Read The Taste of Salt Online

Authors: Martha Southgate

The Taste of Salt

THE TASTE OF SALT

ALSO BY
Martha Southgate

Another Way to Dance
The Fall of Rome
Third Girl from the Left

The Taste of Salt

A NOVEL BY
Martha Southgate

Published by
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL
Post Office Box
2225
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
27515-2225

a division of
Workman Publishing
225 Varick Street
New York, New York 10014

© 2011 by Martha Southgate.
All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America.
Published simultaneously in Canada by Thomas Allen & Son Limited. Design by Anne Winslow.

“Island” from
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
by Langston
Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad with David Roessel, Associate
Editor, copyright © 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes. Used by
permission of Alred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., and
Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.

This is a work of fiction. While, as in all fiction, the literary perceptions
and insights are based on experience, all names, characters, places, and
incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used
fictitiously.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Southgate, Martha.
    The taste of salt : a novel / by Martha Southgate.—1st ed.
         p. cm.
    ISBN 978-1-56512-925-2
     I. African American families—Fiction. I. Title.
    PS3569.O82T37 2011
    813'.54—dc23             2011024615

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
First Edition

For Ruby
,
who always makes herself heard

The cure for anything is salt water—
sweat, tears, or the sea.
—ISAK DINESEN

THE TASTE OF SALT
Part One
One

My mother named me after Josephine Baker. I think she was hoping I'd be more artistically inclined. The sort of woman who would sing as she swayed elegantly through the streets of Paris. The sort of woman who would have many men at her feet. The sort of woman men would write songs about. Didn't work out like that, though. I'm kind of tall, like Baker, and medium brown, like her. Can't sing, though. And I don't look too good in a skirt made out of bananas. To my knowledge, no one has ever written a song about me. Everybody calls me Josie—that feels more like my right name to me. My brother is nicknamed Tick, because when he was little, he was such a fast and efficient crawler that my father said he was just like a little watch—ticktock, ticktock. That got shortened to
Tick and it stuck. That's what everybody calls him. His given name is Edmund after the poet Edmund Spenser. That was Daddy's idea, too. He could not get over
The Faerie Queene.
That was one of his favorite books. I've never read it. Looks too complicated to me. I was raised to respect books—the house was full of them. From the time I was little, it was drummed into our heads that books were almost the most important thing in the world, second only to getting a good education. So I've read a lot of fiction's greatest hits—either I had to for school or I felt like I should or Daddy told me to read them. I even enjoyed some of them. But they're not what I'm drawn to. When I read, I want it to be something that I can use. So mostly I read monographs. I read texts. I read science and history. Mostly, I read about what's happening in the ocean. That's enough to fill your mind for a lifetime.

I'm happiest when I'm in the water. Since we've been working at Woods Hole, I don't get as much ocean time as I'd like. It's nothing like Oahu, where we used to live. The water here is murky and green. I dive to keep up my chops, but it can't match the pure blue pleasure of the Pacific. Sometimes I feel a little heartbroken to have left that behind.

My field of study is the behavior of marine mammals, which, let me tell you, is not easy. The ocean doesn't just
offer itself up to you. Here's a typical situation: I'm suspended in the bluest water you can imagine, an entire universe flitting past my ears. Something comes up behind me. It's big, it's black, it moves through the water like a dream, no earthly impediments. It's gone. What was it? That's what people don't understand about marine biology—how extraordinary it is that we know what we know (and given all that we suspect is under the sea, believe me, we don't know much). How can you study something that you can't observe at length? How can you track data on a creature you didn't know existed a year ago? How can you truly get to know an environment that you can't live in, that you have to have all kinds of equipment even to spend time in? It's the miracle of my work—of our work—that we are able to know anything at all. The life beneath us is so unfathomable, and we treat it with such disdain. This Woods Hole job is a good one—I couldn't say no, and neither could my husband, Daniel. They offered us both these amazing fellowships, and this
is
Daniel's hometown. But how I miss the warm silence of that part of the Pacific, the things that would surprise me when they swam past my waiting shoulder.

T
HE WAY
I
GOT
into this work was through my love of the water. I've always known it was where I belonged.
Given that I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, home of one of the least inspiring of the not all that interesting Great Lakes, I've had to work pretty hard to get to where I belong. But I did it. Right after college, my Stanford marine biology degree in hand, I got an unpaid internship at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago working with the marine mammals. I worked in a Starbucks at night and ate a lot of ramen noodles for those five months but I was the happiest I'd ever been. It was a lot of hauling heavy objects around, a lot of cleaning up, and a lot of tank maintenance, but I got to work with the dolphins sometimes and touch their smooth gray skin. They felt like heaven to me. And then, the miracle: When my twenty weeks were up, one of the full-time animal trainers quit and they asked me to stay on. This job allowed me to get to know the dolphins—their personalities, their quirks, everything about them. I loved them. I really did, almost like the way you'd love a person. It was easier to love them than to love a person.

The Shedd is spectacular. It was built in 1929. The ceiling is like that of a cathedral but it's covered with images of sea life instead of Jesus: simple, earnest paintings of starfish and turtles and whales. There are seashells in bas-relief and pillars everywhere; the whole building has that templelike grandeur that public buildings of that era have. Every day
I walked in looking up over my head, open-mouthed, like a little kid.

The greatest thing about the job was getting to be in the water nearly every day. My favorite part was after I had all my dive equipment on. Rolling in backward and letting the water close over my head. The air coming into me from the oxygen tank on my back so that I was buoyed up and breathing even though there was water all around me. I would cut through it and the fish would swim up and hover around me like jewel-colored birds or butterflies over a field. I love breathing underwater but still being safe, held, protected. I love the weightlessness. I never feel that the rest of the time. Life weighs a ton. That's why I love the water. Nothing weighs anything there.

ALL THE OTHER WOMEN
who had the gig were white, and they only had to snatch their hair back into messy ponytails before they dived. I had cornrows at the time; I hadn't yet seen that I had to cut off all my hair and let my head be free. It took me a year to realize it and to get up the nerve to deal with my mother's disapproval. But I finally did. After my first trip to the barbershop, I never looked back. I looked like a sculpture, a beautifully shaped piece of wood. I started to wear big earrings all the time
when I wasn't diving—inexpensive silver hoops and flashy teenage-girl sparklers. Now I buy earrings at this shoppingmall chain where I'm usually at least ten years older than anyone else in there. I cut my hair myself once a week with clippers. Sometimes I run my hand over the short, assertive bristles up there and it makes a little shiver go down my legs. I'm never growing it back. Never.

NOT TOO MANY BLACK
people work at Woods Hole (the official name is Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but no one calls it that). There are some black interns and postdocs, but I am the only black senior scientist there. It's always like that. Black scientists, particularly marine biologists, are very rare.

A lot of black people raised the way I was—in cities, which is most of us—don't like the water. Or perhaps I should say, they never find out whether they'd like it or not. Why? A million reasons dating back a hundred years: hair, money, time, lack of opportunity. It's a shame. I can't imagine what my life would be like if I'd never been given the chance to know the water. Thank God, my mother was different, though she didn't swim herself. We were off to the Y at a young age—but all she ever did at the pebbly freshwater beach of Lake Erie was worry that her hair was going back or getting blown around too much. And my father? He
wore oxfords to the beach; we have photographic evidence. In the only picture we have of him on such a trip, his head is lowered and he is scowling at the sand. Not long after that photograph was taken, he stopped going at all. “Don't know what you see in it, Josie,” he said. “Sand gets all up under your toenails and in your socks. Takes a week or two to get out, gets all over everything. Plus it's too damn hot. You can have it.”

Tick never really got why I loved the water so much either. But he would always go with me. He went down to Lake Erie near our house with me almost whenever I wanted. He'd sift the rocks through his fingers and watch me gather up samples by the shoreline (I've done that since I was about eight—I used one of those dime-store buckets until my mother finally got me a proper collection set). After I got to be a really good swimmer and I was old enough to drive, he'd go out to the beach at Edgewater or sometimes even way out to Mentor Headlands with me, too. But he never wanted to spend the kind of time in the water that I did. He went because he loved me.

D
ANIEL, MY
HUSBAND,
is white. I don't know why I announce it except that it's the first thing you notice, especially around here, the two of us. People don't disapprove but they do notice. Well, here's the other reason I
say it—because I notice it myself. I've been with other white guys. Not that many black guys, to tell the truth. Just one, in grad school. It didn't work out for a lot of reasons. But sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to make a life with someone who looked more like me, maybe had lived more like me. I know race isn't the way to make these decisions. But in my secret heart, sometimes, I just wish Daniel knew certain things, certain sounds, certain feelings, in a way that he just can't.

Unlike most of our colleagues, we actually live in Woods Hole. Having property is part of what made us decide to come. Daniel's mother died a few years ago and left him the house. His father was already gone—he died in a boating accident when Daniel was ten. The house needed a lot of work but is now worth quite a bit—when they were building the institute in the 1930s, land was fifty cents an acre. Daniel's parents didn't get it for that cheap—but it was cheap. Anyway, those days are long gone. For most of us scientists, who are hustling for grants when we aren't working on studies and who never get paid that well, this town is way out of reach. Many of my colleagues live in North Falmouth, about twenty miles away.

Anyway, Daniel. He is kind, precise, and quiet. I was drawn to those things about him. I try to be precise but it doesn't come naturally. He's a couple of years older than I
am, an ichthyologist. He loves sorting species, classifying them. Me, I'm pleased to see a really rare specimen of something, but I'm not as moved by the idea of collecting.

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