Six months after Dillon traded west coast for east, after his wife and father had gone, after the summer ended and continued to end, after he bought a beachfront house in Brigantine and filled every empty room with furniture that never belonged to him, the salt started piling up.
At first he didn’t think it was an extraordinary problem. The beach was his backyard, and the salt had been there long before him. So what if a little bit of it started to spread on his kitchen floor, if a small crunch squeezed under his footing now and then? He liked to leave a window open if he could, if it wasn’t too cold for March. He kept the doors unlocked. He blamed himself. The salt didn’t have to try very hard to find its way in.
Since the move, Dillon had been sleeping too late, later than he would have permitted himself in California. Every day, when he finally woke up, he found the hollow rooms of the house filled with more and more salt, as if it crept in through his sleep. There were piles of it in the kitchen, some nearly a foot high, smooth cones poking up in corners. Mounds of it – not much rougher than standard table salt – butted against the living room’s floor-to-ceiling glass windows facing the sea. The presence of the salt sifted through his dreams. He started waking up earlier, trying to catch it in the act. He made his instant coffee and swept the salt into trashcans and walked the entire length of the island of Brigantine eating his routine breakfast mango.
At the end of a few weeks of salt, when he was too tired to fight the element alone, he adjusted his morning walk to loop around the rock jetty, past where the bay met the ocean, down the main stretch of road that connected Brigantine with Atlantic City. In the other direction, away from the city, that same road led to the island’s Marine Center. The center consisted of two small buildings, one for research and wildlife rehabilitation, and the other a small museum. There was no one in the tiny one-room museum so he went out back to the bay dock. A man with a clipboard seemed to be taking inventory of something in the water, Dillon couldn’t tell what. He stepped over a gate hung with an “Employees Only” sign.
“I’m having a problem with salt,” he told the man on the dock.
“You aren’t supposed to be out here,” the man said. He seemed uncomfortable and looked down again at his clipboard. “Try clothespins on plastic bags.”
“I know that trick. This is different. It’s not about stale cereal.” Dillon knew how to live in beach towns, but it was his first time on the Atlantic. “The salt, it’s been piling up inside my house. I don’t know where it comes from. Does this happen a lot around here?”
The man shook his head. He kept his eyes on the clipboard in his hand and wrote something down. He handed a shred of paper to Dillon and told him to call the number, that someone would come by to assess the situation.
Dillon was sleeping when a series of knocks thudded through the house, into his room. He answered the front door squinting, without a shirt. A woman stood in front of him. He blinked. Dillon’s first picture of her, he thought later, was like flicking through a stereoscope and stopping at a detailed slide, a kind of illusion that required more attention than any image before it. The woman looked a few years younger than him, but more crooked than she should have been at that age. She walked with a cane, with a limp. He noticed certain things about her in a certain order: age, bend, cane, limp, smirk. She had been very beautiful once and could be again if she wanted to be, but such things didn’t seem to interest her.
“Hello?” she said.
Dillon must have let too much time go by without saying anything.
She said, “Yeah, I walk with a cane.”
“Shit. I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “Hi. Hello.”
“I’m here about salt.” She took a careful step, her body swaying to the left.
“It’s over here.” He led her through the doorway past a cherry cabinet that held Carol’s great-grandmother’s china set. There was only a little pile in the doorway there, and she seemed unconvinced. Once they turned to the right, into the kitchen, Dillon folded his arms like he’d just won a bet.
“What do you do all day that you have time to pour all this salt down?”
Dillon noticed a new pile that seeped from the space between the stove and the cherry cabinets.
“I didn’t. I didn’t pour it.”
She glanced up toward the vaulted ceilings, then back to the salt mounds growing in the kitchen and living room. She leaned her cane against one hip and popped the lid from a small test tube from her pocket. She scooped in some salt and tightened the lid again.
“You fish?” she asked. She swept her hair back into a quick bun.
Dillon noticed an indent that started just below her hairline.
“Hey,” she said again. “I asked if you fish?”
“No,” Dillon said.
“I thought you might.”
“Salt’s a preservative. I’d prefer you be a fisherman than a serial killer or something.”
“I’m not. Neither. I don’t fish.”
“I didn’t say you did.”
Dillon rocked back on his heels and the woman sighed.
“What are you going to do with that?”
“A lab test.”
“How will that help?”
“Who knows. It’s all we can do.”
“Would you like some tea? If you want to stay a little, I have some more questions about this.” He swept his hands around at the living room and stuffed his hands back in his jean pockets and tried to remember what it took to get a woman to smile. He smiled.
“More questions?” She raised her eyebrows.
“Sure,” he said. “What’s your name?”
She twisted her cane in her hand, and it scraped unevenly on the tile. She stared out to the sea through the living room windows past the kitchen bar. She wore this smirk like a pained smile that seemed practiced.
“It’s Sandra,” she said, after he had already moved out of her way so she could get past him to the front door. “I have work to do. I’ll come back with the lab results.”
After she left, Dillon took a long, hot shower. His joints ached like healed bones under a storm’s pressure. He’d never broken a bone in his life. He peered into the bathroom mirror and picked at the coarse, dark hair in his head and wondered why it wasn’t gray. He puffed his cheeks out in the middle of shaving and deflated them again to examine for wrinkles. Aside from some small crows feet and some other random lines, there was never anything new or unexpected.
He thought part of his problem could be that he hadn’t worked in so long. He didn’t need to. Carol had left him enough money to take him into retirement. His father – an only child himself, no parents and no wife, not since Dillon was a kid – left him most of everything, too. Death had somehow made him rich and old. Towel around his waist, shaving cream still streaked across his chin, he lifted the toothbrush holder and held it up like Hamlet holding his skull. When he flicked his eyes back to the mirror, he lowered his arm quickly, wondering for one ridiculous second if anyone had seen him. He rounded his shoulders forward toward the mirror.
Dillon looked a lot like his father, before the cancer showed up. Their posture had been the same, plus something in the eyes. After Carol died, Dillon reluctantly moved east to be with his father. He arrived in time for the end, his father’s skin already yellowed as old parchment, his eyes waxy. Even then, Dillon knew, his father refused to feel old – only sick, only cheated.
“Fucking salt,” Dillon grumbled when he entered the kitchen in the morning. A week had passed and still no calls or knocks, just more fine crystal mounds lifting higher and higher in every room. He did some sweeping in the kitchen, then threw the broom aside. It clattered on the kitchen’s tile floor. The clatter flew through the cavernous house, up in the high ceiling, the sound like an angry bird set free. He left the house quickly and walked four miles of the ten mile island wondering if he’d made a mistake, buying a beachfront house in the sleepiest beach town in Jersey, the quiet eyelid that hung above Atlantic City’s dilated pupil.
Help Wanted signs were beginning to pop up in every shop window. Dillon tried to keep an eye out for a job, but he didn’t crave being busy that way anymore. Instead he remembered Sandra’s question – do you fish? — and walked into the bayside Bait ‘N Tackle where he asked the clerk some questions, bought a kit and took up the new hobby. Fishing had been his father’s thing, never something Dillon considered for a hobby. He cast his first line in the bay from the 13th Street dock a few blocks down from the Bait ‘N Tackle. After an hour or so of fidgeting with the line — casting and recasting — Dillon settled into his lack of natural talent. He seemed to be very good at waiting and terrible at landing a catch.
As he was shutting the lid to his tackle box, someone walked by on the dock behind him. He stood up and turned. She was yanking the engine cord to one of the small fishing boats parked on the other side of the dock. She yanked and yanked, her body flailing into each tug. A few beads of sweat dotted her forehead. It was the Marine Center employee, Sandra. Her eyes flicked over to where he stood watching.
“Can I help with that?” Dillon asked.
She spun around, a look of impatience peaking in her eyes.
“I can handle it, thanks.” She paused for a minute, her eyebrows wrinkled together. Dillon couldn’t tell if she recognized him.
“I’m Dillon.” He waved, felt like an idiot, stuffed his hand in his pocket, then took it out and let it hang by his side. “The salt guy.”
She held one hand up to shield the sun from her eyes and relaxed her shoulders.
“You’re Sandra, right?”
“Sure.” She turned her back and grabbed for the cord again.
“Really,” he said, “let me.”
Dillon took three wide strides and found himself next to her.
“No, please.” She held her palm up and waved it toward him.
“Okay,” he said. “I’m still interested to know those results.”
She blinked and smirked a little, then refocused on the boat motor.
On his way up the dock he heard the engine fail a few more times. Then, finally, the dull roar composed into an even putter.
The day after he saw her on the bayside dock, Sandra returned to Dillon’s place.
“You have the lab results?” Dillon asked.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “That stuff I collected that seems to be growing in your house? Sodium chloride, alright. Nothing but salt.”
“That’s it, then?”
“That’s it. I can’t tell you where it’s coming from. You need someone else. A psychic. A psychologist. A detective. Not me.”
Sandra hung her head a little and knocked the cane against her knee. They stood for a minute, divided by the doorway.
“I have tea,” Dillon said, “and some mango. It’ll go bad if I don’t eat it soon.” He backed away from the door and pointed toward the kitchen.
“No, thanks,” she said, but she limped forward into the house.
Dillon didn’t even have time to reach around her and shut the door, to worry about the fact that he’d eaten that last mango the night before. She limped with so much awkward speed he expected her to hit him. When she rose out of her limp to kiss him Dillon was still considering what he might’ve done wrong.
Dillon had left one of the large windows wide open again, and the sound of high tide pummeled in with its soggy smell of crab and flotsam. Sandra pushed into him and shuffled them toward a large white couch under the vaulted ceiling. He mimicked her broken step so they wouldn’t have to separate. He wondered if he had the same lean in him, the same bend. They dragged through some salt on the way. He felt some lumps flatten under his feet, grind into the carpet. It couldn’t be helped.
Dillon tried to trace the ragged scars on her right leg, the one she limped with. The scars twisted in surprising directions until he lost their trail, and she pulled his hand up to her breast. The tide moved in and out of his ears, like pulling a sheet over a body and whipping it back again. He could feel the wind of it, the back and forth, the snap of a movement that changed everything.
Sandra didn’t stay long that first time. She would try hard not to stay long every time since. She reminded Dillon, when she could, that they were a fling. She refused go to dinner with him, to movies, into Atlantic City. Only the house and the stretch of beach behind it were considered neutral ground. Dillon did whatever he could to keep her with him while she was there. Meanwhile the salt piled and piled. Two coned heaps pushed against either side of the couch in the living room. Every so often Dillon used the broom to push the mounds a little to the side to make them neater, like trimming the sides of a high garden hedge, landscaping.
For the next couple months, Sandra and Dillon danced around the salt all through Dillon’s house. They entered rooms Dillon didn’t remember spending any time in since buying the house – the guest room downstairs, the second bathroom in the back hall, the office upstairs. The salt surprised them in those places, rougher where it had remained untouched. Sometimes, though, they were both too tired to navigate the narrow straits through the halls, especially if Sandra was in a bad mood or a rush. One day she did something she told him she would never do: she invited him over to her place, a bayside duplex.
“Sorry it’s so small and dark,” she said before turning the key in the lock. “It’s not like I enjoy living in a cave.”
He stepped into the tidy living room. It smelled like cotton, and Dillon wondered if she ever burned candles.
“No, it’s fine. I love it.”
“It could use some work.” She smirked, closed the door. “It could use some salt.”
“You’re in luck.” He moved closer and pulled her towards him. “I’m a salt collector.”
“Is that like an art collector?” She held the smirk longer than usual, let her eyes open wide. Dillon was grateful for it.
“Yes,” he said, tracing a strange indentation by her hairline, “and I am a premier salt collector. I have plenty, the best. I have enough for us both.”
“That could work out,” she said.
“For now.” She caught herself in the middle of some thought, flattened her palms to his chest, pressed her chin into his shoulder. “It can work for right now.”
The next morning Dillon found himself in Sandra’s bed. What had awakened him, he realized, was sea-less-ness. He listened closely to the small sound of slapping waves on the bay. Dillon had gotten up with the tide since Carol started to get very sick, since he moved with his wife to the ocean so she could hear the waves. He didn’t think he could wake up anywhere without the tide’s sound.
But he didn’t miss it. On the pillow beside him, Sandra’s hair tangled over her face. He fought the urge to smooth it away and focused on the rhythm of her breathing. After a few minutes Sandra rolled over, opened her eyes, then opened them wider. She was as surprised as Dillon to remember that she had not slept alone.
“I’m sorry if you didn’t want me to stay,” he said.
She kicked away the sheets, retied her ponytail and set her hands on her knees.
“I could go.” Dillon started to get up.
Sandra rolled off the bed, smoothed the sheets with one hand and pulled a Princeton University sweatshirt over her head. Dillon knew she hadn’t ever attended Princeton.
“I’m sorry,” Dillon said again.
“Tell me why you’re here.” She leaned by the window, arms crossed.
“Why I’m here? Now?”
“In Brigantine,” she said. “I feel like you know a lot, too much, about me and I know nothing about you.”
“Know nothing about me? What, and I can write a book on you?”
“Nothing,” she said. “Nothing that matters.”
He only really knew small things about Sandra, the bits she volunteered: she was a marine biologist, she did a lot of traveling (he wasn’t sure of when or where or why), she graduated valedictorian from a small college in Florida. If Sandra asked questions, Dillon didn’t think there was a good way to answer them, his life having been subtracted by loss after loss.
“I like the ocean. The sound,” he said.
“That’s bullshit, Dillon.”
“That’s all there is.”
“You live in that huge house all alone? You explain that to me.”
Sandra straightened her bad leg out in front of her, like an elegant dance pose. He wondered if she’d ever been a dancer.
“My father died. A few months back.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“It’s not important.”
“I want to know those things.” She closed her eyes.
“I didn’t want to bother you.” He lifted his hand, let the tip of his index finger settle again into the mysterious groove by her hairline. “It was liver cancer. It happened fast.”
He tried to kiss her, but she pulled away.
“You want to know about me,” Sandra said, pressing two hands to her leg as if in the middle of a standing stretch. “You want to know why I’m like this.”
“No, I don’t,” he said. It was the truth. Some things had happened to her, just like some things had happened to him. He didn’t want it to matter.
Sandra bent her knee and took her cane and turned to face out of the small window at the back of her bedroom.
“I think I need you to leave,” she whispered. Her voice could have been the sound of the bay reeds waving in the breeze.
Dillon was only half-surprised that a wave of salt didn’t knock him over and suffocate him when he opened the door. The smell choked him, as if the tide was highest inside the house. He walked the halls, up the stairs, surveying the situation. Some of the salt piles went up to his waist. A couple of them reached close to his chest. The piles were less rounded, less neat. They had started to spread across the floor, stretching into blank areas of wood and tile, gradients of salt. He hadn’t paid attention to the salt in a while. The piles had become a part of the house, like exaggerated bumps in the carpeting. Everything in the cabinets had gone stale. He settled for tea, put a full kettle on the stove and waited for it to whine.
Sandra didn’t call that day, or the next. Sleep became a phobia. Alone in the house, he expected the salt to rise up at any point and drown him as soon as his eyes closed. He nodded off every once in a while and dreamed about marching faceless people in black suits and lines of cars bumper-to-bumper along anonymous roads, whisked-over hallways, blank aisles in winding grocery stores. He would turn down the produce lane and spend the entire dream making more wrong turns. When he jolted awake, he could hear the new salt settling.
On the third morning, Dillon forced himself out of the house. He knew a time would come when the salt wouldn’t let him leave. A pile had started to build in front of the doorway, and it had already started overtaking many of the older mounds. Dillon walked up the beach, then rounded around to the bayside and down the main stretch, right by Sandra’s apartment. The air outside tasted so soft and light. He hung around the Marine Center and flung rocks and casted lines from bayside docks. It was getting a little warmer as Brigantine started to wake up from winter.
Dillon gave up waiting for her and walked back to the jetty to watch the ocean surfcasters. He could not surf cast. He lacked the tools, the mindset and the necessary experience. He watched a surfcaster with a grey beard and a red sweatshirt reel in a large skate after a long battle. The skate flapped in the air for a moment like a kite before finally meeting the fisher’s net. The fisher examined it for moment like he might throw it into the sand, point down at it, scold. Instead, he walked into the water up to his knees, and let the skate glide off again. Dillon admired the man’s restraint, like locking a fist to punch at a wall and then letting it unclench as if the thought had never been there in the first place.
Night fell with Dillon watching from the jetty. The sky laid out darkest to the east over the Atlantic behind him. A winterish chill whipped over the strange no-man’s-land where ocean eased into bay. Across the way in the city of glittering towers, bells rang out – Dillon swore he could here them. He had been preparing to leave with the surfcasters, who started to reel in their lines.
“Thought you didn’t fancy yourself a fisherman?”
Dillon turned. Sandra was sitting a little behind him on the jetty.
“I tried to call,” she said.
“It didn’t ring.”
“Kept getting a busy signal.”
She stood up carefully, favoring her right leg, and sat down again close beside him. She didn’t have her cane.
“I was in the city.” She motioned across the bay at the strip of casinos. “It looks so much more impressive from here.”
“Work.” She shrugged.
The casino lights blinked out over the water and shimmered down like fireworks. For the first time since he moved to Brigantine, Dillon wondered what it would be like to try gambling. He would be dangerous at a poker table. He didn’t fear dice or cards or the vague rules behind what was dealt to whom and why. He’d been inside the dark belly of bad luck, ill fate. He’d made his home there. Those other poor suckers didn’t stand a chance.
“Why don’t you ask about the scars?” she said.
“But you don’t.”
“Okay,” he said. “Why do you have those scars?”
“Well it’s too late for that now.” She smirked.
Dillon shifted on the rock to face Sandra.
“It was a young dolphin,” she said, “caught off shore in the blade of a boat propeller. They needed an emergency team. That’s where I was.”
“Did it live?”
“Yes.” A hard glint of pride flashed in the pupils of her eyes. “We just transported her to the Marine Center. I hardly slept.”
“I haven’t slept much either.”
“You know,” she said, “the same thing happened to me.”
“A propeller blade?” Dillon remembered the way the scars fanned and knotted down her thigh.
She nodded. “Field work in Australia. My last trip.”
Dillon wrapped his arm around her and pulled her toward him. Sandra sucked in the air and let it out slowly.
“And now I’m stuck here.”
“I didn’t think you wanted to see me again,” he said.
“Neither did I.”
They sat together for another moment. Dillon scanned the jetty. All the surfcasters had gone. Foam gathered on the jetty’s lower rocks where the bay met the ocean and confused the patterned crash of waves.
Sandra pointed to his chin. “What’s that?”
“Your skin. There’s this dry spot…” she pointed again. “Right there.”
“I didn’t notice.”
“Dillon,” she said, “we have to do something about the salt.”
“More lab tests?”
“Something like that,” she said.
Together they walked the four-mile stretch of beach back to Dillon’s house. Sandra seemed to move better without a cane to lean on. They walked along the water, and then up the beach past the dunes and down the winding drive to the doorway.
“Get ready,” Dillon said. He sucked the air into his lungs and puffed out his cheeks, holding his breath for show. Sandra laughed. They stepped inside.
“God, you weren’t kidding.” Sandra coughed. “Look at this place.”
The salt piles were impressive. Filled with cherry wood furniture and mountains of salt, the living area looked more like a ship’s hull than a room.
The moon was full and filling the house with light. They made their way to the kitchen, where the salt seemed to like it best. The stuff had collected highest all around the perimeter, so they had to step deliberately over a pile by the wide entrance. Sandra and Dillon sat cross-legged in the middle of the kitchen, facing one another.
“What now?” he said.
“Tell me everything.”
“We’re making outlets,” she said. “Opening windows.”
“I’ve tried opening the windows. It doesn’t work.”
“What are you doing here?” she asked again.
This time Dillon recognized that she didn’t mean the question to be invasive. He took a breath, felt the salty air rattle in his lungs, and told her everything he remembered: Carol and their life together, finding out about the affair, the affair that had led to her illness. Then the illness itself, the move to the beach, the way the doctors slowly gutted his wife like a fish. He knew she was dying. He stayed for the end.
Dillon tried not to listen to himself. The man speaking, he thought, that man is someone else. There was a difference between the man speaking and the man sitting in the kitchen, surrounded by salt, with a woman whose life turned on the blade of a propeller.
A thin layer of salt had spilled across the tile flooring between them. The salt and the tile were both white, but the moonlight hit the salt and made it glow brightest. Dillon squinted. He lifted his finger and drew a straight line in the salt, clearing a small strip of bald tile. He drew another and another. He let his finger swirl in certain spots, connecting.
“It looks like a maze,” Sandra said.
Dillon lifted his finger from the floor and watched his salt maze glow, the tiny lines fading out towards the edges. He imagined that the lines continued unseen into the larger piles, breaking them back down.
The grandfather clock in the dining room struck a time Dillon didn’t bother to notice. Dillon and Sandra moved to the white couch in the living room.
“To take shifts on watch,” Dillon said.
Sandra laughed a little, but he hadn’t been joking. The salt could rise up at any moment and swallow them both. Dillon flattened the fear inside him, tried to carve it down. It didn’t take long for him and Sandra to fall sleep together. When Dillon opened his eyes in the morning, even before he could find the sound of the surf beyond the windows, he could smell the low tide pulling the salt away, back into the earth.