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Suspicious River, Page 19

Laura Kasischke


  “Hey Rob. This is Leila.” Gary puts his arm around me and squeezes. “She’s my sweetheart.”

  Sweetheart, I think. I like the word. I like it better than the words wife, daughter, mother. I imagine my heart as a sticky, red dessert.

  “Nice to meet you, Leila,” Rob says, holding his palm in my direction. His hand is dry and cold, and he passes over mine lightly with it.

  The living room smells like old wool, or a dog. A plaid couch. A TV with a wide black screen. A La-Z-Boy, a newspaper folded on that. Someone has done half the crossword puzzle in pencil. A coffee table with a coffee cup, a glass ashtray, a stack of TV Guides. In the hallway that must lead to the bedroom, I see a child’s red-sparkle tricycle. Shiny, with white plastic streamers on the handlebars. When the dog in the front yard starts to howl, I look out the window at it.

  “Don’t mind him,” Rob says. “He smells something. Probably a rabbit, or a cat.”

  But the dog is throwing itself into the distance beyond its chain, snapping and staring at it—the chain jerking him back, strangling him back. The dog circles under the chain to escape it, howling and frantic, chewing at the air, before it lunges and chokes, and chokes again.

  THE WIND RAGED THAT DAY, lifting a blizzard off the lake, scissoring it across the sky over Suspicious River, then shredding it to scraps of white. Only a few skiers were staying at the Swan Motel, and they looked windburned in their colorful jackets, seeming healthy and rich. I liked the job. I’d only just started, and I was serious, careful. I added the credit card totals twice on squares of scrap paper before I wrote them permanently on the carboned slips. When guests opened the glass door and stepped into the office, a gust of December trailing them like frozen smoke, I said, “Welcome to the Swan Motel.”

  Inside, the office air tasted sleepy and warm, like a mouthful of blanket or toast. Somewhere deep in the coils of the electric heater, an old bed seemed to be smoldering nicely, its fibers settling in my lungs.

  The door opened then, jangling its bells, and Rick and his mother stepped in—shyly, it seemed, smiling weakly at me. Mrs. Schmidt’s hair was covered with a white wool scarf, and she wore an old, loose coat, colorless against the glass behind her. Her lips were pale pink as the bathroom tiles, and Rick, beside her in his father’s hunting jacket, washed her in an exhaustion of electric orange. Seeing them in the office of the Swan Motel, I realized how ordinary and unathletic they looked in comparison to the guests who usually stood in front of that desk—my teenage husband and his mother, where there’d been those skiers in their slick purple jackets, sunglasses reflecting the drywall, blizzards, and my own pale, melting face in plastic as they scanned their bills.

  “Hi,” I said.

  “Hi, Leila,” Rick said, lifting his hand into the air. It looked enormous in a black glove. His mother’s eyes were wide, as if she might cry, but she smiled. They walked together toward the counter, their faces disturbingly similar and familiar, and I saw them as they were. Humble, useful people. Foreign to me, but mine. I knew I didn’t love them, didn’t even really know them, but somehow, now, we all belonged to each other. Discovering their faces suddenly at the center of my life was like finding a box of someone else’s snapshots in your attic: None of these aunts and uncles smiling intimately into the camera is yours, none of these happy holidays, these puffy infants. But if you don’t keep them now, you’ll have less than you had before you found them. Something will always be missing. Something that claimed you, as if it could enter your memory, your life, and then it did. I realized at that moment, This is what family is.

  “Leila,” Mrs. Schmidt spoke to my throat. “We need to call Mrs. Briggs and tell her you have to leave.”

  “Why?” I could hear snow being plowed outside, thrown heavy, human, and wet to the side of the road.

  “There’s an emergency,” she said.

  Rick grabbed my hand then, and when I tried to pull it back, his glove slipped off between us on the counter, empty. He opened and closed his small white fist beside it like something immodest, exposed.

  “What?” I put my hand under my breasts, over the place where my ribs met each other in a bony seam. “What?” I could feel my heart beat soft and bloody behind that seam.

  But the tin bells shook on the door then, and two skiers stepped in—a woman with long blond hair and an orange tan and a man with a red hat who looked much older. Her father, I thought, though his hand was making small circles on her hipbone as she leaned into him, looking drunk, or stunned, or stoned. Or, maybe she was in love. The blizzard melted fast on their shoulders, and the slippery sound of their jackets became louder as they walked toward the counter. They laughed while, outside, the snow buried the sky.

  Gary opens a door from the hallway, and I follow him into a yellow bedroom. The double bed isn’t made, but the sheets are bright. They look as if they’ve only been slept in once, by someone very tired. The curtains are open and through them I can see a small storm of wet, gold leaves spin in a violet wind. When he flips the light switch on, the room throbs and the windows go dark.

  “Here,” he says. “Just relax in here. I’ve got to go to town, and when I come back we can get some dinner.” He kisses me quickly, his fingers on my jaw. In the bathroom on the other side of the wall, I can here someone—Rob?—whistling. There’s the insistent knock of hot water in old pipes.

  As he leaves, Gary’s boots thud on the floor. I watch his back. His dark hair over his blue collar. His narrow shoulders. From the back, in those jeans, in that work shirt, I imagine he could be any thin man from Texas, though I’ve never been to Texas and still don’t know if it’s where he’s from. Florida license plates, I remember. But the accent. Beneath his boots the floor sounds solid and dead. No basement, I think. He closes the door hard, and my mouth goes dry. I close my eyes tight, knowing I’d wait in this yellow room all night, or forever, for another taste of his sweat.

  I swallow with love as he disappears, and I turn the light in the bedroom out, crawl into the bed, pull the sheets and a scratchy white blanket over my ears, and roll onto my side. From there I can see out the window. I can see him get into his silver Thunderbird, face lowered against the wind—the wind, which sounds like an old train rushing by before he closes himself into the driver’s side. I watch his headlights, then his taillights, a trail winking away—night around his car like a silky cave. I imagine a red scarf unraveling from my heart, pinned to his, and then he’s gone.

  I don’t look around this room. I close my eyes. But already, by accident, I’ve seen a photograph of a woman and a child, both blond and smiling, on the nightstand. The photo is framed in black. A string of green plastic beads has been stretched out carefully on the dresser, and the lampshade has a chain of rosebuds hand-painted around the edges. I can smell a woman, all water and flesh, beneath the sheets, and the white feathers in the pillows smell like perfume, sage, a plucked, feminine bird. I hear the wind outside pick up, die, then lift itself again, higher this time.

  I open my eyes and close them, and then I’m dreaming. Then, I’m walking up the front walk to my childhood house through a shaft of snow. A dog howls. The sound of breathing in a tunnel. Something has been tossed or has fallen at the end of the walk, near the front step of our house with its blank face. A white sleeve flaps like a tongue of light.

  I bend down to see it, but all I see is my own face reflected in an icy pool, looking younger than I am, and suddenly I realize I must be someone’s child. A dog howls again, and when I wake up, the light is on, and Rob is standing at the foot of the bed, smiling kindly, his gold tooth gleaming.

  “I’m sorry I woke you up. Is it O.K.?” he asks, touching the top button of his shirt apologetically. “Gary said it would be okay. But if it’s not, don’t worry, I won’t bother you.”

  “It’s O.K.,” I say and close my eyes again.

  “Leila,” Mrs. Schmidt said, pressing my hand when we were finally out of the Swan Motel and into the car, driving, heater humming, the ni
ght parting around us as we traveled deeper into it, “Your father had a heart attack. He was shoveling snow.”

  “Oh,” I said.

  I was between them in the front seat of Mr. Schmidt’s long Ford. Rick put an arm around my shoulder. I leaned forward, pressing my mittens against the lids of my eyes. Stars and blood. I could see my father against that sparking, red velvet backdrop—snow falling fast, rising around him, and he was moving too slow through it with his dead leg to escape. I saw his mouth frozen open, icing over like a small, safe lake. Two little blizzards in his blue eyes.

  I taste mint on Rob’s gold tooth. Though the skin on his arms is lax as an old man’s, his chest is hairless as a boy’s and he seems cold, or ashamed, slipping his clothes off onto the floor fast, hurrying into the bed with his arms crossed over his bald stomach. He wants me to move on top of him, and I do, slipping my arms around his neck, my mouth pressed into the pillow near his head. He pulls the blanket up over us, and it’s warm with him under it. While he rubs one hand up and down my spine, the other searches softly across my breast. I kiss his neck and imagine it’s Gary’s neck, but shaved soft as candle wax or plastic.

  “That’s right,” he says, pushing my hip against him with his hand. I feel my heart beat harder between us. “Oh you’re so sweet,” he says, holding onto me.

  Rob whimpers when he comes, and I don’t let go until I’m done, too. He stays quiet under me, hands slow over my body as I press my pelvic bone against his. Two skeletons under our skin. And I remember Gary pressing into me with his clothes on at the edge of the river. How I’d been trapped, burning, beneath him, as if he were an avalanche. My eyes, full of white.

  Afterward, I curl into Rob’s bony chest and fall asleep again, but dreamless this time, with wind and clouds parting their curtains around the bed in this strange dark, in the twenty-fourth October of my life. The one with the weather my mother never rose from, dank and velvet with death.

  THE FUNERAL DIRECTOR wore plaid pants and a green golf shirt in the middle of December, and, in the basement where they displayed the coffins, he looked wildly alive. A parrot in a leafless tree.

  “This is our least expensive,” he said, lifting his soft palm toward a gray one with a dark blue pillow built right in. Comfortable looking. Something you could sleep in one long night for the rest of your life.

  But I said “No,” and pointed at a glamorous white one like the one my mother had been buried in. It was quilted in white satin. Silver hinges. It looked like an elaborate ice chest, and I could imagine my father in it under the ground as if he were a trunk of gems. My mother the Snow Queen beside him in her pearls:

  In the winter they’d be frozen into opalescent statues. In the summer they’d explode together with white petals on black branches, pushing out of the dirt.

  “That’s typically a woman’s coffin,” the funeral director said, “and it’s twenty-three hundred dollars more than our standard model”—but he was writing a number onto a piece of paper. He looked up and smiled. “Though I can certainly see why you might prefer that particular box for your father. It’s really lovely.”

  “Fine,” I said.

  “Can you drop your father’s suit off later tonight?”

  “I think so,” I said. “I’m not sure where it is.”

  The funeral director looked worried about that. He said, “If it needs dry cleaning, there will be an extra charge I’m afraid,” and he made an extra note on the paper with his yellow pencil. The fluorescent tubes of light droned and burned above us.

  It was cool and dry down there. Not like an ordinary basement. Not like being under the earth. The coffins smelled like plastic, or brand-new cars. There were ten of them in different colors, sizes, styles. One was no larger than an infant, and it was also white. Upstairs, Rick waited with his parents, and I could hear someone pace above our heads, muffled by the ceiling tile and a furnace duct wrapped up like a mummy in gray, asbestos bandages.

  “To whom will I be billing this?” the funeral director asked.

  “To Leila Murray,” I said. “Leila Schmidt, I mean.” And my old name drifted past him, something erased, before settling like chalkdust in my father’s bright, new coffin.

  I wake up in Rob’s arms when Gary says, “Well look at the little lovebirds.”

  Rob wakes then, too, and sits up. Gary’s brow is pale in the dark of the doorway, and a cold oval of air blows over his shoulder, passes us, rises into the yellow ceiling above the bed—an invisible balloon with winter in it.

  We went to get my father’s suit. The house was dark and cold, not like the Schmidts’, where I’d lived since June. There, I’d gotten used to the claustrophobic smell of dinner cooking day and night, or having just been cooked. Boiled down to something soft. And the gold light that comes from a dim lamp in a living room on a winter night.

  Here, it had never been like that, even before my mother died. I remembered my uncle in a sleeveless T-shirt and underwear standing in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom, shivering. “Damn,” he’d said, “it’s always freezing in here.”

  It was my uncle I saw standing there, frozen, when Rick and I went back to that house to get the suit to bury my father in. “Bonnie,” he was saying, “Turn up the goddamn heat.”

  I saw her walk naked toward him with her arms open, nipples tight and pink. “Here it is, Andy. Here it is.” The heat, she meant.

  My father’s suit looked out of fashion in his closet, and never worn.

  “Here it is,” I said, holding it out to Rick.

  He wouldn’t enter the bedroom. Maybe he could feel them in there, too. My mother under the sheets in black panties and a black bra. My uncle’s fingers hurrying over the lace and hooks. A river of blood swelling under them like Indian mounds, then drying. Just a bed of red clay now, the color of a barn. And now, my father, too, was finally and completely gone.

  HE LOOKED ANGRY in his coffin for the first time in his life. It was the way his eyebrows had fallen together, relaxed in death. In life, he’d kept them raised in an expression of humble confusion, always, as if he might be saying “I’m sorry,” even as he watched his wife sail into the distance with his younger brother, waving her bikini top in blanched air—a mirage, disappearing, then reappearing, smaller, gleaming, until she was just a spool of glitter on electric water. The whole time, those eyebrows raised in apology.

  But in his blue suit in that white casket, hands waxy over his stomach, eyes closed, with that new expression at his brow, my father no longer looked as if he forgave us all. He looked like a man you might be a bit afraid of if he were alive. Someone who’d died shoveling snow after shoveling snow his whole, long life, and who was finally bitter about it. After Reverend Roberts said what he had to say about dust to dust, Rick’s mother squeezed my shoulder as she peered over the flashy rim of the coffin, a treasure chest full of my father’s death. “He loved you,” she said.

  The church was decorated with holly and red ribbons for Christmas, and it smelled like pine needles and melted wax. Only two pews in the front row were filled, and they were filled with Rick’s uncles and aunts, cousins, second cousins, his grandmother—a skeleton herself, bent over a silver cane, resembling a mummified bat: brittle, black wings pulled in around themselves. She smiled ecstatically whenever she caught my eye, waving all her bony fingers at once in the air, as if, with them, she were imitating the way snow falls—fast and scattered.

  None of them had known my father, but they didn’t look at their watches during Reverend Roberts’s sermon. They stared straight ahead, politely, into the dim light that skimmed and glinted off his too-bright coffin. They were there for Rick, who belonged to them.

  Afterward, Mrs. Schmidt had everyone over for ham sandwiches with Miracle Whip on small brown buns that tasted grainy, dark as a harvest, as if they’d been buried a long time, dug up, warmed in a toaster oven. And each of Rick’s relatives touched my hand and said, “I’m sorry.”

  The women in Rick’s family had
shiny, sprayed hair and wore navy blue dresses with crocheted collars, or manufactured lace, and white hose. Their husbands looked winded and uncomfortable in ties, and each one looked at least a bit like Rick. Thick, black hair. Brown eyes. But among them, Rick looked large, like someone trying too hard to blend into a crowd. There was something exaggerated about the way he shook their hands when they said they were sorry and congratulations at the same time. Sorry that his father-in-law had died. Congratulations on his recent marriage. Each time someone said it, Rick looked surprised, as if he’d been the last to hear about these changes in his life. As if they’d been arranged for him while he was out of town.

  And Rick was the only one who didn’t kiss his grandmother on her spotted lips, pretending she wasn’t insane. He couldn’t even seem to look at her, but his cousins would say, “Yes, Grandma,” when she asked them if Rupert, her husband, dead for decades, had carved the turkey yet. “Of course,” when she asked them if the mortgage papers had been thrown onto the fire, then “No, no,” when she looked alarmed. But when the old woman fixed her eyes on Rick, when she said “Rick” and touched the air in his direction with her pale hand, he pretended he didn’t hear—though there was a film of sweat on his upper lip, like mist.

  Gary leaves the light on but shuts the bedroom door behind him when he leaves. I hear his boots back down the hall, and Rob sits up at the edge of the bed, slipping his black socks on over his bald feet.

  It has grown darker while we’ve been asleep—pewter blue now—and it smells like winter on the way. Wet feathers, rags, old apples fermenting, turning to soft brown bruises on the ground as it gets harder. The light makes the yellow walls of the bedroom shine slick as lemon skin or sherbet, and I hear a voice drifting in from the living room. At first I think it’s the television, but then I hear Gary ask a question and someone else answers. A woman. Then I hear her scream, “What the hell are you bringing your whores around my house for?”