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Suspicious River, Page 17

Laura Kasischke


  The boy’s mouth hung open. “Take off all your clothes,” he said.

  Behind him I could see two other boys watching us through the garage window. I took off all my clothes and let them fall around me like chicken feathers onto the greasy floor of that garage.

  When I got home, my father said, “Hi, Leila sweetie,” from the couch. He’d come home from the hospital after his accident dazed with pain, and now he was always home. Dulleyed and groggy. No longer a salesman. One hundred percent disabled, the paperwork said.

  “You’re an hour late,” Millie says, “I tried to call your apartment, but no one answered. I was just getting ready to call Mrs. Briggs.”

  “I’m really sorry,” I lie, “I had car trouble. I ran out of gas.”

  “Well,” Millie says. “Can you come in an hour early tomorrow to pay me back?”

  “Of course,” I say, “Sure. Of course.” But I know full well that tomorrow is a blank—a wide, white, drive-in movie screen shut down in an abandoned field: some empty place you glimpse from the highway as you speed by. Tomorrow, I won’t be in at all.

  “I’m going home then,” Millie says, still sounding angry. “Pretty dress.” She nods at my dress, and I notice that Millie’s hair is combed carefully and smooth today. She looks prettier, younger, than she’s looked in a long time—as if her heart were pumping a bit more blood. Or like someone just coming out of a damp cellar after spending a week or two down there. “But aren’t you going to get cold in that thin dress?” she asks, looking like a mother. Like my mother, I think, though Millie is younger than I am: My mother would be, too, I realize then with surprise, and I’m transfixed for a moment by Millie’s skin, which glows. She purses her lips and says to me, “It’s not summer anymore, you know. Did you even bring a sweater with you?”

  “I don’t care.” I shrug, wanting to be honest.

  She stops in front of me and looks sharp into my face. “Are you O.K., Leila? I don’t want to get involved in your personal business, but people are talking about you, you know. It’s only a matter of time before Mrs. Briggs hears about it.”

  I look more carefully at Millie, into her eyes, to see if she wants the truth or the lie. I want to tell the truth, but her eyes flicker away from mine and back, so I give her the lie. “I don’t know what you mean,” I say, and she looks relieved. She straightens her spine until she’s taller than I am. I cross my arms over my breasts as if they’re bare—loose and cool under the light cotton of the dress. I feel protective of them.

  “Yeah you do,” Millie says, bolder now that she knows I won’t tell her what she doesn’t want to hear. She slips her jean jacket over her plaid shirt, and I know she’s glad I lied. It gives her sole ownership of the truth between us like a veil of white lace. Her veil, but I can see her through it. Her voice is thin and tight as an electric wire, though she isn’t angry anymore. She says, “You’re making some extra money around here with a lot of different men, and it’s perfectly obvious to everyone why you’re coming in here half dressed and you hardly ever answer the phone and your car is parked in the lot all day on your day off. But it’s none of my business, Leila, and I don’t give a damn about Mrs. Briggs and the Swan Motel. I just hope you’ll be O.K. I hope you don’t get hurt.”

  I shrug for her. I look at the clock. When she grabs my arm, I stare at her hard: I don’t want to hear it, and I won’t. I can tell by the turn of her mouth, the hesitant teeth, that she wants to say something about my mother. Something like Do you want to end up like your mother? Millie was a girl here when that happened, too, and no one ever forgets a thing like that.

  But Millie can’t say it.

  Again, too true.

  Then, a breeze over Suspicious River throws a handful of pebbles and branches on the roof of the Swan Motel. I imagine Millie’s hesitant teeth are a handful of those small stones. She can’t say anything with those.

  She squeezes my arms. Under her breath, like a secret, she says, “I hope you don’t get killed.” And then she leaves.

  After I put my purse under the counter, I dial 42.

  “Yeah?” Gary answers.

  “It’s Leila.”

  “Hey precious. How’s my baby?”

  My pulse starts to beat like a tiny bird heart in my left wrist when he says that. I say, “I’m O.K. I’m here. I’m down here in the office.”

  “Great,” Gary says. “I got somebody who wants to meet you. Why don’t you get your pretty little butt up here?”

  “I better wait,” I say, opening the guest book. But there are only two reservations in it. “Oh,” I say, “it’s O.K. I’ll be right there.”

  “That’s my girl,” he says, hanging up.

  It was after school. June. The trees had exploded like a can of green confetti, leaves shaking their streamers at the blue sky and air. There was a crescent moon rising up the horizon in the middle of the day like a dangerous kite.

  I was seventeen, tired, a mediocre student in a small-town high school, headed, really, nowhere at all. I dressed simply, in pastels and short white socks, like a child, and looked even younger than I was. The kind of girl you might never have noticed if you didn’t know that her mother had been stabbed to death by a lover, naked and bloody, in high heels, on a Tuesday night.

  But it was a small town, and you’d have known it whether you wanted to know it or not. You might even have heard she’d been tied to the bed that night, that she’d liked it that way, that there were other men there when it happened.

  Maybe the sheriff.

  Maybe a high-stakes gambler from out of the state.

  If you weren’t at the funeral yourself, you’d have heard from someone who was there that Leila Murray never cried—even when they lowered her mother into the dirt.

  Eerie. It had been eerie. As if that girl were in a trance.

  If you’d been a teenager when it happened you’d have heard, and maybe even have believed, that a green light hovered over the cemetery every night. That a man from Chicago paid the local florist to leave a dozen fresh red roses on her grave every other day.

  Someone might have told you that Bonnie Murray was a Playboy centerfold once.

  Or that she’d been born in a whorehouse in New Orleans.

  You’d have heard, maybe, that Leila had watched her being stabbed. That they’d made her lick her own mother’s blood off the knife.

  Sometimes, seeing that girl, awkward and small in her secondhand sweaters, seeming average as real life, you could barely believe all these stories about her mother. But there was something else you’d know—from living in Suspicious River so long:

  That it’s the ordinary-looking houses that aren’t.

  It’s the good dogs that go mad on a Sunday afternoon in April and tear an infant apart.

  Only fences help. And keeping to yourself.

  They said Jack Murray had cut off all his wife’s black hair before they buried her. He kept it in a Ziploc bag, and he slept with that package of hair at night.

  That day, I was walking in the direction of home after school when a car pulled up beside me.

  “Hey.”

  It was Greg Adams. His parents owned a laundromat, and he had to work at it on weekends. Making change. Hitting the coin slot hard with the heel of his hand when it was jammed. Sometimes I saw him there on Friday nights when I went to wash our towels and sheets, my father’s socks and shirts, my pastel sweaters gently. But Greg Adams had never spoken to me before—just watched me, sometimes, or so it seemed, while I folded, sorted, read a magazine. “Hey, Leila,” he said that day, “want a ride?”

  “O.K.,” I said, and I got into the blue Ford that belonged to Greg Adams’s father. I could smell an old cigar like a small snuffed fire in there, and I could see clouds through the tinted windshield, getting whiter and fatter as summer got closer.

  Greg drove slowly, looking at me occasionally from the corner of his eye. He took the back roads, and there were purple weeds back there in the swampy ditches, catt
ails lolling under the blue sky, seeming to gag. He unrolled his window and I could smell June like a fresh white bed—soapy, starched. A film of lint, ash, stardust coated everything in sight, and when we were halfway to my house, he stopped at the side of the road, under some trees, and he swallowed.

  Greg Adams was stocky, with a pale shaved beard. He looked dumb, and his teachers believed he was, so he had a history of getting in trouble at school for doing nothing. He just seemed to bother the teachers, the way he’d look straight ahead at the chalkboard, taking no notes, his lips parted, clenching and unclenching the stubby pencil in his hands. His forehead was wide and always a little damp with sweat.

  “Look,” he said, “I—” He cleared his throat. “Some of the guys at school said you would do it.” Then he looked at me, scared, pulling back a bit as if he thought I might hit him. I felt sad about that.

  I leaned over and kissed Greg Adams with my eyes open. His mouth was small and sour, but he kissed back hard. He seemed timid when I started to take off my clothes, so I just leaned back and closed my eyes, as if I weren’t there at all, so he wouldn’t have to be shy. Above us, there was the sound of something hovering around the trees. The sound of scissors cutting cloth. Maybe the whacking blades of a helicopter.

  He did what he wanted, and it didn’t last long.

  “This is Leila,” Gary says to a man who’s drinking whiskey out of a plastic glass, sitting on the edge of the bed.

  Gary is wearing the same blue work shirt, the same jeans. Blond boots. But his beard is fuller now. It makes his face look round, and less hard.

  “Hi, Leila,” the man says, standing up.

  Gary kisses my neck, dry and quick, and says, “I’ll go hang out in the office for you and make sure everything’s cool, O.K.?” Then he looks at the man, who’s running his fingers through his gray and spiky hair, “Take your time, but don’t take too long. Right?”

  “Right,” the man says, winking at Gary.

  Gary closes the door behind him in a short gasp of cooler wind.

  The man’s left eye wanders a little when he looks at me, I think, but I’m not sure. He must be sixty. Thin and worried-looking. He might’ve been a shoe salesman, a minister, retired early, I think. He says nothing, but he feels all around my dress as if he’s lost something in it, and there’s something frantic about it, even when he pushes me back on the bed and pushes the dress up to put himself in. Then he bites at my lips like someone who’s never kissed, and I think of Gary, in the office, looking after things for me, like a mother.

  THAT SPRING I’d often wander to the river. I was eleven, dreamy, and always cold—thin white-blue fingers. I’d be humming an improvised tune against my small white teeth, as if against a plastic comb. The tune was a bit like London Bridge, but slower, falling down. I held the sound of it on my tongue like a small music box buzzing in my mouth.

  To see me walking down the sidewalk, scuffing my unlaced tennis shoes in the dirt, looking up at the sky, my long hair copper-colored and tangled by then, you might have mistaken me for a blind girl. Something missing. But you’d have known me, known I wasn’t blind. You’d have remembered when my mother sang in the church choir, when they’d carried my mother out of the house like a feast laid out on a table under a long, white sheet. I’d walked by your house twice a day for months, even Saturdays and Sundays—as if no one had told me the school was closed. Leisure. Nowhere to go. Nothing in my hands—no books, no gloves—maybe making a loop around your half-dead pear tree, a sapling you planted years ago that got smaller and sicker every summer—just a fistful of blossoms now in the front yard and one tough, stunted pear per year. I’d lean back, holding on to the thin trunk, and sway around it like a Maypole. You’d have known who I was and exactly what was wrong. “That’s Bonnie Murray’s daughter,” you’d say when you passed me in your car, windows rolled up tight on a brisk, silver, scalpel-sharp Saturday morning in early spring. “Poor little crazy thing, no coat in weather like this.”

  Sometimes I’d wander past the Shell station and a man in an orange jumpsuit would come out of the glassed-in office and say, “Hi, Leila.” Once, he gave me a quarter, and he winked as I turned it over and over on the tips of my fingers. That coin caught the lukewarm, northern spring sun like the flat wing of a jet.

  “Going to the river?” he asked.

  “Yep,” I said.

  “Down by the trestle?”

  I nodded.

  “It’s nice down there,” he said. “You have fun. Buy yourself some candy with that quarter. I know your daddy. I’ll tell him I seen you if he comes by.”

  The man’s orange jumpsuit was clean and stiff. He looked like a spaceman in it, smiling his gold tooth down at me like a little planet.

  Late April, there were tulips pushing out of mud, shocking the ruined hair of the grass and the still bare branches with their scarlet lips, like plastic, or screaming, but beautiful, and new. The town seemed empty—a bright package with nothing in it—and the sun sailed over the neighborhoods like a hollow ball of pale fire, tossed. I walked.

  Here, all the houses for blocks and blocks were the same. I’d know where to find the bathroom in any one of them. I’d know where the broom closet was. Here and there, an old bike had been left out through the winter, leaned up against a shed as if it had fallen out of the sky. A rusty drum of water. A hubcap. A shiny, white van with no one in it. A scrawny dog leashed to a tree growled suspiciously as I walked by.

  I followed a muddy footpath to the river, which was high and dark with melted snow by April, and I slid a little, inching down to the edge of it. A circle of gray birds flew over me. I heard train brakes far away. Steel on steel. A rat paddling. I stood and watched the river ripple by like a black stripe on a huge flag. A handful of brown leaves. A plastic sandwich bag. A ribbon of oil.

  At first I thought it was a tree branch bobbing with the current—rising and falling, gray at first, then sinking, then emerging, sharp and white—tumbling past. Its face rose for a moment over the surface of the water, as if it were sniffing at the air—then it turned again, smooth, slow. Its hoof. Its bent leg. Then the blond fur on its back. Antlers again. Then the curious face, black nose nudging the surface until the surface broke. Looking out of the water’s fissure with its dead eyes. The river rolled it past and away from me for a long time, and then I wanted to go home.

  “The phone’s been ringing,” Gary says when I get back down to the office.

  “Oh,” I say, and smile. He’s sitting on the vinyl couch, smoking. His teeth flash at me, cold-white in the white light.

  It’s warm in the office, and the sun outside is dry and brittle on the red leaves as they circle and fall in slow motion. A little dreamy, or hopeless. Gary’s got one leg crossed over the other, an ankle on his knee, shaking his blond boot. I slide down next to him and put my arms around his neck, kiss his ear. It’s dark and clean in that narrow tunnel. He holds the cigarette above my head and smells my hair.

  “Look at me, baby.” He nudges me back so I can see his face. “Look, you know you don’t need this job. This job is just getting in our way.”

  I look around the office, and I can barely see it, having seen so much of it. I can smell the pink soaps in the bathroom, though—medical and sweet—and that man’s flesh where it sweated into mine like a body of fog beneath my dress. I hear a swan honk by in the river. And the river, just sloshing, foamy, getting colder. On the wall, the clock hums and twitches its silver minute hand, and I think, He’s right. He’s right. I’ve barely glanced at the checks Mrs. Briggs has written to me in the last six weeks. They amount to nothing when I put them in the bank, which gives me only yellow squares of paper and numbers in return. I imagine a vault in the basement of that place, locked, with nothing in it—symbolic. Just the idea of money, of future, of invisible food and a weekend in a ghost town for vacation.

  But the jewelry box in my bottom dresser drawer—that box had begun to bulge like a rat-fed snake, smelling moldy with old
dollars, a tangible fact.

  “I can’t stay here much longer anyway,” Gary says. “I can’t afford no sixty dollars a night for the rest of my life.”

  I haven’t even thought of that. “Gary,” I say, happy to have something to give to him for free, “you don’t have to pay for it. I’ll just rip up the slip with your credit card number. No one will know but me.” I smile. I kiss the top button of his shirt, and it tastes like plastic, smoke, and salt.

  Gary nudges me back again to look at my face, or so I can see his. “You’d do that for me, baby?” he asks with his eyebrows raised, his brown eyes wide as a child’s.

  I laugh. “Of course.” I kiss his lips smiling, my hands in his hair. I push my tongue between his teeth, to taste him deeper, and in my throat there is a small animal sound that surprises me when I do—a dove, or a cat nursing kittens. I hear the sound in my own throat as if it’s come from someone else, but my heart is like that dove now, fluttering loose in my dress—pursued. Is that love? I want to take the dress off and wrap my naked body around him. I can barely stand to take my mouth from his; that’s how in love I am.

  “You’d do that?” he asks again.

  And, again, I say, “Of course.” I laugh, stand up, walk behind the counter. I open the cash drawer with the key Mrs. Briggs keeps hidden naively on a magnet underneath the drawer. I sort through the credit card slips and receipts until I see his: Gary W. Jensen. I hold it up so he can see, then I rip it to shreds while he smiles.

  Afterward, I lock the cash drawer and hide the key again, and Gary stands up and walks over to the counter. He puts his cigarette out in the ashtray, then reaches to take my hands. He squeezes them hard, and I lean as far toward him as I can with the counter between us, the sharp edge of it in my hips. He reaches out and takes my arms, and I cradle his elbows in my palms. Gary kisses me and moves one hand into the scooped neck of my dress, rubs the back of his fingers against my breast, and I breathe faster, pressing my kiss deeper into his, my nipples tightening until they’re small and hard as the pearl buttons on my dress.