Authors: Laura Kasischke
But I could smell my own blood in the dark. Old blood coming back to me once a month. My mother’s long white legs. A cup of blood. Communion. I could smell the red silk slip of it between my legs, and I knew I wouldn’t sleep all night.
As we pull out of the parking lot of the Swan Motel in a blue, muggy rain, I look back at my rusty car, the white Duster that belonged to Rick’s father, its muffler dragging the road behind it for years, sparking the dark like an old tail. I say good-bye under my breath, and Gary squeezes my thigh. He says, “I like it that you don’t have any underwear on, Leila.”
I smile with my lips over my teeth because they feel cold. Or maybe I feel shy, staring straight ahead.
He chuckles and says, “You’re a wild one—especially for such a quiet little thing.” He touches me between the legs, and I don’t move. It feels like nothing there. He glances at his hand and says, “Jesus. We’re gonna be happy as hell, sweetheart.”
I close my eyes and feel his hand on me, feel the road float under us like a river, the rainy sky float lower over us like a river, too, and my body floating in slow motion between those rivers of road and sky with Gary, fast, sweeping toward my new life, which waits like a mother at the end of a long, white tunnel of light.
, does your father know where you are?”
The taller one blocked out the sun behind him, scraping the sky, before he knocked me to the ground, and the human trees moved in, breathing.
The younger one might only have been sixteen. Maybe he was scared.
He also knew my father.
He fixed our car.
He was wearing a cowboy hat, a stiff black one, and it made him pale. He didn’t take it off. His upper lip was prickly and blond, and he had a small scar in the middle of it, skinny and white as a worm.
The older one knew what he was doing, maybe even why. But the younger one seemed embarrassed about his penis, hands cupped over it after he pulled down his pants. He fumbled for a long time. I cried out for my father again, but neither one of them would look at my face. The older one looked out across the river like a man surveying what he deserved to own, angry that he didn’t.
Those men know.
Those men smell all the girls around them as they pass with their pink fingernails and ankle socks, schoolbooks pressed to their chests. Those men put their noses to the breeze and they know which girls will always run in the wrong direction, every time. Which ones will never tell a soul, shame snaking a thin blue thread through their veins; they’re just surprised to be left alive. Not grateful, certainly, not willing, but familiar with the customs in that bad part of the country, that fat wasteland. The currency, the dull thud of a fist, or a penis, or a mouthful of mud.
The older one was teaching it to the younger one. The way they do. Next time he’d be able to smell it out for himself.
A pheasant with birdshot in her belly, but still alive.
A nest of rabbits.
A girl watching the river unravel.
Next time he’d know, too.
“Leila. Are you asleep?”
I open my eyes.
“We’re here, baby.” Gary smokes a cigarette beside me in the Thunderbird—coffin of silver and glass. Pure light. He says, “This is where I live.”
It’s a small white house with aluminum siding. There’s a long, cab-yellow car in the driveway, and a line of trees in the front yard, blind with red leaves—luxurious skirts rustling in an adamant wind. The rain has stopped, and the sun cracks behind the clouds, snuffed, and the clouds make a tunnel between the earth and sky—low and purple. The house is at the end of that tunnel, at the end of a gravel road with no other houses around it, just the chaos of a vegetable garden that’s done for the summer, all blond stalks now, a collapsed sunflower, and a slow-rising hill behind it. A row of pines, and what must be the river in back of that, slipping through the mud and bushes like a wet knife. The ground is littered with leaves, scarlet and wild.
Someone parts a curtain inside the house and looks out, but the window is too dark to see the face. From a white birch, peeling its bark like bandages near the front stoop, a thin black hound strains at its chain, snapping at the air in silence toward us. The birch shudders a little each time the dog lunges; yellow leaves drift onto the windshield and a few stick to the dog’s sleek back.
Gary says, “Let’s go in.”
My legs feel cold and weak when I step out of the car, and I realize I’m wearing nothing but a summer dress with pearl buttons, and winter’s on its way. The telephone line stretches loose and swaybacked from the house, and a crow lifts off of it, beating its big wings hard against the weather, which will be raw and magenta from now on—until winter finally smothers it over with nothing and snow.
The dog sniffs in our direction. As we walk across the yard, I keep my arms crossed over my chest to protect it, but the wind just cuts right through my dress and handles what it wants. I’m numb and scorched, like freezer burn, before we even get to the door.
But, inside, the house is warm and dark. The man who’d looked out the window is wearing a down jacket, jeans, and boots like Gary’s, only newer. His hair must’ve been black once, but it’s thin now. A gold tooth glints when he smiles.
“Hey Rob. This is Leila.” Gary puts his arm around me and squeezes. “She’s my sweetheart.”
, I think. I like the word. I like it better than the words
wife, daughter, mother
. I imagine my heart as a sticky, red dessert.
“Nice to meet you, Leila,” Rob says, holding his palm in my direction. His hand is dry and cold, and he passes over mine lightly with it.
The living room smells like old wool, or a dog. A plaid couch. A TV with a wide black screen. A La-Z-Boy, a newspaper folded on that. Someone has done half the crossword puzzle in pencil. A coffee table with a coffee cup, a glass ashtray, a stack of
. In the hallway that must lead to the bedroom, I see a child’s red-sparkle tricycle. Shiny, with white plastic streamers on the handlebars. When the dog in the front yard starts to howl, I look out the window at it.
“Don’t mind him,” Rob says. “He smells something. Probably a rabbit, or a cat.”
But the dog is throwing itself into the distance beyond its chain, snapping and staring at it—the chain jerking him back, strangling him back. The dog circles under the chain to escape it, howling and frantic, chewing at the air, before it lunges and chokes, and chokes again.
HE WIND RAGED THAT DAY
, lifting a blizzard off the lake, scissoring it across the sky over Suspicious River, then shredding it to scraps of white. Only a few skiers were staying at the Swan Motel, and they looked windburned in their colorful jackets, seeming healthy and rich. I liked the job. I’d only just started, and I was serious, careful. I added the credit card totals twice on squares of scrap paper before I wrote them permanently on the carboned slips. When guests opened the glass door and stepped into the office, a gust of December trailing them like frozen smoke, I said, “Welcome to the Swan Motel.”
Inside, the office air tasted sleepy and warm, like a mouthful of blanket or toast. Somewhere deep in the coils of the electric heater, an old bed seemed to be smoldering nicely, its fibers settling in my lungs.
The door opened then, jangling its bells, and Rick and his mother stepped in—shyly, it seemed, smiling weakly at me. Mrs. Schmidt’s hair was covered with a white wool scarf, and she wore an old, loose coat, colorless against the glass behind her. Her lips were pale pink as the bathroom tiles, and Rick, beside her in his father’s hunting jacket, washed her in an exhaustion of electric orange. Seeing them in the office of the Swan Motel, I realized how ordinary and unathletic they looked in comparison to the guests who usually stood in front of that desk—my teenage husband and his mother, where there’d been those skiers in their slick purple jackets, sunglasses reflecting the drywall, blizzards, and my own pale, melting face in plastic as they scanned their bills.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi, Leila,” Rick said, lifting his hand into the air. It looked enormous in a black glove. His mother’s eyes were wide, as if she might cry, but she smiled. They walked together toward the counter, their faces disturbingly similar and familiar, and I saw them as they were. Humble, useful people. Foreign to me, but mine. I knew I didn’t love them, didn’t even really know them, but somehow, now, we all belonged to each other. Discovering their faces suddenly at the center of my life was like finding a box of someone else’s snapshots in your attic: None of these aunts and uncles smiling intimately into the camera is yours, none of these happy holidays, these puffy infants. But if you don’t keep them now, you’ll have less than you had before you found them. Something will always be missing. Something that claimed you, as if it could enter your memory, your life, and then it did. I realized at that moment,
This is what family is
“Leila,” Mrs. Schmidt spoke to my throat. “We need to call Mrs. Briggs and tell her you have to leave.”
“Why?” I could hear snow being plowed outside, thrown heavy, human, and wet to the side of the road.
“There’s an emergency,” she said.
Rick grabbed my hand then, and when I tried to pull it back, his glove slipped off between us on the counter, empty. He opened and closed his small white fist beside it like something immodest, exposed.
“What?” I put my hand under my breasts, over the place where my ribs met each other in a bony seam. “What?” I could feel my heart beat soft and bloody behind that seam.
But the tin bells shook on the door then, and two skiers stepped in—a woman with long blond hair and an orange tan and a man with a red hat who looked much older. Her father, I thought, though his hand was making small circles on her hipbone as she leaned into him, looking drunk, or stunned, or stoned. Or, maybe she was in love. The blizzard melted fast on their shoulders, and the slippery sound of their jackets became louder as they walked toward the counter. They laughed while, outside, the snow buried the sky.
Gary opens a door from the hallway, and I follow him into a yellow bedroom. The double bed isn’t made, but the sheets are bright. They look as if they’ve only been slept in once, by someone very tired. The curtains are open and through them I can see a small storm of wet, gold leaves spin in a violet wind. When he flips the light switch on, the room throbs and the windows go dark.
“Here,” he says. “Just relax in here. I’ve got to go to town, and when I come back we can get some dinner.” He kisses me quickly, his fingers on my jaw. In the bathroom on the other side of the wall, I can here someone—Rob?—whistling. There’s the insistent knock of hot water in old pipes.
As he leaves, Gary’s boots thud on the floor. I watch his back. His dark hair over his blue collar. His narrow shoulders. From the back, in those jeans, in that work shirt, I imagine he could be any thin man from Texas, though I’ve never been to Texas and still don’t know if it’s where he’s from. Florida license plates, I remember. But the accent. Beneath his boots the floor sounds solid and dead. No basement, I think. He closes the door hard, and my mouth goes dry. I close my eyes tight, knowing I’d wait in this yellow room all night, or forever, for another taste of his sweat.
I swallow with love as he disappears, and I turn the light in the bedroom out, crawl into the bed, pull the sheets and a scratchy white blanket over my ears, and roll onto my side. From there I can see out the window. I can see him get into his silver Thunderbird, face lowered against the wind—the wind, which sounds like an old train rushing by before he closes himself into the driver’s side. I watch his headlights, then his taillights, a trail winking away—night around his car like a silky cave. I imagine a red scarf unraveling from my heart, pinned to his, and then he’s gone.
I don’t look around this room. I close my eyes. But already, by accident, I’ve seen a photograph of a woman and a child, both blond and smiling, on the nightstand. The photo is framed in black. A string of green plastic beads has been stretched out carefully on the dresser, and the lampshade has a chain of rosebuds hand-painted around the edges. I can smell a woman, all water and flesh, beneath the sheets, and the white feathers in the pillows smell like perfume, sage, a plucked, feminine bird. I hear the wind outside pick up, die, then lift itself again, higher this time.