Pincushion by Kyle Stedman

*Featured Artwork “Spell” By Ann Calandro

“Pincushion” is a personal essay written, narrated, and produced in March 2018. All sounds and music heard are licensed by Creative Commons.

Full Transcript:

Timothy’s dad was a big guy. We were sitting across from each other at his living room table, cluttered with old newspapers and magazines. He had just told my friend Timothy to turn off the Nintendo game we had been playing and ride his bike around the block a couple of times so he could talk to me. Timothy’s dad kept track of his kids’ exercise, tallying it on a chalkboard and rewarding them for it later. I thought it was kind of weird.

Once Timothy had left, he said, “I just noticed the fourth-grade class photo upstairs in Timothy’s room. And do you know what I saw?” He paused to clear his throat, a ratchety sound that seemed out of place for this large man.

I shook my head.

“On the photo. There was one particular thing. An unusual thing.” He talked like that, breaking his words into too many sentences. Pausing for effect. I hated it.

He scratched his red beard, his neck, his ear, and I thought for a moment about his ear fungus. Timothy had told me about it in his awkwardly quiet way, embarrassed for his dad and probably worried I would tell someone else. I never told, but I never forgot.

I stayed quiet, though. I wasn’t going to make this any easier. I watched his ear.

“And there was a thumbtack,” he said. “A particularly. Placed. Thumbtack, placed directly through your classmate Dustin’s face.”

I never broke eye contact. “Wow,” I said. “That’s crazy.” Then I waited. This was his table, after all.

“I know it wasn’t there yesterday, before you got here. Are you saying you had nothing to do with it?”

I made a sort of surprised movement with my eyebrows, moving my head back. “I didn’t have anything to do with it, no sir.”

Timothy’s dad leaned forward. He really was a big guy—not huggable and round in the way that Timothy, his sister, and his mom were, but tall, broad-shouldered, in an imposing way. It strikes me now that he might have known this, that he was aware that his body moved and lurked differently than his family’s, and that in this moment he wanted to make sure I subtly got the message that he was bigger than I was.

“Look,” he said. “I want you to be honest. I want you to admit that you pushed that pin into Dustin’s face. That you took his photo, which doesn’t belong to you, and destroyed it.”

I wasn’t big for a fourth grader. I hated my skinny arms, my thin hair, my thick glasses. But I was taller than everyone else in class, and in this moment a little bit of me was aware that I looked a couple years older than I was. So I leaned forward a bit, too.

“I’m telling you: I. Didn’t. Do it. And I can’t believe you keep saying that I did.”

***

At school, Dustin was intense. Unpredictable. He could go a whole day silently sullen at his desk but then freak out after school, shoving a third-grader to the ground and laughing his mean, loud laugh, like a dented trumpet.

But on other days he wanted to play nice, using his fearlessness on the soccer field at recess to win praise even from the cool kids, praise that I could never seem to earn. You never knew with Dustin; he could sit next to you at lunch and seem to be your friend and then smear boogers on your backpack the second you turned away.

I hated him. I didn’t like his shaggy hair, his skinny arms, his stained clothes, his asymmetrical smile. I didn’t like the way that a conversation with him always turned loud, making everyone turn and stare. I didn’t like his ratchety coughs. I didn’t like his explosions, like the time he slammed the four-square ball into the cement so hard that it bounced to the other end of the blacktop, after which he simply gave up on the game, sitting with his back to the building and silently daring anyone to ask him to go get it. He was Judd Nelson’s character in The Breakfast Club, always prodding, always mocking.

The thing is, I managed my social hierarchy carefully, the way I built my Lego sets. I knew I wasn’t cool, but I was working my way toward being at least respectable: I was really good at a few select Nintendo games, even if I lost at others; I was never the first picked for sports but I wasn’t the last, either–and at least I had name-brand Doritos and good pudding at lunch.

Still, I hung out with Timothy, which was socially dangerous. At school, Timothy was clearly ranked lower than I was, with his pale, round body and his obsession with reading. He didn’t even try to play soccer with the rest of us. Outside of school, we played and had a good time, like friends. But at school, I was a little colder, noticeably more attached to other kids.

And maybe because of this, I felt I had moved a couple of steps up the hierarchy since I had transferred to this school a couple years earlier, in second grade. That’s how I knew Dustin: he had been in my kindergarten and first grade classes at the old school before he followed me, like a limping hyena yowling its way from one side of San Diego to the other, following my scent. When I realized who he was, where I knew him from, I didn’t say anything to him. I never introduced myself, never reminded him that we had known each other a couple years ago. I had my status to think of.

And Dustin was a destroyer of status. If he had seen my mental social-management plan laid out in a grid, he would have slammed a four-square ball into its teeth, or shoved a thumbtack through its grinning mouth.

***

I can’t find Timothy on Facebook or Google. One website suggests he still lives at home with his parents. Another suggests he became a software engineer, a job that exactly fits the Timothy I knew when I moved out of town the summer after fifth grade.

I haven’t spoken to him since I moved, except for a couple of letters in middle school. But here’s the conversation I imagine us having, if I found him one day, and we got a drink or something.

I would say, “You seem just the same as always!” And he’d be silent, wondering what I really meant.

I’d say, “No, you’re the same in a good way!” I’d laugh awkwardly. “Like, I have no idea who I even was at different phases of my life, or how those phases relate to who I am now. You know?”

He’d smile, I think, and probably say, “You seem different to me, yeah. In a good way.”

I’d say, “Well, I’m glad you said that. . . . Because you know, I think sometimes I was kind of a jerk to a lot of my friends. Like, to you especially.”

“What do you mean?” he’d ask.

“I don’t know, in this unpredictable way that’s hard for me to describe. It’s like a switch would flip and I would be sarcastic with my friends, even though I was never really mean deep down, I don’t think, I just acted like I was in public. Which I know is the same thing essentially, but you know what I mean. And I think I did that with you. I think I would act kind of like your dad, like I had some kind of ownership over you, the way he kept track of how much you rode your bike and all.”

He’d probably pause to figure out what I was rambling about, and then he’d just say it: “So you’re saying were unpredictable–like that time you stuck a thumbtack through Dustin’s face on my class photo?”

“Whoa,” I’d say. “You remember that? Wow. I actually remember sitting there with your dad, absolutely refusing to say if I had done it or not, but he sure was convinced I had done it. That’s funny. That conversation scared me out of my mind, but when I think about it now I like to imagine that I got a little pushy back at him, asserting myself or something–I’m not sure if I really did, though. But actually, Dustin is a good point. I think there was this sense in which I found myself acting like him, even though I hated him. And I think you bore some of the brunt of that.”

“Well,” he’d say, “I was definitely the lowest on the ladder at that school, that’s for sure.” At this point, I like to imagine him checking his expensive watch to make sure he’s not late for his meeting with worldwide top executives or something. Then he’d continue: “But Dustin was pretty low on the ladder too, wasn’t he? I think his family was poor or something. So if your theory is right, that you were mean to people lower than you, wouldn’t you have been a jerk to him, too?”

“I think. . . .” Here I’d sip some coffee to gain time. “I think Dustin was one of those kids who was like a wounded tiger, as overused a metaphor as that is, someone who knew he was down but was going to take everyone else with him.” Maybe I’d cough, here.

Finally, Timothy would be ready to move this essay along, and he’d say: “Look, I’ve got to go in a minute. Did you want to say you’re sorry or something? Is that what this whole scene is about? An apology?”

“Timothy, we had a lot of fun together. I actually really liked going to your house, even though I sometimes pretended I didn’t like you, and even though I thought your dad’s focus on you exercising was weird. But at this moment, in this essay, I’d rather leave the ‘Am I sorry?’ thing a little more ambiguous and artful, and maybe instead just use a music change to kind of leave ideas ringing in the minds of listeners, without wrapping it all up all tidy and everything.”

He’d sigh. “I think you’re doing that not-as-nice-as-you-really-should-be thing again.”

***

One day in fourth grade, I was done with Dustin.

I don’t remember what exactly set me off that day, but it could have been anything: grabbing the copy of Nintendo Power magazine that I kept hidden in my desk; laughing at something I had said in public; getting up in my face, with his intuitive knowledge that I had a space bubble and he didn’t. That was his favorite trick: standing right in front of me, our noses almost touching, his sweaty smell daring me to react.

Whatever it was that day, I know I had a recent crime of Dustin’s in mind when I woke up at Timothy’s house after spending the night, climbed down from Timothy’s top bunk, glanced to see that he was still asleep on the bottom bunk, and jammed a thumbtack into Dustin’s face, slow enough for it to hurt, smiling a sarcastic smile of my own, and noticing for the first time that our haircuts in the photo were essentially the same.

***

In fifth grade, the year after Timothy’s dad sat me down at the table, I pulled the fire alarm at school. It was morning, before school started, the dew on the field dampening our rolled-up jeans and Converse laces. But look, I didn’t mean to pull it.

When I walked up to the building, all the boys were crowded around the alarm screwed into the bricks, discussing the keyhole in the middle of it.

One of the popular boys put his hand on it and tugged a little. “See?” he said to me as I walked up. “It’s locked.”

Dustin was there, but Timothy was somewhere else, probably smart enough to stay away from this kind of crowd. I looked around and saw him reading with his back to the wall a few feet away—at least I’ve put him there for this version of the story. Let’s say he was reading a library book, something he rented instead of owned.

Locked or not, the alarm still freaked me out. But when everyone reached up to gently tug on it, I took my turn. (Did I go right after Dustin? Egged on by his bravery?)

But the alarm stayed put. Locked.

Another friend walked into the group just as my hand left the alarm. “Whoa!” he said. “Don’t touch that!”

Feeling confident of my status, as someone who had braved the alarm, I said, “No, it’s locked! Look!” And I grabbed the top of the alarm and pulled it, owning it, and it came down, and the sound of the bells shook a fungus inside me with a violent, panicked rumble.

Everyone began filing into the school’s central field, guided by confused teachers and staff. But this is what I remember: the boys crowding around me, heads down, vowing to never tell, to keep my identity as the puller a secret. They made an instant club around me, the kind of affinity group that I never imagined I could be the center of. Our huddle moved onto the field as a single organism, a clump of cells changing into a molecule, a mass indivisible except through chemical force.

And Dustin was there too, huddling and whispering support along with everyone else, while Timothy trailed a few feet after us, struggling to keep up.

It was the girls who gave me away. When our teacher strode onto the field, all their fingers pointed at me. And when he asked, later in class, for everyone to volunteer who had even touched the alarm, each to receive the same punishment for being so stupid, Dustin didn’t raise his hand. But why would he? His head was down, dodging eye contact in the way that he did, probably smiling a sarcastic smile as he made a rocky cushion for his head out of his skinny arms. I didn’t squeal.

When Timothy’s dad picked him up from school that afternoon, I suppose Timothy told him what had happened that morning. What I had done. And I suppose his dad shook his head, remembering the lie I had told him at the table a year earlier.

But I also wonder if his dad felt the smallest quiver of jealousy, a sort of envy at the thing I had done, the irresponsible action I had taken. Of course he disapproved and thought worse of me, maybe even making a sarcastic comment of his own to Timothy—but did he also wonder if he had underestimated me, back at his table? Had I gone further than he ever thought I would, and further than he would ever go, as I careened into the future like a fire truck skidding around a city corner?

“Pincushion” is a personal essay produced by me, Kyle Stedman. All sounds and music heard are licensed by Creative Commons. In order, you heard (often with some kind of effect added):

Robinhood76, “01097 emergency siren police moving.wav”: https://freesound.org/people/Robinhood76/sounds/74726/

Contributors:

Kyle is an associate professor of English and Writing Program Administrator at Rockford University, where he teaches creative nonfiction, digital rhetoric, and first-year composition. He publishes creative-critical work on the rhetorics and pedagogies of sound, including audio essays whenever he can get away with it.

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