Where I’m from, mall-pocked suburban craters, whoa is spoken slow and low and like you could follow it with “dude,” even if you didn’t. It means that your mind has been blown, your horizon expanded, your whole handle on the world just a little bit more tenuous, but at the same time, more excited than it was a minute ago.
* * *
What I’m saying is that it’s different than what I’m used to, what I grew up thinking I’d be tasked with understanding. “Hold your horses, cowboy” was something I heard often enough, but never something that I thought I’d have to obey. But here it is. Whoa.
* * *
People visiting the school roll their eyes at me when I ask them if they’ve gone to see the barn. They look me over, checking for belt buckle, for gatorskin boots, and think I must be joking. That, or I drank a glass of the kool-aid that wasn’t made for me.
But I’m completely sincere. The barn, and the culture around it, is the heart of this school, even if geographically it sits at the campus’ outer edge. And there, implacable as a sentinel, cautioning you as you cross the street from the library to the stables, is the sign. “Whoa.”
* * *
Why is it green? It’s a stop sign, that’s clear: even if the word didn’t help, you’d know from the octagonal shape. But it’s green.
Sometimes, I tell myself it’s because horses are colorblind and it wouldn’t matter what color it is—it’s the shape that’s important. But it’s dogs that are colorblind; I remember that from an old Encyclopedia Brown story where Bugs Meany tied steak knives to a dog’s head to torment a pre-teen toreador.
And anyway, even if horses are colorblind, most people aren’t, so what’s that about?
You might think that all the time I’ve been here, I’d have a better handle on this, but I don’t. There’s a clannishness that springs up when people who are deep into horses get together. I can understand that, that when you all get together, for once you don’t want to explain yourself to other people who don’t get it. And if horses are your bag, well, you’re in the right place, I suppose.
And maybe that’s what the sign means: it’s a sign you’re someplace where you never have to explain, apologize or temporize. If you get it, then you don’t have to stop, but can roll right through, usual rules of the road be damned.
And the rest of us? We’re left pondering, on the wrong side of the road.
* * *
A funny story: when you get two writers together, they’ll feel each other out: where’ve you published, where’d you study, who do you know. Last year, my colleague sponsored a poet’s visit to our campus. My colleague had to teach so he didn’t have time to eat breakfast with the poet. He asked me to fill in, and of course, we didn’t even have syrup on our pancakes before the comparisons began. The poet and I came from similar backgrounds, knew some of the same people, admired the same well-published strangers, came from similar places (dead or dying industrial towns in the Boswash corridor), saw ourselves in the same places in ten years. But we were here now.
After breakfast, I took her for a walk around campus that was too disorganized, too hopelessly unplanned, to call a tour. We made our way to the barn (I wasn’t kidding about that) and I pointed out the whoa sign to her. She laughed, delighted, and I did, too.
Pose in front of it, I told her, and I’ll take a picture with my phone. And she did, and I did. I looked at the picture later, and groaned: my thumb slipped over the lens, making a dark pinking smear that connected her konk to the edge of the frame, another ruined snapshot. But the sign, framed perfectly at the center of the picture, captured my whole feeling about this place, being here, and someday leaving it.
Matt Dube's stories and essays have appeared in Essay Daily, Empty Mirror, the Iconoclast, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing and American lit at a small mid-Missouri university peopled by about 1200 ponies good and bad.