The DMV is a Visual Cult Object to me.
When stepping from outside into the glass antechamber, one feels they are in a limbo space.
The second set of doors swing open to the waiting area, the catechumen.
We who are in line today await confirmation as we lazily float through the portal of the nave. Until we are summoned to the altar. And the Holy See of the Department of Motor Vehicles, Officer Gary Law, asks me how he can help me today.
“Hi I’m picking up a VCO for my roommates.”
He doesn’t look up from the form he’s reviewing and scratches the grey mustache whose origins are somewhere up his nose. Then he says, “You can only pick up for yourself or for immediate family members.”
“My roommates are my parents.”
His eyes are striking, glowing behind his glasses.
“Coming from a guy who has an adult son who lives at home.” He says, and lowers his eyes, “Look there’s nothing wrong with living off your parents from time to time. Lotsa people don’t even have that option. But if they’re paying your rent, at least have the respect to call them your parents.”
The mixture of his eye contact and his position of authority made his words slide greasily into my ears and back out of my mouth like a Jedi mind trick.
“Next time just say they’re my parents.” I say, “Got it.”
I non-verbally communicate that I don’t know, then verbalize, “I thought they put in the order. I’m just picking up.”
“Picking up for…” He raises his eyebrows, points with his pen.
“Are your parents mono, poly, or pantheistic?”
“So, RTS, WCS, or SOD?” He catches himself forgetting and blurts, “Or other, of course.”
He rolls his eyes and mutters to himself about how culturally behind I am with a kids-these-days tone while he reaches below his desk and pulls out a solid metal box with VCO: M-RTS-689 stamped on it. “Okay. So that’s not what it’s called now. It’s called an RTS. A Roman Torture Stake.” The officer next to him helping someone else shakes their head at my ignorance as well, and the person that officer is helping looks just as confused as I am. I never thought I’d see the day where DMV staff are ahead on the cultural curve.
I have the urge to find a way to throw the patron next to me under the bus somehow to gain affection back from the officers who are tired of my obliviousness to the most recent changes in political correctness. But I resist, it would be too obvious now.
“I have a form for you to sign.” Officer Law says, “I gotta go grab it. Wait right here.”
He spins then slides out of his chair as slow as humanly possible. I turn to look at my fellow citizens waiting their turn in the queue. Those further along are in the chairs, while those behind them wait for space in the chairs to open up. And I get this minty-tingly feeling.
A sign of my aging, but I’ve been getting nostalgic and feeling like the world I finally got a grasp on is slipping away.
Soon they’ll start labeling places like these with warning decals that look like historic building plaques. In the future, sixth graders will go on school field trips the way they do old plantations and castles, except they’ll visit one of the empty DMVs that are still standing. And see the immense patience one had to have to wait their turn in line, and be understanding when things didn’t go according to plan.
And a tour guide will tell the children, “Back in the olden times people would wait their turn at the DMV for hours. For things that could have easily been done online.”
And as the children step into the narthex, and settle into a reproduction of the actual shallow bowls of cracked plastic chairs, they will bare witness, in it’s stable environment, the type of order we were once capable of as a species. As if sitting patiently and waiting for your number to be called was a form of spiritual work in which one could engage, an edict followed to help maintain the stability needed to have at the very least, a functioning society. And laid a foundation for the children who now learn their shared history.
“Sometimes, for no reason at all, a staff member wouldn’t come back from lunch.” The tour guide will tell the children of the future, “Which would make the DMV short-staffed. So someone would have to lean into the line and tell all the people waiting that they will have to close early. And the people would go home, and come right back the next day.”
And one of the children on the field trip would say, “That must have been awful.”
But it wasn’t, I think to myself. It was wonderful. All of the suffering was wonderful. It was good for us.
Officer Law comes back, and leans towards his chair but jumps back and rubs his nostrils. Squinting his eyes he says, “Ah. I pulled a hair out of my nose.”
And I’m back in the present moment.
He places a release form with RTS already circled, and marks an X next to the line where I sign at the bottom.
“Please read the following disclaimer, then sign your name at the bottom, showing you understand the warning, and waive any liability for any side effects that may occur using this VCO.” Then Officer Law points to the pen attached to the desk with a beaded chain.
The form read:
WARNING: THIS ROMAN TORTURE STAKE (RTS) IS A VISUAL CULT OBJECT (VCO) PER GUIDELINES BESET BY THE FREEDOM OF MEDICAL CARE ACT (FMCA) COMMITTEE.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT: A RELIGIOUS SYMBOL REPRESENTING A CEREMONY CALLED THE CRUCIFIXION RITUAL, A METHOD OF SELF-INFLICTED TORTURE AND EXECUTION USED BY ROMANS DURING THE ROMAN ERA (ROUGHLY 625 BC – 476 AD). THE HISTORICAL APPLICATION OF THE DEPICTED VCO WAS TO CAUSE A PROLONGED DEATH TO THOSE WHO DID NOT ACCEPT THE SUPREME LEADER OF ROME, CAESER, AS THEIR GOD.
METHOD: ONE’S WRISTS AND ANKLES WERE NAILED TO THE RTS WITH IRON SPIKES WITH ZERO GENERAL, REGIONAL, OR LOCAL ANESTHETIC.
HANDS/WRISTS WERE TRADITIONALLY NAILED TO A SHORTER, TRAVERSING HORIZONTAL POST JUST ABOVE THE VICTIM’S STANDING HEIGHT, SO ONE WOULD BARE THEIR OWN BODY WEIGHT ENTIRELY ON THEIR HANDS/WRISTS.
FEET/ANKLES WERE NAILED TO THE UPRIGHT POST AT A HEIGHT WHERE THE KNEES WOULD BE BENT. THIS WAS DONE INTENTIONALLY SO THE VICTIM WOULD BE ABLE TO BREATHE ONLY IF THEY PUSHED THEIR SHOULDERS LEVEL WITH THEIR WRISTS. THIS WOULD CAUSE THE SPIKES IN THE FEET/ANKLES TO FURTHER MUTILATE THE ALREADY DAMAGED BONE, TISSUE, AND LIGAMENTS, CAUSING THE VICTIM TO COGNATIVELY DESTABLIZE. THUS MAKING THE PRICE FOR BREATHING UNBEARABLE. ONE WOULD TORTURE THEMSELVES TO REMAIN ALIVE. WITH JUST ENOUGH SUFFERING TO MAINTAIN CONSCIOUSNESS, THAT ONE EVENTUALLY BECAME SO EXHAUSTED AND DELERIOUS THAT THEY WOULD NOT HAVE THE WILL TO STAND UP, AND ASPHYXIATE.
Things felt slightly unreal as I recalled being dragged twice a week to sing and pray to an icon of capital punishment. Worshiping the state’s right to execute those who oppose them, and in the case of Jesus, those who were possibly mentally unstable.
I carried the RTS box to my car, put the keys in the ignition, but could not turn the engine over for minutes that felt like hours. That clinical description of the crucifix unveiled the last solid thing I had during this weird time in my life as something maniacal. The memory of my happy childhood.
I drop the RTS on the kitchen counter and shake out the heebie-jeebies.
I work out karma three times. Then wash my hands and put on new pants. Then I wait for my Uber to arrive to take me to Everhet’s show.
I check my phone even though it didn’t chime or ding. My ride still isn’t here yet.
On the kitchen counter the presence of the box is hard to describe, even to myself. It doesn’t make me uncomfortable. There isn’t anything emotional going on now. It’s more bodily if anything. And the lid wasn’t even off.
The physical space around the box was different, no matter where I moved it. Its presence created weight.
I wedge the fingernail of my middle finger under the lip of the lid to pull it off.
I attempt to pull my phone out of my pocket with my free hand as two soaring beams of light shoot through my living room window from the driveway.
My ride is here. I leave the box on the coffee table.
As the front door shut behind me the power of the object was left inside and the air tasted especially fresh from the rain.
I relished how easy it was to breathe.
Perhaps the VCO had done its job.
James Jacob Hatfield is a displaced engineer, a painter, and many other contradictions. His work has appeared in X-R-A-Y, Maudlin House, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Barely South Review, Chaleur Magazine, Havik, and others. His ekphrasis poem “torrents of lahar, No. 36” was anthologized by the North Carolina Museum of Art. He is a Sterling Fellow and a Weymouth Fellow. He is the creator and curator of the Gemini Sessions Substack. He lives in Durham, NC.