This story won the 2011 award, which means you can read the full story (not just an excerpt) on the 'Winner' page.
Tom is born in 1914 in Detroit, a quarter mile from International Salt. His father is offstage, unaccounted for. His mother operates a six-room, under-insulated boarding house populated with locked doors, behind which drowse the grim possessions of itinerant salt workers: coats the colors of mice, tattered mucking boots, aquatints of undressed women, their breasts faded orange. Every six months a miner is laid off, gets drafted, or dies, and is replaced by another, so that very early in his life Tom comes to see how the world continually drains itself of young men, leaving behind only objects—empty tobacco pouches, bladeless jackknives, salt-caked trousers—mute, incapable of memory.
Tom is four when he starts fainting. He’ll be rounding a corner, breathing hard, and the lights will go out. Mother will carry him indoors, set him on the armchair, and send someone for the doctor.
Hole in the heart. The doctor says blood sloshes from the left side to the right side. Lifespan of sixteen. Eighteen if he’s lucky
Atrial septal defect. Hole in the heart. The doctor says blood sloshes from the left side to the right side. His heart will have to do three times the work. Lifespan of sixteen. Eighteen if he’s lucky. Best if he doesn’t get excited.
Mother trains her voice into a whisper. Here you go, there you are, sweet little Tomcat. She moves Tom’s cot into an upstairs closet—no bright lights, no loud noises. Mornings she serves him a glass of buttermilk, then points him to the brooms or steel wool. Go slow, she’ll murmur. He scrubs the coal stove, sweeps the marble stoop. Every so often he peers up from his work and watches the face of the oldest boarder, Mr. Weems, as he troops downstairs, a fifty-year-old man hooded against the cold, off to descend in an elevator a thousand feet underground.
Tom imagines his descent, sporadic and dim lights passing and receding, cables rattling, a half-dozen other miners squeezed into the cage beside him, each thinking their own thoughts, men’s thoughts, sinking down into that city beneath the city where mules stand waiting and oil lamps burn in the walls and glittering rooms of salt recede into vast arcades beyond the farthest reaches of the light.
Sixteen, thinks Tom. Eighteen if I’m lucky.
School is a three-room shed as warm with the offspring of salt workers, coal workers, ironworkers. Irish kids, Polish kids, Armenian kids. To Mother the schoolyard seems a thousand acres of sizzling pandemonium. Don’t run, don’t fight, she whispers. No games. His first day, she pulls him out of class after an hour. Shhh, she says, and wraps her arms around his like ropes.
Tom seesaws in and out of the early grades. Sometimes she keeps him out of school for whole weeks at a time. By the time he’s ten, he’s in remedial everything. I’m trying, he stammers, but letters spin off pages and dash against the windows like snow. Dunce, the other boys declare, and to Tom that seems about right.
Tom sweeps, scrubs, scours the stoop with pumice one square-inch at a time. Slow as molasses in January, says Mr. Weems, but he winks at Tom when he says it.
Every day, all day, the salt finds its way in. It encrusts washbasins, settles on the rims of baseboards. It spills out of the boarders, too: from ears, boots, handkerchiefs. Furrows of glitter gather in the bedsheets: a daily lesson in insidiousness.
Start at the edges, then scrub out the center. Linens on Thursdays. Toilets on Fridays.
He’s twelve when Ms. Fredericks asks the children to give reports. Ruby Hornaday goes sixth. Ruby has flames for hair, Christmas for a birthday, and a drunk for a daddy. She’s one of two girls to make it to fourth grade.
She reads from notes in controlled terror. If you think the lake is big you should see the sea. It’s three quarters of Earth. And that’s just the surface. Someone throws a pencil. The creases on Ruby’s forehead sharpen. Land animals live on ground or in trees rats and worms and gulls and such. But sea animals they live everywhere they live in the waves and they live in mid water and they live in canyons six and a half miles down.
She passes around a red book. Inside are blocks of text and full-color photographic plates that make Tom’s heart boom in his ears. A blizzard of toothy minnows. A kingdom of purple corals. Five orange starfish cemented to a rock.
Ruby says, Detroit used to have palm trees and corals and seashells. Detroit used to be a sea three miles deep.
Ms. Fredericks asks, Ruby, where did you get that book? but by then Tom is hardly breathing. See-through flowers with poison tentacles and fields of clams and pink spheres with a thousand needles on their backs. He tries to ask, Are these real? but quicksilver bubbles rise from his mouth and float up to the ceiling. When he goes over, the desk goes over with him.