I thought talking politics with the manager at the Salt Cavern would be safe—I mean, salt therapy much? But, turns out, Gary had been held up when he worked as a liquor store cashier and had been backing gun rights legislation by way of NRA donations and bumper sticker activism ever since.

“How about that?” I said. “Awful. Did you put up a fight?”

I slipped off my loafers and slid them under the bench in the waiting room. The bench was upholstered with polar bear pelt, fake.

“God no. I nearly shit my pants!” Gary wears hospital scrubs and, normally, conveys cleanliness and tranquility. This exclamation, though—this jeopardized the billions of salt micro particles that would be blowing over me for the next forty-five minutes. Fecal matter—I’d be thinking about fucking fecal matter, now. Gary’s!

“Interested?” He gestured at the row of Himalayan salt lamps on the shelf behind his desk—pinkish and craggy things.

“I’m good.”

“In you go then,” he said, rushing me it seemed—he held the door open and everything, something he never does. As though me not wanting to buy a glacier-sized salt lamp with a blank price tag somehow meant our repartee was over.

“Just me today?”

I peered into the empty salt room, which was—appropriately—cavernous.

“Just you,” Gary said, nodding, nudging me in.

I prefer the lounger right in front of the aerosol chute—I really like to coat myself. I’d be a fool not to take on as many salt crystals as I can. I usually leave with my pants thoroughly salt dusted.

The room is so godsmackingly white, that color palette of peace right down to the polar-bear-on-an-ice-floe bench in the front. And, because the walls, ceiling, and floor are covered with salt gravel, you walk unsteadily in your socks. But once Gary shuts the door, triggers the ionizer, salinizer, and bionic air purifier (it’s all very scientific, trust me), the room glows blue with ambient light.
 

What I’d wanted to talk to Gary about—or anyone for that matter—was the toxic sludge that had been dumped up in Ringwood, how heavy metals were showing up in the rivers and the Wanaque Reservoir—I mean, I had facts; I was ready to go in on this. But before I could even get it all out, he was all bang bang, shoot shoot, talking like, Those folks need to arm themselves to the teeth! Talking very un-therapeutically, y’know? I couldn’t even get out that the people up there already had guns, were hunters, but that it wasn’t that sort of a situation. I mean, christ, Gary. A bit quick on the draw, no?
 

I reclined. I closed my eyes. I tried to clear my mind, alter my mood. Decompress. Breathe. I was ready to be awash in negatively charged salt ions. Heaven, yes.

And in walked Gary, shuffling through salt—his feet in booties and leaving ruts.

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, he said.

He went to the back row of loungers and bent down. There was a pair of designer sunglasses—big bug-eyed ones—pinched between his fingers as he exited the cavern. Women (typically jobless housewives with expensive handbags) buddy up on sessions—just another appointment scheduled alongside mani-pedis, lattes, and weekly maintenance visits to the spray tan spa. On the days I get stuck in the cavern with them, it’s like pepper spray coming through the aerosol chute. A kill me now sort of scenario.
 

The first time I showed up to the Salt Cavern was because my in-laws gave me a gift certificate for four sessions. Gary handed me a brochure that I read during the session by the light of the EXIT sign. Halotherapy is the impress-the-patron name for salt therapy. Halos being Greek for salt. But with all his interrupting—and let me tell you, it’s happened more than I can ignore—Gary’s no refined proprietor, no saint. No halo on Gary. You see what I’m saying?

It wasn’t just his retrieving the sunglasses. Five minutes later he was back in the cavern—shuffling his feet through the salt—fiddling with a ceiling vent. I closed my eyes. He coughed a nervous cough as he left. Worst that it was a nervous cough, meaning a cough that didn’t have to be coughed. And, I’m fairly certain, he adjusted the volume on the music when he got back to his desk. Knobbed it down, then slightly up.
 

Swear to God, I could’ve killed Gary after the second interruption. I was trying to Zen it up, but my meditation kept slipping from nothingness into somethingness. My mantra of I am airy kept mutating into Die now Gary.

My own inability to focus was peeving me. It got serious. I tried to center myself, zeroing in on a single glimmery grain of salt. But…

Intrusive thought: Me palming Gary’s skull and slamming it into the wall of the salt cavern. Mineral bits falling loose like the flaking of a popcorn ceiling when the ball hits it. I used to do that intentionally so my little brother’s hair would be dandruffed with asbestos.

I tried to center myself, telling myself, Center, now! Telling myself, I am airy.

Intrusive thought, though: Cutting out early and catching Gary at his desk, the drawstring on his scrubs untied and his waistband slackened to accommodate his stroking hand.

Intrusive thought: Gary’s fecal matter. Very tarry.
 

Relax, I thought to myself. What I was supposed to be doing was relaxing.
 

It wasn’t until “Come As You Are” that I realized the music Gary had been playing over the JBLs was an orchestral rendition of Nirvana’s Nevermind. C’mon, Gary.
 

Shit went really wrong when I caught the surveillance camera in the corner of the salt cavern. One of those orb deals, a black glass bubble with a circle of lights around it. Like the lunar phases poster my brother and I had in our shared bedroom. It was taped to the ceiling and glow-in-the-dark.

There I was having intrusive thoughts about Gary while here, in plain sight, was a reminder that he was watching me. People sleep in the salt cavern—I’ve slept in the salt cavern. To think Gary’s been there the whole time, monitoring, eating a reheated empanada while watching me doze, have hypnic jerks, well on my way down the Eightfold Path. Tell me how that’s a fair or appropriate setup.
 

So Gary got me going, he goaded me, but—yes—it was what I did that got me in trouble. Full disclosure: I got me going, too—I did.

There was a flicker—I saw it! Nobody, neither cop nor shrink, can tell me otherwise. The surveillance camera flickered. Those bioluminescent moons around the bubble did a definite dance.

It was Gary zooming in on me.

I stood up and the lounger went askew. Salt gravel stirred. I crouched down and scraped together fistfuls of salt and flung everything I had with everything I had at the surveillance camera.

My feet kicked the salt gravel, and—admittedly—it pained my toes, even socked. My adrenal glands were working then, and the pain became secondary. I flipped my lounger, then another.

I’m coming out! I belted in the cavern. Gary, I’m coming out right fucking now!

Gary opened the door as I barreled through it.

“What’s the matter? What happened?” he said.

“You’re watching me, Gary! I know what you’re up to!”

He backpedaled as I claimed the space behind his desk as my own. And, just as soon as I was mentally present in that space, I outstretched my arms and swept every Himalayan salt lamp off the shelf. The avalanche made a mess at my feet. Some lamps crumbled and big salt clumps chunked off others. I could see inside to the bulbs, the minimal circuitry. Gary dropped to his knees and began to gather the larger parts in his arms like precious gems.

Why why why why why? he said.

“Why, Gary? Why?” I said. “Why you shilling for the lamps? Why you watching me while I’m trying to relax, Gary? Why, why, why? Don’t question me or my actions, Gary. What about the sludge, Gary? THE SLUDGE! Why don’t you talk to me about that? You don’t care about the people up in Ringwood, Gary? There’s toxins in the rivers, Gary. TOXINS! You’re here in your fucking salt tower, you fucking pillar of salt, Gary. You’re pure as fuck, Gary. You’re a pure soul, aren’t you?”

I had moved away from the desk and was standing on the polar bear pelt bench. Gary crawled on his hands and knees behind his desk. That submissive pose made me think I had everything under control, but, then again, I wasn’t doing much thinking—not of the critical variety, anyway. So I was shocked when Gary reemerged at the side of his desk, horizontal on the floor in some action hero position holding a gun with both hands.

“Out!” he said.

And, I’m not ashamed to tell it, all I could say was, I’m out, I’m out, I’m out.

I ran through the gently chiming door and crossed the street—death-defyingly—through traffic, still in my socks. No surprise I haven’t been back to salt therapy since.

 

Joseph Rathgeber

JOSEPH RATHGEBER is an author, poet, high school English teacher, and adjunct professor from New Jersey. His story collection is The Abridged Autobiography of Yousef R. and Other Stories (ELJ Publications, 2014). His work of hybrid poetry is MJ (Another New Calligraphy, 2015). He is a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee, recipient of a 2014 New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship (Poetry), and a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship (Prose).

Latest posts by Joseph Rathgeber (see all)