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About the time Heitor Mendes turned 40, for reasons no doctor could explain, he developed a sensitivity to signs. At first, he reacted to each sign he passed with disgust. That increased to him reading the sign orally, then saying, “No!” Finally, his discomfort became so intense that whatever a sign told him to do, he did the opposite. If he saw a STOP sign, he sped up. He particularly hated STOP signs that featured an upraised open palm in place of the O. For those, he gave the finger. If the sign said, DO NOT ENTER, he did. When a sign said, BE ALERT FOR BEARS, he thought about net neutrality. Even a sign such as SOFT SHOULDER was no challenge for Heitor, though he didn’t know what that meant. As he passed, he braced both his shoulders, simulating catatonia.
Needless to say, Heitor’s affliction had repercussions. Once, he just missed hitting a car when he ran a stop sign. His refusal to obey the speed limit got him two warnings and a ticket. A BEWARE OF DOG sign had inspired him to get out of his car, walk onto a stranger’s property, and make a lifelong canine friend.
Not all signs had this effect on Heitor. If the sign didn’t tell him to do something, he was OK with it. For instance, he could pass the ENTERING BOXBOROUGH town line sign and merely comment, “Who gives a fuck?”
Over the years Heitor’s recalcitrance made a name for himself. People saw him as a latter-day Henry David Thoreau, committing civil disobedience and being his own man. Environmental groups adopted him as a voice against signs desecrating the physical beauty of the land. Absurdist groups liked the idea of a protestor who was against signs. A mild uptick in downloads of The Five Man Electrical Band, who had an early 1970s hit called "Signs," was attributed to Heitor. Most people, stuck in their limited lives, just admired someone who stood up to their limitations and said “No!”
At first this attention bemused Heitor, but eventually so many people wanted to meet him that he was forced to put up his own NO TRESPASSING sign on his property. As he owned his property, the sign wasn’t telling him what to do, so he could tolerate it. To further clarify things, he posted this note on his social media page:
“In doing the opposite of what signs tell me to do, my freedoms are as limited as those who obey them. My only choice I have is in how I defy the sign. Don’t do what I do.”
But as if he were a sign, some enthusiastically defied him.
Years passed. Though Heitor had thousands of followers on his Twitter feed, his contrary affliction made it impossible for him to make close friends. The only job he could hold was that of a night watchman working alone. After he turned 85, he could no longer pass his driver’s license test. His legs remained strong, but he couldn’t walk in view of speed limit signs because he was unable to go over the limit. It dawned on him that, in a nutshell, he was what he wasn’t. What would he be when he could no longer defy what signs told him to be?
At 86 he contracted emphysema. For years he’d smoked cigarettes. He didn’t want to, but all the packs had said DO NOT SMOKE. His impending demise sent social media into a tizzy. In an attempt to prolong his life, one of his most fervent admirers made a sign that said THE END and held it in front of Heitor’s face, hoping for one last defiance. Heitor grimaced and muttered, “No can do.”
I am an English teacher living in Vermont, USA, with my wife and beagle. My work has appeared in “Mythic,” “Stupefying Stories,” “Penumbra,” and other semi-pro markets. Some of my more than 60 published short stories are collected in "Walden Planet" and "The Reopened Cask".