Authors: Tiffany Baker
People in Prospect blamed Jo for her salt’s strange ways, as if she could control a substance that solidified on its own time and dissolved at the slightest opportunity. This attitude didn’t dispose her kindly toward the town in return. After all, they were the ones who’d chosen to put themselves at the mercy of the salt every December’s Eve during Jo’s youth, when she used to have to step up to the town bonfire and toss a packet to the flames to see what the future would bring. Jo didn’t know what kind of science made the salt color the fire, only that it happened and was none of her doing.
She wished she
control the future. She’d work a spell on the anonymous clerks of Harbor Bank and make them cancel out her debt. But the clerks were obviously not interested in the miraculous alchemy of the Gilly salt. What they cared about was arithmetic. As long as there was a plus sign on their side of things,
Jo knew, nothing else much mattered. It was a hard logic to argue with.
But they didn’t see what Jo did when she walked out onto her front porch. Their eyes didn’t automatically travel to the rows of collecting basins to see if crystals were forming. They wouldn’t have been able to pick the treasures out of the trash in any of the junk heaps behind the barn, and they certainly wouldn’t have had the faith Jo did in her battered pickup. It didn’t look too pretty, that was true, but it still ran fine. She climbed into it and started the engine. In spite of what the bank was saying, it was her delivery day and she had rounds to make, meager though they were.
As she jostled and bumped down the rutted lane into town, past the tiny church of St. Agnes, she fretted about how much longer she might have on the only land she’d ever known. One month? Four? Maybe a whole year if she were lucky?
“We would prefer a mutually amicable solution to this situation,”
the bank’s letter said.
“Please contact us.”
Jo snorted and jammed the engine into third. She could just imagine their reaction if she dared to stroll into the bank’s headquarters in person with her swath of scars pickling the right side of her face, her glass eye thick as anything, not to mention the sight of her clothes, stiff and pale from years of working the marsh in all kinds of weather. On the other hand, maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea. Maybe the very sight of her would startle the bankers into clemency.
She looked up, surprised that she’d arrived already in town. Misery loved company, and Jo was no exception. She was pleased to note that if Salt Creek Farm had been having a tough decade, so had all the rest of Prospect. The library was open only three days a week now, and the post office only in the mornings. Mr. Friend’s hardware store, dusty and jumbled with rows of outdated tools, still stood on the corner of Bank and Elm right next to the five-and-dime, but the barbershop was shuttered, along with the diner. Three years ago Mr. Hopper, the establishment’s former owner, had died of a stroke, leaving the stools empty and the men in town hungry as all get-out.
Naturally, Prospect blamed the scourge of Jo’s salt for their decline, but Jo wasn’t having that. She knew exactly who was behind the town’s demise: her little sister, Claire. She was the one who’d upped and fled Salt Creek Farm a decade ago—turning nature on its head and leaving Jo short a pair of extra hands. Growing up, Jo had worked the marsh alongside her mother and Claire, and while it wasn’t much, they’d always managed. But when Claire had married and Jo’s mother had died, Jo found out how hard it was for one woman to do the work of three. In fact, as evidenced by her skimpy salt yields, it was proving impossible.
Lately, whatever Jo did around the farm seemed to carry negative consequences. If she chose to scrape the delicate surface crystals off the ponds, for instance, it meant she wasn’t repairing the broken sluice near the weir. And if she then turned around to fix that, it meant she wasn’t dredging the channels that had started to silt up. This year she’d had to let a full third of the evaporating basins fill with mud, leaving them fallow and unproductive, and she was also forced to ignore the attic’s leaking roof, overlook the warped wooden gates in the smallest sluices, and make do when all her metal tools started rusting. Of course her productivity had fallen way off. She needed new equipment, repairs on the truck, and to patch the farmhouse porch, but she had debts to repay. Ones she hadn’t even been aware existed.
There was another lurking problem with the marsh that the bank in Boston didn’t know about, however. The truth was, it didn’t matter how little salt Jo was making, because sales were slim in Prospect. And that was her sister’s fault, too. Claire had frightened almost everyone off from buying it except for the local fishermen, who found it handy for keeping their catch and bait cold. Without the business of men like Chet Stone, the uncle of Claire’s first love, Jo had a bad feeling she’d be sunk deader than the fish stowed in his trawler. When Claire didn’t like a thing, Jo knew, she didn’t like anyone else to like it either. In that regard she was like a bad-tempered child, scattering her toys before anyone else could pick them up and use them, consequences be damned.
Jo remembered how the grocer, Mr. Upton, tried to refuse carrying the salt his first summer in town. She’d been very young, barely at her mother’s knee, when they’d marched into the shop with a sample for him to taste. “No thank you,” he’d said, putting up two palms, and Mama hadn’t fought with him. Instead she’d smiled, sweet as pie. “Fine,” she’d said. “That’s just fine.” And she waltzed Jo out the door. It hadn’t taken very long for the salt to work its magic. By the next week, all Mr. Upton’s meats had turned rancid and there were flyspecks in his fresh butter. A shelf of canned beans collapsed against Mabel Arch’s arthritic hip, the fishmonger suddenly refused to deliver, and the sliced loaves of bread grew mold underneath their clear plastic wrappers. Jo’s mother had waited two more days, then gone back and discovered that Mr. Upton had experienced a sudden change of heart. He would stock the salt after all.
He was one of the few in Prospect who still did stock it now, but he kept it low and behind the counter, on a shelf so dusty and shaded you practically needed mining equipment to find it. And whereas he used to have bags and bags of the stuff readily available, now he kept only one or two at a time—enough not to cross the charm of the salt and bring back the rancid meat and flies, but not so much that it was a regular commodity. Whenever Jo went in to see if Mr. Upton needed more, he’d avoid her eyes and shake his head apologetically. “I really can’t right now,” he’d say, closing his cash register. “Maybe next month.” And Jo would gnash her teeth and want to bury Claire up to her neck in a pile of the salt she hated, leaving her there until all Jo’s old customers came back.
But there was only so much blame Jo could heap on Claire. If their situations were reversed, Jo suspected, if Jo were the one married to Whit and living in that big Turner House, and if Claire were the one stuck all alone in the marsh’s mud, she no doubt would have found a way to make everyone from Provincetown to Falmouth crave the salt. Jo’s truck was rickety, but it still drove. Jo should have been rattling up and down the Cape, looking for new customers, she knew, but that was easier said than done, what
with the way strangers stared at the bouquet of scars fanned across her cheek, and besides, who was supposed to mind the marsh if she went gallivanting all over God’s green earth?
Speaking of, she’d arrived at the end of it. That is, she was at the docks, where Prospect’s last few fishing boats bobbed like dilapidated corks. What with OPEC and the ongoing energy crunch and gasoline getting so expensive, more and more captains were deciding to fold their hands and give up life on the sea. It was a shame, Jo thought, and not just because it meant she was losing business, but also because without the traffic in the wharf the docks looked rattier and more weathered than ever—sagging in dangerous directions, missing crucial planks, rotted away in other spots. Here, more than at any other spot, the town’s recent decline was apparent. Jo stepped with care down the main dock and approached Chet Stone’s boat.
“Hello, sailor,” he called when he saw her coming, his ironic greeting for her due to the fact that no matter how many times the men asked her to come aboard, Jo would never so much as tap a toe on any of their boats. He had a transistor radio going, blaring something about the American hostages held in Iran. Chet frowned and shook his head. “What’s the world coming to?” he asked, reaching his arms out for the bag of salt Jo had brought. “People don’t stay where they ought anymore. Good thing you’re still around.” He grinned and hefted the sack down at his feet. “My fish stays cold, and my boat stays safe. But those poor suckers”—he jerked his thumb at the radio—“well, I’m afraid they might be goners.”
Without a word, Jo took the money he handed her, but she was thinking that if Chet Stone knew about the letter in her pocket, he just might say the same about her and decide to quit the sea, too, and then she’d be in a proper pickle with her most loyal customer gone. She cleared her throat and shoved the bills into her coat pocket. “Don’t worry,” she finally said, “I’m not going anywhere fast.”
“Let’s hope not,” Chet answered, turning back to the bait he was chopping, “or we’re really going to hell in a handbasket.”
s she drove back through town, Jo was thinking so hard about her exchange on the dock that she almost plowed right into a ladder planted in front of the old diner. She parked her truck and got out, approaching the dusty window.
“Hey,” a square-jawed man whom Jo had never seen before snarled, “watch where you’re walking.” Startled, Jo looked up to the top of the ladder, where a pudgy teenage girl was perched on the highest rung, trying to hang a crooked sign.
THE LIGHTHOUSE DINER
, it read. Jo blinked. She hadn’t heard there was a new owner for the place. Her heart fluttered a little at that fact. New blood in town meant new customers. Hoping they hadn’t met her sister yet, Jo put her hands on her hips and readied herself for an impromptu sales pitch.
She studied the man, then looked up to the girl again. The age spread was too big for them to be anything other than father and daughter, or maybe uncle and niece, Jo thought. The man had a half-gray crew cut and liver-spotted hands, and the girl was a rounded-off version of him. Plump cheeks, plump nose, and eyes just a little too close together for her to be really pretty. In Prospect, Jo knew, girls like this either ended up pummeled into ribbons by early marriages to rock-fisted men, or they survived and turned into fishwives with chiseled mouths and hearts to match, but there was still time for that in the girl’s future. Right now Jo had selling to do.
Strangers never took easy to the salt—or to her, for that matter—so it didn’t surprise Jo when the man and the dough-faced girl frowned as they took in her scars. Almost thirteen years had passed since the fire that had burned her, but Jo still wasn’t used to some of the looks she got. She supposed her insides hadn’t yet caught up with the state of her exterior, but she also thought that
was pretty much true of everyone. Most folks just didn’t show it. The man in front of Jo didn’t appear as if he had that issue, however. He looked like the kind of person who wanted those around him to fall in shoulder to shoulder and give a salute.
“Tip it to the left!” he was shouting at the girl. “The left, damn it!” The girl sighed but then did as he said before climbing down from the ladder in an awkward, flat-footed way, as though she’d had all the opinions beaten out of her early on. Then Jo noticed the way the girl rolled her eyes when the man wasn’t looking and saw that she was wrong. The girl had opinions, all right. She just knew to keep them to herself. Jo waited for the girl to plant both her feet on the ground before she told her, “You should have tipped it to the right.”
The man frowned harder, then stumped over and held out his palm. “Cutt Pitman,” he said. “And that’s my daughter, Dee.” He flicked his fingertips toward the girl. “Diner’s not open just yet.”
Jo didn’t bother to shake his hand. “Joanna Gilly,” she replied. “I’m not here to eat. I brought you some salt.” She took a sample bag out of her pocket and put it in the man’s callused hand. “Call me when you’re about to open, and I can deliver you some more. We can talk about price. I’ll be in town next Tuesday.”
She turned to walk away, but the man stopped her. “Why would I buy salt from you when I can get it by the pound in a box?” he asked.
Jo folded her arms and licked the scars blistering the right side of her mouth. “If you don’t buy from me,” she said, “no one will eat here.”
Cutt smirked. “Says who?”
Jo fixed him with her good eye. “That’s the funny thing about this town,” she said. “No one will come out and say so. They just won’t show up. I’ll be back next Tuesday.” And she spun on her one good heel.
“Pesky old bat,” she heard the man mutter as she trudged away, and then he waved a hand and ordered his daughter back up the ladder. “Tip it to the right. No, the right!” Jo heard him yelling.
So they didn’t want her salt just now, but that fact didn’t surprise her. How were they to know any better? To them, Jo reflected, it was probably about as common as house dust, and maybe about as useful. But it didn’t worry her, their refusal. She just had to give them time—that was all. Patience was its own reward, she told herself, putting the ancient truck into gear and pulling into the street, and it was a good thing, too, because currently patience was about all she had.