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Authors: Laura Kasischke

Suspicious River (19 page)

BOOK: Suspicious River
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The smell of fermented apples, soft and rotten, and the air was like a black orchard, trampled under boots as big as God’s.

When I looked at my father, he seemed like a ghost now, too. It seemed someone had slipped him off in the middle of the night—like my Uncle Andy—but zipped something entirely else into his skin.

Expression painted on, head stuffed full of straw. Winter was already blowing in and out of my father’s empty mouth when he opened it to speak. Like a white silk scarf that had belonged to my mother.

 

Gary says, “Here we are.” He slips his Thunderbird between two faded yellow lines, then looks at me.

The parking lot glints with nice cars and pickups, a rusty van with an airbrushed painting of snowcapped mountains on the side. Gary says, “Let’s have a drink and see who’s here.”
THE BIG CITY BAR
blinks green from a small dark window with a limp curtain in it.

Inside, the bar is dim and warm. The smell of old beer and sawdust, like every bar up North. There is a couple standing near the entrance, outside the restrooms, arguing. The woman, tiny and pale, with long black hair, leans against the gray wall wearing only tight cutoffs, topless. Her naked breasts are a little shriveled, nipples huge and burgundy black. My
mother
, I think, without looking at the woman’s face: that casual nakedness, standing in front of a man as if she were a statue, a Venus, a marble madonna, but topless. Without thinking about it, I know, in the very center of my stomach, that when you look at a woman with her breasts exposed, in a public place, on a bright day, nothing good will happen. She is as accessible as something dead, and so are you. Your own body is exposed through your own eyes. The way someone’s soul is always snatched by a photograph—the photographed or the photographer, depending who is weaker. Depending on who pays.

The man has his hands on either side of her face, and he leans into her, barking, “What? What did you say?” He’s also thin and small, maybe younger than she is, and not as strong. The woman seems annoyed but not afraid, and she glances at us, a rectangle of sun between her face and the man’s cutting sharp lines of light across her stomach and breasts as the door opens before us, closes behind us. After it’s closed, for a moment I’m blind. The woman says, “Shut up, Doug. Hi, Gary.”

“Hey baby.” Gary gives her a little wave, and I feel as though I’m following someone important. The man with the key to the place. I feel the way the girlfriends of rock stars look. A little curious, but calm. Look at me, don’t look at me; I matter, and I don’t matter at all.

 

 

 

 

T
HEN IT WAS WINTER
. The girl said, “Your mother was a whore.”

I’d won the second-grade essay contest that day. Something I’d written about the last passenger pigeon, how there weren’t any more in the world once that one died. I’d gotten the idea for it from my
Weekly Reader
, and I’d stayed up half the night to write it in big block script. I’d wanted to win, and when I did, when my name was announced, there was the grudging applause of my classmates, looks passed to one another fast while I walked to the front of the class to receive the certificate: FIRST PRIZE, with
Leila Murray
written carefully in black felt pen underneath.

Then, if I’d noticed, it might have been like laughing gas seeping through the cinderblocks, the cracks between the windows. A green cloud rising from the floor.

But Miss Lovette asked me to read my essay to the class, and my fingers trembled as I did—paper fluttering in my hands like weak white wings. I was trying to read it loud. I felt my voice shoot to the back wall, a flat echo like the snap of a rubber band against it—while, outside, the snow rose higher and higher and a yellow plow whirred under the classroom window, tossing snow into the gray school-afternoon air. Miss Lovette had a frozen smile on her face when I finished reading. I could tell by that smile that I’d won nothing but the pity of Miss Lovette. She hugged me hard to her soft and empty breasts.

 

This girl was the prettiest and smartest girl in the second grade. The girl whose name should have been written carefully under FIRST PRIZE. Daughter of a dentist. Ponytail slick and nearly white as a fall of water. She stood facing me, snow to our knees, and I could feel that snow seep into my socks. The straps of my red boots were broken, and they flapped loose, like the long red tongues of cats as I walked. The girl hissed, “It was in the paper.”

My mother had been dead two months, and no one had said a word to me about it—not since the police in their dark suits. They’d looked at me carefully, coaxing, slowly, seeming to think I was much younger than I was, a baby, or that I was a fragile glass animal with diamond eyes, something expensive that could be shattered by their voices if they talked too loud, too fast. They’d made me feel precious and tired, and I didn’t mind answering their questions. I could have done that for them for the rest of my life.

Those policemen circled and touched me when I cried, and they smelled like men. One of them let me crawl into his lap, put my face into the starched white of his chest for a long, long time. Something musky and fresh. Maybe it was just his sweat.

 

We sit down at a round table near the back and Gary asks, “What’ll you have?” “No,” he interrupts himself, “let me answer that.” He smiles, squeezes my knee under the table and says, “I’ll be right back.”

The music isn’t loud, but it is mostly bass, and I feel it in my stomach, under my lungs. The bar isn’t packed, but there’s a small group of men close to the front. A curtain of smoke lifts and closes around them. Mostly young—twenties, thirties—mostly wearing jean jackets and old jeans. There might be a chain looped through with a belt, and keys on that. A few of them look at me when Gary turns his back at the bar, ordering our drinks.

The men are gathered around the small stage up front like gawkers at an altar—five splintered sections of plywood with a bathroom rug draped over it. I imagine it’s where a woman has been dancing, maybe the woman who was arguing at the entrance. A greenish-blue light bulb hangs over the stage, and dust dances under it now. Maybe there’s a strobe.

I know what this is all about. I’ve been to a topless bar before. In Suspicious River, there’s a block of them. All with windowed mirrors. When you glance at those bars from the street, you see yourself. Maybe you look disheveled, fat, or embarrassed. I remember sitting near the back with a man’s wide hand on my knee while the stripper stooped and twirled, too far up front for me to see. The man I’d gone there with was divorcing a librarian at the high school, and he’d picked me up in the parking lot there after he’d been escorted from the library by the school’s principal for having shouted at his wife in the library as she scurried away, deeply flushed, pushing a metal cart of books. He’d craned his neck to see the stripper and pressed my thigh at the same time. I felt sorry for that man, but the cocktail waitress, topless, seemed to feel sorry for me. In the restroom she asked me if I was O.K., if I wanted her to call someone to give me a ride home. “He’s pretty old for you, isn’t he?” she asked, and I just lifted my eyebrows as if I were surprised and shook my head no.

Gary comes back to our table with two drinks. “Jim Beam on the rocks,” he says proudly. “You ever drank that before?”

I sip it. Warm as cough syrup slipping down. “I think so,” I say, and he looks disappointed.

“Well. You ever been to a strip joint before?”

“Once,” I say, and he stops smiling.

“Jeez,” he says, sipping his drink. Maybe he looks annoyed, but he eases his hand up my thigh. “You done it all, haven’t you?” Someone turns the music up, and Gary has to shout above it. “Who’s been bringin’ you to strip shows, sweetie, your husband?”

“No.” I lean toward him, nearly shouting to be heard, “Just once. I was in high school. An older guy.”

Gary shakes his head, mouth full of whiskey, which he swallows, and says, “I knew you was naughty the first time I saw you. Knew you’d do whatever I wanted, baby. I like that.” He puts his arm around me, up under my arm, and he feels my breast. I move away at first, as if to dodge his hand—as if I wanted to or could—but then he reaches up to put it on my breast again, and I let him keep it there. I’m happy, because he’s smiling. Because he’s touching me. He says, “Nothin’ much surprises you, does it?” And I think he sounds pleased as he says this.

I sip from the drink and shrug.

The woman we’d passed near the restrooms comes out then, and there’s a weak swell of applause under the booming music. She has her black hair hanging over her breasts now, and she passes close to the men at their tables as she walks to the stage, taking long, loose steps to the music in her high red heels. A few of the men reach out to touch her thighs or her cutoffs, and she lets them, but she doesn’t smile. Neither do they. Some of the men lean forward in their chairs, looking carefully at her, as if they’re memorizing something, or trying to read small print. Some lean back, unimpressed, while the man she’d been arguing with stands in the back drinking from a bottle of beer with long, deep swallows.

The woman dances for a while in a small circle, lifts her long hair off one breast and shows it to the men, offers it up with one hand. Then she lifts the long hair off the other breast. Finally, she flips the hair over her shoulders and stands close to the edge of the stage, shaking her breasts, leaning forward, and the men don’t applaud—just drink, stare. The music pounds. The woman unzips her cutoffs fast and then steps out of them. Black lace panties under that, naturally. She plays with her nipples while she dances, licking the tips of her fingers first, then dancing her fingers around the nipples in circles while she dances, also in circles. The nipples get hard, briefly, but they go soft and slack again when she stops touching them.

The woman pulls the panties down to her knees, and her pubic hair is thick. She dances for a while with the underwear at her knees. She stumbles a little when she steps out of the panties, then picks them up and throws them to a guy at a table in front of her. She puts her hands on her hips, legs spread, still dancing, but not well. She’s lost the rhythm. Maybe she isn’t listening to the music anymore. Then she pulls the lips apart with both hands, showing them the pale, shell-pink, and Gary squeezes my breast hard when she does that.

Faded now, I can barely hear the music either, and I feel surprised when he touches me too hard. Surprised to be alive. I am reminded briefly of my own body, receding in the smoke, the blue-gray haze.

When the music stops, the woman picks up her cutoffs, and the guy with her panties hands them back to her politely. She walks naked through the bar, but no one tries to touch her as she leaves. When she’s gone, the restroom door closing with a whoosh of air behind her, there is quiet applause.

“I’ll be right back,” Gary says. “I’ll get you another drink.”

Now that there’s nothing on the stage to look at, I stare into my glass. Ice melts oily into the whiskey. Maybe I’m already drunk. I feel a little like I’ve been shaken up, myself, in a glass. Gary’s left his pack of cigarettes on the table. I light one, and smoke curls out of my fist as if my fingers are on fire. When I’ve finished the drink, I want another, but Gary hasn’t come back.

Behind me, there’s only the wall. Cinderblock and beige, and the man who argued with the stripper leans against that wall, his arms crossed over his chest, staring straight ahead, working a muscle high on his throat. I’m the only woman now in the room, and a few of the men up front have turned all the way around in their chairs to look at me. I don’t look back. Once, I saw a show cat on TV. Pure white fur and a rhinestone collar around its neck. Now, I feel like that show cat. Stretching casually. Letting the judges look. I keep my eyes on my empty glass, turn my nails over in my fist to appraise them myself. That cat, licking its paw.

I look up when a man with long, red-brown hair comes over to the table, smiling. The others watch him move toward me. He asks, “Can I buy you a drink? Or is Gary going to be right back?”

I’m surprised that everyone in this bar knows Gary’s name, and it sounds familiar on their lips. I shrug. I say, “I don’t know,” leaning back a little in my chair.

“Well, he won’t mind me buying you a drink, I bet.” The man winks. “Let’s go sit up at the bar.”

I follow that man to the bar. A horse to water, I think. He’s tall, overweight, but solid as far as I can tell. So large and thick I feel like a child behind him. I put my purse on the bar and fold my hands together on top of it, and when I glance over the man’s big shoulder toward the entrance, I see Gary. He’s laughing. A blond man with a trimmed blond beard smokes a cigarette next to him, also laughing. And before I realize who he is, I’ve already thought
old friends
.

Then I see the friend more clearly, back framed in a square of smoke when someone opens the door behind them. I’m not sure at first, but then I am: the man from 31. I see myself for a moment curled on carpet, tasting blood on my tongue, but I swallow. I say “Thanks” when the bartender pushes the whiskey and ice in front of me. I look over at the man who’s paid for it, slipping his wallet back into his pocket. “Thanks,” I say again, to him this time, and what I feel is gratitude, simple as that. I don’t look over my shoulder at Gary with the blond man again. There are explanations, I think as I sip, for everything. I think of my husband crossing his thin arms—
It’s my body
, he said. That, I could understand. The span of obligation and forgiveness reaches no wider than the span of your arms. I always knew it, but now I
know
it.

BOOK: Suspicious River
5.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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