Victor and his friend Adrian drink and talk. They spot 15-year-old Julius Windmaker, the best basketball player on the reservation. Victor thinks back to his own basketball-playing days, which ended in his senior year of high school. At a championship game at a local college, the team had their pre-game meeting in the first-aid room. They looked at medical books with gory photographs, which ruined their mood and led to them losing the game by 20 points.
After Julius leaves with his friends, Victor and Adrian discuss whether he will "make it" or burn out before graduating high school, like many other reservations sports heroes. Within a few minutes, a police car passes with Julius in the back - he has been arrested for throwing a brick through a car window.
A year later, Victor and Adrian drink Pepsi on a porch. Julius passes by, drunk even though he has a game that night. Victor and Adrian attend the game. Julius plays badly because he is hung over, and the audience leaves sadly. As they file out, they talk about a third-grader named Lucy who shows promise. Depressed by Julius’s failure, Victor and Adrian go to Spokane for the evening, leaving Victor’s door open “in case some crazy Indian needed a place to sleep” (52). When they return in the morning, Julius is passed out on the floor. Victor and Adrian have coffee on the porch and see Lucy and her friends pass by. Victor hopes she’ll make it off the reservation, but Adrian doesn’t believe she will.
The archetype of the burnt-out sports hero appears frequently in twentieth-century American literature. It is possible that Alexie drew on works such as John Updike’s “Ace in the Hole” and Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” in creating the character of Julius. However, there is also a great deal of originality in Julius and his successor, Lucy. By casting a young girl as the reservation’s next up-and-coming sports hero, Alexie defies stereotypes about traditional women’s roles. However, Lucy’s sports success plays into the important role that women seem to have in Spokane culture. The reservation’s "spiritual leader", Big Mom, is female, and women of strong character (such as Norma Many Horses) command great authority and respect.
“The Only Traffic Signal...” contains the collection’s first explicit discussion of Victor’s own drinking. In this story, he and his friend Adrian have recently quit drinking and must work to stay sober. Because the stories in this collection are presented in non-chronological order, stories that appear later in the collection do portray Victor drinking. However, he seems to be fairly successful in his sobriety – another plot element that may be drawn from the life of Alexie, who stopped drinking at age 23 (Flanagan).
The title of the story refers to a seemingly insignificant moment near its end, when Victor and Adrian notice that the reservation’s only traffic signal, which has been broken for some time, still has not been fixed. The broken signal light represents the sense of decay and inertia on the reservation, where problems, big or small, are left to fester rather than being addressed immediately. The people in Victor’s community have adapted to the problems of youth drinking and alcoholism, just as they have adapted to the broken traffic signal.
Despite these serious problems, Alexie emphasizes the reservations’ sense of community. Although Adrian and Victor are profoundly disappointed in Julius, they don’t hold his drinking against him. They recognize that his failure to leave the reservation is shared by many in the community, and they choose not to judge one of their own. This culture of trust and understanding is further illustrated by Victor leaving his door open in case anyone from the reservation needs a place to sleep.