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Suspicious River, Page 15

Laura Kasischke


  I look up when a man with long, red-brown hair comes over to the table, smiling. The others watch him move toward me. He asks, “Can I buy you a drink? Or is Gary going to be right back?”

  I’m surprised that everyone in this bar knows Gary’s name, and it sounds familiar on their lips. I shrug. I say, “I don’t know,” leaning back a little in my chair.

  “Well, he won’t mind me buying you a drink, I bet.” The man winks. “Let’s go sit up at the bar.”

  I follow that man to the bar. A horse to water, I think. He’s tall, overweight, but solid as far as I can tell. So large and thick I feel like a child behind him. I put my purse on the bar and fold my hands together on top of it, and when I glance over the man’s big shoulder toward the entrance, I see Gary. He’s laughing. A blond man with a trimmed blond beard smokes a cigarette next to him, also laughing. And before I realize who he is, I’ve already thought old friends.

  Then I see the friend more clearly, back framed in a square of smoke when someone opens the door behind them. I’m not sure at first, but then I am: the man from 31. I see myself for a moment curled on carpet, tasting blood on my tongue, but I swallow. I say “Thanks” when the bartender pushes the whiskey and ice in front of me. I look over at the man who’s paid for it, slipping his wallet back into his pocket. “Thanks,” I say again, to him this time, and what I feel is gratitude, simple as that. I don’t look over my shoulder at Gary with the blond man again. There are explanations, I think as I sip, for everything. I think of my husband crossing his thin arms—It’s my body, he said. That, I could understand. The span of obligation and forgiveness reaches no wider than the span of your arms. I always knew it, but now I know it.

  The man who paid for my drink puts his huge hand lightly on my thigh—on the thin cloth of the skirt, first, then pushing underneath the skirt. “Sure,” he says, though I no longer know why he says it.

  The bartender’s old. His teeth look soft. He peers down over the bar at this man’s hand on my thigh and smiles with those old dog teeth. I sip the whiskey, ice knocking cold against my own teeth.

  “I know you didn’t want me to,” my father said. He was putting the phone back into its black crib when I walked into the kitchen, his face as foggy as old ice. “But I called Mr. Schmidt, and I told him what his son did.”

  I could smell cut grass in the neighbors’ yard, turning dry and blond in the sun since they’d mowed, and their honeysuckle, also getting old, stinking sweetly in the May heat, like something moldy, bloated. I looked out the kitchen window into a hedge of white lilac, a shock of forsythia beyond that, yellow and fancy as a new dress against a wide blue sky. I hadn’t bled for a week.

  “Why?” I asked. I could tell my father was cool and sweating by the smell of his T-shirt. Cotton, salt, cut grass.

  His mouth trembled, lips pursed, as if he had something half-alive slipping over his dentures, a garden snake. As if he were trying not to cry. He said, “This boy got you pregnant, and now you can never get pregnant again. He ruined your life, Leila. You’re just a baby. You’re just seventeen, and you don’t understand about this yet, but that boy ruined your life. It’s something his father has got to know, Leila. That boy owes you.”

  The river had only just melted—that’s how long it took spring to creep up North. And every year, when it finally did, the season exploded in Suspicious River—half crazed with wildflowers and sun, ecstatic daisies sucking up to it like junkies with their fuzzy yellow tongues. I didn’t feel like my life was ruined at all.

  In fact, I felt as though my life had just begun.

  But I saw my father look into that life, then, like an empty room. No point in buying furniture for it now, he seemed to be thinking. No sense painting something that will always be so plain and gray. I’d thought no baby, ever in the hospital room that night, and I’d felt the whole quiet, shining weight of that pure emptiness for a moment in my arms like a white paper bag swept up by a breeze. But then I saw myself as a woman on film—myself, but someone else. Maybe I was thirty years old, wearing a beige trench coat, waving to a cab. There was something in my arms after all—a briefcase, a book, a yellow legal pad. I hadn’t felt sad when I saw that.

  When Rick called a few hours later, I answered. My father had taken a painkiller for his leg—not the leg itself, which felt nothing anymore, but the ache that hovered like a halo around his leg, the pain that came and went for no reason, the bloodless angel of old pain—and he’d fallen asleep on the couch. Whispering hello into the phone, I looked over at my father to see if he’d been jarred awake by the ringing, but he just slept. I wondered, in the scene of me in the trench coat, where had this heavy, hurting presence of my father been? Who would be here with this man, taking care of him, if I were thirty years old with a briefcase, waving a cab in Chicago, or even in Kalamazoo? He shifted in his sleep.

  Rick sounded as though he’d been crying. “Leila, why didn’t you tell me?”

  I shrugged, but he couldn’t see that gesture through the phone lines, stretched tight between our houses, crisscrossing the town of Suspicious River, taut across the country, hooking our small house up to the White House if we wanted, or a skyrise in New York, where a little old lady in a green silk dress smoked a cigarette, looking out her window to the west.

  Here and there a few crows settled on those lines, then flew up into the blue—a ring of black and, in the air behind them, a trail of smaller, more intense birds, snapping their little wings furiously, looking tossed as a handful of feathers into a breeze which blew them backward as they flew. The windows were open, and the curtains in the kitchen billowed. I could smell violet water, a bright pillar of it, moving through the kitchen, shimmering, then leaving through the open back door, passing silently through the screen.

  “My parents think we should get married, even though you’re not having the baby.” Rick sounded grave, old. He swallowed. “And I think they’re right.”

  MY LEGS were bare, turning pure white in the February wind—stung at first, then numb. It was a marble-heavy morning of old snow, a low sky pressing down dully, like duty, the color of a spent flashcube. I was wearing a purple dress, a spring dress, in this dead of winter, and the broken boots. I hadn’t zipped up the jacket, and I was a halfhour early for school, waiting outside. No one else was there yet, and when I blew on my fingers, they softened and began to burn.

  “You’re early, Leila,” Miss Lovette said. She was coming up behind me from her car, wearing a huge black coat that made her look like a mother bear. She said, “It’s cold. Come in.”

  The lights weren’t on in the school yet, and I felt peculiar, out of place, being there. I’d never seen the school quiet and dim. “You’re legs look cold, Leila. You need to wear warmer clothes.”

  I nodded. I hung my coat on a hook in the hallway, and it looked deflated there. I hadn’t meant to be early or to be invited in.

  Miss Lovette put her own coat in the closet. She flipped the light switch on, and those long white tubes stuttered above us, then buzzed, then hummed. In that glare, my bare knees looked shiny and simple with shame, so I pulled the hem of my skirt down over their faces. The numbness had worn away in the warmth, and I was shivering again, but when Miss Lovette came over to hug me, suddenly I felt I was spinning away from my body, a naked puppet trembling at the end of a string, and, I didn’t mean to, but I was sobbing before I could stop—water ruining my dress, too, a puddle of urine hot under me. It stung the cold skin of my thighs.

  Miss Lovette pulled back fast, a pinched look on her face. She squinted at me as if I were a little dangerous, the way you might look at a dog you hadn’t noticed was injured until you’d already put it in your lap: Then, you see blood under the matted fur. You want to offer whatever comfort you can, but it repulses you, too, makes you think you might gag—so your hand just hovers in the air above the dog.

  I was holding on to the edges of my desk but it was rocking under me. Something inside my body was shaking its way out.
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  Even after the bell rang, Miss Lovette made the other second graders wait in the hall until she’d gotten me as clean and dry as she could. A few of them had their faces pressed to the glass in the door. They must have seen Miss Lovette, then, lift up my wet dress and wipe my bare bottom with a brown paper towel.

  “Hey,” Gary says, slipping onto the barstool next to mine. He glances at the hand on my thigh and then at the man on my other side, the one who is touching me, the one who bought my last drink. My legs feel cold and bare, but Gary ignores the man’s hand and puts his own arm around me. “You see who’s here?” he asks. “Our buddy?” He nods his head in the direction of the blond man from 31.

  “Do you know him?” I try to keep my voice steady as I ask it. I picture my voice as a flat line above my head on a monitoring machine, but there is still life in my breath when I ask it. Emotion. I look down at my hands.

  Gary laughs, “Well, just from the other night. Hey, Ralph.”

  The man on my other side swallows smoke from his own cigarette and says, “How ya doin’, Gary?”

  “Good.” Gary nods, sounding happy. “These mine?” He points to his pack of cigarettes.

  “You left them on the table,” I say.

  His shoulder feels familiar, nudging mine, and my own shoulder feels a little like a muzzled animal bumping, toothless, back into his. I know his body now, and he knows mine. I don’t even care about the blond man from 31. When I blink, I see a barn owl circling out of the sky—a wide-eyed child with prehistoric wings. Brown and slow as a bad decision. I step aside from my body between these two men at the bar, and what I’ve stepped into is pure air. Like that owl. Like waking from a dream when the phone rings, but it’s too late. You’re hovering, already, above your body, your bed, ready to answer and crash wide awake onto the surface of the world.

  “Jim Beam,” Gary says to the bartender as he taps a cigarette out of the pack, and the bartender starts to pour.

  Gary looks across me to the man with red hair beside me. “Am I interrupting anything?”

  “I don’t know.” The man shrugs, looks at me. “Is he?”

  I just look into my glass. I say, “I don’t know.”

  “Well, hell,” Gary says, “then I must be. No problem, baby. I’ll be over here if you need me.” He picks his drink and the pack of cigarettes off the bar in the same hand, and he tosses three dollars from his front pocket on the bar with the other. The red-haired man’s hand moves farther up my thigh.

  “Want to go to the back room?” the man asks.

  I don’t know exactly what he means, but I know what he’s talking about. I say, “Whatever you think. I don’t know.”

  “Should I pay you, or Gary?” looking in his direction.

  I shrug. I say, “Him, I guess.”

  And the man says, “O.K., baby, I’ll be right back.”

  I take a last sip from the drink, and the man is already back. “O.K.,” he says and takes my hand.

  The back room is by the entrance—a small door opens into it across from the Ladies’ Room. I hadn’t suspected there were rooms on the other side of this wall. When he opens the door to let me in, I think of Alice stepping into a mirror as if it were water, surprised.

  But what girl would ever think to try a trick like that? Walking into glass?

  Some part of her already knew there was something there beyond her own reflection.

  Someone had told her, or she’d seen it in a dream. I couldn’t remember the story at all.

  In this back room there’s a brown couch. Not old, but worn. A coffee table, a table lamp. It looks like someone’s den, but there’s no carpet, nothing covering the linoleum floor. The light is gold and warm. An ashtray. An empty bottle of beer. He locks the door behind us and takes his jacket off.

  Now I can see that his arms are even larger than I’d imagined. He isn’t fat, as I’d thought. He’s been lifting weights. Solid muscle and a drab olive dragon tattooed above his elbow. “O.K.,” he says. It’s all he says.

  I start to unzip him, but he pulls me off my knees and pushes my skirt up, pulls my underpants down, and then he moves me back, toward the couch, as if we’re doing a gravity dance, and I sit down. He eases me backward onto the couch, kissing my neck, saying, “O.K., O.K.,” and then he unzips himself and eases himself in.

  It lasts a long time.

  Twice, someone tries to open the door, barred by the lock.

  Finally, someone knocks and says, “Hey. Hurry up.”

  I think maybe it’s Gary, but I don’t recognize his voice behind that door:

  Gravity dance. A dance of gravity. I keep my hands on the man’s chest to keep his weight from crushing me, but I feel small and exhausted, worn out under him. He never looks at me, just stares straight ahead, groaning loud when he comes. Then he zips himself up and puts his jean jacket back on, leaving the door half open when he leaves.

  When another man pushes the door all the way open and steps in, I’m dressed again. He looks around as if maybe he’s in the wrong place. I recognize him as one of the men who’s been in front, near the stage, who’s been wearing a slippery baseball jacket and a cap. He’d grabbed the dancer’s leg when she walked by, but after that he’d just sat slouched through the rest of her dance, as if she’d disappointed him, as if the whole thing bored or insulted him, or made him mad.

  “I already paid Gary,” he says.

  I nod.

  It’s as if the room is suddenly coming into focus, as if it’s my room now. Details. The plaid pattern on the couch is tan threaded through with black, the beige behind it stained, and the paint on the wall behind the couch has wept a suture loose. In that crack, plaster crumbles gray and dry as mouse dust. The ceiling seems to settle a little, easing down on me like a darkening sky. There’s comfort now in the plaid of these couch cushions scratching at my thighs. Down-to-earth, I think, and I know now what it means. Exactly. Gravity; nothing flies. No birds, no moths. No shock, loss, disappointment. No personality, maybe. That focus on physical detail. It’s all I notice now. That plaid, that crack.

  I lean back, and he kneels in front of me. “Oh, man,” he says, hands shaking as he pulls the shirt up over my breasts. “You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen around here. Oh, God.” He pulls hard at my nipples with his teeth, then rubs his face back and forth across my bare chest. The stubble on his chin scratches at the skin there, but I’m glad he doesn’t want me to do it for him. He comes in his own hand, touching himself while he presses his mouth to my chest, sucking, then biting the flesh as if it isn’t real. I barely breathe.

  Gary comes in afterward, looking worried—I’ve pulled my shirt back down, tucked my hair carefully behind my ears. Gary says, “He didn’t put it in you, did he?”

  The sound of his voice—a wavelength of pale light through the dim room—I hear concern behind the accent, behind the anger. A kind of love, I think. I say “No,” and feel that we are partners in this now. I feel relieved to have someone share the burden of what I’ve been doing alone for what seems like a lifetime now, like finally showing the raw throat to a doctor, opening your mouth when he tells you to, saying, “Ah”—a revelation, or a lover’s sigh.

  “Good,” Gary says. “He didn’t pay for that.”

  Rick and I got married kneeling at the altar where, ten years earlier, my mother had been laid out like an arrangement of black flowers in her coffin. My father was wearing the same bright blue suit he’d worn to her funeral—the only suit he’d saved from his salesman days, out of fashion and brand-new.

  Reverend Roberts asked us a string of questions, though he’d already told us how to answer, and Rick squeezed my hand hard when he said, “I do.” His shoulders shook. I felt naked in a white sundress in the church, all shadows and the cold sweat of marble settling on my own shoulders like a fever. Infertile, I thought, realizing I was, walking in front of my father and Rick’s parents back up the aisle we’d just walked down—a cold white ruined bride leading a sil
ent procession.

  The word hadn’t occurred to me until then, and then it seemed to hover over me. And other words—barren, sterile. Husk. I’d never wanted a baby, but now the world would be full of nothing but the babies I hadn’t wanted. Fresh and squirming flesh under the hospital nursery’s too-bright light. My father’s limp was an empty echo behind me as we passed the vacant pews and stepped out into a shock of bright green sky.

  It was June, and the whole town seemed doused with light. I looked at it differently that day, stepping out of the church into the town where I’d spend the rest of my life. The sky was just a backdrop, flimsy—the illusion of depth and space—while a faceless scarecrow stared out of a vegetable garden bordering the church, sun burning dust off the scarecrow’s blank face. In the distance, a shotgun blast punctured the flimsy membrane of sky with a furious hush of gray wings everywhere at once. When I looked up I saw there was a thunderhead swimming toward the church, fast, like a sphinx. It seemed to paddle the air, grazing the trees, with its webbed feet.

  Afterward we went back to the Schmidts’ house and ate white cake. Layer after light, white layer on plain paper plates. Two tiers of nothing but cake with a stiff plastic bride and groom up to their knees in frosting at the top. Rick’s mother poured black coffee for us into brittle cups, which clamored against their see-through saucers when we lifted them to our lips and set them back down again. She smiled at her only son over and over again across the table—a nudge of comfort, encouragement, consolation.

  Rick smiled back, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes. He ate no cake. Already, he was exchanging his body for a thinner one, slipping quietly out of the fleshy boy he’d been into a gradually descending suit of new bodies while we slept. As if no one would notice. Like the Russian dolls that have smaller, identical dolls tucked away in their hollow stomachs. Rick was working his way down to the smallest doll.