed up and ugly with sobs. They’d quote Reverend Roberts saying, “Bonnie Murray was a member of our church since she was seventeen. I don’t care what else she did, she had the voice of an angel, and the person who did this to her will be punished for all eternity in a lake of fire.”

  I imagined my mother with Uncle Andy there, in eternity, the lake on fire.

  She’d walk across the water with her arms outstretched.

  She’d be wearing a white choir robe, and it would be in flames, like awful wings.

  I don’t know why, but I start to cry.

  Gary pulls over on the road into a dirt circle beneath some trees. Suspicious River runs back there—the very water that rolls past the Swan Motel all day. Through Fennville, through Ottawa City and Black Springs, to the huge cold blue of Lake Michigan, and then?

  I can smell water, and I want to know where it goes.

  He puts his arm around me, and I’m happy to have an arm around my shoulders, which feel cold and bare. I can smell him, too. Smoke and soap. I feel my stomach throb like a heart full of want and blood, or a lung of smoke. I want him with my stomach. Hunger, and emptiness. I like the way he smells, as if he is a meal.

  “Leila,” he says gently, “Look at me.”

  I can’t.

  “Look at me,” he says and takes my chin into his hand as if I am his child.

  But I’m ashamed for him to see me cry, to see my face puffed up, slick with tears. My makeup must be running, my skin gone gray as something old and melted. When I try to turn my face toward the car window to hide it, he holds my chin harder. He says, “I haven’t been very nice to you so far today, have I?”

  I just shrug. There’s wind around my ears like a cool, churning bath. It’s an apology I don’t need to hear. Instead, I want to be touched. That tug of the stomach. My uterus, maybe, I think. Maybe it’s the cool breeze in my guts, but I feel opened, my insides gently exploded and exposed.

  “Well, I’ll tell you why,” Gary sighs. He moves his hand from my chin, drops it to his lap, and looks out the windshield ahead of him. He takes a deep breath and says, “I was mad at you, Leila, that you went home last night to your husband, dammit. I wanted you to stay at the Swan Motel with me.”

  When I inhale, I’m still drowning in my body’s water—tears and snot, and I’m trying to bury my face in my own hands now, thinking he wanted me.

  He wanted me.

  He wanted me all to himself.

  It’s why he’s been so cruel.

  Gary reaches into his breast pocket for a cigarette and offers one to me, lights them both with a single match between us, and the little flame moves from my face to his like a tiny, blazing ladybug before he snaps it out quick with a movement of his wrist. The car windows are rolled up now, and the air around us fills with smoke, which dries my eyes.

  Gary inhales and turns to look at me. “Isn’t that stupid, Leila?” He swallows, looks away, “I guess I felt like you didn’t trust me or something, you know? I felt like you should trust me, ‘cause I kicked that guy’s ass for you in 31. You know? But now I realize how dumb that was. Why the hell should you trust me? You don’t know me from Adam.”

  He looks at my face again, more closely. He says, “But, Leila, I feel like I know you. I feel like I know your heart.”

  When he says that, he puts his right hand over his own heart and blows a gray stripe of smoke into my hair. “Leila, do you forgive me? Do you forgive me for being—I don’t know—distant with you this afternoon?”

  I nod my head, which feels weighted with the smoke. I remember how he came back to the office flushed, how he buttoned his own sweater up over my ruined blouse. Like a father, he’d proven his love. I whisper, “Yes.”

  He seems relieved, then, and says, “Let’s get out of the car a minute before we get goin’ again, O.K.? I just want to talk to you and hold you where I can look at your pretty face. It’s so damn beautiful out. But not long, O.K.? I got to take you to Ottawa City this afternoon and show you off to my friends. O.K., beautiful? O.K.?”

  I smile and wipe my eyes with my wrist. There are tangled veins like thin blue yarn just beneath the skin, also thin, the color of skim milk. The veins are so close to the surface, so nearly exposed, that I can barely stand to look at them. Sometimes I can’t bear to feel my own pulse under that skin, at the crook of my neck, that blood throbbing under gauze, sickened by the thought of my own fragile membranes, my blue sap bubbling. Seeing that fork of veins, I know someday I’ll die, as everyone does, but next to Gary I feel warmer, and alive. I step outside, and Gary takes my cool wrist in his hand.

  It’s a canopy of red in the branches over our heads, gold. The light is hennaed. The color of my hair. I feel pretty when he looks through a cool burnish of leaves at me. Two squirrels chase each other through high branches, chattering, and the sun pours lavish onto their copper fur. Like my hair, which he touches with the tips of his fingers. I feel beautiful because he wants me, and the river shivers and ripples like a black sheet, a wet velvet dress.

  Gary lies on his back, and I crawl on top of his body, put my arms around his neck, lay myself out flat on him, pushing my hips into his. His brass belt buckle sticks soft and dull into my stomach. A rush of blood, a runnel of wetness, warm fluid and desire between my thighs. He closes his eyes, hands at my waist, and I put my head under his chin. He’s warm and solid as earth beneath me, and the sun is warm on my back. The slow rise and fall of his breathing lulls me, as though I’m on the deck of a ship in still, calm water. The blue work shirt smells like him. His heart under there, inside a cage of bone. His thin ribs. His hands on my back, no larger than my own. His arms around me, no wider or longer. Even his hips fit against me. He’s my height, my length, and my body feels safe with his, as if I am desiring myself, as if there’s only one of us to please. I say, “I’ll stay with you tonight if you want me to,” and I lift my head to look into his eyes.

  Gary pats my hair, easing my head back down to his chest. “We’ll see what happens,” he says. “Tonight’s a long way away.”

  Now, I feel naked, ashamed. I feel he’s seen the muscular redness under my skin, the yellow fat, draped with that chaos of veins. I whisper, “I just thought it’s what you wanted.” There’s shame in my stomach, too—shame expanding my bladder. Shame in the surging river. I say, “It’s what I want, too,” apologizing for my shame.

  He clears his throat and says, “Tell me something about you, baby. I don’t know nothin’.”

  I close my eyes and the light behind them is white as a slide-projector screen, a white slide projected. I can’t think of anything to say about myself. It seems to me he knows it all, whatever there is worth knowing. He’s licked my breasts. He’s held my hair in both his fists. Although I’m lying down, I shrug. I say, “I don’t know what to tell.” He waits. I offer, “I was born in Suspicious River.”

  “What do your parents do?” h
e asks.

  Again, the white slide, the white slide, another white slide. I don’t want to talk about this today, there’s so little to say, but he slips his hand under the waist of my skirt and pulls out my shirt. His palms smooth the flesh there, hard. At first it’s cold, the flesh, exposed—the air coming cool off the river. But then his skin warms mine, and I say, “They’re dead.” The naked skin feels almost hot beneath his hands.

  “How’d they die?”

  I shrug again. I say, “My dad had a heart attack five years ago January. He was shoveling snow.”

  “Shit,” Gary says, shaking his head back and forth against the ground. “That sure happens a lot. I had two uncles who went that way. Damndest thing.”

  The way he says this makes it simple. A bald fact: a routine. I gain courage from this. I say, “And my mother died when I was seven.”

  “Oh baby, that’s sad,” he says and puts one hand in my hair, kisses it.

  I close my eyes tight. For these kisses, I’ll tell him whatever he wants to know. I’ll remember details, specifics, names, places, dates, if he’ll just slip his hand into my shirt. If he’ll tell me he’s in love with me, I’ll show him the bed where my mother died. What difference would it make? She’s dead, and I’m alive. “How old was she?” he asks.

  “Twenty-four,” I say, “same age I am now.”

  When I say that, my mother’s face flashes on the screen. Her mouth is open, as if she might say something, or sing, but I open my eyes, and Gary’s beard is what I see. Getting darker every day. Spreading down his neck. It hides the long white scar that divides his face like a seam—the dark side from the other, brighter side.

  He says, “So she was real young when she had you. Seventeen?”

  “Yeah,” I say. He makes tiny circles with his fingers on my shoulder. I go on. My voice is a little louder. “I don’t have any brothers or sisters. Just me and my dad after that.”