The Man with a Stop Sign Sticking out of His Head
Doctors refused to remove it, citing the riskiness of the procedure, and city traffic laws. Crossing guards shot him dirty looks—they worried he'd come to steal their jobs, or at least their thunder. Teenagers in menacing packs stopped short in his path, incurring his reddened wrath. Then there was the vandalism. Spray-paint or stickers appended to him: STOP fracking, STOP eating animals, STOP immigration, Don't STOP believin', STOP in the name of love.
One night, he invited a woman out to dinner. She wore a glittering necklace of traffic lights. She had a go-to line about how she always sent "mixed signals", haha. But he found it to be true: she was permanently stuck on yellow, and he couldn't get a read on her feelings. It was always like this, he thought—a small, puttering acceleration of potential bliss, screeched to a halt before it could even begin.
He started hanging out with a safer crowd: Wrong Way, No Parking, No Outlet, Road Work Ahead. They were all real downers, but it felt oddly comforting to wallow in their warnings. Detour he actually liked a lot—though she couldn't stay on one topic to save her life. Slow wanted to take things that way—but the man with the stop sign sticking out of his head had already spent too much of his life standing still.
He needed something faster—so one morning, he stole a sports car, and hit the road. Other drivers gawked at the garish irony of him—a man representing stillness careening around curves like a Formula 1 fanatic. The cops were in hot pursuit, so he found an offramp, channeled his inner Vin Diesel, and seemed to lose them, at least for a minute or two.
He kept going until he reached a sign that said "Dead End". Dead End was hitchhiking, and he invited her to join him. She eyed him with suspicion—a fellow Roadsign-American—but she decided to hop in. Maybe she just wanted adventure, he thought, the kind without guardrails, without cul-de-sacs. Finally: here was a woman who could understand what it was to hit a wall in life—and could maybe help him get his life unstuck. But all that was for later: the cops were back on their tail.
Step on it, she said, like it was the line she'd been waiting all her life to say, replacing the deadened yellow cliche hanging above her like a ten-pound thought bubble. They headed for a mountain pass, traveling at breakneck speeds that rattled the metal poles fastened to their rule-addled brains. And by the time they spotted the man with DANGER: HAZARDOUS CLIFF tattooed across his chest, it was too late to shift gears. They signed their goodbyes to each other, refused to Yield, and drove off—headlong into the endless, unstoppable blue.
Matt Leibel's short fiction has appeared in Portland Review, Cheap Pop, Passengers Journal, X-RAY and Best Small Fictions 2020. He can be found on Twitter @matt_leibel