Salt Shaker

Transitions №5

Author: Olga Zilberbourg


The news of our neighbor’s son’s suicide came on the wing of several celebrity suicides, and though there was no reason to draw the connection, everyone did. “Tyson must’ve read about that chef and that fashion designer,” a neighbor told me. “He must’ve taken notes.” Another neighbor blamed Trump: “He and your guy,” meaning Putin, I had to assume, “are about to nuke the world. Everything seems pointless.”

Tyson was twenty-two. He said “Hi” to me when we ran into each other in the hallway. I had recently been laid off from my job as Russian content reviewer and was sending out my resumes. It’d been only two years since my husband and I won our green cards and decided to relocate to San Jose, and I still didn’t know a lot of people here. It felt weird being locked up in our apartment all day, so I paced the hallway to manage the stress. Whenever Tyson saw me, he nodded. Once I saw him patting the back of another neighbor’s puppy. The puppy hated everyone who lived in the building and nipped us on the ankles.

The day after we’d heard the news about Tyson, I was shopping at Safeway and I saw a mother and her son. The mother was about my age, and the son looked like he was ten or eleven. He was a tall blond child and looked as soft and pliable as a loaf of white bread. They were checking out in front of me, and the mother handed her son the credit card.

“Insert and wait,” she told him in English, and by the way she stressed the “ert,” I knew she was Russian.

The son didn’t want to wait. He pulled the card out too early and the transaction failed. He tried again and again pulled the card out too early. The mother slapped him on the back of his neck—there’s a specific word in Russian for this type of physical assault. It’s considered milder than spanking.

The son was dressed in clean corduroy pants and a button-down shirt, but the mother was dressed in a hoodie over pajama bottoms, stained in the crotch area. I realized she probably had been wearing them for several days straight. Her hair, too, hadn’t been washed in a while. Shoulder-length, its reddish-brown strands were oily at the top and shaggy at the bottom. The skin on her cheeks seemed to belong to the heels of her feet, it was that red and shiny. She was struggling as she tried to stuff one paper bag inside the other.

The son tried again with the card, and failed. He then craned his head away from the cash register and stared vacantly into the ceiling.

“I’m sorry,” the mom said to the cashier. “He’s not much help.”

She tore the card from her son’s hand and pushed him toward the groceries.

“Here, do this,” she told him, switching to Russian. Everything she did seemed hurried, even though nobody was rushing them. It was mid-afternoon. The cashier was smiling politely, and there was nobody behind me in line. The son continued to stare into space. The mother took him by the hand and pulled him out of the store.

I was buying milk, bread, eggs, oats, bananas, and two bottles of whiskey. It took me a minute to check out and, leaving the store, I decided that if I were to catch up with the mother and son, I would introduce myself to them in Russian. I knew there was no helping anybody. I just wanted to say “Hi.”

The neighbors invited my husband, my daughter, and me to Tyson’s funeral. My husband was at work and my daughter was in school, and I decided to take the afternoon off from the job hunt. I’d never been to an American funeral before—I’d been to only two funerals in my entire lifetime. There were lots of strange things there, but the strangest by far was when Tyson’s mother took what looked like a salt shaker from her purse and started shaking it over his grave. This tradition was unfamiliar to me and I couldn’t imagine what it meant to her. In Russian culture, a visitor was greeted upon arrival with an offering of bread and salt—the expression “bread-salt” entered the language as a term for “welcome.” I didn’t know whether this mother’s ritual was cultural or personal, and I wasn’t sure whether it was really salt she was spreading on Tyson’s grave. But the more I thought about, the more appropriate it seemed. It was as though she was welcoming Tyson into his afterlife, making sure that he was always provided with plenty of earthly comforts.

I followed the family back to our apartment building, to the small wake. I thought about Tyson, that family at Safeway, and about my daughter, who had stopped talking to me on our walks home from her school. The neighbor with the puppy was at the wake, too, and he kept the puppy in his arms, protecting it from us or seeking comfort from it, or both. I tried to chat with him about the weather, but the dog kept barking at me. It was fine; anyway, I couldn’t think of anything to say past “This drought it terrible.”

After an internal debate, I submitted the unopened whiskey bottle as a table offering. Of course, one couldn’t cure the condition of being an immigrant by drinking, but that hadn’t stopped me from trying. I opened the bottle and poured myself a glass and, on impulse, went into their kitchen, found the salt shaker and put some salt into my drink. There’s another Russian expression that warns against sprinkling of salt on an open wound, I recalled: it hurts. Let the drink not go down too easy.