by Eric Nishimoto
It just hangs there.
It dances and hops with the constant nudging of the breeze. It will not abandon its sentinel post dead center and high above the intersection and out of reach of even the biggest semis. In the light of day it controls the flow of cars and trucks and people crossing under it, the whole scene undulating in the asphalt’s shimmering heat waves. But come evening in Archer City it becomes the town’s focal point, a dark peaceful quiet overtaking the town save for the insistent flashing of this single function stop light.
It doesn’t shout or wave or change colors. It just steadily blinks red. And blinks. Every minute of every day. Yet it commands the attention of everyone driving in or out of Archer City, calling out its singular message.
Stop. Then go.
Humble in form and function, it still demands civility and obedience. You must stop. Wait your turn. Now move along.
Everybody stops. Those in a hurry or impatient still attend to its signal. Even the wild boys and girls blowing off accelerated blasts of unmuffled youthful energy genuflect to the light with the same childlike compliance they gave their kindergarten teachers before stomping on the gas to pursue what lays down the road.
The small town way lives on at the intersection of Center and Main.
The spirit of the four-way lives in me too. But it doesn’t limit itself to just stopping me at the intersection. It gnaws away at my whole life: my upbringing, my heritage, my beliefs, my guilt… my mother.
I’ve never been able to break rules, anybody’s rules, except accidentally or unconsciously and then feeling guilty about it. And I’m always confused that other people don’t seem to believe in the rules as much as I.
Stop. Now go.
I keep trying to be somebody other than what my parents dreamed I would be, only to give up, abjectly discouraged and vowing never again to waste my time pursuing silly distractions in lieu of a real career and life. Mom doesn’t always need to be there… I am more than able to beat myself over the head.
Stop. Now see what you did.
I can’t spit on the ground. Really. And I am the kid that felt really guilty about getting dirty when he played. Except in sports. And then later in adulthood when chasing bad guys through the brush and stuff. But only those two exceptions.
Stop. Don’t be silly.
I really wanted a dog growing up. Silly me. I was allowed to bring home goldfish won at the local carnivals. They never had a chance to live past the first day or two. I gave up asking what happened to them. But I imagined a watery paradise at the end of wherever toilet water goes where all my carnival goldfish happily lived together for years.
Stop. Now disappear.
Don’t call attention to yourself. Be humble. Don’t set yourself apart. Don’t think you’re anything special. The rules all Japanese American children have to live by.
Maybe that’s why I fell in love with Archer City. Because these people of humble means, who only knew I came with The Writers, sincerely embraced and welcomed me. McMurtry calls them “a small town filled with small-minded people.” Sorry, Larry, but your heart seems rather shriveled compared to theirs, and their thoughts warm and nourishing next to yours. I came to Archer City to fill up on your words of wisdom, but I left quenched by a life-changing experience and a desire to be a writer because the same people who’ve put up with your guff for all these years believe in me more than my own mother does.
George and the rest of the group thought I still needed to prove my newfound freedom. So what became my litmus test was to get in my car, actually George’s Mustang, and run the red light.
Breaking a law, even with nobody around that cares? Couldn’t possibly – thanks anyway. But I knew deep down that they were right. My disobedience was required. Still, I procrastinated. I worried. I agonized.
But then the cosmic tumblers all clicked into place, the clouds parted, and I received my cliché-ridden epiphany. Who needs a car to push through the tangles of hurdles I’ve accumulated over my life? Who needs a Mustang to carry me through the resurrection of my beaten spirit? I am descended from samurai… hear me grunt!
We all sat on the Spur’s front porch on the last night in town, me staring at the stop light. A smile creeped across my face. I jumped up, feeling the stone entombing my newfound spirit rolling away. I ran pell-mell towards the light. In my Quixotic charge I heard it commanding me, Stop. Stop. Stop! But I lowered my head and kept running, a rebel yell welling up and out my mouth, now grinning madly. And through the intersection I ran, not even looking to either side for cars or people. The moment of my emancipation arrived.
I stopped, realizing I ran through the intersection, and looked up. Still it blinked. And blinked. First in this direction, then in that, flustered and confused by my disobedience.
You’ll get none from me tonight, I smiled, walking directly under it, awaiting my friends to gather for a toast.
Still it blinked. But I no longer heard it.
Oh, yeah… I spit on the ground too. Dead center underneath the light.
I’ve returned to Archer City a year later to help welcome in the next installment of The Writers. Pulling into the Spur feels like coming home. Of course I turn to look at the intersection. Nothing but two roads crossing under a dangling red stoplight.
I still don’t hear a thing.