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This happened in the Midwest, years ago now. Two unmarried sisters, recent retirees who lived an hour’s drive apart, decided each to visit the other and motored off without taking a moment to call ahead. Midway between their houses, on a narrow stretch of country road, in summer’s punishing glare, the two cars crashed head-on. Both drivers died.


Nothing is new about attention-seizing disastrous run-ins: witness Oedipus and his father’s right-of-way brawl outside of Thebes. The sisters’ case of deadly coinciding remains in most respects un-Sophoclean: no family melodrama in the background, no three-way intersection for a setting. Different personalities, and in the end a different body count. Still, the analogue chafes at the mind: what sick abeyant mischief could have made two unremarkable women twin avatars-for-a-day of Atropos, each earning the name of one who does not turn?


I’ve had this car crash story skulking around in my head for decades; only recently it’s come to me where I first read about it. It would have been out there at my uncle’s farm. The country newspaper in which it surfaced was a thin publication often padded on most pages with wire service filler. In that paper, maybe on the same visit, there was a story on a nearby farmer’s side porch ceiling light, whose original bulb hadn’t had to be changed for thirty-plus years. (When I reported that one to my father he said, “They must not have given it much use.”) All of which might raise more than a few eyebrows among those mulling the sisters’ rendezvous. If the two ill-starred victims weren’t just dreamed up to fill a few provincial column inches, something beyond their grotesque final meeting deserved to be recorded. What sticks with me is purely climax, but there must have been more: tight-lipped statements from the police at the scene; well-meaning musings from a local pastor; relatives and friends, if not speechless with shock, saying how the pair took turns with visiting, wondering how the schedule could go so wrong. Back then, none of that settled into a niche in memory along with the freakish wreck; now, feeling slightly guilty, I find myself fabricating stereotypic details: a cat left behind in one of the houses with a full supper dish; in one of the cars, wedged on the floor between front and back seats, a home-baked cake, packed for the trip in its tin.


Although the sisters’ smash-up goes in the books as accidental, it remains uncanny, and, most would think, unfair—for who would hanker to be seen as a character in Borges or even, given such edginess, in Kafka? Call it synchronicity. Call it kismet. Give it a name—will that tidy or tame it? How does one class a happening like that one: as a roll of the dice at random, or as the shears severing threads expressly chosen? Ascribe to Fate or Chance what comes upon you, and either way it’s less than reassuring, a choice between tyranny and anarchy. Fate will find you out on its own schedule. Chance will unleash its ambush on you without reference to any schedule whatsoever. In either case your death may lack a measure of dignity, as if you’re less a target of tragedy than of a practical joke. And either way you might start finding reasons not to go out, or at least entertain thoughts tinged with morbidity about timing, since leaving the house either five minutes early or five minutes late could be what rescues you from running into a deer crossing the road. (Best not even to venture close to weighing odds of running over a fellow human.)


I have not (yet) run my car into a deer, though people I know have. But there have been times when I have burdened time with overthinking. There was the sunny late winter afternoon when I stepped out the back door onto the deck and heard in back of me a rumble and crash, a cake of roof ice, aimed at denting my head, immolating itself inches behind me. Nemesis tobogganing as avalanche, not charging full tilt at me on the level. After the startled muscles gave up tautness absurd equivalences joggled the mind, feet and inches graphed as minutes and seconds. A close call, that, in whatever dimension.


In any season, sent from any quarter, ruin could be alert to cross my path, or overtake me, should I be in the lead. There is no firm answer to any of this, though a dash of my father’s comfortable habit of skepticism can buff over some of the rougher edges of enigmas, shedding light less dubious than that farmer’s prodigy of a lightbulb. From my father’s offhanded sense of what to trust and what not, I’ve gleaned enough to get past more than a few thresholds, on the way to what may or may not happen. Driving, I keep my eyes on the road.