SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
September 23, 2018

Moving Up the Ranks

 

It was a little after eight. I stepped back inside the apartment after grabbing a smoke out front. Morgan was in the kitchen feeding the cats.

            “Hey,” she called to me. “Hold on a second. I want you to hear something.”

            “Okay?” I said as I paused in the narrow hallway.

            “We just got kind of a creepy message.”

            “Yeah?” That sounded promising. We’d been getting a lot of robocalls lately, and they’d been taking on a decidedly threatening tone. I found that incredibly entertaining. I assumed this would be another one offering us a free cruise to the Bahamas before turning sinister when we didn’t pick up the receiver fast enough, credit card and banking information in hand.

            “I was in here,” she said as she continued to scoop food into the bowls of our yowling and insistent cats. “I didn’t hear the whole thing, but it sounded like it was saying something about child porn and arrests.”

            “Really?” That was even more interesting than a threatening robocall.

            When she was finished with the cats, we stepped into the other room and hit the button on the machine.

            “Hey, it’s me!” A voice called.

            “Oh,” Morgan said. “Okay then. I didn’t hear that part before.”

            The “me” in question was my sister, Mary. Hearing that, we both relaxed a bit. That wasn’t creepy at all, and hearing from her actually made sense. We’d learned the night before that my Uncle Tom, whom I’d written about here in early March, had passed away. We all knew it was coming, so while it was deeply sad news, it wasn’t a terrible shock. I assumed she was calling to let me know when she and my mom would be making the five-hour drive to the funeral. I was wrong about that.

            “Get online,” Mary insisted, “and look up WQIZ. They just arrested our cousin Billy today for sending sexually explicit pictures and videos to an underage girl in Kansas.”

            “Ho-lee shit,” I said aloud. Well, that explains why the message would have sounded creepy in the other room, I guess.

            Although I wouldn’t see it until the next day, the story she was referring to was brief and vague. All it said, really, was that an employee of the small high school where our cousin Billy taught had been picked up earlier that day after the police in Kansas reported he’d been sending lewd images to a minor. There were no names, no specific charges, only an assurance that no students in the school had been involved in any way.

            Mary’s message rolled on, “There are no formal charges yet, and they haven’t released his name, but Denise (another cousin with friends in the local sheriff’s department) just called me with the news.”

            “Ho-lee shit,” I said again.

            I’m in no position to pass judgment on Billy’s guilt or innocence at this point. The above story and my sister’s message were all I knew about the case, and so I couldn’t draw any solid conclusions from that. Still, a bit of background might be helpful.

            Billy (not his real name for obvious reasons) was six or seven years younger than me. He was the youngest son of my mom’s late brother Eddie, who’d died in a freak accident in the early Nineties. It had been, if I may, an extremely dysfunctional family. Billy had grown up in a trailer park, and his parents worked sporadically at best. Mostly his mom and dad just drank and fought, the fighting reaching such brutal exuberance at times that on more than one occasion my aunt tried to run over Uncle Eddie with the family car. I think they eventually split, but I’m not one hundred percent certain about that. On top of the parental mayhem, Billy’s older brother Zach had been diagnosed a violent and dangerous psychopath before he hit junior high, and was quietly sent off to an institution. To this day no one seems to know if Zach is alive or dead, still locked up or wandering the streets. Nobody talks about Zach anymore. It’s almost as if he never existed.

            I don’t lay all that out as any kind of excuse or justification for what Billy may or may not have done, merely as a bit of history.

            After a start like that, everyone in the extended family was amazed Billy, who’d always been a lighthearted, rambunctious kid despite his circumstances, would grow into such a charming, responsible adult. It was almost as if he was trying to consciously compensate for what had been a less than stellar childhood.

            Still living in the same county where he’d been raised, Billy grew into a big, burly fellow with blonde hair and a cherubic face. He was a bright, thoughtful, and funny guy. He became a science teacher at the local high school, coached both soccer and baseball, and had held a city council seat for well over a decade. Apparently he was extremely popular and beloved among students and constituents alike. I think it also says something about his demeanor and character, at least as they were generally perceived by others, that when he and his wife divorced, he’d been granted sole custody of their kids. By all accounts he took very good care of them.

            Billy and I chatted for a long time at the last family reunion I attended, just getting caught up with one another, and continued to correspond for a spell afterward. Yes, in a word he was an all-around Good Guy, who was always happy to help out neighbors, friends and relatives when he could.

            I think it’s safe to say without anyone being too offended that among all my dozens and dozens of cousins, Billy was generally singled out as the favorite of the lot, having overcome such adversity in his childhood to accomplish what he did. Not that the rest of us were a bunch of drug-addled losers and cheap trash, but let’s face it—we couldn’t really hold a candle to Billy. He was the cousin against whom all other cousins were measured.

            The same Tuesday night Uncle Tom died, Billy had been re-elected to his city council seat. Nevertheless, instead of celebrating the victory, he drove out to pick up one of my widowed aunts and took her to the hospital so she could say goodbye to her brother.

            Around that same time, the mother of a fifteen-year-old girl in Kansas found evidence of her daughter’s online dealings with an adult, and contacted the local police.

            The cops picked Billy up just outside the school roughly thirty-six hours later. Mary shared the news with me that night, and a day after that his name hit the papers, along with the news he was being charged with two counts of sexual exploitation of a child, one count of exposing a child to harmful material, one count of causing a child to view or listen to sexual activity, and one count of use of a computer to facilitate a child sex crime.

            As I write this, he’s being held on $100,000 bail, and if convicted on all counts, could be facing up to one hundred twenty-five years in the federal pen. Which leaves me thinking there might be a bit more to this story than we’ve been told thus far.

            At this point I’m guessing most folks would say something along the lines of, “Well, you never can tell with people,” or something equally banal. In my case, again without passing any judgment about things I don’t know, all I can think is if he is found guilty, it means I’m going to have to add another name to the list of “Convicted Child Molesters I have Known.” And I’m telling you, that list is a little too long for comfort as it is.

            I called Mary back after hearing the rest of her message, “Well,” I told her. “If it’s true, that leaves us looking pretty damn good all of a sudden, don’t it”

            “We’re climbing up the ranks!,” she replied.

            We both laughed a long time, even as we chastised ourselves for laughing.

            “Oh, we’re going to Hell,” Mary said before hanging up.

            “Probably, yeah.”

 

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