By Joe Engel
The road crew is knee deep in a mirage. Silvery waves rise from the heat they can’t see, heat which raises sweat from their skin and causes them to draw frequently from the ice water in their thermoses, whose saintly clanking seems to descend from somewhere other than these miles of assigned road.
John doesn’t need a break like the others. He is a man who smiles wide in the July sun between the groups of traffic and watches the Killdeer swoop and call from the fields beside the highway. He holds a two way sign that flips to read “stop” or “slow” and runs a finger down his temple where dried sweat has left a fine coat of salt on his skin. It’s not that he doesn’t need water like the rest or that the sun favors him, it’s just that he turns the sign, he controls when traffic will stop and when it will pass, regardless of his coworker with a radio who is responsible for the other end of the passage. He knows the crew behind him, who paint striping on the blacktop. He is their guardian.
He makes eye contact with each motorist so they know. He flips the sign to “stop” as a semi truck approaches, but notices a small Volkswagon that wants to pass, peeking out, eager to go despite the orange warning sign placed a half mile back.
John thinks of his wife’s cold lips when they kiss. His son refusing his food, refusing his chores. That one drip coming from somewhere above their kitchen. His brother who will never pay him back, to the point that John doesn’t ask.
He hears the engine of the truck now as the car pokes out again, and pulls his shoulders back. A glare on the windshield of the truck blurs his view but he stares where the driver’s seat is and hears the air breaks halting its freight. His teeth grit, just a bit, and a rivulet of sweat releases down his cheek. He squats slightly. The VW takes one last peek, and he leaps into the opposite lane where the little car might try to break past. He brings the sign down, staking land and pushes out the the word for the driver to see. Regardless that the car has not advanced, he holds out a hand and yells, “Stop” in a way that was heard, that had to be seen.