A Handful of Salt

In the spirit of posting fully formed essays on Sundays, today I’m beginning a three-part piece called “A Handful of Salt.”

*   *   *

A Handful of Salt

Michael the photographer brought eggs from his own chickens to my brother-in-law’s shop, and gave them to my sister.

“He’s really nice,” she told me. “And he’s looking for a writer for his next book.” I had not met Michael, although my sister had told him about me, and the eggs struck me as suspicious: bait, perhaps. I thought what he really wanted was a new girlfriend who was even moderately literate. That way he could get his text for free. Or his sex for free, depending on how you looked at it. My sister called me a pessimist.

“Pessimists,” I retorted, “are what optimists call realists.”

But the eggs worked. I went to Michael’s website, and saw that he’d quoted Mark Twain on his homepage: “Optimist: someone who can go from nowhere on nothing to happiness.” After that were his images that had appeared in National Geographic: red sandstone arches and scrub desert, close-ups of weather-creased Ute faces and children dancing before an old wooden schoolhouse. My friend Zorana once said: Just because you don’t want to bear his children doesn’t mean you don’t go have a drink with him. “If you don’t get out,” she’d said, “you’re gonna get weird.”

“But I never have gone out much,” I’d replied.

“Yes,” she noted wryly. “And things are going swimmingly”

I agreed to meet Michael on a Sunday evening at his place. I kissed my cat goodbye on the top of his head and  navigated  the icy streets in my ten-year-old Subaru, squinting through clouds of my own breath; it was not snowing again but the air was like a knife in the chest. I parked next to a Land Rover. Of course Michael had a Land Rover. A successful photographer with chickens and a Land Rover—I was already envisioning our future on the road together. My sister could feed the chickens. How could she accuse me of pessimism when I had so little control over my ability to hope?

The house was modest and well-kept, in an old neighborhood in a town originally built to house miners, and where the streets—Silver, Galena, Carbonate—bore the names of the ores they’d pulled out of the hearts of the surrounding hills. The door opened inward to my knock and against a yellow glow stood Michael. He was my height and handsome (of course he was handsome). I reached out to shake his hand. Behind him, two dogs raised black heads from between gingery paws.

“What beautiful dogs,” I said. “I love Gordon setters.”

“Most people don’t even know what they are,” smiled Michael.

“Poor them,” I said.

“Come in,” he gestured. “Join us.”  He took my coat and offered me a chair at the kitchen table. I sat at the polished, irregular slab of worn pine that appeared to be a beautiful accident, like his photos did, and looking around, saw the house was filled with such objects, carefully arranged—a river rock, a basket, a rug, an arm of driftwood, each weighted with the self-consciousness of uniqueness. I got the feeling he’d carefully collected himself, too.

Two things were implicit in the fact that I was here, in this mountain town, in this room, in my thirty-one year-old body: that I was searching, and that I thought he might hold answers. He offered me a glass of wine. “Ice water, thanks,” I said. He poured two and lowered his fit frame into a farmhouse chair. Light shimmered off his oval wire-rimmed glasses.

Across the table were strewn photographs and a big book on California similar to the one he’d begun on Utah. “I’m looking for a very unique person,” he began, and my hackles rose. He continued. “A person who can share my vision. This project will be all-consuming,” he continued. “I’m creating a beautiful book that will capture the spirit of a varied place and people. It will be something both I and the person I choose to work with will be very proud of.”

The dogs snored softly on the polished pine floor, as though they had heard it all before. I certainly felt as though I had.

“Tell me about your budget,” I suggested. “If we decide we can work together, how would I be paid?”

“Well,” he began.

“Well” did not sound auspicious. It turned out that the proposal was not yet written, in fact. It turned out that would be part of my job. Selling the proposal would also fall under my jurisdiction. He shined a quiet, conspiratorial smile on me. “Whoever I choose will have creative control over the entire text. I need someone with great energy, great imagination, who can look at my photographs and see words.”

So, either I was a person of great energy and  imagination, or I was not. If I was not, I was just like all the other disappointing people in the world. If I was, I would say yes.

In the third grade, Christina Forchemer told me that she knew how babies were made, she’d seen two people making a baby on Police Woman. I went home and checked with my mother, who reassured me that God gave you babies when you asked for them. The next day, Christina and I reached a compromise: half the babies came from God, and half from men somehow. But the seed of distrust had been planted; there was something unpleasantly believable about Christina’s explanation. And I had learned that if one truth was uncomfortable and one made you feel good, the one that made you feel good could usually be dismissed. My sister would scoff. “See? Pessimist.”

“But really,” I’d reply. “Do half the babies come from God?”

I needed a moment to think.  “What a lovely table,” I said, caressing its glowing grain with a finger. In one half of my brain, alarm bells were going off. But the other half was zooming through watercolor canyons in a Land Rover with my heart strapped on tight to the top of the vehicle between the kayak and the mountain bike. Cameras and a laptop computer on the floorboards, dogs’ ears flapping out the windows. We would always be back in a week. The cat would understand.

*  *  *

to be continued next Sunday

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