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Suspicious River, Page 21

Laura Kasischke

  I folded the paper along the exact lines it had originally been folded along, and I put it back in the envelope, then I put the envelope in the pocket of my coat. I could hear snow melting off the roof, trickling down the clapboard. The sun was even higher by now, and the windows glistened, prismatic with old ice, daggers of it hanging and dripping off the eaves.

  I went to their bedroom and opened the door.

  In the dark, with the shades pulled and so much light behind them, the sheets on the bed looked faded and blue.

  But nothing had changed.

  I closed my eyes.

  My mother’s shadow still hovered over the bed—silk slip soaked with blood and black by now, but not a slip. Her eyes were open, and she was smiling. Legs long and white. I could hear my heart thud, underwater, in my chest, and the sound of my breath was like the hissing whine of wind through cracked walls. When I opened my eyes and turned, he was standing in the hall behind me.

  Older now.

  His hair had gone prison gray.

  The same good trousers, though. A nice white shirt with a button-down collar. I could smell him. Powder, and the alcohol underneath his cologne. He looked surprised to see me when I screamed.

  “Open your eyes,” he says, and his breath is hot with vodka and something else like white fire over my face, but I can’t open my eyes. Too much light. “What the hell’s the matter with you? You a nut case or something?”

  He rolls off of me, onto his side, and runs his hand up and down my body like a man polishing a counter. “Jesus Christ,” he says. He slaps me lightly on the side of my face a few times. The sound of water clapping ripples in the river, but I can’t move.

  “Fine,” he says and whips the sheet off me. To someone else, someone who must have been in the room with us all along, he says, “She’s all yours, Bud. A fucking nut case.”

  The bedroom door opens and closes while a bare white weight presses down on me, spreads my legs. Wind outside. Something rattling leaves off the trees until they’re skeletons again. Someone says, “Open your mouth,” and he laughs when I do. “She can open her mouth, anyway.” More laughter. Outside, more wind.

  Light from the kitchen window shimmered with ash ahead of me as I walked toward the back door, fast—past my Uncle Andy, past my own bedroom, straight out the door, breathing hard. I let the screen door slap shut behind me.

  Outside, the air was sharp and chilled, too fresh, and so bright I couldn’t lift my face as I walked. My eyes watered, making the world a strange, warped mirror, but, watching the white ground, I could see my own boot prints make ruins of the melting cat prints where my father had died, and I kept walking—past my own house and down the street. I unzipped my black coat and stuffed my mittens into the pockets of it while I walked, but the sun still felt too warm, like something dropped heavy, invisible but burning on my back. I kept walking until I’d gotten to the end of the block, to the front door of the only house on that block I’d ever been inside except my own—the only neighbor on that block I’d ever known. I rang the doorbell and waited, hands stuffed along with the soft suffocation of mittens into the deep pockets of my coat.

  When he finally came to the door, Reverend Roberts was wearing a bathrobe, but he opened the screen door for me, looking worried, squinting behind me to the street as I stepped in.

  “Leila,” he said, “you shouldn’t just come by here, you know. No one’s home, but if my wife—” He lifted his hands to the ceiling as if the rest were too obvious to mention, as if it were written all over the beige above us. He looked annoyed when he saw the look on my face. “What’s the matter with you?” he asked, impatient, and then, just remembering, “I’m sorry.” He touched my shoulder and mumbled, “I’m sorry. Again. About your father.”

  I could smell his breath. Musty and yellow. His feet and shins were bare under the white bulky robe, and his house was warm, all off-white wallpaper and deep brown carpet that looked clean and soft—and every inch of every wall was covered with a photograph of someone framed in fake, sprayed gold, or a little oil painting of the ocean, a dopey cow, a young girl in a white dress on a swing in summer, a cross, or a sepia-tinted portrait of Jesus, looking authentic and old.

  I looked up at him, and he looked afraid this time when he saw my face. He shrugged before I’d asked him anything, then said, “Leila, I don’t think I can help you. What we’ve been doing is really a terrible mistake. I could lose my church, you know. You can’t stop by here. I thought you understood that. If anyone found out about this, it would ruin my life.”

  I looked down at my boots and saw that the snow was melting off them onto the Robertses’ nice carpet, pooling under me, and I started to cry.

  Reverend Roberts stood up straighter when I put my arms around his neck and pressed myself into him, sobbing. He tried to push me away with his hands above my hips, shaking his head back and forth fast, but I held to him harder, kissing the side of his face, his neck. Finally he said, “Look, Leila, let me get dressed and we’ll get out of here. You go down to your father’s house and wait for me, O.K.? There’s no one there, is there?”

  I shook my head, wiped my eyes on the black wool sleeve of my coat and drew a breath that trembled. “O.K.,” I said.

  Walking back down the block, I felt cold again. The sun had tucked itself briefly behind a cloud, then peered out—the cloud moving fast and high across the pure blue sky. I couldn’t go back into my father’s house alone, so I stood in the back yard and looked up at all that sky. When I closed my eyes I saw black circles against a yellow backdrop, like faces in a snapshot taken on a too-bright day—ruined, blanked out, the camera aimed straight into too much light.

  “She won’t open her eyes.”

  “I’ll open her goddamn eyes. Get outta here.”

  I know it’s him without opening them. I recognize his voice. The blond. From 31. The one who’d slapped me until I tasted blood. I can smell him. Soft leather and denim. I can hear him pull off his boots, unbuckle his belt, the cold clanging of an old bell.

  The light is on in the bedroom again, and it burns yellow through my eyelids. The bedroom door is open behind him, and I hear voices at the end of the hallway. Laughter and tinny music on a radio. Water running in the bathroom sink. And, beyond that, the river, snaking past.

  He straddles my chest. The flesh of his thighs presses against my naked breasts, and he hits me over and over again with a fist. The sound of his knuckles on the bones of my face. The dead drum of something solid on something solid, until I open my eyes. When I do, he smiles.

  I can see water swollen over my cheekbones, around my open eyes.

  “Leila,” Reverend Roberts said. He had stepped out of his long blue car, idling. My face was still turned toward the sky, but I looked over at him when he said my name. He looked angry, and in a hurry.

  “Leila, we can’t stay here.” He looked toward the back door of the house. “Lock it up and we’ll go get some lunch somewhere. Then we have to go straight to the church.” He got back into his car.

  I pulled the door to my father’s house shut, not looking in when I did, and I locked it with a cold silver key on a loop of string, then put the key in my coat pocket.

  When I got into the car next to him, Reverend Roberts wouldn’t look at me, but it was warm there, and he had the radio on. The music came from behind us, all violin and flute. I could hear someone breathe into the flute, gasping before each note. I looked at Reverend Roberts. A short man with a round face, round hands, round thighs. He was wearing a nice black suit, red tie. Hair thin and white as a baby’s. He didn’t look back at me.

  “Now it’s very important that you not touch me in public, Leila, you understand, and that, now that you’ve come over to my house like this and any of the neighbors might have seen it—it’s essential that we are seen in public together. As if we don’t have anything to hide. We’ll go to the Golden Dragon for lunch; then it’s essential that we are seen together at the church, too—linking us to the
church, so to speak—so it looks like I am helping you in your time of need as I would any other parishioner. Do you understand?”

  I nodded—awed, wondering how he’d had so much time to think it all out while he was hurrying to get dressed. He sighed, then, shaking his head as if I’d said something childish. But I hadn’t said anything at all.

  We turned out of the block and he drove west, in the direction of the river. There were no other cars around. The snow was packed down so hard on the road, I could hardly tell if it was the road or field grass under snow and wheels. Only in a few patches had it begun to melt, and the red sand of the road bled up through it, damp. The trees overhead looked wet, clawing at the sky. Reverend Roberts looked behind him, over his left shoulder, but whatever he’d been looking for wasn’t there, and he turned down the winding road to Riverside Park, which would be empty in the winter, during the week, in the middle of the day. I knew that.

  “Take your coat off,” he said, “we have to hurry,” parking the car. The river ahead of us was jeweled with ice, glistening, as if it had been made more valuable by the first sun shining on it in so long.

  AT THE GOLDEN DRAGON, Reverend Roberts waved to two old women he knew who were sitting in a red plastic booth adjacent to our own. The women smiled widely at him, nodding their twin white heads at me—suspiciously, I thought.

  “Hello Reverend,” our waitress said as she handed menus to us. She was a blonde, nearly six feet tall, the only waitress at the only Chinese restaurant for eighty miles. She had a southern accent, and people in Suspicious River joked that the Golden Dragon had been named for her.

  “Oh, I know what I’ll have,” Reverend Roberts said, handing the menu back to her. “We’re in a hurry this afternoon, Amanda. I’ll just have a bowl of hot and sour soup. Leila, how about you? My treat.” He said that, and my name, loud enough for the women behind us to hear.

  “I’ll have the same,” I said, handing my menu to her, too. It was plastic red, like the booth we sat in, and there was a dragon engraved in gold on the front. The dragon looked like an evil dog with a long, spiked tail.

  “Now, Leila,” he said when we were alone again, in a tone that pretended to be worried and hushed, still loud enough for the women in the next booth to hear, “how have you been doing since your father’s death?”

  I touched my fork. It was cold. Then I put my hands in my lap and turned the palms up empty, shook my head. “I’m O.K.,” I said, “except for the house.”

  “Oh yes of course, that must be very painful, and a lot of responsibility for you and your husband. Do you plan to sell the house?”

  The women behind us were sliding out of their booth, putting their coats on over their shoulders. I heard them drop some coins into the plastic check tray. One of them looked hard at me when she turned, pushing her hands through the sleeves of her coat. Her eyes were nearly pink they were so clear and clean, and her whole face was dusted with powder, thick as flour. There was even powder on her lips, and I thought she looked thirsty, dried. Like the snow that day, her face was blinding.

  “Good-bye, Reverend,” the woman said.

  “Yes, good-bye ladies.” He smiled and waved to them.

  The other one didn’t look at us, but she said “Good-bye” into the dark leaves of a vinyl rubber tree near the door.

  When they were gone, Reverend Roberts sighed. When I said “I don’t know,” he didn’t seem to remember what we’d been talking about.

  “You don’t know what?” He looked at me, blank.

  “I don’t know what we’ll do about the house. But what’s wrong is—” I touched my lips with my fingertips before I said it. “I think, I mean, I imagine, my mother is in it. Dead. And I think I see my uncle.” I felt myself blush—a saucepan of lukewarm blood splashed across my face and neck. But, I thought, if I couldn’t tell him, the man who spoke for a living about holy ghosts, rising from the dead, who could I tell?

  “That’s ridiculous,” Reverend Roberts said, and the waitress came then, slipping bowls of soup in front of each of us. He looked up at her and said, “Thank you, dear.”

  I looked into my soup. Steam crinolined out of the bowl—a bowl of weather, smoothing and breaking in foggy ribbons as I breathed.

  Reverend Roberts blew on his own soup and stirred it around and around with his spoon, then he looked up and said, “Leila, you need professional help. I’ve thought it for a long time. Ever since you were a little girl. There’s always been something very wrong, and I certainly can’t help you. I’ll give you the name of a counselor when we get back to the church, O.K.?”

  He inhaled the soup off his spoon with his lips barely parted, but he looked angry afterward, as if it had been too hot.

  I nodded. I blew on my own spoon of soup. It was thick, and there were green onions floating on the top, mushrooms and thin strips of gray meat just under the surface. I realized, suddenly, how hungry I was, but when I sipped and tasted the soup, I couldn’t swallow. I had to spit it back into my spoon fast. Then I dropped my spoon into the bowl.

  Reverend Roberts looked up at me, startled. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked.

  I put my hand over my mouth. I couldn’t breathe.

  “Leila, what’s the matter with you?” He still held his own spoon at a hover above his bowl.

  I started to cry, and I pushed the bowl away from me. I said, sobbing, “There’s blood in it,” and I held my hands hard against my mouth. “I tasted blood in it.” I hadn’t meant to cry.

  He put his spoon back into his own bowl then, and he looked afraid, but he said sternly, “There’s no blood in the soup, Leila.”

  I sipped from my water glass, but I could still taste it, rusty on my teeth. I was afraid I’d gag. I could taste the salt of it on my tongue.

  The waitress came over slowly, looking worried. “Is everything O.K.?” she asked.

  Reverend Roberts looked up at her and said, “Amanda, this will sound ridiculous, but there’s no blood in the soup, is there?” He nodded toward me when he asked it, patient, conveying a message about me to her in his expression.

  The waitress put her hand between her breasts then and said, quiet, watching me, “Well, yes. I’m afraid there is. Cook makes the soup with duck’s blood. I’d be happy to bring you something else.”

  “OKAY,” he said, “I’ll go in the house with you if it’s that important, but after that we have to go to the church, as I’ve said, so this will look like a professional engagement. Those old ladies at the Golden Dragon could very well be telling the whole damn town about God knows what by now. Leila, it’s essential that we appear perfectly comfortable being seen together.” He wiped the damp corners of his mouth with two fingers. We were driving back down the dirt road along the river again.

  Still, the sun was shining on the snow, a billion mirror slivers of it shattered in the banks at the side of the road, but there was one cloud in the middle of the blue sky—low, purple, thick as Brillo. Magnificent. A lodestone. Other clouds raced from the edges to meet it in the middle, planning a blizzard.

  When we pulled up at the house, I saw that my father’s shovel, which had been propped up against the fender of his car, had fallen into the driveway again. It glinted when we pulled up in Reverend Roberts’s car. A shovelful of purple cloud—soon it would be full of snow again. We stepped out of the car, and I followed Reverend Roberts toward the back door.

  From outside, the house looked dark and empty, but I could see something moving behind the black glass of the bedroom window as we passed. “Look,” I said, touching Reverend Roberts’s arm. It felt surprisingly bony under his thick coat.

  I pointed to the bedroom window, but he looked at my face. My skin felt tight and dry across my cheekbones in the cold, like laundry on a line, freezing and moist at the same time, or the way an animal’s hide dries out lifeless with life. I could feel tears itch at the comers of my eyes, and my nose had started to run. Finally he looked up at the bedroom window and said, “Blow
your nose for god’s sake. It’s just our reflection,” and he started to walk in a hurry ahead of me toward the back door.

  I dug the house key out of the deep pocket of my winter coat—that pocket, like a linty cave of winter, a black tunnel to winter—but the key slipped and fell onto a thin layer of ice that had begun to melt, once, but had frozen over again before it did, gone dead cold again when the sun had moved and the shadow of the house had fallen across the back steps once more. That ice was smoother and thicker now for having melted. More determined than ever to be ice. Slicker. More dangerous. I picked the key up with my fingernails, and Reverend Roberts crossed his arms and exhaled. A shred of white chiffon trailed past my ear in his breath, briefly, then disappeared.

  “The house looks perfectly normal,” he said when he stepped into it, scanning the kitchen, which wore a veil of blue winter haze. The air smelled silvery. The two ordinary appliances with their blank faces. The stainless steel sink with only a coffee cup and a white plastic spoon like a stiff tongue in it. After I’d moved out, my father had only eaten off paper plates.

  “I know,” I said, apologizing, blowing my nose into a paper towel. I pressed it to my eyes, too. I said, “Here,” and walked toward my parents’ bedroom.