Authors: Laura Kasischke
had been driving too fast for the conditions, they said. He’d been trying to get back to the house before I got home from school. It was February. The roads were slick, and there was too much on his mind. The car spun across both lanes before it hit the median, and then February crumpled up his Ford like something childish in a huge, white glove.
He would be fine, though. Just a few days in a hospital. Just a simple procedure on his leg, and he’d be home again. Until then I could stay with Miss Lovette.
After school, she drove me to my house, and we got in the back door with a key we kept hidden beneath a brick of concrete outside. I showed Miss Lovette where we kept that key. Then, when we were in the house, I showed her where I kept my clothes, and she grabbed underwear and socks by the handfuls out of the dresser drawer and put them in a paper grocery sack.
The house was dark without my father there. Without the TV on. And Miss Lovette seemed nervous. In a hurry. She seemed like a different woman than the one who taught my second-grade class—quicker, less polite than she was when she was at the school. There, she smiled and spoke in a high, singsong voice. Here, she looked harder, out of place. Her voice was low when she spoke.
We hadn’t taken our coats or boots off, and scraps of gray slush melted onto the floor beneath us. Miss Lovette seemed to shiver in her bear coat. When she had two paper sacks of clothes and my toothbrush, she asked if I could think of anything else I might need that week, and I couldn’t think of anything at all.
Maybe, then, Miss Lovette smelled old blood.
I was standing in the hallway when she turned to look at me. The house was quiet and gray-cold. Outside it was getting darker, and the sky looked thick with fog, Brillo blue.
At first she hesitated. But then she seemed to sniff the air and said, her voice still low and unfamiliar—as if she didn’t want anyone to hear, although no one was there to hear—“Show me where you found your mother.”
For a moment it was as if the wind had been knocked out of me by wind. As if someone had pushed my face into the freezer, fast. But I moved through the hallway of the house, blind, through a blizzard of quiet, and I opened the door to my parents’ bedroom to show Miss Lovette what she wanted to see.
It was deep blue in there. The shades were pulled. The bed wasn’t made. The imprint of my father’s head was still pressed heavy into a pillow. Miss Lovette walked into the room with her mouth open.
Still, she seemed to be smelling.
I looked up at her face.
Miss Lovette’s lips were wet, and she looked hungry. But her eyes were narrow. Like someone who imagined being kissed.
She went over to the bed and smoothed her hand across the rumpled sheet, then turned to me with her eyebrows raised and asked, “Here?”
I nodded, crossing my arms over my stomach, feeling empty. I remembered my bare bottom in the classroom when Miss Lovette had pulled my underwear down and wiped it with a paper towel.
The other children had seen that, hadn’t they?
They’d pushed their faces up against the glass to see it better.
I thought of my face, screwed up and puffy in the newspaper, the fuzzy photos making me look younger than I was and fading quickly away.
It was as if I were inside out. Nothing private, not even in my guts. Was I naked, I suddenly wondered, or wearing clothes? Maybe my dreams could be seen hovering above me in my sleep. Maybe my thoughts were all out loud. What difference would it make? Miss Lovette looked excited, sexual, and I remembered how most of the people at my mother’s funeral I’d never even seen until that day. They weren’t crying, either. Instead, they’d peered carefully over the edge of my mother’s coffin. Curious, full of desire. They’d watched me, too, hadn’t they?—though they’d looked away fast when I looked back.
And only a few days before, an older boy had cornered me on the playground and whispered, leaning into my face until I could smell waffles on his breath, “Your mother was naked with high heels on when he stabbed her and stabbed her.”
How could he have known?
That boy made a stabbing motion toward my stomach with his fist while he said it, and I was exposed in my own clothes. Even with my coat zipped up.
“Is this the same bed?” Miss Lovette asked, looking down at it.
“Yes,” I said.
She was breathing hard, touching it, and sniffing.
“I’m out of here tomorrow morning, Leila. You understand?”
“That’s right,” I look up, feeling a stab of anger, but it’s dull. I say, “It’s your life. It’s your body.” Then the anger’s gone.
Rick nods. “That’s right,” he says, “and it’s the same with you.”
There’s a barn owl outside somewhere. Or an old lady laughing. We get in bed as we always have, but Rick sleeps on his side all night, quiet and still for the first night in years. I keep my arms around him, my body curled like warping wood into his back.
I can feel his ribs.
I can feel his spine.
I can feel how cold the shoulder bones are under the thin skin, how simple what we’re made of is.
I can feel where the bones are fused to one another.
Elementary as a kit.
He is a skeleton, after all. We all are.
I sit up in the dark to look at Rick’s face, and it’s all skull. A candle flickering behind his eyes, flickering out. I hold him in my arms all night, and he gets thinner and thinner in his sleep. Until, by morning, he’s completely gone. Just some dust, a few dark hairs left on his pillow. T-shirt and boxer shorts lying without his body in them where his body had been the night before. Nothing in my arms.
I go to sleep again while the sun is coming up cold-steamy, pink against the tooth-rim of the sky, and when I wake it’s two o’clock in the afternoon, and I’m going to be late for work. I hurry to take a shower in water so hot my skin itches afterward, red as meat, and I put a blue dress on over no underwear—a cotton dress with small pearl buttons and a full skirt. No hose. Flat black shoes. I can feel the dress against my nipples. Material slippery and close.
I open the bottom drawer of my dresser and take the money out of the jewelry box. I look at it, smell it—old green pages—and I wad it into my purse. Today, I think, I’ll buy that flat white thing:
The thing that’s flashed and receded like a horizon at the back of my mind every day for months. A smoke signal. A flare. Something projected into the air. A missile. Or a weather balloon, moving slowly over the sky:
Vinyl. Chrome. A piece of bent sheet metal reflecting water, or snow.
Something carved out of soap, enlarged.
A sandblasted statue.
A slab of marble.
A huge bowl hollowed out of bone.
When I put the jewelry box back into the drawer, it feels light and empty in my hand. Then I hurry down the stairs and out into an afternoon as bright and vacant as my hope. Hopeless. Hopelessness.
There’s even a hook of day-moon hanging coatless over me in the sky.
E WAS THE BOY
who’d known my mother was wearing high heels when she died.
He’d known that at first it had looked to me as if she were wearing a red slip pushed up above her breasts, but it was blood.
I must have told someone. Maybe the police. Maybe the detective who’d rocked me in his lap while I cried—though I didn’t remember telling anyone that.
I was walking home from school when that boy caught up with me. It was a bright, cool March day. By then I was eight years old, and the boy must have been nine or ten. The snow had begun to melt, but the boy had a gray handful of what was left of the snow—bits of sticks and mud in it. He was wearing mittens and I wasn’t. The boy grabbed the back of my coat and yanked me to him, pushing the handful of snow to my mouth.
At first I tried to spit it out, but I couldn’t breathe, so I just let him keep the gloved handful of snow, finally, against my face. I opened my lips and let him shove it in, and I could taste it—dirty water melting against my teeth.
Later, in April, that boy would ask me to pull my shirt up in an empty garage, and I would do that, too. Passive, just the taste of old snow on my tongue. What difference did it make? No part of me was private, I could tell. I’d heard someone say “sacred cow” on TV, and I imagined cows on thrones. Cows with gold shawls over their heaving sides, all animal breath and the dank smell of mashed grass in their mouths.
But the cows in the fields around Suspicious River weren’t sacred at all, standing stiff as junked stoves and freezers at the dump under a plain white sun.
The garage where I took off my shirt for that boy smelled like garbage. An animal had gotten into it and clawed open a styrofoam container of old chicken. The thin bones of it littered the middle of a dried puddle of oil, and I stood for a long time with my shirt pulled over my small pink nipples—the place where I didn’t have breasts yet, where I didn’t even suspect I ever would.
The boy’s mouth hung open. “Take off all your clothes,” he said.
Behind him I could see two other boys watching us through the garage window. I took off all my clothes and let them fall around me like chicken feathers onto the greasy floor of that garage.
When I got home, my father said, “Hi, Leila sweetie,” from the couch. He’d come home from the hospital after his accident dazed with pain, and now he was always home. Dulleyed and groggy. No longer a salesman. One hundred percent disabled, the paperwork said.
“You’re an hour late,” Millie says, “I tried to call your apartment, but no one answered. I was just getting ready to call Mrs. Briggs.”
“I’m really sorry,” I lie, “I had car trouble. I ran out of gas.”
“Well,” Millie says. “Can you come in an hour early tomorrow to pay me back?”
“Of course,” I say, “Sure. Of course.” But I know full well that tomorrow is a blank—a wide, white, drive-in movie screen shut down in an abandoned field: some empty place you glimpse from the highway as you speed by. Tomorrow, I won’t be in at all.
“I’m going home then,” Millie says, still sounding angry. “Pretty dress.” She nods at my dress, and I notice that Millie’s hair is combed carefully and smooth today. She looks prettier, younger, than she’s looked in a long time—as if her heart were pumping a bit more blood. Or like someone just coming out of a damp cellar after spending a week or two down there. “But aren’t you going to get cold in that thin dress?” she asks, looking like a mother. Like my mother, I think, though Millie is younger than I am: My mother would be, too, I realize then with surprise, and I’m transfixed for a moment by Millie’s skin, which glows. She purses her lips and says to me, “It’s not summer anymore, you know. Did you even bring a sweater with you?”
“I don’t care.” I shrug, wanting to be honest.
She stops in front of me and looks sharp into my face. “Are you O.K., Leila? I don’t want to get involved in your personal business, but people are talking about you, you know. It’s only a matter of time before Mrs. Briggs hears about it.”
I look more carefully at Millie, into her eyes, to see if she wants the truth or the lie. I want to tell the truth, but her eyes flicker away from mine and back, so I give her the lie. “I don’t know what you mean,” I say, and she looks relieved. She straightens her spine until she’s taller than I am. I cross my arms over my breasts as if they’re bare—loose and cool under the light cotton of the dress. I feel protective of them.
“Yeah you do,” Millie says, bolder now that she knows I won’t tell her what she doesn’t want to hear. She slips her jean jacket over her plaid shirt, and I know she’s glad I lied. It gives her sole ownership of the truth between us like a veil of white lace. Her veil, but I can see her through it. Her voice is thin and tight as an electric wire, though she isn’t angry anymore. She says, “You’re making some extra money around here with a lot of different men, and it’s perfectly obvious to everyone why you’re coming in here half dressed and you hardly ever answer the phone and your car is parked in the lot all day on your day off. But it’s none of my business, Leila, and I don’t give a damn about Mrs. Briggs and the Swan Motel. I just hope you’ll be O.K. I hope you don’t get hurt.”
I shrug for her. I look at the clock. When she grabs my arm, I stare at her hard: I don’t want to hear it, and I won’t. I can tell by the turn of her mouth, the hesitant teeth, that she wants to say something about my mother. Something like
Do you want to end up like your mother?
Millie was a girl here when that happened, too, and no one ever forgets a thing like that.
But Millie can’t say it.
Again, too true.
Then, a breeze over Suspicious River throws a handful of pebbles and branches on the roof of the Swan Motel. I imagine Millie’s hesitant teeth are a handful of those small stones. She can’t say anything with those.
She squeezes my arms. Under her breath, like a secret, she says, “I hope you don’t get killed.” And then she leaves.
After I put my purse under the counter, I dial 42.