Not long after my father died, a pipe under our kitchen sink must have burst. Leave it, Mom said. Her reasoning changed from one day to the next: a plumber cost too much, she was busy. There was a man — a mysterious figure named Adam, said to live “just down the block” — who might be willing to help. At some point or another.
We ate from paper plates, to keep from having to wash dishes. To clean our pots and pans, Mom boiled bottled water over the stove and poured the water in a large plastic tub on the dining room table. She left the dishes to soak in the basin, fishing them out with a pair of yellow latex gloves in a careful way.
Like much of our house, the sink was old. Flecked in brown, the stream seemed to spurt from the spigot at its own will. Water pooled at the drain.
In the spice rack above the sink was a glass, and inside the glass a crumpled bullet. Mom found the bullet when remodeling the upstairs bathroom earlier that year. An old widow killed herself in the bathroom around the turn of the century. Mom read about the widow in a slim history of our town in Michigan, in which the author declared our house to be haunted since the woman’s death. She had the exact page dog-eared.
Mom kept the glass on the same shelf as the book, both ready to be pulled out whenever she performed the bullet-in-the-bathroom tale to scare my friends.
Whenever things in the house fell apart — a loose doorknob, a broken light switch — Mom would recite the same line from the book she had memorized:
“The house is believed by townspeople to be haunted by the ghost of a Hooper who had committed suicide,” she said, her voice low. “There’s something to that, Hayley.”
I thought she was kidding, but I could never tell for sure.
On the morning of November 20, 1819, walking along a forest trail not yet plotted on any map, Joseph Francis and his crew of surveyors had nearly finished charting their part of Michigan, just north of Francis’ native Ohio. Where Francis began his journey is still not known today, though he landed less than a quarter mile east of my house.
It was a good time of year to be surveying. The wet swamps were tolerable, mosquitos were gone. The leaves had fallen from the oak trees to clear a view of the land.
When Francis spotted a small dell in the oaks, he paused to listen. He had heard of an Indian uprising in Monroe, north of the trail, so he walked gingerly. As he walked, Francis noted how light the soil had become: the ground was white in the sun. Just before noon, Francis paused to eat his lunch on the bank of a river nearby. Something easy enough: a hunk of bread, maybe a smear of cheese. It’s hard to say if Francis ever got around to the meal.
Only after he had placed a bit of the soil to his tongue did Francis confirm what he had suspected: the land was a solid bed of salt. Because of the ground’s salinity, there were no plants in sight. Francis’ feet crunched over the pockets of white gravel.
He recorded his findings in a small field diary. One he could slip in and out of his pocket. He noted a strange glop of fleecy soil, locating himself about two hundred feet south of the river. He even gave this salt bed a name. He called the spring — and the salty area around it — Saline.
My family moved to Saline when I was two. Things were finally falling into place. My father had quit his job at a corporate law firm in Washington. He had saved enough money to pay off the last of his student loans and move us back to Michigan. My mother had just started her first teaching job at a university outside Detroit.
It was a good time to buy a house in Saline. They bought one on a whim, the first to crop up. Three years later, we moved into the place next door — the big, beige Victorian house where I grew up.
You could hardly see that house, set in the shade of two catalpas. It had a wide driveway, its gravel cut into a bed of sharp stones. If you got close enough to reach the gate at the pebbles’ edge, you could make out a fur of ivy on the side of the house. Green weaved up the clapboard as if the house were a trellis. My parents called the house their Eden.
The house had a good skeleton — that was how my father put it. The floors were a bed of solid maple. Sturdy, like the cul-de-sac ranch where my mother grew up and where her parents still lived. Years earlier, my father dropped out of school to paint houses, furnishing small repairs along the way. He thought of himself as a pragmatic man, jumping to ask about the right caulk to use on gutters and whether you ought to seal a maple porch in the summer.
It is hard to say what kind of house my father had known. He was the youngest of seven children. Over the years, depending on the sibling to whom I spoke, I had heard about places in Ann Arbor, Texas, Grand Rapids, Birmingham, Illinois, Oakville and Hamilton, near the Canadian border. His father did not have a steady job, and often disappeared for large stretches of time. His mother got sick easily.
Once, near Christmas, I asked Anne where my father was born. My aunt paused, sat down at the kitchen table in her Manhattan apartment to think. The question was the kind of thing I had always been afraid to ask. At Yale, I wrote for the campus newspaper. But when I turned to Anne — in a casual way, as if the thought had only just flitted into my mind — I tried not to sound like a journalist.
She stooped over and scribbled on a napkin. A timeline emerged, each inky stipple a different home in the family’s history. They had never lived all together in the same place, so it was hard for Anne to remember some patches of time — like just how long my father had lived in Texas, with their sister and her husband. After that, Sault-Ste.-Marie was a definite possibility. “Briefly — very briefly,” she muttered.
“Of course, these are all very approximate,” she said, handing me the napkin. “I hope it helps.”
It seemed like things were falling into place. When I was four, the couple next door put my parents’ Eden up for sale and offered it to them. They accepted.
My parents moved into the house at the end of that summer. Dad decided to plant a lilac bush in the front yard. The lilac was meant to mark the start of our time in the house. In August, when he planted the bush, it was a little too late in the season for the purple buds to bloom.
The summit of ice that then stretched from the western ridge of Wisconsin to New Jersey was called the Laurentide. It is the last known glacier to have existed in the area. Over thousands of years, the Laurentide crept south — sweeping? the ground to form the floor of the Great Lakes on its way down to Indiana and Ohio.
Geologists trace the origin of Saline’s salt springs to the thaw of the Laurentide ice sheet. At the foot of Michigan’s lower peninsula, the ice melted. It seeped below the earth’s surface to form a sea. The water mixed with a pocket of salt already underground. As the water table rose, the sea surfaced as a salt spring.
Geologists are still not sure why springs are active in some pockets of land and not others. If Joseph Francis had surveyed the Saline River a few years later, the soil might have been a forgettable brown. The springs have a certain caprice in that regard. No one can predict when one might become active.
Dad only kept one journal, as far as I know. The thick sheaf is bound in reddish-orange. Cheap: like leather, but not quite. The cover is bright, like a blush that still burns. The notebook is easy to spot. It gives the distinct impression of an object left untouched.
Dear Hayley. Your Aunt Ellen thought it would be nice if I wrote to you in this thing.
The first page is wispy, lightly furled at the corner. Dad kept a diary, and in the pages he wrote four entries. Not consecutively: the first is dated exactly one month before my birth on New Year’s Day. There was talk, in the final lines — inky, frantic — of going to the hospital. Mom, he wrote, was past her due date.
You sure are causing her a lot of trouble in there. What’s with all the kicking?
I first read the words on my bed. Splayed, stomach-down, I lay. My room was full of boxes for the move out of the house. Mom had gotten the eviction notice in July. We left early that August. I had found the journal in a box Mom had labeled “SENTIMENTAL.” Under Dad’s old baseball glove, the journal glinted like a ruby.
In 1865, long after Francis left Saline, a man by the name of Finch sold his farm. It was well known that the Finch farm sat over the city’s famed salt springs. The men who bought his land were businessmen. They had a clear purpose in mind: drill. Not for oil, but for salt.
To dig, they built a derrick. The drill mined Finch’s land at two separate points. Each derrick cut two hundred feet below the surface of the earth. Above ground, the wells stand about as high as a fire hydrant. Each one is little more than a very long pipe. You pour enough water down the mouth of it, and the salt relents, dissolving into a stream of grayish-white. As watery brine, the liquid is easy to extract — and, once above ground, easy to boil back into solid salt.
The men stayed for three years, and then they left. Most histories hint at some outside force at work -— a rival interest, a man from some other town, Detroit maybe, who paid the company to give up digging. Soon people began to wonder if the salt miners ever existed in the first place. (A local historian, writing in 18.70, seems eager to nip away the prevailing mood of doubt. He points to the existence of iron kettles, their purpose in holding salt understood to be clear enough.)
After the men left, Finch got his land back. His family still owned the land in 1940, when, one day, Finch’s grandson Harry felt his tractor sink into the ground. The wheel had struck some whitish brine. As Finch watched the sludge ooze up out of the soil, he thought back to a story his grandfather had once mentioned — some bit of lore about the existence a salt well, just under the farm’s surface. His grandfather had insisted on the fact, though Harry, at the time, had no reason to believe him.
My father died on a weekday, about two years after we moved into the house. When I asked Mom about it, she hesitated. She knew it had to have been a weekday, because he had come home early from work. Before lunch was how she remembered it. But I was home, too — back from school. Cassie, my babysitter, had already picked me up.
He died of a heart attack, before the ambulance pulled up. My father had been adopted. The doctors assumed that the long-term cause was congenital. They could not be sure, though: it was always impossible to say, especially in cases when the family history is not known.
When I show Dad’s journal to Mom, she laughs. At the stove, she reaches for the burner’s dial. I hear a creak as the knob twists. The stove plate turns red-hot.
“That thing?” she says. “Ellen’s gift? Did your father even have time to use that thing?” She can’t seem to look up. The cast-iron lip of the pan is her favorite — the one we’ve left off packing. Here and there, a shallot crackles.
I say nothing. She has a point. Most of Dad’s words are apology. He is sorry — for his job, the long hours, for being tired, but mostly, for not writing more.
Mom lets the onion brown, then blacken. The window is open, as if in anticipation, and the breeze sucks up the smoke. I trudge back upstairs.
So this is the place where I’m going to give you some advice.
My eyes catch on an ink smear, a brownish-black cloud over the “I.” Coffee? Dad drank pop in bed, Mom told me once. It is easy to see his head against the cherry wood bedframe, a can of Faygo in his left hand, a cheap hotel pen in his right. My own hand holds a clay mug. I teeter. A drop of my coffee spills. When I dab the paper dry, lightly, the ink sticks to my thumb.
So this is the place where I’m going to give you some advice.
I read the sentence once, twice, three times. The words begin to wear. I let myself seep into the moment of anticipation. I could stop here. At his desire to give me something, this vague promise, this hazy “some.” Mom calls up, mujadara is ready.
Not long after my father died, a pipe under our kitchen sink must have burst. My mother finally called a plumber who was really efficient when she found the basement had flooded. There was never a reason for either of us to go down there unless the weather forced us, so we found the flood during a storm.
The first tornado of that year was in March — early, even for Saline. The yellow grass was still flecked with ice. My mother had turned the television on, as she always did. She turned the volume up as high as it would go, so that we could still hear the weather report while safe under the ground.
The air had a musty smell. To avoid the inky slop, we ended up standing at the foot of the stairs until the storm passed. The shag rug at my feet was sopping, cold.
When the plumber came, he explained that the flood was caused by the same problem that broke the kitchen sink. The pipes had not burst. If you saw them, they looked the same as ever. The problem was apparent only if you peaked inside: catalpa roots had taken hold, clogging the water’s usual path. It was not an uncommon problem to have in an old house, especially one with so much foliage.
I imagined a monster — a subterranean boogey man — when I heard this. Mom had a hard time explaining it to me. How did roots get through solid metal? It had something to do with slight fissures — parts of the pipe that had cracked over the years. Like holes in a sweater that you could not see but you felt, all of the sudden, if the wind picked up.
Terry, the plumber, came back a few days later. He had what looked like a leaf blower slung over his back. Placing the nozzle, I imagine, at the pipe’s mouth, he sucked it dry. I listened from upstairs. Cassie and I tried to play a video game over the ruckus. When the man left, my mother put the bill on the fridge. She had circled the date at the bottom with a red marker: like the mileage you need your car to reach before getting an oil change, the date was a reminder for when to call Terry. The roots would begin to take hold again soon, so it was best to clear them again in about one year. Clearing the pipes became routine.
Later, after the mujadara, I find Mom crying in bed. She asks why I had dug up the journal in the first place. Her voice is quiet. I spot a pack of Marlboros under the linen, the sheet too thin to hide their bulk. Mom catches my stare.
I promise to put the journal back in its box. Mom asks me to turn off the lights on my way out.
So this is the place where I’m going to give you some advice.
This is the place. Dad’s writing is large, booming. There seems to be little worry of running out of space. The page is wide. Crisp, bare, still waiting to be built, this page is his place.
I read each word in a voice that I’ve made up in my head. In my mind, he drawls. The sentence has a bobbing cadence, each word touched with a slight twang. He lived in Texas once, for a bit. I remember someone telling me he lived in Texas. I couldn’t say exactly where.
Promise me you won’t ever become a lawyer?
An invitation. Well, I think, maybe I’ll write back.
There is still some debate about whether the salt springs under Saline exist at all. Joseph Francis could have made it up. If Francis was right about the salt flat, Saline sat on a bed of riches. It would have made sense for someone — Francis, maybe, or an entrepreneur — to tap into it. Everyone knew how valuable salt was in those days. No such industry blossomed. Farmers swept up from Ohio and settled the land. Corn flourished, planted in tidy rows. No one mentioned any worry of salty soil.
You can tell a lot from how people say Saline. If you grew up in the area, you know that it’s suh-leen. Everyone else says say-leen.
“Like say-leen solution?”
When a friend asked me that, something clicked. It was the first time I made the connection to Saline’s history. Snippets of old history lessons bubbled up: Mrs. Harsh (6th grade) lecturing in front of a bust of Joseph Francis. The more I thought about it, the more none of it made any sense. There was a sea of salt under Saline. The salt surfaced, the soil a plane of white crystals. I had to ring up Mom to be sure.