Suspicious River, Page 22Laura Kasischke
The door was open. I said, “This is where I saw her,” and I pointed to the bed. Reverend Roberts looked over my shoulder while I leaned against the door and stared. Again, I tasted a bird’s blood on the root of my tongue. And, after my eyes had adjusted to the dark, there my mother was.
Light, watery bubbles of blood on her lips and the sound of air escaping from a slashed tire.
Or a teapot starting to boil.
Or wheels spinning on ice until it hissed.
“Jesus,” Reverend Roberts said, backing away from the bedroom. His teeth were set hard against his teeth, and he breathed fast through them. “There’s nothing in there, Leila.”
I followed him down the hallway to the living room with my arms open. “I know,” I said, “I know,” but my body could have flown into an explosion of feathers, a white funnel of spine and hair. Hysterical, I thought, I was going to become it. I swallowed and swallowed, covering my eyes with my hands and then my mouth, to keep the hysterical feathers in.
“Don’t get hysterical,” Reverend Roberts said and gripped my arms with his fingers hard, pushing them into my body, my body into itself, as if to keep it all, all of me, in one solid piece.
“It’s where I found her,” I said. Panting, I leaned into him. “I found her there.” I stopped and looked at Reverend Roberts, choking it down again—fluff, tuft, molt in my dry throat. My lungs were naked and beating—two featherless squabs behind my ribs. “My uncle wrote me a letter,” I said, “from Indianapolis,” fumbling in my coat pocket to take it out for him.
But Reverend Roberts said, “Who cares, Leila? There’s no one in there now, and you’re acting like a lunatic. You need to get your husband to help you with this, not me. We absolutely have to go.” He shook me, loosening the grip I had around his shoulders, but I leaned further into him. I wanted to put my head on his chest. I could smell old sweat like an animal’s abandoned nest beneath his black suit coat. I remembered the taste of his come. Chemical and sweet as candied aspirin.
“I have to go, Leila. My car cannot be seen in your driveway for more than ten minutes. I told you that.” But as he spoke, I slipped my arms into his coat, which was unbuttoned, and I stood on tiptoes to kiss his neck. Desperate, the kiss sounded like a gasp.
“Jesus Christ,” he said, backing me toward the couch, where my father’s TV Guide was still folded open, upside down, like a bird with glossy, paper wings, spread.
Reverend Roberts was angry as he fumbled with my pants. He couldn’t undo them fast, so I pulled them down for him and stepped out. He was grinding his teeth, and he threw his coat on the floor behind him and pushed my sweater up to my neck.
But the couch was too narrow, so he pulled me to the floor and tried to push himself into me, hard, but couldn’t. “You’re dry,” he said, disgusted, then licked his fingers and rubbed the spit between my legs, pushing again until he was inside me, working at it, his hands on either side of my face, holding himself high above me. He wouldn’t look down, kept his head upright and his face forward, a serious and winded expression on it as he stared ahead, starting to sweat, breathing hard. A man afraid of bridges riding an old bike over one.
I couldn’t help but hear them. Bonnie. My mother laughed. Then it was muffled. They were suffocating something in the bedroom.
You’re killing me. You’re killing me. Leila!
Reverend Roberts stopped and pulled himself out, got on his knees between my legs and started to yank his pants up, frantic.
He reached down and pulled the sweater back over my breasts, but the rest of my body was naked and spread under him on the old carpet like a beige feast, and when I opened my eyes I saw Rick’s mother standing in dim kitchen light in the doorway.
Looking young again.
Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and there was a white wool scarf around her neck.
In that light, hovering above us, Mrs. Schmidt looked beautiful and powerful. A lady aviator from the fifties. A ballerina, not yet past her prime, ready to dance Swan Lake in a snow jacket and boots in the middle of a dark blue blizzard.
And then she saw us.
I closed my eyes and listened to her boots bleat across the linoleum with their rubber soles, the screen door slamming delicately behind her.
When I opened my eyes again, I saw Reverend Roberts scanning my father’s living room—panicked, a caged cat. I’d seen one, once, in a live trap in the neighbor’s back yard. They’d caught it, accidentally, instead of the groundhog who’d eaten away the foundation of their house. The cat must have been in the trap a long time. It’s eyes were yellow, and there were strings of foam at its mouth, seeming to rope its throat.
I’d noticed that cat from the kitchen window while I was doing dishes. I’d pulled my father’s raincoat on and run out into the early evening mud to rescue it—though my father muttered in the doorway behind me as I went, “You’d better just leave it alone, Leila. That’s the neighbors’ business, that trap.”
When I opened the metal door to set it free, I expected screaming. I expected to be clawed bloody, bitten by its long teeth. But the cat just disappeared. I never saw or heard it go. The cage was simply empty when I looked again, and that’s how it was with Reverend Roberts. I never even heard him start his car.
WHEN I LIVED WITH RICK and his parents, there was laughter every night like television static. In the summer, it rose out of that box of colored light like fireflies, canned, and sifted through the window screens into the street—electric snoring, while the curtains made a loose, seductive shadow dance in dusk. Rick’s mother would put her feet in fuzzy red slippers up on the couch, and I would look at those slippers, not sure if I loved or hated them. My mother had never owned slippers.
Rick’s father laughed whenever the television did, and Mrs. Schmidt would roll her eyes at him, as if he were an idiot, or a child, then she’d laugh, too.
I could never laugh with the television like that. It seemed so far away, and small. But I would sit with them in the living room those months, their house glowing blue and warm around me, strange waves of light from the TV rippling across our faces while it grew bluer, deeper, and more like river water outside. I could see night through the screen door all summer while the TV cackled and sputtered among us. Out there, a handful of bats. The blade of a half moon shredding the sky to ribbons or streamers of black crepe paper. But inside, the television shimmered. A boat of rhinestones. The Hope Diamond. A whole world, like an afterlife, separated from us by an inch of glass in the Schmidts’ cozy living room.
Though, one July night, it came in.
Rick’s mother got up from the couch to open the door for the cat—white fur scratching and rattling at the screen door, then a flash of warm light as it ran in the house, past Mrs. Schmidt’s ankles—purring, wet and loud, with something half alive and purple in its mouth: a scrap of night.
“Oh my God,” Mrs. Schmidt said, but she didn’t scream. Whatever it had been wriggled bloody on the carpet near her feet.
Mr. Schmidt jumped up then and scooped the thing into his hand. It was no larger than a child’s severed thumb. He opened the screen door and threw it hard and fast back into the dark.
“What was that?” Mrs. Schmidt was breathing hard. The cat licked her shin, still purring, as if it were in ecstasy, or heat.
“God,” Mr. Schmidt said, “I don’t know, but that cat sure chewed the hell out of it whatever it was.” He leaned down to scratch the cat’s hot, pink ears. “Didn’t you, kitty?”
Mrs. Schmidt laughed and spoke to the cat in a high, child’s voice, “You brought your mama a present, didn’t you, kitty?”
Then the cat sat on Mrs. Schmidt’s lap after she put her feet back up on the couch, and the TV show went on.
During the commercial, I looked past Rick, who’d fallen asleep long ago in an armchair and had never woken up. I looked out the screen door to the darkness, and I imagined tha
t thing flying through the air with its bloody fur, dragging its mangled self into shadow on the other side of the street to die.
Mrs. Schmidt backed away from me when I stepped into their house. I’d already seen her in the kitchen, moving in circles behind a curtain that hung over the window on the back porch door. I’d opened that door slowly and stood on the threshold, holding my breath. Ready to be slapped. Or stabbed.
But Mrs. Schmidt just backed away, shaking her head. “I want you out of this house,” she said. Her cheeks were flushed, though her lips were pale and dry. It looked as if she’d bitten them over and over again with chalk teeth. “I want you out of this house tonight.”
Mrs. Schmidt sat then, exhausted, in a chair at the kitchen table. The kitchen looked too clean around her, too cheerful—a photo of me and Rick was stuck with a black magnet to the fridge. It was our wedding day. Mrs. Schmidt had snapped it herself in the back yard. Now, that black magnet pinned us, smiling, to the fridge, looking young and stiff. An elaborate cascade of lilacs hung limp behind us. We leaned forward a little, as if someone were saying something to us that we couldn’t quite hear.
Mrs. Schmidt looked up at me, then she pointed toward Rick’s bedroom. “Get your things,” trembling, “get your things and get out of here.”
I followed the finger she pointed to Rick’s bedroom, though there was nothing I wanted to take with me. Still, I pulled my overnight bag out of the closet—cracked animal skin and a broken handle—and I threw handfuls of underwear and socks into it, folded a few sweaters, some skirts, a dark dress. Mrs. Schmidt stood in the doorway with her arms crossed, watching, before she said, “You had better believe I’m going to tell my son about this. Do you understand that, Leila?”
I turned to look at her. “Yes,” I said quietly, “of course.”
Mrs. Schmidt looked even more angry then, folded her hands into little fists and punched them toward her own hips. A cheerleader, still. “What is the matter with you, Leila? Are you out of your mind?”
When I didn’t say anything and didn’t move, Mrs. Schmidt continued, “I think you are, Leila. I’m sorry to say it, but I think you are. I wish I’d believed that before.” Then she started to cry and put her hand over her mouth as she said the rest. “This is all my fault. I told Rick that a good man would marry you, after what had happened, that he’d have to marry you to be right with his conscience and God. And I believed it would be all right. That you could adopt children someday, and you’d be happy. I felt so bad for you, because of what happened to your mother.” Mrs. Schmidt moved her hand down between her breasts when she said it. “I always felt so bad about that, even before I met you. I used to think about that horrible thing all the time. Just a little girl, finding her mother like that, and what that must have done to you. We all talked about that—all of us mothers. And I never listened to anyone say a bad word about you. I thought it was all just more rumors. Because of Bonnie, what she was like. I thought everyone just wanted to believe you were like your mother.” She made fists again. “And you are. God forgive me, but you are.” She shook the fists at me. “Damn you. Damn you. You are. I trusted you. I cared about you. I went over to that house today because I was worried about you. And there you were. You whore. Get out of my house.”
I closed the suitcase and carried it like a big infant in my arms, out the door and through the snow, back toward my father’s house, block by block.
The sky had gone dark.
The cold air burned the back of my nose and dried my eyes until I couldn’t shut them anymore.
When I was back in my father’s house, I put the suitcase on the bed in my old bedroom, where nothing had changed. The bedspread was choked with clover, and the curtains were heavy and yellowed. A braided rug coiled on the floor, and a layer of dust coated it all—the top of the dresser, the tennis shoes I’d left at the foot of the bed. I sat next to the suitcase and listened. Now, it was quiet on the other side of the wall. All I could hear was snow laying itself on top of snow outside.
I sat like that for a long time. I kept my coat on and my eyes closed.
“LEILA? Leila?” Someone pounded on the back door with a club or a fist, and I stood up from the bed and went toward the sound of my name, shouted.
I walked down the hallway to the kitchen and looked out at the night, which would have been utter darkness except for a huge, bald moon, crouching low in the sky. It hung just over Rick’s head like an ax, and his face glowed.
I opened the door. A blast of winter followed him as he stepped in and said, “Look. Leila. My mother told me what happened.”
“It isn’t true,” I said, the lie as flat as a tin knife.
“I don’t care right now, Leila. If you think I give a shit, you’re wrong. I’m just here because I’m not going to have my mother tell me what to do anymore. It’s got nothing to do with you now. It’s between me and her. I married you because she told me to. I’m not just going to get a divorce because she tells me to. It’s none of my mother’s business anymore.”
I could feel my skeleton vibrate under its clothes as he spoke. A tuning fork. One pure and honest sound, and, behind it, the river, tires flattening stiff snow with the sheer weight of a truck.
That night we slept together in my childhood bed, though I never slept. It began that night, Rick’s tossing and muttering in sleep. In the small bed, I couldn’t roll away, except to the wall, which was cold, the old glossy white paint kissing my kneecaps and hands when I came too close. Morning came fast, pure white as a flat screen of light all over the sky at once, and Rick opened his eyes slowly, looked at me for a while blindly, as if he had to reorder a file in his mind before he knew where he was, what had happened, who we were.
“What are we going to do?” I asked him. And then I whispered, “I can’t live here.”
“Oh.” He cleared his throat. “Everything will be fine. We’ll stay here until we sell it, and then we’ll get an apartment.”
He’d thought about it.
He must have been thinking about it in his sleep—the turning, the talking. He blinked at the ceiling, and I propped myself up on an elbow and looked into his eyes. The pupils expanded and contracted in my shadow. All black, but in them I could see myself, my face warped like a face reflected in a spoon, my hair messy around my face. For a minute I thought I recognized my mother in Rick’s eyes. I thought I looked exactly like my mother—and for a moment, the thought thrilled me. Then, the pupils contracted to only a pinprick in the brown, and I disappeared in them completely. Then, I could imagine, perfectly, sinking my teeth into his neck. Sucking the blood right out of him.
But Rick closed his eyes, and I knew his blood would already be frozen if I tried.
His blood would taste like powder, or old ice. It might be poisoned, or ash, or white.
“Christ. What are you doing, man?”
“None of your goddamn business. Turn off the light.”
Silence then. I stare up at the light until I can see the black filament of its bulb. A dark thread. A wingless dragonfly. He says, “You heard me. Turn off the goddamn light.”
The bedroom door closes again.
Then it goes dark. An exploded star, still, in front of my swollen eyes. When he rolls off of me, I wipe my face and mouth with the edge of the bedspread, and the mask of bone that is my skull feels unfamiliar under my fingers. A new layer of fluid, shell-like, has grown over the one I’d known.
“Look,” the voice says from the dark of the bedroom door, “there’s no reason to beat on her. Lay off it, will you?” and the door closes.
He touches my leg then as if he’s touching nothing. A railing on the deck of a ship. His breath sounds solid and close, and I think I’d be able to see it like smoke, in and out of his mouth, if the light were on. But it’s not. I can smell my own body. Salt water. Like soup with a bone floating in it—an old bone, something the butcher would give you for free to add some flavor to t
he soft vegetables and watery broth, but not too much.
“You know Gary told me to beat you up bad that night at the motel, don’t you? That’s what he does. How he gets little bitches like you to whore for him.” He touches my neck when he says that, and I hear the hound outside again, not howling, just dragging that chain through damp leaves in the dark. “Do you hear me?”
He puts his hand near my face again, and I wince. I say, “Yes,” and cover my face with my forearm. Pure instinct. A bat folding itself up in an attic.
He laughs when I do that.
“Did you know it?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say. I knew.
“You stupid cunt,” he says.
Then the dark shimmers with ash, throbs scarlet as a liver. I remember my mother turning in the kitchen once with something that color in her hand. Slick-purple. Livid. She laughed when I gasped. “Sorry,” she shrugged, “It’s dinner.”
I open my eyes.
I close them: My mother, holding something dead over the stove. Something unfamiliar dragged up from an animal. Frozen. Thawed.
Someone opens the bedroom door briefly but closes it again, and I hear a scrap of Gary’s voice in the distance of the living room. Laughter. Dull, as if it’s passing through thick glass. I keep my eyes closed, and I know the bruises around them are magenta, or midnight blue.
He lifts his weight from my body, and I hear him pull his pants back on, stuff his shirttails into them, pull on his boots. I don’t move.
Silence, then he sits back down on the edge of the bed.
I can smell October on his clothes. Dark, wet fur. The smell of winter pushing up through the Michigan dirt. Twisted tree roots. Rusty water seeping under that.
Something cold passes between my breasts, and I remember the tang of metal in my mouth, once, when I drank a handful of that rusty water from the river.
The cold passes up my chest like a tin finger into the soft, empty, round place that pulses at the base of my throat. As if a small animal lived under there, in a throbbing nest. I can hear him. Growling, I think, deep in his chest, like a hungry dog. Rattling and damp. Famished. Ready to eat some other ruined animal alive.