Authors: Laura Kasischke
“You’d do that?” he asks again.
And, again, I say, “Of course.” I laugh, stand up, walk behind the counter. I open the cash drawer with the key Mrs. Briggs keeps hidden naively on a magnet underneath the drawer. I sort through the credit card slips and receipts until I see his: Gary W. Jensen. I hold it up so he can see, then I rip it to shreds while he smiles.
Afterward, I lock the cash drawer and hide the key again, and Gary stands up and walks over to the counter. He puts his cigarette out in the ashtray, then reaches to take my hands. He squeezes them hard, and I lean as far toward him as I can with the counter between us, the sharp edge of it in my hips. He reaches out and takes my arms, and I cradle his elbows in my palms. Gary kisses me and moves one hand into the scooped neck of my dress, rubs the back of his fingers against my breast, and I breathe faster, pressing my kiss deeper into his, my nipples tightening until they’re small and hard as the pearl buttons on my dress.
He leans back again, still with his hand against my breast, and says, “I love you, Leila.”
A hundred frantic doves. Or pigeons. White wings flagging a white roof, rising. I say, “God, I love you, too.”
He turns his hand on my bare flesh, squeezes the nipple between his fingers, and says, “You don’t need this job no more, baby.” My body buoys toward his as if my hips are strung to his with cobwebs and damp weather. There’s snow somewhere on its way, I think. I open my mouth, and only a little gasp comes out.
He says, “You’ve got me.”
“Can I just leave?” I ask him, widening my eyes until they water in the glare. “What about Mrs. Briggs?”
“Who gives a damn about Mrs. Briggs? She’s gonna fire you if you quit?”
I laugh. He’s smarter than I am, and older. A father. A sexy god. He pulls me closer to him, and I kiss his new, dark beard. Then he looks serious again. “We need cash, though, Leila. I’m runnin’ low.”
I shake my head and say, “No. I’ve got twenty-three hundred dollars in my purse, Gary.” I point to the purse. A splash of red under the cash drawer.
Gary stands up straighter then and smiles, surprised. “Whoa. Leila. You’re a rich woman. What the hell we hangin’ around here for, baby?” We both laugh.
He looks behind him. No one there. He lowers his voice anyway. “What about in there?” he asks, nodding at the cash drawer. I look at it over my shoulder while Gary’s fingers circle my wrist—my wrist, which is laid out on the counter like a piece of white fish now, a little light blue where the blood rushes under the thin skin. “How much is in it?” he whispers.
“I don’t know,” I say, reaching underneath the drawer for the key.
When it’s open, Gary says, “Looks like a lot.”
“A few hundred, anyway,” I say, touching the bills. They’re soft. Then I glance at the tips of my fingers, as if the green dye might have come off.
“Let’s take it, Leila,” he says. “We’re starting a new life, baby, and we need it. I’ll pack my shit and meet you in the parking lot in ten minutes.”
I breathe, nod. I say, “What about my car?”
“Leave it,” Gary says. “You don’t need it.”
Without counting it, I gather the bills and hand the money to him. Gary unbuttons his shirt and slips them inside, next to his heart. He winks at me, pushing backwards out the glass door, looking heavier with cash.
When he’s gone, I open the guest book again. For the last time, I think.
Monday October 17: Blackwell, L. Farr, C
I stare at that date.
October 17. My new life.
Like a carpet of stars. Pure time.
It startles my eye in the guest book, like a white moth on a white flower. Cool and empty in my lungs and fifty million light years long. A galaxy. A sheet. The smell of bleach in a cool breeze.
When I hear high heels click by on the cement outside, I look up. But it’s only just begun to rain—hard, fat drops on the sidewalk and on the windshields and on the bald garden rocks.
are you doing here, Leila?
The footpath was scattered with old leaves.
He stood in front of me.
Looking at the river, I said. A dead deer. A dead deer just swam by, did you see it tumbling in the black like a slow, blond dance?
I pointed, but it was gone. A branch again. A ripple. Nothing.
He laughed. His orange jumpsuit swelled with light in the sun.
Where’s your daddy, Leila?
He’s waiting for me. At home. I’ve been gone too long.
Does he know where you are?
No. He doesn’t know. I have to hurry.
Not so fast. He doesn’t know where you are?
No. He’ll be worried. My father’s waiting.
The river didn’t notice.
The shiver of a sapling.
Over there, the willows milled around like restless men.
I ran to them. My arms open. I ran and ran in the wrong direction, mud sucking at my shoes. A child trying to fly—stupid, wingless bird. Mud on my hands, oily as blood. The earth kiss of mulch in my copper hair. I fell down there.
Randy McCarthy buttoned up his shirt in the back of his mother’s station wagon.
“I don’t get Rick,” he said, shaking his head in the dark. His hair was white-blond, cut close to the scalp, and it glowed like a smudged halo on his head. “He doesn’t have a clue, and nobody tells him shit. It’s pathetic. And he
you. Man. He thinks you’re the fucking Virgin Mary or something, doesn’t he?”
I pulled my sweater down over my face. “No, he doesn’t,” I say—quick but flat, like a lie. “Rick knows me.”
Randy McCarthy laughed. “A fucking nympho Virgin Mary is more like it.”
When he said that, I swallowed. Someone had written it on the wall of the girl’s bathroom in black Magic Marker that never washed off—two years before, and on my last day of high school, it was still there between the mirror and the dirty roller towel:
Leila Murray is a Nimphomaniac
For two years the girls I went to high school with, crowded around with their hairbrushes and lip glosses, adjusting the cups of their bras, tugging up their beige pantyhose like a second skin on their legs, would go silent when I came in and washed my hands right under that black sentence.
Randy McCarthy was always angry afterward. All hands when we were in the back seat, like a raccoon ravishing the frozen garbage with its little human claws, looking skillful and sweet, then slinking off, body close to the ground, bandit mask making its long face look mean.
Most of the high school boys were like that. Winter lasted a long time in Suspicious River—child-sized chunks of ice dragging along the banks, knocking at the docks and the aluminum rowboats tied to them rusting and unused. Most of the girls in town were afraid of their fathers, who shot deer in the woods and strung them up in back yards before the first snow, or they were afraid to get pregnant, or they wanted to marry someone who owned a store. They couldn’t relax—always complaining, fidgeting with their clothes, straightening their skirts down over their thighs, yanking their bra straps back over their shoulders.
But I was quiet, hovering ten feet above my body all the time. Maybe being with me was no different than being alone. You could be as mannerless afterward as you wanted. Maybe that was my appeal. Or was it what made them angry?
Randy dropped me off a few blocks from the house and didn’t say anything when I got out. It was mid-June, a pulse of stars in the dark overhead. I looked up at those and thought I saw a few fall fast through the sky. But it might have just been my eyes.
The light in the Schmidts’ house was yellow when I got to the back door, and Mrs. Schmidt was gluing something together on the kitchen table. A ceramic ballerina. “Look.” She held it up for me to see when I stepped in. “Look what the cat did.”
The delicate head, hair tied back with a pink painted ribbon, had snapped right off, and I could see into the ballerina’s body through the splintered crack at her throat. Inside, she was hollow and pure white. Mrs. Schmidt laughed and put the bottle of glue back down on the table. “It’s hopeless,” she said. “Oh well. Who cares? Sweetheart, did you eat?”
“Yes,” I said, “I ate.”
“Well, Rick and his dad are probably having McDonald’s as we speak. They rented a trailer and went into Ottawa City to haul an old pinball machine to the dump. I guess they might not be back until midnight, so I ate a salad myself.”
Rick’s mother picked at salads for lunch and for dinner, even when she’d roasted beef for her husband and son. It would seem the green leaves had only been rearranged by a finicky rabbit when she was done. But at night, in the quiet dark, while we were all in bed, I could hear her rummage through the kitchen, illuminated only by the refrigerator’s private light. I imagined, from Rick’s bedroom where I pretended to be asleep, that Mrs. Schmidt was in her bare feet, a white nightgown, her graying beehive looking as if it were wound with frost in that light, eating vanilla ice cream from the carton with a cold spoon. Then she’d slip back into bed beside Mr. Schmidt, who slept like death beside her. She’d be cold as snow between those white sheets, and in the morning, she’d be innocent at the kitchen table again, sipping at her black tea while Rick and his father ate the greasy bacon and eggs she made for them.
This trick was similar to the silent art, the sleight of hand, by which she could tell them what to do—those two big men—without ever opening her pink mouth. The way Rick would change his shirt if his mother looked at it a certain way. He’d emerge from the bedroom with another one on, buttoning, asking, “Does this one look O.K.?”
“You’re not hungry, then?” she asked me.
“No,” I said, “I’m fine. But thank you for asking.”
It was warm in the house. The windows were closed, and the rain that was on the way would not blow in under the cracks, as it always had in my father’s house. The windows were secure, sealed as if by a law of physics my father hadn’t understood. Mr. Schmidt fiddled around with the doors and the storms every weekend, it seemed. Patching the screens. Making sure nothing squeaked.
“Are you sure you’re fine? You look tired, Leila.”
“No,” I said, “I’m fine.”
“Sit with me a minute, dear. I want to tell you something.”
I liked Mrs. Schmidt, but I didn’t want to sit with her in that small, clean kitchen, sharp as a cube. My legs ached. I could still feel Randy McCarthy around my shoulders, like a bracelet of bruises cuffing my upper arms. I could smell him—a little boozy, a little like his car—exhaust fumes. Old Milwaukee. Still, I sat down. Mrs. Schmidt’s eyes were dark like Rick’s, but her eyelashes were pale. She’d retained her prom queen’s smile. Despite the graying hair, you could picture her in a pink satin dress. Or twirling a baton. The prettiest and friendliest girl in the school. Someone you wouldn’t swear or smoke around, but who wouldn’t condemn you out loud if you did.
The ceramic ballerina lay broken on the kitchen table between us, utterly submissive now, and on her side. Her pretty face wasn’t ruined, but it was useless. Little pinprick eyes. Rosebud mouth, pouting. Separated from her body by a few inches of pure and invisible air. Beneath us, the guilty cat, white, purred and snaked around our ankles.
Mrs. Schmidt reached across the table and squeezed my hand. She inhaled and said, “I know how hard it must be for you right now, being married, and so young. But things will get better.” She opened her eyes wide—exclamation points—“And Rick loves you
. He’s a good boy, like his father, and he’ll always take care of you. And so will I.” Mrs. Schmidt smiled that high school smile then, which reminded me of women on the covers of
Ladies’ Home Journal
, the faces of those models on the racks at the grocery store checkout line—models chosen for their ordinary beauty, meant to imply
you could be me
. Under her smile, in bold letters, HOW TO TELL IF YOUR HUSBAND LOVES YOU and
One hundred new cookie recipes!
Mrs. Schmidt’s teeth looked like white thumbtacks, blunt and rounded, or dulled, stuck carefully into her gums, and she smiled wider. “You’re my daughter now.”
“Thank you,” I said, but I was breathing too hard. “Thank you, Mrs. Schmidt. I feel so happy.” I touched my heart when I said it, as if I had something to prove. My ears were ringing, but the only real sound in that kitchen was the refrigerator’s drone, its bad imitation of a busy hive of bees. “I need to go to bed,” I said, my voice getting higher, and I stood up. My hands had gotten cold, and I couldn’t feel them anymore, as if they’d broken clear of my body.
Mrs. Schmidt stopped smiling, and the ballerina rolled onto her back without being touched. She said, “Sweetheart, you’re sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine,” I said, “I’m just so tired.”
“Well, Leila, I was going to say that I’d be honored now if you would call me Mom.” She took my hand again, and I was embarrassed that it was like ice. I nodded. I tried to smile, and Mrs. Schmidt let it go.
When I got back to Rick’s room I pulled the shades, took off my clothes all at once, and threw them on the bed. My period had started. Dark red clots like ruined fruit. I went to the bathroom and ran cold water in the sink for a long time, cleaned myself up, rinsed out my panties, and then I went back to bed, waiting for sleep or for Rick in the silence, just as his mother on the other side of the wall waited for her husband, her son, her own dreams, her secret feast waiting for her in the kitchen when she thought we were asleep.