I used to own a bookstore in a small New England town. For me, it was the stuff of dreams: Business was good, the setting idyllic, the work minimal and the regular customers just odd enough to make things interesting.
The best customers practically haunted the place, settling down in the Science Fiction section or in History to read for hours, or hanging out at the counter to play Scrabble and shoot the breeze. They were all on the right side of nice and felt slightly guilty about taking up my time, and so did a little unsolicited work by way of thanks — shelving books, sweeping or just bringing in coffee. The ones who were devoted to one particular subject sometimes adopted that area of the shop and organized, tidied and alphabetized the books with proprietary enthusiasm.
Mike had taken on the science and nature section and spent a good portion of his non-working hours at the store. He lived right next door in a rundown, six-unit apartment building with cheap rent and no amenities. He stopped in on his way to work and on his way home, just to say hello or see who else was hanging around. There were times his phone was shut off and he used mine, which was fine. We hung out and laughed, as he was friendly and kind.
We got to be pretty good friends in the way you're good friends with the UPS guy — you see him every day for a short period, things are never fraught and over the years an actual fondness develops, based on nothing more than regularity, pleasant exchanges and the confabulatory notion that the person in question is as good as they seem to be.
I knew Mike had been to prison, but assumed that with the War on Drugs in full swing it had something to do with that. There was nothing about his habits, friends or reputation that suggested anything more nefarious. I never asked, he never told and I congratulated myself on the forgiving, non-judgmental person I obviously was. I left Mike in charge of the store when I had an errand to run and he dropped deposits off at the bank when it was on his way. I never worried.
Image: Alex Barth
One day, a manila envelope with no return address arrived at the store — it contained a photocopy of the police report from the day Mike was arrested, some 12 years before. I read it, but didn't understand what I was looking at. The police report said that Mike had raped a two-year-old boy, the son of friends he'd been babysitting for.
I felt nothing. I read it again. And nothing. Not even disbelief.
I had been molested as a small child and it seems like half my friends were, too. Twice before, I'd been confronted with the opportunity to do something about a child who was being sexually abused, and both efforts had ended with the unbelievable result of parents and police refusing to take action. In both cases, I felt the furies of Hell — one time, I'd stood face-to-face with a molester with a baseball bat in my hands and was ashamed when I realized that I didn't know how to hit another human being.
I confronted Mike and he admitted that yes, it was true. He was completely destroyed and it showed: The person who'd sent the photocopy had sent them to his boss and to all his friends. Mike said he was drunk at the time and that he'd never done anything remotely similar before or after. He offered to set up a meeting for us with his therapist. He encouraged me to speak to his parole officer (I didn’t) or get the opinion of a psychiatrist (I did). Contrary to what I expected, the shrink said it was very possible this was an isolated incident. Mike also said the child was fine and grew up with no memory of the rape. Amazingly, the boy's parents had forgiven Mike.
I never figured out why my anger failed me or why my instinctive horror didn't kick in during that time. All I felt was numb. Not feeling, I think, somehow protected me from my rage and from myself. Strangely, what anger that did kick in was directed at the person who'd sent the anonymous mailing.
Ultimately, the solution I chose was deeply unsatisfying. Forgiveness was not mine to give or deny. But if there was such a thing as an unforgivable act, child rape was certainly it. It hurt me to cut Mike off because there was no feeling behind the decision. I only knew that I could not do nothing.
This was literally the least that I could do.
Originally published on Purple Clover.More from Purple Clover
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