Every morning for the past year, John Moore would leave his plain one bedroom apartment with the rotting floorboards and rattling windows and drive across town to pick up his kids. After dropping the kids off at daycare, he would drive himself over the Bright Water Bridge to work. This gave Grace some extra time before she had to be at school herself, where she taught second grade. The split between them was new and he still felt peculiar and small each time he was forced to knock on his own door.
The familiar tidal wave of longing flooded his chest when the door opened that morning. And it splashed around inside his stomach as she closed her robe close to her, putting her palm up to her chest, blocking herself. Her long dark hair was pulled back. Her eyes, big and light blue like a pale, simple sky were clean of makeup. He loved her eyes naked like this, the slightest shine of cold cream around them. He could almost smell her face cream, the slightly medicinal womanly smell of it; clean, subtle. Sometimes in the bathroom he'd pick the jar of cream up off the counter, spin the lid off and breathe it in.
"John. Hello. You're late." She turned around and walked towards the kitchen. He followed behind. She handed him two small brown lunch paper bags, he could feel the weight of two peaches, one in each for their two kids.
The house looked different. Cleaner. None of his old newspapers lying around that she was always complaining about. And over across the room, to the desk by the phone, was a vase, holding flowers. They never had flowers around. A familiar streak of pain tore threw his stomach and he dug in his front pocket for his Tums. He popped two in and crunched them into pink dust.
Grace handed him Sofie, their two year old. She was still sleeping. She let her head fall on her father's shoulder, her thumb in her mouth. He kissed the side of her head. Matthew came in the room wearing his boy scouts uniform, ready to go. He was five. "Hi Daddy."
"Hey champ," John said and rustled his brown blonde hair. Grace helped Matty put his backpack on and John kind of swayed the baby in his arms while she slept. They could be back together. Everything could be fine. He habitually went in to kiss Grace before he left and she pulled away from him.
"What?" But she just stared down at the ground, like she was in church, praying for someone.
As he pulled out of the driveway he looked in his rearview back at the house. She used to stand there, wave to them. But she didn't stand there like that anymore, it was just the kitchen blinds, closed shut, reflecting the thick yellow color of morning. The clock on the dash read 8:47. He still had to drop the kids off and get to work by nine. He knew the traffic on the bridge would be thick by the time he got there so he gave the car gas as he pulled out, spitting a little gravel back at her.
Just a little ways up the road, a cop pulled out in front of him and he had to slam on his brakes to stop from hitting him. The cop continued to drive slowly like an old careful boat.
"Fine!" he said out loud and slammed his hands on the steering wheel. "We'll drive like this the whole F—" but he stopped himself and glanced at the kids in the rear view. Sofie was still asleep, sitting in the car seat with her head fallen to the side, and Matty was drawing invisible pictures with his finger on the car window. John took a deep breath and the cop slowed down even more. He gripped the steering wheel as hard as he could, feeling his own fingernails dig into his palms, and he clenched his teeth together. In one quick movement he pulled out, over a yellow double line, and passed the cop. The cop's blue and red lights began to spiral, signaling John to pull over.
John watched the cop approach in his side mirror. He took his time, like he was strolling through a park. When he got to the car he pulled up on his belt. He had a tool belt of police objects there to weigh him down. A radio, a gun, handcuffs. He had a white, neatly trimmed beard and he was squinting at the whitening sun. Sofie, awake by then, pointed at him through the window and said, "Pop Pop."
"It's not grandpa sweetie," John said as he rummaged inside the glove compartment for the registration through pens, napkins, maps, plastic silverware.
The sun had a certain glare to that day, and as it rose higher in the sky the light began to clearly outline the edges of everything. The road, cars going by, the bare branches of trees, all looked like they were drawn with fine point pens. The sun seemed to toss John a lazy laugh as it tweaked itself up a notch, shining like a spotlight on the cop's sunglasses, the racing clock, the empty seat beside him.
"You in a rush to get somewhere?" Sofie was right, he did look like John's father. Not just the beard, but his look of stunned disapproval. John clenched the urge to miss his father, an act he had perfected over the past year since he died.
When John got the call that his father had died he was outside spreading fresh gravel down on the driveway. He liked arranging the small neat grey rocks. The house was old and in need of a paint job, but they didn't have the money for it that summer. The peeling white paint would have to wait. Gravel though, he could afford. He bought several bags of it and piled them up neatly in the garage. And besides, he thought, having a nice driveway says something about a house.
It was one of the first warm days of spring and he could feel beads of sweat on his back sticking to his shirt. And then Grace called to him from the front door. "John? John someone's on the phone."
"Take a message honey. I'll call them back."
"They're calling about your dad John." He stopped pouring gravel then and dropped the bag down on the grass, where it would sit and leave a stain on the lawn, a yellow spot, like a scar, that would stay there all summer long.
He finally found the registration and then took his license out of his wallet. "I really have to get to work. I have to drop the kids off and I'm late. So here. My license and registration. Just write me a ticket so I can go." John knew he sounded like a child, like an old forgotten piece of defiance was spilling out of him. The cop looked at the kids in the backseat, and then back to John. He handed the license and registration back to him.
"That was a stupid move you made back there chief. Never pass a cop, especially over a double yellow, bad idea. And take it easy driving with those kids there." He chewed lightly on his bottom lip for a second, thinking. Then he nodded his head, deciding something. "You could get yourself killed." He knocked two times quickly on the roof of the car and walked back to his cop car, started up, and pulled away. John lifted his hand to him as he drove past, his hand loose, half waving, half signaling him to stay and explain things to him that only a ghost would know. But the cop drove off, shrinking into a glinting speck up the road.
After he dropped the kids off at daycare it was 9:08. "Shit shit shit!" He had recently been hired as the head of the payroll department of a fast growing advertising agency. He had gotten the position by default. When the prior head of payroll quit suddenly, they needed someone quick and he was second in line. He sensed his boss felt nervous about John taking over, or maybe he sensed that John himself was nervous. The job was difficult for him. He had never been good at math, and many nights he stayed late at his desk, sorting out people's pay stubs and vacation time. This morning, Tuesday, the payroll was due and he still would have to punch numbers for a couple more hours before it was done.
When he reached the bridge he saw the cars lined up tightly like a beaded string of shining metal. Taillights flicked red, some cars honked, and some cars just sat and waited. He let out a long sigh and began to think out loud.
"She wouldn't have bought flowers for herself. Why would she? She never did that. Wait. Did she? No. Someone else gave her those flowers." He scanned his mind for friends of hers that might give her flowers. "Nancy maybe?" Nancy was her teacher friend. The one she would talk to on the phone for hours. Yes! He thought. Must be Nancy. He could just picture her with that short flipped up blonde hair of hers, handing over a handful of flowers. A pick me up. Just a friendly gesture. And just as the thought was about to slip out of his consciousness, his memory zoomed in once more on the vase sitting there and he remembered something that tugged him into a panic. They were roses. Red roses.
He was about a quarter of the way into the bridge then when he heard a boom, a loud pounding sound that throbbed three quick times. The sound seemed to rise up from underneath the bridge and echo against the empty shell of blue sky above. Loose change he had in the console began to rattle and the air freshener that hung from the rearview, a little cardboard slice of watermelon, began to vibrate. Is it the car, he thought. Is the car stalling out? No, no it's the bridge. The bridge trembled faster, rattling the lined up cars like they were kernels of corn in a hot pan. This bridge can't fall. No way. Images of bridges falling flashed through his mind. Weren't they supposed to bend and twist? An earthquake. It must be. Just stay calm. John began breathing heavily through his nose, his nostrils flaring in and out as he looked around at the other cars. The other drivers were doing the same as he was, looking, searching, swelling into panic.
The rain that fell down on the Tri-state area that past summer broke records. Almost every day for the month of July, lightening and thunder came so regularly that when the sun would come out people would look up at it and squint suspiciously, as if it were an old friend coming back into town that had betrayed them. On the clear nights, people stayed outside to gather what they could of summer. They ate meals on porches, couples went for evening strolls, kids tossed balls in fields sparked with lightening bugs. All the while, the cold sound of the river rushed in the distance. Like a hard worker, the river moved water from town to town in a steady, constant passing. People would remember that sound. After the news told them what had happened, they had lain in their beds and thought back to how the river was that summer, and they grew a little hate for the river. That summer while they barbequed, fished, watched the sun scatter itself on the quiet surface, the water was scouring sediment. It was loosening piers.
Just as John was about to get out of his car and run for land, fifty feet in front of him the bridge snapped and fell like a tired head dropping with the weight of itself. His half of the bridge still stood. He saw cars hit the water below. They bounced a little, and then they began to sink, like they were attached to a chain being steadily pulled down. In front of him, where the bridge snapped, there was nothing, just blank air. He looked up. The steel beams of the bridge were shining in the sun, winking. The bridge shook again, and a group of small black birds lifted themselves up into the sky in one swift swoop, like they were carrying souls away inside of them.
As lines of people approached John at his father's wake he shook their hands and wore a dry expression. Grace stood close beside him. Once in while she'd cry a little and dry her tears with a tissue she kept balled in her palm. She had been close with John's dad. He was a strong, kind man and he loved Grace like a daughter.
John could hear Grace crying beside him. He felt her glancing at him, as if she were waiting for him to say or do something. But he didn't want to do anything. He didn't want to put his arm around her. He didn't want to greet his friends and relatives. He felt completely flat inside, and he was angry at her for reminding him that he was, and never would be, a man as good as his own father.
John rested his eyes on a vase holding loud white flowers that looked like trumpets. The flowers stood just to the right of the coffin. Occasionally, his gaze would slip and fall down on his dad. What he saw was a small man that looked nothing like his father. Just a collection of flat grey skin covered with a dusting of makeup.
The last time he saw his father, they were in the front seat of John's car. "Take the money, John. I know you need it. You can pay me back."
"Jesus dad don't you see? I don't want it. OK?"
"The money is just sitting there in the bank rotting away. I want you to have it."
"That's not the point. I can take care of my own family. I can work to support my own family dad."
"You don't have to be prideful with me son. Grace told me all about your money troubles and I want to help out—"
"Goddamn it!" John slammed his hand down on the steering wheel. "You keep bailing me out my whole life, God I blame you! You need to just, you need to just leave us alone for a while. OK?"
John's father didn't say anything more. He just looked at John with his head bent to the side as if he were watching a deer in a field eating grass. After a minute, he got out of the car and walked back up the walkway to his empty house. John watched him walk away as flurries of snow floated like dust against his red winter flannel jacket. His head hung down and he was limping just a little to the left.
In the months following the death of his father, John swallowed his guilt and turned it into hard hateful rocks that he stacked around him. Grace thought he needed time, and she waited and waited for his warmth to come back. One night, almost a year after his father died, they were lying in bed. The light of the moon shone through the room, making different shades of white on everything. She put her hand on his arm and began to stroke it lightly. He turned away from her and curled up to his side of the bed. She began to cry. He stayed quiet for a minute and let the sounds of her crying fill the room like a little spring rain storm.
"Grace, don't cry. Come on." But she cried more. He turned to face her. She was different in the moonlight. Like a blue angel. He put his hand on her shoulder until she stopped crying.
"I want another baby. We always said three. We were going to have three kids, remember?"
"What are you trying to do to me? Huh?"
"But what? Now? Another baby? No way." And then he said it again, firmly, with more weight, "No way. No more kids."
She didn't say anything else, and they fell asleep that night with the salty rawness of fight in the air. The next day they went about their normal everyday business, and he ignored the expression of resolution she wore. He ignored the fast construction she began, her building her own stack of rocks. Two weeks later, she told him to move out.
He looked behind him and saw people running back towards land. Men in suits, mother's carrying children, truck drivers, making large frantic movements like apes. John opened his door and the bridge began a slow decent towards the water, making a sound like an old rusted hinge. He began to run across the falling bridge for land. The water below reflected the sunlight so strongly he could hear it, like a white echo calling to him. He screamed and ran faster, knowing that with that white comes birth and death. When the kids were born, the hospital room had that same white glow shining off the floor and the windows. Shining off his babies. Shining off Grace. And again when his father died, that same brightness hung everywhere, as if he were looking at the world through a sheer white curtain.
He had about fifty feet to go. He saw the bystanders standing on safe ground; the twisted expressions on their faces. Some had their hands covering their mouths, some covered their ears. Some were down by the water in the mud on the bank of the river, women in heels and men in suits looking up and squinting at the light. John was the only one left running on the bridge. He heard the same, awful long cry of the metal break again and suddenly everything went quiet. One last burst ran through him, like something taking flight inside him, like birds, and he reached the end of the bridge.
He stood by an ambulance with a blanket someone had given him draped over his shoulders. The cop with the white beard who had pulled him over earlier that morning approached. He put his hand on John's shoulder and John hung his head down. And they stood together as clouds thickened the sky and shaded the day over.