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    Excerpt from Master Storyteller Valerie Miner’s New Collection Bread and Salt

    (Valerie Miner, a professor at Stanford University and an Artist-in-Residence at the university’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, is the award-winning author of fifteen books and has just published Bread and Salt, her fourth collection of stories. In it she deftly moves readers across the seas with lush prose and razor-sharp insight. The collection’s stories celebrate the musical complexity of language while addressing real world themes of immigration, suicide, gun violence, and state terrorism. 

    Two of her previous collections were Lambda Finalists, and we hope that Lambda honors her in the coming year. Her prior novels include Blood Sisters, After Eden, and All Good Women.

    We first met Miner at Betty’s List book events, and our admiration for her work has grown over the years. She now visits book clubs gratis on Zoom in support of indie bookstores—something else we admire. Miner, who lives in San Francisco and Mendocino with her partner, generously shared the following excerpt from Bread and Salt (2020, Whitepoint Press). It is a welcome slice of travel life during these more isolating pandemic months.)

    As the plane finally settles at the gate, you pull on your simple black coat with its zip in/zip out lining. Zipped back in now that you’re returning to the tundra. You edge toward the exit, bracing for that blast of winter air between plane and gangway. Three tortuous hours squeezed between a bickering couple, while the child behind kicks your seat to the rhythm of “The Lion King,” seeping from his earbuds. You offer to let the couple sit together. “No way!” they answer in unison. You address the child and then his father about the foot percussion. Each stares back silently as if you are hallucinating. The flight attendant swears he has no empty seats. Finally, you’re leaving them all behind. 

    Relief is short-lived. Inside the clangorous terminal, you remember your four-hour layover. If all goes well, you’ll get to frigid Minneapolis at midnight. Then snatch five or six hours sleep before appearing at the office.

    OK, you’re a seasoned veteran of Greyhound Airlines; you can handle this. Keep busy. There’s plenty of unfinished work. So you laboriously roll your heavy bag, fiddling with the brief shoulder strap to forestall another rhomboid injury. Then, voila! An abandoned luggage cart. You unload and glide along, searching for a restaurant where you can read your charts on the laptop.


    Just last night, in Orange Blossom Land: this reunion with your oldest friend in her favorite South Beach Café is the reward for that boring conference. A sweet, swanky night. 

    After her second glass of wine, Janice leans over, smiling mischievously. “Tamar love, where did you find that dreary coat?”

    “It’s a classic black coat. Versatile, mid-calf, slimming,” you say, taking in Janice’s mauve mohair jacket over her emerald green shift. Muy tropical. All the Midwest is purged from your girlfriend, or at least camouflaged.

    “Tamar, really, you look like a nun.”

    “Come on,” you argue.  “It’s practical, chic like a basic black dress. See how the red scarf brightens it up?”

    “OK, a post-Vatican Two nun,” she laughs.

    “Honestly Tam, it reminds me of the coats our moms wore to synagogue for Aunt Dina’s funeral. Next time I’m in the Cities, we’re going shopping and I’ll introduce you to the twenty-first century.”

    “I’d like that.” You grin. Sometimes you envy her Florida adventure. But your parents are frail and you can’t leave St. Paul.  Janice, whose parents are cruising the Mediterranean, calls your filial attentiveness saintly, but as the only child, it’s just your job.


    The new terminal, they say, will be state of the art. Right now, it’s a chaotic construction site with culinary choices ranging from dismal to forget it. You opt for sushi. Sushi at a Midwest airport: maybe not the brightest idea. Well, you feel like a light meal and a large Sapporo and they allow you to wheel in the luggage cart.

    Focus, Tamar. Opening your laptop, you ignore tomorrow’s charts and feel called to scrub your inbox. A perfect task for the interstices of life. You do a search for Jonathan and resolve to delete all his messages as he deleted you from his life last month.  Pathetic to hang on to these emails. With a sense of triumph, you press “delete” and watch them disappear. You boldly click again, emptying the trash. Would that it were so easy to erase loss or longing.

    Now onto work—answering client questions, negotiating with the engineer on your new office design. Too soon the sushi and, more disappointingly, the Sapporo, are finished. There’s a lot more email, but weary travelers hover nearby, hungrily eyeing your table. You pack up, bus your plate and start strolling. Still 4,000 more steps to walk today.

    Bargain ticket. Why did George get you the cheapest seat on earth? A lousy middle spot all the way from Miami. You’ve only been pleasant to George, offering lifts when his jalopy breaks down, soliciting his thoughts on designs. Your partners would never consult the office manager, but George has fresh, candid ideas. Maybe you’re too considerate and he takes you for granted? He manages great bookings for Dan and Angus and Lloyd. Half the time they’re bumped up to first class and get passes to those sleek airline lounges. Meanwhile, your flights are always botched—crummy seats and long layovers. It’s not some sort of sexist thing on George’s part? Of course it is.

    Just buck up. At least you have a job. And a free luggage trolley. Exercise will clear your head. You push the cart from one terminal to the next, past shops selling accessories, briefcases, cell phones, expensive men’s clothing. Walking briskly, it feels good to stretch your legs after three days of panels and papers and board meetings. The airport is packed with stranded winter holiday families: tired children and even more exhausted adults. So many passengers are dressed in pastels, perhaps an ancient pagan reflex to appease the gods of winter darkness. Still you can’t imagine wearing pastel to an airport.

    “Excuse me, Miss.” An old man steps close, grabbing your arm anxiously.

    You’re startled, a little annoyed, then you sense his panic. “Are you OK?”

    “You work for the airlines, right?” He’s breathless, flushed. “Or the airport?”

    “No,” you’re sorry to disappoint him, “I’m just a passenger.”

    “Oh, I thought with the black uniform and all.”

    You will never tell Janice this story.

    “Sorry.” He’s trembling now. “Sorry to bother …” He turns away.

    “Hold on.” You reach for his boney shoulder. “Is something wrong?”

    “Well,” he draws nearer, whispering hoarsely, “I lost my wife.”

    You take his hand.

    “Misplaced!” he adds quickly. “She’s not dead or anything.” His voice winds higher and fainter. “I told her to let the children visit us for Christmas.”

    “I bet she’s fine. Let’s look for Travelers’ Aid.” You walk him over to the airport map.

    “See that desk there?” You guide him closer. “They’ll help you. They can call her name over the loudspeaker. I’m sure you’ll find her soon.”

    Drained but resolute, the old man pivots toward the desk. He walks away without saying good-bye.

    You stride for another thirty minutes, 3,000 steps, and decide to look for a seat where you can review Monday’s meeting agenda.  Bingo! An empty gate. Your concentration lasts exactly forty minutes.

    One-hundred-ten minutes to take-off. Yawning and stretching your arms wide, you remember those isometric exercises, but are too shy to do them in public. Instead you consider another Sapporo.

    Nope, resume walking. Why did you leave your ear buds at home? A little music would muffle all this clanking, buzzing, sneezing, coughing and clattering. The overhead TVs blare alarm about a snow storm in New England. A man in a shiny green gabardine suit leans against a pillar shouting into his cell phone. You imagine he’s a giant frog and wonder if you’re losing your mind. At the next gate, a baby wails as a pasty-faced woman listlessly rocks her stroller back and forth, back and forth. People more sensible than you—Black, Asian, Latino, White, young, old, the whole world—are sequestered behind headphones or engrossed by paperbacks, deep in survival mode.

    Abruptly, a boarding pass is thrust in your face, grazing your cheek.

    You halt, feel temper rise at the intrusion. Then you look at the woman, perhaps twenty-five, perhaps North African or Middle Eastern, wearing a black hijab, long navy dress and holding a hefty toddler. You recall Janice’s crack about the nun. A hand of Fatima dangles from a gold chain around the woman’s neck.

    Poor thing is terrified, worn out, lugging her son and a battered houndstooth satchel, the kind you only find at yard sales any more.

    “Flight,” she demands. “Where?”

    Immediately you understand you may be her last resort. When you read the ticket and discover the flight leaves in twenty minutes, you’re sure of it. “OK, let me check the terminal.”

    “Must hurry,” she stresses, frowning and on the verge of tears. “Late. Very late.”

    “Yes,” you nod. “But you’ll be fine.” You say this with your eyes as well because you’re not sure of her English.

    Doubtful, exhausted, she shifts the boy higher with her right arm and he squeezes her thin shoulders. The knuckles on her left hand are white from gripping the valise.

    “Here,” you adjust your luggage and hold out your hand. “We can put your bag in front of mine.”

    She regards you suspiciously.  But you are, after all, some kind of airline agent, so she accepts the offer, relief flooding her face.

    “Your son.” You point to the upper rack, then touch his foot lightly. “He can sit here.”

    Her eyes widen. Shaking her head vehemently, clasping her son with the one arm, she reaches for the valise with the other.

    “OK, OK,” you say softly, holding up your palms. “Just the bag.”

    She nods, as if she’s given you something.

    “Gate B-23,” you whistle, “that’s pretty far.”

    She stares at you almost angrily, anxiously.

    “Cleveland.” More upbeat now, you speak slower. “Going to Cleveland.”

    “Cleveland, Ohio,” she answers solemnly.

    “OK, Cleveland!” You point to the Terminal B sign. “Cleveland here we come.”

    Every gate is crowded. The damn airport grows ever more hectic. Hundreds of vacation refugees have been dumped between delayed flights. In a corner, a group of ten or twelve South Asian women lie on the floor, sound asleep. All around them, other passengers talk and eat and laugh.

    “Coming through,” you call. Then louder. “Boarding flight.” Where did you get this language? This authority?

    The human sea parts for you, the young mother and her squirming son.

    Several people approach with questions, but you wave them away politely. “Emergency Boarding flight.” A loud, controlled, professional tone.

    Two wheelchair caddies eye you skeptically, then shrug to each other.

    You don’t care. “Coming through!”

    The Food Court presents special obstacles as dazed passengers stand, immobilized by bright lights at Cinnabons, TCBY Yogurt and Starbucks. The air is ripe with salt, sugar, liquor and cooking oil. Good thing you didn’t have that second Sapporo; you’re high enough.

    “Coming through.” You suddenly slow down for the woman to catch up.

    She puts one hand on the cart, as if she’s still worried you’ll make off with her houndstooth bag. The boy is sniffling now, on the verge of meltdown, you can tell.

    Threading past McDonalds and Chilis and Curry Express, you spot B Terminal and show your companion.

    She nods, blinks.

    A man waves eagerly.

    Really, you can only handle one passenger at a time.

    The old guy, clasping his wife’s hand, raises it in salute.

    “Merry Christmas!” he shouts.

    “Happy New Year!”  you cry back, glad for their reunion.

    “Coming through,” you call again.

    You haven’t had this much fun in ages.

    B23 is one of those tricky gates, around the corner from the desk. But you spot stragglers boarding.

    “Final count for Flight 78 to Cleveland,” a broken voice crackles over the loudspeaker. You can barely make out the words. How would this young woman understand?

    You roll the cart up to the queue. “Cleveland!” You smile at her.

    “Cleveland,” the young woman sighs.

    You hand her the bag.  “Have a safe …”

    Before you finish, she’s checking in, then rushing down the gangway, balancing bag and baby. No wave. No thank you.

    Why should there be? It’s all in a night’s work.

    Sixty more minutes until the Minneapolis flight.

    You brush off your coat, turn the cart around and wait.

    “Coming Through,” from “Bread and Salt” by Valerie Miner, published by Whitepoint Press, 2020.

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    Published on October 8, 2020