If dreams are your brain recycling all the shit you shovel into it every day, then Salt Meat is what happens when I recycle what I’ve been through and force it out in writing. Names, places, details — all changed. Not everything happened the way it’s written, such is the nature of memory. This is a work of fiction, depending on your definition of reality.
The house was never much to look at, a plain white rectangle surrounded by a fading green deck. The real beauty of the place was the land. Right against the ocean, the perfect place to build a dock and land a boat, although no one had ever taken the task upon themselves. The rocks leading down to the Atlantic formed a slippery set of stairs and the two girls who called the house home every other weekend would climb and slide until their father would step down off the deck, cigarette dangling from his mouth, and grab them both by the backs of their jackets and haul them to safety.
No one worried much in those days. The girls were always let loose in the mornings and only required to make an appearance at home during mealtimes. Great cliffs were scaled, rising like mountains from the berry patches littered with the bent backs of ancient grandmothers hunting for the perfect fruit to fill the buckets they would later sell by the highway. Chasms overlooking the rushing tide were leapt over and danced over and almost fallen into time and again. There was peace and no real sense of danger apart from the occasional curious fox or the chance of putting one foot wrong into an anthill and having to deal with the irritated inhabitants.
It was the older girl who tossed the beach ball too hard the night that Ronnie drowned. It ricocheted off the smaller girl’s outstretched hands and bounced down the ditch and into the ocean. Immediately the smaller girl burst into frantic tears, dismayed that her brand new beach ball had been lost to the sea. “It’s OK,” Ronnie assured her. “I’ll get it for you.”
Racing toward the wharf at the end of the road, the girls struggled to keep an eye on the bobbing blob of orange and red as it twirled its way down the current to the dock. Ronnie swung one thick leg over the edge and made her way down the iron bars at the side of the wharf. Reaching behind her with one hand clinging to the briny rung, she managed to get two fingers onto the ball before her grip betrayed her and she went ass over teakettle.
Time froze as Ronnie’s head came up through the waves and she reached out for help. Both girls remained on the safest part of the dock, too afraid to do anything but watch as Ronnie struggled to figure out her next breath. The older girl snapped to attention and took off running down the street, screaming for all she was worth until the adults poked their heads out of their saltbox houses to find out the cause for all the ruckus. By the time Old Ebeneezer Whaler made it to the wharf, it was already too late. Ronnie was no longer kicking her legs against the undertow and had gone under for the last time.
It was right about then that everything began to change.
“So you understand, right? Why you have to go away for awhile?” The softness of his voice betrayed the hard granite of his eyes as he watched the two young children in front of him crumple their faces and cry. He knew exactly what he was doing and why. The only thing that mattered to him in those days was where to get his next fix. Doctors, the street, he didn’t care. Coming home at three in the morning with broken bones and bloody noses, screaming at the top of his lungs that if he wasn’t sleeping, no one would. Radios on full blast, tables flipped and dinners scattered, doll clothes tossed out the window to float on the coldest wind until they too reached the ocean where Ronnie had been reclaimed. All this juxtaposed with the man who would play dolls with his daughters and feed them candy until their mother complained about all those ruined dinners.
Boxing up the house was the hardest part, wrapping plates and cups into dish towels and fitting as many as possible into a single box. Jessie packed and unpacked the forks until her mother snatched the cutlery from her grubby fingers and dumped them unceremoniously into a plastic bag. “We don’t have time for this, Jess,” she sighed. “Go pack your toys.”
Two days later Jessie’s father stood in the kitchen doorway and watched Becky zip the girls into their coats and usher them toward the door. The house was barren apart from the few dishes left behind for Charlie. His hands shook as he felt the beginning grip of withdrawal and all he could think about was getting them all out of there so he could sink into his high. Colors only he could see would bloom in his eyes and the constant pain that made it near impossible for him to move would abate long enough for him to fall asleep. It was the only thing that mattered. The girls were young enough that in time they would forget him.
Breaking her mother’s grip and running back into the house, the older girl flung herself at her father and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck. “I still love you, even if Mommy doesn’t,” she told him. He peeled her little arms from around him and held her hands. “Go with your mother,” he said, and turned and walked down the hallway to his darkened bedroom. He shut the door behind him and effectively shut himself out of her life simultaneously.
(To be continued.)