August 30, 2011KR OnlineThe Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest


There were three of us kids, so during those last days, when Dad felt cramped with all of us staring at him, Mom scheduled time for everyone to be alone with him a few minutes. The twins went in together because that’s how they did everything. I went next. We had to talk about what would become of the farm.

“You bring any?” he said as I sat down.

I fished in my pocket for the salt packets I’d taken from the cafeteria. Dad snatched them so fast I thought the tube in his wrist would rip out. With shaking hands he tore open the packets and sprinkled salt over the measly portions of ham and potatoes and peas on his tray. Last meal before the operation, it was supposed to be low-sodium.

He dug in with his fork and smiled like he did when he ate anything, even shitty hospital food. We’d gotten used to seeing Dad in the hospital. First time he went in, the twins missed senior prom, showed up in the waiting room in sequin dresses. These days we knew a call from Mom could come any time of day or night. This operation was the last thing the doctors could do short of a transplant. And there wasn’t going to be a transplant.

“Tell your sisters not to worry,” Dad said. The way he saw it, nobody had a reason to worry. Not with his life insurance. He wrote that check each month with pride, knowing we’d all be taken care of. The farm, too. New equipment, new truck, new well. He had it all picked out already.

I reached for his chart, an inch thick. Flipped through the pages like maybe I could make sense of the numbers.

“Doctors,” he said, “they’re just glorified mechanics. Did I ever tell you I went to medical school?”

“You’re bullshitting me.”

“Premedical school,” he said. “This was 1968. Before I met your mother.”

Hearing a story from Dad’s early years was like spotting an eagle, you never knew when it was going to happen, but you knew it meant something.

“My first class was anatomy,” he said, slicing his ham. “Still remember the professor—Dr. Samuels. First day, he says to us ‘Open your textbooks.’ He says ‘I want you to skim through the pages, just have a good look.’ We did, all of us, and he stood there watching.” Dad paused to slice some ham. “Then do you know what he talked to us about?”


“Salt,” he said with his mouthful. “I liked that.”

When I think of Dad eating, I think of him with a salt shaker. Eggs, potatoes, steak at breakfast. Soup and sandwiches at lunch. Hamburgers and spaghetti and tuna casserole at dinner. Put salt on everything. Watermelon and cantaloupe, tomato slices, even goddamned beef jerky. And after all that, Mom and the twins acted surprised that his insides hardened up.

“What about salt?” I asked.

“Everything about salt,” he said. “He told us there wasn’t one system in those pages that could function without sodium. We need it in our brains for neurons to fire. Our muscles need it to contract. We need it in our blood, though I can’t for the life of me remember why. But I remember the water in our bodies mimics the water in the ocean.”

“How about that,” I said. If it were up to me, we would talk all night, but it wasn’t up to me. There was a schedule to keep, business to get out of the way. “So listen, Dad, Mom says the farm—”

“—So I got to thinking about the animals at home,” he said, “how they’d huddle around the salt lick. They just knew to do that, we didn’t have to teach them. Then I thought about salmon, how they get from the rivers to the sea and back. They follow the scent of the salt.”

“I knew that.”

“You know that ’cause I told you,” he said, moving on to his peas.

“Dad, we need to talk about what the bank said—”

“We’re talking about what I’m telling you,” he said. Coughing, he reached for the pitcher of water on the table. I tried to pour him a glass, but he waved me off. “I’m not helpless,” he said, and took a sip.

“So why didn’t you keep on with school? How come Mom never talks about this?”

“There’s a lot your mother doesn’t talk about. And I didn’t keep on with it because I enlisted halfway through the semester. Needed that GI Bill.”

And that’s where Dad’s story connected with the history we knew. Vietnam. Three salt tablets a day for a year. Coming home from his tour and dozing off on the tractor one hot summer day. Drove that tractor through the fence, onto the road, into a girl’s car. A girl who turned out to be Mom.

“You got any more of those?” he asked, pointing his fork at an empty salt packet.

“No,” I said.

“Don’t bullshit me.” I reached into my pocket for one more packet and he took it and stirred it into his potatoes. No telling what would have happened if he’d taken that GI Bill back to medical school. If he hadn’t made a life turning the same soil he’d grown up on.

“Dad, listen. The bank says if I’m not sticking around, we sell, no question.” He wiped his face with a paper napkin. He expects me to keep turning that same soil. Same way he’d expected me to join the Marine Corps. Duty, no choice in the matter.

“So the last thing we learned that first day was what Dr. Samuels claimed was the most important thing to know about medicine. He said, ‘What we know about salt is that if you eat too little, you’ll die. We know if you eat too much, you’ll die.’ Then he slammed his anatomy book shut and said, ‘Lastly, we know that if you eat just the right amount of salt, you’ll die.’ Then he told us to go home and read chapter one.”

Dad laughed until he was coughing again. I was afraid the nurses would come in, see the empty packets on his tray. Mom peeked through the window. Maybe she’d heard him laughing, thought I’d changed my mind and everything would end up right.

But I couldn’t lie, not with him hooked up to those machines.

“I’m not sticking around, Dad.”

He looked up from his tray. I sat with my hands folded to my mouth, like praying to him. “Hey,” he said, pointing his fork at me. “With the money I got put away, it’s going to be fine. New irrigation lines. A couple of those machines. That’s all it takes.”


“—You walk off, that’s throwing me to the wolves. Do you hear?”

He scraped the last food from his tray. Mom peered in from the hall, coffee cup steaming in her hand. I heard him. And I’d keep hearing him.