I don’t know where this fascination with pedophiles came from. I was never raped, if that’s what you’re thinking. Or not that I remember, anyway. Although, once, when I was 8, our neighbor—a 14-year-old girl with short hair and a reputation for violence—pinned me down in the backyard and unzipped my pants so she could suck me off on a moist patch of grass. I can’t remember her name, only that she was incredibly ugly. The kids on the street called her Alleyway because her face was dirty and freckled, and she always smelled of cat piss.
“I’m going to kiss it,” she said, chasing me around an Elm tree. Her braces flashed in the sunlight. I didn’t know what the “it” was.
I didn’t run as fast as I could have and when she caught me I only pretended to put up a fight while she fumbled around with my belt and zipper. I remember the feel of her mouth—warm and wet—and I decided the sensation of her quick, dry breath against my groin, her chalky tongue combined with the meaty smell of her head was somewhere in between horrifying and religious. But it certainly wasn’t rape in any of its devious forms. And, frankly, the story doesn’t explain much, except perhaps my own ecosystem of sickness and perversion, which is another freak show entirely.
Anyway, I’d taken to searching the sexual offender database almost every day for the past four years, so I’d gotten quite familiar with it. It’s set up so you can search by location or name and there’s a map marked with blue dots to indicate where the offenders live. When you click on one of the blue dots, you see the offender’s picture, a physical description (including tattoos), their address and their crimes, which range from public indecency to kidnapping and rape. I always begin the search in my Del Paso neighborhood, which occupies a poor, gang-infested corridor of North Sacramento. A ghetto, in the classic sense. My neighborhood is riddled with so many blue dots that in certain places they’re stacked on top of one another. If you didn’t know better, it would look like a rich terrain of royal blue castles, when really it’s a sinister Disneyland of sexual depravity.
Recently, to my surprise, I found my neighbor, James (a sad looking black man who reminds me of every grade school janitor I’d ever seen growing up in Boston—fat, bald, and unimpressed with everything). His saggy eyes and ashy brown skin were never sinister, just tired, so his crime—kidnapping and assault on a minor—seemed to betray him.
And as it turns out, Salome lives just down the street. He’s a Native American with a Johnny Depp goatee and a ponytail pulled back like a Samurai. In his picture he’s wearing a tight necklace made of Buddhist prayer beads. Salome was charged with rape in concert with violence and oral copulation on a minor.
In my four years of clicking through the blue-specked map, I’ve examined almost every one of the 90,000 registered sex offenders in California. Sometimes, by accident, I’ll click on one I’ve already seen and remember him like he was a long lost relative. In four years, I’d acquired 90,000 frightening uncles.
It’s not just men who are sexual offenders. There are also women, like Tamara, the 24-year-old spitting image of Jodie Foster. Tamara was a counselor at Bridges after school program when she fell in love with one of her students, a young girl named Josephine. According to Tamara’s court testimony, she fell in love with the little girl and the little girl fell in love with her back. It was mutual, she pleaded. Tamara forged emergency release documents and took her out of school, so they could express their love sexually in a hotel room. Four years later, Tamara’s internet presence hangs over her like a noose.
So here’s where the story gets kind of messy.
When I get home from work I decide that I need to call one of the pedophiles. I can’t explain why, but I can try to explain the feeling: I open the refrigerator, see a jug of filtered water and then feel something break in my brain, like the little pocket of air that pops in your knuckle when you push at it too hard. So I sit at my computer and pick one name at random from the database. The name is Charles, a disheveled man with unkempt hair. In his photo he’s wearing a suit and he reminds me of a poor man’s Rush Limbaugh. His crime is lewd and lascivious acts upon a child. When I type his name into Google there are many results: he’s a writer, a pizza maker, a veteran, a lawyer, a mechanic. I narrow the search by typing in his area code next to his name. And there it is, Charles’s phone number—right in front of me, like an old dollar bill folded neatly on the sidewalk.
Now that I think back, there was this one time when I was nine and I lived in Boston with my mom and step-dad. They wanted me to learn how to swim, so they enrolled me in lessons at the local high school. I was a shy kid and didn’t like being around other kids my age, mostly because they were cruel and impatient. But my parents insisted that spending another summer traveling the city’s subway system by myself was unhealthy. I didn’t know anybody in my class.
Our teacher, Mark, was probably 30. He had a big nose and tiny eyes, like a toucan. He spoke in the thick Boston accent that my mom always warned me about.
“Be careful with the way you talk,” she said. “People will treat you differently.”
But Mark was unashamed of his.
“Down, out, togethah!” he yelled when he taught the breast stroke.
After class, all the kids would run into the locker room. We shivered as we changed. Some of the kids snapped each other with towels. And Mark stood there, in the middle of the room with one foot up on a bench, taking it all in.
One time, when we finished changing, he approached and asked me if I wanted a ride home.
“No thanks,” I told him.
For the next two weeks, he asked me the same question, each time with more urgency, until I finally told my mom, who shook her head and laughed nervously.
My mother patted me on the shoulder. “Keep your little pants on,” she said with a nervous laugh.
When the phone rings, my hands begin to shake and suddenly I don’t know what I’m doing.
“Hello?” he answers. His mouth sounds like it’s stuffed with jelly doughnuts. Charles’ picture is still up on my computer screen and his large red face and shoulder length greasy hair remind me of a grocery store manager. “Charles?”
“Yeah, who is this?” For a second, I forget. My body is light. My brain turns into steam that’s billowing out through my ears into the porous ceiling. Words finally escape through the teacup of my mouth.
“We don’t know each other. Sorry. I’m writing a story.”
“How did you get my number?” he asks. I imagine his thick jowls swinging as he speaks.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “It was on Google.”
“Stop apologizing,” he says. “It’s not supposed to be on there, that’s all.”
“Yeah, well I just typed it in,” I say. “And it popped up.”
“What is this about?” “I have to be honest, I saw you on the offender website. I wanted to ask you some questions.”
At this point, I’m fairly certain he’ll hang up. I want him to hang up. I’m not sure what I’m expecting from the conversation, but I’m fairly positive this isn’t it. But Charles doesn’t hang up. Instead, he sits on the other end of the line, presumably thinking. I can hear him breathing long, disturbing breaths.
“What’s this about?” he asks again.
“It’s for school,” I say, lying.
“School?” he asks. “Are you going to record this?”
“No,” I say, another lie.
“So you’re not recording this right now?”
We end up talking for an hour. He’s lonely. He tells me about his life now that he’s on “the list,” which consists mainly of watching television and reading passages from the Bible.
“Does it help you?” I ask.
“Does what help me?”
I ask him what it feels like to be outcast.
“It’s bad,” he says. “People spit on me when I’m walking down the street. They wait at my house. They threaten me.”
Charles tells me about his childhood: His mother was an alcoholic; he was a strange kid who didn’t get along with other kids; he was a bad student, but he liked to read. When his father died he cried, even though he beat Charles and his mother until they both ended up in the hospital.
“Right now I’ve stopped living,” Charles says. “I’m only existing.
He tells me about how he can’t get a job and how he only makes enough money by doing random odds and ends to pay rent. Sometimes he doesn’t eat for days.
“Can you tell me about the girl?” I ask.
“What girl?” “The girl,” I say. “The one you assaulted.”
“She was 13. My wife’s daughter from another marriage,” he says, pausing. “You know, men have certain impulses. We can’t help things. The girls now wear all kinds of short clothes, tank tops.” Charles tells me how she’d come home at night and they were alone together. The aloneness is what broke him. It was unbearable, he said. She was suggestive. He insists that he didn’t rape her. It was consensual, he says.
“She wanted it?”
“The crime was absolutely wrong,” he says. “No ifs, no ands, no buts, no excuses—but there has to come a time when the pound of flesh has been exacted. With a registered sex offender, that pound of flesh doesn’t exist.” I can hear the frustration growing in Charles’ tone. He wants me to understand. He’s expecting a high-five.
“The daughter, the one you raped, does her mother still talk to you?”
“She wants nothing to do with me,” Charles says. “But I don’t blame her.” When I hang up with Charles, I look out the window. As the sun begins to set, I watch two men smoke cigarettes and talk outside the pornography shop across the street. One of them is so obese that his stomach hangs from his opened jacket, over his belt and it covers his groin. The smaller one gestures wildly with his hands and they laugh. The fat one holds his hand over his heart. The men flick their butts onto the street, get into a rusted pickup and drive off toward the freeway.
World’s Greatest Grandpa
I open my laptop to another offender—Roger—who lives just a few blocks from where I live, though I’ve never seen him in real life. He was born in 1948, but his wispy white hair and thin brittle skin are deceptive. He looks older—demented, even. His jaw bones form sharp angles and he wears the chin of an old boxer. When he was younger, he might have smoked a pipe and imitated Sinatra while his wife put down her magazine and rolled her eyes in the bedroom. He might have been handsome—an athlete who kept a girl in the library and one at the bowling alley, just in case. Or perhaps he was a family man, the kind of guy who’d steal a bouquet of flowers from the cemetery on mother’s day. He has a tattoo of a skull and crossbones on his forearm and one of a lightning bolt on his neck. Under his list of crimes, it says 288, which is the California Penal Code that means he’s been caught having sex with a child. I close my eyes and imagine how he was once a child. It’s almost impossible to picture a child rapist as a young boy, so I keep trying. I think about how he carried books in his backpack, how his eyes were blue but now they’re darker, the color of wet concrete, like he’d been crying for the entirety of his 62 years.
“This is me,” he says, his sharp lips expose the rawness of his bloody gums. He’s choking back a ball of tears, trying to muster a truthful smile. “It’s not so bad,” he says. “Right?”