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Suspicious River, Page 4

Laura Kasischke

  I do. It’s dark. Under the sink there is a coffee can half full of water that’s leaked from the pipe, and I knock that can over when I crawl in next to it. A fat metal snake of drain presses cold against my cheek as the liquid soaks my plaid skirt and green tights—is that my kindergarten uniform?—with rust. The smell of old water, like thin blood.

  Later, when the sound of scuffle and confusion stops, I come back out into the silence, like something just hatched, cool and damp, and we all sit down to dinner. The ham is candy pink on the kitchen table, and it’s sticky with pineapple rings and maraschino cherries.

  Through dinner, my mother’s cheeks are flushed. Otherwise she’s ashen and blue-eyed under her black hair. My father’s eyes are army green, and his ears burn at the edges like meat. He has a crew cut, hair so short it isn’t any color. My mother squeezes his hand and says “I’m sorry” when he reaches for the butter dish, while her other hand rests peacefully on her cold silverware, and my father smiles at the butter—a little shy, with small false teeth.

  I went into the bathroom and closed the door behind me. The tile was pink, but dull, as if there were something gray seeping up under it, pushing itself into the Swan Motel from outside the Swan Motel, and the smell was sweet as ether—a basketful of small pink soaps, chemical fresh and clean. Next to the sink there was a full-length mirror, and I looked at myself in it:

  Nothing had changed. My skirt was creased, but it wasn’t torn. My hair was messy, long and copper, and I combed it then with a small black comb some former office girl had left behind. There was a ripping sound as I pulled the comb through my hair, but only a few strands tore out, and I shook those into the wicker wastebasket. On my neck—high, under my ear, as if I’d been playing a violin—there was a small red mark. Nothing more noticeable than that.

  It had grown darker outside and begun to rain harder. I stepped out of the bathroom into the office and found the pack of cigarettes in my purse under the counter. I smacked one into my hand and it felt light and fragile when I took it between my fingers—combustible, and paper. Still, I had to strike three matches to light it, each match sputtering out fast in the air as I moved it toward my face.

  When the cigarette was lit, I went to the window and stood with it, the smell of smoke cutting the damp, making me vaguely dizzy, making haze.

  The office lights were too bright for me to see out into the darkness, so I looked at my own reflection in the window instead, watched myself blow smoke into the glass, imagined for a moment that I was someone else, someone I’d never met, when a pickup truck pulled into the semicircular drive outside, cutting my image in half with headlights.

  A woman stepped out into the rain, leaving the pickup running, engine high and agitated, even leaving the driver’s-side door open, the pale yellow dome lighting it up inside. I could see a string of red beads like bloody baby teeth swing gently below the rear-view mirror.

  She opened the door to the office and the bells announced her like the right answer to a game show question.

  Her hair was dirty blond, down over her shoulders. She wore an orange top, a jean jacket open over that. No bra. I could see her nipples under the orange cloth, stiff in the chill. The thin, slippery cloth. The woman had on tight jeans and looked tired, weathered, but pretty in a made-up way. “You work here?” she asked.

  I nodded, put the cigarette down in the aluminum ashtray, cylindrical and sterile by the window, and started back toward the counter, toward the guest book to find the woman’s name in it or not.

  “Where’s Gary Jensen?”

  I stopped before I got there.

  Ordinarily we didn’t give out room numbers. Policy. Instead, we’d ring the room for guests and let them speak for themselves to whoever was looking for them at the Swan Motel. Mrs. Briggs believed this policy saved a few lives every year, or a few disruptions at least. Kept women from being kidnapped by their husbands. Kept men from being caught with their lovers by their wives.

  “42,” I said, not caring, in this case, about the policy.

  The phone rang as the woman was leaving, and I didn’t notice if she’d parked her pickup in the lot and gone up the concrete stairs to 42 or not, but she’d sped out of the drive too fast. I heard someone honk long and hard. A near collision, I imagined. It was slippery out there.

  “Leila.” It was Rick.

  “Hey Rick,” I said.

  “Just checking again to see if you want me to bring you some dinner.”

  “No. Like I said.”

  “Everything O.K. there?”

  “Yeah. Fine. Everything O.K. at home?”


  “I’m tired,” I offered into the silence.

  “I’m tired, too.” Silence again. “I tried to call awhile ago but there was no answer.”

  “I was in the bathroom,” I said, “I heard it ring but it stopped before I got it.”

  “Well. I’ll see you tonight.”

  “I’ll see you tonight. Bye.”

  Rick had fed me since the beginning. In the chaos of the high school cafeteria he would sit beside me, open a carton of chocolate milk, slip a straw into its beak and pass it to me, watch me sip, arm around me the whole time. He’d ask me afterward how it was, and it was always fíne. There would be the sound of grease splattering behind us. The sssss of a metal fork, dropped or tossed, sliding across the linoleum floor.

  But back then, Rick would eat, too. He liked extra cheese on anything. Every afternoon, before we left the cafeteria for class, a couple of candy bars from the vending machine would be tossed down to Rick by a hidden, mechanical hand.

  “I love you,” he said on our first date.

  It was a Christmas dance in the gym. Outside, the snow had turned pewter blue under a blurred moon. The air was empty and sharp. I’d barely been able to breathe as we ran from his father’s warm Ford into the sweaty heat of the dance, and my lungs still hurt, as if I’d been stabbed with oxygen—too pure and icy clean. My high heels were strapped around my ankles with leather laces, and my dress was burgundy as old blood, but Rick felt full and soft beside me, my hands on his shoulders as we danced. He moved his own hands up and down my back, and it was warm. I pressed against the dark wool of his suit, then looked up. “I love you.” His face was as grim as a father’s when he said it, and silver glitter from the decorations, hung with twine from the lights, had settled in his hair.

  I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “I love you too.”

  Rick played guitar and worked on cars. His father owned pinball and vending machines, and Rick would drive to forty-seven different bars all over the county once a week and empty coins from his father’s machines into a big black velvet-lined briefcase. His father paid him ten percent when Rick was in high school—more after graduation, after we got married—and it was Mr. Schmidt’s hope that he’d retire and Rick would take over the whole business then.

  When his father talked to him about his future, Rick would nod absently, the same look he had on his face those days when he ate—cheerful, as if he didn’t know he was eating, as if what other people ate was what he noticed—spooning and chewing the whole time, as if he weren’t.

  Rick’s parents adored him. Like me, he was an only child, but his parents had wanted him, had wanted a big, messy family—all its old bikes rusting with the smell of oiled revolvers in the garage. Though, not having had a big family made them even happier with what little they had. Even after Rick had grown to be six foot three, two hundred and twenty pounds, his father—himself a small bald man with an embarrassing green eagle tattooed on his chest like a battle scar, its head reared back ecstatically—would grab his son around the neck and rub a knuckle into his head, call him Sonny, or Loverboy. Even when Mr. Schmidt wore a tie, you could see a green beak peeking out of his shirt.

  Though Rick’s father’s smile was all yellow teeth and a flash of gold from his molars, Rick’s mother’s smile was dazzling. She had been a beauty queen—a semifinalist, anyway, in a
state competition in 1960—and still had a sort of beehive, though it had loosened and grayed since then. But it was glistening. And those pearl teeth. She answered the telephone cheerfully, “This is Peggy Marie.”

  I liked their house. Busy wallpaper and flowered throw pillows. It smelled like meat loaf and talcum powder and didn’t remind me of home.

  “How can you stand it here?” Rick asked the first time he came over to the house where I lived with my father.

  I just shrugged, but I could taste old carpet on the back of my throat when he said it. We had to whisper because my father was asleep in the other room.

  “It’s a place to live,” I said. I tried to keep it clean, but I was never much good at cleaning.

  “It’s cold,” was the only other thing Rick said.

  A man propped the glass door open with his foot and pulled a maroon suitcase through it. It seemed the suitcase was too heavy to lift. He dragged it to the counter, smiling the whole time.

  “Hi,” I said.

  “Whew,” he said, “Ain’t you a pretty little thing.”

  “Pretty heavy suitcase there, looks like,” I said. His bald spot was wet and white as a saucer of milk in the middle of a mess of jet-black hair. His upper lip was sweaty, and he wiped it with the sleeve of his suit coat, cheap and tweed.

  “Man alive,” he said, staring. “Wow. Woo-wee, look at you.”

  I could’ve asked him right away if he had a reservation, turned the conversation to business, but I just stood stone still so he could look. Then I smiled slightly with my lips closed over my teeth and let it sink into him for a minute that I might be available if that’s what he was interested in, which he seemed to be. I licked my lips, stretched my neck in slow motion as if it were stiff. Finally I said, “Do you have a reservation?”

  He seemed flustered, shook his head no.

  “No problem,” I said.

  He was looking straight at my breasts. I took a deep breath and watched him watch them press a little tighter against my shirt—a thin white cotton one with a silver button at the neck. Then I took a check-in card out of the drawer. He exhaled, and the sound of it was like the tire of a tricycle, perforated, leaking slow. Whatever it was we weren’t talking about now was slathered like shaving cream all over the silence.

  “How many nights?”

  “Just tonight.”

  I turned the guest card toward him. Showed him the total. “How will you be paying?”

  “Cash,” he said. When he looked back up at my face, I held his eyes longer than he expected, and he leaned toward me then, sounding out of breath, “Oh, baby,” he said, “Uh.”

  “Maybe you need a back rub after lugging that enormous thing all over. Think?”

  “Yeah. Oh yeah.”

  “Well,” I put two fingers lightly on the top of his hand with the red pen in it, “it wouldn’t cost any more than the room. Does that sound good?”

  “Oh shit yes, sweetheart. Yes, yes.” He signed his name fast on the check-in card then handed me two fifties, which were crisp and stuck together. “You just keep the extra,” he said, “I’ll give you the rest in a minute if that’s okay,” he pointed to his suitcase, “It’s in there.”

  I handed him a key, 22—right underneath Gary Jensen’s room, I’d already thought about that—and said, “I’ll be over in ten minutes.”

  He stared at me some more before he hauled his suitcase back out the door like a load of bricks. I tilted my head and waved a few fast fingers bye-bye at him, and after he was gone I made change for myself from the cash drawer and put the money—thirty-seven dollars and sixty cents—straight into my red purse, locked the cash drawer again and hid the key, put the plastic sign on the counter and, this time, took the phone off the hook before I left.

  MY MOTHER stands to the left of the choir, white robe glowing under the hot ceiling lights. Dust settles in long, rose-tinted boas of morning sun behind the stained glass in the church silence, and then her voice lifts through empty air above the pews and hymnals, the winded mailmen in their stiff Sunday suits, the young mothers with infants struggling red-faced in their laps.

  My father has his hands pressed over his kneecaps as her voice rises above us all, an invisible bird—one perfect, earthshattering note. High and cold, it is a needle taking a piece of white thread up to the ceiling like a stitch.

  Ave—half breath, half pure steel scream—Maria.

  Helium, the simplest and lightest of the elements.

  All the women in the church touch their throats at that moment, afraid the sound has come from them. The men look away, ashamed. But the children look up to the ceiling, believing we might even be able to see that last note as it pierces the thin blue skin of the sky like a woman’s wrist.

  Then, it’s Sunday night, and my mother sits at the edge of my bed and describes Spanish moss to me before I go to sleep—how it hangs in wet ropes over the branches of trees in Louisiana, matted as fur.

  You can smell it like old blankets in the air, everywhere, even in the house.

  “I hated it,” she says—hated the whole damn state where she was born.

  She wears a slippery nightgown, metallic baby blue shimmering sleek and dreamy in a crack of light that bleeds up white from the hall outside my bedroom door, and she’s drinking something thick and minty from a coffee cup.

  I can imagine the Spanish moss of my mother’s childhood like corpse hair, or the dark ruined hair of my dead dolls—trees trapped under cloaks of it, bats and animals smothered and human in a turquoise veil of twilight in the state where she once lived.

  And I imagine her being born into it—a baby sleeping in a cradle of clotted hair, a moon snagged in branches, like another mother’s face, filling her cradle with silver light.

  “Bonnie,” my father calls, “Are you coming to bed?”

  She kisses my cool forehead as she leaves.

  I can hear them struggle through the thin wall between my room and theirs before I fall asleep.

  “Jesus,” my father says, and she sobs.

  “Goddammit,” my mother mumbles.

  Then my father, “Bonnie, no.”

  Something broken. He says, “We’ll clean it up tomorrow. Bonnie. Please. Come here. Come back here now.”

  I fall asleep when they go silent, and every morning the sound of yelping from the neighbors’ back yard wakes me when the sun comes up, liquid and fast.

  You might imagine Suspicious River as a small, friendly town if you’d never been there. One bowling alley. Seven churches. Ten motels. Fourteen bars. A 2,700-square-foot gift shop, its facade a cinderblock mural of Pocahontas emerging from a teepee, sprawling for a block along Main Street.

  The sky was painted turquoise in that mural. Two whitetailed deer stood blinking at one another. An old Indian with red feathers in his headdress glared at his own empty hands while Pocahontas, dark skinned, with long black braids, smiled at a shirtless white man. Her breasts were enormous and barely covered with the deerskin she was wearing. Midriff exposed. Her thighs were fleshy and curved into a dark place hidden only by a half-inch of ripped skirt. The tourists liked it, took each other’s photos from across the street, waving under the Indian princess.

  Her eyes were blue.

  Local legend was that the artist’s Swedish mistress had posed for the painting, had stood half-naked every day for six weeks on Main Street even after the weather turned cold, while the artist painted her into Pocahontas.

  But the mural was four decades old, and no one really remembered its genesis with any certainty at all. Still, it was a landmark in the town, perfectly preserved, something larger than life and twice as bright living right there beside us—though the Indians themselves, who’d found and named the town, who’d inspired the gift shop full of moccasins and plastic tom-toms, were gone now except for their graves mounding the river like three soft green bellies, inhaling and exhaling water.

  Years earlier, a condominium developer had wanted to level those Indian mounds,
had even started to, had taken a big yellow bulldozer to them like a huge and hungry bird. But he must’ve expected the dirt underneath the long, soft grass on the mounds to be solid, expected the mounds to just roll off the edge of the earth like guillotined heads. Instead, the earth under there turned out to be pitch and mud—half water—and in it, poking up here and there, floating in that dark soup, human bones—a length of spine, a skull, a shard of pottery with a stick figure buck painted on it in what looked like blood.

  After that, the Indians came to Suspicious River from further north—looking exotic and poor in our town. They made a human chain in front of the bulldozer and stretched a white banner across themselves that said rest in peace in big black letters.

  All day for days, carloads of families streamed past, craning their necks to get a look at the Indians and the massacred mounds hacked open like corpses. It puzzled the newspaper reporters, this attachment to the old bones of people the Indians had never known, who’d lived and died before their own grandparents were even born—not to mention the other garbage under there. The Indians didn’t want the bones, even to sell to a museum or a gift shop in Detroit. They just wanted it all buried back under mud and grass again.

  Publicity, the paper speculated.

  Pity, publicity, and cold hard cash.

  Comparisons were made to try to convince us the Indians were sincere. How would you feel if Sacred Heart Cemetery was dug up for condos and your grandma’s bones were sold to a professor in New York? Still, no one in Suspicious River really believed we’d care. Briefly, maybe, but they’d just be bones, and we’d be over it by August.

  But the Supreme Court ordered the mounds to be remounded, and then that was over, too. Just now and again an arrowhead was found in the forest, which was no surprise. Anything could wait in that thick woods for a few hundred years to be found. That forest, surrounding the town, seemed to whisper all day and night to the condominium developers, Surely there’s plenty of room for condominiums and Indian mounds on this empty planet. But the Indians couldn’t hear it over the din of bulldozers and garbage trucks.