SOME PEOPLE HAVE a sixth sense for picking grocery store lines: they assess, calculate, do some demographics, and at last, with the kind of confidence that results from the exercise of a cool intelligence, park their cart at the end of the line determined to move fastest. Invariably, then, this turns out to be longer than any other. While the lines to either side move doggedly ahead, the one selected is frozen while the cash register requires unlocking, the clerks change shift, then one patron decides to split her order into three separate transactions. Paid by check.
That would be me: my ability to thus choose wrong has never failed.
It would stand to reason that I had an analogous gift for mapping the absolute worst route—the one on which an overturned tractor-trailer would stop three lanes of traffic for two hours, or the George Washington Bridge started resembling a buffet line at the old-age home—out of the city for rides. Only after a purgatorial infinity would the ride begin, when the beautiful winding roads to the north were reached.
No longer am I a victim of these unerring skills, for now I live on one of those selfsame beautiful winding roads. I have only to get myself to the end of the driveway. That, I can do. Turn left, turn right: only the occasional neighbor’s car or truck bound for the factory next door, which supplies the world’s needs in wind chimes, ever goes by. I am so lucky I could weep.
That is why, last Friday, I knew something was wrong before I could identify the source of my perplexity: suddenly a torrent of traffic was passing my house in a rush of unaccustomed noise, only a second or two between vehicles. Occasionally an impatient honk; it had been a long time since I had been subject to this urban bad behavior. I walked down the driveway to see if perhaps I had been unaware of a warehouse sale at the factory: twice a year they opened their doors for the public to obtain all the Corinthian Bells and 56-inch Gregorian Baritone Wind Chimes they could carry. Even then, though, the traffic was never like this.
Indeed, cars were not turning in at the factory; they were rushing on in both directions. Suddenly the only other possibility occurred to me: a detour off the state highway half a mile away. Just beyond my house and then the factory, after a blind curve, the road would deliver them to a T, at the left the road that would take them back to their route and past the diversion. If they knew where they were going, that is. Since the only explanation for this volume of traffic was the Friday-afternoon press toward the city-dweller’s weekend house, it was unlikely they did.
I was doing the dishes when through the screen door came an even more startling sound. Ambulances. The body’s immediate response to the Pavlovian bell of the siren is an uprushing of sick dread. Oh no. I only realized then that I had been waiting for it, for this inevitability.
I did not need to go look, did not want to. Instead I went out to stack cordwood, the only thing left in that moment, the solace of sweat. And then, the third terrible sound ripped the day.
The helicopter seemed to be lowering itself onto my house, but at the last moment swung to disappear behind the scrim of trees separating my yard from the huge field next to the factory. The sound gradually died, till all was silent again. The traffic on the road too had stopped, succumbing to an awful irony: the cause of their presence on this road, a detour because of an accident, had become the origin of another wreck.
In the city, you live in the backwash of noise: life and death on repeat, loudly intruding until it vanishes into its own constancy. Police choppers, sirens, horns, the battering of machinery, jets overhead. None of it matters, unless it matters to you.
At a far remove like this, sonically isolated, meaning returns. Sometimes it comes slamming back. And always it feels personal.
I threw down the wood I was holding and picked my way among trees and rocks, into the forest swamp, among the lashing cattails, and then I was on the edge of the field, an audience of one. Right over there the pilot walked around, checking his equipment, opening the bay doors. Red lights rotated silently on the fire trucks, the volunteer firemen outside, waiting. Everyone waiting. It seemed an eternity before the stretcher arrived. I let the solidity of a tree have my back.
That this was happening here, and I was the only witness now apart from these silent actors, heightened the sense that time was stretching and would soon soundlessly rip, revealing some secret. The secret of my connection to a stranger, or the secret of what connected life to death.
The rotor blades began whirling. Faster, faster: into the vortex was gathering not only the unimaginable power of mechanics but of human hope. Longer than it seemed it should take, and louder than all desire at once. At last, a few inches of empty space beneath the skids, swaying as if uncertain, like life itself. At last, lifting itself slowly from the grip of earth, sliding sideways through sticky air. The branches above my head whipped in the wind as the angel’s black underbelly passed over, almost close enough to touch. Instead I raised crossed fingers, the only benediction I had to give.
Dusk, and time for the dog’s walk. The road was strangely returned to quiet once more. Then just around the curve, I saw. There, a dark circle of fluid; parallel light gray lines scored the pavement from one lane to the other. An uneaten sandwich lay in its wrapping on the shoulder. In the weeds opposite, I bent to a piece of bodywork; it was stamped “Volvo.” Then some chrome: a motorcycle footboard, bent double on itself. Hiding in the roadside wildflowers whose beauty proves stronger than the odds was something that looked like a coin. I picked it up. The speedshift from a Scorpion helmet. It could have been mine.
Two days later and all this detritus was gone, except for the sandwich, biodegrading. But now there was the glitter of something I had missed. It was already half-buried in the sand. When I pulled it free, in my palm was a small bell. The rider’s talisman against the terrible vulnerability he goes forth in without shield; it bore the image of an angel riding a motorcycle. Torn free from the engine guard it had been hung from. We are like that, hoping against hope, motorcyclists.
The day before, I had gone for a ride with a friend. He was going away, and he didn’t know if he was coming back. He led me along the roads he knew best. Pulling in at a turnout, he said nothing as he dismounted and beckoned me to follow. We went down through some woods, along a rocky wash. When we came out into the sun again, we were at a clear stream downrushing, rock to rock to rock. Pools of water were caught in perfectly circular indentations. The noise was joyful, the scene calling forth only two possibilities: smile, and laugh. We did both. As we turned to leave, he pointed at one of these watery dots: on its shore, big as a world to something, was what at first appeared to be an emerald. But it was a tiny frog, the size of my fingernail, iridescent. He shrugged; sure, it was magic. What did you expect? We were riding.
Down the road a few minutes later, he pulled over again. Once more without words he offered me something, spring water as delicious as anything ever had been, delicious as the moment when the road gives something you never asked it for.
As we neared the end of the county route, and the place where we would part, I was amazed. Something was happening. A lump in my throat, the pressure of an immense sadness. I had not expected this. But I had not expected anything that happened that day. It was the end of this road, and perhaps the end of that one: perhaps this was the last time I’d ride behind this particular ratty BMW airhead, but chances were it was not the last time I’d ride behind someone’s ratty airhead. Who knew. I certainly didn’t.
The ride offers up one thing, or it offers up another, and in the collision of the moments that are all we are given, we don’t get to choose. Death haunts us one day, life the next. It will be a long time before I am to know, exactly, what ride will bring which.