Photo Art by Michael Dooley
We'd come to Ohio to capture a miracle. We wore the wrong shoes and walked over the stubborn stalks of a harvested crop we couldn't identify. We cursed, "Jesus," and "Goddamn it," as we marched toward the tent revival.
Rey and Ammon walked ahead of me, carrying film magazines in a square metal pail and a camera loaned to them by our university. In my knapsack were two dozen waivers fastened to a clipboard.
"That would make a great establishing shot," Rey said, pointing ahead of us toward the white party tent. It hid the lower edges of a setting sun, its roof emblazoned with reflected fire. I crossed my arms and waited as the boys crouched in the field and tended to the work of uncasing and preparing the camera. Once done, Rey explained the shot to Ammon, framing his vision between his outstretched hands. The gesture felt pompous to me, so I looked away.
From the tent, there came a yip—a high-pitched laugh or cry—and I squinted, listening, wishing we could just get on with it and go there. "Oh, for Christ's sake," I said, noticing the glint of parked cars at the rear of the tent. "We parked on the wrong side. We're walking through this shit for no reason."
"I just noticed that, too," Ammon said. He was still filming, his mouth fixed in a go-along-to-get-along smile.
"It was fate," Rey said. "It gave us this sweet establishing shot. Come on."
When we were close enough to see inside the tent, the set up was familiar to me: the metal folding chairs, the freestanding crucifix, the luminaries in paper lunch sacks being lighted by women in long dresses.
We hung back, taking in the expectant energy of the congregation. We'd planned to arrive early but had gotten lost, and now, 15 minutes before the start of the service, nearly every folding chair was filled. Other parishioners stood, chatting and laughing and fanning themselves against the heat of close-hewn bodies. In front of a makeshift stage, a bearded man spoke with an older couple.
"There he is," Rey said, pointing out the man. "There's Jim Salt."
He headed up an aisle between two rows of folding chairs. Ammon followed, moving carefully with the camera through the crowd. After a brief hesitation, I joined them, returning the smiles and pleasantries of the parishioners I passed and quietly wishing I hadn't agreed to come.
"Pastor Salt?" Rey call. Salt, along with the older man and woman, turned to regard him. "I'm Rey Kerr. We've been emailing?"
Jim Salt craned his neck back and studied Rey's face. He wasn't much taller than me, but he had the thick physique of an athletic youth whose muscles had become hugged by middle-aged fat. He was an intimidating presence in those seconds before he smiled. "Oh, yes," he said, "Rey Kerr, the documentary filmmaker."
Rey dipped his head in a half-bow.
"Judy, Brother Bill," Salt said to the older couple, "these young people are film students from Chicago. They've come to make a short documentary about our congregation."
The woman—Judy, I presumed, rather than Brother Bill—laced her fingers and cooed, "Chicago? How do they even know about us, I wonder?"
"They found us on the Internet," Salt said, widening his eyes at the novelty.
"Someone posted a camera phone video," Rey clarified, "of... one of your services."
"Isn't it something?" Salt said, steering the couple in the direction of the folding chairs with a hand on each of their backs. "If you'll excuse me, I'm going to have a quick word with our young guests. But, as for tomorrow, why don't you plan to come by the ranch after supper, say, around seven? We can get right to it, and I'll have you home by nine."
"Bless you, Jim," Brother Bill said. "We'll be there at seven."
Salt pivoted and grabbed Rey by his arm, shaking it a little in a masculine greeting. I took a step back from them. "Welcome to the flock, young man. How was your trip?"
"Not too bad," Rey said. "A long time to be in a van together, but, you know, we're all friends and colleagues. It was good."
It wasn't true that we were friends or colleagues. Rey and Ammon were in the same film program, but they never hung out. They'd only teamed up because their capstone project was required to be collaborative. I was an Econ student who had no interest in filmmaking at all. I'd only tagged along because I was, for the time being, Rey's girlfriend. I'd come to help him one last time before we graduated, and then I planned to release him into the world where he would become someone else's problem.
Jim Salt had gone into to an anecdote about road trips—how he encouraged engaged couples in his congregation to take a cross-country drive before marrying just to make sure they could handle the stress of being alone together. A proof of concept, he called it.
"That's funny," Ammon said when the pastor was through. He was cradling the camera at chest height.
"Funny or not, it's a true test of compatibility. And who are you?" Salt asked.
"Ammon," Ammon said. "I operate the camera."
"Ah! Then I'll be sure to buddy-up to you, so I know you'll make me look good," Salt said. He reached up to squeeze Ammon's shoulder and added, "Big boy." Ammon was a few inches over six feet.
"And we also have Es," Rey said, pointing back at me.
"Es," Salt repeated like he was tasting my name, trying to identify its familiar flavor. I'd moved far enough back from him that he couldn't touch me. "Short for Esther?"
"No," I lied. I shot Rey a stern look that dared him to challenge me.
"A lovely name regardless," Salt said. "Well, we're glad to have you all. If there's anything I can do to make you more comfortable while you're here, you just let me know."
I got Rey's attention and silently mouthed, "Waiver."
He raised his eyebrows, unclear.
"Waiver. Waiver!" With this last attempt, I produced an audible breathy whisper that caught the attention of Jim Salt.
"Was there something that you needed, Es?" he asked, turning from me to Rey for an answer, as if I were a child who couldn't speak for herself.
"I was just reminding Rey that we need you to sign a waiver before we can film you," I said. "We need it from everyone who appears on camera."
"We discussed it in the emails," Rey reminded him. The look he gave me suggested I'd overstepped by speaking.
"Of course, we did," Salt said. "As I recall, I assured you it wouldn't be a problem."
A middle-aged woman approached us and captured Jim Salt's attention. "Pastor Jim," she said, "it's eight o'clock." She smiled at each of us and then rushed away.
Jim Salt cleared his throat. "Well, young people, it seems I have a sermon to deliver. We'll save the formalities for a later time."
"Yeah, cool," Rey said, to me, I felt, as much as to the pastor, "no problem. We'll go ahead and record tonight and take care of the signatures later."
Salt gave us a parting smile and moved past us toward the makeshift stage. "Please do," he called back, "you will most definitely want to record tonight."
We filmed a fiery sermon. Ammon stood in the aisles and captured Salt as he delivered a frightening admonitory on Hell and the congregation as they sang acapella songs outside the small cannon of Christian hymns the three of us knew.
And, finally, we filmed the miracle.
Pastor Jim introduced him as his own father, Ralph Salt. The older man looked frail when he rose and shuffled onstage—skinny-legged and ass-less, with a hunched posture and a tiny, round belly giving the impression of malnourishment. His son retreated to the back of the stage as the man lifted his open palms. He shook and convulsed. Pastor Jim preached behind him, the words of the sermon lost here and there behind the punctuated hallelujahs of the parishioners. The old man brought his hands together in front of his face. He squeezed them tightly, mumbling and staring skyward. Then he took his forehead in his palms and rocked forward and back, his lips miming an unheard plea. Jim Salt's voice boomed as he held a Bible against the back of his father's head and yelled, "Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!" The old man removed his hands from his head to reveal blood crowning his brow. He turned his palms toward the congregation to expose wet, red streaks. Within the tent, there was a collective roar. Parishioners fell to their knees. And from the back of the stage, Pastor Jim yelled, "Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!"
It rained for hours that evening. I stood at our hotel window watching a wind-blown food wrapper fluttering around the parking lot. Rey was in the bathroom, taking advantage of a locked door to shut himself away from me.
After the service, he had been stoned—profoundly affected and briefly under the impression Ammon and I had been similarly moved. As we'd trudged back to the van, he talked animatedly about the stigmata, how amazing it had been to witness. Ammon had rebutted Rey's enthusiasm with his usual silence. I'd taken a different approach, choosing to cut him off at the knees or drag him back to Earth, or whatever it was a sensible person would be accused of doing in the eyes of the wildly credulous. Names were called. Accusations were made, only a few of which I regretted.
The bathroom door opened, and I turned to see Rey emerge and take a seat at the foot of the bed. He ran his hands over the knees of his jeans. "You good now?" he said.
I shrugged, indifferent to the question.
"Let's just get through this, yeah?" he said. "Finish filming and go home, and then you can do what you want. We'll break up or whatever, I don't give a fuck."
"Fine," I said.
Because he was refusing to look at me, I turned back to the window. I was newly a non-smoker, and I ached to be out there, despite the rain. After a moment, I said, "It's a stunt. You know that, right?"
"Maybe. What if it's not? You're the expert?" I could picture him behind me, angrily flexing his jaw.
"I don't need to be an expert, Rey. I'm just rational, that's all."
"And I'm irrational because I'm open-minded?"
"Yeah," I sighed, "I don't know, man. I don't even care, to be honest. We just can't stay here past Friday. I won't do it. That was the plan."
"Don't tell me the plan, Es. It was my plan," he said.
"It was," I allowed. "But that look in your eyes tonight—I don't know, it made me nervous. I mean, remember the midterm? Your screenplay? All the extensions you had to beg for because you got fixated on that one character and started it all over from his perspective? And then you got frustrated and shut down for, like, a week, and almost didn't finish it? That can't happen here."
"It's my art," he said, as if it justified any difficulty his behavior might cause. I was glad I wasn't looking at him. "And I'm not changing anything. All I'm just saying is you don't know it's a hoax."
In response, I slid my laptop toward me. I'd left it open on a small table by the window. I hit the spacebar, and the screen lit. I leaned in to read from the open webpage. "Let's see—potassium thiocyanate and ferric chloride. I'm quoting here, 'Paint one palm with one chemical, the second with the other. Both are clear until you put your hands together and the interaction turns them red. Blah, blah, blah... Commonly used in theatrical performances.'"
"Oh, come on," Rey said. "How would that old man know about that?"
I snorted. "Are you serious? How would he know? How do I know? You're talking like these people are lost in time. This isn't the past, Rey, it's Ohio. You're sitting in a hotel room with free Wi-Fi, for God's sake." I slapped the laptop shut. "I found this information in, like, 45 seconds. And do you know what I Googled? 'How to fake stigmata.'"
Rey didn't answer. He was turned away from me, tracing a rose on the bedspread with his finger.
I stared at him for several seconds, and then I unplugged my computer and wound the cord around it. My leg brushing his as I passed by him.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going to sleep in Ammon's room." I flipped on the bathroom light and began repacking my toiletries into their travel case. "We can talk about this tomorrow before we interview that creepy pastor. Or not. Whatever."
As I was leaving, Rey said, as if were his business, "I don't like the idea of you sleeping in a bed with another man."
"He's gay, dipshit," I yelled before storming out.
Jim Salt lived in a large white house on a 30-acre ranch. It was a 25-minute drive from our hotel. The house had a broad porch with a half-dozen rocking chairs arranged at one end. Beside the front door was a slightly rusted, chocolate-colored, five-point tin star.
When we knocked on the door, he insisted on giving us a tour of the property. To me, it seemed like peacocking—a well-to-do man showing off his wealth—but Rey seemed genuinely interested. We hadn't discussed the previous evening's fight. On the drive out, he'd barely spoken to me.
As Ammon filmed, Salt showed us his giant barn and chicken coop, the small man-made pond stocked with bass and catfish, and the fenced-in running yard for Abigail, the pastor's prize mare.
I had never seen a horse in real life. She was enormous and frightening, all nostrils and shoulders and rump, her brown coat stretched like a canvas over too large a frame. I felt small and helpless in her presence. "Beautiful creature, isn't she?" Salt asked me. I nodded weakly and backed away.
When the tour ended, we retrieved the gear and followed Jim Salt into his home. He didn't give us a tour of the interior, but the rooms we passed through were all clean and neat and sparsely adorned in eagles and flags and crucifixes.
"Why don't you start by stating your name," Rey said. He was sitting across from Salt at a blonde oak table in the kitchen with a list of questions I'd written back in Chicago in one of my unofficial capacities. Ammon was behind his tripod. I was leaning against the kitchen counter, keeping out of the way.
"James David Salt."
"And what is your occupation?"
"Well, my primary source of income is salesman. I own a small car lot in town. But my real work, my spiritual work, is as the founder and pastor of the Enlightenment Church of Christ." His hands were posed, one on top of the other, on the tabletop. He had been wearing a smile since filming began.
"What's the name of your dealership?"
"Pilsner Discount Automotive. We're located on Pilsner Avenue downtown. Best prices in the tri-state." He added this directly to camera with mock irreverence.
Rey nodded and studied the script in his lap. "Were you ordained as a pastor, or is that a position you gave yourself?"
This was the first of my questions, and angry as I was with Rey, I found myself studying Salt, anticipating his answer.
"I was ordained," he said.
"You could perform marriages, baptisms and so forth?"
"Marriages, three. Baptisms... I perform regularly."
"And how long were you a member of the Universal Life Church?"
"Oh, very briefly. My spiritual journey has been long and not entirely without detours. But at each crossroads I made a choice, and the totality of all of those choices led me to where I am today."
"Elaborate on that journey," Rey encouraged...
Salt paused, choosing his words carefully. "Well, as a young man, I was the rebellious sort, as young men tend to be. My father was a strong spiritual figure in my life, and I pushed back against that upbringing with as near to that strength as I could muster. But, in my early 30s, I settled down, got married, and found I could no longer resist the call of the Lord. I tried on several churches, but I found my spiritual journey was incomplete. I was restless. I was unfulfilled in a way a man shouldn't be when he's devoted himself fully to the Lord.
"Around the time I started searching for a better course for my life, my marriage ended, which derailed my progress for a time. But from those ashes the Lord made me aware I already had the knowledge I'd been searching for, that I had to stop looking outside myself for someone to act as a messenger of that knowledge. So," he said, opening his hands, "here we are."
"That's when you started the church," Rey confirmed.
"The story isn't quite that tidy, but essentially, yes."
Again, Rey consulted the script.
"Tell me about Johnson's field," he said. "And the tent. It's unusual, isn't it, to have a church service in a tent?" He added this good-naturedly, imbuing the question with a lightness I hadn't intended.
"Unusual these days, perhaps," Jim Salt said. "But at one time the set-up of our service would have been perfectly ordinary. That said, of course, our current arrangement is only temporary. We only recently purchased the land and haven't yet secured all the funds to begin building a permanent structure. We have an architect, though, and blueprints have been approved."
Rey sat forward. "In a minute, we're going to get into the video, the footage that brought us to you, and then I'd like to talk about your father. Before we do that, though, I want to backtrack. I'd like to ask you about your wife. Is that okay?"
Jim Salt tensed slightly, but he nodded once to signal his approval.
"Great. I understand this might be a touchy subject, so say the word if I get too personal."
"You can rest assured I will."
"Perfect. What was her name, your ex-wife?"
"Beth," Jim Salt said.
"Right. How did Beth feel about your spiritual journey? Was it relevant to your divorce?"
"I suppose you could say that it was relevant, yes." His eyes rose to the ceiling as he remembered. "Beth was a good woman, but more of a Sunday Christian. Day to day, let's just say that she didn't always live up to the standard Christ set for us. Beyond that, I'd say the matter has no bearing to the topic at hand."
"Where is she currently?"
"Your guess is as good as mine," he said, staring challengingly into Rey's eyes. "Next question."
Rey followed-up with another question from the script, but I didn't hear it. For the first time in the interview, I'd been moved to write a note to myself in my notebook. I'd only brought it for show, to look like I was professional, a part of the team. Now, in big script taking up the bottom half of one lined page, I wrote the message: WHERE IS BETH???
"I mean, I don't give a shit about pissing off Rey," Ammon was saying. We were laying side by side in his bed, staring at the ceiling. "But I also have zero interest in getting in the middle of your guys' relationship issues, no offense. Also, I can't have this project break down."
"I know," I said, trying to make my voice sound pouty to show penance for the situation I'd put him in. I covered my face with a pillow. "I don't know," I groaned. "Part of me says to go make up with him. But, on the other hand, like, what's the point, you know? He's just so irritating all the time. And the shit with the wavers," I said, suddenly remembering them. I slid the pillow down to my stomach and then turned to face Ammon. "Do you know, he made me research and put that form together and make all those copies? And now he's like, whatever. Sign it or don't."
"That sucks," Ammon agreed. "I mean, most likely the public will never see it, but still. It's unprofessional. We need to make sure that gets done."
"Right? It was so important before, and now it's no big deal."
"It's a medium-sized deal, at the very least. He needs to bring it up at the next interview with Pastor Jim, but if he doesn't, one of us will have to." He touched his nose to show that he wasn't it.
I rolled onto my back and breathed out, fluttering my lips. We were quiet then for long enough that I thought he might have fallen asleep beside me. I was startled when he asked me, "Do you mind if I turn on the TV? I'm pretty bored over here."
"No," I said, "that's fine. Unless..."
I felt his position change in the bed. "Unless?"
"Do you want to go back to the ranch with me to get Salt's signature? Get it out of the way? Rey doesn't need to know. We can tell him in the morning after it's done." It struck me as a perfect mea culpa, a way of helping him with the project that didn't require an apology for any of what I'd said.
"I mean, I'm not particularly interested in doing that. But if you're asking me if I'd like to do something rather than laying here, then yeah, I'm in. Let's do it."
I sat up on my elbow and looked at him, surprised he had agreed. "You sure? Then, yeah. What the hell. Let's go."
Ammon drove the van. I directed him from the MapQuest printout. We parked on the road in front of Jim Salt's house. Behind the truck and horse trailer in the driveway, there was a car that hadn't been there that afternoon.
"Are you ready to do this?" I asked. Ammon shrugged, keeping his hands on the wheel. I pulled the clipboard from my knapsack and dug around the bottom of it until I found a pen.
We'd driven through dusk but stepped out of the van into the early stages of night. As we walked up the driveway, I took care to keep up with Ammon's long stride. I wanted to show I was confident, not at all intimidated.
As we walked, my eyes were drawn to the light shining through the living room's big picture window. There was nondescript movement within that light, or perhaps the pulsing of my steps created the illusion of movement. The wind was fluttering the wavers, and I'd just turned my attention to keeping them from creasing when I heard the cry. It sounded like a baby wailing in long, sporadic sobs.
"The fuck?" Ammon said, grabbing my wrist to stop me.
"I don't—an animal, maybe?" I guessed, even though it was clear the cry hadn't come from the barn.
We stood where we were in the driveway, listening and waiting. I jumped when the cry came again.
"Nah, bro," Ammon said. He turned and began to pull me back toward the van. He was a foot taller than me, and it took all I had to pull away from him.
"It's a person, I think. It's coming from the house."
"So, what? Esther!" Ammon hissed, but I'd already moved into the yard.
The front window cast a distorted rectangle of light across the grass. I stayed at its edges, concealed in the darkness, as I approached the house. I pressed my shoulder against the front bricks and craned my neck to peer into the window. There was a man who was not Jim Salt standing in the living room with his back to me. When the next scream came, he lowered his head as if with a solemn response to it. Ammon appeared out of the darkness on the opposite side of the window. He mimicked my posture and then shot me a wide-eyed look that said, Are you crazy?
Another cry came, followed by sobbing. It was a woman. I was sure of it now. I crouched and moved further into the window light, hoping to see past the man, hoping the sheer curtain would conceal me. I recognized other voices now, quietly speaking.
Abruptly, the man called, "Yes, brother," and he moved away from the window, revealing the stigmatic, Ralph Salt, sitting in a rocking chair. He had bandages on his hands and gauze wrapped around his pale, balding head. His attention was on something to his right, outside of my line of sight. Ammon and I both jumped when a sharp, violent-sounding smack rang out, followed by the woman's voice moaning. Not thinking, I moved to the center of the window, easily in sight of anyone who cared to look out from the inside. I was vaguely aware of Ammon signaling to me with his hands to hide myself.
The room was lit by lamps. There was an old woman sitting in a chair facing me. She seemed to be staring directly into my eyes, but she made no sign of having noticed me. Her face was wet with tears and sweat. The woman's shoulders and chest were bare, and she held her dress over her breasts with one arm. The other was outstretched and being lovingly held by the man from the window. Jim Salt stood behind her. He was reading from a Bible, his face contorted and wet like the woman's. His recitation was rhythmic, practiced. He raised his left hand, and even though she couldn't see him, the old woman squeezed her eyes shut. I shuddered along with her at the sound of the smack.
I darted from the window toward the van. I heard Ammon coming along behind me. I recognized the old couple now. The man from the window was Brother Bill. The woman was his wife, Judy. Judy, who had been so impressed by Chicago. Now she was half-naked in Jim Salt's living room, allowing the pastor to whip her with a belt.
I left the project that night, of course.
I called my mom in Chicago and asked her how to rent a car. I didn't tell her anything, just that Rey and I were fighting and I needed to come home. My age was an obstacle since I was under 25, but she thought some places might still rent to me for an added fee. In less than an hour, she called me back with the details of a car reservation she'd made for the following morning. I could tell she was irritated with me for costing her time and money over a petty lover's spat. She told me to be careful and to come straight home.
I stayed behind that night when Ammon and Rey went out for dinner. I presumed Ammon told him I was leaving, and why, but Rey never reached out to me. He didn't come back to Ammon's room to see me. He didn't even send me a text.
I was laying on the bed with my laptop, entering the address of the rental place from my notebook to MapQuest, when I remembered the note I'd made about Beth. Curious, and with nothing better to do for the evening, I began to search for her. There was a Facebook page for Holy Cross Baptist Church, the one Jim Salt had been baptized into. It had 85 friends, none of them Beth Salt. There was, however, a Beth Dobroist. I clicked on her profile. Her location was listed as Fishers, Indiana, but she'd never made a single public post and had next to no friends. She'd uploaded five photos. Two, presumably, were of Beth herself—a vintage-looking high school yearbook photo of a vibrant girl with feathered auburn hair and a performative smile, and a more recent photo of that same woman, blunted by age. The rest of the uploads were of a little boy who looked, at least to me, like the spitting image of Jim Salt.
I opened a second tab and brought up Myspace and searched for Beth Dobroist in Fishers, Indiana. She had what appeared to be an abandoned profile. Her most recent activity was eight months earlier. The profile picture on her account was of Beth in a pink waitress uniform alongside four identically dressed women posing in front of a diner called Happy's. She'd posted a dozen times over a period of about two years. One post, a little more than a year old, was a picture of the same child with a message that read, Remembering Jimmy on his birthday. My angel and now God's.
I was so stunned, I almost texted Rey. My phone was in my hand, my thumb hovering above the keypad, when I realized this wasn't information I wanted him to know.
I sat for a long time staring at Beth's photo in her uniform, then I switched back to Facebook and sent her a short message: Are you Beth Salt from Casper, Ohio?
The next afternoon, she hovered above me on the third-floor patio of her small apartment. For the third time since I'd arrived, she offered me a cup of Earl Grey tea. "No, thank you," I said. "I really don't care for it."
Beth poured hot water into her own cup and wrapped the string of a teabag around her spoon. She placed the teapot on a trivet in the center of the metal table and folded a leg under herself when she finally took a seat across from me.
"You don't mind if I smoke?" she asked. The pack of Parliament Lights on the table had been beckoning to me, too.
"Of course not," I said, "This is your home."
"I didn't always do this," Beth said as she lit the cigarette. "But you know..."
"Life," I said, finishing the sentiment.
"Mm-hmm." She exhaled and then tilted the pack toward me. I looked away from them and declined with the shake of my head.
"So," she said, "you met Jim. He's quite a character."
"I would agree with that," I said with an awkward laugh.
"Well, he wasn't always so bad. It's his father that done it. Set a bomb in him when he was just a little boy. We was married by the time it went off." She rolled her eyes to suggest it was a tale as old as time.
"How long have you two been apart?"
Beth rested her chin in her hand, the cigarette burning between her fingers. With her fingertips, she appraised a raised blemish on her jaw. "We divorced when Jimmy died," she said. "So that's been two years. And a few weeks. Two years and a few weeks since I left him."
I wasn't sure how to continue, how to ask this stranger the question I'd come to ask her, so I joined her in staring over the patio railing. When Beth's cigarette was spent, she extended her arm over the railing and opened her fingers and let it fall. She withdrew another from the pack. "Is that what you came here to ask me about? How Jimmy died?"
"Oh, no," I said. "I mean, I am curious, if you're okay to talk about it. But you don't have to." My cheeks burned with embarrassment.
"I don't have to," Beth repeated as if considering my graciousness in allowing her to decline. "Well, I have to live with it. What does it matter if I talk about it?" She paused and looked at me as if this was a real question.
"I—I don't know," I said.
She fingered the rim of her teacup. After a moment, she began, "It happened right when I was losing Jim to this mission of his. That was a thing he'd talked about on and off for years, but this was right when I was really starting to lose him to it. Jimmy was seven that February, and it happened in April, right around this time of year. It was a few weeks after Jim had got ordained—it's easy to do, did you know that?"
I shook my head. I'd been staring at her Parliament as she spoke, regretting I hadn't taken her up on her offer of one.
"Yeah," she said, "he got it offline. Anybody can do it. Anyway, he told me they was going to go down to Hazard for a boy's weekend, him and little Jimmy and Ralph. Hazard is where his people are from."
"Was that okay with you?" I asked.
"What would that have mattered?" She paused, reflective. "He said they was just going camping. I should have known better. Really, the three of them was going down to get baptized into Jim and Ralph's crazy church. There's this creek in Hazard on a property that used to belong to the family, so they wanted to do it there. The three generations of Salt men, or whatever."
"Like, a symbolic thing," I said.
"Sort of like that, I guess." Beth shrugged. "I won't ever know, of course, exactly what occurred. As it was told to me, though, Jim did his dad first and then Jimmy, and that all went fine. But then it was Jim's turn. Ralph tried to dunk him by himself, but you've seen Jim, he's a big man, and his dad's always been real slight. I don't know what made them think that a seven-year-old boy could do anything to help, but Ralph told Jimmy to stand on the other side of his dad and hold him. Jimmy tried, but Jim just weighed too much. Ralph lost his hold on him, and when Jim fell, he caught Jimmy underneath him. Jimmy hit his head on a rock."
"Oh, my God," I said.
Beth didn't acknowledge me. "As I understand it, it wasn't the rock that done it, but when he tried to scream out under the water. They think he probably panicked and took too much water into his lungs. Jim struggled to get to his feet, but it was too late. Jimmy was already gone. Drowned in two feet of water, pinned under his dad."
"I'm so sorry," I said. I swiped at the emotion in my eyes, embarrassed to be crying when the boy's mother wasn't. "That's just—it's horrible."
Beth nodded, staring over patio railing. "I left real soon after that, just a day or two. I couldn't get out of there soon enough." The Parliament in her fingers had burned out, two-thirds of it unsmoked. She noticed and flicked it into the abyss. After finishing her tea, she set down her mug and turned her eyes on me, holding me in her gaze for a long time like she was appraising me for the first time. "So," she said, "now I've told you that story, even though that's not what you came to hear. What is it, then? What did you come here to ask me?"
The question shouldn't have caught me off guard, but it did. I straightened in my chair. "Well, I—I guess came about that friend I messaged you about, the one who's making the film. He's not very—he can get carried away. So, I guess I came to ask you if I should be worried. I wanted to know if Jim Salt is dangerous."
Beth didn't answer right away. She stared across the table at me and then sniffed and looked away, busying her hands by making a fresh cup of tea. Given the story she'd just told me, I was surprised by her answer: "Nah, Jim's not dangerous. He's a fool and a true believer, but he'd never hurt nobody, not on purpose."
"Well," I said carefully, "there is something more that I didn't tell you." Beth looked up, interested. "I saw him, Jim, with this older couple from the congregation. They didn't know I could see them. They were doing something... troubling."
"Mm-hmm," Beth hummed. "I can imagine. Whatever it was, whatever he's got them people believing, you can rest assured he thinks it's righteous. And they do, too, I'm sure."
"But they were," I began, but she cut me off.
"I don't need the details," she said. Her tone was definitive. "I don't want them. It's none of my business now anyway, and I didn't invite you here to jalajelip. But I answered your question. Your friend's safe. You should do what you need to do and let him take care of himself. That's my advice if you want it."
We sat for several minutes after that. Beth drank her tea and stared at the town beyond her patio. I felt like I should speak, but there was nothing more I could think to say. When my phone rang, I looked to see that it was Ammon calling. I excused myself from the table and walked into Beth's living room and then straight through to her front door. "Hey, Es," Ammon said when I answered, "are you still around? Somewhere nearby? Any chance you could come back to the hotel and pick me up?" I left the apartment without thanking Beth, and I never went back.
It was nearly midnight when I arrived back in Casper. The streets were dark and unfamiliar, and a gentle rain was tapping on the roof of the rental car. I'd just driven under an overpass and was appreciating the abrupt silence, when my car collided with something soft and solid.
"Oh, Jesus!" I screamed.
I veered to the right and hit the brakes, scraping the front hubcap against the raised concrete shoulder of the road.
"Jesus, oh, Jesus, oh, Jesus."
I sat for an eternity, clutching the wheel. I needed to get out and look, but I was too scared. I was alone in a city I didn't want to be in, and now I had injured or killed something. I had no idea what to do. No cars passed in either direction.
I was in tears when I finally got out of the car.
There was little damage to my front bumper, and there was nothing laying in the road. As I looked around, I heard a yelp far to my right from the shadows of the bridge supports. My immediate fear dissolved any thought of the normal dangerous I would otherwise have worried about encountering under a bridge at night—the rapists or drug addicts or other formless monsters who might haunt such a place. I took a few cautious steps toward the sound.
In a tangle of leaves and debris, I found it. One of its paws was outstretched with its pads up. The toes seemed unnaturally splayed. I took a small step forward, and then another. "Dog?" I called to it with a tremor in my voice.
It was laying on its side—a white, mid-sized dog with a dark collar, tongue out, mouth agape. I registered that collar particularly. I'd hit someone's dog. Other than the slight quiver of its black lips, it was completely still. I crouched several feet from it and leaned in to make sure it was gone. The dog let out an unexpected moan that dropped me onto my ass.
"Please, dog, stop!" I cried, rising and stepping back from it. "I didn't mean to." I hugged myself and paced on the shoulder. The drag of my feet echoed in the concrete tunnel. Accepting no one was going to drive by and help me, I steeled myself and returned to the dog, standing over if for several seconds before crouching again. I reached out a hand and touched its neck with my fingers, half expecting its head to rise and snap at me. Instead, it only whined and stared at some fixed point beyond me as if its dignity wouldn't allow it to look its abuser in the eye. I told the dog over and over I was sorry, petting it as I did, getting comfortable with the idea of touching it.
Finally, I told it, "I need to take you with me, dog. I need to take you with me in my car." I pulled gently on its collar and asked, "Can you stand up? Can you stand up so I can take you?"
Its ear twitched, but it didn't budge.
"Okay," I said. "That's okay. Then I need to pick you up, okay? I need to go open the car door first, but I'm not leaving you. I'll be right back for you." I hesitated before rising. Then I went to the car and opened the back door on the driver's side.
For there, I moved with sudden purpose, wanting to get this over with. I bent down beside the dog and slid one hand under its front shoulders and then carefully sought leverage under the back hips. In a response to the pain of being lifted, it let out a loud, primal squall. "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." I felt grit from the roadside clinging to its fur. There wasn't much blood, though, as far as I could tell.
It took considerable effort to get it into the back seat. Carrying it those few feet sent spasms up my arms. I was unsteady when I bent into the car, and I nearly lost my balance. By throwing one foot onto the floorboard, I managed to climb in with the dog and lay it across the backseat just as it threatened to slide out of my arms.
"Okay," I said, panting, "we did it. Now we can go. Now we can go."
It took five minutes of furious pounding on Jim Salt's front door to get an answer. Backlit from the kitchen, his figure was a nebulous shadow in the doorway.
"Es? What in heaven's name?"
"I need your help," I screamed. "There's a dog in the car. It needs a vet."
He looked from me to the car and back, and then he said, "I'll get dressed. Pull the car over in front of the barn." He indicated the direction with an outstretched arm before closing the door on me.
I drove through the front lawn, between two trees, and pulled up beside the large barn doors. In the backseat, the dog panted. I sat for what felt like an eternity, keeping my eyes on the house in my side mirror, eagerly anticipating the arrival of a man I'd hoped to never see again. He was a rancher, I reasoned, so, surely, he had relationships with local veterinarians. Surely, he would know who to call in an emergency. I was afraid to be there, alone with him, but there was nowhere else I could have gone.
When Salt appeared, trudging toward me in the mirror, I got out of the car and opened the back door. His stocky arms pumped furiously at his sides as he moved, as if generating the extra energy necessary to increase his pace. In some other context the sight might have been comical. His voice was labored and accented with heavy breathing when he said, "Go around to the other side, and we'll slide her out." He passed the car and set about unlocking the barn doors.
I did as I was told, grateful to submit to someone else's authority.
"Got a broken leg. I can tell already," Salt said, leaning into the car. "You're going to have to climb through with her and lift her out to me. Can you do that?"
"Sure," I said, then lifted the dog's shoulders. For the first time, its eyes met mine. I projected into them an awareness of my good intentions.
With my help, Salt managed to lift the dog and cradle it. The skin of our arms touched as I transferred it to him, and I pulled away as quickly as I could.
"There's a workbench on the left," he said as I followed him into the barn. "We'll lay her there."
It was a smooth, broad woodworking bench, the centerpiece of a mall of freestanding equipment, only some of which I could name. The surface of the bench was chest-height, and he had to lift the animal over a series of clamps to lay it flat. With a backward motion of his hand, Jim Shade pushed to the floor what looked like the beginnings of a model ship.
The dog lay perfectly still on the bench. Under the barn's florescent lights, I could see it clearly for the first time: the short, maintained white fur, the thin black hairs sprouting from its paws and decorating its snout. The snout was stained the amber color of something it had recently eaten. Its back leg was clearly broken as Salt had said.
"Let's have a look here," he said as he moved in to examine the animal. He began with its eyes, moving the neck of a flexible bench light to shine into them. Then, he moved his hands down the body—the neck, front joints, ribs, spine, belly, until he came to the hips.
"Where did this happen?" he asked, still prodding the animal.
"I was driving under a bridge," I said. "An overpass, I think. I don't know where exactly. It came out of nowhere. I never even saw it."
Salt didn't respond. He spent several minutes at the hips, moving the dog carefully onto its back for a time before gently returning it to its side. Finally, he said, "Es, it looks to me like you hit it on its left side. There's a gash there. It's small, but it looks deep. That leg appears to be fine, though. I'd say the right leg got broken from the impact with the street. Could be the other way around, though. It's only a best guess."
"Can you do anything?" I asked.
"We can do our darndest until Dr. Barrera can look at her in the morning." He retrieved a rectangular first aid kit from a metal cabinet beside the bench. "If it's her time, of course, there's nothing I can do about that." He placed the kit beside the dog, undid a clasp, and removed a spool of gauze. For a splint, he dug through a short cardboard scrap barrel for an appropriately-size piece of wood. "The first thing is to set this leg. Es, if you would, come up and hold her shoulders while I do this. She won't like it much."
I did as I was told. The dog arched its brow at me, seeming to question my qualifications to assist in such a critical matter.
"You might want to look away for this part," Salt said.
Just as I did, I heard the sickening snap of the dog's leg when he forced the bone back into alignment. The dog reared up and bit my hand, and then it was down again, panting and whining. Ignoring the pain, I pushed down harder on the animal's shoulders and squeezed my eyes closed until it was through.
"Es?" Salt said after several minutes had passed. He sounded too close. My eyes shot open and I backed away from him. "You're bleeding, dear," he said softly, nodding toward my hand.
I looked first at the dog. Its leg was straight again and bandaged from the ankle up to the thigh, and its breathing was calm and steady. There was a smudge of blood across its neck. My blood, I realized. I opened my palm to find an ugly puncture where it had bit me.
"We'll need to treat that," he said. "Let me have a look." I blinked at him but didn't respond. "Es," he said, "Can I look at it, please?" He came toward me. Behind him, the dog inhaled deeply, a regular sleepy dog sound. "It sounds like your buddy is feeling better," Salt said. "I think that's good news."
I kept my eyes on the dog as I extended my bloody hand and allowed Jim Salt to take it in both of his.
I slept in the rental car in the hotel parking lot. The morning came with the sickening realization of what I'd done to it—drops of blood and a puddle of urine on the backseat, more damage than I'd first noticed on the bumper and front right hubcap. Mom was going to kill me. I changed the bandage on my hand and then texted her that she should expect me a day later than planned. I didn't say why.
A little after seven, I took the elevator up to Ammon's room. I was afraid it would be too early and I'd wake him up, but he met me dressed and ready to go. "You came," he said. "I thought maybe you changed your mind."
"It took longer than expected," I said, coming into the room.
"Cool," he said. "I'm all packed. Let's go."
"Did something happen with you and Rey?"
He grabbed a toiletry bag from the bathroom and tossed it on the bed next to his suitcase. "Nah, he's just an asshole. Turns out he's a lot more of a drag when there's no one else around to shoulder his shit." My face must have told him I wanted more of an explanation. "He's just all in on these guys. Which is fine, I don't care. Except he's talking about getting an extension to do something longform. He thinks he's Werner Herzog or something. I got zero interest in sticking around Ohio for another month or two, hanging out with these Bible thumpers."
I took a seat on the edge of the bed. Ammon continued to stand over me. "Rey's just like that, all in on things until he's not. What about your grade?" When Ammon didn't answer, I realized he was staring at me with his mouth open. "What?"
"What's that on you?" he asked.
I looked at state of my crumpled clothes. "Oh," I said, "Blood. And Piss. It isn't mine."
"God, this project is fucked up."
"Yup. So, what are you going to do about graduating?" I asked again.
"Oh, I got on the listserv and started sending out SOS emails. Another group says I can help them with editing and reshoots. I think I got it covered. I mean, I doubt he's ever going to finish this thing anyway."
"Rey has strong interests shallowly held. My mom says that."
"Right. Do you want to change before we get on the road?" I noted the hopeful tone in his voice.
"I'll go get some clothes. My stuff is in the car. Oh, speaking of, do you have paper towels or something?"
I left Ammon's room with a half-used roll of toilet paper I hoped would be enough to clean up the backseat. When I got to Rey's door, I stopped, wondering if he was inside, or if he'd already gone off alone to document whatever he'd convinced himself was reality. If he kept at it, he would likely realize Ralph Salt was a fraud. Jim Salt, too. He would then have a choice to make about what story to tell. Rey could be frustratingly adept at circular logic when it suited him, but I'd also known him to act with merciless contempt when he felt he'd been lied to or used, so I had no idea what he would choose. I didn't care, either. I was more regretful about the dog, leaving without knowing it was okay. Not knowing, though, I could at least assume it had the ending I preferred.
As I was standing at his door, I heard a bump inside the room. I considered whether I should say goodbye, or that I was sorry, or that I'd let go of any animosity and wished him well. He was talking to himself, I could hear now, writing out loud or practicing his script, sharpening the language to lend authority to his narrative. I made a loose fist around my bandage and raised it to the door, and the heartbeat in my palm encouraged me to knock.