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Suspicious River, Page 14

Laura Kasischke

  “Oh, Leila.” His voice is muted in my hair. He slides my body off his body into the grass at his side, eases me onto my back. I feel the earth come up cool and damp through my clothes. He says, “I want to take care of you, precious. I want to take care of you for the rest of your life. I don’t want you to ever be alone again.”

  I close my eyes.

  With each of his words there’s the click of the slide projector. I think I’ve never been in love; am I in love? With Rick, there was never this physical undertow, this dredging of the bottom of my stomach like a lake. With Rick there was only a kind of lull like sleep when I was in his arms. And with the others, just the body—and the body like teeth set on edge, a hiss and a sigh and a scream at the exact same time.

  But with Gary Jensen on my body, there is flash after flash of empty brightness. White air. A square ceiling light. Sun/nothing/sun. Photo after photo snapped of no one.

  I know I am in love.

  He rolls on top of me, and even his thin body is heavy. His weight pushes my weight into the ground. Pure gravity. His tongue pushes into my mouth. His hands are cool, and he pulls my shirt up, my skirt down, without lifting his body from mine, until I’m nearly naked against the earth, shivering, just his body keeping my body warm. He doesn’t even unzip his pants, just pushes up against me for what seems like a long time. He spreads my legs under him, presses against me hard. I can see the muscle working in his jaw like a piece of the machine, but he is blank-eyed as someone in a trance, until I think I can’t keep breathing. The bone of my pelvis bruising under the brass belt buckle. He thrusts against me as if I were not there—violent, but quiet, and then he’s done.

  Saying nothing, he stands up over my body, which is shaking, splayed beneath him on the ground like something shot out of the sky and fallen naked at his feet. My face is full of tears, and my thighs are numb. I am a meal, I think, a picnic. I feel pretty and close my eyes, and when Gary goes back to the car, I open them. I hurry, scramble to put my clothes back on, fingers trembling at the snaps and buttons, afraid he’ll leave without me, and then what would I do? I’d have to follow the river home, and maybe I’d never see him again.

  But when I get back to it, he’s just waiting in the car with the radio on. A guitar screams steel against steel—music like a car wreck or a riot. He has his pants unzipped and he’s cleaning himself off with a red bandanna. “Look at the mess you made, Leila,” he says. He shakes his head. “Man.” He smiles. “You could make a million bucks with that ass of yours, baby.”

  I cannot breathe quietly enough. I am afraid the sound of my breathing will make him angry, will make him sick of the sound of my breathing, so I try to hold it for him.

  Then he snaps the sun visor on the passenger’s side down so I can see myself in the narrow mirror—brown scraps of leaves in my hair. I look scratched, ragged as some animal a hunter has chased out of the woods and into the street. Gary says, “Clean yourself, woman, would you? You’re a fucking mess.” He laughs.

  I feel lucky that he laughs, looking at the mess I am. Lucky to be here, to be alive, to hear him laugh.

  In the middle of the third night after the abortion I woke up burning and soaked, stripped off my nightgown, which was ruined with blood, and lay down on the floor of the bathroom, holding my knees against my chest. I woke up again to my father pounding on the door, and by then I was cold, drenched in sweat. “I’m O.K.,” I mumbled to him over and over, but my teeth chattered. I put my hands over my face when he turned on the bathroom light, and I could see that my fingers were blue.

  At the Ottawa County Hospital, my father sat at the edge of my bed.

  The doctor cleared his throat, and his voice was watery. He wouldn’t look at me. He spoke to my father as if I weren’t in the room, as if I weren’t worth speaking to—so vague to him, a cup of melted sherbet—and his back was wide and white. His hair was wet and white. Speaking to my father, it was as if he were reciting something he knew already by heart: “Your daughter has a perforated uterus, Mr. Murray. It’s not the fault of the abortion as you were thinking. It was the IUD. It was inserted incorrectly, and instead of rejecting it, as it should have, her body pulled it up, into the abdominal cavity.”

  “Is she going to be all right?” my father asked weakly, like a TV with its sound being slowly turned down.

  “She’ll be fine, now that it’s out. But of course there’s a lot of scar tissue. Which might be just as well. She won’t be getting pregnant again at least.”

  My father looked up as if he’d been punched. He put his head in his hands and gasped for breath.

  But I exhaled my life, lying back utterly into the starched white hospital pillows.

  I imagined that IUD like a fishhook—I’d never seen it—caught in my belly, bloodying me like my mother, snagging me out of the cold river water and reeling me up. But someone had decided to toss me back after all.

  FOR A MONTH after my mother died, I woke up every morning on the floor. Cold, a cotton sack of bones.

  I must have fallen out of bed, but I never woke. Just dreamt I was slipping through dark space, naked, a hundred hands touching me as I fell.

  I wasn’t afraid. The noises I heard at night were still familiar: my mother crying, my Uncle Andy humming. Only now it was just the furnace humming, or my father’s radio in the basement weeping with my mother’s voice.

  “This is just a small town,” the Detroit Free Press quoted our neighbor, an old lady I’d never seen before. On the front page of the paper, she waved her hands in gray, photographed air. She said, “What a way to get on the map.”

  Our house looked ordinary behind her, empty, though it wasn’t. And next to our house, a map of Michigan—bloated hand, an arrow pointing north, pointing out the black circle of Suspicious River in it, on the fat pinkie of that mitten.

  No one told me where Uncle Andy had gone.

  Lake of Fire?

  Halloween came and went with the smell of burning leaves in human-sized piles. Though no one came to trick-or-treat at our door, I could hear them shuffling through the neighborhood in costumes. The voices of other children, muffled under masks and sheets, passing our haunted house by:

  The smell of fermented apples, soft and rotten, and the air was like a black orchard, trampled under boots as big as God’s.

  When I looked at my father, he seemed like a ghost now, too. It seemed someone had slipped him off in the middle of the night—like my Uncle Andy—but zipped something entirely else into his skin.

  Expression painted on, head stuffed full of straw. Winter was already blowing in and out of my father’s empty mouth when he opened it to speak. Like a white silk scarf that had belonged to my mother.

  Gary says, “Here we are.” He slips his Thunderbird between two faded yellow lines, then looks at me.

  The parking lot glints with nice cars and pickups, a rusty van with an airbrushed painting of snowcapped mountains on the side. Gary says, “Let’s have a drink and see who’s here.” THE BIG CITY BAR blinks green from a small dark window with a limp curtain in it.

  Inside, the bar is dim and warm. The smell of old beer and sawdust, like every bar up North. There is a couple standing near the entrance, outside the restrooms, arguing. The woman, tiny and pale, with long black hair, leans against the gray wall wearing only tight cutoffs, topless. Her naked breasts are a little shriveled, nipples huge and burgundy black. My mother, I think, without looking at the woman’s face: that casual nakedness, standing in front of a man as if she were a statue, a Venus, a marble madonna, but topless. Without thinking about it, I know, in the very center of my stomach, that when you look at a woman with her breasts exposed, in a public place, on a bright day, nothing good will happen. She is as accessible as something dead, and so are you. Your own body is exposed through your own eyes. The way someone’s soul is always snatched by a photograph—the photographed or the photographer, depending who is weaker. Depending on who pays.

  The man has his hands on either
side of her face, and he leans into her, barking, “What? What did you say?” He’s also thin and small, maybe younger than she is, and not as strong. The woman seems annoyed but not afraid, and she glances at us, a rectangle of sun between her face and the man’s cutting sharp lines of light across her stomach and breasts as the door opens before us, closes behind us. After it’s closed, for a moment I’m blind. The woman says, “Shut up, Doug. Hi, Gary.”

  “Hey baby.” Gary gives her a little wave, and I feel as though I’m following someone important. The man with the key to the place. I feel the way the girlfriends of rock stars look. A little curious, but calm. Look at me, don’t look at me; I matter, and I don’t matter at all.

  THEN IT WAS WINTER. The girl said, “Your mother was a whore.”

  I’d won the second-grade essay contest that day. Something I’d written about the last passenger pigeon, how there weren’t any more in the world once that one died. I’d gotten the idea for it from my Weekly Reader, and I’d stayed up half the night to write it in big block script. I’d wanted to win, and when I did, when my name was announced, there was the grudging applause of my classmates, looks passed to one another fast while I walked to the front of the class to receive the certificate: FIRST PRIZE, with Leila Murray written carefully in black felt pen underneath.

  Then, if I’d noticed, it might have been like laughing gas seeping through the cinderblocks, the cracks between the windows. A green cloud rising from the floor.

  But Miss Lovette asked me to read my essay to the class, and my fingers trembled as I did—paper fluttering in my hands like weak white wings. I was trying to read it loud. I felt my voice shoot to the back wall, a flat echo like the snap of a rubber band against it—while, outside, the snow rose higher and higher and a yellow plow whirred under the classroom window, tossing snow into the gray school-afternoon air. Miss Lovette had a frozen smile on her face when I finished reading. I could tell by that smile that I’d won nothing but the pity of Miss Lovette. She hugged me hard to her soft and empty breasts.

  This girl was the prettiest and smartest girl in the second grade. The girl whose name should have been written carefully under FIRST PRIZE. Daughter of a dentist. Ponytail slick and nearly white as a fall of water. She stood facing me, snow to our knees, and I could feel that snow seep into my socks. The straps of my red boots were broken, and they flapped loose, like the long red tongues of cats as I walked. The girl hissed, “It was in the paper.”

  My mother had been dead two months, and no one had said a word to me about it—not since the police in their dark suits. They’d looked at me carefully, coaxing, slowly, seeming to think I was much younger than I was, a baby, or that I was a fragile glass animal with diamond eyes, something expensive that could be shattered by their voices if they talked too loud, too fast. They’d made me feel precious and tired, and I didn’t mind answering their questions. I could have done that for them for the rest of my life.

  Those policemen circled and touched me when I cried, and they smelled like men. One of them let me crawl into his lap, put my face into the starched white of his chest for a long, long time. Something musky and fresh. Maybe it was just his sweat.

  We sit down at a round table near the back and Gary asks, “What’ll you have?” “No,” he interrupts himself, “let me answer that.” He smiles, squeezes my knee under the table and says, “I’ll be right back.”

  The music isn’t loud, but it is mostly bass, and I feel it in my stomach, under my lungs. The bar isn’t packed, but there’s a small group of men close to the front. A curtain of smoke lifts and closes around them. Mostly young—twenties, thirties—mostly wearing jean jackets and old jeans. There might be a chain looped through with a belt, and keys on that. A few of them look at me when Gary turns his back at the bar, ordering our drinks.

  The men are gathered around the small stage up front like gawkers at an altar—five splintered sections of plywood with a bathroom rug draped over it. I imagine it’s where a woman has been dancing, maybe the woman who was arguing at the entrance. A greenish-blue light bulb hangs over the stage, and dust dances under it now. Maybe there’s a strobe.

  I know what this is all about. I’ve been to a topless bar before. In Suspicious River, there’s a block of them. All with windowed mirrors. When you glance at those bars from the street, you see yourself. Maybe you look disheveled, fat, or embarrassed. I remember sitting near the back with a man’s wide hand on my knee while the stripper stooped and twirled, too far up front for me to see. The man I’d gone there with was divorcing a librarian at the high school, and he’d picked me up in the parking lot there after he’d been escorted from the library by the school’s principal for having shouted at his wife in the library as she scurried away, deeply flushed, pushing a metal cart of books. He’d craned his neck to see the stripper and pressed my thigh at the same time. I felt sorry for that man, but the cocktail waitress, topless, seemed to feel sorry for me. In the restroom she asked me if I was O.K., if I wanted her to call someone to give me a ride home. “He’s pretty old for you, isn’t he?” she asked, and I just lifted my eyebrows as if I were surprised and shook my head no.

  Gary comes back to our table with two drinks. “Jim Beam on the rocks,” he says proudly. “You ever drank that before?”

  I sip it. Warm as cough syrup slipping down. “I think so,” I say, and he looks disappointed.

  “Well. You ever been to a strip joint before?”

  “Once,” I say, and he stops smiling.

  “Jeez,” he says, sipping his drink. Maybe he looks annoyed, but he eases his hand up my thigh. “You done it all, haven’t you?” Someone turns the music up, and Gary has to shout above it. “Who’s been bringin’ you to strip shows, sweetie, your husband?”

  “No.” I lean toward him, nearly shouting to be heard, “Just once. I was in high school. An older guy.”

  Gary shakes his head, mouth full of whiskey, which he swallows, and says, “I knew you was naughty the first time I saw you. Knew you’d do whatever I wanted, baby. I like that.” He puts his arm around me, up under my arm, and he feels my breast. I move away at first, as if to dodge his hand—as if I wanted to or could—but then he reaches up to put it on my breast again, and I let him keep it there. I’m happy, because he’s smiling. Because he’s touching me. He says, “Nothin’ much surprises you, does it?” And I think he sounds pleased as he says this.

  I sip from the drink and shrug.

  The woman we’d passed near the restrooms comes out then, and there’s a weak swell of applause under the booming music. She has her black hair hanging over her breasts now, and she passes close to the men at their tables as she walks to the stage, taking long, loose steps to the music in her high red heels. A few of the men reach out to touch her thighs or her cutoffs, and she lets them, but she doesn’t smile. Neither do they. Some of the men lean forward in their chairs, looking carefully at her, as if they’re memorizing something, or trying to read small print. Some lean back, unimpressed, while the man she’d been arguing with stands in the back drinking from a bottle of beer with long, deep swallows.

  The woman dances for a while in a small circle, lifts her long hair off one breast and shows it to the men, offers it up with one hand. Then she lifts the long hair off the other breast. Finally, she flips the hair over her shoulders and stands close to the edge of the stage, shaking her breasts, leaning forward, and the men don’t applaud—just drink, stare. The music pounds. The woman unzips her cutoffs fast and then steps out of them. Black lace panties under that, naturally. She plays with her nipples while she dances, licking the tips of her fingers first, then dancing her fingers around the nipples in circles while she dances, also in circles. The nipples get hard, briefly, but they go soft and slack again when she stops touching them.

  The woman pulls the panties down to her knees, and her pubic hair is thick. She dances for a while with the underwear at her knees. She stumbles a little when she steps out of the panties, then picks them up and thr
ows them to a guy at a table in front of her. She puts her hands on her hips, legs spread, still dancing, but not well. She’s lost the rhythm. Maybe she isn’t listening to the music anymore. Then she pulls the lips apart with both hands, showing them the pale, shell-pink, and Gary squeezes my breast hard when she does that.

  Faded now, I can barely hear the music either, and I feel surprised when he touches me too hard. Surprised to be alive. I am reminded briefly of my own body, receding in the smoke, the blue-gray haze.

  When the music stops, the woman picks up her cutoffs, and the guy with her panties hands them back to her politely. She walks naked through the bar, but no one tries to touch her as she leaves. When she’s gone, the restroom door closing with a whoosh of air behind her, there is quiet applause.

  “I’ll be right back,” Gary says. “I’ll get you another drink.”

  Now that there’s nothing on the stage to look at, I stare into my glass. Ice melts oily into the whiskey. Maybe I’m already drunk. I feel a little like I’ve been shaken up, myself, in a glass. Gary’s left his pack of cigarettes on the table. I light one, and smoke curls out of my fist as if my fingers are on fire. When I’ve finished the drink, I want another, but Gary hasn’t come back.

  Behind me, there’s only the wall. Cinderblock and beige, and the man who argued with the stripper leans against that wall, his arms crossed over his chest, staring straight ahead, working a muscle high on his throat. I’m the only woman now in the room, and a few of the men up front have turned all the way around in their chairs to look at me. I don’t look back. Once, I saw a show cat on TV. Pure white fur and a rhinestone collar around its neck. Now, I feel like that show cat. Stretching casually. Letting the judges look. I keep my eyes on my empty glass, turn my nails over in my fist to appraise them myself. That cat, licking its paw.