Authors: Tiffany Baker
Joanna’s voice was as gravelly as the salt. “Everybody says that.”
Dee opened her eyes. “What is it?”
Jo scowled. “Everybody asks that, too. How would I know? You’re the one who put it in your mouth. You be the judge.” And before Dee could ask her anything else, Jo sailed out the diner door, slamming it so hard that the little bell almost choked itself, with ringing.
f Claire Gilly Turner hated the salt, she had her reasons. As far back as she could remember, it had eaten up everything precious in her existence: her mother’s attention and her older sister’s time. It had stolen her brother and driven away her father. In fact, Claire’s first proper recollection was simply the color white—but not an ordinary, peaceful white. She was talking a sizzling white like the tail of a rocket or the bubbly meat of a fried egg. A white that was so frothy and rich she craved its very touch even while she knew she couldn’t have it.
She must have been about four. She was standing in the marsh, staring at the water, and it was high summer and high noon both at once, and in front of her the salt crystals were shining pure and loud. At the far edge of their property—so far that she looked like a wading bird—Claire could see Jo carefully swiping a long wooden paddle across the surface of one of the basins, a wooden bowl tucked next to her feet.
The rows of shallow evaporating pools had looked like tombs to her, Claire remembered—dead mineral pockets that froze in the winter, turned swampy in the heat, and became totally indeterminable in the spring. She only liked water that tumbled and thrashed, water that was free. Her favorite treat was to be allowed to scamper wild on Drake’s Beach, dipping her toes in the icy froth of the Atlantic, then squealing when the ocean water
gurgled over her ankles. She loved to fill a bucket with all manner of sea creatures she’d plucked from the rocks. She was fascinated with their alien biology, the slimier the better.
It had been so hot that day. Claire picked up a pebble from the ground and tossed it into the pond in front of her, sending a ripple under the crust of fine white salt and wetting it, something she was never supposed to do, for that commodity was precious. It came only a few weeks in the year, and while it was there, they were supposed to make the most of it. Claire’s mother and sister worked long hours pulling those crystals in with their rakes, their faces turning into pink strawberries under their hat brims, their hands puckering inside their gloves, sweat drying in broad rings across their backs. Claire was too small to sweat, but she was sticky that day nonetheless. It was always sticky on the best salt days, the air so warm and full that walking through it was like pushing through mud.
But now she wanted her stone back. She stole a glance across the ponds to her sister. More, even, than throwing things into the basins, it was forbidden to step or reach into them, submerging the salt and polluting it. But Claire didn’t care. Anticipating the suck and slime of clay at her fingertips, she scooted onto her belly and inched forward until her palm was almost touching the surface. She was about to sink her hand under when she heard a shriek, which she at first took to be one of the nasty gulls and then recognized as her mother. Before Claire knew what was happening, Mama was on her. “Ungodly child!” she shrieked, and gave Claire a hard shaking.
Across the marsh Claire saw Jo half turn in her direction, then drop her wooden rake. “Mama!” she cried. Her voice hadn’t deepened yet into the smoky rasp it would become. “Mama, stop!” Jo was running then, skipping across the delicate network of earthen levees, but she was too late. Mama had hauled Claire onto her feet and begun swatting at her, smacking her legs, shoulders, neck, and cheeks. It was like being stung by a million irate bees. Claire put her arms up over her head.
“Mama, hush.” Jo arrived. By then she was as tall as Mama, but dark. In contrast, Claire was her mother’s mirror image: pale, redheaded, and with the same mulish jaw that some people in town said would prevent her from becoming beautiful and others called a sign of character. As quick as she started it, Mama stopped pummeling Claire. She put her fists up to her mouth, and emitted a strangled noise—a name, in fact.
“Claire.” Joanna squatted down until the two of them were eye level, her wide hands spread like starfish on Claire’s shoulders. “Don’t ever step into the ponds. Do you understand?”
Claire nodded and pretended to be listening, but really she was focusing on the crash of waves in the distance. There was nothing she wanted in this marsh, she realized. Nothing at all. There was so little she wanted, in fact, that she even envied her missing father, for he had managed the greatest trick of all: escape.
For the next thirteen years, Claire dreamed of that, too. She desired only the signs of nothingness: a vacant bed, an empty closet, a suitcase ready to go. She didn’t want the blunt points of wild irises blooming outside her window in the spring, or the food Mama scooped onto plates in front of her, or the swell of hips and breasts she started to sprout. She didn’t covet friends or parties unless she could be the star. Most of all, she didn’t desire love, at least not until it caught her by surprise, opening up a greed in her so gaping and huge that she became a thief just to fill it.
laire might have been estranged from Jo, but they were still family, she was forced to admit, still cut from the same piece of ragged cloth whether she liked it or not, even if Jo’s side looked a little different from hers. Which was why when Cutt Pitman opened the diner, Claire wasn’t surprised to find little dishes of salt sitting front and center on all the tables. In a way she was secretly pleased. Even when Claire wished for it, Jo could never be ignored.
In her adult years, Claire’s distaste for the main substance of
her childhood had grown even stronger. As a youth she had been powerless in the face of the stuff, but once she was the wife of Whit, the tables had turned in her life. If she didn’t like the salt, Claire knew very well, she could persuade others to get rid of it. But hatred bears hatred and sadness more sadness, and with the salt it was no different for Claire. She started out with an aversion to the matter, but over the course of her married life, as one grief heaped itself upon another, she began to fear the salt rather than simply dislike it.
She had never consciously planned to imply to the town that the salt was tainted. That tactic had come to her in a flash of irritation the day after she and Whit returned from their honeymoon. Claire had woken happy that morning, stretching luxuriously in her marriage bed with its satin coverlet and lace pillowcases, and then she’d dressed and marched down Plover Hill and over to Herman Upton’s little store.
“Hello, Claire-Bear,” he chimed as she stepped through the door, and then he blushed when he saw the heavy, familiar rings on her left hand—Ida’s rings. “Goodness, it’s… it’s just so hard to believe you’re all grown now,” he stammered, fiddling with his collar. “How was the honeymoon?”
“Lovely,” Claire said, and simpered a smile. “I’m here to open an account.”
Mr. Upton’s face brightened, and he bent down to retrieve his ledger. “Of course.” He laid the book on the counter. “Mrs. Turner—that is, Ida—had one, too, when she was still with us. Why don’t we just replace your name for hers?”
Claire frowned. “I’d like my own, thank you very much.”
Mr. Upton paused and examined her over the tops of his glasses. For a moment his eyes looked almost sorry, Claire thought, and then he got busy flipping pages. “Of course you would,” he said. “But naturally.”
It was cold in the store, so Claire folded her arms close into herself and looked at the selection on the shelves. Everywhere around her were all the goods she’d grown up consuming. Boxed
potatoes. Canned chili when they could splurge on it. The soap flakes that Mama used for both laundry and dishes. And, of course, sacks of her family’s salt, huddled front and center of the store like a row of impertinent beggars. Claire scowled.
“Just sign here,” Mr. Upton said, pointing to a blank spot at the bottom of the page. “Shall we send the bills on over to Whit?”
“Yes, that will be fine.” Claire scribbled her new signature, her hand still unsure with the crosses and lines of her married name. Once again she was aware of Mr. Upton’s eyes examining the rings on her left hand. The diamonds looked too big on her, she knew, a nineteen-year-old local girl. She sniffed and hid her left hand, pointing at the shelf in the front of the store with her right one.
“If you only knew what was really in that stuff,” she said, her mind spinning out the words just a beat ahead of her mouth, “you’d never put it up in front of your shop like that.”
Mr. Upton turned a shade paler and looked nervous. He’d never really gotten comfortable with the salt, only accustomed to it. “What do you mean?” he asked, and swallowed hard.
Claire played with the end of her long red braid. She might have been a married woman, but she still had the hairstyle of a schoolgirl. The effect must have been unsettling for Mr. Upton, who’d known her since her birth, and she was perfectly aware of that. She fluttered her eyelashes. “I never said anything until now, but let’s just say I’ve seen that salt eat right through metal over the course of a season. I’d hate to think”—and here she gave an artful little shudder—“what all might be leaching into the dirt on Salt Creek Farm. You’ve seen the piles of junk out there, not to mention the family graves.” Claire pointed at the bags, leaned forward, and lowered her voice. “What do you suppose makes my brother’s salt turn bloodred?”
Mr. Upton’s eyes followed her finger to the bags. “But… but,” he stammered, “they need to be there. You know that.”
Claire smiled and fiddled with her ring. “Do they? It seems like you might want to use that spot for other items, more expensive ones, for instance. Now that I’m a Turner, I bet I’ll be spending
more money than practically anyone in this store. It seems like you’d want to make your best customer happy.”
She watched poor Herman Upton pale, then tremble, then finally concede, his narrow shoulders slumping as he walked to the shelf and started taking down the little burlap sacks. He held each one cradled in his palm for a moment, the belly of the bags bloated, then moved them to an inconspicuous spot lower on the shelf. “Maybe these would fit down here,” he said. “I think they would. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to carry some other kind of salt from time to time.”
“That’s better, isn’t it?” Claire said, all sunshine again. “I’ll see you in a few days. I don’t actually need anything today.” And she sashayed out the door.
I’m a proper Turner now
, she thought.
Why, I could buy the whole store up if I wanted.
The idea was so exhilarating it made her physically dizzy. She almost had to grab the doorframe for support.
The girls who’d teased her throughout grammar school because she’d worn stained work clothes to school would never see her in anything but silk or cashmere now, she vowed. The boys who’d called her a witch would have the kinds of jobs—at Moe’s garage and the filling station, at the country club in Wellfleet, managing the department store in Hyannis—where they would have to call her “ma’am,” and the old ladies who’d gossiped about her red hair and family would come begging for donations to their charities. Even Father Flynn, who’d given Claire her catechism and First Communion, would have to kiss her hand on Sunday and wait for her to be seated before he could begin Mass, just as he’d always done with Ida.
And like Ida, Claire would take over as the queen bee of town, flitting from group to group—at the country club, at charity meetings—dropping hints everywhere she went that the salt the women made their children gargle with when they had colds and sprinkled on their husbands’ pot roasts might not be so good for them after all—that it might in fact be poisoning them from the roots up.
Best of all, she’d never have to touch the stuff again if it didn’t
please her, and it didn’t, not even half a hair. Claire knew that her mother had coerced Mr. Upton to stock it in the first place. Mama used to tell the story before Claire fell asleep—about how he’d refused at first, then lost his customers before watching all his meat turn rancid for no good reason and his produce rot and spoil.