Justin Brouckaert


On a beach near Beaufort I find a sand dollar in the surf. It's May in the Carolinas & the ocean is good to look at. All day I've been taking wide berths around jellyfish corpses orbed in the sand & now this: just like in a gift shop. I'm afraid to pick up, so a friend does it for me. She flips it in her hand: smooth with patches of hard, clumped like cement. Could be sand, could be body. I am a lake person. It's not an excuse, but it does explain my smallness. I tuck this little piece of something large inside my backpack. I want to give it to my niece, who is too young to know I'm still afraid of anything. I want it to sit on her dresser for years, until she doesn't even notice it's there, until one day she asks about it & my sister says, That's from when your uncle used to live by the ocean, because by then I'll be somewhere new. Like our uncle, who sent turbans and headscarves from Saudi Arabia & never spoke of it again, the only proof a picture of my sister & me in bathrobes & headscarves, morning-haired & laughing. That picture: it's only a little thing, but I'm working towards a symbol. When I pull my bag open, the sand dollar is in pieces. I hold the shards up to my eyes & see a layer of dark between the casing. Could be body. I grab my bag by the handle & dump the crumbs away.



I buy the jade from a glass counter in Beijing & break it at a train station in Kyoto. It's just a small green circle with a hole through the middle. I was told real jade doesn't break, but it's been a long trip. The others are buying tickets for a speed train, which is convenient, because sympathy enrages me. When I break something I love, I want to kill the witness. A mug, a hand, a heart. Or I throw away some cupcake holders my mother bought special to wish me happy birthday from afar & she asks me about them later & I tell her I'll look for them in the cupboard. What happens is I chase. The jade, the hand—listen, things get away. I'm trying to craft a subtext because where would I be without it? I was in East Asia for a month & when I came back, I had work to do. Gluing the jade seemed cheap, but at least I found the pieces. A friend felt bad & bought me another, fake but strong. We return, again, to our symbols: I keep them both in a box on my desk I only ever open to make sure they're still there.



When I'm eight, on my way home from a family trip, I beg my dad for a ball. It's a kids meal toy, two dollars at Wendy's. He pulls the bills from his wallet like trading cards his parents are making him return. When we pull into our driveway, I run to the backyard to get one good bounce in before I have to help unpack. The ball takes a high arc over a tall fence & I never see it again. I'm trying to craft a moral because I like the way it sounds: I haven't always had a lot of things but I've had a few things & when I get a really good little little thing I grip it like a pitcher grips a ball. My mom asks, Where's your toy? & I'll never admit it, not after those two dollars, not after how scared I was of fences, not after I didn't even have the ball long enough to memorize its logo. I play in that yard until I'm grown. I have my chances. But it's an ending I get used to: me measuring fences, the neighbors letting their grass grow tall.







Honorable mentions for inclusion in this essay: the ice cream cone I dropped on the basement floor while playing Barbies with my sister in 1997, the glass ball on the top of an expensive wooden staff my mother bought me at the 1999 Michigan Renaissance Festival, and a pocketknife from my late grandfather, lost in a series of moves between 2008 and 2010.