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Suspicious River, Page 18

Laura Kasischke


  He leans back again, still with his hand against my breast, and says, “I love you, Leila.”

  A hundred frantic doves. Or pigeons. White wings flagging a white roof, rising. I say, “God, I love you, too.”

  He turns his hand on my bare flesh, squeezes the nipple between his fingers, and says, “You don’t need this job no more, baby.” My body buoys toward his as if my hips are strung to his with cobwebs and damp weather. There’s snow somewhere on its way, I think. I open my mouth, and only a little gasp comes out.

  He says, “You’ve got me.”

  “Can I just leave?” I ask him, widening my eyes until they water in the glare. “What about Mrs. Briggs?”

  “Who gives a damn about Mrs. Briggs? She’s gonna fire you if you quit?”

  I laugh. He’s smarter than I am, and older. A father. A sexy god. He pulls me closer to him, and I kiss his new, dark beard. Then he looks serious again. “We need cash, though, Leila. I’m runnin’ low.”

  I shake my head and say, “No. I’ve got twenty-three hundred dollars in my purse, Gary.” I point to the purse. A splash of red under the cash drawer.

  Gary stands up straighter then and smiles, surprised. “Whoa. Leila. You’re a rich woman. What the hell we hangin’ around here for, baby?” We both laugh.

  He looks behind him. No one there. He lowers his voice anyway. “What about in there?” he asks, nodding at the cash drawer. I look at it over my shoulder while Gary’s fingers circle my wrist—my wrist, which is laid out on the counter like a piece of white fish now, a little light blue where the blood rushes under the thin skin. “How much is in it?” he whispers.

  “I don’t know,” I say, reaching underneath the drawer for the key.

  When it’s open, Gary says, “Looks like a lot.”

  “A few hundred, anyway,” I say, touching the bills. They’re soft. Then I glance at the tips of my fingers, as if the green dye might have come off.

  “Let’s take it, Leila,” he says. “We’re starting a new life, baby, and we need it. I’ll pack my shit and meet you in the parking lot in ten minutes.”

  I breathe, nod. I say, “What about my car?”

  “Leave it,” Gary says. “You don’t need it.”

  Without counting it, I gather the bills and hand the money to him. Gary unbuttons his shirt and slips them inside, next to his heart. He winks at me, pushing backwards out the glass door, looking heavier with cash.

  When he’s gone, I open the guest book again. For the last time, I think. Monday October 17: Blackwell, L. Farr, C.

  I stare at that date.

  October 17. My new life.

  Like a carpet of stars. Pure time.

  Monday.

  It startles my eye in the guest book, like a white moth on a white flower. Cool and empty in my lungs and fifty million light years long. A galaxy. A sheet. The smell of bleach in a cool breeze.

  When I hear high heels click by on the cement outside, I look up. But it’s only just begun to rain—hard, fat drops on the sidewalk and on the windshields and on the bald garden rocks.

  WHAT are you doing here, Leila?

  The footpath was scattered with old leaves.

  He stood in front of me.

  Looking at the river, I said. A dead deer. A dead deer just swam by, did you see it tumbling in the black like a slow, blond dance?

  I pointed, but it was gone. A branch again. A ripple. Nothing.

  He laughed. His orange jumpsuit swelled with light in the sun.

  Where’s your daddy, Leila?

  He’s waiting for me. At home. I’ve been gone too long.

  Does he know where you are?

  No. He doesn’t know. I have to hurry.

  Not so fast. He doesn’t know where you are?

  No. He’ll be worried. My father’s waiting.

  Wait.

  The river didn’t notice.

  The shiver of a sapling.

  Over there, the willows milled around like restless men.

  I ran to them. My arms open. I ran and ran in the wrong direction, mud sucking at my shoes. A child trying to fly—stupid, wingless bird. Mud on my hands, oily as blood. The earth kiss of mulch in my copper hair. I fell down there.

  Randy McCarthy buttoned up his shirt in the back of his mother’s station wagon.

  “I don’t get Rick,” he said, shaking his head in the dark. His hair was white-blond, cut close to the scalp, and it glowed like a smudged halo on his head. “He doesn’t have a clue, and nobody tells him shit. It’s pathetic. And he married you. Man. He thinks you’re the fucking Virgin Mary or something, doesn’t he?”

  I pulled my sweater down over my face. “No, he doesn’t,” I say—quick but flat, like a lie. “Rick knows me.”

  Randy McCarthy laughed. “A fucking nympho Virgin Mary is more like it.”

  When he said that, I swallowed. Someone had written it on the wall of the girl’s bathroom in black Magic Marker that never washed off—two years before, and on my last day of high school, it was still there between the mirror and the dirty roller towel:

  Leila Murray is a Nimphomaniac.

  For two years the girls I went to high school with, crowded around with their hairbrushes and lip glosses, adjusting the cups of their bras, tugging up their beige pantyhose like a second skin on their legs, would go silent when I came in and washed my hands right under that black sentence.

  Randy McCarthy was always angry afterward. All hands when we were in the back seat, like a raccoon ravishing the frozen garbage with its little human claws, looking skillful and sweet, then slinking off, body close to the ground, bandit mask making its long face look mean.

  Most of the high school boys were like that. Winter lasted a long time in Suspicious River—child-sized chunks of ice dragging along the banks, knocking at the docks and the aluminum rowboats tied to them rusting and unused. Most of the girls in town were afraid of their fathers, who shot deer in the woods and strung them up in back yards before the first snow, or they were afraid to get pregnant, or they wanted to marry someone who owned a store. They couldn’t relax—always complaining, fidgeting with their clothes, straightening their skirts down over their thighs, yanking their bra straps back over their shoulders.

  But I was quiet, hovering ten feet above my body all the time. Maybe being with me was no different than being alone. You could be as mannerless afterward as you wanted. Maybe that was my appeal. Or was it what made them angry?

  Randy dropped me off a few blocks from the house and didn’t say anything when I got out. It was mid-June, a pulse of stars in the dark overhead. I looked up at those and thought I saw a few fall fast through the sky. But it might have just been my eyes.

  The light in the Schmidts’ house was yellow when I got to the back door, and Mrs. Schmidt was gluing something together on the kitchen table. A ceramic ballerina. “Look.” She held it up for me to see when I stepped in. “Look what the cat did.”

  The delicate head, hair tied back with a pink painted ribbon, had snapped right off, and I could see into the ballerina’s body through the splintered crack at her throat. Inside, she was hollow and pure white. Mrs. Schmidt laughed and put the bottle of glue back down on the table. “It’s hopeless,” she said. “Oh well. Who cares? Sweetheart, did you eat?”

  “Yes,” I said, “I ate.”

  “Well, Rick and his dad are probably having McDonald’s as we speak. They rented a trailer and went into Ottawa City to haul an old pinball machine to the dump. I guess they might not be back until midnight, so I ate a salad myself.”

  Rick’s mother picked at salads for lunch and for dinner, even when she’d roasted beef for her husband and son. It would seem the green leaves had only been rearranged by a finicky rabbit when she was done. But at night, in the quiet dark, while we were all in bed, I could hear her rummage through the kitchen, illuminated only by the refrigerator’s private light. I imagined, from Rick’s bedroom where I pretended to be asleep, that Mrs. Schmidt was in her bare feet, a w
hite nightgown, her graying beehive looking as if it were wound with frost in that light, eating vanilla ice cream from the carton with a cold spoon. Then she’d slip back into bed beside Mr. Schmidt, who slept like death beside her. She’d be cold as snow between those white sheets, and in the morning, she’d be innocent at the kitchen table again, sipping at her black tea while Rick and his father ate the greasy bacon and eggs she made for them.

  This trick was similar to the silent art, the sleight of hand, by which she could tell them what to do—those two big men—without ever opening her pink mouth. The way Rick would change his shirt if his mother looked at it a certain way. He’d emerge from the bedroom with another one on, buttoning, asking, “Does this one look O.K.?”

  “You’re not hungry, then?” she asked me.

  “No,” I said, “I’m fine. But thank you for asking.”

  It was warm in the house. The windows were closed, and the rain that was on the way would not blow in under the cracks, as it always had in my father’s house. The windows were secure, sealed as if by a law of physics my father hadn’t understood. Mr. Schmidt fiddled around with the doors and the storms every weekend, it seemed. Patching the screens. Making sure nothing squeaked.

  “Are you sure you’re fine? You look tired, Leila.”

  “No,” I said, “I’m fine.”

  “Sit with me a minute, dear. I want to tell you something.”

  I liked Mrs. Schmidt, but I didn’t want to sit with her in that small, clean kitchen, sharp as a cube. My legs ached. I could still feel Randy McCarthy around my shoulders, like a bracelet of bruises cuffing my upper arms. I could smell him—a little boozy, a little like his car—exhaust fumes. Old Milwaukee. Still, I sat down. Mrs. Schmidt’s eyes were dark like Rick’s, but her eyelashes were pale. She’d retained her prom queen’s smile. Despite the graying hair, you could picture her in a pink satin dress. Or twirling a baton. The prettiest and friendliest girl in the school. Someone you wouldn’t swear or smoke around, but who wouldn’t condemn you out loud if you did.

  The ceramic ballerina lay broken on the kitchen table between us, utterly submissive now, and on her side. Her pretty face wasn’t ruined, but it was useless. Little pinprick eyes. Rosebud mouth, pouting. Separated from her body by a few inches of pure and invisible air. Beneath us, the guilty cat, white, purred and snaked around our ankles.

  Mrs. Schmidt reached across the table and squeezed my hand. She inhaled and said, “I know how hard it must be for you right now, being married, and so young. But things will get better.” She opened her eyes wide—exclamation points—“And Rick loves you so much. He’s a good boy, like his father, and he’ll always take care of you. And so will I.” Mrs. Schmidt smiled that high school smile then, which reminded me of women on the covers of Ladies’ Home Journal, the faces of those models on the racks at the grocery store checkout line—models chosen for their ordinary beauty, meant to imply you could be me. Under her smile, in bold letters, HOW TO TELL IF YOUR HUSBAND LOVES YOU and One hundred new cookie recipes! Mrs. Schmidt’s teeth looked like white thumbtacks, blunt and rounded, or dulled, stuck carefully into her gums, and she smiled wider. “You’re my daughter now.”

  “Thank you,” I said, but I was breathing too hard. “Thank you, Mrs. Schmidt. I feel so happy.” I touched my heart when I said it, as if I had something to prove. My ears were ringing, but the only real sound in that kitchen was the refrigerator’s drone, its bad imitation of a busy hive of bees. “I need to go to bed,” I said, my voice getting higher, and I stood up. My hands had gotten cold, and I couldn’t feel them anymore, as if they’d broken clear of my body.

  Mrs. Schmidt stopped smiling, and the ballerina rolled onto her back without being touched. She said, “Sweetheart, you’re sure you’re all right?”

  “I’m fine,” I said, “I’m just so tired.”

  “Well, Leila, I was going to say that I’d be honored now if you would call me Mom.” She took my hand again, and I was embarrassed that it was like ice. I nodded. I tried to smile, and Mrs. Schmidt let it go.

  When I got back to Rick’s room I pulled the shades, took off my clothes all at once, and threw them on the bed. My period had started. Dark red clots like ruined fruit. I went to the bathroom and ran cold water in the sink for a long time, cleaned myself up, rinsed out my panties, and then I went back to bed, waiting for sleep or for Rick in the silence, just as his mother on the other side of the wall waited for her husband, her son, her own dreams, her secret feast waiting for her in the kitchen when she thought we were asleep.

  But I could smell my own blood in the dark. Old blood coming back to me once a month. My mother’s long white legs. A cup of blood. Communion. I could smell the red silk slip of it between my legs, and I knew I wouldn’t sleep all night.

  As we pull out of the parking lot of the Swan Motel in a blue, muggy rain, I look back at my rusty car, the white Duster that belonged to Rick’s father, its muffler dragging the road behind it for years, sparking the dark like an old tail. I say good-bye under my breath, and Gary squeezes my thigh. He says, “I like it that you don’t have any underwear on, Leila.”

  I smile with my lips over my teeth because they feel cold. Or maybe I feel shy, staring straight ahead.

  He chuckles and says, “You’re a wild one—especially for such a quiet little thing.” He touches me between the legs, and I don’t move. It feels like nothing there. He glances at his hand and says, “Jesus. We’re gonna be happy as hell, sweetheart.”

  I close my eyes and feel his hand on me, feel the road float under us like a river, the rainy sky float lower over us like a river, too, and my body floating in slow motion between those rivers of road and sky with Gary, fast, sweeping toward my new life, which waits like a mother at the end of a long, white tunnel of light.

  “LEILA, does your father know where you are?”

  The taller one blocked out the sun behind him, scraping the sky, before he knocked me to the ground, and the human trees moved in, breathing.

  The younger one might only have been sixteen. Maybe he was scared.

  He also knew my father.

  He fixed our car.

  He was wearing a cowboy hat, a stiff black one, and it made him pale. He didn’t take it off. His upper lip was prickly and blond, and he had a small scar in the middle of it, skinny and white as a worm.

  The older one knew what he was doing, maybe even why. But the younger one seemed embarrassed about his penis, hands cupped over it after he pulled down his pants. He fumbled for a long time. I cried out for my father again, but neither one of them would look at my face. The older one looked out across the river like a man surveying what he deserved to own, angry that he didn’t.

  Those men know.

  Those men smell all the girls around them as they pass with their pink fingernails and ankle socks, schoolbooks pressed to their chests. Those men put their noses to the breeze and they know which girls will always run in the wrong direction, every time. Which ones will never tell a soul, shame snaking a thin blue thread through their veins; they’re just surprised to be left alive. Not grateful, certainly, not willing, but familiar with the customs in that bad part of the country, that fat wasteland. The currency, the dull thud of a fist, or a penis, or a mouthful of mud.

  The older one was teaching it to the younger one. The way they do. Next time he’d be able to smell it out for himself.

  A pheasant with birdshot in her belly, but still alive.

  A nest of rabbits.

  A girl watching the river unravel.

  Next time he’d know, too.

  “Leila. Are you asleep?”

  I open my eyes.

  “We’re here, baby.” Gary smokes a cigarette beside me in the Thunderbird—coffin of silver and glass. Pure light. He says, “This is where I live.”

  It’s a small white house with aluminum siding. There’s a long, cab-yellow car in the driveway, and a line of trees in the front yard, blind with red leaves—luxurious skirts rustling in
an adamant wind. The rain has stopped, and the sun cracks behind the clouds, snuffed, and the clouds make a tunnel between the earth and sky—low and purple. The house is at the end of that tunnel, at the end of a gravel road with no other houses around it, just the chaos of a vegetable garden that’s done for the summer, all blond stalks now, a collapsed sunflower, and a slow-rising hill behind it. A row of pines, and what must be the river in back of that, slipping through the mud and bushes like a wet knife. The ground is littered with leaves, scarlet and wild.

  Someone parts a curtain inside the house and looks out, but the window is too dark to see the face. From a white birch, peeling its bark like bandages near the front stoop, a thin black hound strains at its chain, snapping at the air in silence toward us. The birch shudders a little each time the dog lunges; yellow leaves drift onto the windshield and a few stick to the dog’s sleek back.

  Gary says, “Let’s go in.”

  My legs feel cold and weak when I step out of the car, and I realize I’m wearing nothing but a summer dress with pearl buttons, and winter’s on its way. The telephone line stretches loose and swaybacked from the house, and a crow lifts off of it, beating its big wings hard against the weather, which will be raw and magenta from now on—until winter finally smothers it over with nothing and snow.

  The dog sniffs in our direction. As we walk across the yard, I keep my arms crossed over my chest to protect it, but the wind just cuts right through my dress and handles what it wants. I’m numb and scorched, like freezer burn, before we even get to the door.

  But, inside, the house is warm and dark. The man who’d looked out the window is wearing a down jacket, jeans, and boots like Gary’s, only newer. His hair must’ve been black once, but it’s thin now. A gold tooth glints when he smiles.