There is a river in a city. In this city, along this river, there is a road. The road mimics the river: where the river twists, the road turns, water and asphalt winding inevitably to meet the city skyline.
You take to this river each morning in your single scull, joining a veritable armada of rowing vessels; men and women, boys and girls of all shapes and sizes toiling away in their skinny boats, all of them skimming across the river’s surface like oversized water beetles. The road carries men and women in their cars to and from the city, and the river embankment is low enough to give each set, motorists and rowers, a view of the other. You like to think the motorists see those on the water as part of the scenery, a footnote to their commuting thoughts, somewhere between the sparkling frost on the grass-covered bank and the geese running amok on the bike path. You like to think this because that’s what they are to you, a steady stream of headlights and beeping blurring into a continuum of light and sound that blends into the periphery.
On certain mornings, however, this arrangement is shattered, and the periphery is forced front and center. Always during a rain. On the way down to the boathouse, you pass without really noticing the tow trucks sitting just off the road, silent sentinels awaiting the inevitable. Pushing off the dock, you let the rain make you miserable for a few minutes until it, too, fades into the periphery. Somewhere near the end of the workout, as the stream of headlights thickens, the scenery flush with individuals rushing to work, you hear it. Above the hum of the coaching launches and the metronomic clicking of the oarlocks rises the squealing of rubber desperate to regain hold of a road made lethal by precipitation. The sound seems to slow time, as you take one stroke, and then another (and surely not another?), so that you find yourself beginning to hope that perhaps catastrophe has been averted.
But always there is the sickening payoff as the sound of tires screaming is replaced by the sound of lives exploding.
The first reaction that plays out in your head is always an absurd, vaguely heroic scenario involving you jumping from your boat, swimming to the bank, and climbing up out of the river to see if you can help. The absurdity extends beyond the logistical (why would you swim, and not row, to the bank?) and into the practical, as your youth and inexperience in anything pertinent to the disaster would make you little more than a curious bystander. In a word, useless.
So you dismiss the thought and take the next stroke, and the one after, and finish the workout, thoughts heavy. On the way back to the boathouse, the sound of sirens fill the air.
It’s still raining.
Later that morning you sit in your office, and the accident has been pushed back in your mind. First by annoyance at the college crew that blocked your path to the dock, amplified by the sopping wet shoes that awaited you once you landed. Brief respite came whilst underneath the steaming hot shower head in the locker room, but was forcefully erased by the dreariness of your bike commute in the piercing rain. There are tasks at work that require more attention than you feel you can muster, and your third cup of black coffee is doing its best decaf impression. Surely none of these things, even in concert, are more important than the human life expiring or expired in the morning wreck, and yet, to you, in this moment, they are. You realize suddenly that the question of why bad things happen to good people is far less compelling than its less heralded corollary: why is it so damn hard for good people to care about all these terrible happenstances?
It’s not as though you read about the accident the next day in the newspaper, the sharpness of the tragedy dulled by distance both temporal and spatial. This was a thing you experienced. You heard the same final sounds as the man or woman at the epicenter. You felt a piece of their fear as it descended around them, suffocating. Now…nothing. Well, more than nothing, but only enough of a something to make you aware of its disorienting smallness.
You feel some big question looming here, something vital. But your phone rings, the nape of her neck flashes through your mind, and the unlived life in front of you demands your attention away from melancholy thoughts of an unknown life cut short. You let out a sigh and take a sip from your mug. It’s gone cold.
It rains again the following week. This time you are keenly aware of the tow trucks on the roadside, their drivers nodding off while awaiting the call over the radio. You take each stroke of your row with an ear and an eye toward the road. With each stroke safely completed, you expect the next to bring the rising sound of locking brakes, crumbling metal. But it does not come. This morning, it seems, the road is content to be menacing only, still sated by the previous week’s offering.
You get back to the dock with clothes drenched by the steady rain, and for reasons you don’t want to think about, a vague sense of disappointment.
The rain pulses down, and the flow builds.
You’re going to be late for work.