“True Salt”

Fiction by Elizabeth McCourt

     By the time we left and got to the funeral home we were just a little bit buzzed. The funeral director was a 60-something guy in a black pinstriped suit with his hair slicked back like one of the Stray Cats. Between the overpowering smell of onions and his barky chitchat, I was glad we had stopped for a few drinks and wished we had downed one more.
     Corrine told him to show us the coffins. He led us up to the second floor of the building, which was a big old house, to the expansive room of coffins that felt like an auto showroom. First he showed us a fancy one, blue with chrome on it and lots of padding that looked pretty comfortable. “Stays intact and doesn’t erode.” He knocked on the side of the coffin.
    “Solid.” I looked at Corrine, who was digging into her purse for something.
    Then he brought us over to a dark maroon one. “This one is like a Maserati, your dad liked cars, didn’t he?”
    I could have hit him so I said, “What about the pine-plank board ones, have any of those?” I looked at Corrine, who started to laugh hysterically, the kind of laugh that you start gasping for air, but then she started to cry. She was starting to do a full-body-shake cry.
    “Um, well, those are just for people who . . .”
    “Why don’t you give us some time to look things over?”
    “Back in fifteen, that good enough?” I ignored him and went over to Corrine, who was starting to calm down but I couldn’t tell if she was laughing or crying.
    “Maybe he’d like one in the shape of a fishing boat?” Corrine started to choke on her tears. I sat down next to her and put my arm around her.
    “I just can’t believe this,” I said. Here we were, sitting in a dimly lit room with blood-red carpeting and about 20 different-colored coffins.
    “It’s better this way. Anything ever happens to me, I’m giving you permission to pull the plug. Promise me, okay?” She blew her nose and perked up again.
    “So long as you promise me, too.” Then, like we had when we were kids sharing a room, we locked our pinkies together then flapped our hands like a butterfly, like we had done about a million times when we promised something. We sat there in silence for a few minutes in the middle of the room with the light shining in on a lacquered black coffin with fancy silver handles, the Rolls I’m sure, when the guy came back into the room.
    “What about that one back there?” I stood up and pointed to the simple maple wood box tucked away in the far corner of the room, past the blue Lexus, the Maserati, and the cheesy white Camry.
    “That looks perfect,” my sister said, “Just what dad would have wanted.”
    “We don’t want the Lexus. That’s the one we want.” I pointed to the simple maple box that was still very much an upgrade from pine planks. But I wondered, would anyone really give a shit about the box, would they even notice it? I hoped to be burned to a crisp and then thrown in the ocean. But for my father, I couldn’t assume that he would want that, so we’d spend the $1,000 and buy the maple box.
    Back in Mr. Onion Breath’s cramped office, we picked out Mass cards and a sign-in book and determined the wake schedule. It was going to cost us about $6.000. And the way he looked at us after we declined a few things, I guess we were getting off cheaply. I wonder what my dad would have said — the director knew him and was friendly even, but I guess business is business when it comes down to it.
    “Come on, Abby, let’s go!” I could hear the boisterous yell of my dad even when I was out midfield in the middle of a soccer game. “Fight for it! Fight for it!” He didn’t make it to every game, but when he did, I really hoped I played well. I was 10 and one of the smallest players and one of two girls on the team; he wanted me to be tough.
“You’re just as good as those guys, Abby. Sometimes you just have to play smarter,” he’d said one day when I got nailed by one of the fullbacks on the other team and missed an opportunity for a goal. A foul was called but then I choked and it went out of bounds. At least I didn’t cry.
    “Don’t let them intimidate you. Don’t ever let anyone do that to you.” The next time I brought the ball down the field I made sure I had my elbows out and then before the fullback came at me, I faked right then passed to Jimmy, the center forward, and he scored. After that, whenever I got scared of anything, I thought of my dad that day and let his words run through my head.
    After dropping Corrine off at the house, I headed to Finnegan’s Pub and ordered a shot of Jameson’s and a half-pint of Harp. The shot felt warm on the back of my throat and I ordered another. There was a new barman there since I’d last been home and I was glad. I didn’t feel like having someone else talk to me about their cousin’s brother’s uncle’s friend who committed suicide. I wanted to be somewhere else and be anonymous for a little bit.
    The barman surprised me when he said, “Sure sorry to hear about your dad.”
    I looked up and ordered another shot, “Thanks.”
    “You look like him. He used to come in here after fishing and talk about you and your sister. Real nice man.”
    I motioned for him to pour me another. He let me alone after that, and started talking to a guy watching ESPN at the other end of the bar. I had that mild spinning feeling like when I was at the Cafe Siam listening to Coco Robicheaux, the swampy-blues singer, down in the Marigny after midnight.
    I didn’t care what was going on at home or with Jason. I just didn’t love him like that, didn’t feel like having to explain myself, didn’t want to think about my dad and how he could have possibly had the guts to off himself. And then I get a big case and not only does it get screwed up but I have to scramble back up to New York for family shit.
    “Hey, you okay?” I hadn’t noticed, but the old guy that had been watching ESPN had sidled up to me.
    I felt angry and wanted to be mean to him, but I just didn’t have the energy. I guess he got the idea that I didn’t want to talk. His wrinkled face and silvery-blue eyes reminded me of Charlie, my dad’s best friend. Charlie was a quiet man, except for when he was with my dad. I suppose it was because he spent so much time on the water by himself. My dad always said, “That Charlie, now there’s a true salt. Not too many pinhookers left in this part of the world.” Charlie fished with a rod and reel instead of using nets or long lines. I actually was still picturing my dad fishing with Charlie today. He rarely missed a day during cod season.
    A few times a year, Charlie would let my dad come to work with him. My dad came back so happy, my mom used to tease him that maybe he should switch professions. He’d laugh and toss her the dinner that he usually got as payment if they caught enough that day. If it was a bad day, then the whole catch belonged to the boat. But the days when Charlie and dad would catch double or tripleheaders on the line, well, those were the days that we got dinner for at least one, maybe two nights. “Tastes better when you catch it yourself,” he’d say, or “God was electrocuting the water, those fish were jumping so high today.”
    “He just wanted to minimize your pain, I think,” the man said, jolting me back from my memory.
    “You don’t go out and kill yourself when you have a family, it’s cruel.” I motioned to the barman, who I’d come to know as John, to give us both another shot.
    “Maybe he gave you a gift. I mean, he was really sick. Probably more sick than he let on to you, I think.”
    “How would you know?”
    “He’d come in here once in a while with that friend of his, that young cop Jason, you know, the one that always wears the Mets hat. He seemed like a kind man. I’m sure. . . .”
    “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” I poured the shot down my throat, which wasn’t burning anymore.
    “Listen, I’m not judging or anything, but do you have a ride home?” John asked.
    “I’m fine,” I choked. I was starting to well up again so I threw 40 bucks up on the bar. He pushed 20 back at me. I stumbled to the bathroom and then decided I would sneak out the back door and go home. Everyone was going to be at the house, eating food, chatting, and drinking as if it was some sort of celebration. I’d make some sort of appearance and probably everyone would understand if I just wanted to go upstairs.
    The back parking lot was sparsely lit and I tripped on the sidewalk and fell to the ground, scraping my knee. I lay there for what felt like a long time. It was good to be still and I cried like a little girl, then, since no one could hear me, I started moaning. I screamed up at the sky, “Why? Why?” My stomach lurched and I rolled over on my side and puked. I sat there for another minute heaving, trying to calm down. I was angry, angry at my dad for giving up, leaving no explanation, for screwing mom. I was kind of irritated knowing that he’d been palling around with Jason.
    I sat up, brushed myself off and got in my car and yelled, “Goddamn it!” to the sky. I pulled out of the back parking lot and onto Main Street and turned the radio up, it was one of those popular songs that stuck in your head but still had a good beat. I saw flashing red lights behind me.
    “Shit!” I pulled to the side of the road and dug into my purse to get my license. I also looked for a tissue and figured I’d be able to pull the “girl crying” routine and get off with a warning. Otherwise, I was screwed.
    The cop shined the light in my face and I was sure I was completely fucked. I winced.
    “What the hell are you doing, Abby?”
    “Uh, Jason, how did you know it was me?” I was even more nervous than if it had just been any old cop.
    “You’re driving my car drunk? Your family is worried about you and sent me looking for and you’re getting wasted? What do you think? Killing yourself or somebody else is the fucking answer? This is exactly what happened last time, but at least I caught you in time.” He was pissed. I deserved it, but it had been a long time since I’d seen him that mad. “Get the fuck out of the car and get in the back.”
    “You’re arresting me?” I choked. And the tears started up again and I gasped for air until I puked again on the side of the road.
    “Jesus, Abby, hurry up or you’re going to get us both in trouble. I should arrest you, but goddamn it, I know you’re upset but this is off the charts.”
    “Jason, Jason, I’m sorry, I just can’t . . . it’s just that being here just makes me feel crazy.” He looked at me and looked away. I got in the back of the cop car. I felt like he was the one breaking up with me this time.
    “Seriously, you’ve got to figure your shit out. I’ve already accepted you’re not going to be with me, but you’ve got to get it together.”
    I nodded and he closed the door. Jason was right. He hopped in and mumbled something to his dispatcher and I sank back into the cool “pleather” seats. I felt defeated. The person before me had been a smoker. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing or how I was supposed to feel but I knew then that I really couldn’t stay here.
    Elizabeth McCourt is a recent graduate of the writing program at the State University at Stony Brook, where she received a Master of Fine Arts degree. “True Salt” is an excerpt from a novel, “Red Beans & Murder,” the first in a series, of which the first chapter was previously published in The Star. She is currently at work on “Green Curry and Betrayal,” the second book in the series.