By Elizabeth Cohen
He was our friend.
We went out to eat, to the movies. We traipsed around our little town together. We talked several times a week on the phone. We texted back and forth about this and that and nothing at all. We laughed about the same things. We were on the same page politically. He hated gossips. He was mad about cuts in social services. He loved Shakespeare. He was appalled by the idea of fracking.
I will call him Tim.
Tim and I did each other favors. When my ceiling sprouted a slow leak in the shape of Australia, Tim came to the rescue with a sander, spackle, drywall and tape. When his car was being fixed, I lent him mine. He housesat for us and fed our cats when we were away. We lent him a little money when he was between jobs. He paid it back. We ate a lot of Chinese food.
When I say “we,” I am talking about my 15-year-old daughter, Ava, and I. Tim was a local drama instructor and Ava took every class he offered. She played the lead roles in plays and short films he directed and learned the nursemaid’s monologue from “Romeo and Juliet,” which she performed with such passion my heart plomp-plomped in my chest and landed somewhere in my throat.
She was nuts about him, asked him for advice and accepted it when he gave it. She thought of him as a father. Her own father is far away and sick, waiting for a heart transplant, and had not given her as much attention in years as Tim did in a single day. Tim played stand in.
Families in our community signed up their daughters for classes he taught in babysitting at the Red Cross. When Ava completed the course, she received an official certificate and a card she could put in her wallet. “I am ready to work now, Mama,” she told me proudly.
Once, I let Tim take her along with another girl for a day in Burlington, Vermont, as a reward for their hard work on a particular play. They went out to eat and to an amusement park.
I want to say here that it wasn’t just Ava and I who loved Tim, it was our whole town. You might say he was considered something of a small town cultural treasure. Like a spring that has healthy and delicious water, we discussed his presence as fortuitous, lucky. We felt sorry for other towns that had nobody like him.
But then came a warning, a text to me from another mother, stating that Tim “wasn’t what he seemed.” She couldn’t tell me the origin of the information or even the details, but it was bad, she said, “really bad.” She was pulling her daughter out of Tim’s acting class and said, “I suggest you do, too.”
I went on the defensive. The unfairness! The audacity! This was the kind of gossip that could destroy lives! With a cadre of a few other moms, I fought back, defending Tim to anyone who would listen.
Then I confronted Tim. Did he know about these rumors? Was he worried or concerned? He shook his head. “Whenever you do good things or are good at something, people get jealous,” he told me. “There’s always a backlash.”
Indeed there is, I thought. History is full of examples of talented, beautiful people taken down by innuendo. And although whispers were flying about Tim, they were vague. I thought of the words of the King James Bible: And withal they learn to be idle, wandering from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not.
In the midst of this firestorm, Ava and I packed up suddenly to leave town and travel out west to help care for her father, who had by this time become extremely ill, his sick heart failing. We decided that Ava would attend the high school there and I would help out with his care as best I could, changing out oxygen canisters, shopping, cooking, making glass after glass of fresh veggie juice, hoping that the blood of beets, mixed with apple, ginger and celery might contain just the right curative properties. We knew that time was running out and we were going to make the most of it.
My husband, Shane, and I had lived apart for years, he preferring the west and I employed and active in the east. Now his illness was forcing us all back together. It was a deeply emotional time for our family, which had been limping along for years. We brought minimal belongings and Ava’s cat Carder, of course, her best friend, who seemed skittish and rattled by the long journey. Carder’s mood mirrored our own. We were nervous all the time, wondering what fresh blast of bad news each day would bring. I put Tim and the controversy surrounding him out of my mind.
While Shane and I watched back to back episodes of “Game of Thrones”—a show so violent and brutal it could make you forget, for fifty-minute intervals at least, that you were dying—Ava stayed in her room posting updates on Facebook and occasionally texting Tim with news of her days. He would write back with advice (“love your father as best you can, while you can”; “don’t do drugs”).
By the end of the summer, we had to return home; my job was in jeopardy if we stayed away longer and Shane was being moved to the Mayo Clinic where he would wait for a heart. I charted our course across the country along Route 66. No diversions, no time for exploring or vacation fun. I knew if I stayed on this one straight road I would not get lost and Ava and I could find lodging and food along the interstate. Three highways would bring us home, much of it through flat brown expanses that melded with the horizon like a single seam in a shirt.
The world was changing—I couldn’t help but notice. The chugging oil wells from my childhood vacations, softly yet constantly pumping up crude, had been replaced with wind turbines, silent sentries twirling en masse. But it was in Tennessee, where the flatness broke down into gentle valleys and hills and the pervasive brown melted into green, that our lives would change, in a tectonic way, no less monumental it seemed than the larger world’s shifts.
A text came in with a soft ding as Ava and I walked into a Waffle House. Every town seemed blessed with these small, squat waffle manufactories that promised buttery, crunchy distraction from the miles and eating at one had become a priority for Ava since we had seen the first one somewhere in Texas.
“Maybe they’ll have strawberry or blueberry,” Ava said hopefully as we walked to the counter. “Or chocolate!”
The Waffle House of our choosing, a plain rectangular building that smelled of grease trap and mud-caked boots, the friendly chatter pierced by the buzz of flies, had neither chocolate, strawberry nor blueberry, only plain waffles served in plain rectangles. I placed my phone on the counter and we ordered. Whatever missive was there could wait, I thought, and I had a foreboding feeling about it. Had something happened to Shane? Is this how people find out someone has died?
When we got back into the car, I flipped open the screen to read it.
“Tim arrested,” it read. “Child pornography.”
It was from my friend at home, the other mother, the one who had warned me many months before. Attached was a copy of the FBI report. I clicked and read on.
FBI? Pornography? My tongue, still thick with the taste of bad waffles, throbbed as my brain sizzled with shock.
“What is it?” Ava asked. “Why are we stopping? Is Dad O.K.?”
She pulled Carder to her chest, her practice whenever she was really scared or upset about something.
“Dad’s fine,” I said. “It’s Tim.”
“What about Tim? Is he O.K.?”
“Not really, I said. “He’s been arrested.”
“For what?” she asked.
I read the report silently to myself. “Read it to me, read me what it says,” she insisted. And then I decided. It was a split-second decision, instinct really. She was fifteen. She was no longer a little kid. And this was something in her life, too. In her life big time. So I read her the affidavit. And as I did I could see her begin to tremble. And then shiver all over. And then I realized, despite the hot August sun pounding down on us on the side of the road, I was shivering, too.
Tim had been caught, red-handed, with a child, and on his phone was an image of the child he had uploaded and traded with other child pornographers in exchange for photos of other children in all sorts of poses, naked, doing unspeakable things. The picture on Tim’s phone was of the child’s vagina in clearly manipulated poses. I realized he had to have touched her in ways no man should ever touch a child. The trembling which became the shivering had become a full scale shaking. The hand holding the phone seemed to be under the influence of a beam of electrical current. My stomach lurched and I felt a sudden desire to throw up as I continued to read aloud.
Tim had an online moniker—I will call it here “TTTREAT”—and using it he had hung around in a chat room of incest aficionados pretending to be this child’s brother. But there had been a sting and he had been caught. As I read I saw Ava sort of cave over Carder, collapse in on her, and then, after several minutes she spoke.
“Mom,” she said, “I have something to tell you.”
I looked at her. She was clicking away on her cell phone, looking for something. Then she found the thing she was looking for. Some months earlier, she told me, she had received texts from a kid at her school, who used the name, I shall say here, “TTNEAT.” And this kid had told her he “had dirt on her,” pictures of her with her first boyfriend. He threatened to upload these pictures on Instagram, send them around via Snapchat and Twitter, perhaps, or maybe write things about her on Facebook if she didn’t send him some pictures of herself. Her reputation and personhood would be destroyed in our small town.
“Mom, I think it might have been from him,” she said, disbelieving. We looked at one another. We could no longer say his name; Tim had become a nameless being, someone whose name could wield evil just by saying it.
“But you didn’t do it…you didn’t do it.. you didn’t do it, you didn’t send…” I couldn’t finish the sentence.
Silence. Shaking hands. More clicking on her phone.
“I did, Mama,” she said, now fully buried in Carder. But the picture she sent wasn’t what he wanted, because in it she was wearing underwear. He became angry. She read me all the texts from “TTNEAT, and as she did, we both began to cry. To cry and shake and cry and bend over, she into her cat and me into the steering wheel. “Oh honey, oh honey,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me about this?”
“I thought it was some weird kid at my school,” she said.
And then: “I thought you would get mad.”
For a long time we were silent, sitting by the road side. Then my hand crept toward hers, and hers toward mine. And we just sat there, off I-66, in the shadow of the Waffle House, our hands entwined in the horror of the deception. In the sadness of what had come between us and no doubt scared her beyond speech, beyond telling. And now had become even more horrible. The lie that had revealed the truth.
“I love you,” I whispered, “and nothing you ever do will ever change that.”
“I love you, too, Mama,” she said.
A month later I sat, shaking again, in a chair at the office of the local FBI agents in my town, facing two grown men in suits.
“Grooming is what predators do,” the lead agent on Tim’s case was telling me. “They take their time, moving slowly into your life to achieve your trust. They will wait a long time to get what they want.”
It was so hard to grasp, that Tim wasn’t really our friend at all. He wasn’t a drama teacher or a certifier of babysitters at the Red Cross. He wasn’t a man who took care of cats, fixed ceiling leaks, ate Chinese food. That was all a mirage, a ghost image of who he really was. He was a shapeshifter. A thief of images of children, a seller of innocence. And he was the thief of my daughter’s heart. In the aftermath of his arrest, Ava retreated into a silence so deafening I could hear it beat. It had a pulse, like another living thing in our house. This silence.
If the FBI were right, and I had to gather they were—though there was a small part of me that still wanted to protest, “You have the wrong man!”—Tim had been after my daughter. Mine and everyone else’s. And we single mothers, or women without our daughter’s fathers in our homes, were his chief hunting grounds. He saw us as vulnerable, demilitarized countries where his evil intentions could go unchecked. And he was right. We were vulnerable. I was. I had made him chicken dinners with homemade mashed potatoes—lumpy, with extra garlic, the way he liked them.
The things he did shocked and appalled our whole community. We were all damaged. In early September, one month after his arrest, we had a parent’s meeting in the tall grass behind the Unitarian Church in our town, where we compared notes and talked about what had happened. A few people cried. Everyone seemed horrified. And once we compared and contrasted our myriad “Tims,” we came to see, in the light of day, with cicadas buzzing and a breeze tapping about the tree branches, that Tim was not Tim. And somehow, we were not us anymore. We were a different us. A stained and wiser us.
As for Ava, she seemed to harden somehow, as if the soft candy in the double boiler of her childhood had been removed from heat and was stiffening. One day, I noticed she had moved her American Girl Dolls outside her room. They lay side by side in their homemade beds, the covers pulled up to their chins. I stopped in my tracks. She was fifteen after all, it was probably time. But the way they lay there, their glass eyes staring at the ceiling, arms by their sides, seemed to make a statement about the exile of innocence.
My grief and shock slowly transformed into rage and guilt. How had I let this happen? What had made me trust Tim and even defend him when the rumors began to emerge? Was I also guilty here? I thought about the way he had tiptoed into our lives. A class party, a trip to the local pool, activities for kids in his drama program, a “premiere” at a real theater for the homemade films from his film class. He had been so nice and caring and after years of single motherhood and a husband who remained far away by choice, whose health was collapsing, I was hungry for it. I realized I carried some responsibility here as well. I had wanted our little family to have support, to have another leg. That leg, in the end, was not a leg. It was a hand holding a camera, waiting to snap pictures.
Postscript: Today, Tim awaits sentencing at a Federal prison in New York State. He faces eleven counts of the production of child pornography and one count of possession of child pornography. The texts he sent to Ava, using blackmail to get her to send more images, may become an additional charge. For each charge he faces up to ten years.
Elizabeth Cohen is an assistant professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh. She is the author of the memoir The Family on Beartown Road and the short story collection The Hypothetical Girl, among other books.