In Which Benedict Overanalyzes Street Signs

When you go nowhere, you can look at the same yellow caution sign for as long as you live. One near my parents’ former house—former house one of five, but I’m the only one counting—was already pale and decaying when I was a kid. Beaten and pock-marked, the withered sign told, originally, that the road was a dead end. The road wasn’t the only thing that was.

Another sign I watched slowly fade. This one was near the train tracks where my wife and I’s former house—house one of one, but I’m the only one counting. There had been another old, deadening sign like the one by my folks’ house. But right before my kid was born—the one who doesn’t come around the current house (bachelor house number three of…who knows?)—a driver, out of control on winter ice, careened into the sign and came to a stop on the tracks. The driver stumbled out in a booze haze before the train got both his car and the old RR sign he’d taken out. I’m not sure what happened to the driver after that, but the sign was resurrected in a vibrant, electric, old-wives-tales caution yellow. It was as new as our son was, and as one grew up, the other gathered character. First was the red sticker with a cartoon image of Patrick Swayze that read “Pure Swayze.” The red sticker slowly molted around its edges for a year and a half before being ripped off by an anonymous passer-by. The rectangular glue ghost of the sticker remained for far longer than the sticker itself. Gathering grime and dirt from the remnants of frozen ice and kicked-up sand, it darkened until slowly fading away.

Before the glue ghost was gone, another anonymous passer-by took a bat to the upper left corner, dog-earing the sign for the rest of its uprightness. The sign outlasted the railway, which stopped running right around when my kid started elementary school—coinciding with the disillusionment of his mother and father. But we’re here to talk about decrepit pieces of public works, not decrepit people falling away and being consumed by the dirt, so I digress.

The area accumulated a lot of dirt, and the dirt kicked up and punched slight little holes into the sign. The tiny slights and aggrievements, sometimes no larger than a grain of sand, came to cover the whole sign; each little indentation pushed away some of that electric yellow. Around the time I noticed that it had faded into the yellow of my childhood, my own kid rode by this sign on his bike—the one his mother and father fought about buying. I’d gone and gotten it as a surprise, and now the bike kicked little bits of gravel toward that sign, too. But perhaps I am making too much of the word “time.” For in a still space, over so many years, all times become the same. These tiny quantum moments of staring up at the ceiling, wondering if I was in a house of strangers, or squinting against a bright, yellow, inevitable sun while mowing the grass, all of those moments (laughing at a dropped quart of milk, cursing at a spilled pitcher of water) just become “the time at the house.” Married house one of one. Life had a large section before—childhood, school, parents, moving, parents’ addictions, college, etc. Then there is the courtship, another giant well of memories compressed into a neutron star barely shining. And so with that house. There was the marriage, then there wasn’t.

A couple years before everyone moved out, moved on, and turned off the switch, someone graffiti’d a red penis onto the sign, enveloping the place where the glue ghost used to be. This was eventually covered with a splash of white paint, which then had a word written in the space—but I couldn’t read the font.

Colors in still places can stay there a long time—the sun certainly has. I find that I am unsure of which way to measure time. Is it great bouts of stillness that must be measured in continental drift, or the lifetimes of moths and ants—whole existences in an instant? I was the last one to leave the house, maybe the last one to see that sign. And I went far away from it. If you measure in states, in years old, in addresses former and current, you can see many changes—most especially if you measure in my weight. But now, here, I can look out over another yellow sign. I drive by it to the same kind of job, or to a similar store where I still buy the same brand of rotini. So everything changes, and yet nothing moves. Should I have ever left that dead-end road?

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