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Suspicious River, Page 2

Laura Kasischke

  If she’s not just considering, if she’s done this a lot, she might tilt her head as if she’s stretching her neck. Casual. Nothing’s being said. She must be waiting for you to say something—so, perhaps you are clever, you say something funny like, “Sure is hot in here,” tugging at your collar with an index finger or loosening your tie. But if you can’t think of anything like that, or it’s just not your style, you’ll say, “I’d enjoy some company in Room 47. Meaning you,” looking hard at her now.

  “Is that right?” Flirting, and slow, “And what’s good company worth to you?”

  You smile. Maybe your palms are sweating or, if you’re a different kind of man, maybe all this makes you mad but makes you want it even worse. “Name it. I’ll see if I can scrape it up.”

  “Well.” She’s looking at your name in the guest register now and it makes you a little nervous, whether it’s your real name or not. “Your room was sixty dollars. I think the company would be worth that, don’t you?”

  It’s less than you expected. Or more. Maybe that makes you a little sad for her, or angry, but you don’t want to think about that now. You wink, but don’t smile. You say, “See you up there, sugar.”

  As you’re walking out the office door you hear her humming high and light under her breath. You wonder if she’s watching your back, wonder if she’s noticed your limp, worried that she’s taking down your license number, but you also think about her breasts. They looked good. Her lips were sweet. She’s young, early twenties, petite and polite-looking with thick reddish hair, a small-town girl—but you know now she’s a slut, too; she’ll do whatever you want. By now you’re so ready for it you can hardly stand to think about what’s next.

  What’s next is oddly almost always the same. She knocks on your door, whether or not it’s open. The room is small and smells like mildew and Pine Sol. The bedspread is thin and crisp, swirled with subdued colors—rust, gold, navy blue. The heat or the air conditioning has just kicked in, you’ve turned it on high because it was too hot or cold in your room, and it’s rattling now. It’s dark, even with the light on. You pulled the curtains already. Maybe you rinsed out your mouth. Maybe you used the toilet and it’s still running in the bathroom behind you.

  Now that she’s out from behind the front desk, you see she’s wearing a short skirt or semitight jeans—nothing special, but she has nice legs, little hips, small waist. She’s thin and pale, especially under that messy red dredge of hair. But she looks healthy. When she holds her hand out for the cash, you have it for her, already counted and folded. She looks at it before she slips it in her shoe, under her heel.

  Suddenly your heart is kicking like a big black boot in your chest, and it makes you either shy or angry, sometimes both. You probably don’t kiss her, you just put the palms of your hands on those breasts you’ve been thinking about, move your fingers around on her shirt, and you’re breathing hard. But she just stands there like a closed white door.

  You’re touching someone who doesn’t want to touch you back—all yours, like the room, the TV, the conservative bedspread for the night: You already paid. But she’s so quiet, sort of smirking, you think. It makes you nervous. You can’t help it that your hands are shaking, but you’re a big man who worries a lot about his middle-aged heart—all those uncles lined up in coffins dead of heart attacks, predictable in Michigan as winter. In a flash you see yourself five years old in a little blue suit on tiptoes peering over the edge of a glossy trunk to get a look at one of those uncles as a powder-dusted corpse:

  You realize, as you take her flesh in a handful, that you’re the age of that corpse now.

  Lately, you sweat in your sleep, wake up soaked and cold.

  Dead, they smelled like women—talcum and old rose water.

  You unbuckle your belt with one hand, you’ve pushed the other up under her shirt and bra. Her breast is cool and soft. If you are hurting her, grabbing it too hard, she won’t let on. You wish she would. You grab it harder as you pull yourself out. You take your hand out of her shirt and put it on her shoulder. You’re holding yourself with the other one. You push her down to her knees, put it in her mouth, and there’s that warm parting of lips like sinking slowly into mud. You groan when you feel something soft and hot swim over the tip of it—and now you know she’s a pro. You wanted it to last longer, do some other things to her, too, but she knows what she’s doing, and you come.

  Some sweet small-town thing: Right.

  You barely last ten seconds.

  Sixty fucking dollars.

  She coughs, closes the door lightly behind her like a kind of apology, or a shrug.

  That night you sleep badly in your motel room. Mold and river, even between the sheets. With the lights out it’s so dark you think for a terrible moment that you’ve gone blind. Instead of dreaming, you turn on the TV, and when the sun comes up you blow your nose in a towel and leave.

  There’s another girl in the office when you check out. This one is pregnant, chatting on the phone. She doesn’t look at you when you drop your key on the counter. Your mouth tastes mossy all day, and something pale films your tongue.

  You drive on.

  THE WHITE FLASH of a sailboat, silver light on water, a high blanched sky; too bright. A woman in a navy blue striped bikini: She has long legs. She’s holding a dented can of beer, stepping onto the boat. Her narrow foot, toenails painted red, is poised for a moment in shimmering air.

  Wind billows the sail, the sound of sheets flapping on a line and the smell of bleach.

  The woman holds her arms out in the air like wings, a dancer balancing herself onto an extravagant curtain of movement beneath her. She laughs, and a shirtless man, tanned, takes her hand, the hand that has no beer can in it, to help her onto the water. She stumbles, the boat rocks harder.

  He doesn’t embrace her when she falls into him, but their bodies meet.

  They look, then, at me, and I see his hand flat in the small of her bare back. The hand is dark and large against her pale waist. Her shoulders are round and smooth as blank faces, gleaming.

  “Bye-bye, Leila,” she sings.

  Red fingernails and flesh—she is drinking from the beer, cold and sweaty in her hand. Waving bye-bye baby with the other.

  He waves bye-bye, too—my uncle, my father’s younger brother, a salesman like my father, but luckier, and also a magician who knows a card trick in which the Jack disappears into thin air, then reappears, fast and flashy, behind your ear.

  They are carried away together by wind on my uncle’s boat. The sail, a sharp knife of light then a bright blur receding.

  When they are farther into the water, a fading image, overexposed in so much wild white clear as gin, she reaches behind her and unsnaps the back of her bikini top. It slips off fast—a quick yank of sexual gravity like a scream.

  She holds the bikini top in the empty hand and waves it toward the shore back and forth in arcs above her head, as if in surrender.

  Then the scene scintillates, glints, and a piece of bent metal on the boat blazes; I have to squint. I can’t be much older than four or five. Her breasts are even brighter than the rest of her body and more pale than the glare all around her, but I can’t stare into it any longer: a shock of skin like white milk spilled all over a wax-white tray.

  They are shrinking, crumbling into the sheen, while their sail beats the air like a single, thrilled wing—a huge white bird with those two human captives smiling in its beak. And my uncle, whose looks, I know already, though I’m only a child myself, are handsome, more handsome than my father’s, shrugs toward my father, who clears his throat apologetically behind me.

  There’s a foamy rolling of water between my uncle, the woman with her bare breasts under a beating wing now, and the place where my father and I stand with our eyes nearly closed to see it better. She turns her back to us, and what we can see of it is a blank slate, as they say. She is moving naked over water and moving away.

  She’s my mother, and then she dies.r />
  “Rick,” I said one of those first afternoons in October when I’d been doing what I was doing for more than a month, “I may be a little late tonight. I told Mrs. Briggs I’d do some accounting, and maybe I won’t have time until after Samantha comes in.”

  I looked steadily into Rick’s dark eyes to see what he might suspect, but in them I just saw myself, twice, miniaturized, wearing a jean jacket, clutching my red purse against my ribs. My image in each of those eyes was smaller than a half-moon rising in a fingernail, but exact.

  “Well, O.K.,” Rick said—only a dip of disappointment in it before he turned back to the game show he’d been watching.

  A board of light bulbs zapped. Sirens. A woman shrieked, put her face in her hands, cried and cried and screamed as if she were being stabbed, over and over, with a dull knife. She was overwrought, overweight, and wearing a halter-top. Her arms looked moist, doughy, in the TV fuzz. Some of her skin rippled when she sobbed, but some stretched taut as too-tight bandages. She’d won a compact car, and the body of it was revealed to her slowly between two maroon curtains parting around the car like lips—something sporty, red, and sexy waiting for her in a wide, warm mouth. She gasped. The host of the show stood stiff beside her in his heavy dark suit. You could not see his arms or even his neck, but his face was open and round as a stopped clock. He put his hand on the woman’s bare back and rubbed it up and down, numbly—smiling into the distance, which was us.

  Rick looked back up at me. “Bye,” he said.

  Even under his T-shirt I could see the wide V of bone on his chest like a seagull’s spread wings, thinned and rigid, caught between the rotors of his shoulders.

  “Bye.” I said it brightly, but my back was to him when I said it.

  It was a short drive to the Swan Motel from our apartment because it was a small town. Still, a lot of people passed through the town every year, tossing candy bar wrappers out car windows. In the summer, they swept by on their way to the lake, staying a night or two on the river, which was also eternally sweeping toward the lake. In the fall, they came to see the leaves go bloody or gold before they fell, or to see the swans flock and rise up above us in October like a flying church choir in white robes, leaving, while the Michigan winter shuffled itself together on the horizon, ready to blow.

  Then, the tourists came to ski down Soprano Hill—black pinpricks whipping through January blizzards. It wasn’t much of a hill, but it was the only one around for miles, and we were lucky to have a hill at all, there in the flat part of the state—the western ridge of the Michigan mitten. At night it was illuminated, and it lit up the whole town like a rest stop above us—especially when it was blown with artificial snow, which shot furious into its bare face like long feather boas in the cold zero of a spotlight on a stage.

  Finally, spring. The swans would come back, and they would build their nests outside the Swan Motel, drop their fist-sized eggs while the tourists stared, scratched their heads, used their hands like visors to look toward the sky, which would be blue in May and full of nothing. Soon enough their identical children would crack into the world, sticky wet and dirty white as dog-chewed tennis balls, and the tourists would creep closer through the damp grass on hands and knees to take blurred snapshots with expensive cameras of the new swans shaking off their eggs—broken and spermy with membrane, fresh birth mess.

  When you saw the weather map on the news at night, you probably didn’t think about us up there, living our lives on the pinkie of that fat Michigan hand—driving to work, boiling potatoes, digging graves. You were looking at your own edge of something and hearing Eighty percent chance of rain, occasional sun, a storm system out of the West, while the river just scrolled on, ink black, making a steady thrumming under us and, above us, a softer sound like lashing, slashing, clapping—or a child being lightly slapped, over and over, in a game.

  The tourists liked to have their pictures taken together under the sign that said WELCOME TO SUSPICIOUS RIVER. They laughed about the name of the town, though the name didn’t mean anything anymore to us, if it ever had—just assonance and syllables flagging up the vague image of a place we knew we lived.

  When I got to the Swan Motel, Millie was in her jean jacket, ready to go. She had a pink tissue pressed to her forehead. “Oh,” she said like a sound, not a word, “I’ve gotta get out of here.”

  “Go,” I said, friendly, “get out of here,” and I pushed my own jean jacket and my purse, a small red patent-leather oval like a stomach stuffed with Kleenex, under the counter. Both of them were damp.

  It had begun to rain while I was driving to work, and the moisture made the air in the office smell like tin, or sulfur, murky as a dirty locker room. Guests would come in asking where the indoor pool was. “At the Holiday Inn,” I’d want to say, but wouldn’t: There was no pool at all.

  But I could see why they asked—that odor, damp air, especially when it rained. The Swan Motel smelled of mold, chlorine, musk. The rooms were humid even in the driest, deadest dead of winter. I could smell the Swan Motel in my hair at night like formaldehyde, or copper, before I fell asleep.

  Millie stood with her back to the glass door, buttoning her jacket. Her hair was long and frizzy in the humidity and so black it washed her eyes away until they were only the faint blue of a white eggshell. She said, “So everything O.K. these days, Leila?”

  I shrugged, glanced at the clock. I could feel the wet rubber that lined the soles of my shoes seep dimly into my skin.

  Millie was younger than I was, but she was plain and wispy as fatigue itself—a scarf of air and smoke, frayed, a shred of a yellowed lace dress left for a long time on a wire hanger. The tips of her teeth were pointed, and Millie used them to dig at the skin around her fingernails, to scrape her bottom lip until it paled, cracked, bled pink onto the smaller, lower teeth.

  “Yeah, O.K., I guess,” I said.

  “Does Rick eat?”

  “You know.” I shrugged again. “Not much.”

  “God,” she said, “I couldn’t believe it when I saw him last week. He’s like—nothing—now.”

  I bit my own lip, which tasted bitter, like iodine, and I nodded. Millie put the scaly tip of her left thumb between her teeth and said, “What does he act like at home? Weird?”

  “Normal,” I said, and I pictured Rick on the couch in boxer shorts watching the television blink. “He goes to work. He cooks.” I held my hands up in front of me as if to show Millie there were no clues in them, or trouble.

  “Wow.” She shook her head as she pushed backward out the door.

  In a casual flash, like tonguing your teeth quick and tasting something sour, I hated Millie for being so pale and inquisitive—a slow perplexed look even about her hair. But then she took her hand out of her mouth to wave good-bye, the tin bells on the glass door jangling as she stepped out, and I remembered she wasn’t family, or a friend, just someone whose job I shared, who wouldn’t bother to think too long or hard about the details of my life, and the bad feeling passed.

  After Millie was gone, the shadow of her Pinto moving briefly over the wet parking lot tar like a phantom horse, the empty office hummed its familiar silence, and I heard an empty click in my ears like the hammer of a toy gun, fired, when I swallowed.

  After a while, I opened the leather-bound guest register.

  There were seven names penciled onto the weak red lines under Friday October 15. Six of them were in Millie’s loopy handwriting, so I knew they were likely to be stuck under the wrong dates, wrong arrival times, last names misspelled or inaccurate altogether. Millie was a bad receptionist by any standards, and she’d most likely be fired soon, I thought—though she didn’t seem to be aware of that herself, complaining daily about the job as though she’d always have it. But all Millie needed as far as I could tell was one more major blunder like Labor Day weekend: Not a vacancy in all of Suspicious River, and Millie’d given the same room to a family of four and a couple from Ohio within a few hours of each other.

  It was an accident.

  Millie had checked the family in first, but they’d gone to Grandma’s house for dinner across town before taking their bags upstairs. The couple from Ohio came later, wearing matching polo shirts, purple, confirmation number for their reservation firmly in hand, but Millie couldn’t find their names in the ledger.

  Of course, the motel was packed, but it was impossible for Millie to know that since she hadn’t bothered to do the paperwork for a crowd of couples and their kids who’d come in just as she was eating her sack lunch and talking to her mother on the phone. Millie just handed out keys and ran credit cards, eating, chewing her fingers, talking long distance the whole time.

  Perhaps Millie simply panicked when the couple got articulate and angry, college-educated and exhausted from their drive, and asked Millie to produce a manager. Or, more likely, Millie knew she’d be out of there, at the drive-in necking or watching Psycho II with her boyfriend Ed before the trouble started. In any case, the Ohio couple waited, impatient and tapping their Nikes officially on the dull linoleum of the office floor while Millie wandered around the Swan Motel with her master key, knocking on doors, looking for an empty room to give them. When no one answered, Millie opened the door and peeked in to see if there were any bags, if the beds were mussed. Of course, one family’s room was untouched: They were just that minute sitting down to pork chops on the other side of Suspicious River.

  So Millie assigned that one to the couple, gave them the duplicate key, thinking, or so she said, that she’d just misplaced the original. And when the family of four came back to their room, the couple from Ohio was naked in it, sitting at the edge of one of the double beds, smoking a joint and watching a blank-eyed woman writhe on a leopard skin bedspread while a man stood over her, masturbating into her mouth.

  For only six dollars you could have this film specially cabled into your color television set. If you’d paid for your room with a credit card, you didn’t even have to tell the front desk girl what you wanted to watch. You just turned to the channel and the six dollars would automatically appear on your bill. Not another word about it.