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Suspicious River, Page 8

Laura Kasischke

  But he’d been shaking, touching me, cooing about so beautiful, so beautiful. And it was hard to keep my eyes open. I’d gotten used to being treated like a plaster statue by then, and didn’t mind. Just my body, I thought, you can do whatever you want. I’d gotten used to treating the men themselves as if they’d hired me to complete a menial domestic chore, one they’d started themselves and hadn’t had time to finish—their couch spot-cleaned, their knickknacks dusted and rearranged.

  But this was different. Gary Jensen had been trying to please me—circling, kissing. He wouldn’t let me take him in my mouth. He wanted to rub my back instead, which made the inside of my skin feel like static—an electric crackling along my spine beneath his hands, red sparks snapping from my nerves. He said Relax, relax, but I couldn’t. He wanted to touch my hair, get on his knees between my legs.

  His body was thin, but his skin was smooth. A feather-ridge of dark hair at his breastbone, as if there had once been wings, as if they’d been surgically removed. He moved his face down to my stomach, and the whiskers felt like a small fire there. I touched the top of his head, where the hair was thin, and I felt how soft it was, like a child’s. He begged me to let him kiss me there, and I imagined he was trying too hard to make up for hitting me the day before, that now he felt he owed me the way I felt I’d owed him for the money I’d slipped into my shoe, and, therefore, didn’t fight back when he hit me. So I let him, and he never even came, just tongued and touched me until I couldn’t stand it anymore, coming under his warm mouth.

  Afterward, he kissed me over and over on the ear while I tried to catch my breath. Smiling, he said he was done, that’s all he’d wanted to do, and I put my clothes back on. Maybe it had felt good, that attention, I wasn’t entirely sure, but walking back down the concrete steps from his room, I’d felt crushed and numb where he’d tasted my heartbeat between my legs. Foolish and defeated, like a kid. I felt like a child who’d asked for a toy my parents couldn’t afford to buy, and they’d bought it for me anyway:

  What you want for yourself, and what you dread being given.

  “Huh? How often?” He nudged me, squeezing my elbow. Not hard, but I looked up.

  “I’d have to say that’s none of your business,” I said. Then I moved my leg between his legs, my light blue jeans against his dark blue ones, and I pressed my knee into his. “Unless you’re saying you’d like to do it again,” I said.

  He threw his cigarette into the rock garden, and a thin string of smoke rose from the ruined petunias, wadded as they were now, like used tissue, facedown and done. He took his hand off my elbow and slipped his arm around my waist, pulling me into him. Kissing my ear. “Yeah,” he said into my hair, “I want to do it again.”

  22 opened then. Someone looked out from a dark split in the doorway, a man with small bird eyes, and shut the door again.

  “LOOK,” my mother says to my father.

  They are at the kitchen table, a scattering of empty envelopes between them.

  My mother turns her palms up on the envelopes and says, again, “Look. We know Andy will lend us the money. And he’s got it. If you won’t ask him, I will.”

  My father is looking into the checkbook ledger as if he’s lost something in it. He says nothing, but he swallows.

  A drift of snow has leaned against our kitchen window, and in the February twilight, as blank and white as cold bath water, the snow appears to be the sky. Heat rises from the register, scratching •—a dry wool sweater over my face, and I stand with bare feet on the black grill of it, burning and frozen at the same time.

  I look out the window, over the snowdrift and through the condensation on the other side of the glass, and through it I can see into our neighbors’ fenced back yard to where a long brown rabbit is tied by its foot to the low branch of a tree: a cherry tree. In the spring that tree will be bright and fluttered as a hundred doves, and then, in summer, the blossoms will turn to tough red gems of blood.

  There’s blood under the hung rabbit now—a splash of black in the snow. I watch the rabbit swing back and forth in the wind, closed mouth, its ears still pressed back against its head, defying gravity, or listening intently to the dark. The short gusts of wind nudge the rabbit’s form forward like the quick breaths of a woman dying or giving birth in the pause between two, blizzards.

  “Jeez,” my father says. “I hate to take all this money from my brother.”

  There’s silence and, in it, my mother seems to roll her eyes at the white ceiling over our heads. My father doesn’t notice. There’s an angry rash underneath his chin where he daily shaves the dark whiskers away and washes them down the drain. His hair is too short, cut too close to the scalp, to tell if it’s still black or gray.

  “But there just isn’t any other way,” he says and clears his throat, “and anyway, next month.” Then he lifts one shoulder in a shrug, as if a bird has landed there and surprised him, as if someone not entirely unexpected has come up behind him and stuck a gun against his ribs.

  My mother lights a cigarette. She’s wearing a tight tan sweater and a black skirt. Her legs are long and crossed under the table—high heels, black nylons. She’ll say she’s going to choir practice that night, but practice has already been canceled because of the weather and, hours later, when my father phones the church, worried, the sky will be blood blue, and the janitor there will tell him it was all called off hours and hours ago.

  But now my mother goes into the bedroom, stands at her dresser and dabs violet water on her wrists before she puts her camel’s hair coat on and leaves. I watch her skate away over the ice, over a crust of snow in those black heels to the car. Behind her, in the hall outside their bedroom, a pillar of violet water rises and diffuses with the furnace dust. Outside, an animal cries, shrill and tinny, at the frozen garbage in the frozen garbage can.

  I go to bed early, listen to the wind and to the sound of tires crunching over deep, packed snow.

  Kissing my hair, he said again, “Yeah, I want to do it some more.”

  I leaned in, circled my tongue quickly in his ear, and it tasted sweet, like sweat, a husk, and whispered, “Eighty will be enough. Does that sound good?”

  “Better than good,” he breathed, lips open against my neck.

  “Well,” I said, stepping out of his arms, and I laughed. “We can’t do it here.”

  He laughed, too. “No, darlin’. You’re right about that.”

  “Give me an hour to get organized in the office,” I said, and he nodded, letting my hand slip out of his hand, slow.

  Though it seemed impossible, a horrible, immaculate miracle, within only a few days after that first time with Rick, I knew I was pregnant. My father would be smoking in the kitchen, and the smell of cigarettes made my heart race, made me taste tar and tires on the roof of my mouth, weak enough to faint. I couldn’t drink coffee, and my breasts felt suddenly bruised and heavy as old fruit. At night I slept like someone underwater. This was only five, maybe six, days later.

  I didn’t tell Rick because I knew what he’d say. His own family was so cozy, I was afraid he’d tell his mother and she’d start knitting booties or miniature pink sweaters. His father might light up a fat cigar and invite all the cousins over for a party.

  My own father drove across town to the bank every third Thursday to deposit his disability check, dragging his dead leg behind him like a lame, stubborn, but loyal bloodhound. Naturally, it was spring. I’d had him call the school that morning and tell the secretary I had a bad case of the flu. Then, when he’d left for the bank, I went out to what there was of a garden in our back yard—a weak rosebush my mother had planted, which bloomed every June despite itself, red and sudden as a car wreck. It was the only thing my mother had ever planted, and I dug a shallow hole behind it with a teaspoon.

  In that hole, I buried a small photo of my mother as a teenage girl. For years I’d kept it pressed like a petal in an old black hymnal with yellow pages, also hers. In the photo, my mother had a strand of pear
ls dangling in the suggestive V of a black dress, a little cleavage like a stab wound shadowed between her breasts.

  That morning, the soil around the rosebush was muddy, sun warming it up. Old grass mixed in, smelling sweetly wet. And there was the smell of something else, something dead, pushing up out of the dirt—a smell that would last all spring, every spring. The rosebush itself didn’t look like anything more than the arm of a skeleton that day, its bony hand reaching up from the underworld, up for the sun.

  Here and there, a few bald snowdrops glistened against the thawed black. Here and there, the shoot of a crocus reached up, too, struggling from the ground and wheezing as it did, struggling out of bulbs that had been planted by people who’d lived in our house years before we did.

  And even a few fat robins already—wandering around, stunned.

  When I pressed it into the muck with the tips of my fingers, my mother’s photograph curled up wet around the edges in its grave. I used the back of the teaspoon to push the earth back over her, then patted all around it with my palms, letting the darkness seep between my fingers:

  It was a superstitious rite, I knew—though I felt natural, even ancient, enacting it—not silly or stiff at all, small-town, hokey, nakedly hopeful, the way I felt when I prayed. I just felt glad and relieved that she was there, buried, while I was here, a week pregnant and alive, the age she’d been when she’d given birth to me. Spring was getting ready to explode all around us like a homemade bomb.

  This was the last false image of her I had, the only one I hadn’t buried beside the rosebush already.

  Later, that afternoon, I called a clinic in Grand Rapids, and they told me I’d have to wait eight weeks for the fetus to grow large enough to scrape. By then, I thought, even the tulips would be blooming, smooth and black, or wagging their red tongues along the sides of houses on our block. By then, April would have come and gone. There would be sparrows darting across the church lawn under the shadow of a cross. Wet wings on Good Friday and a hazy yellow sky. Then another blizzard, though warmer and thick with slush, on Easter Sunday—burying the new color under a rattling cough.

  Not surprisingly, nothing ever grew in the spot where I buried the photos of my mother.

  What might I have expected?

  Some kind of flower, or a dangerous weed? A poppy glaring up at the sun, or something half-human? An orange flower with a child’s face in the center of its petals?

  That last photo—I even tried to dig it up in August, but it was nowhere to be found, and part of me was relieved that my own black magic always failed, that my bargains with the devil fell through each time.

  He didn’t seem to want my soul at any price.

  I smoked a cigarette in the office, and then I went to his room.

  Gary Jensen opened the door before I could knock.

  “Heard you coming up the stars,” he said, and it took me a moment to realize he’d said “stairs,” swimming through his thick accent. He slid his arms around my waist. I put my own around his neck. The kiss he offered was slippery and hot. Our tongues swam over and under each other like river snakes.

  The week before my appointment, I said to my father at the kitchen table, “I have to have an abortion.”

  He stared at me for what seemed a long time, then started to cry. He put his head in his hands and sobbed while his cigarette burned to nothing in an ashtray at his elbow. I watched the top of his head, the short stubble there, and I thought he’d become an old man fast but still had a marine recruit’s new hair. After a while his nose was running and he couldn’t seem to catch his breath. I reached across the table and squeezed his wrist, which was thin and tangled with blue veins like yarn, something sewn up sloppily. He looked at me.

  My father was a big man. Hands like catchers’ mitts. A man who might have been a soldier or a football player, who might’ve been able to beat another man to the ground with his bare hands in an old-fashioned war before weapons or after the big home game, behind the bleachers, over the honor of some girl. Instead, he’d been convinced to sell cleaning products for the rest of his life by a man in a blue suit who’d come to the door the day after his high school graduation: That day, my father had been feeling confused, hung-over, and bored, and his mother was fretting about his future as if it were a case of the flu, a can of tomato sauce in her fist in the kitchen, raised. His younger brother, Andy, already owned a car.

  My father’s failure as a salesman left him rubbery and nervous in the presence of men. Even at church, he would stand back from the other ushers, who were not as tall as he was but who appeared much taller in their blue suits. Theirs was a kind of height my father never had, and it had nothing to do with height. They’d speak to him kindly, as if he were a much younger or much older man. My father let those other men make all the decisions that mattered—where to park the rich old ladies in their sterling silver wheelchairs, where to set the stack of extra pamphlets about God.

  He could never even look the mechanic, with his dirty hands, in the eye. Failure had made my enormous father small and shy, and then his last sales trip had trapped him in the twisted wreckage of his Ford, crushed, finally, and for real—blood and bone meal under the dashboard, crying the whole time for my dead mother while they pried him out—the sound of pots and pans clattering in a restaurant kitchen as they did. The sound of a can opener cutting into dented tin.

  “We have to stay over,” I said. “I have to be there Tuesday afternoon for tests, and then they do the abortion on Wednesday morning. I’ll make a reservation for us somewhere cheap. Somewhere like the Motel 6, O.K.?”

  “This is my fault,” my father said in a high voice, a statement like a question, wiping his nose and eyes hard with a wadded paper towel. “You’re just a little girl. You needed a mama.”

  He started to cry harder.

  “No,” I said and shook my head. “It’s O.K., Dad. It will be fine. But you have to go with me to Grand Rapids on Tuesday. A guardian has to be with me.”

  My father nodded his head. “Of course,” he said. “Of course, baby. I love you so much.”

  Gary Jensen caught my tongue between his teeth, gentle, and undressed me without moving his mouth from mine. This time my heart beat hard against the cage of my ribs. I came with him inside me, which had never happened before, not with any man, and the coming fluttered improbably and like a bird dying between my legs. I hadn’t imagined it would be like that, and it made me open and close around him like the mouth of something underwater and warm, something not yet born.

  Afterward he kissed my nipples again. My neck. My lips and the lids of my eyes, and then he seemed to start to cry.

  “God,” he said, “Leila—I can’t believe, after what I done to you the other day that you’re so damn sweet to me. You come up here again like you’re not afraid of me at all, and you make the nicest love to me anybody’s ever made.”

  He put his fingers in my hair, and they got tangled and lost in the copper of it.

  I noticed a thin scar under the stubble of his beard, stretching thin and red from his neck to his ear. It was white at the edges, as if someone had sewn the skin together neatly with a needle of light. I put my hand, then, on his narrow chest. It was no wider than my own, and, while we’d made love, it had felt soft against me, gently crushing my breasts beneath its bones. I said, “I should get back down to the office. God, what if Mrs. Briggs has been trying to call or there’s a bunch of guests down there?”

  Gary Jensen propped himself up on his elbow and said, “Don’t go yet, Leila, please. I got to look at you some more.” His eyes were brown and dry.

  I let him look.

  “God,” he said, touching the side of my face with two fingers, “I can’t believe I hit you, baby. I can’t believe I did. What the hell is the matter with a man like me?”

  I looked hard at his face. His eyelashes were also dark. A scattering of faded freckles on the bridge of his nose was left behind by the agitated boy he used to be. Soft hair. I touch
ed it where it curled behind his neck, and he kissed me again.

  “Leila, I got to tell you why. Something about me, so you don’t hate me. Because I feel like I could fall in love with you,” he said, squeezing my nipple between his thumb and forefinger when he said it. He swallowed. “My daddy used to beat my mama bad.” He swallowed again. “And I used to see that all the time. Probably since I was only just born. I bet I never saw him do anything but beat her, I guess. And even though I swore I’d never, never treat a woman that way as long as I lived, there’s just this thing in me that’s him, that’s what I seen him do to her, and there I go. I done it again, Leila, before I even knew what I did.”

  I didn’t want to cry, but it seemed like a true story, the way he told it, and I saw myself leaning over the seat of a car, some boy straining into my mouth, his hands in my hair, and I said in a whisper, looking away from him, “I know how that is.”

  That sentence, as it scrolled out of my mouth, stunned me itself like a slap. I’d never thought of it like that before, and then I closed my eyes, saw myself suddenly in a bright flash against my eyelids at the kitchen table on my sixth birthday. My mother had baked a cake. A plastic Raggedy Ann was stuck in the middle, into the chocolate frosting like a birthday sacrifice. Six candles blazed around Raggedy Ann’s orange braids.

  My father was on the road, and my uncle had come over with a jewelry box for me, a bottle of red wine for my mother. They’d played some slow jazz on the record player while they drank it and toasted my birthday, knocking their gory glasses together full of red, ringing like old bells. The saxophone sounded scratchy and full of breath, obscene.