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Suspicious River, Page 7

Laura Kasischke

  “Look,” he said, “you’re probably afraid of me now, and I don’t blame you—”

  “I’m not,” I said, honest. And then, sarcastic, “Sorry, but I’m not.”

  I shrugged.

  And I wasn’t. I’d gotten my money, I thought, even the extra, and it hadn’t hurt. Not even for a moment had I feared for my life.

  Naturally, death scared me as much as the next person—a big, white room with shelves and shelves of books, all with blank pages—and the ambulance screaming down the street bright and blanched while a glitter of steel and needles flashed from the small back window as it passed. I hated that surprise, could never hear the sirens until that thing was right behind me. But I wasn’t the least bit afraid of being slapped by a strange man in a motel room. Not in the least. Plus, I’d been paid.

  Gary Jensen seemed pleased about that, and he inhaled smoke before he said, “Well, I was going to say I’d like to give our little rendezvous another try”—he held his palms up facing me—“if you’d even consider it, after what I done. The money’s no problem.” His palms were pale and empty. “I’d pay you whatever you want.”

  I sighed, as if at a child.

  He glanced out the glass window to the parking lot, then back at me, and whispered, “You name it. I’d just like to be alone with you again and do it right this time.”

  “Two hundred dollars,” I said fast, looking straight in his eyes, and I felt a rush of wind when I said the number, as though a speeding car had brushed the right side of my face—wings, or a slap. There was a big white semi pulling into the circular drive, and the wheels and engine rumbled under my feet, in my stomach, up my legs.

  “Great,” he said, putting a hand over his heart, smiling. “I sure do appreciate this.”

  I’M IN THE BACK SEAT of a deep blue car. Trees and gray houses, swing sets, and street signs flash by like a slide show, someone clicking the slides on the screen too fast to focus.

  But now we’re pulling off onto a loose dirt road. My mother turns up the radio—what sounds like the single voice of a hundred young girls singing sadly about love—and glances back at me. Then she leans across the front seat and says something I can’t hear into my uncle’s neck. He has one hand on the steering wheel while he fingers her knee with the other. It’s warm, and I feel sleepy, though I don’t want to fall asleep. My eyes open and close, open and close, in slow motion, on their own.

  “That’s it, baby,” my mother says as she turns to look at me, “You go to sleep like a good girl, Leila.”

  A sliver of wind from the cracked car window shifts my mother’s black hair. Her eyes are blue marbles, good ones.

  My uncle looks like a boy from the back. Slicked-back hair. His ears are pink around the edges, and maybe he seems a little shy or nervous around my mother. But his skin is darker than hers. His arms are large. Still, when he looks at her there is a kind of stagger in it, astonishment, and he’s like a waiter, confused, trying to be casual, carrying a tray that’s too heavy with fragile dishes, a silver lid over each one, and he can never remember which meal is under which lid. He pushes the hair over his forehead, casual, again and again, until he’s a handsome man with a movie star’s profile, surmising, but also with a boy’s white and too-eager teeth.

  The sunlight is lemon and heavy on my face. “Shh,” I hear my mother say in my dream as it begins, shorts out, fades, begins again.

  I hear her laugh softly, as if from far away, as the car’s wheels buffer us over gravel, dust in the air, sheer slips of it billowing like sheets on a laundry line blown off the shoulder of the road into the woods.

  He leans down over her in the front seat, and I can hear them breathe, and it sounds like wind knocking, caught in those sheets hung out on a tight, swaying rope, rising. Somewhere, honeysuckle shudders and dandelions make a high whine—those bittersweet white and yellow flowers singing one shrill note together at the sun.

  Suddenly it’s night, I’m in my bed, and I think I might still be dreaming, but all the lights in the living room blaze. I get out of bed to see why she is singing, or screaming, and the sound of it is like a knife scraped across a silver platter in the middle of the night. I walk barefoot across the hallway rug.

  My mother is wearing a T-shirt, his—he wore it to breakfast the morning before. He has no shirt on, just white underwear, and my mother is on her knees on the living room carpet, her back against the TV.

  My uncle leans down, both hands on her left arm, twisting the skin.

  It’s why she screams.

  He pushes her against the empty screen, yanks her to her feet, pushes her into the table lamp, which falls, sparks, sputters out.

  My uncle’s crying. His face is strung with tears, mucus, pinched up. His lips are apart and ugly—a spasm, a wretched smile.

  “Bonnie,” he sobs.

  He tries to shake her, but he can’t open his eyes. She has his hair in her hands, and there is blood. When my uncle opens his mouth, nothing comes out. When my mother sees me, she says, “Go back to your bedroom, goddammit.”

  I go back.

  I close the door behind me.

  But the bed has gotten cold.

  I curl into just one corner of it and try to sleep, but I hear my uncle shouting, “Why. Why.”

  It’s not a question. It’s a note. Or a letter. Y.

  My mother isn’t crying anymore. She’s telling him to shut up, shut up, none of your fucking business you fool.

  Then, I seem to fall asleep for seasons. Until time is no longer a straight line. It meanders. My memory has tied it up like a bow, and nothing happens in order anymore. Leaves fall out of the trees, it rains, then leaves fall out of the trees again, and there are flowers at the side of the road. My father comes and goes in his dark car, smelling like cool wind and cigarettes when I press my face into his chest. Someone buys a whole new wardrobe for my Barbie dolls while I am dreaming, and one of the dolls has copper colored hair, like mine. The other has black hair, like my mother’s. They’re both grown women, though, and wear their sexy strapless evening gowns all night, gowns made of material like metal, stiff and shiny. They dance with one another on the braided rug on my bedroom floor. Their feet, elegantly arched.

  Still, those dolls are made of rigid plastic, and their dancing is as stiff as their dresses, and ugly. It looks painful from above. Sometimes they slap each other for no reason—jealousy, or spite—with their outstretched zombie arms. Sometimes they take off all their clothes and dance around and around in circles, their pointed feet pressed together as if their ankles are tightly chained.

  When I wake up, it’s all pale snow again, and the world is white and vacant as the surface of the moon. An empty book. A concrete pond, drained. A whole era of lost memories, square and barren as a blank movie screen.

  I waited a half-hour before I put the sign out on the counter, watching the minutes snap forward on the wall. I wanted him to wait.

  When, finally, I stepped through the office door on my way to Gary Jensen’s room, the bells jangled and the sound startled a swan who’d wandered onto the parking lot tar, which had gone sticky and soft under the autumn sun, and the swan waddled fast back toward the motel lawn—graceless in its hurry, turning toward the river again, where it had its illusion of safety, of home.

  Often the swans wandered away from the water in search of popcorn or old hot dog buns. Sometimes they’d peck at a melted circle of bubble gum in the parking lot with their beaks, thinking it was something they could eat—always famished and always eating, those swans. They were beautiful, of course, but gluttonous, and shameless as greedy, drunken angels at a feast.

  I could hear him in 42, whistling behind the door. I didn’t knock, just pushed it open.

  Gary Jensen was leaning back on his bed, legs off the side of it. Still in his jeans and starched blue shirt. Still in his boots, tapping at the carpet with the sound of an animal scratching at its fur. He looked skinny. A TV cowboy—rangy and weathered with a slow, straight s
mile. There were a few deep lines at the corners of his eyes, as if a sparrow had stepped there once or twice in wet cement. When he said “Hi,” the notched corners of his mouth filled and hollowed. With his baseball cap off, his hair looked messy, thin on top, but it curled a little near his neck. Looking at him, I felt plain, pale, fleshy as a child. I closed the door behind me, and he motioned to the dressing table. Two one hundred dollar bills were on it, worn soft as old felt. He must have had them in his wallet a long, long time, I thought. I picked the bills up, folded them, slipped them into my shoe, under my heel, then went to the window and pulled the curtains closed.

  “Come here, sweetheart,” he said, patting the empty space beside him on the bed. He put his arms around my shoulders, and the skin of his neck smelled like skin: I couldn’t help but sink my teeth gently into the whiskers on his jaw, high up, under his ear.

  When I got back to the office, it was full of sun. It smelled like vinyl, softening—the warm seats of an old car on a long drive in the summer. It made me feel slow and tired—like someone who’d been traveling for days. No one was in the office, but there was a brown sack on the counter and a note beside it written in pencil on the back of a grocery store receipt:

  Where are you? I brought you lunch.

  Call me at home. Rick.

  I threw the note away, put the lunch under the counter, and slipped the two hundred dollars out of my shoe and into my purse. Then I went into the bathroom and washed my hands and face with hot water and the small pink soap. Afterward, the skin across my cheekbones looked thin, and I took a lipstick out of my purse, put some on my lips, smoothed a little across my cheeks, combed my hair with the black comb. When the phone began to ring, insistent and metallic on the counter, I just let it. I turned the hot water knob off and let cold water run, instead, into the sink. I leaned over to drink it out of the cup of my hand, like sipping from a glacier while the ice age waned, and the cold hurt my teeth, pleasantly, tasting painfully pure.

  The first time Rick and I made love, he cried gently and quietly and apologized when we were done. It had been in total darkness on an old couch in the basement of his parents’ house. We were both sixteen, and it hadn’t mattered to me. It was fine, I told him. Whatever he wanted to do. I stood up from the couch and took off my clothes and dropped them around me on the cold basement floor. My body felt like old stone to me, but Rick ran his hands over it, still in his clothes, as if my body were entirely new.

  “Are you O.K.?” he asked me over and over.

  “Yes,” I said.

  Rick stood up to take his shirt and pants off, and I could hear him breathing, a racecar driver trying to change a flat in order to get back on the racetrack, fast. I couldn’t see him at all, and I thought then about what it might be like to be blind, or dead. Maybe I held my hand out in front of my face and couldn’t even see myself.

  “Leila,” he said softly afterward, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to go that far.” His head was on my shoulder and I could feel tears squeeze out of his eyes onto my bare skin. “I wanted to wait until we were married,” he said.

  I wanted to laugh but said, instead, “It’s fine.”

  “Did it hurt?” he asked.

  Maybe then I did laugh. I said, “No.” I hadn’t felt anything at all, and he seemed puzzled, but relieved.

  After that, Rick seemed to feel we were married, but also that we shouldn’t have sex again until we were. He talked to me in whispers when he drove me home from school about how we weren’t virgins anymore, and I realized he’d thought I’d been one until then. It made me feel smug, safe. His eyes looked round and dumb when he fixed them on mine. It made me feel loved, the way a bad cat is loved by a lonely old woman. It knows it can scratch up the furniture, piss on the rug, and nothing is ever its fault. I liked the idea of that, liked to let him touch my breasts until he shook all over, and then I’d look into his eyes to see how clouded over with modesty and self-restraint they were. A boy on a diet. A priest. He could’ve done anything he wanted, and he knew that, but wouldn’t. He treated me the way his mother treated him—a fading beauty queen with a crush on something too fabulous to last. There were times I thought I might love him, too, because Rick was tongue-tied, slow, and dull as love itself. I’d search around my chest sometimes at night before I fell asleep, feeling for my heart, but there was never anything there.

  The phone kept ringing. I picked up the inside line, which sputtered a red light like an ambulance flasher.

  “Office,” I said, annoyed.

  “Yeah. Hi. I’m in 22. Is this the girl I met yesterday?”

  It was the man with the maroon suitcase. He was still there. Millie hadn’t bothered to write that in the guest book either.

  “It is,” I said.

  “I’d like to see you again.”

  I rolled my eyes at the tone of his voice. He sounded like a bad actor playing the part of an ugly, romantic man. I said, “Well, it’s going to be eighty dollars this time.”

  There was a pause. Maybe he was looking in his wallet. “No problem,” he said. “When?”

  “Give me half an hour,” I said.

  He said, “See you then.”

  I put the phone down and picked it right up again, dialed my own familiar phone number. “Rick?” I asked when he answered the phone.

  “Leila? Where the hell were you? I looked all over. I was worried.”

  “I guess I was around back smoking a cigarette,” I said.

  “I looked there.” It wasn’t an accusation. He simply sounded confused.

  “You couldn’t have,” I said. “That was the only place I went except the bathroom. How long did you wait?”

  “I could only stand around about ten minutes. Dad was waiting for me in the car. We did a repair job this afternoon in Ottawa.”

  “Hmm,” I said, as if I were the one with a reason to be suspicious.

  “I didn’t want to say anything to my dad about you not being there. I just wanted to give you your lunch and say hi.” Silence, then Rick cleared his throat and said, “I’m sorry we argued last night.”

  “It’s O.K.,” I said.

  “I’m just, you know, tired of being nagged.”

  I touched my throat. This was the different Rick again. Even his voice was lower, and I stood up a little straighter when he said it. A little surprised. A baby hand of fear and thrill with a few ragged fingernails tickled behind my ribs. The way a big storm announces itself with monotonous blue skies for days.

  “Thanks for the lunch,” I offered. “Rick, someone just pulled up. I have to go. I’ll call you back a little later, O.K.?”

  “Sure,” he said. “Good-bye.”

  His room was a mess. The maroon suitcase was still open on the floor. The bed wasn’t made, and it looked slept in. A white towel was wadded on the only chair.

  “Didn’t you get maid service this morning?” I asked.

  “I was sleeping,” he said. “I told her to go away.”

  “Oh,” I said. I took the bills from his hand, slipped them into my shoe.

  Our “maid service” was Mrs. Briggs’s daughter-in-law—a fat, damp-white woman who might have been any age over twenty-five, who smoked cigarettes and drank Coke until she coughed up a phlegmy syrup, spitting it over the railing onto the parking lot while she wheeled a stainless steel cart of sheets and plastic garbage bags full of clean or dirty linen slowly from room to room. If someone was asleep when she came by, if the DO NOT DISTURB sign was hanging on the door knob, she never bothered to come back, and almost no one ever complained. Some mornings she’d spend hours in a clean and vacant room watching Jeopardy! and The Dating Game, emerging later with a pink feather duster raised in one hand like an exotic, captured bird.

  I said, “I thought you were only going to stay one night.”

  He came toward me then, bolder than he had been the day before. Still in the same white T-shirt, though. Same blue slacks. “I stayed for this,” he said, pulling my pink knit sweater out o
f my jeans, yanking it up to my shoulders.

  I raised my arms and let him slip the sweater up. He trembled trying to unsnap my bra in the back, so I did it for him. He was breathing hard. I stood with my arms at my sides. His fingers were small and cold. Clammy palms. He made little sucking sounds and groaned when he took the nipples in his mouth. After what seemed like long enough for eighty dollars, I knelt down and unzipped him, and when it was over, he sat down hard on the edge of the bed with his mouth open. His lips, shiny and wet. I didn’t say anything while I put my bra and sweater back on, or when I left.

  Gary W. Jensen was leaning against the hood of his car when I stepped out of 22. He was smoking a cigarette, looking down at his blond boots. I walked by him without speaking, but he grabbed my elbow in his hands. Lightly, but I stopped.

  “Jesus,” he said and bit the inside of his lower lip, shaking his head. “Sweetheart,” he said, still looking at the boots. Then he looked up at me. “How often’re you doin’ this anyway?”

  I let a moment pass while I tried to decide how to speak to him. He wasn’t as easy as the man with the maroon suitcase in 22. I liked his boots and jeans, his easy laugh. He reminded me of a happy con man, the kind you cheer for in the movies—slick, but tenderhearted, with a sense of humor about his own, inevitable death. I’d felt small and clumsy the second time in Gary Jensen’s bed. Naked, I thought I looked skinny and uncooked under his solid body, a piece of white fish on a white plate, and nothing to eat with it.