Authors: Laura Kasischke
What was it?
Something—a white station wagon?—drove by then, and it lit up the street like an exploding shell.
A refrigerator, I thought.
An ice-cream truck.
A cage of white tigers at the Chicago Zoo on a blinding May day.
But that wasn’t it either.
Then I leaned down and opened the bottom drawer of the dresser and felt under the panties and short socks for the jewelry box where I kept this money. I opened it slowly:
The ballerina still danced, but the box played no Vienna waltz. I could see the reflection of my own hand, green with cash from the day before, doubled in the little mirror, and I began to count all the cash in the jewelry box again, though I knew exactly how much was there:
Two thousand three hundred thirty-seven dollars and sixty cents.
And I’d only been doing what I was doing for forty-two days.
Not counting Sundays, my one day off.
—a hundred degrees in northern Michigan, and it’s like trying to breathe beneath a heap of gray-blue blankets soaked in fever-sweat, yellowed sheets. I’ve learned to answer the phone.
“Lee-la speaking,” I say into its black mouth.
“Leila, sweetie, this is Daddy. Let me talk to Mommy.”
My mother’s voice is a musical muffle behind the closed bedroom door, and she steps out before I knock. Naked. Her whole body is pale as damp papier-mâché, except her nipples which are glossy, pink, and the thick black patch of hair between her legs. She doesn’t close the bedroom door behind her, and I see his dark arms over a pillow. There’s the smell of sweat and violets crushed to powder when she passes.
“Hi hon,” she says into the phone.
I stay standing in the hallway outside my parents’ bedroom. I see him turn over in the bed, sit up, his back against the white-pine headboard. And I stare straight at him, not moving at all.
Maybe my eyes are narrow and dull.
I hear my mother behind me.
She says, “I just can’t talk about it right now, Jack. I’m doing two hundred things at once and it’s just hotter than hell up here. Call me tonight at dinnertime, will you?
“I love you, too.
“Just come back as soon as you can.”
She hangs up as she says, “Bye.”
My uncle stares back at me, not seeing me at all, and his chest rises and falls, angry, all that tan nakedness taking up more than half their bed. His whole body sweats.
She moves past me fast when she comes back, and this time I smell something clean as medicine on her skin before she closes the door behind her, and I hear him on the other side of it mutter, “Why the fuck are you talking to him that way?”
“He’s my fucking husband,” she says, “that’s why.”
The sun got flatter but warmer in the sky as the day went on. It bounced off the windshields of the other cars and flashed like lightning in my lap as I drove to the Swan Motel. The car windows were unrolled, and the October air tasted pure on my teeth. Indian summer, I thought as I passed the Main Street gift shop and looked up for a moment into the blue eyes of Pocahontas, watching over us like a tacky goddess of tourists and small change, exchanged. In her fixed eyes I was nothing more than a blur of glass and rust on its way to work.
It was warm, but it was October. I could feel the earth tilt, bank further away from the sun with the whole town of Suspicious River on it. Not slipping into infinity and ether, though—stuck. Pasted to its place.
Some of the trees along Main Street were already completely bare, and they clawed at the silver blue of the sky. Bright and quiet, the town had turned away from summer like a stale white cake behind a glass bakery case. As I drove by the pharmacy, I saw my father sitting on a bench outside, sipping a Pepsi, a few ragged leaves scuffling at his feet. But, of course, it wasn’t him.
And outside the Red Devil Lounge on the other side of the street, three men in leather jackets stood around a glinting circle of motorcycles. One of the men was staring up at the sky, a long brown braid stretching down his back, his feet apart and his hands on his hips like a man stunned by god. Sun blind. A green bottle of beer shimmered in his fist.
All the buildings along Main Street, except the gift shop with its mural, were red brick and built a hundred years ago when Suspicious River was a boomtown—loggers and trappers with thick mustaches photographed in black and white with their wives in bustles, hair pulled up, grim smiles, posing outside the brand-new buildings they’d raised where there’d been just forest a few months before:
Those photos were pressed like the past into an album at Ed’s Photography Shop, and the tourists stopped by sometimes to look at those long-dead faces and think about the town back then. Then, it must have already seemed terrible, and complete, and the future was only a storeroom with nothing except winter in it, and no one had the key.
Who would have imagined tourists then? The Swan Motel? Me?
But those loggers bought tobacco from a German on Main Street, and they ate big meals of bloody beef and boiled potatoes at the restaurant beside the tobacco shop, flirting with their waitresses—the German’s daughters, thick-ankled, with Lutheran blue eyes, who scuttled like mice between the kitchen, the garbage, and those meals.
And the money those men spent fed the town just enough to nudge it forward from year to year like a big ship of prisoners and their wives cruising a very short coast for a long, long time. It was no different than the way the tourists slipped a little something into the town’s red shoe now as they passed through.
Some of the bricks had crumbled. Many of the buildings were empty. The Star Hotel had once been famous on the western edge of the state for its chandeliers and its Star Lounge piano bar. Peanut shells and sawdust on the wide-planked oak floors, scuffed by heels. But now the Star Hotel was a warehouse for a furniture store owned by a corporation in another town. Even the Palace had been gone so long no one mentioned it anymore. Just a ball of glitter turning above the dance floor like a strange, mechanical planet in the past.
Now, Main Street smelled vaguely, maybe pleasantly, of decay.
Not death, just an attic full of purple evening gowns, crinoline, silk suits shut up in a trunk for a century or so.
Mothballs, and a shoebox of dried carnations.
But no one was sad about that. The elegance of the red brick buildings along Main Street had been replaced easily and overnight by the neon and glass of the new buildings along Eighth Street. McDonald’s. Howard Johnson’s. A & W. Eighth Street had been nothing but cow pasture until 1972. Now there were dumpsters full of maggoty meat and cow-white styrofoam parked beside our cars while we ate our burgers in a hurry.
Still, those buildings would never be as familiar to us as the ones on Main Street, no matter how long they stood along Eighth Street. Those new buildings were only squares of glass full of air, fluorescent light, and bright plastic spoons. Those buildings had the look of temporary shelters, stuck like afterthoughts into what seemed still to be a pasture. The smell of manure, hen feathers, and horsehair snagged in a breeze that passed between the golden arches every afternoon.
I stepped harder on the gas to make it through the yellow light, and a cool wind knocked at my ear and pushed into my mouth when I sped up. In that wind, I tasted sterling. Like biting down on a coin.
In the parking lot of the Swan Motel, I saw his silver Thunderbird, still there. I pulled in next to it on purpose with the rusty white Duster Rick’s father had sold us a few years before for three hundred dollars. It was a reliable car, and it was mine, but it ran nervous and high. Sometimes at a stoplight I felt that if I failed to keep my foot hard and heavy on the brake, the car might fly.
Millie wasn’t in the office when I arrived. Instead:
RECEPTIONIST WILL BE RIGHT BACK
I put my purse under the counter and listened at the bathroom door. Millie wasn’t in the bathroom. So I walked back out to the parking lot, squinted and looked around, didn’t see her, and then I walked around the office to the back of the Swan Motel where Millie stood in moss-green grass, smoking a cigarette and staring, concerned or bored, into Suspicious River.
The blackness of that water and the way Millie stared into it reminded me of the Magic 8 Ball every child owned when I was a child.
Reply hazy, try again
always rose to the inky surface.
Because Millie’s dark hair frizzed in damp weather, it seemed to expand until Millie appeared small and withered, an old petunia, under it. But today her hair was sleek as plastic. A new product, I thought. Gel, mousse, shampoo—something slick in a blue tube—had changed Millie overnight. “Hey,” she said, a mouthful of smoke.
I said, “Hi.”
The river smelled weedy, green-black, and a swan paddled past. Another stood alone on the riverbank and lifted its wings, then dropped them, shook itself, then lifted its wings, shuddering again. It was like a beautiful woman talking to herself, practicing a speech, mouthing it with nothing coming out. The sun ribboned the water. A thin shiver of light.
Millie said, “God. It’s been a really bad day.”
The orange eye of her cigarette flared when she inhaled, and I sat down in a lounge chair near her and looked up at Millie’s face. It was a pretty face, but the eyes were pale and lost in it. Her long teeth were sharp as an animal’s, and severe. She shook her glossy new hair and said, “Mrs. Briggs came in and bitched me out because I forgot to have some guy sign his credit card slip like two months ago.”
“Did she just find out?”
“I guess so.” Millie shrugged. “She got it back yesterday from the bank.”
Millie sighed and smoked and looked toward the other side of the river, which was nothing but bushes, sticks, a steady sway of thin white branches. Now and then a crow flapped out. Occasionally a hawk would circle the air above the nothing, making a slow funnel back to earth in search of something weak or dead.
Millie inhaled and said, “And, Leila, some guy came in asking about you.”
She looked away when she said it. Back at the river.
“I don’t know. He was driving a white van.” Millie cleared her throat. “That’s been happening pretty regular, you know.”
A warning. I should have known it was coming. Though it didn’t matter to me much, coming from Millie, who couldn’t do anything well.
There was silence then, except for the river. The muffled sound of a swan’s webbed feet pumping just beneath the surface.
“I should probably get to the office,” I said.
“Yeah,” Millie said, “I’m gonna get the hell out of this place right now.”
Saturday October 16. I opened the leather-bound guest register.
Two of the reservations I’d written up myself. Two were in the handwriting of the third front desk girl, Samantha. Big, girly writing. There were circles instead of dots above the i’s. Samantha’s chubby friendly B in Browski, Mr. & Mrs. John.
Samantha was seventeen, eight months pregnant, and she worked at the Swan Motel when she wasn’t in school. All day she sat on a stool behind the counter and sang Barry Manilow songs to her baby. She’d lean down over her big breasts, hum and mutter to her stomach, and when a guest stepped into the office, jangling the bells, Samantha would look up, openmouthed, and stop.
Millie’s small, loose script, cramped and slack at the same time, was nowhere under the date, so I knew something would be missing that night. Someone would show up with a reservation, and without one. Millie had the busiest shift for taking reservations, and, after all, it was a weekend night. Even in October there were always ten or eleven reservations for a Saturday night.
I looked at the check-in sheet and saw what I already knew, having seen his silver Thunderbird in the parking lot when I pulled in. Jensen, Gary, with Smith in parentheses next to it. How had he explained that to Millie?
I emptied an orange ashtray into the wastebasket under the counter. The ashtray was heavy, for plastic, and shaped like a kidney. It felt strange and dangerous in my hand, heavy enough to explode if it slipped to the floor, or if it was thrown.
I lit a cigarette then and watched the clock on the wall across the counter. There was no second hand, but the minute hand jerked forward hard and mechanical, with only a small clicking sound like someone pulling the trigger of a pistol without any ammunition in it.
I didn’t look at him at first when he came in, but he stooped a little, a friendly dance step in his blond cowboy boots, a blue baseball cap shading his face, and he tried to catch my eye. “Howdy,” he said, mostly twang.
Gary Jensen was wearing another shirt—also light blue and starched so stiff it would’ve stayed standing even if he’d suddenly melted to nothing in it. Same stiff jeans. His face looked leaner, maybe a little mean now, with that baseball cap over his high forehead. And he could’ve been a baseball player, too. I could see the hollows from his cheeks to his jaw like slashed scars or a boy’s dimples gouged too deep when he smiled, even under the scruffy stubble of his beard. I could imagine him spitting on a mound.