The BOOKPRESS May 2000

Watch Out

J. Robert Lennon

Our friend, walking home from work one evening, passed an apartment building on which some façade work appeared to have recently been done, and while admiring the deep-red, evenly mortared brick nearly stumbled into a yellow sign on which the words WATCH OUT were printed in black. The sign was painted on a board and attached to a freestanding wooden post, and referred to no obvious danger.

Our friend continued on his way, lost in thought, and had nearly reached home when the image of the sign filled his head to overflowing, and he realized that he needed to go back for a second look. Surely the sign was there for a reason, and some part of him seemed to need to know what that reason was. He’d never felt such a powerful pull toward such a mundane thing, and though the intensity of his desire alarmed him, he figured it would be easy enough to find out the truth, and his curiosity would be sated.

Unfortunately, when he arrived at the apartment building, the sign had been taken away. Neither the doorman nor the super knew anything about it. With some prodding he learned the name of the company that had restored the façade, but a call to its manager proved inconclusive. This time, when our friend turned for home, his curiosity was compounded by a vague unease.

This unease didn’t disappear with time. When our friend’s wife asked him what was the matter, he lied to her, embarrassed that he had become obsessed with a sign. Its words—WATCH OUT—remained at the forefront of his thoughts, and as he went about his daily activities, he was unnerved by the idea that someone might be following him, that he could be hurt or killed by a falling object, or that he would be caught in a knife fight, robbery or shootout on the street. When his wife and children began to suffer from his change of mood, he withdrew even further, convinced they might constitute some threat, and eventually he moved out and rented a cottage in the woods outside town.

Sadly, the isolation of country life seems to have had an aggravating effect on his paranoia. Repeated phone calls to him go unanswered, as have written invitations to our home for dinner or drinks. Other friends of his report similar rebuffs.

Of course there were probably other factors in our friend’s life that were the true cause of his apparent breakdown, and his encounter with the sign simply a fuse that brought to those factors a deadly spark. On the other hand, I find that I avert my eyes from posted signs these days, or push them from my thoughts if they happen to catch me unawares. This practice is probably not healthy, but I sometimes find it difficult to restrain myself.

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