Authors: Laura Kasischke
“Your room is just above the ice machine.”
I handed him a key with 47 on one side and the imprint of a swan on the other.
This one was wearing plaid pants. A bright green golf shirt. He had a beer belly and a pink tan, a white belt on and white shoes. Fifty, I guessed. I guessed his mother hadn’t warned him not to wear white shoes after Labor Day.
His fingertips touched mine when he reached for the key, and they felt moist and dry at the same time. He looked a little winded, like someone with high blood pressure who shouldn’t drink beer, but did—maybe in secret, in his basement at night while his wife was asleep with a head full of tight pink curlers upstairs.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” he said.
His teeth were small and smooth.
It was about four o’clock on a Tuesday in the twenty-fourth year of my life. I’d started my shift at three, and I had seven hours to go. September, it was bright and humid outside. I looked past his shoulder through the office glass to be sure no one was just that moment pulling into the semicircular drive with the hushed purr of a tourist’s American motor, and a film of light like TV glare or wet glue painted the parking lot white in my eyes. I had to squint to see out there, and my own reflection in the window got in the way.
I wanted to think my hair was red, but maybe it was brown. In the window glass, all colors were gray. It was thick, though, and wavy, and it hung in three fat, knotted ropes—one on each side of my shoulders, one heavy down my back. I believed I was thin and pale enough to be pretty but too pale and thin to be beautiful, so I preferred clothes that made me look young, still or again like a little girl—lacy, with ribbons. I liked clothes, and even before there was so much money, I’d buy a new wardrobe every month at the skinny strip mall in Ottawa City:
One new skirt and one new shirt and maybe a pair of pantyhose or short white socks. I’d walk down the gray tunnel of that mall between J.C. Penney’s and Sears and imagine one day I’d work at one of those department stores, when I got tired of the motel, or fired. Maybe I’d work in Lingerie. I’d imagine myself wrapping pink silklike slips in tissue paper and slipping them into my purse when the manager took her coffee break.
At that mall, I always felt dimly full of hope for the future. Someday, I thought, I’d get a job there, and the petty thieving would keep me from looking as bored as the girls behind those counters looked—bored as mannequins or topless dancers, pale under too much fluorescent light. Those girls were all born and raised in the blond skirts of field or the cleared forests around Suspicious River, Ottawa City, Fennville, and their snow boots sat lined up, panting and black, in hall closets all summer while they shivered in the mall’s dry air-conditioned air. Their nipples stood out stiff against thin summer dresses as they waited for you behind their counters, arms in front of their chests. They stared toward the bright glass doors to the parking lot when they weren’t smiling at customers or squinting at the braille numbers on your credit card, with a smirk.
The man in the green golf shirt took his time looking at me.
There was one reservation for that night, and he was it. The owner of the motel, Mrs. Elizabeth Briggs, came in only for emergencies during my shift because she trusted me. I’d worked there without incident for years, and Mrs. Briggs needed her rest. It was all too much for Mrs. Briggs. She suffered more than she let anyone know, she said.
There was the swish of lukewarm autumn wind through emptiness outside. The whole town had already closed down—boarded up, it seemed, for winter. Just me and this golfer, this paying guest, alone together in the glassed-in office of the Swan Motel like the plastic bride and groom knee-deep and stiff in stale cake behind the bakery window.
He let his eyes move over my shirt slowly, and the eyes were yellowish, but I could see they used to be bright-white blue. He set his elbow on the desk and sighed.
This is usual. If the front desk girl doesn’t want to do anything next, she’ll take a small step backward, maybe look down at the pen in her hand. But if she’s willing, or willing to think about it at least, she’ll look straight into your eyes. She’ll lean forward a little. It might even surprise you to realize your hunch was right.
Then you think about what her breasts would look like bare. You might imagine that she is pushing them toward you, whether or not she is. She’s wearing a white blouse, and you think maybe you can see a tuck of lace at the V of her bra—one of those glued-on rosebuds?
Maybe your heart speeds up if you haven’t already done this a million times—a bloody nest in your chest, soggy, like something dredged out of a river: Your heart, you never want it to stop.
If she’s not just considering, if she’s done this a lot, she might tilt her head as if she’s stretching her neck. Casual. Nothing’s being said. She must be waiting for you to say something—so, perhaps you are clever, you say something funny like, “Sure is hot in here,” tugging at your collar with an index finger or loosening your tie. But if you can’t think of anything like that, or it’s just not your style, you’ll say, “I’d enjoy some company in Room 47. Meaning you,” looking hard at her now.
“Is that right?” Flirting, and slow, “And what’s good company worth to you?”
You smile. Maybe your palms are sweating or, if you’re a different kind of man, maybe all this makes you mad but makes you want it even worse. “Name it. I’ll see if I can scrape it up.”
“Well.” She’s looking at your name in the guest register now and it makes you a little nervous, whether it’s your real name or not. “Your room was sixty dollars. I think the company would be worth that, don’t you?”
It’s less than you expected. Or more. Maybe that makes you a little sad for her, or angry, but you don’t want to think about that now. You wink, but don’t smile. You say, “See you up there, sugar.”
As you’re walking out the office door you hear her humming high and light under her breath. You wonder if she’s watching your back, wonder if she’s noticed your limp, worried that she’s taking down your license number, but you also think about her breasts. They looked good. Her lips were sweet. She’s young, early twenties, petite and polite-looking with thick reddish hair, a small-town girl—but you know now she’s a slut, too; she’ll do whatever you want. By now you’re so ready for it you can hardly stand to think about what’s next.
What’s next is oddly almost always the same. She knocks on your door, whether or not it’s open. The room is small and smells like mildew and Pine Sol. The bedspread is thin and crisp, swirled with subdued colors—rust, gold, navy blue. The heat or the air conditioning has just kicked in, you’ve turned it on high because it was too hot or cold in your room, and it’s rattling now. It’s dark, even with the light on. You pulled the curtains already. Maybe you rinsed out your mouth. Maybe you used the toilet and it’s still running in the bathroom behind you.
Now that she’s out from behind the front desk, you see she’s wearing a short skirt or semitight jeans—nothing special, but she has nice legs, little hips, small waist. She’s thin and pale, especially under that messy red dredge of hair. But she looks healthy. When she holds her hand out for the cash, you have it for her, already counted and folded. She looks at it before she slips it in her shoe, under her heel.
Suddenly your heart is kicking like a big black boot in your chest, and it makes you either shy or angry, sometimes both. You probably don’t kiss her, you just put the palms of your hands on those breasts you’ve been thinking about, move your fingers around on her shirt, and you’re breathing hard. But she just stands there like a closed white door.
You’re touching someone who doesn’t want to touch you back—all yours, like the room, the TV, the conservative bedspread for the night: You already paid. But she’s so quiet, sort of smirking, you think. It makes you nervous. You can’t help it that your hands are shaking, but you’re a big man who worries a lot about his middle-aged heart—all those uncles lined up in coffins dead of heart attacks, predictable in Michigan as winter. In a flash you see yourself five years old in a little blue suit on tiptoes peering over the edge of a glossy trunk to get a look at one of those uncles as a powder-dusted corpse:
You realize, as you take her flesh in a handful, that you’re the age of that corpse now.
Lately, you sweat in your sleep, wake up soaked and cold.
Dead, they smelled like women—talcum and old rose water.
You unbuckle your belt with one hand, you’ve pushed the other up under her shirt and bra. Her breast is cool and soft. If you are hurting her, grabbing it too hard, she won’t let on. You wish she would. You grab it harder as you pull yourself out. You take your hand out of her shirt and put it on her shoulder. You’re holding yourself with the other one. You push her down to her knees, put it in her mouth, and there’s that warm parting of lips like sinking slowly into mud. You groan when you feel something soft and hot swim over the tip of it—and now you know she’s a pro. You wanted it to last longer, do some other things to her, too, but she knows what she’s doing, and you come.
Some sweet small-town thing: Right.
You barely last ten seconds.
Sixty fucking dollars.
She coughs, closes the door lightly behind her like a kind of apology, or a shrug.
That night you sleep badly in your motel room. Mold and river, even between the sheets. With the lights out it’s so dark you think for a terrible moment that you’ve gone blind. Instead of dreaming, you turn on the TV, and when the sun comes up you blow your nose in a towel and leave.
There’s another girl in the office when you check out. This one is pregnant, chatting on the phone. She doesn’t look at you when you drop your key on the counter. Your mouth tastes mossy all day, and something pale films your tongue.
You drive on.
HE WHITE FLASH
of a sailboat, silver light on water, a high blanched sky; too bright. A woman in a navy blue striped bikini: She has long legs. She’s holding a dented can of beer, stepping onto the boat. Her narrow foot, toenails painted red, is poised for a moment in shimmering air.
Wind billows the sail, the sound of sheets flapping on a line and the smell of bleach.
The woman holds her arms out in the air like wings, a dancer balancing herself onto an extravagant curtain of movement beneath her. She laughs, and a shirtless man, tanned, takes her hand, the hand that has no beer can in it, to help her onto the water. She stumbles, the boat rocks harder.
He doesn’t embrace her when she falls into him, but their bodies meet.
They look, then, at me, and I see his hand flat in the small of her bare back. The hand is dark and large against her pale waist. Her shoulders are round and smooth as blank faces, gleaming.
“Bye-bye, Leila,” she sings.
Red fingernails and flesh—she is drinking from the beer, cold and sweaty in her hand. Waving bye-bye baby with the other.
He waves bye-bye, too—my uncle, my father’s younger brother, a salesman like my father, but luckier, and also a magician who knows a card trick in which the Jack disappears into thin air, then reappears, fast and flashy, behind your ear.
They are carried away together by wind on my uncle’s boat. The sail, a sharp knife of light then a bright blur receding.
When they are farther into the water, a fading image, overexposed in so much wild white clear as gin, she reaches behind her and unsnaps the back of her bikini top. It slips off fast—a quick yank of sexual gravity like a scream.
She holds the bikini top in the empty hand and waves it toward the shore back and forth in arcs above her head, as if in surrender.
Then the scene scintillates, glints, and a piece of bent metal on the boat blazes; I have to squint. I can’t be much older than four or five. Her breasts are even brighter than the rest of her body and more pale than the glare all around her, but I can’t stare into it any longer: a shock of skin like white milk spilled all over a wax-white tray.
They are shrinking, crumbling into the sheen, while their sail beats the air like a single, thrilled wing—a huge white bird with those two human captives smiling in its beak. And my uncle, whose looks, I know already, though I’m only a child myself, are handsome, more handsome than my father’s, shrugs toward my father, who clears his throat apologetically behind me.
There’s a foamy rolling of water between my uncle, the woman with her bare breasts under a beating wing now, and the place where my father and I stand with our eyes nearly closed to see it better. She turns her back to us, and what we can see of it is a blank slate, as they say. She is moving naked over water and moving away.
She’s my mother, and then she dies.
“Rick,” I said one of those first afternoons in October when I’d been doing what I was doing for more than a month, “I may be a little late tonight. I told Mrs. Briggs I’d do some accounting, and maybe I won’t have time until after Samantha comes in.”
I looked steadily into Rick’s dark eyes to see what he might suspect, but in them I just saw myself, twice, miniaturized, wearing a jean jacket, clutching my red purse against my ribs. My image in each of those eyes was smaller than a half-moon rising in a fingernail, but exact.