NDJ:6 Don Chiapinelli, MSW

Rappahannock Falls

Arthur stood up on the concrete barrier. The rush hour traffic, having quickly recovered from the momentary slowdown caused by the crashing of his truck into the guardrail just a few moments ago, resumed its pace behind him. He heard a voice. He looked over and saw a woman standing nearby, her arms motioning towards him. Her mouth was moving but none of her words made their way to him. He looked back out, away from the woman and the cars, and into the cold air. The blue sky was filled with large strokes of clouds, their pale hue beginning to darken and color up from the lowering sun behind him. He lifted and held his arms straight out to the side. He felt a pain in his left shoulder, and then noticed the red wetness traveling down his arm and towards his hand, scarlet drops falling from his fingertips through the air, splattering softly on the pavement below.

Arthur closed his eyes. He heard the telephone ringing back in his kitchen, and he saw himself picking up the dull green handset from the old wall phone, the coiled cord snagged and twisted up on itself, unforgiving as he pulled it towards his ear. It was Smith from the Sheriff’s office telling him that they had issued a warrant, and he could either come down to the station on his own or they would send a patrol car out to get him. After some silence Arthur said he’d be right down and he placed the handset back in the telephone’s metal grip. He picked it back up and held the cord out with his arm so that it was suspended in air over the pale blue and green linoleum floor. It began to untangle itself, moving slowly at first and then gradually picking up speed as the snags and twists finally gave way until it spun around and around like a top. He watched it spin itself out the other way, and then back, and then again, until eventually it came to rest and he placed the handset carefully back up on the wall, its cord hanging in a long green loop, its line drawn against the faded yellow wall.

Arthur picked his keys up off the counter and headed out the front door, locking it behind him. He stepped into his white Tacoma and headed out of the subdivision, turning right down Brooke Road; he drove under the railroad overpass, and then left onto Andrews Chapel Road, passing Grafton Elementary. He turned left onto the highway, heading north, and drove the five miles until he saw the green sign with white letters up ahead announcing the familiar span of gray road across the river, Rappahannock Falls Bridge. When his truck reached the bridge he quickly wrenched the steering wheel to the right and headed for the river, plowing into the guardrail. But the bridge would not allow it. As the truck slammed into the rail Arthur was thrown into the steering wheel and up against the windshield, his seatbelt slicing through his shoulder and cutting quickly into his flesh. The Tacoma came to rest up against the concrete safety barrier – a Jersey

wall – that marked the edge of the bridge from thin air. Arthur moved slowly across the seat to the other side of the truck, opened the door and got out. His ears were ringing, and he heard its high even tone above the sound of the traffic passing beside him as he made his way down the pavement towards the midpoint of the bridge.

Arthur opened his eyes. He saw short thin puffs of white breath suspended before him in the cold January air. He saw the river moving peacefully down below. Standing quietly up on the Jersey wall he heard a car slow down in the traffic behind him, and a little girl’s voice. A single word sailed through the air and over the pavement at him. “Jump!” And then all it took was a slight shifting of weight forward and he was airborne. They say all kinds of things about what happens in the moments before your life comes to an end. For Arthur, it was as if everything stood still while he remained suspended in air, held up in place by the crisp January cold above the icy water far down below.

The Rappahannock is a beautiful and majestic river; its headwaters begin on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge and 184 miles later its endings spill out through the Tidewater and into the Chesapeake Bay. Midway on its journey, having been joined a few miles earlier by the waters of the Rapidan, it winds through Fredericksburg, a small town steeped in Civil War history, with old growth forest lining its banks. Large rocks and huge stone cast about here and there give shape and sound to the water which rushes by them in the spring, eventually slowing to a thick pace under the burden of the summer’s heat. In the fall bright red and orange leaves fill up its banks, drifting down and making their way out into the water, eventually coming to rest in the bottom of the river’s shallow pools. In the winter the water moves quietly, determined, waiting.

Just north of town, Rappahannock Falls Bridge carries the highway 1,743 feet across and 163 feet above the river. Arthur faced east, the sun at his back, before he turned over in the air two and a half times, his meeting with the water delivering a loud unmistakable smack. He felt a visceral sickening crack, and everything began to close in around him, cold, dark, and numbing. A man raced down the riverbank and propelled himself out into the water. He grabbed a hold of Arthur’s shirt, and then slid his arms underneath his shoulders and legs. He could feel the place where his back had broken. He held Arthur suspended in the river, its water quietly rocking him as they waited for the approaching sirens to arrive. The man told Arthur to hang in there, not to worry. He said, “Help is on the way.” He studied Arthur’s pained face, his blue eyes, and then he prayed out loud, white puffs of words floating down to the water in the softening air.

The next day, Tuesday, the headline in the Free Lance-Star would read, “Man Dies After Leaping Into River.” The journalist noted that at least ten people have jumped from the bridge in the past eight years. A couple years back another man had jumped too, but he landed on the riverbank instead and survived. And then Wednesday’s headline read, “Bridge Jumper Faced Sex Charges,” and reported about two young girls, and an older one. On Thursday Arthur’s obituary stated that he is survived by his wife, two children, and his mother. It read, “Arthur was a member of Salem Christian Church. He served as a Chaplain in the U.S. Navy for 24 years, and held the title of Master Chief Religious Program Specialist. The funeral will be private, with burial to follow in Arlington National Cemetery.”