Salt
Written and narrated by Sherman Alexie

Salt

I WROTE THE OBITUARY for the OBITUARIES editor. Her name was Lois Andrews. Breast cancer. She was only forty-five. One in eight women get breast cancer, an epidemic. Lois’s parents had died years earlier. Dad’s cigarettes kept their promises. Mom’s Parkinson’s shook her into the ground. Lois had no siblings and had never been married. No kids. No significant other at present. No significant others in recent memory. Nobody remembered meeting one of her others. Some wondered if there had been any others. Perhaps Lois had been that rarest of holy people, the secular and chaste nun. So, yes, her sexuality was a mystery often discussed but never solved. She had many friends. All of them worked at the paper.

I wasn’t her friend, not really. I was only eighteen, a summer intern at the newspaper, moving from department to department as need and boredom required, and had only spent a few days working with Lois. But she’d left a note, a handwritten will and testament, with the editor in chief, and she’d named me as the person she wanted to write her obituary.

“Why me?” I asked the chief. He was a bucket of pizza and beer tied to a broomstick.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s what she wanted.”

“I didn’t even know her.”

“She was a strange duck,” he said.

I wanted to ask him how to tell the difference between strange and typical ducks. But he was a humorless white man with power, and I was a reservation Indian boy intern. I was to be admired for my ethnic tenacity but barely tolerated because of my callow youth.

“I’ve never written an obituary by myself,” I said. During my hours at her desk, Lois had carefully supervised my work.

“It may seem bureaucratic and formal,” she’d said. “But we have to be perfect. This is a sacred thing. We have to do this perfectly.”

“Come on,” the chief said. “What did you do when you were working with her? She taught you how to write one, didn’t she?”

“Well, yeah, but—”

“Just do your best,” he said and handed me her note. It was short, rather brutal, and witty. She didn’t want any ceremony. She didn’t want a moment of silence. Or a moment of indistinct noise, either. And she didn’t want anybody to gather at a local bar and tell drunken stories about her because those stories would inevitably be romantic and false. And she’d rather be forgotten than inaccurately remembered. And she wanted me to write the obituary.

It was an honor, I guess. It would have been difficult, maybe impossible, to write a good obituary about a woman I didn’t know. But she made it easy. She insisted in her letter that I use the standard fill-in-the-blanks form.

“If it was good enough for others,” she’d written, “it is good enough for me.”

A pragmatic and lonely woman, sure. And serious about her work. But, trust me, she was able to tell jokes without insulting the dead. At least, not directly.

That June, a few days before she went on the medical leave that she’d never return from, Lois had typed surveyed instead of survived in the obituary for a locally famous banker. That error made it past the copy editors and was printed: Mr. X is surveyed by his family and friends.

Mr. X’s widow called Lois to ask about the odd word choice.

“I’m sorry,” Lois said. She was mortified. It was the only serious typo of her career. “It was my error. It’s entirely my fault. I apologize. I will correct it for tomorrow’s issue.”

“Oh, no, please don’t,” the widow said. “My husband would have loved it. He was a poet. Never published or anything like that. But he loved poems. And that word, survey—well, it might be accidental, but it’s poetry, I think. I mean, my husband would have been delighted to know that his family and friends were surveying him at the funeral.”

And so a surprised and delighted Lois spent the rest of the day thinking of verbs that more accurately reflected our interactions with the dead.

Mr. X is assailed by his family and friends.

Mr. X is superseded by his family and friends.

Mr. X is superimposed by his family and friends.

Mr. X is sensationalized by his family and friends.

Mr. X is shadowboxed by his family and friends.

Lois laughed as she composed her imaginary obituaries. I’d never seen her laugh that much, and I suspected that very few people had seen her react that strongly to anything. She wasn’t remote or strained, she was just private. And so her laughter—her public joy—was frankly erotic. Though I’d always thought of her as a sexy librarian—with her wire-rimmed glasses and curly brown hair and serious panty hose and suits—I’d never really thought of going to bed with her. Not to any serious degree. I was eighteen, so I fantasized about having sex with nearly every woman I saw, but I hadn’t obsessed about Lois. Not really. I’d certainly noticed that her calves were a miracle of muscle—her best feature—but I’d only occasionally thought of kissing my way up and down her legs. But at that moment, as she laughed about death, I had to shift my legs to hide my erection.

“Hey, kid,” she said, “when you die, how do you want your friends and family to remember you?”

“Jeez,” I said. “I don’t want to think about that stuff. I’m eighteen.”

“Oh, so young,” she said. “So young and handsome. You’re going to be very popular with the college girls.”

I almost whimpered. But I froze, knowing that the slightest movement, the softest brush of my pants against my skin, would cause me to orgasm.

Forgive me, I was only a kid.

“Ah, look at you,” Lois said. “You’re blushing.”

And so I grabbed a random file off her desk and ran. I made my escape. But, oh, I was in love with the obituaries editor. And she—well, she taught me how to write an obituary.

And so this is how I wrote hers:

Lois Andrews, age 45, of Spokane, died Friday, August 24, 1985, at Sacred Heart Hospital. There will be no funeral service. She donated her body to Washington State University. An only child, Lois Anne Andrews was born January 16, 1940, at Sacred Heart Hospital, to Martin and Betsy (Harrison) Andrews. She never married. She was the obituaries editor at the Spokesman-Review for twenty-two years. She is survived by her friends and colleagues at the newspaper.

 

Yes, that was the story of her death. It was not enough. I felt morally compelled to write a few more sentences, as if those extra words would somehow compensate for what had been a brief and solitary life.

I was also bothered that Lois had donated her body to science. Of course, her skin and organs would become training tools for doctors and scientists, and that was absolutely vital, but the whole process still felt disrespectful to me. I thought of her, dead and naked, lying on a gurney while dozens of students stuck their hands inside of her. It seemed—well, pornographic. But I also knew that my distaste was cultural.

Indians respect dead bodies even more than the live ones.

Of course, I never said anything. I was young and frightened and craved respect and its ugly cousin, approval, so I did as I was told. And that’s why, five days after Lois’s death and a few minutes after the editor in chief had told me I would be writing the obituaries until they found “somebody official,” I found myself sitting at her desk.

“What am I supposed to do first?” I asked the chief.

“Well, she must have unfiled files and unwritten obits and unmailed letters.”

“Okay, but where?”

“I don’t know. It was her desk.”

This was in the paper days, and Lois kept five tall filing cabinets stuffed with her job.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said, panicked.

“Jesus, boy,” the editor in chief said. “If you want to be a journalist, you’ll have to work under pressure. Jesus. And this is hardly any pressure at all. All these people are dead. The dead will not pressure you.”

I stared at him. I couldn’t believe what he was saying. He seemed so cruel. He was a cruel duck, that’s what he was.

“Jesus,” he said yet again, and grabbed a folder off the top of the pile. “Start with this one.”

He handed me the file and walked away. I wanted to shout at him that he’d said Jesus three times in less than fifteen seconds. I wasn’t a Christian and didn’t know much about the definition of blasphemy, but it seemed like he’d committed some kind of sin.

But I kept my peace, opened the file, and read the handwritten letter inside. A woman had lost her husband. Heart attack. And she wanted to write the obituary and run his picture. She included her phone number. I figured it was okay to call her. So I did.

“Hello?” she said. Her name was Mona.

“Oh, hi,” I said. “I’m calling from the Spokesman-Review. About your—uh, late husband?”

“Oh. Oh, did you get my letter? I’m so happy you called. I wasn’t sure if anybody down there would pay attention to me.”

“This is sacred,” I said, remembering Lois’s lessons. “We take this very seriously.”

“Oh, well, that’s good—that’s great—and, well, do you think it will be okay for me to write the obituary? I’m a good writer. And I’d love to run my husband’s photo—his name was Dean—I’d love to run his photo with the—with his—with my remembrance of him.”

I had no idea if it was okay for her to write the obituary. And I believed that the newspaper generally ran only the photographs of famous dead people. But then I looked at the desktop and noticed Lois’s neatly written notes trapped beneath the glass. I gave praise for her organizational skills.

“Okay, okay,” I said, scanning the notes. “Yes. Yes, it’s okay if you want to write the obituary yourself.”

I paused and then read aloud the official response to such a request.

“Because we understand, in your time of grieving, that you want your loved one to be honored with the perfect words—”

“Oh, that’s lovely.”

“—but, and we’re truly sorry about this, it will cost you extra,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh, I didn’t know that. How much extra?”

“Fifty dollars.”

“Wow, that’s a lot of money.”

“Yes,” I said. It was one-fifth of my monthly rent.

“And how about running the photograph?” Mona asked. “How much extra does that cost?”

“It depends on the size of the photo.”

“How much is the smallest size?”

“Fifty dollars, as well.”

“So it will be one hundred dollars to do this for my husband?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know if I can afford it. I’m a retired schoolteacher on a fixed income.”

“What did you teach?” I asked.

“I taught elementary school—mostly second grade—at Meadow Hills for forty-five years. I taught three generations.” She was proud, even boastful. “I’ll have you know that I taught the grandchildren of three of my original students.”

“Well, listen,” I said, making an immediate and inappropriate decision to fuck the duck in chief. “We have a special rate for—uh, retired public employees. So the rate for your own obituary and your husband’s photograph is—uh, let’s say twenty dollars. Does that sound okay?”

“Twenty dollars? Twenty dollars? I can do twenty dollars. Yes, that’s lovely. Oh, thank you, thank you.”

“You’re welcome, ma’am. So—uh, tell me, when do you want this to run?”

“Well, I told my daughters and sons that it would run tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Yes, the funeral is tomorrow. I really want this to run on the same day. Is that okay? Will that be possible?”

I had no idea if it was possible. “Let me talk to the boys down in the print room,” I said, as if I knew them. “And I’ll call you back in a few minutes, okay?”

“Oh, yes, yes, I’ll be waiting by the phone.”

We said our good-byes and I slumped in my chair. In Lois’s chair. What had I done? I’d made a promise I could not keep. I counted to one hundred, trying to find a cool center, and walked over to the chief’s office.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I think I screwed up.”

“Well, isn’t that a surprise,” he said. I wanted to punch the sarcasm out of his throat.

“This woman—her husband died,” I said. “And she wanted to write the obituary and run his photo—”

“That costs extra.”

“I know. I read that on Lois’s desk. But I read incorrectly, I think.”

“How incorrectly?”

“Well, I think it’s supposed to cost, like, one hundred dollars to run the obit and the size photo she wants—”

“How much did you tell her it would cost?”

“Twenty.”

“So you gave her an eighty-percent discount?”

“I guess.”

He stared at me. Judged me. He’d once been a Pulitzer finalist for a story about a rural drug syndicate.

“And there’s more,” I said.

“Yes?” His anger was shrinking his vocabulary.

“I told her we’d run it tomorrow.”

“Jesus,” he said. “Damn it, kid.”

I think he wanted to fire me, to throw me out of his office, out of his building, out of his city and country. I suddenly realized that he was grieving for Lois, that he was angry about her death. Of course he was. They had worked together for two decades. They were friends. So I tried to forgive him for his short temper. And I did forgive him, a little.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Well, shit on a rooster,” he said, and leaned back in his chair. “Listen. I know this is a tough gig here. This is not your job. I know that. But this is a newspaper and we measure the world by column inches, okay? We have to make tough decisions about what can fit and what cannot fit. And by telling this woman—this poor woman—that she could have this space tomorrow, you have fucked with the shape of my world, okay?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

He ran his fingers through his hair (my father did the same thing when he was pissed), made a quick decision, picked up his phone, and made the call.

“Hey, Charlie, it’s me,” he said. “Do we have any room for another obituary? With a photo?”

I could hear the man screaming on the other end.

“I know, I know,” the chief said. “But this is an important one. It’s a family thing.”

The chief listened to more screaming, then hung up on the other guy.

“All right,” he said. “The woman gets one column inch for the obit.”

“That’s not much,” I said.

“She’s going to have to write a haiku, isn’t she?”

I wanted to tell him that haikus were not supposed to be elegies, but then I realized that I wasn’t too sure about that literary hypothesis.

“What do I do now?” I asked.

“We need the obit and the photo by three o’clock.”

It was almost one.

“How do I get them?” I asked.

“Well, you could do something crazy like get in a car, drive to this woman’s house, pick up the obit and the photo, and bring them back here.”

“I don’t have a car,” I said.

“Do you have a driver’s license?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then, why don’t you go sign a vehicle out of the car pool and do your fucking job?”

I fled. Obtained the car. And while cursing Lois and her early death, and then apologizing to Lois for cursing her, I drove up Maple to the widow’s small house on Francis. A green house with a white fence that was maybe one foot tall. A useless fence. It couldn’t keep out anything.

I rang the doorbell and waited a long time for the woman—Mona, her name was Mona—to answer. She was scrawny, thin-haired, dark for a white woman. At least eighty years old. Maybe ninety. Maybe older than that. I did the math. Geronimo was still alive when this woman was born. An old raven, I thought. No, too small to be a raven. She was a starling.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hi, Mona,” I said. “I’m from the Spokesman; we talked on the phone.”

“Oh, yes, oh, yes, please come in.”

I followed her inside into the living room. She slowly, painfully, sat on a wooden chair. She was too weak and frail to lower herself into a soft chair, I guess. I sat on her couch. I looked around the room and realized that every piece of furniture, every painting, every knickknack and candlestick, was older than me. Most of the stuff was probably older than my parents. I saw photographs of Mona, a man I assumed was her husband, and five or six children, and a few dozen grandchildren. Her children and grandchildren, I guess. Damn, her children were older than my parents. Her grandchildren were older than me.

“You have a nice house,” I said.

“My husband and I lived here for sixty years. We raised five children here.”

“Where are your children now?”

“Oh, they live all over the country. But they’re all flying in tonight and tomorrow for the funeral. They loved their father. Do you love your father?”

My father was a drunken liar.

“Yes,” I said. “I love him very much.”

“That’s good, you’re a good son. A very good son.”

She smiled at me. I realized she’d forgotten why I was there.

“Ma’am, about the obituary and the photograph?”

“Yes?” she said, still confused.

“We need them, the obituary you wrote for your husband, and his photograph?”

And then she remembered.

“Oh, yes, oh, yes, I have them right here in my pocket.”

She handed me the photograph and the obit. And yes, it was clumsily written and mercifully short. The man in the photograph was quite handsome. A soldier in uniform. Black hair, blue eyes. I wondered if his portrait had been taken before or after he’d killed somebody.

“My husband was a looker, wasn’t he?” she asked.

“Yes, very much so.”

“I couldn’t decide which photograph to give you. I mean, I thought I might give you a more recent one. To show you what he looks like now. He’s still very handsome. But then I thought, No, let’s find the most beautiful picture of them all. Let the world see my husband at his best. Don’t you think that’s romantic?”

“Yes, you must have loved him very much,” I said.

“Oh, yes, he was ninety percent perfect. Nobody’s all perfect, of course. But he was close, he was very close.”

Her sentiment was brutal.

“Listen, ma’am,” I said. “I’m sorry, but I have to get these photographs back to the newspaper if they’re going to run on time.”

“Oh, don’t worry, young man, there’s no rush.”

Now I was confused. “But I thought the funeral was tomorrow?” I asked.

“Oh, no, silly, I buried my husband six months ago. In Veterans’ Cemetery. He was at D-Day.”

“And your children?”

“Oh, they were here for the funeral, but they went away.”

But she looked around the room as if she could still see her kids. Or maybe she was remembering them as they had been, the children who’d indiscriminately filled the house and then, just as indiscriminately, had moved away and into their own houses. Or maybe everything was ghosts, ghosts, ghosts. She scared me. Maybe this house was lousy with ghosts. I was afraid that Lois’s ghost was going to touch me on the shoulder and gently correct my errors.

“Mona, are you alone here?” I asked. I didn’t want to know the answer.

“No, no—well, yes, I suppose. But my Henry, he’s buried in the backyard.”

“Henry?”

“My cat. Oh, my beloved cat.”

And then she told me about Henry and his death. The poor cat, just as widowed as Mona, had fallen into a depression after her husband’s death. Cat and wife mourned together.

“You know,” she said. “I read once that grief can cause cancer. I think it’s true. At least, it’s true for cats. Because that’s what my Henry had, cancer of the blood. Cats get it all the time. They see a lot of death, they do.”

And so she, dependent on the veterinarian’s kindness and charity, had arranged for her Henry to be put down.

“What’s that big word for killing cats?” she asked me.

“Euthanasia,” I said.

“Yes, that’s it. That’s the word. It’s kind of a pretty word, isn’t it? It sounds pretty, don’t you think?”

“Yes.”

“Such a pretty word for such a sad and lonely thing,” she said.

“Yes, it is,” I said.

“You can name your daughter Euthanasia and nobody would even notice if they didn’t know what the word meant.”

“I suppose,” I said.

"Euthanasia," she said. "It would be a beautiful name for a beautiful girl."

Shit, I imagined Princess Euthanasia, daughter of Tsar Nicolas, riding her pony over the snowy Siberian plains.

“My cat was too sick to live,” Mona said.

And then she told me how she’d held Henry as the vet injected him with the death shot. And, oh, how she cried when Henry’s heart and breath slowed and stopped. He was gone, gone, gone. And so she brought him home, carried him into the backyard, and laid him beside the hole she’d paid a neighbor boy to dig. That neighbor boy was probably fifty years old.

“I prayed for a long time,” she said. “I wanted God to know that my cat deserved to be in Heaven. And I didn’t want Henry to be in cat heaven. Not at all. I wanted Henry to go find my husband. I want them both to be waiting for me.”

And so she prayed for hours. Who can tell the exact time at such moments? And then she kneeled beside her cat. And that was painful because her knees were so old, so used—like the ancient sedan in the garage—and she pushed her Henry into the grave and poured salt over him.

“I read once,” she said, “that the Egyptians used to cover dead bodies with salt. It helps people get to Heaven quicker. That’s what I read.”

When she poured the salt on her cat, a few grains dropped and burned in his eyes.

“And let me tell you,” she said. “I almost fell in that grave when my Henry meowed. Just a little one. I barely heard it. But it was there. I put my hand on his chest and his little heart was beating. Just barely. But it was beating. I couldn’t believe it. The salt brought him back to life.”

Shit, I thought, the damn vet hadn’t injected enough death juice into the cat. Shit, shit, shit.

“Oh, that’s awful,” I said.

“No, I was happy. My cat was alive. Because of the salt. So I called my doctor—”

“You mean you called the vet?”

“No, I called my doctor, Ed Marashi, and I told him that it was a miracle, that the salt brought Henry back to life.”

I wanted to scream at her senile hope. I wanted to run to Lois’s grave and cover her with salt so she’d rise, replace me, and be forced to hear this story. This was her job; this was her responsibility.

“And let me tell you,” the old woman said. “My doctor was amazed, too, so he said he’d call the vet and they’d both be over, and it wasn’t too long before they were both in my home. Imagine! Two doctors on a house call. That doesn’t happen anymore, does it?”

It happens when two graceful men want to help a fragile and finite woman.

And so she told me that the doctors went to work on the cat. And, oh, how they tried to bring him back all the way, but there just wasn’t enough salt in the world to make it happen. So the doctors helped her sing and pray and bury her Henry. And, oh, yes—Dr. Marashi had sworn to her that he’d tried to help her husband with salt.

“Dr. Marashi said he poured salt on my husband,” she said. “But it didn’t work. There are some people too sick to be salted.”

She looked around the room as if she expected her husband and cat to materialize. How well can you mourn if you continually forget that the dead are dead?

I needed to escape.

“I’m really sorry, ma’am,” I said. “I really am. But I have to get back to the newspaper with these.”

“Is that my husband’s photograph?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“And is that his obituary?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s the one you wrote.”

“I remember, I remember.”

She studied the artifacts in my hands.

“Can I have them back?” she asked.

“Excuse me?”

“The photo, and my letter, that’s all I have to remember my husband. He died, you know?”

“Yes, I know,” I said.

“He was at D-Day.”

“If I give you these back,” I said. “I won’t be able to run them in the newspaper.”

“Oh, I don’t want them in the newspaper,” she said. “My husband was a very private man.”

Ah, Lois, I thought, you never told me about this kind of death.

“I have to go now,” I said. I wanted to crash through the door and run away from this house fire.

“Okay, okay. Thank you for visiting,” she said. “Will you come back? I love visitors.”

“Yes,” I said. I lied. I knew I should call somebody about her dementia. She surely couldn’t take care of herself anymore. I knew I should call the police or her doctor or find her children and tell them. I knew I had responsibilities to her—to this grieving and confused stranger—but I was young and terrified.

So I left her on her porch. She was still waving when I turned the corner. Ah, Lois, I thought, are you with me, are you with me? I drove the newspaper’s car out of the city and onto the freeway. I drove for three hours to the shore of Soap Lake, an inland sea heavy with iron, calcium, and salt. For thousands of years, my indigenous ancestors had traveled here to be healed. They’re all gone now, dead by disease and self-destruction. Why had they believed so strongly in this magic water when it never protected them for long? When it might not have protected them at all? But you, Lois, you were never afraid of death, were you? You laughed and played. And you honored the dead with your brief and serious prayers.

Standing on the shore, I prayed for my dead. I praised them. I stupidly hoped the lake would heal my small wounds. Then I stripped off my clothes and waded naked into the water.

Jesus, I don’t want to die today or tomorrow, but I don’t want to live forever.