Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Suspicious River, Page 9

Laura Kasischke

  I was wearing a petticoat, a velvet dress like a girl in a storybook. It scratched, too, and shuffled, prickling and stiff around my thighs. They both insisted that I laugh—my mother leaning into me with that purple sweetness on her breath like a spleen, clapping, singing, Leila, Leila, Happy Birthday Leila.

  I wanted to smile to make her happy.

  I blew the candles out in one deep gasp, one long forced breath, but I couldn’t eat the cake. My stomach hurt. They put me to bed when I started to cry, and my mother and uncle sat at the edge of the bed and smiled.

  Make Leila smile, my mother said, and my uncle did a magic trick then, waved his hands in the air, and then he pulled a long silk scarf from my ear. Red. I closed my eyes, and I heard red wind as it passed out of me into his hands. It spun my heart like a plastic top. My mother pretended to gasp, but I knew where he’d gotten it from, and my heart sparked loose and blurred against my ribs:

  When Gary Jensen put his face next to mine and kissed my ear, I remembered that. Something deadly yanked out of my body for everyone to see, and now it was in his hands.

  Something scarlet, secret, like the wish to die or kill.

  His fingers circled my nipple. He moved down to kiss it, then he looked up at me again. “I know you know what I mean,” he said, “that you been damaged, too. I could tell that about you from ten miles away.”

  He sat up in the bed and leaned over the side of it to pick his shirt up off the floor. He slipped his arms in, shrugged it to his shoulders, straightened the collar and started to button. My body felt soft and exhausted, like something left to soak too long in too-warm water. I couldn’t move, though I knew I needed to put on my clothes and go back to the office. I knew I should be in a hurry, but I couldn’t be anymore.

  He stood up and put his pants on. We’d never even pulled the bedspread down. He was looking at the whole bare length of my body on the bed. “Clean yourself up,” he said, and left.

  He hadn’t given me the money, and I knew I’d never ask.

  I CAN HEAR them through the wall.

  “Bonnie,” my father says, “where the hell have you been?”

  “Choir practice,” she says, and I hear her drop a string of beads on the dresser, unzip the back of her black skirt and step out of it—a breeze of nylon passing polyester, static electricity at her hips, sparking the dark.

  “You were not,” he says, and it sounds like pleading. “I called the church two hours ago when you were already two hours late, and the janitor said there never even was any choir practice tonight.”

  “Jeez, Jack,” she sighs, “you sure keep track of things real good, don’t you?”

  “Well, where were you then?”

  I hear hangers clanging in her closet, and I can nearly smell the skirts and dresses, limp and empty in that small space, smelling like flesh turned to cedar, bath salts, a lavender sachet, but stale. She must be naked, I think, maybe standing at the edge of the bed, letting him look at her body in the bright overhead light while she slips something silky down her arms, over her pale breasts.

  “Where do you think, Jack? We already discussed this.”

  “What?” my father asks. “What did we discuss?”

  “We discussed the money we needed to borrow.” She sounds impatient. “I went to your little brother’s apartment, Jack, and got the money for you. Sorry if that bothers you, but that’s just that.” She sighs. “And I couldn’t just leave after he’d written us a check for seven hundred and fifty dollars, could I?” Silence, as if she’s sipping, or breathing, then she continues, “So I drank a couple beers. His girlfriend, that Amber, was over. I felt like I couldn’t be unfriendly right after he gave us that much money, for god’s sake, could I? Should I have just gone over for the money and come straight back with the cash in my greedy little hand, Jack?”

  “Of course not,” he apologizes, “but I was worried, Bonnie. It’s a damn blizzard out there. How was I supposed to know where you were, for god’s sake?”

  There is a weight of silence again, like a fistful of hovering air in an empty glass. She must have kissed his lips.

  Her voice is lower, and she says, “I’m glad you worry. I know you love me.” More silence; then my father’s voice muffled under her lips.

  I peer under my window shade to the nothingness outside. Snow lays itself in blankets over snow, and a white truck is stuck in a drift of it, revving and rewing its engine. A man shovels, out there, and swears. Through the crack between my shade and the windowsill I can see him, knee-deep in snow and wearing a white snow jacket.

  In the kitchen, the refrigerator kicks on and off.

  The man disappears and reappears behind a white screen.

  For a moment, he is the snow.

  Then he is snow shoveling snow in a white crack of refrigerator light.

  Finally, he is his own white truck full of feathers driving away.

  Then he is sleep, the pillow, sky.

  When I got back to the office, there was a white-haired couple waiting. They were sitting on the vinyl couch—the light blue couch for guests, though guests rarely sat down in the office, being, as they usually were, in a hurry to get to their rooms or on the road.

  “Oh my gosh,” I said, pretending to be breathless as I swung the glass door open. “I’m so sorry. There was an emergency,” gesturing outside. “Have you been waiting long?”

  “Fifteen minutes,” the husband said. He was angry, with a small pinched mouth, but his wife smiled her Cover Girl frosted lipstick, Passion Pink, as if she didn’t have a care in the world. They both had blue eyes, but one of his was clouded over like a half-poached egg, so their three blue eyes looked up at me as I slipped behind the counter, trying to appear worried, mumbling apologies and lies.

  They stood up at the same time and faced me. I said, “Do you have a reservation?”

  “Alberts,” the woman said. Her hair was piled in soft white curls of seafoam on her head, a feathery tiara. She was petite as a bird, pretty, dressed up for something in a navy blue dress, but old.

  I scanned the guest book; Alberts wasn’t there.

  “Here,” I said anyway, making a black X next to Foreseth, Karl, and closing the guest book too fast for the couple to see that it wasn’t their name I’d checked, that their name was not in the guest book at all. I looked up then and smiled, “Just one night?”

  “No,” Mrs. Alberts said, and maybe she did sound worried then. “Three nights actually. We won’t be going home until Tuesday morning.”

  “Oh, of course,” I said, nodding seriously, writing 3 NIGHTS in big block letters on the check-in card under ALBERTS. I assigned them a room as far away from Gary Jensen’s as I could. A nice room, view of the river. All day they could watch the swans lean into breeze and pluck their own feathers out with long, wet beaks, shaking a squall of white fuzz into the wind like flimsy snow.

  After school on Monday, I packed a hairbrush and two print dresses in a green overnight bag, one that had been my mother’s and which smelled, after all those years, like the attic itself—formaldehyde and mothballs yawning up from a yellowed mouth when I opened it.

  Four pairs of underwear. Socks. Shampoo. My toothbrush and a Daisy shaver. In another suitcase, one with a handle that was broken, which meant my father would have to carry it in his arms like a large, unwieldy child from our car to the room at the Motel 6, I packed two white T-shirts for him. Two pairs of underwear. His electric shaver in its soft black sack. His denture cream. His deodorant stick. We could hang his pants and shirt from a hook in the car’s back seat, I decided. I had no idea what else we might need. We’d never gone anywhere together overnight, ever.

  I was sixteen then, a high school junior. My head always hurt. I had bluish circles under my eyes. In the hallway at school I’d carry my books tight across my chest and watch the floor as I walked. The dull shine on it smelled like old turpentine while the janitor in his navy blue jumpsuit, Ron embroidered orange over his heart, smoothed a dry mop over
it day after day in slow circles, humming to himself until the floor was buffed and bright as wax melted over old ice.

  It was always too bright in that building, hot and dusty, and my eyes would water in the morning before I got reaccustomed to so much light. In study hall I would stare at the glare of my homework under those humming tubes, and the words would string together like dark pearls, explaining nothing, all across the glossy paper.

  Something sour in the trash cans when I passed. Something secret in the band room behind a heavy door: the glint of a black clarinet and scales practiced over and over like a kind of obedient screaming.

  I liked music, liked to pass the band room when there was practice, but I didn’t play an instrument, and all the ash-blond girls who did—I’d lived in Suspicious River and gone to school with those pretty, smirking girls my whole life, and still I didn’t know their names. I might as well have grown to adolescence on another planet. Those girls took their flutes apart, wet with spit, and slipped them into thin black boxes lined with velvet and their own saliva, and I thought about kissing the reed of an instrument until it was ready to play, what that would be like.

  Rick would sprint down the hall toward me between classes. He was bigger than I was, and his dark hair was long then, over his ears, falling to his collar. He’d shout, “Leila,” behind me, but I’d never hear him until he was already at my side and had put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me in under it as if with a heavy wing. There would be two red triangles at his cheekbones from the school’s endless heat, a seal of sweat on his upper lip. He’d seem eager and excited, like a cartoon pet or a TV mother, and he’d kiss me at my locker, then ask, “Do you mind me kissing you in public?”

  I didn’t.

  “Do you feel O.K.?” he’d ask. “Did you eat any breakfast this morning?”

  “Yeah.” I lifted my eyebrows, though I couldn’t remember whether or not I had.

  “Oh, Leila,” he said, smiling. “I feel so lucky,” he whispered into my ear. My back would be pressed up against my locker, which was just a thin sheet of metal, easily dented, painted as gray as everything else and only wide and long enough to hold a body, or a raincoat. The hallway would be empty except for us—everyone else having hurried to class, and we were late again.

  Rick’s breath smelled like milk in the morning. Mint, or cough medicine, by afternoon.

  He said, “All the guys are so jealous,” narrowing his eyes and stooping a little to look into mine. “They’ve all been fantasizing about you for years. And now you’re my girlfriend.” He took a step back as if to see me better, and he said, “God.”

  I knew those boys.

  It was the girls I didn’t know. Their identical ponytails swung like nooses behind them in the halls, confusing. They dressed the same. They even walked the same. It was a house of mirrors, wandering among them down those narrow hallways. Sometimes a girl would stumble into me, on purpose it would seem, and a crowd of similar girls behind her would laugh.

  But the boys parted when I passed, making a small corridor for me, alone.

  I didn’t tell Rick why my father and I were going to Grand Rapids. Rick had a final exam in trigonometry that week and tryouts for baseball: He wanted to make the varsity team and said he’d give me his letter jacket if he did. Already, Rick’s class ring felt heavy where it dangled its red glass eye on a silver chain between my breasts. The ring soaked up heat from my skin there, under my blouse, and when I walked, it sometimes felt like a tiny but very solid fist knocking at my ribs to get in, dully humping my heart. I couldn’t imagine myself wearing his letter jacket, too, like the friendly girls who dated his friends—tan, rich girls with bright ski jackets and chubby mothers who dropped off Kotex for them at the front desk when they called home, frantic, to say they’d gotten their periods, early, at school.

  Those girls gathered in the bathrooms between classes, wearing the letter jackets, giggling and swapping lipsticks, worrying about their hair—ratting it, smoothing it, spraying their hair.

  But Rick was a foot taller than I was and weighed eighty pounds more. I thought that if I wore his letter jacket, I’d get lost in it forever, wander around in it like a piece of vacant property, like all that undeveloped land down by the river where they planned to build condominiums but never did. You could wander that scrub for the rest of your life, acres and acres of it, and never be sure where you were. It would be the perfect spot to dump a body or to drop off a dog you didn’t want. But then you’d have to find your own way out, afterward, and maybe you never would.

  Gary Jensen walked in the office door under a spotlight of sun, and I had to squint to see him. He had a green carnation and a cigarette in the same hand and held them out to me. I took the carnation, and I smiled.

  He had the baseball cap on. An orange D glowed over the blue brim. His beard looked shaggier, and when he smiled back at me, only one half of his mouth moved, creasing one cheek above his jaw. A bisected grin. Cowboy, I thought again. Undercover TV cop. I could picture him driving a pickup through a desert, pointing a gun at someone who was running. He’d be squinting, and grinning, in order to aim at the fugitive’s heart.

  He shook his head, looked at me. “Damn,” he said. “You are so damn pretty.”

  “Thanks,” I said, “for the flower.”

  He leaned across the counter then, smoke rising out of his hand like a charmed snake. “You deserve more than flowers,” he said, inhaling and glancing at the ceiling, then back at me, seriously, “and more than money, too. You deserve to be treated like a fucking princess, princess.” Inhaling fire, exhaling smoke. “And that’s another reason I came in here. I wanted to tell you that I don’t just want to make love with you, baby. It’s a whole lot deeper than that for me, and you might think I’m some kind of nut or something to say that, when we just met and hardly know each other at all. But I have never”—he flicked ashes into the ashtray at my elbow—“never felt like I feel when we’re in bed together, sweetheart. You are the cutest, hottest little thing I ever touched.” He dragged on the cigarette then and laughed, “Listen to me! I come down here to tell you I don’t just want to fuck you, and all I’m talking about is fucking!”

  I laughed, too.

  He looked down at my hands.

  My wedding ring, a thin blond band.

  Then he looked up at me and said, “But I want to be friends with you too. God, I want to take care of you. Isn’t that the damndest thing? I just feel like you’re my baby already, or something.”

  He took a step back and smiled, holding his hand out to me, then he gestured to the ceiling as if he were tossing something light and invisible up to it. He said, “Don’t laugh at me, O.K.?” and put his hand over his heart, “but that’s how I feel. I want to protect you is what I guess I’m trying to say.”

  He looked behind him.

  No one.

  Lowering his voice, “I got to confide something else to you, Leila. About my temper. You know how I hit you? God.” He inhaled sharply. “Can you believe I did that? Well, I told you, Leila, I just get this bad thing, sometimes, this bad feeling. And I know it has to do with my old man. But once—this is an ugly story, sweetheart”—he straightened himself up at the counter to tell it, bruised his cigarette out—“Once I had this woman. In Boulder.” He looked into the distance over my shoulder, remembering. “She was like you. Just so damn pretty and desperate for money. Little baby boy at home I think, but she was just a girl herself, really—and so she was, you know, a prostitute. So, I was staying in a motel there, and I took this girl on up to my room, and, Leila, I done the same damn thing to her that I done to you.” He shook his head in disbelief. “I hit that pretty little thing.” He clapped his hands together, leaned forward across the counter again. “But you know what, baby? The second—and I mean the second—I hit that girl like that, this guy comes bustin’ in my room, knocked my fuckin’ door down, and he just beat the crap out of me. Just like that. Beat the livin’ crap out of me just like I de
served. Man. Baby.” He swallowed.

  “Leila, that’s how I feel like I want to do for you. Like that guy done for her. Beat the crap out of any son of a bitch who tries to hurt you. Because I understand that you got to be doing what you’re doing—for whatever reason, sweetheart, and you don’t have to tell me why, but I know you got to have the money. And you need somebody to be lookin’ out for you.” He put his hand over mine, and it felt heavy. “The money is important, baby, but the money is not as important as your life. Money is nothing without that, baby.”

  The clock on the wall seemed to snap its cold hand forward each time he said money.

  I thought of that. The money.

  It’s what anyone would think I was doing this for.

  But the money was nothing.

  The money just bulged out of my jewelry box, green and dry. I only thought about the money when I added more money to it.

  Gary Jensen pressed his hand down harder on mine, and sun warmed the plate glass. A bright box, a house of mirrors, a white truck, a palace of ice. What was it? What was I saving the money for?

  “Well,” he said. “Listen to me, goin’ on like a fool. You probably don’t have any feelings for me at all, for all I know. I better get back to my room. But, Leila, I wondered if I could see you tonight, when you get done down here, so we don’t have to hurry for once. Maybe we could drink a beer. Please?” He laughed at the palms of his hands and said, “God! Listen to me beggin’ you like a lovesick kid, Leila. This must make you sick.”

  I swallowed, smiled. “No. It’s O.K.,” I said, “I’ll come up about eleven.”

  “Great,” he said, still looking at me, backing up to the door, touching the edge of his baseball cap. “That’s so damn great.” He blew me a kiss.

  THE GROUND IS RAGGED with brown leaves. When the wind blows, the leaves sound like women in paper petticoats rustling down the aisle of a hushed and empty church. The trees are naked, the sky is purple. The neighbors’ garden is twisted and blond, all the flowers collapsed into one another since summer. The smell of mulch and fusty withered marigolds travels across the chain-link fence in a puff of amber and old bulbs. Damp seeps up from the Michigan dirt, full of Indian bones, tangled tree roots, hard white kernels of corn like teeth buried by squirrels for the winter, worms burrowing into the center of the earth to die or sleep.