Chris loosens his grip after knuckling the steering wheel for hours, hits the brake, and brings the truck to a stop behind a line of vehicles. His old Ford 150 burns rich and the smell of fuel too strong to let the pickup idle. So he kills the engine. Plus there’s no use wasting gas anyway, he thinks. And besides, this could be awhile.
There’s a woman holding a staff taller than she is, a red octagon fixed atop. She’s cloaked in fluorescent, coat and hat, and standing on the double yellow centerlines of the highway. Chris watches her move toward him, then beyond, bringing even more traffic to a halt.
Julie rolls down her window, letting out four hours of A/C, and now the warmer air flooding in. Chris takes a shallow breath, unbuckles his seatbelt, and reaches for his coffee. Kicks back his head but there’s not a drop in the thermos. He shifts in the seat. He’s uneasy, which is understandable, given that it’s not every day he and his wife are trapped so close together for so long. Working nights as a nurse, he’s already asleep by the time she gets home from the hospital.
The highway’s lined with paper birch, white and black spruce, and growing just off the shoulder fireweed. By the end of summer it will transform into vibrant pink and fuchsia that stretches along the 323-mile bisection of Alaskan wilderness between Anchorage and Fairbanks, the boreal forest a wall growing and boxing the highway. Rock and ice are visible dozens of miles away, and framing the roof of North America. Reminders of the inevitable rawness that will descend and overtake the land. Peaks and ridges laden with rime and plagued by avalanche. Then darkness and the land locked tight and cloaked in white.
The woman holding the sign, probably also in her early twenties, walking back past Chris’s truck says to no one in particular, “Thirty minute wait, seventeen mile delay.” Her face, though tanned, appears dull against an outfit of Day-Glow orange and yellow. Her dirty blonde hair hangs tangled from under her hard hat. And yet, standing on the side of the highway hasn’t, Chris thinks, diminished a particular kind of beauty.
“Darn—we must’ve just missed it,” Julie says. They’re fifth in line.
They wait for the pilot car—a mud-crusted white pickup that travels back and forth, all day, back and forth. The girl stands silhouetted against the wilderness, head bobbing to the music in her ear buds. Chris imagines her, over and over, flipping the sign. It seems so easy. He wonders if her boyfriend is one of the guys driving the grader or maybe the dump truck. In his rearview he watches cars continue to line up and people climbing out.
“Well, there are worse places to sit and wait,” Julie says, and pushes back and plants her bare feet on the dash. She drapes both arms out the window, fingering the air like the chords of an imaginary piano.
“Do you think we should sell the house?” she asks, and swivels toward him.
“Sell? We’ve got renters moving in soon, right?” He watches the side mirror, trying to stay aware of everything going on around them.
“Well there should be more renters,” she says.
“I thought you told me an Air Force guy and his wife signed a lease. The ones with the dinky, jacked-up Jeep.”
“Did they?” Julie says, and flexes her toes. Several woven anklets dangle, sliding to the slightly more muscular portion of her calf as she slouches lower. “Yeah, I guess they did,” she says.
Chris watches her, thinks about the house—more of a condo actually—a modest two story with an adjoined garage. It was supposed to have been an investment, not something they’d stress over. After returning from Iraq he’d opted to invest the combat pay, unlike other guys in the platoon. Like his buddy, Carter, who bought two snow machines. And Randolph, who blew more on upgrades for his club cab Lariat than he had on the truck itself. Granted, Julie and he were young to be buying a house. Though Chris deployed before he was even old enough to legally buy beer. But now, despite the property, he hadn’t felt young in a long while.
“Well, how can we sell the house with renters and a lease?”
“I was just wondering what you thought,” Julie says. She sits up and slips her toes back into her shoes.
“I told you what I thought. Remember? We can’t just sell a house all of a sudden.”
“I know. I just wanted to talk about it again.”
“It’s being rented. I don’t get why you want to discuss things when there’s nothing to discuss.”
Julie turns to stare out the window, her right arm hanging loose down the body of the truck, her left flat on her thigh.
They’re stopped behind an old Subaru Outback Chris thinks used to be burgundy. A make and model here as common as moose nuggets. Round stickers adorn the rear window and bumper, one opposing the Pebble Mine plastered beside a faded Clinton-Gore ‘96. A girl maybe eighteen or nineteen climbs out from the passenger side, cut-off jeans, a red flannel unbuttoned enough to reveal a tank top and cleavage. Her auburn hair pulled back loosely. She gazes around through black-rimmed sunglasses, though Chris is sure she can’t see him.
She takes a few steps, bends and touches her toes, then rises and kicks her sandals toward the Subaru’s right front tire. Her legs are muscular, feet parallel, arms dangling at her sides—mountain pose.
Julie claims yoga helps people relax. She even bought Chris a pass to the local gym last Christmas. But the only other dudes there had shaved legs and gelled hair, and that sure as hell didn’t help him relax. He gave it up, a waste of both time and effort.
The Subaru girl lifts both arms above her head, palms touching. Thrusts her left leg forward, rotates her hips to the right, slowly lowers and points both arms strait out to her side and stares off into the forest—warrior pose.
The Subaru driver steps out and slams the door. Older than her. Chubby, a beard and curly hair that dangles over his ears. He rescues a pack of cigarettes from the chest pocket of his white T. Flicks a Bic several times while the cigarette dangles from his lips. Walks around the car then leans against the hood, and, judging by the way they respond to each other, Chris calculates he’s her boyfriend. Or wants to be.
The girl bends again—downward dog. Chris pretends to, but can’t look past her. He cracks his neck, hoping Julie is too preoccupied to notice his attentiveness. Yoga girl relaxes, then shoves both hands in her pockets. She walks up to the bearded man, grins, leans in as if to kiss but doesn’t. They whisper something Chris wishes he could hear.
She has a lighter of her own and offers him a flame. The cigarette lives and breathes. She yawns. The guy must be a boyfriend. He hands her the smoking stick and she takes a deep drag, then releases a cloud into the air, and they share the cigarette back and forth.
Chris taps his knuckles on the truck’s dash and wishes the pilot car would hurry up.
“Do you want a snack?” Julie asks.
“No, thanks.” he says.
“Interviews this week?”
“Not a one.”
“Any chance the Veteran’s center might call?”
“Like I’ve got a clue who’s going to call?”
“Well, I was just wondering, that’s all. How long before they’re apt find you something?”
He cracks his knuckles using his thumbs, then shakes his head when she asks what’s wrong, he says “Nothing.” Meaning, everything.
Since getting out he’s worked as a cook, a snowplow driver, a teacher’s aide and a custodian, and he has so little energy for any of it anymore.
Julie leans over, pauses. He knows she’s waiting for him to respond, to turn towards her, to kiss. But is that what he wants, now or later? He’s not sure. He’d like to be home, to kick back on his sofa, remote in one hand, a cold beer in the other. Get lost in something, if only a daydream. She lifts his hand off his thigh and plants a kiss on his fist. He wishes he could tell her, “Everything’s going to be okay.”
But he’s afraid she assumes everything now is because of the war. He envies those older guys at the VFW, the Vietnam vets who seem to have moved beyond this hopelessness.
Chris sees the male passengers of a van several cars back spill out the doors and dart into the undergrowth, which isn’t thick enough to hide them, only a dozen paces from the highway. They stand with their backs to the line of vehicles, feet shoulder-width apart, the closest thing there is to a rest stop.
“This is taking forever,” Julie says.
“17 miles worth.”
“Well, they should have multiple pilot cars. Some I-Spy?”
“Uh-uh. No,” he says.
“Oh, come on, it’ll be fun.”
I-Spy what? Chris thinks. Trees. Rocks. A roadside bomb. Julie loves playing games, which Chris doesn’t.
“You should stretch your legs,” he suggests. “We’re still hours from home.”
Just up the road, Yoga girl models a tree pose for her boyfriend while he props against his car’s hood. She stands on her right leg and drags her left foot up the inside of her right calf, past her knee, then bows outward and holds perfectly still. At least until she pulls the smoldering cigarette back to her lips.
Chris craves a cigarette; he’s agitated by this meaningless conversation and cranks the radio knob but the power is off and the cab silent.
“Some party, wasn’t it?” Chris says.
They’d been visiting friends of hers from nursing school, Cliff and Sarah. A combination thirtieth birthday and baby-shower. Chris never really thought much of Cliff, one of those men who gives up the booze as well, even though he’s not the one having the baby.
And suddenly they’re in that conversation, and Julie says, “I thought it was a nice gesture.”
“Well, I thought those shower parties were supposed to be for women only,” Chris says.
“No, they can be co-ed. Besides, they wanted to announce the baby’s gender to all their friends.”
And that had been the icing on a dismal day. They’d each been served a frosted cake pop with sky-blue insides. Most of the guys had slapped the soon-to-be dad on the back, congratulating him. Chris merely nodded and shook Cliff’s hand.
It’s clear Chris hadn’t had any fun, but Julie thanks him anyway for going, and it’s back again to that same question about whether Cliff had any ideas about good college programs?
She’s been hinting for months that maybe Chris could go to college—use his G.I. Bill. He’d earned the benefit— a good opportunity, free education—she’d reminded him for only about the twentieth time.
“We didn’t talk about it,” Chris says. “ And anyway, that’s no guarantee I’d get a job. So what . . . I’m supposed to spend three years sitting on my ass in a classroom for no payoff?”
“You’ve got so much to offer, Chris. Whatever you decide to do. And remember, we can have a family no matter. Somehow we’ll make ends meet.”
Kids had been coming up lately. Starting a family soon, was how she always put it and the one that kept bringing it up. He wondered if that’s where this conversation was headed.
“I was reading something,” Julie says. “And it got me thinking. It was about mental wounds, about internalizing trauma.”
“You mean PTSD?”
“Yes. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” she says. She speaks the words as if neither of them knows it’s called that. “Vets sharing their experiences. Coping with what they saw.”
“I don’t have PTSD,” he says.
Chris glares at the Subaru couple, their mouths agape as if sharing an inside joke. She sashays and teases with her shoulders; he barely grins, holding the smoking cigarette off to the side.
“Chris, didn’t lots of guys in your platoon get PTSD?”
Get. Get, he thought. She says it like it was a gift, something you’d wish for or pick out from a store.
“The article said it’s never too late to get help. There’ve been all sorts of advances in therapy. Research on the brain. Even video games you can play with a doctor that help heal you.”
He laughs at the simplicity. How she thinks she understands what he needs; how anyone thinks they can understand and make the fear and the crazy go away.
“Video games. Like I am some kind of pimply kid . . . No way I’m going to play a fucking video game.”
She’s never been this blunt before, and truth told, he prefers when the war is the ghost in the room. Like a grenade with the safety pin precariously inserted above the spoon. That’s how he keeps her safe from the war. And he’s heard it all before, every vet has, that phrase “You can tell me anything,” but he prefers to share nothing, avoid going off. Prefers keeping the threat deep inside, but also knows his safety pin is wearing thin.
He imagines slamming the car door and walking the twenty or so paces to where the girl with the auburn hair feels free enough to smoke and do yoga along this Alaskan highway while his problems ride in this old Ford truck. Maybe he should leave Julie sitting here and share a cigarette with yoga girl. He imagines there being no fat boyfriend, though maybe what he really wants is just to wish all this crap away.
“So, I was wounded there.” He doesn’t care now where this is going, “Everyone in the platoon was wounded. We’re all a bunch of wounded warriors.”
Julie hunches forward. Chris wants her to respond. Wants her to give him something to fight back against. She offers silence, eyes glazing, on the verge of release.
A part of him feels shamed, the part that used to share candy with Iraqi kids, and didn’t kill dogs just for fun, when everyone else did. But why, he thinks, can’t she do this without crying? Why is it she’s so easy to hurt, so god-damned tender? Unlike the men who fought unflustered, soaked in blood after the death of a comrade. There hasn’t been time to cry.
“We volunteered. All of us did, knowing getting fucked up and seeing fucked up shit wasn’t just possible, it was likely. And I don’t give a shit what the goddamn shrinks say. It’s not a goddamn disorder. It’s just the way it is now.”
She releases a deep breath; her hands are folded on her lap as if in prayer.
Chris uses thumbs again, mangles his knuckles but this time they don’t crack. “I don’t need a label to tell me what I already know. I fucking volunteered, I fucking walked away from disability and their life-long checks. I got paid once for the job I signed on for.”
He’d heard guys brag about what percent disability they got, some of them were the same guys he’d been blown-up and shot-at with. Hey, a bad back or bum shoulder from carrying body armor was worth twenty percent. Still others, like the pogues who sat back on the FOB the whole time, the ones who acted like combat was rushing to be first in line for steak and lobster at Sunday chow, had discovered that gore equaled money. Dirtbags who tried to put themselves as close to rocket strikes and mortar barrages as possible, then swore they couldn’t sleep afterwards, though dreamed of getting thirty five percent disability checks for the rest of their sorry lives.
“Chris, this isn’t about money.”
“Oh yeah? Tell you what . . . ” but instead he lets it go, says nothing else. Looks at the trees. The conifers always saw so much ice and snow, wind and rain. Weather every damn thing, Chris thinks. The arctic lived the seasons. And like the caribou, herds that migrated back and forth. No care for the wolf or maggot, mosquito or bear. Doing it all with resiliency and poise.
“Well, if you won’t get help for that, will you at least see a marriage counselor with me?”
“I don’t need to see anyone.”
“You might not, but we do.”
“How about you go work out your problems first, tell me how that goes,” Chris says.
The Subaru duo move to the front of their car and torch another cigarette. She wraps her arms around his waist, his back facing Chris. She watches over her boyfriend’s shoulder.
“Maybe when we get back we should see a lawyer,” Chris says, deciding to push the fight, to attack.
“Do you really believe it’ll be any different, any better, with another wife?”
“What makes you think I want another wife? Maybe I’d just go it alone for a while.”
“Chris . . . “
“Look,” he says. “The VA? I won’t be some drugged-up zombie.”
The tears in her eyes make it seem to Chris she is finally ready to listen.
“Those guys, the ones that didn’t come back—well,” but he has no idea where the dead go or went, Arab or American. And he’s beginning to question what they all died for.
He fiddles with the radio knobs again. Fiddles with the Airborne badge dangling from his keychain, and with the black metallic bracelet on his wrist memorializing the guys from his platoon who never came home.
“You know you can tell me anything,” Julie says yet again and still not getting how he can’t subject her to his stories. Can’t tell her his time at war wasn’t something recalled in a moment. But she persists. “Even the stories you tell your friends. And I think every day, Chris. I mostly think about us.”
“The guys in my platoon, we never promised each other anything other than to be there when the shit got bad because you couldn’t keep all the other promises. We all knew that we were there for each other, no matter what.”
“It wasn’t much better back here either, Chris,” Julie says. “You know you didn’t make me any promises either, before you deployed. The only promise we ever made to each other was we’d do this together.”
But Chris thinks maybe the promise he broke was to himself. A promise that he’d hang tough, soldier through everything. Always be loyal. Though he never could have known he’d lose his way after the war, never could have known how meaningless everything else would seem in contrast.
“I don’t want to tell you about Iraq. It’s not the stuff you see on the news . . . legs blown off and chest wounds that bleed out.” He thinks of the fear that drives everything, the fear that kept him alive. The controlled rage he felt when shooting blind into buildings because an enemy might be hiding behind the mud walls and the ironic pleasure when an IED detonates prematurely on the terrorist planting it.
He glances in the rearview, sees passengers getting back in their cars. The Subaru boyfriend finishes the rest of the cigarette then flicks the smoldering butt just off the highway’s shoulder. The girl slides her toes into her sandals, quickly glancing northbound then southbound and smiles.
Up ahead, the worker in the blazing fluorescent watches the arriving pilot car over her shoulder, facing the line of vehicles, waiting to flip her staff, the octagon, from STOP to SLOW.
Chris turns the key in the ignition. “Our turn to go now,” he says.
The pilot car nears the halted traffic. It pulls over and lets the following trail of southbound vehicles pass. Chris watches, his foot hovering over the gas. He knows the pilot car will turnaround, circle back, and then lead them through the torn apart highway toward home.