Authors: Laura Kasischke
“Well, O.K.,” Rick said—only a dip of disappointment in it before he turned back to the game show he’d been watching.
A board of light bulbs zapped. Sirens. A woman shrieked, put her face in her hands, cried and cried and screamed as if she were being stabbed, over and over, with a dull knife. She was overwrought, overweight, and wearing a halter-top. Her arms looked moist, doughy, in the TV fuzz. Some of her skin rippled when she sobbed, but some stretched taut as too-tight bandages. She’d won a compact car, and the body of it was revealed to her slowly between two maroon curtains parting around the car like lips—something sporty, red, and sexy waiting for her in a wide, warm mouth. She gasped. The host of the show stood stiff beside her in his heavy dark suit. You could not see his arms or even his neck, but his face was open and round as a stopped clock. He put his hand on the woman’s bare back and rubbed it up and down, numbly—smiling into the distance, which was us.
Rick looked back up at me. “Bye,” he said.
Even under his T-shirt I could see the wide V of bone on his chest like a seagull’s spread wings, thinned and rigid, caught between the rotors of his shoulders.
“Bye.” I said it brightly, but my back was to him when I said it.
It was a short drive to the Swan Motel from our apartment because it was a small town. Still, a lot of people passed through the town every year, tossing candy bar wrappers out car windows. In the summer, they swept by on their way to the lake, staying a night or two on the river, which was also eternally sweeping toward the lake. In the fall, they came to see the leaves go bloody or gold before they fell, or to see the swans flock and rise up above us in October like a flying church choir in white robes, leaving, while the Michigan winter shuffled itself together on the horizon, ready to blow.
Then, the tourists came to ski down Soprano Hill—black pinpricks whipping through January blizzards. It wasn’t much of a hill, but it was the only one around for miles, and we were lucky to have a hill at all, there in the flat part of the state—the western ridge of the Michigan mitten. At night it was illuminated, and it lit up the whole town like a rest stop above us—especially when it was blown with artificial snow, which shot furious into its bare face like long feather boas in the cold zero of a spotlight on a stage.
Finally, spring. The swans would come back, and they would build their nests outside the Swan Motel, drop their fist-sized eggs while the tourists stared, scratched their heads, used their hands like visors to look toward the sky, which would be blue in May and full of nothing. Soon enough their identical children would crack into the world, sticky wet and dirty white as dog-chewed tennis balls, and the tourists would creep closer through the damp grass on hands and knees to take blurred snapshots with expensive cameras of the new swans shaking off their eggs—broken and spermy with membrane, fresh birth mess.
When you saw the weather map on the news at night, you probably didn’t think about us up there, living our lives on the pinkie of that fat Michigan hand—driving to work, boiling potatoes, digging graves. You were looking at your own edge of something and hearing
Eighty percent chance of rain, occasional sun, a storm system out of the West
, while the river just scrolled on, ink black, making a steady thrumming under us and, above us, a softer sound like lashing, slashing, clapping—or a child being lightly slapped, over and over, in a game.
The tourists liked to have their pictures taken together under the sign that said
WELCOME TO SUSPICIOUS RIVER
. They laughed about the name of the town, though the name didn’t mean anything anymore to us, if it ever had—just assonance and syllables flagging up the vague image of a place we knew we lived.
When I got to the Swan Motel, Millie was in her jean jacket, ready to go. She had a pink tissue pressed to her forehead. “Oh,” she said like a sound, not a word, “I’ve gotta get out of here.”
“Go,” I said, friendly, “get out of here,” and I pushed my own jean jacket and my purse, a small red patent-leather oval like a stomach stuffed with Kleenex, under the counter. Both of them were damp.
It had begun to rain while I was driving to work, and the moisture made the air in the office smell like tin, or sulfur, murky as a dirty locker room. Guests would come in asking where the indoor pool was. “At the Holiday Inn,” I’d want to say, but wouldn’t: There was no pool at all.
But I could see why they asked—that odor, damp air, especially when it rained. The Swan Motel smelled of mold, chlorine, musk. The rooms were humid even in the driest, deadest dead of winter. I could smell the Swan Motel in my hair at night like formaldehyde, or copper, before I fell asleep.
Millie stood with her back to the glass door, buttoning her jacket. Her hair was long and frizzy in the humidity and so black it washed her eyes away until they were only the faint blue of a white eggshell. She said, “So everything O.K. these days, Leila?”
I shrugged, glanced at the clock. I could feel the wet rubber that lined the soles of my shoes seep dimly into my skin.
Millie was younger than I was, but she was plain and wispy as fatigue itself—a scarf of air and smoke, frayed, a shred of a yellowed lace dress left for a long time on a wire hanger. The tips of her teeth were pointed, and Millie used them to dig at the skin around her fingernails, to scrape her bottom lip until it paled, cracked, bled pink onto the smaller, lower teeth.
“Yeah, O.K., I guess,” I said.
“Does Rick eat?”
“You know.” I shrugged again. “Not much.”
“God,” she said, “I couldn’t believe it when I saw him last week. He’s like—nothing—now.”
I bit my own lip, which tasted bitter, like iodine, and I nodded. Millie put the scaly tip of her left thumb between her teeth and said, “What does he act like at home? Weird?”
“Normal,” I said, and I pictured Rick on the couch in boxer shorts watching the television blink. “He goes to work. He cooks.” I held my hands up in front of me as if to show Millie there were no clues in them, or trouble.
“Wow.” She shook her head as she pushed backward out the door.
In a casual flash, like tonguing your teeth quick and tasting something sour, I hated Millie for being so pale and inquisitive—a slow perplexed look even about her hair. But then she took her hand out of her mouth to wave good-bye, the tin bells on the glass door jangling as she stepped out, and I remembered she wasn’t family, or a friend, just someone whose job I shared, who wouldn’t bother to think too long or hard about the details of my life, and the bad feeling passed.
After Millie was gone, the shadow of her Pinto moving briefly over the wet parking lot tar like a phantom horse, the empty office hummed its familiar silence, and I heard an empty click in my ears like the hammer of a toy gun, fired, when I swallowed.
After a while, I opened the leather-bound guest register.
There were seven names penciled onto the weak red lines under Friday October 15. Six of them were in Millie’s loopy handwriting, so I knew they were likely to be stuck under the wrong dates, wrong arrival times, last names misspelled or inaccurate altogether. Millie was a bad receptionist by any standards, and she’d most likely be fired soon, I thought—though she didn’t seem to be aware of that herself, complaining daily about the job as though she’d always have it. But all Millie needed as far as I could tell was one more major blunder like Labor Day weekend: Not a vacancy in all of Suspicious River, and Millie’d given the same room to a family of four and a couple from Ohio within a few hours of each other.
It was an accident.
Millie had checked the family in first, but they’d gone to Grandma’s house for dinner across town before taking their bags upstairs. The couple from Ohio came later, wearing matching polo shirts, purple, confirmation number for their reservation firmly in hand, but Millie couldn’t find their names in the ledger.
Of course, the motel was packed, but it was impossible for Millie to know that since she hadn’t bothered to do the paperwork for a crowd of couples and their kids who’d come in just as she was eating her sack lunch and talking to her mother on the phone. Millie just handed out keys and ran credit cards, eating, chewing her fingers, talking long distance the whole time.
Perhaps Millie simply panicked when the couple got articulate and angry, college-educated and exhausted from their drive, and asked Millie to produce a manager. Or, more likely, Millie knew she’d be out of there, at the drive-in necking or watching
with her boyfriend Ed before the trouble started. In any case, the Ohio couple waited, impatient and tapping their Nikes officially on the dull linoleum of the office floor while Millie wandered around the Swan Motel with her master key, knocking on doors, looking for an empty room to give them. When no one answered, Millie opened the door and peeked in to see if there were any bags, if the beds were mussed. Of course, one family’s room was untouched: They were just that minute sitting down to pork chops on the other side of Suspicious River.
So Millie assigned that one to the couple, gave them the duplicate key, thinking, or so she said, that she’d just misplaced the original. And when the family of four came back to their room, the couple from Ohio was naked in it, sitting at the edge of one of the double beds, smoking a joint and watching a blank-eyed woman writhe on a leopard skin bedspread while a man stood over her, masturbating into her mouth.
For only six dollars you could have this film specially cabled into your color television set. If you’d paid for your room with a credit card, you didn’t even have to tell the front desk girl what you wanted to watch. You just turned to the channel and the six dollars would automatically appear on your bill. Not another word about it.
Mrs. Briggs hadn’t wanted to offer this special service at first, but then the cable company salesman appeared with his soft burgundy briefcase on a slow April afternoon of sleet and mud, and he showed Mrs. Briggs how much money she was likely to make. As it turned out, sixty percent of the guests were happy to have this entertainment option—though the televisions in their rooms were fifteen years old and the colors on the screen were brighter than life, hard to look at directly for very long. Lips turned flame red or hot pink, bleeding fuzzily into the screen, and each voice reverberated tinny through the sound grill, echoing like a loudspeaker in a cavern, turning all musical instruments to banjos.
The couple from Ohio was watching
Love Rides the Rails
. It would be the same film shown over and over every night after 8
until October 22 and
, when the faces would change, but, of course, the plot would stay the same.
“Mommy, what are they
” their blond daughter screamed as if for her life when she opened the motel room door while Mom, Dad and Brother hauled their Samsonite from the station wagon up the long flight of concrete stairs behind her. Mrs. Briggs had to be called at home that night, and she’d been dead asleep. Her voice was full of phlegm when she answered the phone, and Millie’s future at the Swan Motel had been in limbo ever since.
The phone rang then, and it was Rick.
“Hey,” he said.
I said, “What’s going on?”
“Nothing, I just thought you might want me to bring you some dinner over there. You forgot to take your sandwich.”
His voice sounded far away—a bad connection. I could hear another conversation on the line taking place somewhere beyond his voice: a woman’s singsong rising and falling, telling a story, and I remembered a TV show I’d seen once when I was a child—was it
?—in which a ham radio in a man’s basement began one night to play a frantic wireless call for help from a soldier during the last bloody battle of a war that had ended forty years before.
I wanted to listen to the voice in the distance, but Rick spoke up louder as if to block it out. “I could bring pizza, or I could just drop off the sack if you want.”
“No,” I said. “I’ll get a snack out of the vending machine and eat the sandwich when I get home.”
“See you soon.”
He hung up while I was still listening for the woman’s singsong again. I heard a man laugh vaguely, and the woman, muffled, seem to say, “Jesus!” before the line was cut.
taken of my mother before she died: She wears a sleeveless white dress. A trellis of pink roses, puffy and soft as pneumonia in the late summer haze, twists and struggles behind her. Her hair is dark and down to her shoulders. A slight breeze seems to sift the loose curls lightly. There’s even a glimpse of the sky beyond her—muted blue, a fading Kodak color that looks nothing like real sky.
My mother has just opened her mouth to say a word, and her mouth is frozen in the shape of a spoon. Silence is all that comes out.
Over the years I come to believe, like a child, that my mother is saying my name in that aborted breath, her pink mouth matching the roses behind her: