A Traffic Fable

(originally appeared in Cleveland Magazine August 1979)

The death of Mr. Robert Railsford of Solon, Ohio, is still under investigation, but the newspapers aren’t writing about it anymore. There wasn’t much coverage in the first place — a five-paragraph story in The Plain Dealer followed by a three-paragraph story in The Press. The Press story said the following:

A thirty-nine-year-old Solon man was killed late yesterday when, police said, he apparently lost control of his car on 1-77 and drove off an embankment near the East 55th Street exit.

Dead is Robert W. Railsford of 3346 Irony Trail. Railsford was driving South on 1-77 when the mishap occurred yesterday about 7 p.m.

Police said Railsford may have swerved his auto to avoid road construction at the intersection and lost control of the car. Railsford was an accountant for the George H. Schmidlap Company.

That was all there was. There was no one in the car with Railsford when he died, and those few people who were interested assumed he had been the victim of one of those inexplicable and sudden accidents that plague the nation’s highways. Nobody was very curious about it, and that is too bad. Because, as accidents go, it was not without its fascination.

Railsford had moved his family to Solon four years ago. He moved into a large development, bought a gas barbecue grill, a ten-speed bicycle and a dog and settled rapidly into the routine of suburban living. His life was orderly, and there are those who would have found it dull. But Railsford was content. He believed in good order — his chosen profession depended on good order. He was happy with his routine. He arose each morning at seven, took his dog for a brisk twenty-minute walk up and down Irony Trail, breakfasted on rye toast, grapefruit juice and coffee, and at precisely 8:30 he backed his 1977 Pacer out of his driveway and drove to work.

“That way,” he explained to his wife, Arlene, “I come in right at the end of the last wave of rush-hour traffic. There is always some kind of construction on 1-77, and the traffic gets pretty snarled up. So even though I leave a little later, it still takes me the same length of time to get to work.” Railsford usually had a good reason for everything he did, no matter how trivial. He usually explained his reasoning to his wife. She had stopped listening years before.

The freeway — and the drive downtown — was probably the major irritation in Railsford’s day. It upset him. It upset his routine. Because, despite what he told his wife, he never could be really sure what obstacles he would encounter on his trip downtown — obstacles that might snarl traffic and cause him to arrive late for work.

The freeway always seemed to be undergoing some sort of repair. In   the  spring  there   were chuckholes and, for a long while, nothing was done about them. The city usually issued a statement to the newspapers claiming that the chuckholes were the state’s responsibility. The state would claim they were the city’s responsibility. There would be a standoff.

And then, one morning, shortly after Railsford had memorized the location of the worst chuckholes and had altered his driving pattern accordingly — one morning he would hit a bad traffic jam and, way up ahead, he would see one of those trucks with a huge lighted arrow on it directing the traffic off to one side. And the chuckholes would be fixed. Some of them. For awhile.

But the seasonal problem with the chuckholes hardly explained the constant drilling, digging and scrabbling on the road. In the past year, Railsford had noticed with irritation, there was always some construction somewhere along his route — construction that seemed, from the cautious glimpse he allowed himself as he passed it, to have no obvious purpose. Every day, at some point, there would be a lighted arrow blinking him over to the right or to the left. He inched over carefully at such times, for he was a very timid driver. He hated the freeway, hated being sandwiched in between huge, noisy and smelly trucks. On the rare occasions when he worked late, Railsford cursed the route home. There were large areas where the overhead lights would be off, and he would plunge into these tunnels of darkness, his pupils widening with fear. The city usually said replacing the lights was the state’s responsibility, and the state said it was the city’s.

“Sometimes I don’t think anybody knows who is in charge,” Railsford would fume to his wife. “Urn-hum,” she would respond.

In time, however, Railsford grew to accept the disorderly condition of the highway. He did not approve of it. But he grew used to it. There was no feasible way to get from Solon downtown without taking 1-77. So, like the cars and trucks around him, Railsford drove mechanically, following the arrows and the white lines and listening to the radio in the Pacer. And, in a way, this was a triumph. For Railsford, though it did not occur to him, had finally managed to include even the chaos of the freeway in his routine. He continued to leave late in the mornings and gradually grew in the habit of leaving work later to avoid the worst of the homeward-bound traffic. The freeway had changed his schedule much in the same way his dog had done. And he accepted the change and stopped thinking much about it.

Which is why it took him three or four days to really notice the wall. One night, having left work a little earlier than usual, Railsford found himself stuck in an irritating traffic tie-up in the southbound lane of 1-77 near the East 55th Street exit. New white lines had been painted on the pavement, and one lane of traffic was way over the berm of the road. As Railsford maneuvered his auto, he glanced to his left and saw the reason for the dislocation.

A low concrete wall was being built between two of the traffic lanes. It was the kind of wall which, on other freeways, was used to divide lanes of traffic traveling in opposite directions. But in this case, the placement of the wall seeemed absurd. It was dividing two southbound traffic lanes, and Railsford could see no purpose for it. Its construction was forcing the traffic well over to the right, and Railsford gingerly steered his Pacer over in that direction.

At supper that night, he mentioned the matter to Arlene.

“They are putting a wall up on the freeway where no wall has any business being,” he said. “My, my,” said Arlene.

Railsford mentioned the wall to some of the people at work. A few of them took 1-77 home, and these people had seen it too. No one had any idea why it was there. It was just there. So Railsford altered his routine. He began to linger at his desk until about 6:30. Then he would drive home, making better time and avoiding the worst of the tie-up. He explained this to Arlene. “I will be home a little later,” he said. “That is okay,” she said. And it was.

Six weeks after he had first noticed the wall, Railsford began the trip home in a preoccupied state of mind. There was a slight imbalance in his books at work. He would have to speak to Murchison in purchasing about it. He disliked Murchison in purchasing, who was a loud and florid man who wore white shoes and a white belt and would probably kid Railsford about the imbalance.

He was thinking of that as he reached the place on the freeway where the wall was. There were no other cars near him, the white line curved over to the right and, up ahead, there was a truck with a big lighted arrow on it. The arrow pointed to the right, and Railsford mechanically followed its direction.

The last thing he noticed as he went over the edge was that the man in the arrow truck seemed to have no face ... no face at all. Just a blankness. And then, everything was blankness.

Railsford’s life insurance was, naturally, paid up and Arlene received a suitable benefit. The Pacer was a total wreck, but Arlene bought a Volkswagen convertible. She has no reason to drive downtown.

The city later said that the arrow truck must have been a state truck, and the state said it must have been a city truck. The state said the wall was a city wall, and the city said it was a state wall. Someone is removing it from the freeway now. We don’t know who.

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