It’s like they don’t even see me, I think as I blink at the line of cars idling before me. They don’t see me, but here I am.
We’ve stared each other down a million times, really. Twelve hours a day, six days a week. Rain, sleet, snow, hangover, you name it – if there’s a road running through the Green Mountains that’s being chopped, screwed, or otherwise disturbed, here I am: the neon-green guardian who stands between road work and utter chaos.
Today, I’m stationed on the south end of a project on the stretch of Route 7 that runs from my hometown of Rutland up to the smaller towns of Pittsford and Brandon. They tell me they’re taking the road from two lanes in each direction down to one. Just two years ago we spent months out here adding the second lane, so I begin to wonder what the hell the point of it all is. I don’t ask this, though – I don’t think I’d like the answer I’d get.
It’s the first real scorcher of summer, the first day when, after spending all winter cursing the cold, I find myself wishing for some of it back. I wonder, why do I live somewhere I’m never comfortable? I guess I didn’t choose to live here, really – I just never left. My prayers fall on deaf ears, and the only relief I get from the heat that I see radiating off the pavement in front of me comes when I flip the six-foot-tall sign in my hand from a white-on-red “STOP” to a black-on-orange “SLOW”. The stream of cars begins to flow past me once again, stirring up a familiar, exhaust-gray breeze.
Most of the times we’ve locked eyes after I’ve flipped the sign back to “STOP,” you’ve looked a bit upset – disappointed, even – to see me. I get it: you have places to be, coffees to drink, phones to hang up in anger, children to pick up in one place and drop off in another. But once you come to terms with the fact that you’ll be stopped for a minute or two, most of you will do me the courtesy of giving a wave, a nod, a smirk, a peace sign – I guess I’ll even take a double bird. Anything to remind me that while my job is solitary, it is not technically lonely.
In those brief moments of eye contact when you first pull up, I can’t help but feel like you’re being a little insensitive. What you fail to see is that we’re not so different after all. I’m not flipping the sign because I hate you, because I want to make you late for your meeting, or your wedding, or your therapy session. I’m flipping the sign because it’s my job. Here we are, you and I, both begrudgingly traveling along at precisely zero miles an hour. The only difference, really, is in our level of comfort. You have your power windows, your automatic heating and cooling, your AM/FM radio with seven presets. All I have are cigarettes, and I might not even have many of those left. The only radio I have is the one that sits atop my shoulder, broadcasting a voice from three hundred yards up the road that tells me to flip the damn sign, Harry.
If I miss that little voice even once, that’s it. Your Fiat is flattened, your Saab is smashed, your Harley hardly knows what hit it. I guess that’s why I say you’re being inconsiderate. Here I am, saving your life, and you’re flipping me the bird – now how would that make you feel?
That’s not to say the job’s all bad. Sometimes my buddy Frank, off-duty from his own shift of sign-flipping, will drive up Route 7 from Eddie’s Liquors and time it just right. Rolling through the roadblock, he opens the passenger window of his Subaru and leans over to hand me a few nips of Mr. Boston, which I quickly stash inside my high-vis vest to hold me over for the rest of the shift. Far too often, though, Frank forgets – or says he forgets – what he bought the vodka for in the first place. Leaned up against the hood of the Subaru parked outside Eddie’s, he throws the nips back, one after the other, before slipping behind the wheel to go out and drive around in circles. He only remembers when he comes upon a roadblock and there I am, cold and boozeless, blocking the glare of his headlights with my white-on-red “STOP.” He cuts the lights for a second so he can mouth me a quick “sorry”.
People often ask me what my favorite car is. It’s a reasonable question; I do see a lot of them. And for these people, I have an answer ready to go: Chrysler Town & Country. I like this minivan not for its double power doors or its automatic rear gate, but because it brings with it the only variety in my days, the only interruption from the otherwise-endless stream of coupe, sedan, pickup, coupe, school bus that flows by my sign. Sometimes when I’m having a bad day and I see a T&C coming down the line, I’ll break orders and flip my sign around to show the “STOP” side, putting the minivan at the very front of the line.
Do you know why I always put the minivans at the front? You’d never guess, so I’ll tell you why. It’s because nine times out of ten, because she’s pissed at her husband, or at her kids, or because she’s just generally bored while performing the shuttling tasks of the afternoon, the lady behind the wheel will humor me by – and I’m sorry, there’s no polite way of saying this – by showing me her tits.
If you’re a man, you might think I’m full of shit. Trying to get a rise out of you. If you’re a woman, even if you’re a little disappointed in me for sharing our secret, you probably could’ve guessed what I was going to say. To the men, I simply ask, “How would you know?” If you’re the guy idling behind the minivan, all you see is the driver adjusting after she comes to a stop. Maybe fiddling with her seatbelt or reaching for something in the center console. To the women, I simply say, “I’m sorry.” Really, I am. Every time the woman in the first car makes the decision to give me a show, I see a little twinkle in her eyes beforehand. As far as I can tell, this is the moment of inspiration, the second in which she decides that the best way to get back at whoever’s pissing her off, the best way to add some variety to her day, even just the best way to blow off some fucking steam, is to flash the neon-green man who holds the “STOP” sign.
In my six years on the job, I’ve come to see that this really is a widespread move. I say the Chrysler Town & Country is my favorite just because that’s the car with the best hit rate – the surest thing. But really, it’s everywhere. It’s part of the job. Reliable Fords, beat-up Pontiacs, Jeeps with the roof pulled off, even brand-new Audis and Beamers. One time a little old lady pulled up in a Lincoln Town Car, unbuttoning her blouse before laughing so hard her teeth fell out. If you tell me what kind of car you drive, I can tell you, approximately, what your tits look like. All these women independently reaching the peak of their rebellion, their frustration, their restlessness. And the guy with the “STOP” sign is the only witness to it all.
The sight of all these boobs behind tinted, tempered glass, this peep show on wheels, I must admit, it really does make the shift go by quicker. But back at home, after a reheated dinner and a couple Rolling Rocks, I begin to find that it may be finally crossing the line from distraction to occupational hazard. In our shag-carpeted bedroom, the nightly news playing on the TV in the corner, my girlfriend makes the same realization. At first occasionally, and then with such frequency that there is no ignoring it, she discovers that I am, slowly but surely, losing my manhood.
At first, she chalks it up to stress: I’m working too hard. It’s fine! Get some rest, and maybe we’ll try again tomorrow. When that doesn’t work, she decides it’s in my head. Some deep breathing might do me good. If I can just relax, things can go back to the way they were.
Tonight, though, she’s done being patient. We’ve been arguing for a while. “It’s the internet porn!” she shouts, stepping out of the bathroom in a towel, followed by a cloud of steam. As she wrings out her hair, I plead my case vaguely, trying to protect the secret I share with those hundreds of drivers.
“No!” I say, “I don’t even watch the stuff anymore. It’s not that I don’t love you, it’s not that I don’t want you, none of that! Trust me.”
And she seems to believe me. Her brow softens; she’s remembering something, no, she has an idea. She reaches for the top of the worn towel wrapped around her torso and untucks it from itself, letting it fall slowly. As I look back to her eyes, my stomach turns. I see that same glint, that same hope that maybe, somehow, this act can change things. She walks toward me, and soon I’m face to face with her girls. Looking back up at her, I say something awful.
I hear the words without even feeling them cross my lips: “It just…it kind of feels like I’m still at work.”
She does an about-face, throws on sweats and heads for the door. I would ask where she’s going, but I’m afraid I already know the answer. First she heads to Vermont Variety down the street, where she buys a pack of Camels – nothing new yet. Lighting up outside the convenience store, she calls her sister on her cell phone. She shares what I just said, and they take turns calling me names – still, nothing new. She interrupts her sister’s string of expletives with an abrupt, “I’m coming over.”
Stomping out the glowing butt with her slipper, she gets in the driver’s seat and makes her way to her sister’s place in Brandon, heading north on Route 7. A couple miles outside town, she sees orange lights in the distance, flashing through the raindrops on the windshield. She slows down, and Frank, my friend and, as it happens, my replacement for the night, turns our sign to greet her with a “STOP” just as she pulls up.
And that’s when it hits her. She locks eyes with Frank in his neon-green raincoat as she turns down the radio and flicks on the lights inside the car. She fiddles with her seatbelt, grabs for the hem of her sweatshirt, and lifts.
I wake up the next morning on the recliner in the living room to an old episode of Antiques Roadshow playing on the TV. I move the pile of empty beer cans from the coffee table to the kitchen trash, being careful not to let them clink against each other – I don’t know whether or not she wound up coming home. I swallow a handful of Advil, gargle some mouthwash, and step into my neon uniform. My car coughs to a start and takes me north on Route 7.
Reaching the roadblock, I pull off onto the shoulder and park. I walk toward the south end of the work zone, where Frank is getting ready to head home from his overnight shift. “You catch the Sox game last night?” he greets me.
“No,” is the only response I can come up with. And it’s true. Do you know how strange that is? I forgot about the Sox game last night, for probably the first time since I started working this job. And something else: as I watch Frank open his driver’s door, I think I spot a smirk on his face. I look again when he passes me and pulls out onto the road, but it’s gone. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think it was just my imagination.
I guess I don’t know why it bothers me so much. It’s a perfectly natural thing, your woman flashing the neon-green man. Like I said, it’s happened hundreds of times before – maybe even to you. But do you know what the difference is between me and you, between me and all of you whose women have been untrue in the smallest, stupidest way? It’s that you didn’t fucking know it.
Dreading a full day alone with my thoughts, I make my way to my station and take up the sign. But as I flip from “STOP” to “SLOW” and back again, I’m surprised to find that last night’s incident isn’t on my mind very much at all. I’m too distracted by the heat. It’s beating down once again, even more today than yesterday, and it surrounds me. I wave a clammy hand through the air, and I can actually feel it. I can feel it pulling the booze, the ice cream, the cigarettes, the lasagna, out of my pores. By the time 11:30 rolls around, my green vest is soaked through. I’m leaned up against the sign, using it as a crutch, and I have to focus on the little voice on my shoulder to keep me upright.
A few minutes before noon, the radio gives me my orders and I flip my sign to “STOP”. The car coming down the road slows down, and I can hear Don Henley blasting on the stereo as it comes to a stop. It’s a bright red drop-top Mustang from the late 70s. Beautiful condition; it looks like the kind of ride someone would wipe down with a diaper in their garage every night. This seems to be lost on the vehicle’s driver, a young kid who either just graduated high school or just got home from college for the summer. He’s wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt that hangs unbuttoned. The girl in the passenger’s seat sports a bikini top and a ponytail. They don’t seem too bothered by this brief interruption to what I guess is a trip up to the Reservoir, or maybe even Lake Champlain. Bouncing in the idling car’s leather seats, they laugh. They make out briefly. They dance to Don Henley, her arms extended above the windshield, waving in an imaginary breeze. It’s like they don’t even see me.
And then something happens. I see it reflected in the kid’s sunglasses. Without being prompted by the voice on my shoulder, the sign begins to rotate. The white-on-red “STOP” is replaced by a black-on-orange “SLOW”. Smiling – no, smirking – the kid flashes me a peace sign and steps on the gas.
Tires peel off on the stove-hot asphalt.
The girl’s laughter trails away behind me.
A squeal of brakes.
A magnificent crash.
The voice of a young man looking for order in a world where there no longer is any:
“What. The. FUCK!!!”