The Memory of a Salt Shaker
by Bernard Cox
The strange stillness of the house continues to wake Bert even twenty-one days later. Sleep is fitful, but reassuring. Fighting the weight of the covers is difficult. The couch is starting to smell acrid from his night sweat.
He can still function. He cooks. A small pleasure to him, the food adds scents and heat to the house, adds presence. He stirs his oats, picks up the salt shaker and shakes salt onto the porridge, then a little cayenne and fresh ground pepper, stirs again. He butters his toast and spreads some orange marmalade across the surface, pours Earl Grey from the tea pot into his mug and sits at the table and stares out the window.
The soft glow of the morning light illuminates the tops of the houses and trees. Traffic on the road is already backing up. The city is moving. The harshness of daylight is a moment away, no time to notice birds alight on power lines soaking up the first rays of sun. He starts eating the toast, lets the sweetness roll around his tongue and takes a sip of the tea. Light starts to fill the kitchen. Daylight begins the ending of morning.
He takes a spoonful of the oats into his mouth. Strange flavors and textures fill his senses. Earth, smooth, salt, heat, pain, and the slight sensation of flesh under his lips - soft, warm, familiar. The street scene fades and she sees him.
He is walking toward her. His jacket is fixed wide open, the tie sticking up over his shoulder. She takes a drag off her cigarette and turns her back. The lower Manhattan skyline shines on. He walks past her and sits down on the roof deck. She watches him as he looks out over the city.
"It's pretty. It feels empty, though. Like someone punched a hole through it or something." He glances back at her and then ahead at the skyline.
She didn't come up here for conversation. She takes another drag. "Are you talking to me?"
"Just out loud."
"Right." She puts her cigarette out. "What are you supposed to be?"
"Are you talking to me?"
"On your answer."
"A man caught in a windstorm."
His handcrafted costume is has the right level of last-minute flair, but thought-out humor. While he's not that physically attractive - cute, maybe - she thinks he’s charming, which she finds more dangerous. "Hmm."
"I guess that's what you would be."
"Well, what else would you be?"
"What are you supposed to be?"
"A cat? I don't see it."
She takes a cat mask out of her purse, puts it over her face. "Meow."
"Oh, yeah. That makes the whole thing; black leotard and mask."
"I needed something quick."
"This is the third year I’ve been man in a windstorm. Love Halloween, not much for dressing up, though."
"I usually like dressing up. I wasn't planning on coming."
"Me, neither. It's my friend's party."
He turns back to the city.
She walks over to him, "I was living in Arlington, Virginia, when it happened. I was listening to NPR. I thought it was a small plane or something. Then, the plane hit the Pentagon. The windows of my apartment shook for a moment. I knew then that it wasn't a small plane."
"Yeah." She sits down next to him. "Hi, my name is Mira."
"Hi, Mira, Bert."
"Bert? Bert and Ernie?"
"Yep. But just Bert; no, Ernie."
"You don’t hear your name often. Among, real people."
"Well being from a family of puppets, it's a pretty common name."
"I'm sorry. That was stupid."
"No, smoking is stupid, my name is funny."
"Yeah, I know I should quit. Calms my nerves."
"I think it's unattractive on someone who is as beautiful as you are."
She laughs. "Backhanded, cheesy compliments your specialty?"
"No. Just my opinion."
She feels a slow intense warmth start to emanate from her heart and spread out to her extremities. She feels a little lighter. She smiles. "You think your compliment will stop me from smoking."
"No only you can stop forest fires, or smoking. It's your choice. Forest fires or smoking."
She chuckles, "How 'bout both?"
"Ambitious, you should go for it."
"Maybe, I will."
The birds sing outside. The cars move. The sun shines on Philadelphia. He hears his breathing, labored beneath sobs.
* * *
The elevator chimes and he steps out onto the seventeenth floor. He swipes his pass card across the reader and the glass doors of Flum and Goldberg LLP inch open. He walks past the reception desk. He feels an invisible clawing on his back as he passes the windows of each office. His chest feels tight.
His cubicle is clean. Filing cabinets locked. Nothing in his inbox, nothing going out. A couple photos of them together on his desk - Aruba, Barbados, Jamaica, at home. Laughing, smiling. Heart-shaped iron bar puzzle still hangs on the wall unsolved.
Bert boots up the computer. People walk by, en route to projects. No one stops, he's still not here. Nine hundred seventy-four emails pop up in the inbox. The email at the top of the list is one from his boss, David. "See me when you get in." He gets up and walks to David’s office.
He sees John. John waves. Bert smiles with difficulty and walks into David's office.
"How ya doing, buddy?" David is an imposing man, large hands, and loud voice - someone who should be a contractor not running a division of a CPA firm. He shakes Bert's hand.
"That’s great. Time to get back to work, huh?"
David thrusts a thick file towards him and proceeds to tell him about a small clothing company that needs a valuation of its total assets.
"Owner of company looking to sell. Employee wants to buy. Kids are out of the business. You know the drill. Simple job. Should be quick. Get's you back in the game, ya know?"
"Yeah, sure. Sounds good."
David smacks him on the shoulder. "Attaboy. Go get'em."
Bert heads back to his desk.
"Bert!" John comes up behind him.
"Want to get an early lunch?"
"Hmm. Give me a bit."
"You say that. You get back to your computer and I know you, you'll be there all day." Bert smiles, "I really should get back to it, though."
"Come on, let's ditch."
"I'd like to."
"I'm begging! You remember that time in high school."
"Don't bring that up, you always bring it up. It doesn't have that much weight anymore."
"We got JUG because you decided to go back to school. You owe me."
"That was like 15 years ago."
"Well, it's not like you're going to be productive anyway. Let's go."
"Give me like thirty minutes."
"I'll take that as a no."
"It's okay. No worries. Go about work, it's probably better."
John hugs him. "Good to have you back."
John walks off. Bert sits down at his desk and opens the file. "Neilson's, Inc." He closes the folder and takes the puzzle off the wall.
* * *
The house smells of comfort - cinnamon, celery, onion. He pours the butternut squash soup into a blender. He adds some cream to the soup and watches the large chunks of vegetable grind down into a thick creamy orange liquid. The phone rings. He shuts off the blender.
"It's your mother."
"How was your first day back to work?"
"Fine, already got me working on a project."
"Nothing, heavy duty, though."
"That's good, honey."
"Yeah. How are things with you?”
"Your sister came over for dinner tonight. You should have come.”
"I didn't know she was coming.”
"You don't need an invitation to see your mother.”
"I was there yesterday for Sunday dinner, mom.” He tastes the soup. He picks up the salt shaker and adds a few dashes and then grinds the pepper.
"I'm not saying that, I'm just saying. . .”
He lifts the spoon to his mouth.
- Clean up on aisle six -
Mira laughs, "I can't believe you just did that.”
"You pushed me," Bert points at the jars of pickles shattered on the floor.
"Oh, blame me." Tears start to well up in her eyes as she tries to inhale against the guffaws.
A clerk comes around the corner, "Are you two hurt?"
"Only his pride," She wheezes.
"And the pickles. Oh, the pickles! Poor, poor pickles," He sticks his lower lip out mocking the tragedy in front of them.
Mira inhales, grabs her stomach, buckles over, stumbles and holds on to the side of the cart. She lets out a whale of a laugh that rings off the rafters. Bert is wheezing with each wave of exhales. Her cheeks begin to ache. She tries to prop herself up, the cart shifts and she falls on her butt.
"Oops." They both start the cacophony over.
"Are . . . are you . . . okay?"
“I can't see.” Her face is wet with tears. His hands slide under her arms and lift her. She starts to regain her footing. "Leave, me. Save yourself."
The world is awash in abstracted watercolor. His face is wobbly as he comes in for a kiss. She closes her eyes and holds him close as their breathing slows to gulps.
"Ya know, Mira? We should get married. Ya want to get married?"
"You're so blurry!"
The soup is all over the counter and the splash back.
"Bert!" His mom yells. "Are you there?"
"I'm okay, mom. I spilled my soup."
* * *
The lobby of Neilson's is a throwback to the 1950s romance with modernism. The image was definitely not a reflection of the cookie cutter industrial park that he had driven through.
A svelte, stylish receptionist looks up through her pink, horn-rimmed glasses, "Hello, may I help you?"
"Hi, I am Bert Perkins from Flum and Goldberg. I have a meeting with Nancy Neilson."
"Yes, Mr. Perkins. Ms. Neilson is running late, can you have a seat? She should be here momentarily."
"Yes, that's no problem."
He sits down on a Herman Miller-inspired chair and studies the spiral staircase leading to the corporate offices.
"Hey, Barb, can you sign for this?" The receptionist takes the electronic clipboard from the delivery person. Bert glances over to the man in the monochrome uniform. The man looks back.
"Hello." Bert smiles.
"Da you think the Eagles will ever get any better?" The delivery man leans against the receptionist's counter.
"Not this year."
"Got that right. Hey, do I know you?" The man takes his clipboard back and hands the receptionist the envelope.
"No, I don't think so."
"You seem really familiar."
"Got one of those faces."
"Must be," The man steps toward him.
Bert smiles bigger. His palms sweat. He checks the clock.
"No, I know, I know you. That's it. Your wife was killed wasn't she? Some kids at a high school, right? I saw you on TV. Oh man, I’m sorry. You okay?"
"I." The room feels smaller, the air thinner.
"Man, I hope those kids get the chair." The delivery man heads to the door. "I knew, I knew him." The circles in the carpet slowly start to spin. The receptionist is staring at him. "Could you tell Ms. Neilson that I'll have to reschedule for tomorrow?"
She adjusts and snaps back to her computer. "No problem, Mr. Perkins."
"Thanks." Bert makes for the door.
"I'm sorry. It's just awful."
"Yes. Thank you."
The cold wind raps against his face, fills his lungs. He runs for the car.
* * *
The arugula is rusty and starting to wilt; the chevre flavorless and pasty. Bert laments that John has never been able to pick a restaurant in his life. The choices are always standard American fare, no surprises. Bert flips the greenery back and forth over his fork.
"Salad bad?" John munches down on a piece of bread.
"How you doing?" Crumbs tumble out of his mouth.
"It's difficult, my friend."
"I keep having these memories of her."
"Yeah." John gulps down a spoonful of soup.
"But they’re her memories; or rather they feel like her memories."
"Yeah. What do you mean?"
"Like the other night I'm making dinner and I remembered when I proposed to her. It was vivid and it was like I was looking at myself, through her eyes. It was strange. I dropped the soup all over the counter."
"Yeah. Strange, huh?"
"It's going to be hard, ya know."
Bert pokes at a pine nut and it mashes up. "Stale"
"Whaddya mean stale?"
"Oh." John slurps the last of his soup, wipes his face. "You should talk to my cousin, Bette."
"Bette? Betina, the Psychic?"
“She's so much better than her mom, Aunt Josephina. She could help you. She helped my Aunt Rosa when Uncle Tommy died. She helped her say her peace.”
“No offense, Betina's nice and all, but I don't think she can help.”
“Don't knock it, Bert. Works for some, works for my family.”
“I don't mean anything by it. I'm not open to that kind of thing. I don't think it would work for me. Don't you have to be open to it?”
“Hey if you think you’re being revisited by your Mira's memories, you're open to it.” He takes out his wallet and pulls out a business card. “She can help. Call her if you need to. She knows you. If anything she's a woman, women have the real coglioni when it comes to these things.”
The waitress puts plates down. “Here you go, gentlemen.”
“Cheeseburger, man! Thanks.”
“No problem. Anything else?”
“Could you take this?” Bert offers up his salad.
“Hey, Bert you should come over to my house and play Madden this weekend.”
“Why is my Madden always over at your house?”
* * *
The counter is strewn with the same ingredients and equipment he used for the soup. He tastes the soup again and waits. There's no memory. Again and waits. He searches through the ingredients and then reads the recipe. “What did I forget?” He tastes again. “Salt and pepper, of course.”
He picks up the pepper and adds it. Nothing. He picks up the simple glass salt shaker and adds the salt.
She unlocks the red door. Sunlight pours into the foyer, shines off the golden bamboo floors. The house smells new. It's hers. His too, but all hers. A deep, strong warmness builds inside her. She turns around and looks at Bert who is smiling at her.
“We have our own home! Aren't you so excited? Let's have sex.”
He taps the salt from the shaker onto his finger and places it on his tongue. Her memories flood his senses. Light presses on his eyelids. The floor is hard. His side aches. His mouth is on fire. Bert pushes off the kitchen floor and opens his eyes.
His mouth burns. He makes it over to the cabinet and pulls down a glass, fills it with water and drinks. The pain on his tongue starts to subside. He chokes, braces himself against the counter. Next to his wallet he sees Betina's card.
* * *
“Did you bring something of hers?” The room is dim for eleven a.m. and smells of patchouli and chicken. Betina starts lighting incense.
“Yes, but it's really only this one object, I think.”
“Well, we have to contact her.”
“I only have a question about this one thing, Bette.”
“We can ask her.”
“No, I mean. It's not a séance I need. Please sit down and listen.”
“I wasn't going to do a séance, Bert.”
“Bette! Please!” He throws himself onto a chair.
Bette faces him and eases herself into her chair. “I'm sorry, Bert.”
“If you aren’t going to help with the process, I won't be able to help her.”
He takes a deep breath, reaches into his pocket and pulls out the salt shaker, wrapped in a cellophane bag, and places it on the table. “I am trying to tell you about this, Bette. Her memories are in it.”
She picks it up and unwraps it. “A salt shaker?”
“She stole it from a diner when we were on our honeymoon. She wanted a souvenir.”
“This will work.”
“Listen, Bette,” he stops her. “Please listen. Whenever I use it. I'm not sure. I experience her memories. They're usually of us, but they're her memories.”
“I don't know how. That's why I am here.”
“No, I mean, how do you use it?”
“You have to touch the salt shaker then taste the salt.”
“Does any salt in your house work?”
“No, just the salt in there.”
She taps out some salt into her palm. “Do you mind?”
“Well . . .”
She licks her palm then shakes some salt on her finger. She tastes it. Her head whips up; her face strains toward the ceiling.
Her eyes roll back into her head; her hands grip the arm rests. Her breath is rapid. She starts to moan.
“Bette? Are you okay?”
“I can see Mira. I can see the Fire.”
“The bar, The Fire. Mira is playing keyboard in a rock band. You are in the audience. She is singing. There are a bunch of high school teachers in the band. The band's name is the First Grade. She is very happy. She is having fun.”
“I remember that concert. That was her first concert with them.”
Bette closes her eyes, she quivers and her head rolls down into her chest. She takes a deep breath and exhales. Bette doesn't look at him but extends her hands. Bert stares at them. Her fingers wiggle beckoning him and Bert places his hands in hers.
She squeezes his hands, “I'm really sorry. She must have loved you very deeply to leave something like this behind. If you keep using the salt shaker, it'll kill you.”
Her eyes still closed, she raises his hands to her lips and kisses them. “You need to stop.”
“It's all I have left of her,” He stands up, picks up the salt shaker and wraps it in the plastic bag.
Bette opens her eyes and gazes at a sliver of light peeking out from behind her red velvet curtains. “Please leave forty dollars in the jar on the way out.”
Bette continues to shake and focus on the ray of light. He leaves the room; at the door he pulls two twenties from his pocket and places them in the jar. As he closes the door he remembers that John was at that concert. Maybe John told her. Bert pauses for a moment, turns to the door, then spins away and heads down the stairs, out into the street, and into daylight.
* * *
The house smells stale. He hasn't really cleaned in a couple of weeks. He takes the salt shaker out of the plastic bag and places it on the counter. He becomes lost in looking at it for a moment. He regroups and loads the dishwasher, scrubs the counter, sweeps the floor. Upstairs is clean. He has avoided the bedroom for the most part. He takes his showers in the basement, only comes into get clothes which he stores after he washes them in the hall credenza and under the sofa table. The bed hasn't been touched since they made it three and a half weeks ago. Tonight he needs a new toothbrush and razorblade. He walks into the bedroom and straight to the master bath. Grabs what he needs and leaves the room, holding his breath all the way like he used to do as a kid when passing a cemetery.
* * *
He enters the courthouse trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone. Turns in his cell phone, passes through the metal detectors and takes the stairs. Five flights up, everyone waits. He steps out into the hall and he sees his mother in-law. He walks up behind her.
“Hi, Katherine.” He embraces her.
“Oh, Herbert. I am so glad you could make it.”
“Where else am I going to be?”
“I don't know.” She grabs his hand. “You’re the first person I recognize here.”
He squeezes her hand, “Ready?”
“I've never been ready for this. What makes you ready?”
She gives him a small smile. “Do you have any?”
“Oh well, let's go.”
* * *
Stories are told. It takes two fifteen year-old boys and six blows to the skull with a fire extinguisher to kill Mirabelle Perkins nee Talbot, due to her confiscating Jerome Scott's iPhone during class. After the class was dismissed, Jerome, a promising student in her math class and after school music program, knocked her down by hitting her with a heavy textbook. Michael, his cousin, also in her math class, took the fire extinguisher off the wall and caved her head in. Her face was so damaged it was unrecognizable. The casket was closed during the wake and a picture of her on top of a mountain at Sequoia National Park was placed on top. Thirty-one years of life, gone. All of this for an iPhone Jerome smuggled into class. Then pictures are shown. They will be tried as adults. Mothers cry. Pennsylvania carries the death penalty. The ADA tells Katherine and Herbert to stay for a quick briefing.
* * *
Katherine and Bert stand in line at Rick's Steaks in Reading Terminal. The lunch crowd makes it difficult to hear each other, but Bert tries to make small talk which causes Katherine to smile at him or nod at something he says about the crowd. She studies him. Bert doesn't know what she is looking for he knows he will give it to her gladly. Her face is much older now. When he first met Katherine she was a young, glowing fifty; now her face is sunken and ashen. Her hair once a rich auburn is now graying. He can't look her in the eyes; her eyes are Mira's eyes. He stares at her lips instead, studying wrinkles that are like tributaries emptying into a choppy pink lake. He waits for those waters to part and give him an answer, any answer.
“I have to go Bert. I can't wait anymore,” Katherine squeezes her arm. “Call me about doing dinner.” She starts away. He steps toward her, “Let me walk you to your car.”
“No. I took a cab. Get lunch. I'm fine.” With that she steps into the safe anonymity of the crowd. Bert heads after her but he can't find her through the crush of people. He shouts her name but is only answered by the drowning din.
* * *
The house is dark. The yellow street lamp provides the only light in the kitchen. He places the smallest amount of salt that he can shake out on to his palm and licks. Barbados. Again. Friends over for game night. Again. Drunk in Napa. Again. Planting bulbs in November. Again. Playing a song she wrote. Again.
John pulls Mira in for a kiss under the mistletoe.
“Mistletoe.” John points.
“So are you.”
“Not as,” Mira snaps.
John raises one eyebrow. Bert dances over to them while the DJ spins “Christmas in Hollis, Queens.” As he flails his way across the floor little tremors of joy fill her chest like golden, ebullient bubbles rushing to the surface of a champagne glass.
“Bert,” John says.
“Come on guys. It’s Run DMC! Dance!” Bert pleads.
Mira grabs Bert, dips him and lays a sloppy kiss on him.
“Mistletoe.” Mira points.
“Hmm. You're incredible. I love you. Let's dance,” Bert shouts.
“Okay. I'm going back.” Bert shakes his booty and skips back to the dance floor.
“Mira, he's such a geek.”
“John, you're drunk. It’s Christmas. There was mistletoe. This time I will forget about it. Next time I'll rip your balls off and feed them to your dog.” She turns away.
“What do you see in him? Come on!”
Bert dances like a standing seizure. “He's my man. I love him. Besides, you're a shitty kisser.”
He curls up in a ball, pressing knees to his chest, getting smaller and smaller. He reaches out to the salt shaker and takes another hit.
* * *
Bert sits across from David. It's been four days since he's taken a shower and he's sure David can smell it. “This is tax season, Bert. What are you thinking? Need to count on you and I don't think I can right now.”
“The hearing was difficult.”
““I understand that this is a rough time for you. But it's a rough time for us and you disappeared. You didn't call, or email. I really like working with you, Bert. But I'm going to do both of us a favor and let you go for now.”
“But I need my job.”
“Well apparently not bad enough. You've already taken three weeks off and then you run out of a client’s office and then disappear into thin air. I can't take the risk. File for unemployment. Maybe when you get your shit together we can revisit you working here.”
“This is bullshit, David, and you know it. My wife just died and you, you're firing me because what? I forgot to call after I saw Mira's killers. What the hell!” Bert stands up.
“Sit down, Bert. I know times are stressful for you. You know that when my little boy had leukemia I didn't miss a single day of work. I was here every day. Disappearing and wallowing in self-pity was not going to make him heal any faster or bring him back when he was gone.”
“You want a fucking reward for that?”
“You're fired. Leave my office, we'll ship you your things.”
Bert storms out of David's office. John is waiting in the hallway.
John steps to him, “Why were you in there so long?”
“Fucking fired me.”
“He says I need to get my shit together.”
“Man. Why don’t you stick around downtown and we’ll go get a drink later.”
“I need to go home.”
“Come on. We can talk about Mira and get drunk or something.”
“Really, you want to talk about Mira?”
“I know you kissed her.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The holiday party.”
“Bert, dude, you know that I was fucked up. You all had to carry me into my apartment.”
“You wanted her, John. You betrayed me.”
“I'm sorry, man. I was being an ass. I'm really sorry.”
Bert walks toward the door. “Oh, and by the way, I want my fucking Madden back!”
* * *
He ignores the knocking at the door. He's been careful over the last week, measuring out dosages, but the shaker is empty. He licks every surface he can think of where the salt may have fallen - dirty dishes, the counter, the table, the floor, he sucks the sponge, sweeps out the cabinet and eats the dust, he licks the trays in the burners. He examines the crud wedged in between the stove and the counter. He digs it out with a knife and consumes each infinitesimal morsel. Finally, he feels it. His heart starts to seize.
She pushes the door to the bedroom open with her hip. Bert is still out. She places the breakfast tray on the nightstand next to him. She climbs in on his side and starts to kiss him. Forehead, eyes, lips.
“What time is it?” He groans.
“Mmmm. What smells so good?”
“I took a bath.”
“Oh shush,” she smacks him in the arm. “I made pancakes.”
“Do I have to get out of bed?”
“That's the best part. I brought them to you.”
“Breakfast in bed? I never get breakfast in bed.”
“As excited as I can be first thing in the morning.”
She gets the tray and brings it to the bed.
He sits up. “Looks spectacular.”
“What's in it?”
“Mmm. Wow. Ginger?”
“Yep. Buckwheat pancakes with Ginger, sweet cream and vanilla.”
“Wow. When did you get up?”
“Seven? We didn'’t go to bed until one.”
“I drank too much.”
“It's okay. I'll take a nap later.”
She gets out of bed and throws open the curtains.
“Argh, too much sunshine.”
“It's beautiful out today.”
“You are beautiful.”
“Aww. What do you want to do today?”
“Eat these pancakes. Stay in bed.”
“Stay in bed? We can't stay in bed the rest of our lives. Let's do something fun today.”
The pain in his chest is sharp and suffocating. Blood slows in his veins and the light is dim. “Get up, Bert. Get up.”
Over him stand his mother and Katherine, their faces illuminated by his mother’s cell phone. His mother dials. “Hello, 911.”
He struggles to right himself. Katherine helps him sit up. “You okay? We thought we lost you.”
“She said I can't stay in bed for the rest of my life.”
Katherine squeezes his shoulder, “I tell myself that every day.”
* * *
Mira was always better at cracking eggs. In his hands they tend to explode rather than divide. Still, he separates out the yolks, scrambles the whites in the bowl, and pours it into the pan. It sizzles and the mixture firms. He adds some prepared mushrooms, folds over the edge, flips, seers, and then, slips it on to a clean white plate. He reaches for the peppermill and twists. Black and brown flurries float down onto the mottled landscape. Outside, the trees bend under the wind and birds dart through the streets and alleyways propelled by the gusts. He'll brave the weather and do something fun today, maybe go dancing. Even without the salt the omelet tastes good.
* * *
Bernard M. Cox is a MFA Creative Writing Student at Roosevelt University. He is also Assistant Artistic Director at The Tamale Hut Café Reading Series in North Riverside, IL — thcreadingseries.wordpress.com. He has a story forthcoming in Blood and Lullabies.