Jessica Fordham Kidd

The Pillory

Let me be clear—my town has no history. No one notable has ever lived
here. No battles fought, gee-gaws invented, feats of strength or heroism
performed. No art has ever awed an on-looker to their knees.
We have no chamber of commerce or Civitan clubs because invariably
those organizations have to award some kind of something to
somebody or someplace, and we don’t do that here. Hell, the kids don’t
even do a spelling bee. They just write their words on a list and move
on.

So, I can’t explain the iron pillory that sits in the empty lot next to the
Quik Pump. There’s no sign. There wouldn’t be. Just an iron pole, red
and textured with deep rust and two hinged boards with those neck and
arm holes to hold someone for punishment. The boards sport wicked
splinters all around the outer edges, but inside, the holes are worn
silky from years of human caress. At least once a month a teenager or a
bored someone on a bender sticks their head and hands in the pillory,
gets a friend to take a picture, and then wanders off.

Our town isn’t old enough to have used this thing in true penal style,
and I can’t see anyone having a historic recreation here either—let’s
recreate the time everybody did nothing and kept on doing nothing—but
no one ever questions the pillory. I’ve asked around but I just get blank
stares.

“Hey Kath, can you check the newspaper archives for me?” I ask our
librarian.

“What paper?”

“Didn’t this town have a paper that closed a few years back?”

“No.”

“Were we getting the paper from Hewlittsville?”

“Maybe some people did.”

“Anything in that paper about the pillory?”

“Huh?”

“That thing by Quik Pump.”

“I got bad gas at Quik Pump the other day. Gummed my lawnmower
right up.” Then she walks off and starts checking in the books from the
night drop.

The mayor, my grandmother, my friend’s uncle, the middle school
principal—all my questions about the pillory taper off in the same
bland, frustrating way.

Now when I walk by that lot my arms itch. Sometimes my teeth pulse.
The presence of the pillory just seems to irk me in some indefinable
way. When my car gets to ¼ tank I drive out of town to fill it and not
just because Kath gummed up her damned mower.

*

“Oh Lord!” Rachel exclaims and thumps her glass pipe against my
coffee table. “I need a Snickers. Right now.” Rachel had been getting
high for about half an hour—methodically, meditatively—and I had
finished the crane’s wing on a pillowcase I was embroidering.

“I’ve got graham crackers,” I say.

“Fuck your graham crackers. I’m not in kindergarten.”

“The store’s closed by now.”

“Quik Pump’s open.” My arms tingle when she says it. Not quite itchy
but certainly not in equilibrium.

“I don’t want to go anywhere. You can find something in my kitchen.”
But Rachel knows I can’t refuse her. She is already up grabbing my keys.
She locks and unlocks my front door about six times before she finally
figures out which way lets her out. Her struggle is really endearing, and
as much as I like watching her, I can see that maybe it’s not such a good
idea for her to drive my car. “Okay, okay. Give me the keys.”

I don’t have sinus problems, but as we approach the Quik Pump, I feel
like I’m going to explode from the pressure in my forehead and cheeks.
I can see Rachel inside the gas station evaluating the merits of every
type of candy bar. I also know she will forget to get me something.
I don’t exactly want a candy bar, but if she’s eating one, I’m going
to want one. I rub all over my face a few times trying to relieve the
pressure and then get out of the car.

I intend to walk inside and get myself a Kit Kat, but my feet head
toward the pillory. This isn’t what I’m doing, I try to tell my body. But
I’m not truly resisting. The pillory pulls me, and I am like a piece of
cloth—maybe snagging a bit but no real resistance.

Oh Lord, I’m going to be an ass and stick my head in this aren’t I, I think
as I lift the top bar and settle myself in. I let the bar rest on the back of
my neck and then lower myself until the two bars meet and enclose my
neck and wrists. As soon as they do, the pressure in my head goes away.
Like it was never there. I feel great.

The sky had darkened as Rachel and I dawdled at the gas station, and
now I look up at the stars from my slightly bent and awkward position.
Meteors. Everywhere. Streaking through the sky like the best meteor
shower times a hundred. I have never seen anything so beautiful. But
the meteors don’t stay confined to the sky. They streak into the trees,
and spiral down the trunks before disappearing into the ground. They
bounce along the roadway like those balls that come out of quarter
machines. In a puddle, one spins and skates figure eights until it fades.
What the hell am I seeing?

Rachel walks out of the store, sees me, waves and starts coming my way.
A meteor streaks behind her and then another right in front of her face.
She doesn’t seem to notice.

“Look at these things!” I shout and try to gesture to the sky. My hands
confined in the cut outs of the pillory can only move in little circles.

“Huh?” Rachel calls.

“The sky. Look at these meteors!” I say when she gets closer.

“Oh really? You see meteors?” She cocks her head to one side and
studies me with more seriousness than she should be able to muster
after smoking that much weed. She finally shrugs and holds out a Kit
Kat for me. When I don’t move, she leans forward and puts it in my
still-trapped hand.

The meteors haven’t slowed. Light is playing around almost every
surface I can see. And Rachel has light coming off her too. Fine pulsing
strings from her head to her feet like the drawings of earth’s magnetic
field. Maybe it is magnetic because it bulges at me a bit when she leans
closer.

Maybe there is something electric in this pillory that is messing with my
head. I raise up and get myself out. Meteors continue, Rachel still pulses
with her magical strings.

On the way back to my apartment (I let Rachel drive us home), the
meteors mostly stop, but Rachel’s strings continue mesmerizing me.
They shimmer and change colors as she moves or speaks. I want to
touch them, touch her and see what it would feel like.

I pretend to watch tv, but really I am watching Rachel’s force field. She
shimmers orange when she laughs, red when she fidgets around, and
then gets more and more bluish and greenish as her high wears off.
What would she think if I slid over closer? I want to feel her against
my shoulder and then maybe I want to put my hand on the part of her
thigh that her shorts don’t cover. Sure, I have been loving her for years,
but this is something bigger. I have to feel that energy.

I don’t touch her.

When her show ends, she sighs and then sits for a moment in silence,
but before I can ask if something is wrong, she snaps back to her old
self, and skips out of my door with barely a wave goodbye. But why
should she wave? We see each other every day. She waltzes in and out
of here as she wishes. Maybe she sleeps with other people; she isn’t
sleeping with me. We just never talk about it.

The next morning, the sunset comes over me in waves of light. Standing
at my window is like standing on a beach with orange and pink waves
washing over my body from head to toe. The light drenches me.
I walk outside. Tiny green meteors pop from tree leaves. The tall grass
looks like Fourth of July sparklers. And the neighborhood dogs! They                                               have wild energy strings waving around everywhere. The strings reach
toward, coil around, and quickly release everything the dogs come near.
A shih tzu, a stray mutt, a barking lab—they are all equipped with these
spectacular, affectionate tentacles.

“You did it, didn’t you?” The barking lab’s woman stops in front of me
and blocks the sidewalk. “Got in the pillory?”

“Huh? Oh. Did you see me there last night? Sorry if that’s something
people aren’t supposed to touch. Didn’t see a sign.” I try to sidestep her
because I want to see if those are little tentacles on a squirrel that was
just beyond her shadow.

“No, I didn’t see you get in the pillory, but I can see it on you now. Give
it some time and you’ll learn to see it too.” She walks on quickly. By the
time my mind catches up, she has rounded the corner. I jog to find her,
but she’s gone.

I keep walking and marveling at the energy zipping around this
neighborhood. Turns out my junior high math teacher lives on
this same street. He calls out to me, “Finally got in the pillory, eh?
Fantastic.”

“What is happening to me? How do you know about this?” I yell at him.
A little too loudly. He grimaces and motions me over to his porch.

“Hey now. There aren’t that many of us around, but we learn to spot
each other. A tilt of the head, a wide wild look in the eyes. Plus, look at
my energy. Isn’t it different than anyone else’s?”

It isn’t. He looks just like the dog lady had looked, and she had looked
just like Rachel. But of course, I had spent more time looking at
Rachel’s energy. Maybe there was some subtle difference I didn’t notice
in the others. “No. I can’t see a difference.”

“Really? But you can see the energy? The reaching, the shooting stars,
all that?”

“Yep?”

“Hmm, maybe it will come in time.”

“Does this ever go away? Why did the pillory make me like this?” I ask.

“Don’t know. But listen here, son. You were a good kid. I remember
that. Don’t let this break you. Keep going on. Okay?”

“Why would this break me? What?”

Mr. Wiggins answers in a lower, sad voice. “Some of us don’t make it.
Too much wonder. Hard to keep going in this world seeing everything
we can see. Don’t let that happen to you, okay? Come by anytime.”
And then he kinda waves me off. I have more questions, a lot more
questions, but he apparently is done for now. I turn around and head
back home.

I start thinking about how shocked the community was when Veronica
Martin pirouetted off the Northbank bridge; witnesses who didn’t even
know she was a dancer couldn’t help but describe her descent in terms
of beauty. And Lance, an old junior high football teammate, quit his job
and spent his time kayaking over the lock 19 dam day after day until
finally he didn’t make it out of the backwash and boil. Had the press of
wonder driven them to these ends?

When I reach home, Rachel is there, already halfway through her pipe,
and seems pretty zen in front of Three’s Company re-runs. “You know
John Ritter was a physical comedy genius,” she says as I walked through
the door. “Watch him flip over the couch.” She explodes into giggles. I
notice a Kit Kat on the coffee table.

“For me?” I ask.

“Oh yeah. You like them don’t you?”

She never used to remember candy for me. I’m suspicious and hopeful.
I settle in and start embroidering. This piece is a woodland scene with
lots of browns and greens and yellow. A deer peers from behind a large
tree, the ground is a green expanse dotted with little yellow knots of
flowers. A rabbit lingers on the outskirts of the scene. Even though
every move of my fingers sends meteors around the room, the detailed
work soothes me, and the pictures as they emerge from my stitches
pulse with a life my work has never had before.

Unlike all my other friends, or former friends (I’ve gotten rather
antisocial lately), Rachel has never commented on my embroidery. I
would have expected a rib, a jab every once in a while. I wouldn’t care.
I know most guys don’t spend their time with a needle and thread, but
it’s an art. Truly. Or would be if I ever embroidered my own designs
instead of these pre-printed patterns. I’ve got stacks of these things in a
Rubbermaid under my bed. I wouldn’t mind showing them to Rachel if
she asked. I wouldn’t mind at all if she lay down on my bed and asked
about the embroidery.

After another giggle fit at John Ritter’s comedic prowess, Rachel gets up
and I can hear her rummaging around in my little galley kitchen. I hear
her gulps as she drinks up my sweet tea. Her energy fields almost fill the                                         room when she returns. I turn back to my embroidery so I won’t stare
at her too hard.

She starts packing her pipe again, but now she is sitting close enough
that our bodies aren’t quite touching but her movements tickle my leg
hair. Maybe it’s sad, but I live for moments like these, or, even better,
when she absent-mindedly leans on my shoulder.

We’re these two planets and I see her making this gorgeous ellipse, but
we can’t cross. I’m waiting with bated breath for the millennia to pass
and I get to come just a fraction closer to her. I’m praying for a giant
hurtling body to knock me out of this stale orbit and into her path.

She puts her pipe down of the coffee table slowly. The laugh track from
the television is sending squiggly yellow lines dancing through my
apartment. Rachel spins to me suddenly, and I admit I jump a little bit.
“Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for you?” she asks.

Her magnetic fields are enveloping me now. Am I feeling them or am I
imagining this? “What?” I ask as stupidly as humanly possible.

“I’ve been waiting for you. So long. The pillory. I went in just after we
met. I knew you would go in eventually, but I didn’t know when. What
took you so fucking long?” She was shaking with excitement or anger
or something, and her field shook too. Lights ran over her skin, and
it reminded me of some vintage video game with a cursor you could
never catch.

She kept on. “You see now. How the edges of wonder can be so sharp.
Like you can’t bear it. You’re going to want to go back to the days when
it was so easy to dull those knives. That’s why I’m high all the time. So
I wouldn’t go crazy waiting for you.” She’s looking at me, expectantly,
and our magnetic fields are twining together. I can’t speak. My whole
body is buzzing with energy.

I probably only hesitate a second, but that was too long for Rachel.
“Come on!” She drags me by the hand out into the night.

We spend all night wandering this nothing of a town, and it is amazing.
The meteors are bigger than when I first emerged from the pillory, and
almost everything has tentacles of light stretching outward in crazy
caresses or magnetic fields with stripes of pulsing energy. The fields
and tentacles get bigger at night. The buildings and trees are speaking
a complicated, beautiful sign language as they reach for one another.
A nighthawk sends off sparks with its calls and its flight, and when we
startle a swallow from its nest beneath a bridge, its escape almost makes
my heart stop with its beauty. I don’t ever want this to end.

But day starts to dawn. “My place?” Rachel asks. I can’t nod or say yes
fast enough and my motions and words run together. She understands
my enthusiastic assent.

As it so happens, Rachel lives surprisingly close to my apartment.
Though I had asked and hinted many times before, she had always
demurred. She just had a way of showing up at my door and not leaving
me room for any objections.

We are at her door, and she stops with the key almost to her lock. She
spins at me quickly again. I stop breathing. I am so ready to kiss her,
smell her warmth in my arms.

“You do know that doors don’t always lead where you expect?”

The lights are running over her arms so fast now. I can’t breathe when I
look at her, but I can’t quit looking at her either. I nod yes, and we slip
inside.

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