The Stop Sign In The Middle Of Nowhere

Liz the bartender stood polishing a glass, drifting in the echo of a crowded Friday night. At empty tables, the candles guttered low. The faces and voices had been thinning all the past hour, and only a few customers remained, winding up their jokes, raising a last toast, easing into a well-deserved weekend. One alone seemed out of place in the lingering amiability, a young woman at the end of the counter staring morosely into her ice cubes.

Liz slowed her polishing to give her customer a lazy second glance. Early thirties, dressed for success, pretty enough to like what the mirror gave back. But tonight someone had handed her a blow. She had wandered in about midnight, the shock still fresh on her face. Now a slack, dumb look had taken over. As if feeling the bartender’s gaze, she lifted her head and signaled for another drink. Liz approached patiently.

“Sorry, friend, we’re about to close.”

“But I don’t want to go home.” The voice, though slowed, was articulate, the tone artificially light. Two dark eyes met Liz’s in silent plea.

Liz weighed her customer’s condition, then checked the clock on the opposite wall. A few tables to clear, the counter to wipe down, the night’s receipts to be locked in the office safe. Then home to a good book and bed. Long days, long nights for a woman her age, but Harry would be proud of the way she had kept the place alive.

“Let me get you a cup of coffee. Then I’ll hail you a cab,” Liz offered.

The young woman exhaled a long breath, half sigh, half groan. “Drunk too much, haven’t I?”

“Oh, not too bad. But better safe than sorry.”

She nodded, her head continuing to bob slightly like a dashboard doll’s. “Had a good reason, though. He’s left me.”

Liz gave her shoulder a motherly pat. “You give me your car keys. I’ll get you some coffee.”

“Okay.” She shoved over her purse, and her eyes roamed the bar, then returned to rest on the comforting figure of Liz. “You want to hear a story?”

“Sure.” Liz poured black coffee, half watching another couple leave. She picked a new glass from beneath the counter and methodically applied her cloth.

“Well, we were at this party,” the young woman waved behind her, toward the door and the spring night, “an impromptu affair after work at my friends’ place. Drinking, talking, the usual. Until some wit dredges up this ethical dilemma from an old college philosophy class.” She raised a professorial finger. “The question is: If you came to a stop sign in the middle of nowhere, would you stop?”

“Some question.”

“A real winner. But you tell me…what’s your name?”

“Liz.”

“Right. You tell me, Liz, would you stop?”

Liz paused, then shrugged.

“Ha!” The young woman thumped down her hand. “That’s exactly what I said. No.” She took a mouthful of coffee and made a twisted face. “This stuff tastes like ink.”

“Meant to sober you up.”

“Or poison you,” she countered glumly. “Anyway, Dev, of course, said Yes. What did I expect? I’m a financial planner, he paints seascapes. I play racquetball, he does yoga. At the start, it was great, opposites attract. It’s not as though we didn’t get along. And when we did hit a bump in the road, okay, no big deal. Every couple has their differences, and you smooth them over and move on. I thought we were getting the hang of it.” Her spirits sank. “I wish you could see him.”

“A hunk?”

“Indisputably. Gorgeous. Sexy. Strong. The thing is, I still think we could have made it work. Then along came that damn stop sign.”

Across the bar, the last customers got up to leave, three out-of-town salesmen celebrating a big deal. They waved a triumphant goodbye, and Liz returned a victory salute. She picked another glass from the shelf, polishing rhythmically, as the young woman went on.

“So we’re at this party, and somebody says, If you came to a stop sign in the middle of nowhere, would you stop? Is the sign at an intersection? somebody else asks. Yes, but it’s way out in the country, and there’s no other traffic around. Is the road straight or curved? It’s straight and well paved. Are you in a hurry to get somewhere? Is it a life-or-death emergency? No. What about the weather, fog, rain, reduced visibility? No, no, none of the above. Finally, everybody gets the picture clear: a stop sign, at a four-way intersection, miles out in the country, no mountains, no wheat fields, no clouds, no people, no cars, no nothing.” She moved her arm in a long, clean sweep above the bar. “So what do you say, Liz, would you stop?”

Liz shrugged.

“Me neither.” The young woman frowned at her coffee with a mixture of detachment and distaste. After a moment, she braved another gulp. “Naturally, everybody has an opinion. The ayes say they’d obey the sign out of honesty or habit. The nays say stopping is pointless and wastes gas. It’s your basic debate between law and order versus individual freedom. One guy says he’d stop because with his luck it’s a police stake-out and a whopping fine. And one little mouse says she’d roar on through for the thrill of breaking a law. That’s what I call pathetic.”

Noncommittally, Liz raised her eyebrows.

“Anyway,” she gave the word a long, downhill slide, “everybody is quoting their favorite philosopher or their accountant or their attorney, and I’m not paying much attention. Hell, I voted a flat No at the start. Then suddenly Dev’s voice comes floating over…”

“Why is the stop sign there?” he asks, like he’s coming out of some dream.

“It doesn’t matter why the sign is there,” I reply. “Are you going to run it or not?”

“What would you do?” he asks me.

“I’d run it.”

“Without a second thought?”

“Without a first thought.”

“You wouldn’t even slow down?”

“No.”

“I’d stop,” says Dev, “and I’d get out of the car.”

The young woman threw up her hands. “He’s always like that! He stops at roadside flea markets. At sidewalk book sales. At kids’ lemonade stands. He stops to pet every stray mutt that comes begging, and half the time he takes it home. Is it any wonder we’re late wherever we go? I swear he doesn’t know the value of a straight line.” She gave an exasperated tsk. “I’m sorry. That makes him sound like an airhead, and he’s not. He’s a damn good artist. You should see his work. And I suppose you could argue I don’t know the value of a curved line, but I do. It’s just that he was too intrigued with the whole idea to let it go.”

“H’mm,” said Liz, polishing.

The young woman sipped her coffee, reconciled now to the taste. “Anyway, by this time the whole party is listening, and frankly I’m getting irritated. So I decide to give it a swift end. Why the hell would you get out of your car, Dev?” I demand.

“Because I’d want to stop and wonder why the sign was there,” he says. “Maybe once, a long time ago, a child got killed at that intersection. Maybe it was in an old Model T, before there were any traffic signs or formal rules of the road. Maybe two drivers were nearing that crossing, each thinking the other would yield, both unused to gauging distances in these new-fangled horseless carriages. One mistook the accelerator for the brake, and they collided head on. Or maybe they thought they had room to pass, but one car was sideswiped and overturned. They might have been two families out for a Sunday drive, and when they crawled out dazed from the wreck, they discovered one of the children, a small boy, crushed beneath a wheel. So the grieving townspeople erected that stop sign as his memorial, to say that as long as it was in their power, no other person should ever be killed at that one spot on earth.”

“God, Dev, what a crazy scenario! How do you think of these things? This is a vacant intersection in the middle of nowhere. There isn’t any town.”

“Maybe there was once.”

“And those old Model Ts barely hit forty miles an hour. That’s not fast enough to be fatal.”

“Maybe he was thrown from the car and broke his neck.”

“Grrr!” The young woman swung around on her stool, arms flung wide, beseeching the bar to witness her aggravation, only to find the room empty. She turned back to Liz. “By now everybody at the party is caught up in this wild story, and some of them—and they’re my friends, remember—are nodding as if he’s right. But Dev doesn’t even realize he has an audience.”

“You wouldn’t stop, would you?” he says to me, and I say, “You’re damn right I wouldn’t. I’d roar through that intersection like it was the Indy 500 and the green flag just dropped, and everyone else on that road could eat my dust.”

“Fighting words,” Liz guessed, eyeing the clock and inserting her cloth into a final glass.

“Oh, you’d think so. But Dev is totally calm and implacable, as if he’s reaching some conclusion way back in his mind.”

“If I were in that intersection,” he says, “you’d run right over me.”

“No, I wouldn’t,” I say. “That’s ridiculous!” She shook her head, appealing to Liz to confirm the injustice of the accusation, and Liz gave a sympathetic nod. “Besides, we’ve already established there’s no one in that intersection. There’s not another car in sight. All of which I pointed out yet again. But Dev just looks at me like we’re already miles apart.”

“You know what we are?” he murmurs. “We’re a stop sign in the middle of nowhere, and everything around us is barren and flat. We can’t go forward, we can’t go back. We’re a self-wrought obstruction on a beautiful, clear day. I’m sorry.” Then he picks up his jacket and leaves.

“That’s tough,” said Liz, draping her cloth over her shoulder and admiring the spotless glass. “That’s real tough. Let me get you a cab.”

For a moment, the young woman bowed her head. When she raised it, a tear splashed down one cheek. “You know the sad part, Liz? You know the really sad part? I love that guy. I love him more than anything in the world. And if he’d just stopped at that first Yes and No, we could have agreed to disagree and paved it over like we’ve done before. But he kept going and turned it into some kind of relationship test, and now we’re history.”

“It’s a shame. Come on, time to head home.” Liz patted her back and led her gently toward the door. Outside the spring night fell like a cloak around them, and the last neon lights fused into a rainbow down the deserted street. Liz signaled a lone taxi, and the driver made a quick U-turn. Together, they settled the young woman into the back seat of the car.

“You know what’s really ironic, Liz?” she pleaded. “He’d stop for an imaginary stop sign in the middle of nowhere, but he blew right past the real stop sign in front of him, the one that could have saved us. He’s the one who ran over me.”

“It seems so.”

The cabbie closed the door and tugged down her cap. “Sad story, huh?” she said, thumbing toward her passenger and giving Liz a conspiratorial wink. “I bet you hear ‘em all.”

“What’s that?” Liz straightened, feeling the tiredness run down her back to her feet. She lifted the tip of her polishing cloth and absently cleaned her ear. “Oh, yeah. I hear ‘em all.”

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1991)

Fiction Debut, September 1991

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