The Salt House
The night Mom threw Dad out we had a dinner party at our house. We lived on the first floor of a tan two-story on the bay side of town. Mom grew up there, but on the top floor, where Grandma lived.
Mom loved to cook and play games, and Dad loved Mom, so they entertained often, or they used to at least, before Maddie. Jess and I were always included. Mom said it was because she liked having her favorite people around. “Am I one of your favorites, Hope?” Dad sometimes asked, his dark eyes drilling a hole into the back of Mom’s head. You got the sense he was holding his breath when he asked the question. It would get him a laugh and a hug, but over her shoulder, Dad wasn’t laughing. In those moments, if need had a face, it would’ve looked like Dad.
I was in charge of coats at the party. I’d sulked about that all afternoon and told Mom that carrying coats to the bedroom didn’t seem like an important job, since it was summer and who wore a coat in June?
Mom was on her knees on the kitchen floor, looking for the Crock-Pot, half her body missing inside the cabinet, the sound of pans bumping against one another ringing through the room. I heard her say something about June nights in Maine and how they
sometimes had a chill to them, but when she sat back on her heels, her eyes were a little wild, and there was a dark smudge on her forehead, and still no Crock-Pot.
She looked at me and must have seen how serious I was, because she sighed and told me to go set the kids’ table then, with whatever plates I wanted, which seemed like a much better job.
That’s how Jess and I got to drink Shirley Temples in old mismatched fancy glasses, set with our best china and cloth napkins just like the adult table. It was perfect, even though Jess told me to stop calling it the kids’ table, since it was just me and her sitting there and she was almost seventeen and only home on a Saturday night because everyone except for her was on vacation somewhere else.
I kept quiet because once Jess got in one of her moods, forget it. It wasn’t worth pointing out that by everyone she meant Carly and Betsy, her two best friends, and they only visited family for a couple of weeks each summer. Betsy down to Kittery, and Carly up to Boothbay. Each one less than an hour away, which, in my opinion, didn’t count as a vacation. But Jess always had to be right, so I didn’t argue with her.
The Alfonsos arrived first. They came with their sheepdog, a hulking black-and-white thing with patches of skin peeking from where his fur should’ve been. He crept close to the floor when he walked and lowered his sad eyes like he knew he was overstepping. He’d had some sort of breakdown after Mrs. Alfonso went back to work full-time, leaving him alone in an empty house.
They got another dog so he wouldn’t be lonely, a long-haired retriever named Molly. Mrs. Alfonso said she’d never seen him so happy. Then Molly got hit by a car six months later and died. He started losing hair after that. Separation anxiety, Mrs. Alfonso told Mom, wringing her hands and sighing as she watched him hunker
down under our table, his large body hitting the floor like a sack of potatoes.
So sorry for the inconvenience, Mrs. Alfonso repeated over and over. Mom shushed her and rubbed Mrs. Alfonso’s shoulder and said she understood. Sometimes, Mom said, love isn’t convenient. Mom had a big heart like that. Dad rolled his eyes but stared at Mom like he could devour her alive. I didn’t think it was whatever anxiety the doctor called it. Looked like a broken heart to me. I’d seen that before.
The Donovans and the Martins came next. The last ones in were Mom’s friend, Peggy, and a man who held out his hand to Mom and said his name was Ryland Finn, but she should call him Ry, and Mom said, “Oh, what a great name,” and waited like he might have a story about it.
But he just shrugged and glanced over her shoulder into the room behind her, as if he were searching for something he’d lost. Then nobody said anything until finally Mom said, “Well, let’s get you two introduced, shall we?”
We started with mussels in marinara sauce, one of Mom’s specialties and easy to make, since Dad brought them home from the shop whenever Jess and I asked. Dad was a lobsterman and did some shellfishing on the side, which we loved. We could never get enough steamers, mussels, and clams on the half shell. Dad said we were spoiled, ate like queens. But he winked at Mom while we dug in.
They played charades after dinner. Dad put up a fuss about playing, but Mom talked him into one round. He got To Kill a Mockingbird, and Mom thought he was acting out a horror movie. She guessed bird when he flapped his arms but finally got it when he pretended to play a harp. Dad said he should’ve done the harp bit first, since Mom was a writer and always remembered authors.
Mr. Finn said he didn’t get the harp bit, and Peggy looked at him with tired eyes and said Harper Lee wrote it. Mom got up to put coffee on, and everyone looked at the couple whose turn it was next, except for Mr. Finn, who was sitting behind the group, watching Mom as she left the room. I watched Dad, watching Mr. Finn, watching Mom.
Later, in my bed, long after I should’ve been asleep, I listened to Mom and Dad clean up after everyone left. The kitchen and my bedroom shared a wall, and my dresser sat on the opposite wall from my bed, across from the kitchen doorway, its tall mirror reflecting the round table, giving me a clear view of the room. In our small house there wasn’t much I couldn’t hear.
Sometimes I loved it. Hushed voices carrying me to sleep or the noise from the television drifting in and out. Sometimes I hated it. Especially when Mom and Dad fought, their voices low and angry. Mom usually stomped off and went to bed upset. Dad never knew when he pushed his luck too far. Grandma said when it came to Mom, Dad lived with his heart on his sleeve and his head up his ass.
I heard Dad turn off the music and settle into the kitchen chair as Mom did the dishes in front of him. He was wearing what he called his dress clothes, which meant just a clean pair of jeans and a T-shirt that wasn’t stained or ripped. Dad always said he was a mess, hopeless when it came to fashion, a disaster next to Mom. She’d overheard him once and rolled her eyes at him and said, “Give me a break, James Dean. What you mean is you don’t have to do anything to look good. Unlike some of us.”
I had no idea what she was talking about until I searched James Dean on Jess’s computer, and besides the fact that Dad had dark hair and kept it short, they did sort of look alike. Except instead of a cigarette, Dad smoked cigars, and that was just once in a while
and only ever outside because Mom said the smoke got stuck in the rugs and pillows and curtains, and it was bad enough that she already had to deal with the smell of fish.
Which wasn’t true, because Dad always left his boots and coat outside in the hallway and showered first thing when he got home, and I’d never smelled anything on him besides soap and the aftershave he sometimes wore.
But some days Mom acted like that. Like everything Dad did bothered her. And then she’d complain when he stayed out of her way, out on the boat for hours and hours.
Like that made any sense.
Now Dad leaned forward in his seat, and suddenly Mom was there, his arm on her waist, his forearm huge around her middle. He pulled her into his lap.
She gave a halfhearted laugh and tried to stand, but he hugged her tighter, moved her legs across his lap, and leaned back in the chair with her.
“Shh, just sit with me,” he said.
His fingertips ran the length of her thigh, and his other hand played with the black hair that hung down her back. I wanted to look away. I knew I shouldn’t be watching, but I couldn’t pull my eyes away from the mirror. Jess and I used to make silly faces when Mom and Dad kissed and hugged. I didn’t remember the last time we got the chance to do that.
“Jack, stop. Let me just finish.” Mom patted his leg and gave him a quick peck on the cheek, but her voice was high and tight, and her body looked stiff and uncomfortable on his lap.
“Leave it. I’ll finish them. I just want to sit here for a minute with my wife.”
Mom’s wrap dress had come loose, and he traced the opening with his finger. I saw her stiffen and move his hand away. She held
it in her lap, where it was no longer covering her chest, and pulled her dress closed with her free hand.
“Let me finish,” she said. “Then we can go to bed together.”
I wasn’t sure if it was what she said or the way she said it, but everything changed right then. I saw it in Dad’s reflection in the mirror, the way his face went hard, the way it was most of the time.
Abby, my camp counselor who got sent home at least once a week by the recreation director with instructions to put on shorts that were not so short, told me once that she didn’t know how I could live with someone as hot as my father. But why didn’t he smile more? she’d asked me. I didn’t know what to say because he was my father, and who was I supposed to live with? I lied and said that he smiled all the time, just not at her.
Truth was, he never really smiled at anyone unless it was me or Jess or Mom. It was just the way he was.
But now he wasn’t smiling at all.
“What?” Mom asked.
“Nothing,” he muttered.
She hugged her arms across her body as if a cold wind had come through.
“I’m asking you to wait until I’m ready, and you’re upset.”
“You’re not asking me to wait,” he said. I didn’t so much hear it as read his lips. That’s how soft it came out.
Mom stared at the floor, and I heard the clock in the kitchen ticking away time.
“What does that mean?” Mom’s voice cut through the silence like a dull knife. “What do you think I’m asking?”
He shut his eyes and sighed, a long one that seemed to empty him out, the way he sank deeper into the chair. “You know what, Hope? I don’t know what I’m saying. Let’s drop it.”
“You work a hundred hours a week. You disappear out there.” She waved at the water behind our house. “But when you’re ready for me, well, sound the alarm.”
He looked at the ceiling for a minute, then back at her. He didn’t speak.
“Say something,” she said.
“You don’t want to hear it.”
“Try me, Jack. At least you’re talking instead of disappearing on that boat.”
“Disappearing? And what do you call this? This right here.”
“What right here?”
Dad shook his head, his eyes on the floor.
He looked up, studied her. “You haven’t been ready in a year,” he said in a flat voice.
Mom stood up, and the air seemed to leave the room. “That’s not true,” she said.
“No? When was the last time we were together and you didn’t do this . . . vanishing act that you do?” His hands made a large circle in the space between them.
“Stop it,” she said, and her arms went around her body again.
Dad picked up his beer, took a swig of it, and slammed the bottle down so hard, the table shook. The noise made Mom jump. My first thought was he was going to be sorry tomorrow.
“Stop what? Trying to make love to my wife, or trying to figure out why she hates it when I touch her?”
His voice was thick and gravelly. I pulled the blanket up higher on my face. I hated that his eyes reminded me of the sheepdog’s.
Mom went to the sink, gone from my view. I heard a drawer open and the clinking of silverware.
Dad put his head in his hands. When he looked up, I saw his
eyes and yanked the covers up so only a tiny sliver of space was left to see through. I knew that look.
“You had an admirer tonight,” he said calmly, as if giving her the weather. But he was watching Mom, staring at her so hard, I thought it must hurt to be on the other end of it.
“Oh, please,” she said, and muttered something under her breath I couldn’t hear.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“I said I don’t need this crap.”
“What’s crap is you pretending to not notice him noticing you.”
Mom walked over to my doorway to where the light switch sat on the wall and flicked it on, as though she hadn’t been able to hear Dad without the light on.
“Him who?” she asked.
“Your new buddy Finn, that’s who.”
“Ry?” he asked, pronouncing the word with force. “I didn’t realize we were using nicknames.”
“It was how he introduced himself.”
“Well, Finn, oh I’m sorry, Ry, couldn’t take his eyes off you.”
“Don’t pick a fight with me, Jack,” she warned.
But he already had. Even I knew that.
“Why did you invite him?” he asked, as if it were the craziest idea she’d ever dreamed up.
“What do you mean why did I invite him? He’s Peggy’s husband. The reason for the party was to introduce them to some of our friends.”
“I don’t want him here again,” he told her. He leaned back in the chair and crossed his legs out in front of him. He might have looked calm, but I saw his jaw pulse. “Did you hear me? They’re not allowed to come over here again.”
She was leaning against the doorframe now. I could see her face in the light. I watched as she raised her eyebrows at him and held them there, the way she did sometimes at the dinner table when Jess and I fooled around too much. Just a glance up from her plate, barely a movement at all, really, a flick of her brows, a tilt of her head. It stopped us every time.
“Allowed?” she asked. There was no sound coming from the kitchen, and then I heard her say in a voice that was high and wobbly, “Allowed?”
I leaned in closer to the mirror at the same time she moved off the wall and took two steps toward him. There was a force to her step that scared me. Dad seemed scared too and sat up quickly, pulling his legs in as if he might need them to fend her off.
“Get out,” she whispered.
Dad’s eyes closed, and I wished in that moment that by some miracle he’d suddenly fallen asleep. Mom was patient, but Dad had pushed too far. I knew this was what Grandma meant when she said Dad sometimes put his head up his ass.
The sound of a chair scraping against the tile sliced through my bedroom, and I peered out through the spaces between my spread fingers. He patted his pocket for his keys, and I rolled my eyes, embarrassed for him that he didn’t see them sitting only two feet in front of him on the kitchen table. Mom saw them, though, and snatched them up and held them in her hand under her folded arms.
“Give me the keys, Hope.”
“So you can leave here in a fit and wrap yourself around a tree?” She tightened the belt on her dress and said in a low mutter, “If I wanted you dead, I’d do it myself.”
It was a line I’d heard them use on each other all my life, always in a joking way: Mom watching Dad fillet fish with his thick
bear-paw hands—Give me that knife. If I wanted you to lose a finger, I’d wait until you ticked me off and do it myself. Or Dad catching her wrestling the full barrels down to the sidewalk for the garbage pickup—Let me do that, baby. If I wanted you flat on your back, I’d put you there myself. And so on and so on and so on.
But tonight, it wasn’t a joke.
Dad stared at Mom, and then leaned in until his face was inches from her, and his voice was a growl.
“If you want me dead, keep it up. You’re doing a hell of a job.”
Mom sucked in her breath, loud and sharp, like she’d just bumped her hip bone on the edge of the table. There was a frenzy of movement, and I heard the front door open, and what sounded like Dad’s coat hit the front hall with a thwack. Mom stomped into the kitchen, and something hard hit the wall again. I looked out from under the covers just in time to see Mom launch his shoe from the kitchen, through the living room, clear through the front door, where it landed with a loud thump.
“Jesus, Hope. Calm down.” Dad snapped out of it, but it was too late.
Mom took two big strides in his direction, and there was not another sound as the door slammed shut. The house went silent.
I sat up in bed, hugged the blanket to my chest, and strained my neck to see around the corner. Mom rounded the opening and caught my eye. She let out a small noise, walked into my room, and sat on my bed. I put my head against her, pressed my cheekbone against the sharp edge of her collarbone, felt her heart pulsing on the flat part of my cheek.
She smelled like baby cream, and I wondered if she was still using the tub of Johnson’s on her arms and hands like she did after Maddie died. She’d sit on the edge of her bed and massage the thick white cream on the insides of her forearms, where the skin’s
so soft, and then drop her head in her arms and rock that way until I got her for dinner. I thought it was weird. It was the same cream she used to rub on Maddie’s bottom after she changed her diaper. But a lot of things got weird after Maddie died, so I stopped thinking about it.
Mom nudged me over and sank back. I looked at Mom curled up in my bed, and I pictured Dad standing in the hallway in his socks with his coat and shoes strewn all about, and then I remembered what Mom said earlier to Mrs. Alfonso about love not being convenient.