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Suspicious River, Page 5

Laura Kasischke

  As I’ve said, you might imagine this was a small and friendly town. Like the swans, you might think it was a good place to build a little wet nest at the river’s edge, hidden behind a wall of cattails and whistling reeds. Every March I’d watch them through the window in the office. Always in pairs. One of the big white birds would bring a beakful of uprooted river weeds to the other, who would stuff the weeds mechanically into the mud.

  22. I knocked. The door was the usual half-inch open. The curtains had been closed.

  He said, “Come in.”

  The room was cold. His maroon suitcase was open on the floor. Black socks and gray underwear spilled out of it. I said, “You could turn the heat on.”

  “Well,” he said, shrugging, “I couldn’t figure out how.”

  “Here,” I said, going to the radiator under the window, turning the dial to ON. Twisting the knob in the direction of the red arrow pointing to WARM.

  He looked over my shoulder as I did this. “Wow,” he said, “great. Is that all? Hmm.”

  Then he handed me a twenty and a ten, which he’d already had in his hand. I leaned down to slip it in my shoe, and I could smell him. Old Spice and Listerine. He was standing close to me in his undershirt and blue polyester pants. I could see black hairs on his chest sprouting out of his T-shirt. His belly was soft behind his belt, and he was breathing hard.

  I could hear country music drone above us. Someone singing 0-0-0 over and over. Twang and thump. Gary Jensen stomping in his cowboy boots over our heads while I undid the buckle of this man’s belt, unsnapped his pants and pulled them down.

  He was trembling, practically screaming, “Oh my god. Oh. Oh my god.”

  When it was over, he wanted more. I told him I had to go, but he held onto the sleeve of my blouse. “Please,” he said, “just let me see your titties.”

  “No,” I said.

  When I got back to the office, Gary W. Jensen was leaning on one elbow with his back toward the counter, smoking a cigarette. He wasn’t wearing the leather jacket, and he looked lean. His brown hair was combed now. The thin beard looked darker. He looked like someone vaguely familiar from a TV show—maybe the deputy on Gunsmoke, but sexy, clever.

  I didn’t look at him, just walked around the counter, took the money out of my shoe and reached under the cash drawer to put it in my purse, checking first to make sure the rest of my money was still where I’d left it. Then I stood back up and said, “Can I help you, Mr. Jensen?”

  “You sure are a busy little beaver, ain’t you?”

  “Yes.” I looked straight at him. “So what can I help you with now?” Not a hint of anything in it—sex, fear, anger, nothing.

  “Well.” He cleared his throat, which led to a long cough, and then he said, “To be honest, I wanted to apologize. I know I’m really a bastard. I should never’ve hit you.”

  “It didn’t hurt,” I said. It hadn’t.

  He looked surprised. “I’m glad of that, at least, but I still feel so damn bad about it.” The Texas accent made him sound sincere, and his eyebrows were knitted together. His eyes were dark and sad. He dragged on his cigarette and looked hard at me, though he didn’t look for long. My fingers felt cold and thin to each other.

  “Forget about it,” I said, and meant it. I’d gotten the money, he’d hit me, so what? It was just my body, and it was over.

  “Thank you,” he said. “You’re real sweet, you know that? You shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. I know it’s none of my damn business, but you’re real pretty and nice, and it’s just wrong. It could be dangerous, too, with fools like me running around loose.”

  I felt my throat tighten, near the spot he’d held me down against the floor.

  Here he was, someone else again, and what role was left for me to play?

  I swallowed and said, quieter than I’d meant to, “Why’d you hit me then?”

  He leaned across the counter and whispered, as if it were the most astonishing fact I’d ever hear, “Sweetheart, I have no idea.” He shook his head and looked at his thumbnails lined up next to each other on the counter, then he looked up at me again with damp eyes. “That’s the truth,” he said. “I don’t have the slightest damn idea. Just something sick in me, I guess.”

  “I guess you’re right,” I said, and my own eyes went stupidly damp. I felt myself step back a bit then, away from my body or out of it, and I could see myself as if in a mirror. Embarrassed, sentimental, blurred.

  Gary Jensen began to fish for another cigarette in his shirt pocket and handed one to me, too. The flame was warm near my face when he lit it, and I didn’t look up again.

  Outside now it was deep blue, though the October sky had begun to clear with just a bruise of old light, the sun already sunk like a shipwreck to the west, where Lake Michigan sloshed sloppy with dead fish and weeds.

  The office felt too small and hot, a dull fan scrambling the heat, blasting dust into the air, and I imagined the dry mummies of mice stuck in the electric furnace duct, crumbling and blowing mouse ash into the air. Us sucking it into our lungs. The cigarette smoke filled my mouth with soot.

  “You saw that woman then, the one who came looking for me?” he asked.

  “I guess so.”

  “She’s got a good heart, too, and I’ve broke it to pieces. She’s the mother of my child, for chrissakes, and I’ve treated her worse than dirt. Worse than dirt.” He shook his head, seeming baffled by himself. “Who knows why a guy like me does the kind of stuff he does. Who knows?”

  I shrugged and said, “I don’t,” exhaling a banner of gray hair over his shoulder.

  He grinned. “No, hon, I suppose you don’t. But I just want to tell you I have never been sorrier in my life for anything I’ve done than I am for hitting you. There’s just no excuse for hitting a pretty little girl like you. A total stranger. And I just had to have you know that. Especially since, you know, you were being real nice to me, and we were doing something—intimate. You know? The way I behaved was just plain wrong. I am one evil guy. My mama would just roll over in her coffin if she knew what kind of man I have become.”

  “O.K.,” I said, putting the cigarette out in the ashtray near his elbow, “but I need to get back to work.” I felt annoyed, familiar, myself again.

  He straightened up then, as if I’d caught him in a lie. “I understand. I understand.” He cleared his throat. “Listen, I hope this isn’t going to make matters even worse. But money is not a problem for me right now, though I suspect it is for you. Here.” He handed me a wad of drab green. “I want you to have this as a gift from me.”

  I took it without looking at it and slipped it into the front pocket of my skirt.

  “Thanks,” I said, looking at the wall behind Gary W. Jensen’s head as he turned to go. His boots squealed over the linoleum and, before he stepped out of the office into the damp curtain of dusk, he turned at the door to its K-Mart Christmas jingling: “Bye.”

  I tried to smile.

  I didn’t know why.

  The clock said twenty-five past eight, and the river sounded sloppy and fast outside, like someone running away with a bucket of cold black water.

  MY UNCLE ANDY tugs my mother’s arm, pulls her up from the couch, gentle but quick, and before he presses her to him she twirls, graceful, and laughs. He scoops one hand up under her breast, arm behind her, takes her hand in his other, and she scratches the back of his neck lightly with her fingernails as they dance barefoot in the living room to no music at all. Her nails are long and frosted, mother-of-pearl, and they make a dry sound as they move lightly across his flesh—a pencil scribbling numbers fast on a page.

  She is in a red dress and black stockings, a string of fake pearls like small sea-teeth around her neck. My uncle Andy’s nice shirt is starched stiff and unbuttoned to the middle of his chest. He’s handsome, and young. He always has new clothes—pressed, pleated pants, skinny belts and ties. Tall and thin, but solid. His dark hair is combed off his forehead but falling, still, in
to his eyes, over and over. He pushes it back with a fast hand.

  In the corner of the living room, the Christmas tree blinks like some stalled car’s hazard lights while, outside, the snow gets deeper, deeper, and more deaf. My father is out there somewhere on a two-lane road, trying to get home from another state, some place he’s gone to sell something to someone who wants it right away, who doesn’t care that it’s Christmas Eve. He calls every few hours to say he’s almost home, though still on the way, and it will take a long time in so much weather. I try to look out the window but all I see is their reflection in it:

  My mother catches my uncle’s earlobe between her teeth. He opens his mouth, and only air comes out—pulling her closer, moving his hand down her spine to pull her hips to his. I press my face up against the black glass, and my breath leaves the shadow of ghost lips on the window, then disappears.

  Out there, milk-blue hills of snow have rolled and drifted into smooth slopes, as if they’ve been butter-knifed across the front lawns along our narrow street, across the driveways, concealing sidewalks, front steps, all the frozen gardens and iced-over birdbaths on our block. All the plain houses, stuck like plastic cake decorations into a deep blizzard of cake, are identical to ours:

  Two bedrooms. No dining room. A place in the kitchen to sit and eat dinner or to pay your bills. This rectangle of living room.

  Here and there, a garage has been built. Instead of white, someone has painted the shutters red. But other than that, they’re exact. Each one with a dry green Christmas tree lit up, making the house a festive firetrap in December. A slow dance behind dark curtains. I hear them breathe behind me, and it’s a kind of music—all rhythm, just a drummer’s brush.

  The lace around the wrists of my pajamas prickles. Pretty trim. Bric-a-brac with little, itchy teeth, nibbling.

  I’m too young to be awake so late, even on the eve of Christmas.

  When I got home that night, Rick was in blue boxer shorts and a plain T-shirt watching television in our living room. A handsome blond cop dropped to the concrete. Bullets whizzed above him. A mailman put his hand over the mouth of a screaming housewife, hysterical because someone’s blood had splattered her yellow dress. But on our television, the blood looked pink as the vacancy sign outside the Swan Motel—neon, phony, cheerful.

  Rick turned the TV off.

  “Hey,” he said, not smiling.

  I leaned over the couch and we kissed with the sound of a thin book closing.

  Our apartment often smelled like onions cooking in someone else’s apartment. Warm, though. Orderly. A few posters on the walls—a man playing guitar, a vase of blue flowers. A row of books on a white shelf.

  I went into the bedroom and hung my jean jacket in the closet and then went into the bathroom and brushed my teeth. As I leaned over the sink, mouth full of mint and spit, Rick came up behind me, put his hand on my waist. In the mirror I could see him behind me, his shoulders sharp as wire hangers under his T-shirt. His jaw looked different, too, more clearly a bone than it had been a few months before. My hair fell reddish into the sink, and I flipped it over my shoulder, twisting away, swishing, rinsing while Rick moved back toward the bathroom door.

  “How was work?” he asked.

  “No big deal,” I said.

  “Many guests?”

  “No. Hardly any. Real slow.”

  “Want some dinner now?” His skin looked gray against the bright bathroom walls, but his hair and eyes were dark, and behind them I could see his mother as a teenage beauty queen. It was as though, losing weight, Rick had dug up his mother’s lost face, exhumed her delicately shaped skull.

  “No. I just want to go to bed. Did you eat?”

  “Yeah,” he said, turning into the bedroom.

  I put my hands on my hips and followed him. “What did you eat?” I asked.

  Rick shrugged, “I had a salad.”

  I leaned against the bedroom wall and shook my head. “Why? Why don’t you eat something besides salad, Rick? You’ve lost forty pounds. I hate it.”

  Rick looked away from me. He smiled, sort of. Again, he shrugged. “I feel really good,” he said.

  “Jesus,” I said, under my breath. “Well, you don’t look good. You look sick. You look like you’re dying. What’s the matter with you?”

  I didn’t sound upset, even to myself, though my voice was raised. Instead, I sounded as if I were reading something interesting out of the paper, and Rick just looked at my bald knees, not smiling. He said, “Can’t we talk about something else?”

  “No,” I said. “We have to talk about this. Millie told me today she couldn’t believe how you looked when she saw you last week. So should I tell her you’ve lost ten more pounds since then? That you won’t eat anything but lettuce, but you feel really good?” At the end, I imitated his monotone, folding my arms against my breasts.

  “You can tell Millie anything you want, Leila. Surprisingly enough, Millie’s opinion isn’t all that important to me.” He didn’t sound angry, either, just blunt.

  “What about my opinion? Don’t you care that looking at my husband makes me sick? Don’t you care that this is driving me crazy, watching you evaporate into thin air?”

  Rick sat down hard on the edge of the bed, as if he were exhausted, then looked up at me. Even his hair looked different—finer. His teeth were bigger and more white.

  “Listen, Leila. I’m tired of talking about my body.”

  “Well I’m tired of living with it.”

  He smirked. “Well, that’s honest at least. Leila, you’re tired of living with me, and I’m tired of doing what other people tell me all day to do. I’m tired of my mother nagging and my father foretelling my future in pinball machines, and I’m tired of you telling me what’s best to do with my body.”

  “Well, you’re killing your body. Is that O.K. to say?”

  My hands had begun to shake when he’d mentioned his father, the future, the pinball machines. It was the one thing I’d never heard Rick complain about before, the one thing I thought didn’t fill him with despair and contempt.

  “Well, at least it’s my body,” he said. “It’s my body—” he thumped his rib cage each time he said my—“and I can do whatever the hell I want with my body. Is that correct?”

  When I opened my mouth to answer, it was empty. A wet hole full of wind. In fact, I had to squint: The exactitude of it stunned me, and I closed my lips against breath as he walked past me, back to the living room we shared.

  I took my clothes off, put them in a neat pile in the corner of the bedroom, slipped into one of Rick’s white T-shirts, and got in bed. I could hear him in the living room. Laughter from the TV and the excited whine of children. I was still awake when he turned it off, came into the dark bedroom, balanced himself into the waterbed and curled against my body before he fell asleep. His breathing was deep, slow, and it made gentle waves on the surface of our bed.

  Rick’s legs on my legs felt familiar, as if they were my own, as if we were a tree with tangled limbs. I thought about the man with the maroon suitcase, how he’d wanted to see my breasts, and I couldn’t remember that man’s face, just the pastiness of his body, how it had trembled like soft food when he came. When Rick, in his sleep, put a hand on my waist, I rolled over fast and pressed my breasts against the mattress, warm with water, and his hand ended up on my back. Soon he moved further to his side of the bed, turned away from me in a dream, breathing so steadily I could have counted the long dull minutes with it.

  The dark was total, and it pulsed with purple snow and static when I focused my open eyes on the ceiling. Occasionally a bar of light from cars passing by would rise and fall on the wall or smooth its white glove over our dresser as if it were a ghost, dusting. I could hear the woman who lived upstairs run water in her bathroom sink, and I imagined her in red flannel or something slinky and black, ready for bed by herself. I’d only seen her once, climbing the stairs very slowly. She’d had long legs, must have been about forty. She wore
sunglasses that day in the dim light of the stairwell, so I couldn’t see her eyes. But the woman’s hair was darker and longer than mine. She’d smiled and said nothing when I said hi.

  Now that woman was getting into a bed above our bed. I could hear the springs squeak and settle, squeak. Then silence. I wondered if the couple under us could hear our bed so well, that swell of water as we got in and out.

  They weren’t married down there, and they fought every night. Neither Rick nor I had ever seen the girlfriend, but we’d gone to high school with the guy, Bill, and Bill had been popular—a doctor’s son—and Rick had seemed to know him pretty well back then. They’d both been witty, athletes, more vivid against the high school’s gray cinderblock than I had ever been.

  Still, I’d known Bill back then, too, and Rick knew it. Now the two high school football buddies never spoke at all, even when they passed each other in the hallway, at the wall of mailboxes, miniature steel keys popping them open. “Hey,” they just said, “hey,” under their breaths, dry as the whisk of a broom.

  And though we’d never seen her, sometimes at night Rick and I could hear Bill’s girlfriend cry, high and wild.

  “He’s a dog,” Rick said once while she was crying, “always was,” and he frowned.

  Once, we heard her scream Bill’s name out the window and heard Bill shout up at her, “Cunt,” from the street.

  I thought then about Gary W. Jensen. Not until I was nearly home from the Swan Motel, stopped at a four-way stop with no other cars around, did I count the money he’d slipped to me across the counter, and there had been three fifty-dollar bills in that drab green wad soft as a dog’s ear, hacked off.

  Then I thought about standing up into that slap. How it numbed but hadn’t hurt me. I’d been ready for the second one, and I’d moved with it into its own curved momentum. I thought how it hadn’t even surprised me—the way the ice-skating instructor had said, years and years before, when our sixth-grade class had been taken on a field trip to the rink in Ottawa City, that the most important thing about skating was learning how to fall: white shavings on the sheen, circling, circling, and falling every few circles into a sting of solid cold, a steam of frost and ice-cindered wind in my lungs. Then, how he’d pushed into me while I was down, looking into my eyes, how he’d pulled out and come on the floor, the dull beige carpet, and my thigh.