Justin Brouckaert


I take K's hand in my hand, in the hand that is not steering us. K, I say, this bridge is not the longest bridge we have ever crossed together, but it is the longest bridge we will cross together today. Her hand closes and opens and wraps around mine. Here, at the start of things, this day in shades of blue. You're not scared, I say. My steering hand trembles on the leather. K's eyes are closed. K does not like me driving but I am driving because K fears bridges with the intensity of someone who has leaned too far over their rails in her long life. K smiles. You know I love you, she says. Right? And I wonder what bridge she is at the edge of now. And the grates rattle beneath us and she opens her eyes and looks at me instead of out her window, instead of down through the slats into the big lake that is always losing water but never going dry. Yes, I say. I keep my eyes straight, between the sky and the water, both hands back on the wheel. I know that.


I am driving through my boyhood, through the upper peninsula forest where my father taught me to kill, to be absolutely sure the life you take is all the way taken. The forest where we tracked a blood trail in the snow all morning and all afternoon and deep into the darkness. I didn't want the deer. I told this to my father through tears and he crouched and put his hands on my shoulders and sank me into the snow. You have a responsibility now, he said. His hands dug deep and hard, a mark I would feel later when feeling returned, when we came home and put on different faces for my mother. So many years ago, my father. What's wrong? K asks. I shake my head. Nothing, I say. I wish for water, but I will not ask. My fingers lock. I open and close my hands around the leather. I grew up around here, I say. K nods. She knows what she knows, which is a lot. When there are gaps between what I can tell her and what she needs to understand, she has the grace to be silent. My sweet K, she searches the trees.


We stop for breakfast and lunch and dinner and many times between. We stretch our legs and K feeds me: a small round white pill, chalky with a line carved through its center; a small blue pill, long and smooth; a bigger blue pill, round and waxy, a letter in its center instead of a line. All these pills in their separate bottles. The big blue pill is the hardest to swallow. When it's stuck, I take a long drink of pop, of the diet pop that is not allowed necessarily but is a small luxury. Our secret, K says. In three hours, we will pull into a rest stop and K will break my skin with a needle. My hands will shake so I will set them on my knees. I will think of a small thing in a bigger thing in a bigger thing—a rifle in a garden in the Sleeping Bear Dunes, a rifle in a garden in the Sleeping Bear Dunes—until my hands are steady and K's smile tells me she is finished. And I will smile. When K and I smile at each other, we are like two mountain hikers stopping for a beautiful rest. We do not hug because our hands have their places, or we are breathless and cannot talk, but when we smile at each other it is like we are saying, Look at all we've made of this together. We smile at each other as if to say, We are almost there.


It is late fall and I am dying. And our daughter, she is dying. And our son, he died a long time ago, on leave from the Army when a drunk crossed the centerline and sent three fine young servicemen to heaven. All of us dying or dead in the late fall that gas station clerks warn us will turn to winter faster than we think. We think about it, in the lots with rusting pumps and signs for firewood. I say to K, Nevermind. It is too late to turn around. Our daughter called us in Michigan to say she was dying in Anchorage, Alaska, and I said, We are on our way. I told K and K already knew, K was already telling me. I said, Don't you think we should go, and she said, Yes, we should go. And I said, K, I have always wanted to see some country. That is something I have always wanted to do.


And then it shifts and I can breathe the crisp cold air. I can smell the rows and rows of white pine that turn the highway to a stream, twisting and enclosed. I can feel K glancing over at me with every mile. K is always watching. And at night when she pads along the plaid hotel floors dressing for bed, she removes her thin gold watch and sets it on the bedside table, and I say, Remember when I bought that for you, and she nods and smiles. And my hands are steady. I can open the bottles on my own but still she sits with me as I take the white pill and the blue pill and the blue pill. I abandon the small thing in the bigger thing in the bigger thing. I am free of it. And we touch each other's backs and she puts her head on my shoulder. And she waits for me to speak but I am afraid. And we take deep long breaths and warm each other and in these moments we are fine. In every moment we are fine, but it's only some of the time I know it well enough to love it.


I am in the passenger seat and K is taking us through Native country. K, I say, I grew up here. I know, she says. Those were lean years, I say. My mother sewing clothes and tending her garden. My father with his tool belt and calloused hands. And I wandered, sat cross-legged in the valley and waited to grow tall and strong, to put my hands on my own son's shoulders. And I lay down in the valley and waited for K. My grandmother made me a dreamcatcher I've kept on a nail above my bed for seventy-five years and it's the only thing I've ever known about family beyond my parents. And now we are traveling and the dreams come as they come and there is no dreamcatcher above me. We are in Native country, where my mother once stood tall and tanned and somehow both stern and kind as she was. My mother, husking peas in the garden smelling of late-fall wind. My mother who sat me down in a dry chair with a wool blanket and told me there was no one in the world, not even my father, who could make me take the life of another. A deer with a serviceman's cap, a deer in an ambulance with eyes bloodied or crushed. What is the difference between a deer and my son, a deer and the fine young servicemen handsome in their servicemen's caps? Nothing, there is no difference. In a moment they are all just bodies waiting to be found.


It is time to change countries. I've slept for too long. K drives and doesn't wake me, I wake on my own. She is afraid to wake me because she is afraid of my driving. I say, I can drive these roads. We have come across the country already, and the bison have turned to deer. I say, K, it's like we're in a postcard, and K shakes awake. We sit for a while and stare down a road we could die on. Our son, did he shake awake like that the day he started off to see us, the day he drove north from Detroit? The doctors can't be believed. They drive with us, enough pills to last a week, and then. I hand the young man my passport. He examines my age. Young men see in me their fathers, their grandfathers, their greatest regrets. Well, I've lived in the same little house where my mother lived and died and my father lived and died and K left me once for the ocean—If I don't go now, she said, I never will—but she came back and we found enough happiness between the two of us, enough to be settled. The young man studies my face. K answers questions. If I had followed? If I had seen the ocean, even once? If I had swung my feet with her on the rocks instead of sitting alone with my father, my father who was dying like I am dying now? While K was gone I kept my mother's garden and I kept my father fed and at night I lay down in the valley and waited. My money went away and my father went away and at night I lay down in the valley and waited. And I grew so old, I might have lay there until the soil took me back. K calls me a patient man, patient even while dying. It will come, I don't think of it. I have always said I've wanted to get out and see some country. The young man hands K our passports and we drive.


When there are new lights and new sounds and a fast red van passes us with children's heads out the windows, and the land is so wide and plain and different I can't grasp the horizon, and when it is too warm in the car or too cold and a shiver strikes up my side I think of a watch on a deer in a valley, a watch on a deer in a valley. I cannot tell K, who is sleeping, who has trusted me with her life, K who does not want to die or who at least does not want to die alone. K who is sleeping with her head against the window, K whose head is thumping the glass, K who is living in her dreams a thousand lives, one to the ocean, one to the mountains, another over the bridge. K who left me for three years and when she did the days fell out in front of me like they'd been shot from the sky. A watch in a valley in the greatest great lake. Three fine young servicemen, the newspaper said, fine young men. And now a daughter dying, a daughter taking one white pill and one blue pill and one blue pill. K, I say, you know I love you. Her head thumps softly against the glass. K, I say, I am having a hard time with the lines of these roads.


K tells me not to apologize, but I do. I tell K I'm sorry as she feeds me my pills, my white pill and my blue pill and my blue pill, which she washed in the bathroom of the fast food restaurant when my hand couldn't take all those small things at once, when my hand couldn't be the hand I asked it to be. She took the pill from the floor and walked to the bathroom and rinsed it and when she came back I said Sorry again and sometimes she doesn't tell me not to apologize, she just touches me on my arm or on my cheek and she has stopped telling me things like when I repeat myself because, well, we are getting older and have already said it all. A pill on a postcard on a Jeep. Are you OK, she asks. She feels my forehead and the thin gold watch slides down her arm. Do you remember when I bought that for you, I ask. It cost me two paychecks and a month of bland food. I bought it because I loved her, and because I wanted something to give her when she came back, something to prove I'd never lost faith. I bought it from my friend the jeweler and I tried to engrave it with my father's knife but the first letter came out shaky and crude and so it was only just that: K. I did it because I loved her, her with her hand on my forehead still. A pill on a postcard on a Jeep. What are you always whispering about, she asks. I swallow my blue pill. There is a young boy in a bright pink shirt the next table over and he is laughing. I'm sorry, I say. We are not moving so quickly these days but we are moving quickly to me. I'm sorry, I say. I am gathering myself as best I can.


It is colder now and we are driving more north than west. We have branched in a direction yet again. When K drives, I step over the guardrails and walk through the forest. I am seeing some country. I run through the trees, fast and strong the way I'd always wished I was, dragging through the snow beside my father, dragging a dead deer up a hill. My father's body failed before his death. He said he felt it most in his shoulders. The two of us alone in the forest. The day my son left for the Army, I put my hands on his shoulders. I said, Son, you have a responsibility now. He wanted to leave the country but he never left the country. He was young, he had a face as young and old as it would ever be. I said, You have a responsibility now. He nodded. His face tightened up. It was the last thing I remember, his face tightening up.


Tell me about Alberta, K says. Oh, I say, Albert was my father. Tell me about Alberta, K says. Oh, I say, I grew up there. Native on my mother's side. My mother was tall and whiter than her sisters who all went away but she stayed and grew her garden and made jam and bread and came in through the door carrying bundled vegetables in her arms like a baby. You remember her, K says. In Alberta. I remember her in winter, I say, when the snowbanks were taller than our house and my mother shoveled snow while my father was gone and I sledded down the hill into the valley. Where was your father, K asks. Oh, he was hunting, I say. Those were lean years. I was young so I just sledded down the hill into the valley. Me and my mother, who missed her garden in the winter. That season her potatoes came up shaped like hearts and my father said it must have been because she loved him so much. He and I tracked a deer together once, but when the potatoes came, I was still too young, and after. He carved me a toy rifle out of oak and I used it to steer my sled. My father, he called the potatoes his gift, but it was my mother who planted them, my mother who picked them. Do you remember what I gave you, K? Do you remember the day you came back, when you came to the door in the snow dressed for winter on the ocean? And I left you but I came back with the oak box from my dresser? And there it is, glinting in the sun as K leans into a curve, the thin gold watch slipping down her wrist. The road straightens out and some snowflakes fall. I grew up around here, I say. I smile and look at K and K is crying.


I have pain in my arm, but it isn't great pain. I have pain in my shoulders, but it isn't great pain. I have pain in my neck, but it isn't great pain. I have pain in my chest, but it isn't great pain. I have a pain inside that travels between the front and the back of me, a pain that makes me clutch and bruise my body. It isn't great pain, but sometimes. I wake in the middle of the night in a motel bed with K in Alberta and I can see everything as it is. The room is dark but I see the outline of a TV and know it is a TV and I see the outline of a chair and I know it is a chair and I see the outline of K and I know. And I know my son is dead and my daughter, my daughter the glassblower who sent beautiful vases every Christmas after she moved away, my daughter has been dead for years and we never went to see her, not even when she asked us to come. I know that I am dying and K is driving with me because she is afraid of being alone. If I close my eyes I could know everything. I could hold on tight until morning and maybe I could, even after the white pill and the blue pill and the blue pill. I turn to wake K. I put my arm around her shoulder and she latches to my body. K, I say, I'm here. She sighs and puts her leg over my leg and her arm under my arm and we hold each other. Hi, she says. She puts her head on my chest and I remember the great pain, I feel it now. I feel it as bad as it's ever been.


We are driving to Anchorage. We are crossing British Columbia into the Yukon. All this is connected. I ask K, Where are we. Where are we going. It is all white, the entire road is snow and K just laughs and says, It's incredible. She grips the steering wheel until her knuckles go white as the snow, the snow all around us, the mountains all around us rising from the ground. I blink and the mountains grow. K, I say, it's like we're in a postcard. And she laughs and I laugh. We've done a lot together, she says. Yes, I say. And suddenly I am tired. Can you tell me, I say. And the snow slows and parts for K and I am here, just barely here, but I do not tell her. We fell in love, she says. You waited for me. And we had a beautiful son and a beautiful daughter. We kept a garden, she says, and loved each other. And it's the only life I ever wanted. And when you are gone, she says, I miss you. And when you are here, she says. I am happy you are here. She is so strong when she says this. Her chin is set and she is looking forward, she is guiding us so well. I want to say to her, to say—it slips from me in the snow. In the white snow. I try but the mountains are moving so fast, the mountains and the stars, I can't. And now we are seeing some country, I say. Her chin is set, and she is strong. And now we are seeing some country, K says. And the snow picks up and lets up and picks back up again and I think of a vase on a piano on a great white frozen lake, and then, and then.


Our son has my eyes and my nose. Our daughter has K's eyes and K's nose. Our son has hair that is like mine and like K's. Our daughter has hair that is like mine and like K's. Our son is tall and thin like I am tall and thinner now and our daughter is tall and strong like K is tall and stronger now. My son who drifted over the centerline and killed himself and two fine young servicemen. My daughter who talks to K like they are just two birds on a wire and who knows things like K knows things. My son who I took to the woods and who shot his first deer. I didn't say a word, it came natural to him. We tracked the deer through the snowy woods, my son who I was so proud of, so proud when he wouldn't give in. Just last week in our home I put my hand on his shoulder. He in his serviceman's cap. I said, You have a responsibility now. And his face tightened up. He put his hand on my shoulder. I put my hand on his shoulder. He put his hand on my shoulder. K walked into the room and asked what I was doing. Please, I said. My face tightened up. I am trying to have a moment with my son.


The snow has slowed and I am staying between the lines. K is sleeping, though she rarely sleeps. She lies awake on stiff hotel beds and stares at the ceiling and sometimes I wake and know she has been watching me. And she is awake before I am awake, and there is the white pill and the blue pill and the blue pill. K who takes care of me. K who revived my mother's garden. K who made plain hamburger and rice for our sick German shepherd and kissed him and cupped his tiny head in her hands and whispered, Don't die, little puppy, don't die, on the back porch my father built to look out over the valley. A valley is a good place to die. A valley is a good place for a body to be found. That line is a companion to that line, thin like the thin gold watch. I spent two paychecks and ate bland food for a month—that part is a joke I tell K when I want her to feel badly about how much I love her. K who left and until she came back all I had of her was a thin gold watch I kept locked away in my father's oak box until she returned. It was hers and only hers. A patient man, she called me. Her patient man. A valley is a fine place to die. This line is a companion to that line. Who is to say. K who is sleeping, who rarely sleeps, who won't walk with me in the valley because she knows it's where I'd like to die. A truck appears and blinds me. And it drifts across the centerline. I pull hard on the wheel, as hard as I can, it isn't very hard. The tires are skidding or they are broken, and the brakes pump empty air. We skid outside the companion line. We spin and I turn the wheel, we spin and I turn the wheel, and we plunge into the snow which is like stopping. And it is quiet and it is cold and I am again alone in the valley, it is a little bit like a valley at least.


I wake in all white, in the snow. It is not a valley but a ditch, a shoulder, a kind of valley, but I am awake and alive. K is kneeling over me and she is panicked. She is saying my name over and over and there are lights flashing and our car is smoking but whole and when K leans back I wriggle my head onto her lap and breathe the crisp cold air. K, I say, look at the stars. And she is choking, she is saying my name. I'm here, I say. I'm here. And I lie with my head on K's lap and our bodies in the snow. A young man kneels before us and K says, No. Not now, she says. And the man says, Ma'am. I watch my breath cloud and disappear and there is no pain, no more pain at least. I can feel my face tightening up. Please, K says, I am trying to have a moment with my husband.


I apologize for what is my fault. I'm sorry, I say. Are you hurt, I say. Are you hurt, K says. No, we say together and we laugh, we can still laugh. K asks me if I can sit up and I say Yes, but I like it here, her lap and the stars. I'm so scared, K says, and as she talks I look up at the mountains, so tall and strong. When people stare up at these mountains they are either almost gone or almost home. I think, We will never be so close to Anchorage without being in Anchorage. I think, We will never be in Anchorage. I think of the border guard, of every young man we meet who is still older than our son. I think of my daughter who knew fire and snow. My jaw clicks, and my joints ache from the cold. I was someone who used to dream of climbing mountains, who only ever tracked deer through the forest and lay down in the valley instead. I was someone who walked and walked and didn't have to stop to rub his knees. In the moments I am most with my mind, it is my body that I miss. I reach out to touch K and I miss and I reach again and I miss and finally she takes my hand, she takes my cold hand in her warmer hand. I am here and we are here and the mountains are here, I will never forget them. K, I say, I am glad we got to see some country. Me too, she says. The young man covers my body with a blanket. I'm sorry, I tell him. And he looks away.


I am here, I am here.

A family in the snow in the mountains.

I am here, I am here, I am here.


Can I ask you something, K says. There is no blanket on her. She is wearing her coat, a blue-zipped coat with a cloud around her collar and around her wrists. I am lying in a valley and I cannot see her wrists. K, I say, where is your watch. And she looks back at me with a different face. Do you remember, I say. Do you remember when I bought you that watch. She sighs. Yes, she says, I remember. When you left, I say, I kept the watch on my dresser. And my father saw. He was sick but he saw and he knew. And he made me fetch him a slab of oak and a small handsaw and he drew up his strength and carved me a small oak box. There, he said. And I put the watch in the box in my dresser and I waited. And K looks back me with a different face. It is the face of our daughter. And I wonder what bridge she is at the edge of now. The young man kneels before us again. K, I say, what did you want to ask me. Nothing, K says. OK, the young man says. He is wearing a coat so thick I think for a moment he is two men, or three. It is time to go.


I'm sorry, K says, that we didn't get to see our daughter. And the young man is driving. It is late but it is still bright. I am on a clean white bed and K is holding my hand. Can I ask you something, I say. Yes, she says. You aren't sorry you came back, I say. K smiles. She is not sorry, not for a second. She is quiet, and her hand is warm. I am here, her smile is saying. I am here, I am here, I am here. There are no windows anymore, but I know we are being taken from the mountains to the forest, deep and thick and green. K, I say, I grew up around here. We smile at each other. We are taking our beautiful rest. Tell me, she says.