We were sitting around in my family’s basement when one of us got talking about how an older kid we knew was going to prison. I didn’t know him very well, but I guess my two cousins did. This older kid was sentenced to a year in the state penitentiary for denting a homeless guy’s head in a Conoco parking lot a few months back. Whoever was telling the story, (I think it was my oldest cousin) said it was because the homeless guy tried to molest him.
I don’t know if that’s true, especially knowing what I know about the kid going to prison. And it was kind of beside the point. He was almost 19, I think, and gave the homeless guy a TBI when he bounced his head off a curb. I remember my middle cousin said he heard he had to eat out of a tube. So they were never going to go easy on him, especially when you consider the kind of stuff he’d been caught doing to animals and whatnot.
I said I was glad he was going to jail, that it was probably going to be good for him. But then, somebody said something interesting. It made the tide of conversation shift away from the kid altogether.
“When he gets out of jail they’re going to put his address and picture on the Internet,” someone said.
“Like a sex offender?” someone asked.
“Yeah,” one of us replied. “They’re all up there. Everyone in the whole state.”
And then we had plans for the afternoon. Nobody even needed to say anything. We moved over to the computer tucked in the corner of the room. My oldest cousin sat down in the office chair my mom won from selling a lot of Mary Kay and powered on the monitor, throttling the mouse until the screen came to life.
We all knew about the sex offender registry before then, of course. Knew the ancient design of the website, were aware of the pictures of perverts and the bureaucratic sketches of their crimes. But we hadn’t thought to explore it; at least, not together. We typed the key words into a search engine and clicked the first .gov link we found.
What I assumed was going to be a throwaway activity, something we’d spend 20 minutes on at most, turned into hours typing different addresses into the sex offender registry. The search radius only allowed a user to see a maximum of three miles’ worth of offenders near a given address. Our town is 45 square miles. So we pulled up a town map and picked addresses that gave us the most offenders at once, moving around through the different neighborhoods.
We started near our high school. 337 sex offenders and 118 violent offenders in the 3 surrounding miles. Most of them had pictures, but some did not. Their exact addresses were marked with red dots on a map.
When the dot was clicked, the registry told a little story.
The results were sorted alphabetically. We clicked through every single one, from Gary Wayne Allen on down. The pictures were very small, something like 240 by 180 pixels, if I had to guess. So we zoomed in on each image until the faces became distorted and blown out.
Old guys. Young guys. Middle aged women. 20 year old girls with busted faces. 58 year old men with browbones like cavemen. Greasy used car salesmen. Former high school linebackers. Weaboos and cartoon fetishists. Faces pockmarked, or with perfect, clear skin. People I would never approach on the street. People I would, if I had to. The kinds of people I’d never expect, and the kinds I very much would.
We studied their faces, their expressions; what they did with their lips, the arch of their eyebrows. We examined their beards for crumbs, their skin for oil. Out loud we expressed disgust, never more so than the rare occasions an offender was captured smiling. Saying they should be put down. Saying how in other countries they would beat these people to death in the street. Why do they get to live so close to our school?
Soon we each determined a category of offender that interested us most. My oldest cousin seemed most drawn to the younger offenders, most of them committing assaults on people in their own age range. Most of them with a high likelihood of re-offending. Level 2 or even 3 offenders. A threat to public safety. He seemed worried as he pored over these entries, some of them only a year or two older than him. I didn’t like thinking about what might worry him, so I stopped.
My middle cousin didn’t care about the crime so much as the offender. He made us stop each time we passed a fat one. He made us open up the full report for each of them, insisting that we scroll to the bottom so he could get an exact weight. At first he remarked on their features, scoffing at their jowls and razor burn-scorched “waddles.” But after a while, he just looked.
I became obsessed with the child pornographers. A fatalistic desperation in each of their eyes. The most normal-looking out of everyone. Guys who work at software companies. Guys who work at coffee shops. Girls who do secretarial stuff at lumber mills. In prison for a while, now living 1.6 miles from me. You wonder if they get many dates. You wonder how they keep anyone around at all.
Of course all the other crimes are horrible, too. It’s not a contest. But the veneer of normalcy made their crimes all the more sinister. So many involved not just as consumers, but producers and distributors. A network of unspeakable evil, and the perpetrators’ addresses out in the open.
We all knew our Uncle Jeff was going to show up at some point.
It was a wonder we hadn’t already found him here, even more so that we hadn’t gone looking before now. Uncle Jeff’s “troubles,” as our mothers referred to them, were known by just about every kid in the school district. They had no problem asking us about our pervert uncle, no issue making it very clear they already knew the answers.
But we learned long ago not to ask questions ourselves. But that didn’t make them go away. And we had a lot of them: What did Uncle Jeff do? Was Uncle Jeff in prison? Is Uncle Jeff gay? Did Uncle Jeff do something to kids? Did Uncle Jeff have pictures of naked kids? Does Uncle Jeff have any pictures of me? Why is Uncle Jeff allowed to come to holiday dinner? All these at first brushed aside with promises to tell us when we get older, then with frustration, then outright anger.
During sleepovers and backyard camping trips, we would sometimes broach the subject ourselves in whispers, asking questions if only to get them out of our heads. Some got asked more than others. Some — like “Do you think he did anything to our moms?” — only got asked once.
With flashlights under our faces we intoned with a weird solemnity our theories about our disgraced relative. Concrete information was scarce; we knew we weren’t allowed to be alone with him when we were in grade school, and we also knew that Jeff seemed to be around more the older we
His transgressions were as wild as our imaginations allowed. Jeff molested twenty kids when he was working as a janitor at the community pool. Jeff used to be an ice cream man and lured kids in when their parents weren’t around and told them he’d give them free ice cream. Jeff jacked off in the bushes next to a preschool.
By the time we were old enough to really want answers, we knew we would have to find them ourselves. It was just a matter of when. And, I guess, we might have supposed, this day was as good as any.
We looked at the screen without speaking for a long time.
Then someone said:
“I think he still lives there.”
I remember looking at the time on the computer task bar. Almost 5 p.m. We were all sleeping in the basement that night, but we had nothing planned. It seemed like all of our nights together were starting to go this way. It was becoming less about finding things to do and more about finding ways to get fucked up. I found myself thinking of the overnights we had years ago, where we’d watch Predator on my aunt’s big screen and eat Western Family mac and cheese. And more than that, I found myself wanting to go home.
As if on cue, one of them said:
“Do you think he’d buy us beer?”
I had a feeling he would.
Maggie Siebert is a writer based in Brooklyn. She is the co-editor of HARSH and the author of ‘Bonding’ (Expat Press).