A Handful of Salt, The End

I am (finally) weaning Gbot completely off the bottle. No more comforting suckling, even of water, through a synthetic nipple in the evening and again come morning. It is not a process conducive to sleep for either of us. I don’t think I’ve been this tired since he was an infant, back in the days when sixteen month-old Mbot raged against sleep. I remember lying in the recovery room after the C-section, numb from the ribcage down, Gbot swaddled on my chest. The intensity of the relief I felt was overwhelming, and it was caused not only by the fact that I had a new and beautiful, healthy child, and that I was healthy too (as I hadn’t been with Mbot), but by the knowledge that as long as my legs were numb, I couldn’t get up and do anything.

So instead of doing any more today, I’m going to post the last part of A Handful of Salt.

Old Woman Feeding a Cat, by Gabriel Metsu, 1629-1667 (www.codart.nl)

His body was trembling, but it was from the cold. I drew my open hands down his broad, thinly shirted back. Heard the hollow metal clink as my keys fell from numb fingers onto the ice at our feet. “It’s freezing,” I replied. “You need to go upstairs.”

“By myself?”

“Yes,” I said.

Dave bent to pick up the keys. They lay shining beside the toe of my pump. He could have put them in his pocket, but it wouldn’t have mattered. He handed them to me.

I drove home carefully, because four-inch heels and gas pedals are another one of those untenable pairings. Why do I drive more cautiously than I love? The statistics of loss in both, due to alcohol or carelessness, are uninspiring.

 *   *   *

The Gordon setters slept. Michael wound down his monologue. The ice in my water was melting, leaving opalescent globes of sweat on the glass’s exterior. The glass was still half full. “I’ll think about it,” I said. What’s the next step?”

“Email me a writing sample,” he replied. “But not the first chapter of a novel.” He had no interest in other people’s dreams. “And no more than five hundred words.”

But wouldn’t that be like you only showing me only half of one of your pictures? I did not ask. I mean, if a picture’s worth a thousand words? Instead, I shook his hand. The dogs raised their heads before dropping them again between chestnut paws, and I stepped out into the cold.

In the eighth grade, I learned quickly that my application of the periodic table failed on several fronts. It was highly useful, but only if I didn’t ask too much of it. Yet it held some disturbing truths. Early on, I identified the perfect element I wanted to be: carbon. It is highly stable, and is capable of forming multiple stable covalent bonds—that is, it doesn’t give or take energy, but shares equitably. Then I discovered that it is alone in its perfection. And so it can form no perfect bond other than with itself. In the place on the periodic table where the perfect elements should exist, right down the middle, an interesting phenomenon occurs: Just when you think you’re going to sneak up on the admirable, well-balanced atom with half its outer shell filled, a rogue energy level appears, holding a single electron. Imagine that: all that empty space, needing to be filled. All that wanting. And so nature made even an atom of iron an object that desires.

I drove home through snow falling as though dumped from Dylan Thomas’s whitewash buckets down the sky. I peered out into the darkness as frozen stars bombarded the glass, as though I was going at warp speed through deep space—away from Michael, away from Dave. I would not write five hundred words. Three years later I would see a copy of the book, glossy and weighty in my hands. I paged through it, admiring the photographs, each one more breathtaking than the last. But what I was really looking for was words. Had he found a bird and poured his handful of salt onto her tail to catch her, as the old wive’s tale recommends? It was with a deep satisfaction that I saw he had not. There wasn’t any text at all.

I parked my Subaru in front of my cabin and shuffled through the silent snow on the porch and opened the door. My cat, backlit on the kitchen counter, cried softly in greeting and landed on the linoleum floor with a thump.

I have a theory about why old women with cats have been made the brunt of jokes through the ages: old women with cats in their valence shells don’t need men. And that makes them powerful. But the silence beyond the purring was deafening.

Maybe an optimist can get to happiness from nowhere on nothing. But it seems an impossibility in nature to get there from nowhere on nothing, with no one. Even the dogs, even the cat, would agree.

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