I blame the gallows. I’d wanted to see them ever since I saw that movie and figured it would make a good stop on the drive from Atlanta to Oklahoma City. I was going home for Thanksgiving but also for my Aunt’s funeral—an imperious woman who crocheted tiny pink and blue hats for preemies at her local hospital and fussed at me (for days) that time I dared suggest she might also use yellow and green yarn. On my way into the fort, I realized (with some shock) that the fenced off area was right by the parking lot. I’d planned to work my way up to them—to see the recreated courtroom first, then the jail so foul smelling and crowded they’d called it “hell on the border.” After that, I’d be ready. Upon viewing them, a strange mixture of dread and exhilaration overtook me, and I suddenly couldn’t wait any longer—rushing in after the one couple loitering in there finally stepped out—the woman wearing a solemn expression, the man with his hand on her back, gently guiding her away from the horror.
There were no nooses of course. Just steps leading up to a covered platform, everything painted a pristine white. Pushing the button for the message, a woman journalist’s voice flared out. As her sympathetic voice droned on, I moved over to another sign. The first execution was on August 15, John Childers, who’d murdered Reyburn Wedding (for 280 dollars). Eighty-seven men had died there over the years including Smoker Mankiller and Orpheus McGee. A locked gate barred visitors from ascending the steps: “Please keep off the gallows. Respect it as an instrument of Justice.” Leaving the enclosure before the audio portion had ended, I noticed a lone tootsie roll wrapper lying on the grass.
Once inside the fort, I made some little off-hand comment about the gallows to the park ranger behind the counter who casually informed me they weren’t the real gallows. Just a replica. The rest of the exhibits were all a blur save for Judge Parker’s wooden gavel under glass. Back in the parking lot, a family easily crossed over the black line on the sidewalk which indicated where “Arkansas” had ended and “Indian territory” began, the boys in khaki pants and matching green sweater-vests, the little girl wearing a gargantuan red bow. Christmas cards.
When I arrived home, my mother threw her arms around me, so very glad I was there safe. Later, I held the velvet sack that housed my Aunt —heavier than I would have expected. She’d embarrassed me so much, that time she took me to Dairy Queen then yelled at the girl behind the counter for not handing me my small Oreo blizzard upside down. Excoriating that poor quaking pimply faced teenager til the ground beneath her ice-cream splattered shoes almost dropped away. I whispered it low, so no one else would be able to hear: hold on.
Jenn Blair has work published or forthcoming in Copper Nickel, The Chattahoochee Review, Tulane Review, Atticus Review, Cold Mountain Review, Appalachian Heritage, the South Carolina Review, Rattle, Berkley Poetry Review, Barely South Review, and the Southampton Review among others. The 2019 recipient of Broad River Review‘s Ron Rash Poetry Prize, her poetry book Face Cut out for Locket is forthcoming from Brick Road Poetry Press.
Cover Photo by aquiamigo (Flickr)
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