This time last year, which seems like a long time ago, I found myself at the automotive shop. Things seemed kind of tense. There aren’t many places to get vehicles inspected in the Big Bend, which puts pressure on the few existing spots to do lots of them. Inspections cost a flat $7 statewide. I imagine that the volume of inspections could consistently pull a mechanic from concentrating on more lucrative or in-depth jobs. A business owner might become kind of testy about that situation. Maybe that’s the reason behind all the signs.
There were eight signs, at my furtive count. One was handwritten and inside the office: “Do not touch anything on this desk.” The others were mounted on the exterior of the building. They were printed on metal and retained idiosyncrasies. Reading them, I thought about someone’s reasons for opening an auto shop. That person’s probably good with engines, a natural problem solver who appreciates the satisfaction of making a fine machine run sweet. Here’s someone who just wants to work on cars. Too bad people get in the way.
Reserved parking . . . unauthorized vehicles towed away
Customer are required to wait in waiting room, if you choose to wait here, while your vehicle is being serviced. No Exceptions.
Be Considerate. It is greatly appreciated when your children accompany you here, that you keep them respectful of our business and possessions.
Warning. Customers becoming irate and/or violent will warrant us contacting the Police.
Work performed here will be paid for in full before you are allowed to take your vehicle.
Keep Out. Customers are not permitted to enter shop area.
Minimum computer diagnostics charge is $32.50
I had rebelled and sat outside, though meekly, and out of the way. It occurred to me that there was a lot going on at this place that I didn’t know anything about. I should holster my curiosity about whatever past arguments had necessitated visits by police. I should censor my questions about what had been ruined on the desk and by whom. Just then, a red vehicle pulled up, the sort of angular, sporty, kit-made car you don’t see too often, and parked in the driveway where parking is not allowed. A slender woman with maroon-dyed hair, form-fitting jeans, and Jackie Onassis sunglasses climbed out. A man’s voice called out from inside the service bay.
“Now, you cain’t park there.”
“I know, sweetie, I just gotta ask you a question,” she replied, and strode into the bay where customers cannot go.
They talked inaudibly a few moments and she edged back outside.
“How’s he doin’?” the voice asked. She turned to face him.
“He’s decided that he’s not going to be here much longer.”
“Well, I know.”
Her mouth turned upside down. Her chin puckered. “He’s giving everything away. I mean, he gave me this for my birthday,” and she gestured at the odd car.
“He’s giving it all away, giving all of it away.” And with that, she got back in the vehicle, reversed, and drove off.
Oh, those signs, I thought. They’re trying to impose order, but people don’t listen. People are going to do what people do—park where they want, walk where they want. Put a Slurpee on the desk. Let their toddler paw the gumball machine. They’re going to get sick, give everything away, and die. The signs won’t keep the chaos outside the garage doors, not really, regardless of how much structure is in place and how many rules are given. A mechanic in coveralls stuck his head outside the bay. “Ma’am,” he said to me. “Truck’s ready.”
Signs are put there so that you’ll pay attention, and sometimes I have done just that, so much so that I remember them years later. As a child riding in the back seat of my parents’ car, driving past the Park Cities Baptist Church, in Dallas, reliably produced a delicious dread in me, for the clock face in the church’s impressive steeple read “Night Cometh.” That progression of time and the insolence and frailty of us silly people were not lost on me. A reckoning will happen, whether it takes place after church or in the auto shop.
Mostly I recall the signs that were funny. Some years back, we rolled past a church in Cleburne where the week’s homily outside read “A dusty bible leads to a dirty mind.” At least, I thought it was funny at the time. Maybe it isn’t. Not long ago a sign appeared on the chain-link fence of one of Marfa’s cemeteries: “Enter at Your Own Risk.” It cracked me up when I initially saw it this spring, but the inexorable march of COVID-19 has redrawn the boundaries of context. It will be funny again someday. I hope.
Still, some pleasure remains. Occasionally I’ve encountered signs that are an enduring mystery. In Marfa, there’s an adobe ruin with a strident message in red spray paint: “KEEP OUT SNAKES.” I’ve never been sure whether the sign intends to warn people of snakes or whether it cautions snakes to steer clear. Either way, I’ve seen neither snakes nor people there, so I guess it’s working. About twenty years ago, when I was a reporter at the Big Bend Sentinel newspaper, I took an ad for a woman in town who had left a very unhappy marriage in Houston for a new life in Marfa, where she’d found a wealth of supportive friends. Cellphones weren’t yet common. She didn’t want her former husband to be able to reach her any longer, but she did want to hear from her pals, so she bought a large display ad in the paper, which is a sort of sign: “This is Elizabeth. My new unlisted phone number is,” followed by the number itself. Makes perfect sense, right?
Room for Boards
Billboards are among the signs Texans most commonly encounter. While legislation prohibits these signs in certain rural areas, about 35,000 billboards dot the state’s urban areas.
I, and everyone I know, routinely scan the local grocery store bulletin board for vital information. The board is prominently located at the store’s entrance, and it’s often so packed with various notices that the array must be rearranged to fit in anything new. In normal times, these signs are intriguing for their range: a Christian concert coming up, a cheerleader bake sale on Saturday, lawn mowing services. You can tell much from the handwriting. The seller of chiweenie puppies has the scratchy hand of an older person with arthritis and composed their sign with a ballpoint pen on a stray index card. Very common sensey, this person.
A previous incarnation of this grocery used to post a note at each cash register listing all those folks who had written a check with insufficient funds. Often, the names on those lists were visible to both the cashiers and the customers in line. It’s the mark of a small town that, chances were, you knew some folks on that list or perhaps, in a pre-ATM, check-heavy era, an ill-timed dance between the end of the month and the end of your money meant your name might’ve been there too. No judgment, especially these days. It happens.
Most signs do not turn out to be permanently relevant. Marfa’s local watering hole used to be called Lucy’s Tavern, and Lucy had rules. The signs in her bar read “No dogs” and “No spitting,” and breakers of these commandments risked being permanently eighty-sixed from the place. It’s amusing that in the current chapter of this bar, now called the Lost Horse Saloon, dogs commonly outnumber human patrons, and spittoons are at the ready for your spitting pleasure.
My favorite sign of all time was anchored atop a tire shop in Van Horn. It was the symbol of being close to home because it sat at the turnoff from Interstate 10 toward Marfa. This sign was simple, black block letters on a white background. DIESEL FRIED CHICKEN. I’m unaware of a time in which the tire shop ever sold fried chicken. Having visited their bathroom many years ago on the way back from a softball tournament, I can attest that it was no place you’d want to eat chicken, even if it were fried in diesel.
Earlier this year, on a visit to New York City, I walked with my husband and an old Marfa friend through SoHo, dense with brunch-goers. A sidewalk table with photos for sale stopped us cold. All the images were of the Diesel Fried Chicken sign, or of the Prada Marfa art installation, which is poorly named, since it’s actually located outside Valentine. “Hey,” we told the sidewalk seller. “This is where we live, but the fried chicken sign’s not there anymore.” He was not impressed. He didn’t even think it was a weird coincidence that we knew this sign so well. “My buddy bought it,” he said breezily. “He’s putting it in a bar in Austin.” Oh, rats. I had liked it where it was.
Signs, of course, don’t have to contain language to convey information. Javelinas coming into town at night indicate wintertime, the bristly, piggy beasts lured from the grassland to Marfa lawns by windfall acorns and pecans. Vultures are a harbinger in this country. Seeing them kettle overhead in March means they’ve returned from their winter vacation in Mexico and spring is almost here. Some things we know in an old way. It’s easy to forget that the instincts to see and to know lie sleeping inside. But they’re present. When my friend Tigie was sick for the last time, eight years ago, a change in her cough and something about the way her eyes gazed at me told me something big was coming. And it came.
Lately I awaken with a bellyful of leaden dread. To push away those awful signs—the masks, the emptied schoolyard and streets—I look outward and try to remember to breathe. There is some normalcy, and for that I’m grateful. The black-chinned hummingbird buzzes at the feeder. The peach tree’s boughs are populated with tight green fruit. My red mare sighs and smacks her lips. With breath, there’s optimism.
The most interesting signs, arguably, are these totems that carry meaning so weighty that they vibrate within the chest. Once, about a decade ago, five of us were hiking in Big Bend National Park. Snowfall began halfway up the Lost Mine Trail, transforming the familiar into the unfamiliar. Stipa grass grew hoary and bearded with snowflakes and icy crystals. Snow filled the pockets between the agaves’ spiny points. Greens turned greener. The shadows deepened. The park held few visitors that January day; we had seen no other hikers. The snow intensified the beauty around us, the isolation, our rare good fortune to be there together. For all we knew, we were alone for mile upon undulating, craggy, snowy mile.
Our giddiness couldn’t stave off the chill, however, and the snow fell big-flaked and wet, a hazy curtain. We turned and stomped intently back down the mountain. Twenty paces on, we saw them: a mountain lion’s rounded prints, a long line of them, coming up the trail where we’d been not a half-minute before. The tracks were as wide as the span of a man’s hand and so fresh the snow had not started to fill the cups of the lion’s paws. Its tail had faintly brushed the snow. We gawped at one another, at the impenetrable woods. Several moments passed. There was no bird chatter, no sound at all. And I thought: This is how awe feels. This is being alive.
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A Consideration of Signs.” Subscribe today.