Crossed Signals

Short story originally published in Literal Latte in January 2007

The first time was really an accident. At about 9:30 one balmy spring evening, Dave Ferris was driving his three-year-old son, Max, around trying to tire him out, when he spotted the street sign lying on the curb. The metal pole to which the sign had been fastened was bent in half and looked like a person doubled over after a punch in the stomach. Dave pulled the car over to the side of the road and glanced back at his son, who was still fighting to keep his eyes open.

“What are you doing, daddy?”

“I’m just going to move that sign out of the street.”

Max’s eyes shot open like a full moon emerging from behind a cloud. “What sign?”

“It’s just a street sign. It’s Spencer Street. It’s not a traffic sign or anything.”

“I want it!” he barked.

“Well, okay, I guess. I mean it’s ruined and it is a potential hazard.”

Dave opened the door and stepped outside. The neighborhood was eerily still. The long, low, expressionless ranch houses sat dark and quiet. Only the occasional lighted window gave the impression of anyone being home or awake. He really had nothing to worry about in this case. The sign and signpost were already destroyed, probably by some drunken teenagers driving a pickup truck with oversized tires, so it wasn’t like he was stealing it. He strolled over to the spot where the sign lay and regarded it almost sadly, as if it were a dead cat or dog lying on the side of the road. Considering the force that must have been necessary to knock the sign off the post, it was basically in good shape, with just a few scuffs and dents. He looked back at his son, who was jerking violently back and forth in his car seat and yelling something that he couldn’t make out, and he bent down and picked the sign up. He ran his index finger over the surface and looked down to see dirt covering his fingertip. He looked around again and, still seeing no one, headed for the back of the car. He quickly unlocked the hatchback of the sky blue Subaru station wagon and tossed the sign inside. Then he hurried back to the driver’s side of the car and jumped in just as a car passed, headlights bouncing as it rolled through the dip in the street designed to keep cars from speeding.

“I want to see it!” Max screamed as Dave closed the door.

“When we get home,” Dave said, turning the ignition.

“I want to see it now!”

His son was practically in tears and was swinging his feet wildly. He managed to kick the back of the driver’s seat hard enough so that Dave felt it in his side. Dave looked back at the distraught child — his pudgy, little, round face contorted with rage — and didn’t have the heart to reprimand him. He wondered how he was ever going to calm him down before he got home.

“What is that?” his wife, Karen, asked as he entered the house carrying his wide-awake and wailing son in one arm and the street sign in the other hand. She was in her pajamas with her chestnut hair tied in a bun on top of her head, ready for bed. Her belly jutted out under her pajama top like a basketball even though she was only in her fourth month of pregnancy. And although the worst of the morning sickness had subsided, she was still tired all the time.

“It’s a street sign I found on the side of the road,” Dave said, matter-of-factly. “The whole sign post was knocked over and everything. Somebody must have hit it pretty hard.” He deposited his son on the tile floor of the foyer, and he immediately dropped to his knees and continued his tantrum.

“Why did you bring it home?”

“It was in the middle of the street. I didn’t want to just leave it there.”

Max’s tantrum had escalated to an ear-piercing level, and his wife’s attention was temporarily diverted.

“Come here, sweetheart,” she said, scooping him off the floor. She patted his back gently and made shushing sounds until he began to calm down. “Why is he so upset?”

“He was just dozing off when an ambulance raced by and the siren woke him up,” Dave said, heading toward the living room with the sign.

“What are you going to do with that thing?” Karen asked.

“I thought I’d hang it on Max’s wall. You know how he loves traffic signs.”

She sighed. Max was completely calm now, loudly sucking his thumb, his head resting on his mother’s shoulder, his eyelids beginning to droop.

“Well, make sure you wash it off good. I’m sure it’s filthy.”

Dave wasn’t exactly sure when his son’s obsession with traffic signs began, but it seemed to begin sometime around Christmas after he got the wooden train set. A couple of miniature traffic signs came with the set, and he noticed early on that his son was more interested in those than in the miniature wooden trains. Sometime later, Max began to ask about the traffic signs on the roadside.

He wanted to know about every sign they passed, and he seemed most interested in the less common ones like DIP, BUMP, DO NOT ENTER, and RAILROAD CROSSING. And once he had learned to recognize them, he began pointing out every sign he saw with the booming enthusiasm of a Baptist preacher. He often demanded to go on excursions around town for the sole purpose of seeing a particular sign. Dave was far more indulgent than his wife in this regard. Sometimes after picking him up at preschool in the early afternoon, he would take Max miles out of their way to get a glimpse of whatever sign struck Max’s fancy that day.

The next evening, Dave hung the sign on Max’s bedroom wall above his bed while Max stood by jumping up and down and shrieking with excitement. Karen poked her head in at one point and squinted her narrow brown eyes and regarded the proceedings with a look of mild disgust, as if she smelled something rotten.

“That’s really ugly,” she said through pursed lips.

“Ah, come on, Karen. He loves it.”

“Look, Mommy, look!” he shouted on cue. “Spencer Street.”

“I see, honey,” she said, patting him on the head. She shrugged and left the room.

The second time took some planning. On one particular trip home from school, Max wanted to see “Bump Street,” a street with a number of speed bumps and corresponding BUMP signs. As they drove slowly down “Bump Street,” his son pointing out each sign as they approached, he noticed that one of the signs was missing the top bolt and was tilting forward away from its post. He pulled the car over to the curb and quickly got out. The sign was hung low enough so that he could stand on tiptoes and reach it, and he tugged on it to see how tightly it was fastened. He examined the single bolt that held the sign in place and returned to the car.

“What are you doing, daddy?”

“I was just looking at the sign.”

“Can you get it for me?”

“Not right now. But maybe later.”

This sent Max into an epic tantrum. Dave tuned the radio to a classic rock station and turned the volume up full blast to drown him out.

Later that evening, Dave dug around in his tool bench in the garage. He found an old wrench that looked like it could handle the job. He opened the automatic garage door and deposited the wrench in the passenger seat of the wagon. Back inside, he found his wife and son curled up together on the living room sofa watching a video. His son’s hair was wet from his bath and he was sucking his thumb with gusto.

“What were you doing?” Karen asked without taking her eyes off the TV.

“Just dumping some stuff in the garbage. By the way, I’m heading over to the market. You want anything?”

She looked up. “You’re going now? What for?”

“I just feel like getting some ice cream. We’re all out.”

“Okay,” she shrugged. “Pick up a gallon of milk for him.”

“Got it.”

He grabbed his wallet and keys off the counter and hurried out through the garage.

He raced over to “Bump Street” and pulled up beside the loose sign. He turned off his headlights and waited in the car for a couple of minutes. The neighborhood wasn’t exactly bad, but it wasn’t particularly pleasant either. It was an older working class neighborhood south of downtown lined with cute, little craftsman bungalows from the 1920s and 30s. Many of the houses were in serious states of disrepair with peeling paint, crumbling stucco, sagging porches, and worn-out, patchwork roofs. Many had not been updated or properly maintained in thirty or forty years. Lights were on in many of the houses, and he could see the otherworldly blue flickering of televisions in several windows. He grabbed his wrench and got out of the car. The sign was hung pretty low, but not low enough for him to get sufficient leverage on the remaining bolt from the ground. So he climbed up on the roof of the car, and from there he had easy access to the bolt.

Dave wasn’t a small man, but it took a considerable amount effort for him to loosen the bolt. As he worked it free, a car turned down the far side of the street. Dave slid off the roof and ducked beside the passenger door. The car passed and turned right at the corner. Dave scrambled back onto the roof of the car and finished loosening the bolt. He worked the last couple of threads loose with his hand, and a moment after he extracted the bolt the sign came crashing down. Fortunately for Dave, it landed on the little strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street and didn’t make too loud a noise as it hit the ground. He jumped down from the roof and picked up the sign. Then he raced around to the back, popped the hatchback, tossed the sign in, and sped off.

As he raced up the street toward his house, sweating as if he’d just finished some strenuous exercise, he suddenly realized he’d forgotten the ice cream and milk. He swung the car around wildly and headed back for the market. He ran into the store and all the way to the back where the milk was stocked. He then raced over to the freezer section, grabbed the first box of ice cream he came across, and jogged to the checkout line. Because it was late, there was only one line open and there were several people in front of him, including one harried-looking, middle-aged woman with a cart piled high with groceries. He sighed miserably.

Dave finally pulled up to the house about fifteen minutes later. He raced inside carrying the milk and ice cream. He was breathing hard and still sweating.

“What happened to you?” Karen said, as he came through the door.

“You wouldn’t believe the line at that store. It was snaking through the aisle. And they never opened a second line.”

“You should have just left.”

“I know, I know,” he said.

He put the ice cream and milk away in the refrigerator. About an hour later, after they’d finally put Max to sleep and were sitting down to watch some television together, Dave went to retrieve the ice cream. He opened the freezer and couldn’t find it, and a horrible thought dawned on him. He opened the refrigerator door and was confronted with a pool of ice cream on the top shelf that had trickled all the way down into the crisper drawers. He spent the next half hour cleaning out the refrigerator while Karen trudged off to bed.

The next afternoon he picked Max up from school and brought him straight home. He walked him around to the back of the car and popped the hatchback. Max gasped for breath and pointed when he saw the BUMP sign, as if it were a bag full of Halloween candy.

“Bump sign,” he finally managed to say, hoarsely. “Where did you get it?”

“I found it on the side of the road.”

Max began to jump up and down and shriek with delight. “Bump sign! Bump sign!” he repeated several times, each time louder.

“Help me carry it in and we’ll hang it on your wall.”

Dave had the sign hung before Karen got home that evening. Max leapt up from his spot on the sofa as soon as she walked through the door.

“Mommy! Quick! Come see! Bump sign!” he said, grabbing her hand and attempting to pull her toward his room.

“Hold on a second, sweetie, I just walked in the door. I’ll come and look in a moment.” She glanced over at Dave, who was busy making spaghetti for dinner and was determined not to look up at her.

“Hi, honey,” he said. “Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.”

A bewildered and tired Karen followed her son into his room.

“Where did that come from?” she said, emerging from the room a few moments later.

“It was practically falling off the signpost.”

She glared at him and he buried himself in the dinner preparations.

That night in bed she turned to him. He kept his placid blue eyes focused on the TV.

“I want you to get rid of those signs. We’re sending a bad message to Max.”

“I don’t know, honey.”

“You know, we can get in a lot of trouble for that. Remember those kids in Florida who got charged with murder for stealing traffic signs?”

“They stole a Stop sign. No one’s going to get killed if a Bump sign is missing.”

She folded her arms across the shelf of her stomach and snorted. “So you don’t think it’s a bad idea to be stealing traffic signs for your son.”

“I didn’t steal them. I picked them up off the street. I was doing the city a favor.”

“Gimme a break.”

Finally, he turned to her. “Look how happy he is. Is it really that big a deal? Do you really want to break his heart like that? That’s just what my father would have done.”

“There’s a difference between denying your son things he really wants the way your father did and not indulging your son’s every whim. He’s only three years old for chrissakes. He doesn’t even know what he wants.”

“Believe me, he knows what he wants and he wants those signs. You don’t have to listen to him every day on the way to and from school. He’s obsessed with them.”

She was silent for a minute. “You know, I thought part of the point of you quitting work to stay home with Max was so you could do some writing. I don’t see you doing much writing these days. Maybe you should think about getting a job.”

“What’s the point? The new baby will be here in less than five months.”

“Well, that’s five months that you could be working.”

Dave ignored her and turned back to the TV and began flipping through the channels. He settled on an episode of “Maternity Ward,” which immediately absorbed his wife’s attention.

A few days later as he drove his son home from school, Max asked Dave to take him to see the big DIP sign on E street. Max’s anticipation grew as Dave drove slowly up the street. As they passed the sign and bounced through the modest trench of the dip, Max asked Dave to get the sign for him.

“I’m sorry, Max. I can’t do that anymore. Mom doesn’t want me bringing more signs home.”

Max pleaded with Dave all the way home. By the time they pulled into the driveway, the pleading had turned into a full-on fit.

All through dinner that night, Max asked his mother why he couldn’t have any more signs. After deflecting the first three or four queries, she patiently explained to him that the signs belonged to the city and that it was wrong for his father to take them. After asking about the signs for the fifteenth time, Max was sent to his room without dessert.

“You’re getting rid of those signs tomorrow,” his wife said, as he loaded the dishes from dinner into the dishwasher. Dave didn’t say anything. The semi-muted sound of Max screaming in his bedroom underscored the tension in the room.

The next day after dropping Max off at school, Dave headed over to Sears and bought a case of nutdrivers for his power drill for removing bolts. He also bought a reflective orange vest and a logo-less baseball cap from the Sporting Goods department. He headed home and loaded his eight-foot, aluminum step ladder onto the luggage racks on top of the car and secured it with a couple of bungee cords. He put the orange vest over his tee shirt and the baseball cap over his mop of tawny hair and headed out.

The sky was a flawless blue as he drove over to the street with the big DIP sign and pulled up beside it. He unhooked the ladder and slid it carefully down from the top of the car. Cars whizzed by and a few people walked past on the sidewalk, but Dave remained impassive, focusing on his job. He positioned the ladder next to the metal pole and pulled it open with a spine-tingling screech. It reached right up to the bottom of the sign. He got his power drill out from the back of the car along with the container of nutdrivers, and he climbed up the ladder and set his tools down on the foldout tray near the top. Then he removed one nutdriver at a time from the case until he found one that fit over the bolts holding the sign in place. He loosened the chuck and inserted the nutdriver and tightened it firmly. He inserted the nutdriver over the top bolt and squeezed the trigger. At first the bolt wouldn’t budge, but after adjusting the torque on his drill a couple of times, it began to come loose.

“What you up to, buddy?”

Dave felt his groin tighten, but he didn’t turn around immediately. He took his time setting the drill down before turning his attention to the voice behind him. He turned and looked down at a neatly-dressed, tall, stooped-shouldered old man with a head full of white hair. At his feet sat a small fox terrier. They both had the same placidly bemused expression on their faces

“Routine maintenance,” Dave said with a nod.

“What sort of maintenance?” the man said, squinting skeptically up at Dave.

“These bolts need to be replaced every three years. They get rusted out and can cause a hazard.” Dave turned back to the bolt and inserted the nutdriver back over it.

“Never heard of such a thing.”

“It’s a new safety requirement. We’ve had problems with some signs falling due to rusted out bolts over the past few years.”

“Three years seems like an awful short time,” the man said. “No bolt that thick’s gonna rust out in three years.”

Dave shrugged and continued loosening the bolt. “Like I said, it’s a new requirement. I just do what I’m told.”

“I take it you work for the city,” the man continued.

“Yep,” Dave said, trying to remain calm. He could feel sweat forming on his forehead and the back of his neck. He knew he needed to remain as cool as possible, and he needed to continue working, but he wasn’t sure what he was going to do if the man continued to stand there. His story didn’t include a reason for removing the sign altogether.

“Where’s your truck?”

“My partner headed over to the next street to work on a couple of signs over there,” Dave said, continuing to work on the bolt, which was one good twist from coming completely out of the hole. There was no response from the old man, but he could feel him standing there still looking up at him skeptically.

“Well, take her easy,” the old man said finally.

Dave turned to him and forced a smile. “You too, sir. Have a nice day.”

Dave watched as the old man moved slowly up the street with the dog trotting a few steps behind him. The man glanced back at him once, and Dave smiled benignly down at him. He removed the top bolt and began working on the bottom bolt, all the while keeping an eye on the old man who was just reaching the next crosswalk. He was going to have to wait a while to make sure the old man was far enough away before removing the sign and loading it into his car.

He waited several long minutes before the man disappeared. Dave quickly twisted the remaining bolt until it came out and let it drop to the ground. The sign now freed from the pole almost slipped out of Dave’s hand. He scrambled down from the ladder and tossed the sign into the back of his car. He then folded the ladder up and shoved it back on the roof racks and fastened it down. He was aware that other people were looking at him as they walked and drove by, and he could feel perspiration dripping down his forehead and down his chest inside of his shirt. He tossed the drill and the nutdrivers in the car, hurried around to the driver’s side, and drove off.

He turned the radio up loudly as he drove away in attempt to drown out his paranoid thoughts. As he headed up a hill on the way home, he passed a DEER CROSSING sign that was also one of Max’s favorites. It featured a silhouette of a jumping deer with large antlers. He pulled over to the curb and sat for a minute listening to the end of Lucinda Williams’ “Sidewalks of the City.” This would be much riskier since it was possible that someone he knew from the neighborhood would pass by as he removed the sign, but he felt strangely driven to do it. He removed the ladder and set it up in front of the pole. The sign was a little higher than the DIP sign but was still reachable. He looked around for a minute or so before continuing. He worked fast and had the bolts removed and the sign down in a little over seven minutes. Only a couple of cars had passed by without seeming to slow down. His heart pounding furiously, he tossed the DEER CROSSING sign on top of the DIP sign along with his tools, loaded the ladder on top, and headed home.

He had the signs mounted on Max’s walls just before it was time to pick him up. As he headed over to Max’s school, he felt a peculiar, giddy anticipation at the prospect of showing Max the new signs he had acquired. He knew on some level what he was feeling was wrong, but he couldn’t help himself. As he pulled into the parking lot of the school, he was so distracted that he nearly collided with an SUV backing out of a space. Still in a fog, he retrieved Max and loaded him in the car.

“Have I got a surprise for you,” he said, as he strapped Max into his car seat.

“What!” Max asked breathlessly.

“You’ll see when we get home.”

Max wasn’t satisfied with this answer and began whining and kicking the back of Dave’s seat. An unreasonable irritation overcame Dave as he navigated his way out of the parking lot, and he almost felt like turning around and slapping Max. Dave remembered driving with his family to visit his grandparents when he was about five. He was sitting in the back of the car with his older brother, who was playing keep-away with Dave’s favorite toy, a Major Matt Mason action figure. As Dave grew more and more frustrated in his effort to get the doll back, and after his mother failed to convince his brother to return it, his father reached back without looking and snatched the doll out of his brother’s hands and threw it out the window. Dave began to cry. His father told him to shut up, but Dave was inconsolable. Finally, after several minutes of crying, his father turned around and smacked him across the face with the back of his hand, cracking one of his front teeth. He remembered sitting there stunned and silent for what seemed like a long time, until his mother turned around and he watched her pupils and mouth transform into perfect O’s. He put his hand to his mouth and drew it away to see blood trickling down like syrup over the edge of a stack of pancakes, and then he burst into a fresh fit of crying that lasted all the way to the hospital.

As they neared home, Dave delightedly watched Max’s puzzled look in the rearview mirror as they passed the spot where the DEER CROSSING sign used to hang.

“Where did the Deer sign go?” Dave asked playfully.

Max shrugged and turned his palms up and said, “don’t know.”

When they arrived home, Dave rushed Max out of the car and ushered him into the house and straight to his room. He flipped on the light switch as Max entered the room. Max immediately spotted the DIP sign, which Dave had hung on the wall opposite the doorway.

“Dip! Dip!” Max screamed, jumping up and down and pointing. The irritation Dave had felt earlier melted away.

Dave bent down and turned Max by the shoulders in the direction of the other new addition to his collection.

“Deer! Deer!” Max squealed.

Dave was beaming as Max continued to jump up and down and scream with excitement.

“Where did you get them?” Max asked, after catching his breath.

“From the street,” Dave answered ambiguously.

Max looked at him curiously for a few moments and then repeated “from the street?” as a question.

“Yeah. From the side of the street.”

Max wrinkled his nose and squinted his eyes as if he were trying to picture exactly how his father had gotten those signs. “You got these from the street?”

“Yep,” Dave said, nodding.

“How?

“I just took them down with some tools.”

Max expression registered a dawning sense of understanding. “You took them.”

“Yep. I just took ‘em.”

“Why?”

“So you could have them on your wall.”

Max smiled broadly and then ran over and hugged Dave’s leg. “I love you, daddy.”

“I love you too, Max.”

Max hugged his leg tighter, and Dave knelt down and wrapped his arms around his son and gave him powerful bear hug.

A few minutes later Dave had the ladder loaded back on top and Max strapped into his car seat. He noticed that the sky had suddenly turned a flaccid gray, with several large, dark, ominous clouds drifting in. Dave wore his orange vest and the baseball cap while Max rocked back and forth excitedly. Dave looked in the mirror at his smiling son and felt a deep sense of fulfillment that he could not remember ever having experienced before. He almost felt like crying.

After a few blocks, Max spotted a NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH sign and started pointing and yelling. Dave pulled over and had it down in a little over five minutes. He felt the first few drops of rain tickle his face and arms as he tossed the sign into the back of the car. Then his son asked for the STOP sign at the next intersection, and Dave had to explain to him that he couldn’t take that sign because it would cause an accident. Max became furious and Dave finally calmed him down by agreeing to take down the STOP AHEAD sign nearby, which featured a picture of a small, blank STOP sign with an arrow above it. The rain began to fall in an insistent drizzle as he removed that sign. Dave looked up at the sky, which was now a deafening wall of dark storm clouds, and hurriedly loaded it into the car. Then Max asked Dave to get him the RAILROAD CROSSING sign.

Dave drove over the railroad tracks on the way to Max’s school. The rain was starting to come down in great rushes and Dave switched on the wipers. At first Dave thought that Max meant the round, yellow sign with the initials “RR,” which was posted a block before the tracks, but he was actually talking about the giant X-shaped RAILROAD CROSSING sign hung right beside the track on a thick metal pole about fourteen feet up. The sign would have been unreachable with Dave’s ladder except for the large, black-trimmed crossing lights positioned a few feet below it. Dave used a driveway entrance near the railroad tracks to pull up onto a patch of dirt and weeds located under sign. A car honked at Dave as it whizzed by on the busy through street. Dave turned to Max and told him he’d be right back. Max trembled with excitement and nodded.

It was pouring as Dave unloaded the ladder and set it up in front of the thick metal pole. The top of the ladder was still a couple of feet short of the crossing lights, but Dave figured he would be able to pull himself up onto them, and the lights appeared to be large enough to support his weight. Dave got the drill and nutdrivers out of the car. He cursed himself for not bringing any rain gear, but there was no way he could have known it was going to rain. The forecasts had all been for sunny weather. He opened the case of nutdrivers and fastened one into the chuck and placed three of the larger-sized ones in his pockets. He was pelted relentlessly by rain as he climbed the ladder, and as he reached the last rung before the top, he realized that he was going to have to stand on the very top of the ladder in order to hoist himself up onto the lights. He glanced down into the car, but he could barely make Max out through the driving rain.

Dave reached up and grabbed the top of the wet black trim and stepped up onto the top of the ladder. His feet slipped on the slick surface, and he felt his stomach drop for a second as if in anticipation of a long, fast fall. As the ladder stabilized, he placed the drill inside the trim and began to pull himself up. The ladder wobbled underneath him, and for a moment he thought it was going to topple over. He managed to pull himself up far enough so that he was able to get his knees inside the trim of one of the lights. His hair was completely soaked and water cascaded into his eyes, making it difficult for him to focus. He somehow managed to hoist himself up on top of the lights, which groaned under his weight but seemed like they would hold.

As he stood up, holding the slippery pole as tightly as possible with wet hands, he found himself staring at two heavy-duty bolts that held the two, long pieces of the sign in place against the pole. He wasn’t even sure he had a nutdriver big enough to fit around these bolts, but it turned out that the largest one from his set fit. He knelt down carefully and retrieved the drill from inside the trim below him. He looked down at his car, but he couldn’t make Max out at all through the sheet of rain. A car honked as it passed and startled Dave, almost causing him to lose his balance.

He fitted the largest nutdriver into the chuck and tightened it. Then he inserted the nutdriver over the top bolt and squeezed the trigger. The bolt didn’t budge. He adjusted the torque on the drill to its highest setting and tried again. Still nothing. He squeezed the trigger over and over, but the drill only squealed ineffectually under the strain. He tried to dry off the bolt with his soaked tee shirt, but this was a futile gesture. During a little break in the flow of traffic, Dave could hear Max crying. It reached him as a tiny, distant wail through the downpour.

“I’ll be right down, Max!” Dave yelled.

He turned back to the stubborn bolt and tried a few more times. Then he tried the bottom bolt. This one came loose more easily, and he quickly worked it out of its hole. He was surprised at how long the bolt was. It looked like some kind of giant tooth. He regarded it for a moment and then dropped it to the ground below. Max’s cry had escalated to a sustained scream that cut plaintively through the loud rush of the rain.

“I’m almost done!”

But calling out only made Max scream louder, and Dave felt the same unreasonable irritation he had felt earlier creep over him. He placed the nutdriver over the top bolt and squeezed the trigger. For a moment it seemed like it was starting to move, but then Dave realized that the nutdriver was actually coming loose in the chuck and that the bolt hadn’t budged. As he tightened the nutdriver in the chuck, another car honked as it passed. Dave was so startled that he lost his grip on the wet drill and watched as it glanced off the top of the light and plummeted to the muddy ground below. It wasn’t even worth cursing. He turned back to the sign and tried to move the top board, but even with just the one bolt holding it, it was impossible to move. Defeated and soaked, Dave lowered himself to his knees and started to slide down from the top of the lights.

His feet slipped along the top of the ladder as he made contact, and the ladder began to wobble. Dave waited until the ladder steadied itself and then placed his weight carefully on it. As he slowly lowered himself, his foot skidded out from under him and he grabbed desperately onto the trim to keep from falling. In the effort to regain his balance, he kicked the top of the ladder with his heel and felt the ladder slide away from under his feet. A few seconds later he heard it crash to the ground. He somehow managed to keep his grip on the trim and wrap his legs around the metal pole. He looked down and wondered how badly he would be hurt if he jumped. Just after he decided it would be wiser to shimmy down the pole, a police cruiser, lights flashing like Christmas decorations, pulled off the road behind his car, and two officers in ponchos quickly exited.

One of the officers set up the ladder and helped Dave down while the other sat in Dave’s car and tried to calm Max. They weren’t going to arrest him until one of them spotted the other signs in the back of his car. After that they put him in the back of the cruiser in handcuffs while one of the officers placed a call to his wife. Dave sat shivering in the back of the car, water dripping all over the vinyl seat. The rain let up and the sky began to quickly lighten as the giant storm clouds passed. About ten minutes later, Karen pulled up behind the cruiser in her black Corolla. Dave heard the car door slam as she got out. She sloshed past the squad car with only a quick look of disgust at Dave and hurried to Max. Dave watched as the officer made way for her, and he could hear her consoling Max as she unstrapped him from the car seat. As she lifted him out of the car, Dave caught a brief glimpse of his red, puffy, tear-streaked face. He thought he heard Max say “daddy,” but he couldn’t be sure. Dave heard one of the officers talking with Karen about taking him downtown for booking. He heard him explaining to her about the other signs in the back of the car. Karen told the officer about the two signs that were hanging in Max’s bedroom. She didn’t even know about the other signs he had taken yet, which she would undoubtedly discover when she got home. Dave didn’t really care what happened to him anymore.

Max had evidently calmed down and had stopped crying. Dave stopped listening to the discussion between his wife and the officer over his fate. He looked back up at the RAILROAD CROSSING sign that he’d been so close to only a few minutes before, and he wondered what it would take to loosen that bolt.

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