Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Layer Cake, Part 3


Greg spent two full years fighting the charges against him. To spare you the tedious legal details, they found him guilty right away and he spent almost two years trying to find a loophole: How about this? How about this? And they kept telling him No. At each step of the legal process, Greg heard No.

Having discovered this case online, I followed along, unable to help myself. It was like a gruesome accident where you can't look away. I felt like I should be rooting for one side or the other, but I couldn't decide how to feel. Everyone applauds when you show sympathy to convicted murderers on death row but there isn't any way to have sympathy for a sex offender. None.

I had never had the slightest sympathy for any of the sex offenders I'd read about in the papers. What was the difference between Greg and those other people? A 4.0 GPA? Lovely manners? The only difference was that I'd happened to go to school with this guy and not those others.

Online, where once there might have been proud news about him, a search of Greg's name now immediately brought up court stories, and all of them began with his full name and the charge SEXUAL PERFORMANCE OF A CHILD. A search of Charlene's name brought up only that she had posted bail for her husband, who was charged with SEXUAL PERFORMANCE OF A CHILD. The words all but reached out and smacked you across the face.

A search of his name and a click on Image, and you were looking at his mug shot, something I would never have believed could exist.

The first time I saw the photo, I thought it had been retouched to try to make him look overly sinister, but after a second, closer look, I saw it was just his photo; he just looked sinister now. I tried to picture his face the way I remembered it. In my mind's eye I saw his eyes lit up, his mouth either smiling broadly or lips wrinkled with a bit of held-in amusement. Then I looked at the mugshot again. The person in the photo looked cold and hard. A lock of hair was falling down, boyishly, at his temple, but his mouth was set and grim and his eyes stared, empty, into the camera. The light in them was gone.

While Greg spent the two years fighting off the inevitable, his family kept moving forward. His eldest son got married, and one of Greg's last acts of freedom was to attend the wedding. The photos on facebook tell little. In one we see the bride and groom at the altar and Greg and Charlene sitting side by side in the front row, but there is maybe six inches of space between them. Greg appears in another photo, this one from the reception. In the photo we see the happy bride and groom on the dance floor. In the background we see Charlene talking with someone, her back to the camera. In the far right side of the picture, Greg stands, leaning against the wall, his face turned to the camera, his expression seeming to say: Yeah, I'm the asshole.

Eventually the case reached the state supreme court and they told Greg No. The very last option, the Hail Mary, was to try to get the case heard by the US Supreme Court and they told Greg No too. And then there was nowhere else to go.

Greg was sentenced to two years in federal prison, with no possibility of an early release for good behavior. Two years was going to mean two years.

There was so much I couldn't understand about what he had done. He had daughters himself. How could he view a sixteen year old as an adult? Only sixteen year olds think sixteen year olds are adults. If you have kids, a sixteen year old is a kid. In fact, you probably view eighteen and nineteen year olds as kids too. Because you're in your 40's and you know better.

I wondered about all of the women over 21 Greg could have chosen to have an affair with instead. I wondered if this had been the first time he'd cheated. I wondered if there had been other 16 year olds. Then I made myself stop wondering, because I didn't want to know.

I was glad he was getting punished. If that girl had been my daughter, two years wouldn't have been enough. Maybe twenty years wouldn't have seemed like enough.

In my mind I pictured what federal prison might be like. I imagined bars and men in orange jumpsuits and sudden fights with shivs made out of bars of soap. Maybe it isn't like that. Maybe that's just on TV. I pictured Greg, assigned a number, wearing an orange jumpsuit and lying straight as a board on a hard cot, staring blankly up at the ceiling. I wondered what he'd be thinking, or if he'd just make himself blank out, trying not to think at all.

I imagined two years of that. It hurt to imagine.

Instead I tried to imagine what it would be like when the two years were done and Charlene came to pick him up and drive him home. I wondered what it would be like, feeling two years out of step, trying to get caught up on the big things and the little things. Having to ask a lot of questions. Having the other person get frustrated and making you feel stupid for asking.

I wondered what it would be like the first time he tried to assert any kind of authority with his two kids still living at home. Would it be difficult, to say that someone else had done something wrong? Would it be tricky, his kids resisting the urge to mouth off, to say he had some nerve telling anyone anything? I wondered if his marriage, which had survived his incarceration, could survive his release.

Maybe he would be a changed Greg, too different to ever fit into his old role. Maybe he would move out and start brand new. Or as new as he could. I imagined this Greg might let his hair grow past his ears. Might learn how to wear jeans. This Greg might sometimes spill a glop of mustard on his shirt and not care. I imagined him getting an unchallenging, low paying job and not minding that either. This Greg might take up pottery, might take things one day at a time, with no mountain of expectations. No rating scale except Get up, Do your thing, Mind your business, Go to bed.

And even though I was glad he'd gone to jail, as the months went by I found myself thinking: He has one more year, he has six more months, he has two months left.

As of this writing, he has two weeks left. And then Greg will need to decide what to do next because the rest of his story is still unwritten.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Marlo Thomas Is An Actress


In 1974 my family loved watching Marlo Thomas on her TV show, That Girl. My mother would always refer to her as 'that darling Marlo Thomas' or by her longer name, 'that darling Marlo Thomas I just love her'.

We also loved I Dream Of Jeannie and Bewitched. Jeannie had a master who stoppered her into her bottle when she was bad and Samantha wasn't allowed to be her true witch self unless her husband couldn't fix his ad campaign and then she was allowed to do magic, so he could take the credit. These things we accepted without question. For awhile, when I'd daydream about what kind of a grownup I'd be, I thought of only these two choices: a Jeannie or a Samantha.

That Girl threw us for a loop because the star of the show (Marlo) was a career girl who had a handsome man who wanted to marry her (which is usually where the story would end, with happily ever after) but That Girl loved her boyfriend AND her career, and she wasn't ready to get married. She had stuff to do and so handsome man would have to wait. It was the strangest thing I'd ever heard. I was five.

And when Marlo Thomas (not as That Girl, just as herself) went on TV and told everyone to watch her special, Free To Be You And Me, we made sure to watch. Marlo and her famous friends sang and did skits about new ways of thinking about men and women. My favorite part was when Marlo sang a song called Parents Are People. It featured Marlo doing all sorts of things I had thought of as being Man Jobs: Marlo as a cab driver, Marlo as a police officer, Marlo as a baseball umpire. Marlo sang "Mommies can do almost anything" and the world felt bigger when I heard her sing those words.

A few months later, I used that show to almost win an argument with my mother and that was when she started referring to Marlo as 'that damned Marlo Thomas'.

When I wasn't at kindergarten, I did what a lot of kids did back then: I got shooed out of the house and told to Go Play. This was partly due to the fact that times were safer then but it was also because my mother had no interest in spending time with me. "Amie entertains herself very well," my mom would tell other grownups and I'd know this was supposed to be a compliment. It never felt like one.

One of my mother's favorite phrases was "find something to do" and that was how, one day, I decided what I'd do would be to go see how my rabbit was doing. We had buried her four days earlier.

Actually she'd only been my rabbit a few days when my mother decided living in a cage was making my rabbit sad and that being set free to live in the woods behind our house would make my rabbit happy. When I disagreed, my mother sang the Born Free song and said it would be SELFISH to make my rabbit live in a cage and GOOD to let her go free and asked me which I wanted to be: selfish or good. So I was stuck. I had to say Good.

So we set her free (as free as the wind blows) and the next day my rabbit was dead in our vegetable garden and my dad said "Oh look at that, the slug bait pellets look just like the rabbit food we were giving her" and that was the end of my rabbit. We had a pet funeral and my dad said serious words and I played my kazoo. Solemnly. Kind of.

I can only guess the death process had not been clearly explained to me. I wasn't sure what I'd find when I used my mother's garden shovel to dig up the shoebox. I thought either it would be empty because my rabbit would be in Heaven or she'd look like she was sleeping.

What I found was a LOT more interesting. I had no idea any of it was supposed to be icky and so none of it was. I looked and looked and felt like a scientist (I thought maybe I already was one). My rabbit was all bones but she still looked kind of rabbit shaped, just like dinosaur bones were dinosaur shaped and Halloween skeletons were people shaped. A thing's bones on the inside looked like the thing's outside. I felt smarter just thinking about it. After a while I reburied the box and ran in the house to tell my mom all about what I'd learned.

She was washing dishes, a cloud of suds under her hands. When I told her I'd seen my rabbit, she asked me if I was pretending. Once I started describing the worms (great big fat ones that wiggled but didn't seem to be going anywhere, and how did they get in there?) she turned and vomited into the sink. Right on top of the soapy dishes.

Have to wash those again, I thought, but did not say.

Once she recovered, she was all voice. It was disgusting. I was disgusting. "Everyone knows you don't dig up dead things and LOOK at them!"

"What about dinosaurs?" I asked. "People dig them up and look at them and then put the bones in museums and people go and spend money to look at them."

"That's different," my mom tennis whacked the argument right back to me. "Those are scientists that do that."

"Then I'll be a scientist!" I announced. This was becoming a great day.

"You can't," my mom said, and she was wearing her mean smile. "Only men can be scientists. Ladies can't, they don't let them. It's a rule."

I paused, hearing this wrong thing. And then I said the thing that would forever cast a pall over Marlo in our house. I said "What about that Marlo Thomas song, Parents Are People? She sang Mommies can do anything."

And then my mom's smile went a little bigger as she went in for the winning point: "She said ALMOST anything. And don't forget, Marlo Thomas is an actress. Actresses say made up things all the time."

I hadn't figured that one in. I had forgotten about that word: almost. ANYTHING, that word was as big as the whole world but that word ALMOST was a tricky one. It could erase stuff at the last minute. I dropped my mother's gaze and studied the pattern of the green tile floor and felt small again.

My mom reminded me we were going to my grandma's later and told me to get cleaned up. Grandma was my mother's mom. "And use a lot of soap!" she reminded.

I liked going to see Grandma. She wore her hair in a beehive (some of it real and some of it bought at the store and clipped in) and bright lipstick and sparkly earrings. I'd always draw her a picture and she'd always make a big deal over it. It was our thing. This time I spent a lot of time on the picture. I wanted it to be really special: a grownup picture, a scientist picture. I took a big piece of white paper and began by drawing a line down the middle. I would draw two pictures and I would call it: My Rabbit Before And After. It was going to be great.

My parents were used to me bringng a picture along so neither of them thought to look it over. They would later regret this decision.

At my grandma's, a lot of relatives were there: aunts, uncles, and they all fussed over me. I was everyone's darling, even more so when I told them I had a picture to show them. I remember my grandma clapped her hands together and said "Oh! A picture! Oh Amie I can't WAIT to see what you've drawn for me!"

I stood in front of the group and began my presentation. The left side of the picture was my rabbit Charlotte, the way she'd looked when she was alive. The right side was labelled with words (in careful capitals) and arrows pointing to what I was describing. I had labelled WORMS and EYE HOLES and MORE WORMS. You get the idea. For some reason, my audience looked strange. I took this to mean my presentation needed more pizzazz.

"You may be wondering about the worms. I did too. My dad explained it to me, these worms are called Maggots and a maggot is a worm with a really important job" (cut to my mother shooting a lethal look at my father). I explained my father's theory to them: how maggots are like garbagemen who do an important job and we're glad they do (I had pounced on my dad the instant he stepped in the door and asked him about the worms. He'd be in trouble later, for 'helping').

Still silent, my audience. I pulled out the poem. "I've written a poem too and this poem is called The Maggots and My Rabbit." I began the first few lines and suddenly my mother was yanking me by the arm, hustling my butt into the kitchen. This made me very upset, not the arm yanking but having my poem interrupted when I wasn't even done.

"NO MORE," she ordered. "No more talking about the rabbit. No pictures. No poems."

I got a thought in my head and my mother read my mind and squashed the thought: "And before you say it, no SONGS, either."

She meant business. And there was more. I wasn't allowed to say the WORD rabbit for a whole month. I tried for a loophole (the Easter Bunny) and another loophole (Bugs Bunny) and my mother said if I said Bunny or Rabbit even one time in the next month, the Easter Bunny would be told not to come to our house ever again.

I was ordered to sit at the kitchen table and think about what I had done and then to apologize. I sat there awhile, thinking about how unfair it was I should have to apologize for making my grandma a really good picture. I sat there a lot longer than my mother expected so when she came back in she had a piece of cake on a plate, a bribe she set down in front of me. When I apologized, I could get cake. Also I should draw my grandma another picture, "a nice picture" my mother specified.

She had more: I shouldn't even know the word Maggot, it was a yucky word and no one should know it. I told her it was the right word, that it was in the dictionary so somebody had thought that worm was important enough to have its own name and to put it in the dictionary so people could know it.

My mother glared at me and I stopped talking then.

I drew another picture. I drew it really badly, on purpose. The lines were all over the place and I colored outside the lines and it was a yucky mess and I was glad. It was a brown scribble with a dash of gray scribble. It could have been anything. I took the picture into the living room for my grandma and told her "Here, it's a picture of a cat. It's just a cat. It doesn't do anything."

My grandma had gotten lots of my pictures and knew how well I could draw. Even though this picture was an on purpose mess, she said "Oh I love it, oh Amie I like this picture" which proved that either my grandma had no taste and didn't know a good picture from a bad one or that she was just a big liar.

"And what else?" my mother reminded.

"I'm sorry you didn't like the special one I made for you," I told her. I thought maybe if I reminded her it was special, she might act nice. I was wrong.

My grandma continued to ham it up. "Oh Amie, that other picture! OOH it scared me!" She made an elaborate scared face to demonstrate. I wondered if she was lying some more or if my grandma could really get ooh scared from a kid's crayon picture.

And so I was forgiven. And offered cake. I said "No thank you" to the cake.

When it was time to go my mom helped me into my coat and handed me my rabbit drawing. "Oh you forgot my drawing!" I said to my grandma, and tried to hand it to her.

"Oh no Amie, I like the other drawing you did. I'm scared of THIS one."

I responded as my mother's daughter: I gave her a guilt trip. "You don't have to keep it. If you really hate it, you can throw it in the garbage can." I looked so pitiful, I thought I had her for sure. No way would a grandma ever throw a kid's drawing in the garbage can in a million years.

But my grandma was a master. She bent down so she was at my eye level and said "Amie, I wouldn't want THAT picture even in our garbage can!"

My mouth fell open. And before I could recover and say anything else, my parents got me out of there.



This story originally appeared on the website SMITH: The Moment, and can be found in my first collection, GREEN SHOES MEAN I LOVE YOU, available at www.amieryan.com 

PS: I happened to send this story to Marlo Thomas herself and was delighted to get this response:





Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Layer Cake, Part Two


Let me introduce you to an important character in this story: the girl who would become his wife. Let's call her Charlene. She wasn't anything like Greg, meaning she was not anxious, frantic, or overachieving. She was an 80's girl with big hair and was what I think of as a regular, All-American girl. What do I mean by that? She was a nice girl but still liked to have a good time. She laughed out loud at a good joke, enjoyed digging into a good cheeseburger, and if the radio was playing one of her favorite songs, she cranked it up. Some might say she was the perfect type to balance Greg out a little.

But somehow, that isn't what happened. They began as friends and by senior year of high school were an item, and then went to the same college. Right after graduation, they married, and she began the challenge of being a Navy wife. They moved around the country, wherever and whenever Uncle Sam said. He may have been the enlisted one, but as any spouse of a service member can tell you, really the entire family serves their country. And they did start a family: soon they had three children, two girls and a boy.

I realized Charlene had undergone a profound change when I read a blog she had written maybe 10 years after they got married. In it she explained how she had made the decision to homeschool all three of her kids because they had lived in seven different states and in every single state she had enrolled her kids in public school and then had to yank them right out. Not only did none of their schools even offer Latin (?) but the schools were heathen. No heathen public schools for HER children, thank you very much.

I was baffled to read this, as I remembered her being a good time chick who loved our school. I wondered what exactly qualified a grade school to be Heathen or Not Heathen. I guess I also wondered if it was too cool for her to be criticizing the American public school system when Uncle Sam was actually, well, kind of her husband's boss. Anyway, she had changed.

I wondered if she had just gradually changed or if being married to Greg had made her go a little wiggy.

In any case, she was devoted to Greg and their kids and they even lived overseas for several years. Her life revolved around her family and in this tale, make no mistake, she is the injured party. (She is not the only injured party: there is the girl involved, and also Charlene's kids, but for the moment, let's focus on Charlene). I do not say this just out of fellow 80's girl allegiance (although yes, there is that) but because she didn't deserve the surprise that was coming her way.

And then.

Then one day, 20 years after she said I do, Greg sat her down and had to tell her something. Not just something but a great big layer cake of something, each layer worse than the one before it.

He'd had an affair.
For two years.
With a woman younger than her.

We imagine Charlene sitting, stunned, the wind knocked right out of her, not quite knowing where she is. Maybe having trouble breathing in and out.

But there was another layer:
the woman he'd had the affair with wasn't actually a woman, but a 16 year old girl.

Maybe a moment of shock then, as Charlene processed these words. As she remembered that in their state, 16 was the legal age of consent. But still. He was 42. The girl was 16.

And then more. He was going to be arrested. In fact, he was going to need her to go down to the jail and post bail for him when that happened.

Maybe Charlene was having trouble keeping track by this point. Arrested?

Yes, arrested. Because during the course of this affair, sometimes Greg would go overseas and, well, he'd really miss this girl, and so they used Skype. He had the girl make, er, woo woo tapes of herself via Skype. They did this four times. But it turned out, even though 16 was the age of consent in their state, the age to consent to do things like make a woo woo tape is 18.

18, not 16.

And it turned out, if you were an adult and encouraged someone under 18 to do such a thing, it was a felony. The person under age 18 was considered a child. He was being charged with a felony. Well, four counts, actually. Each count carried with it up to six years in prison, but not to worry, he would get the best lawyer money could buy.

But if was found guilty?

Well that was the thing, he had already admitted everything but HIS argument was that the law was dumb and he was pretty sure that was going to work, not to worry, but if they decided he was guilty, he'd have to serve time in a federal prison.

But wait, there was more, there was another layer.

And if that happened, if he was found guilty and went to prison and served his sentence, and was released, it would still not be over. Because if he was found guilty of this type of felony, he would be given the status of Sex Offender. He would be a registered Sex Offender for the rest of his life.

Meaning, just as Charlene and their children had kind of also served their country right alongside Greg, they would also, in a sense, end up serving their own kind of time. Their lives would never be the same. Greg would have to walk up to each and every house in their neighborhood and introduce himself and announce his status, and point out where he lived. He would have to do this wherever they went, for the rest of their lives. She would be the wife of a convicted sex offender. Their kids would have to cope with the idea that their father was a convicted sex offender.

He would not be allowed within a certain number of feet from children, wherever they were. At weddings, at any sort of school function, at any event their own kids might wish he could attend: any ball game, any dance recital, any birthday party with other kids there. For that matter, when his own children had kids of their own, he wouldn't be allowed to be around his grandchildren. Not unless he wanted to violate the terms of his probation and go right back to prison again. Actually they'd probably have a problem ever being able to rent a hotel room again, since his status would be stamped on his photo ID.

I can't begin to imagine what it was like to be Charlene, hearing not just bad news but so much of it, all in one sitting. And then to realize before she could even begin to process what it was going to do to her, wondering what it would do to their kids, wondering what she would tell them, how she would tell them. Trying to process what he had said: up to six years per count and he was being charged with four counts.

Her husband might go to prison for 24 years.


Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Layer Cake, Part One



When I was in high school, and dating Greg, my mother thought he was the perfect guy. She thought this because he was responsible and polite and romantic. He sent me flowers often and then asked me for my locker combination so he could surprise me every now and then by leaving me flowers in there. Once the flowers were roses in a long white florist box, something I had only seen done in movies or on TV. He gave me a lot of greeting cards too, but Greg went one step further: inside the card, on the blank, left side, he would write poetry he'd written just for me. Sometimes he did this in calligraphy. Once, when we were on the phone, I asked him what he was doing and he said he was on his computer, designing the perfect wedding dress for me.

My mom, who rarely had a nice word for anyone, had only one opinion about Greg:
"THAT is the type of boy you want to marry."

Except I didn't think so. For a while I wished I could stir up more feeling for Greg, since he seemed so great, but over time I noticed something just wasn't quite in tune with the things he did. I had a feeling whoever married him would be happy for 20 years and then his wife would get a real surprise. At the time, I believed the surprise would be that he would realize he was gay.

"Gay?" said my mom, "do you think so?"
"I do," I told her, "but I don't think he knows it yet."

It turns out I was partly right and partly wrong. He wasn't gay, but 20 years after they were married he did give his wife a big surprise. I can't speak for her but if I'd been in her shoes, I would have definitely preferred to learn my husband was gay instead of what she had to hear.

But I'm jumping ahead. Let me explain a little about Greg. He was what you would call an overachiever, or if you were being accurate, you would call a 6'0, 155 lb, frantic overachiever.  He had a straight 4.0 GPA all through school but also worked a PT job, volunteered, and at all times prided himself on being Proper. Sometimes he'd glance at other kids who were horsing around, acting like kids, and Greg would look at them with disdain. He was a snob, but he would have defended that term and said he worked hard to BE better than those other kids.

He only got angry with me one time. We went to see the Tom Cruise movie, Top Gun, and two hours later, walking out of the theater, Greg announced he had decided what he wanted to do with his life: he was going to be a Navy fighter pilot, "just like Tom Cruise in that movie!"

"You never said you wanted to join the military," I told him, and he agreed, he had never thought about it. "You've never mentioned wanting to learn to fly, either," I said, and he agreed, he had never thought about it. He had just seen Tom Cruise doing it, and decided it was for him.

"If we'd gone to see a movie where Tom Cruise was a fireman, would you be deciding to join the fire department?" I asked him.

"No, that would be ridiculous," he said.

"How is that more ridiculous?" I asked him.

He said he didn't want to discuss it any more. In fact, we never mentioned it again: how he had told me his dream, and how I had laughed at his dream.

And now, let me jump ahead a bit: after Greg finished 4 years of college (4.0 GPA, Dean's List) he went to flight school and then joined the Navy. He spent the next 20 years applying all of his overachiever skills to becoming an excellent Navy fighter pilot. He was promoted again and again, finally reaching the level of Commander. He served with distinction in wartime; not just in one war, but two: first Iraq and then Afghanistan.

This was all very impressive. Interestingly, 20 years in the military never added one bit of bulk to his frame. At the age of 42, Greg was still as thin as ever, and still weighed 155 lbs. I know this because it was listed with his mug shot.


Sunday, July 29, 2018

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Michael and the Monster, Part 4



The trial didn't take long. The Monster pleaded not guilty but there were two witnesses who were devastating to his case: the eyewitness who had watched the Monster and Michael descending to the creek together and then, 20 minutes later, the Monster climbing back up alone, and the cellmate who had listened as the Monster admitted to the crime and then described it in detail.

There were photos that broke the hearts of everyone.

He was found guilty of premeditated first degree murder, and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. Time started to go by and Michael's sisters got older: Jenny, the one in my class, dropped out of school when she was 16. She'd faded into the margins by then: people hadn't really noticed she was there so they didn't really notice when she left.

Beth, the youngest sister, the one who had gone on that doomed camping trip with Michael, started volunteering for a victim rights group. The group had reached out to the Bakers with kindness, probably the only people to have ever done such a thing. Eventually Beth received a seat on the board of directors. Then she went one step up from that and became the Executive Director.

Michael's parents, who were older than the other parents in the neighborhood, died, one at a time, of natural causes.

The Monster came up for parole in 2000 but Beth was there, reading a Victim Impact Statement to the parole board, trying to put into words the pain her family had suffered. The board denied the Monster's parole, not just that day, but every time it came up.

The Monster, who had entered prison at the age of 19, stayed there until his death, just last year, at age 59.
.
I tried to find my old friend Jenny on Facebook. I was hoping that maybe her life had taken a different direction. I wanted to look for that girl who as a child had fodeyed a roke and I hoped to find a page filled with photos of a nice house, a good looking husband, a family of her own. I wanted to see a picture of the finished adult version of Jenny, one who had enough money, not just enough to get by but enough to have extra to spend on fancy outfits, nice vacations, maybe a zippy car.

But when I found her, there were only two photos. Both of them featured an older version of Jenny but with the same clothing style: worn out, ill-fitting. In the photos she stands awkwardly, seeming to not want to be there, looking at the camera not with a smile but with a cautious, weary look, as if she's worried about what may be about to happen.

I don't think losing her little brother did that to her. When I look at our first grade photo, Jenny is wearing the same look. In her world, hurt was already a regular thing.

I didn't contact Jenny. I left her alone. I let her slip back into the background, back to the place she'd always been.


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Michael and the Monster, Part 3


There are things I'll never know about Michael's death, little gaps between the known details.

At some point, the people at the picnic noticed Michael hadn't returned. We can imagine the progression of emotions: curiosity to wonder to worry to panic. Maybe the search began casually and then someone tried to get it organized: you look over here, we'll look on this side. At some point, the searchers would involve strangers: we're looking for a boy, he's 10. Describing what kind of clothes he was wearing. Trying not to panic, reminding each other he could turn up at any moment.

We can imagine the moment someone wondered if the police should be called. The fear that if they did that, it meant the child was missing. The decision being made: Yes we need to call them.

Someone had seen Michael after the time he'd left to use the bathroom. He'd been walking off with the monster toward a bridge that ran over a lake.

In fact, it was likely that by the time they started searching for Michael, he was already dead, left lying on top of the rocks beneath that bridge. Years later, I wondered who had heard this eyewitness tip and then set off for the bridge: the searchers or the police. I hope it was the police.

I hope it wasn't his mom and dad.

The monster had followed Michael into the bathrooms and at some point promised him candy. I don't know how they got to the area under the footbridge; maybe he told Michael the candy was there. The monster beat him into unconsciousness and then held him underwater and drowned him. And he did other things. Then he left the broken boy there and went back to his tent.

This is a point of confusion for me. The monster didn't leave. Did he imagine he'd never be suspected? Did he know he would be, and just didn't care?

The eyewitness saw him being the last person with Michael, and Michael was found that same day, but the monster wasn't arrested until the following day. That first night, did the other campers know he was a monster? Had some of them stayed that second night or had they all gone home?

The Bakers, now three instead of four, had they gone home that night? And when they arrived back at their house, greeted by their other children, what was that moment like?

In my mind I imagine their sad, faded house, filled suddenly with pain. I imagine the parents, trying to decide which words to use around their younger children, which details to include for the older ones. I wonder how they lived through that first night, or any nights afterward.

Months later, when Jenny mentioned those rosebushes in her backyard, I remember being confused. When she said they were from the funeral, I was thinking: roses at funerals are in flower arrangements; they aren't rosebushes in pots. I'd never been to an actual funeral but felt certain of this, based on what I'd seen of pretend funerals on TV shows. I didn't ask Jenny about it though; her spooky sad look told me not to say more.

As an adult, I wondered if the friends of the Bakers just didn't know better. Then it occurred to me: flower arrangements die. Rosebushes could be planted and bloom again and again. So maybe the Bakers had friends who had thought of that. I wondered at myself, that I should have been so quick to assume people who were poor must also be stupid. Maybe their friends thought rosebushes would be a nice idea. For Jenny I think it just meant that every time she saw them, she thought of the crime.

I was 49 before it occurred to me that my parents didn't go to Michael's funeral. I can't imagine why they didn't; he was a child in a neighborhood filled exclusively with families who had kids. The shocked grownups who read the story in the paper and followed the story on the TV news had known this little boy's face, had waved to him through passing car windows. In the club of Kids They Knew, Michael was a longtime member.

And yet they had not gone. In my mind I saw the images of the dozens of kids in that neighborhood, a jumble of gap teeth and ponytails and skinned knees, and wondered: if it had been him, if it had been her, would they have gone? And of course, for those other kids, they would have.

I remember all the adults wearing the same expression of shock and hurt and fear. It made their faces rigid and their voices lower. They exchanged the scant details known and then stood, not knowing what to say. The air went heavy somehow, filled with this new thing that had no words to describe it or make it make sense.

When Mr. Middy was around, there was another feeling, like a breeze of anger blown his way. The grownups seemed to be thinking their old thought: the family didn't watch their kids, but were keeping that sentence inside because it would be too cruel to say anymore.

Maybe they remembered Mr. Middy saying "like a dog! Like a goddamn DOG" and him saying
"Mark my words, someday something is going to happen to one of those kids." Maybe they thought his words had been like an evil spell. When he was near, the eyes of the other neighbors went hard, and their mouths looked pinched.

I think he noticed because I remember him trying to say he hadn't meant he WANTED anything to happen, he was just stating the facts, that was all. I think he hoped someone would agree with him or pat him on the back and say "Sure, we know what you meant," but nobody did and a few months later, Mr. Middy packed up his wife and their doll-like daughters and moved away.

And the monster, the one who had hated the Baker family on sight, the one who had now injured them permanently, was put in a jail cell. A big talker, he was, and once they put a cellmate in there with him, he went on and on talking about the crime: admitting he had killed Michael and describing why and how.

The cellmate listened, and remembered the words he was hearing.
He would repeat them later, on the witness stand.