Salt and Pepper

Here’s how broken the world is: the coffin we bought to bury our baby in came with free delivery. It wasn’t enough that our grief paid out over eight hundred dollars for a design that would ultimately be covered in dirt, it was that we actively opted into an option to save us money in the long run. As if such a thing existed. Foolishly, we scheduled delivery to our house until the company called and asked if we preferred to ship the casket to a funeral home instead.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Is that what most people do?” I asked.
IIIIIIIIIIII“They’re rather heavy,” the representative said, and we so changed the delivery to McHenry’s Funeral Home where the services would be held. “I’ll call to let them know they’ll be ex-pecting.” My stomach shriveled at the phrase, but I kept it together so that David wouldn’t lose his temper and put another hole in the wall. He’d been subdued as of late spending most of his time putting uncooked rice into our house-shaped salt and pepper shak-ers to occupy his mind. But in his silence was a broiling violence waiting to erupt. Originally the coroner thought our child died of SIDS, but my father demanded a second opinion and hired a private investigator. It started to look more like someone shook the child, and so I began to compile a list of David’s outbursts.
The day our baby came screaming into the world, David got into a confrontation after a hospital vending machine ate his dollar. He took the machine by the sides and shook until the thing threatened to topple. Security made him stop.
IIIIIIIIIIII“You’re upsetting the other patients,” they said.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Goddamn thing is worthless,” he said, and tried to put his fist through the glass. Three men wrestled him to the ground and dragged him off the premises. He didn’t meet his son until the next day after he’d eaten, and slept, and the hospital staff had turned over.
IIIIIIIIIIII“He’s perfect,” David said, cupping the child’s fragile head and pushing the few strands of silky hair in soft circles. The child cooed until he came back to me screaming so loud that it triggered a migraine. I saw shards of glass. Still, I nursed him until he slept and trudged through the blinding pain until I, too, slept.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWhen I awoke, David sat in the hospital chair with his head in his hands, his phone broken on the floor.
IIIIIIIIIIII“They let me go,” he said. “Forgot to call out, and it was the last straw. Heartless pigs.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe child stirred in the rolling nursery cart. David didn’t rise to soothe him, so I sat up and took the child into my arms.
IIIIIIIIIIII“New beginnings,” I said, and held the child to my bare chest so that my warmth could spread to us both. The skin on skin melted me away from David’s mood. A doctor checked in.
IIIIIIIIIIII“How are we feeling?” the woman asked.
IIIIIIIIIIII“She’s sore, can’t you give her something?!” David asked.
IIIIIIIIIIII“I’ll see what I can do,” the doctor said, and she left us there alone again. David stood by the door looking out into the hall at the coming and going of hospital staff.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Maybe this place is hiring,” he said. “Cafeteria, or trans-port. Worth looking into.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe child found my nipple and suckled. It hurt, this alien creature pulling life from my chest with gums clamping so hard I feared it might leave a mark. But as he drank, I felt only the calm, nourishing beauty of life filling our boy until he pinched so hard that I let out a whimper.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Where is that goddamn doctor?!” David said, and I stayed quiet.
I know how it looks, having a baby with this man. He’s not bad, but he rubs people the wrong way. Our neighbors across the street got a puppy last summer and at a barbecue, David wrestled with the pup until it yelped out in pain.
IIIIIIIIIIII“You’re hurting him!” our neighbor said. She picked the dog up into her arms and went inside.
IIIIIIIIIIII“I think maybe you should go,” another neighbor said.
IIIIIIIIIIII“He’s fine. That’s how dogs play,” David said, and sat at a table until I brought him food. No one talked to us, but David didn’t leave until the plate was empty.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWhenever that dog is out for a walk and sees David, it spins in circles and pulls so hard on the leash with joy that it nearly chokes itself to death. Sometimes I think he’s tapped into some-thing that I never will be, a sort of primal knowledge of the world that people choose to disregard in exchange for something more civil.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAs a child, David’s temper got him into trouble. His mother died young and his father never recovered from the loss. He ate his sadness, mainly red meat seasoned with salt and pepper, and forced David to eat with him in silence until only crumbs remained.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBy sixteen, David had been suspended for fighting twice and stood to be expelled should another incident occur.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Have you considered football? Boxing?” a guidance counselor asked, and his father signed David up for boxing lessons thinking it would help him work through whatever he needed to work through.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe coaches loved him and his furious fists. He told me once that the sound of mitts hitting pads became the closest thing to Zen he’d ever experienced, and so that’s why he slept the soundest on nights with heavy rain. The coaches showed him foot-work, and parries, and feints, and jab-cross combinations, and told him he could go pro if he trusted them.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThen one of the coaches followed David into the shower. I’ve only heard the story once, because once is enough. He told David to trust him, and he got naked, and something happened, and when David cried out for help, nobody came.
IIIIIIIIIIII“If you tell anyone about this, they’ll call you a sissy and a liar,” the coach said, and for the final week David went to the gym, the coach made him spar with adults. A sixteen-year-old boy getting clobbered by full-grown men, that still-developing brain
getting knocked around, and because his father had signed a waiver, well, what could be done?
IIIIIIIIIIIIDavid dropped out of school at seventeen and took a roof-ing job with his father’s longtime friend. The friend gave his crew beers at lunch and looked the other way if they were underage. Once, David was on a roof and lost his balance. The fall broke his collarbone and the contractor told insurance that he suspected David had been drinking. A breathalyzer proved it to be true, and so all medical expenses came out of pocket because no one believed a seventeen-year-old kid got handed cans of Coors by a reputable contractor. His father took out a second mortgage on their small home to help ease the burden but passed away before everything became finalized. David found the man face down in his dinner plate, salt and pepper shakers filled with moisture, the pieces all clumped together.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe contractor friend showed up at the funeral and David made a scene. More than a scene, he sent the man to the hospital with a broken nose and orbital, but the contractor refused to press charges despite the police itching to haul David in.
IIIIIIIIIIII“We’ve got our eyes on you, tough guy,” they said, and David said it brought him right back to that locker room at the boxing gym.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe found other work, odd jobs here and there, but when I met him, he was a bouncing at the bar I went to with my fake ID.
IIIIIIIIIIII“You again,” he always smiled. “One of these days I’m gonna follow you in and buy you a round. Not your friends, just you.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIMy then-boyfriend hated David and the way he openly flirted.
IIIIIIIIIIII“That man needs a slap in the mouth,” he said, his wavy hair and sweater and collared shirt boasting the image of an aca-demic, and not the tough guy he thought himself to be.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Don’t be threatened,” I said, but saying that made him feel threatened because on the last day of classes during spring semester, he went to the door to give David a piece of his mind. I watched him get out a sentence before David had him by the neck, upside down, and then laid out on the sidewalk.
IIIIIIIIIIIIIt was the same night I let David buy me a drink and though I can’t explain it, I knew he’d be the man I’d marry.
That first night home, the baby cried. He wailed with the furious thunder of hunger, and breath, and openness. Midnight found him rising awake as though he had a volume knob that kept cranking to deafening decibels.
IIIIIIIIIIII“What does he want?” David asked.
IIIIIIIIIIII“He’s hungry, I suppose,” I said, and rose to feed him. David sat up in bed watching as the child poked at me with small, stubby fingers and shrieked until his bald head turned red under the moonlight. Swaddled in a knitted blanket that my mother had swaddled me in, he calmed enough to latch onto my breast and drink.
IIIIIIIIIIIIDavid looked undone. It was in his shoulders when he breathed, the slow rise and fall, a calculated cadence that this child commanded my attention. Sitting in our bed as the night moved through, I imagined him swallowed, a void, a human-shaped hole where a man could have been.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Careful,” he said, and it felt threatening. I wasn’t ready for his voice and it startled me.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe child’s pudgy arms flailed like antennae and I found that I’d been pushing him too close against me. Protective measures, I suppose.
IIIIIIIIIIIIOur child unlatched and coughed. I tapped his tiny back until he smacked his tongue and sang the inane melodic syllables of pre-speech. David held out his arms like he wanted to hold our baby, and though I hesitated, I floated to the side of the bed.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Cradle the head,” I said, and David took the child into his strong arms. I should have felt love, but I watched in fear that the midnight feeding had triggered something deep and dormant.
IIIIIIIIIIIIMy father didn’t like David at first, found him lowly and brash, uneducated and of the streets. Once, after leaving a family gathering, my father in his sweater vest and pleated pants cornered David to have a word.
“That’s my baby girl,” he said.
IIIIIIIIIIII“She’s full grown,” David replied, and I couldn’t tell if he was standing up for me or implying something more sexual.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Have I shown you my trophies from the boxing club at Yale?” he asked and pointed to a large glass case with small awards inside.
IIIIIIIIIIIIDavid feinted with his shoulders and my father stumbled back, tripped over an ottoman, and landed face down with his legs kicked out in a perfect V. I scrambled to his aid, but my father rolled to his side, then his knees, then stood up laughing like the whole thing had been a well-executed comedy routine. On the way down, he must have bitten his lip because it puffed and bled.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Papa, your shirt,” I said, and pinched a small spot of blood that had dripped from his lip to his collar.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Never mind the shirt,” he snapped, then went back to smiling. He put his arm around David and walked us to our car. “You’re a good man. Get home safe, son, you hear?” he said, and waved us off.
IIIIIIIIIIIINot halfway home, David pulled over.
IIIIIIIIIIII“What’s wrong?” I asked.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Your father, he…” and David stopped. I watched his eyes wrestle with a certain heaviness, a longing in the wake of loss. It had rained, and the black street sparkled.
IIIIIIIIIIII“It’s a good thing,” I said.
IIIIIIIIIIIIA car pulled up behind us and flashed its high beams. I saw we were blocking a driveway. The car behind us tapped twice on the horn. David gripped the steering wheel so hard that his arms shook. The car behind us laid on the horn and David went into a fit. He swore and cussed and fought with his seatbelt to get it off until he escaped the car.
IIIIIIIIIIII“What is your problem?!” he shouted. He kicked the wheel and spat on the windshield. The car backed up and peeled away. David got back into the driver’s seat and drove us home cool and collected like nothing had ever happened.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWatching him hold our baby that night, I knew how fast his joy could turn to blinding violence, and how releasing it reset him to neutral. It scared me. Our baby gurgled and spit up onto his shirt.
IIIIIIIIIIII“It’s OK, I’ll clean it,” I said. David just laughed.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Guess he doesn’t like your cookin,’” he said. I wanted to slap him for saying such a thing, to knock his head into the bedpost. Didn’t he know what I’d gone through to have this child? I grabbed our son and tried to lull him into safety, but he screamed and wailed and only reached for David. Even when I put him in the crib he stared through the dark at my husband’s silhouette.Rejected, I took the soiled shirt to the laundry after the baby went down and closed myself into the bathroom. I ran my hand under boiling hot water until I no longer felt the urge to cry.
A week into our new life, I awoke to silence. The baby wasn’t in his crib and David had left the bed. I tore off the flat sheet and, in a panic, called to David. My ears rang like a banshee choir. All night the baby cried and cried and no matter what I did to soothe him, it only ever made it worse. I feared David had done something—he hadn’t been handling the midnight feedings well.
IIIIIIIIIIII“What if I get called in for an interview?! I won’t be rested,” he said, and I found myself playing the sudden role of mother, nurse, counselor, and confidant when all I wanted was a restful night to gather my wits. The lack of sleep made it especially hard to keep up appearances, let alone any semblance of mental health.
IIIIIIIIIIIIMy mother’s knitted blanket swaddle splayed out against the floor like a puddle of water and when I reached down to touch it, I could still smell the sweet innocence of our child.
IIIIIIIIIIII“David!” I called again and blew into the kitchen where I found him holding our child in his lap, the two of them looking at a picture book of dogs.
IIIIIIIIIIII“That’s a funny guy, look at ‘is nose!” David laughed, and when David laughed, the baby laughed. What should have been
joyous relief burned into horrendous resentment. Why should he get to laugh and look at picture books?
IIIIIIIIIIIII attempted to pick up the baby. The second I scooped him, his fire-engine wail sounded. David waved me off and offered to take the child again. Once in his arms, the baby stopped.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Take a nap,” he said. “I got this.”
IIIIIIIIIIIIHe turned the page and pointed to a new dog. The baby gurgled and flapped his pudgy arms. I didn’t know how to tell my husband that I’d been panicked and god-awful scared. Would he think me weak?
IIIIIIIIIIIII sat at the opposite end of the small table and watched them together. The saltshaker caught my eye, so I took it into my palm and unscrewed the top. I poured a small mound into my hand. The granules parted around the uncooked rice.
IIIIIIIIIIII“Already did that one,” David said.
IIIIIIIIIIIII picked the rice from the mound and poured more salt into my palm. I picked that rice. Soon, my hand had a small moun-tain of salt and so I poured it back into the shaker without the rice. David eyed me from his chair. His face turned red and his eyes went to that distant place away from humanity. The baby began to cry.
There’s a memory of my mother holding my hand at the edge of a lake. It’s one of my earliest. I remember looking at her and feeling overwhelmed by safety, and love, and awe. Every time I think about our child, I always come back to that memory of my mother’s dark curls bouncing as we waded ankle deep. There’s a distant mountain, and pine needles between the sand. That’s all that life really is: a child and their mother.
IIIIIIIIIIIIWhen she passed, David got me through it. It wasn’t easy, of course, but no matter what awful, vulgar things I said, David forgave me. I called him orphan, and broken, and stupid, but he took me back when I asked him to, despite the holes he put in the wall. He put them there instead of in me. We forgave each other for our trespasses and faults.
IIIIIIIIIIIIBut this, this is unforgiveable.
IIIIIIIIIIIIAt the funeral, people whispered. The private investigator suspected an unnatural end and he told me to be ready to move back in with my father, that I just needed to say the word and he’d turn the evidence over to the authorities. David would go away forever.
IIIIIIIIIIIIIn the room springing with flowers to cover the scent of weeping, and tragedy, and death, I stood by the head of a tiny coffin.
IIIIIIIIIIIIHere’s how broken the world is: I just needed to say it was David, and every single person here would believe me. Isn’t that a thing? The crying of our baby rattled something loose until I rattled back and all sound ceased. In the wake of silence was a sea of crying mourners like the head of a hydra.
IIIIIIIIIIIIDavid sat in an un-sturdy chair looking at the floor. He didn’t talk to anyone. His hands trembled. He looked hollow.
IIIIIIIIIIIIThe private investigator milled. My father came and stood beside me. We surveyed the room. He watched David. “He’s all alone, you know,” he said.
IIIIIIIIIIIIOutside, the bell from a nearby church rang, the thrums heavenly and holy, vibrating through my bones like a secret whispered from the mouth of God.

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