Register Monday | March 4 | 2024


Part one of two.


I WAS CALLED IN TO TALK TO WALLACE after the fourth complaint from a woman he’d brushed. All the guys at the police department wanted to warn him again, just let him go, but local protestors had been agitating too hard to ignore, demanding some official steps toward brick-walling the guy.

I would have gotten involved just to help Wally out, but I also felt more obligated than usual to protect him; the protest group belonged to my daughter, Emily. SAFO, a campus-based outfit. They were more of a social presence than any of the other student groups, except for the cash-heavy Chinese Christian Club, which regularly picked up trash and handed out leaflets in the park, a nicely Sisyphean pairing of tasks.

Wallace’s brushing wasn’t unpunishable, but it was difficult to categorize in the rigid, conviction-oriented legalese of a police report. It’s easy to describe in plain English: Wallace spent many evening rush hours sitting on an upturned bucket behind a busy bus stop on St. Michael Street, wearing jogging pants with no boxers, holding an old Vidal Sassoon hairbrush (maybe stolen, maybe his mother’s) in his left hand. When a woman with the right kind of hair passed by, he would stand up and pass his brush through it, just once, then sit back down again. If the crowd was thick enough, and the hair free of catching tangles, he didn’t really get noticed. But Wallace didn’t base his choices on caution. He based them on hair.

W. Schuster categorizes the “right kind” as “blonde with a little curl,” “the right red,” or “black, but only if the girl has blue eyes.”

Wallace never bothered Asian or Indian girls. Using blue eyes instead of skin tone to say that was oddly reserved, for a budding sex offender.

I talked to him in the narrow, cozy room next to the proper interrogation chambers. This one had the same layout—two benches facing each other across a picnic-table sized hunk of stainless steel—but the furniture was upholstered, and there was an old easy chair in the corner. A calendar promoting Fat Ray’s Burrito Hut hung on a wall, displaying the wrong month and the wrong year.

Wallace was lying on one of the benches, wearing those black jogging pants and an Ozzfest t-shirt. Both garments were disintegrating at a molecular level, with so many holes of alternating size that they looked to be patterned after a lace tablecloth, but Wally’s important bits were covered. He tilted his head toward his chest to look at me as I came in, his neck fat bullfrogging into a ruff around his tight collar before he sighed, sat up and watched me take a seat in the easy chair. 

“If you get through this talk okay, if you talk right, you can go home today.” If not, Wallace would have to swap his masturbator’s uniform for the orange overalls of the county jail three miles away.

“Didn’t touch anyone,” Wallace said. His face was handsome in the middle of that ovoid sphere of a skull, the acne at his hairline separated from his eyebrows by at least four inches of forehead. He fell just short of having an official deformity. “I didn’t touch anyone.”

“I see how you think that’s true, Wally, but it’s just not the case. Anyway, I came in today to help you.”

“You’re here all the time.”

“Nope. I haven’t worked here for a long while. Since before your dad’s been gone. I do my lawyering downtown now, a private office.”

“Don’t need help. I didn’t touch anyone. You don’t know anything about it.”

“If you stab someone with a knife, or shoot them with a gun, you may not have put a hand on them, but you’ve touched them in a worse and more lasting way than if you’d just punched them, right?”

Wallace gave me a persecuted look. “I didn’t punch, knife, shoot, do any of that either, and I don’t know who told you I did.”

“No one told me that. No one thinks you did, Wallace.”

“So what do I need help for?”

“Just to make sure that we manage what people think you’re going to do when you get out of here. You can’t keep on brushing these girls’ hair, Wallace. They don’t like it. Maybe you think it does no harm, but what’s important is what they think.”

He snorted at this, a sound that was much wetter than I would have liked. I could see him trying to think his way into an elegant rebuttal, an explanation of the injustice of my comment, but he couldn’t do it. I was used to this, watching wheels move in brains that didn’t have the finer machinery required for conclusion and articulation.

“You’re going to help yourself.” I gave him a little coaching, told him what he’d be best off pleading. All of this was being recorded, all above-board, and we’d have the new public defender sign off on it. He was a young kid named Dan Lipton who was angling for a position at my firm in the new year, and was all right with letting me have free rein when the department wanted a finesse problem solved. Ill-fitting as the word was for the lump across from me, Wally had to be handled with some finesse. He was the son of a dead cop, Tom Schuster. I’d known Tom well, and Wallace too. He used to hang around the station when he was a kid. No one liked him or had time for him any- more, but everyone remembered his dad.

“No jail at all, Wally, just a few appointments in a nice office, once a week. You’ll get to talk to a lady about anything you want to,” I said, realizing that I was being suggestive to enhance the bait. I didn’t like that much, but it worked. He even agreed to leave his brush behind at the station, so he wouldn’t be tempted to use that particular one again.


WALLACE WAS CAUGHT IN AN INTERNET STING five months later. He was chatting to a fake girl, played by a twenty-nine-year-old male ex-cop from Buffalo who had an uncanny talent for digitally portraying a teen. Emily’s group had started an online fundraiser to hire this guy for long-distance sting work, and she’d used some of my old department contacts to make sure there’d be an arresting officer waiting for the hopeful offenders when they turned up to meet the phantom adolescent of their dreams.

I read some of the chat transcripts; the ex-cop was good, picking up on little things the guys said to make the girls seem real, seem perfect. Norse mythology, budding white supremacy, soccer, Alan Jackson, body piercing—he knew what would make each separate guy bite. Of the eight arrested dopes, Wallace had the saddest chat transcript. It would be read out in full in court, but when I was first sent for, the boys just gave me a couple choice excerpts. We laughed, of course, but no one was really happy about the kid getting himself in this trouble.

Wallace was in one of the real interrogation rooms this time, trying to arrange himself comfortably on the bare metal bench. I took a look or two at him on the CCTV as I read through his humiliation with Dan Lipton, in a small office down the hall.

wallguy12: whut u wear to sleep
maryjane14xo: lol just norml pjs
wallguy12: bra?
maryjane14xo: yeah don want to be saggy
wallguy12: they big
maryjane14xo: lol i wish
wallguy12: u still have red hair
maryjane14xo: ya that pic is from last wk
wallguy12: u red down there 
maryjane14xo: no
wallguy12: u shave it
maryjane14xo: i guess
maryjane14xo: but not all of it thats gross
wallguy12: y
maryjane14xo: lol cuz then it looks like a kids
wallguy12: thats ok

“Christ,” said Dan. “This is going to murder in court.” Dan liked to talk like a seasoned trial veteran; lots of Sam Waterston and John Grisham lines. He actually did spend a lot of his time in court, mostly in the reluctant service of wife-beaters, but was eager for a position behind a desk like mine.

“Tom shouldn’t have bought him his own laptop. Big mistake.” Probably Tom’s last mistake, too, other than continuing to eat as he did; he’d had the last of four heart attacks a couple of weeks after Wallace’s seventeenth birthday. Wally was skinny then, hadn’t started on the junk food path that led to the state of his current body. He now looked like a spindle of shawarma meat in a plaid shirt, rotating aimlessly on the metal bench in the monitor.

“You going to talk to him?” Dan asked.

“Not today. Got too much on at the office. And we’ll really need to mull this. Check all sorts of precedents for this sting operation stuff, state-to-state. I used to watch that show where they did this—”

“I still do sometimes, online.”

“Yeah. Well, not all of those guys got jail time. I say check up on some of those cases first, we’ll have good visuals for the jury—”

“So you think it is going to trial.”

“Got to prepare as though it was. And yeah, I think it is.”

I didn’t have anything to do at the office that afternoon, but I did need to talk to Emily. She still lived at home, in a fenced-off (she used the childproof gate we had up when she was little) enclave downstairs, a sort of clubhouse for her and a parade of friends who entered and exited by the back door. I knew she was there by what came up through the vents: conversation, microwaved-food smells, yelping sex noises.

She was in my part of the house when I came in, foraging in the fridge. Dr. Phil on the television.

“I’m just flicking channels,” she said.

“Don’t worry about it. Funniest show on TV.”

“Yeah.” She moved her head like she was flipping hair out of her face, but she didn’t have any, these days. Bic’d, down to the skull, done by someone who was drunk, judging by the number of small ruby-crusted cuts.

“Were you visiting your buddy?” she asked. I set my jacket and laptop bag on the kitchen table, next to a bunch of bananas that nobody would end up eating.

“I didn’t talk to Wallace, no.”

“This is it for him. Really it, finally.” 

“You’ve got to be the only person I know with a vendetta against a retard,” I said.

“And you’re, what, the only person in your income bracket who still uses the word 'retard’ like it’s okay.

“I call them whatever, but I don’t entrap them.”

“Did you read that chat? He’s a pig.” 

“No denying that.”

“Yeah, but I’m sure you’ll find a way to qualify it. 'He’s lonely. He’s mentally ill.’” 

“All of the above.”

“Are you still convinced he’s that way because you were sucking off his dad?” Her voice cracked a little at the end of this, the glassy casualness spiderwebbing, giving up the time she’d spent rehearsing this.

I put myself through the mental paces of hitting her instead of actually doing it. I played it out in real time. Catching the point of her jutting out, pretend-brave chin with fingers instead of palm in an open slap, enough force to turn her around but keep her standing. I let it play out, then took a seat and looked up at her before I answered.

“I guess Tom thought that, yes, we’d traumatized him somehow. No one wants to see one of their parents doing anything sexual, let alone something unexpected. But I’m not a big believer in instant trauma. Wally’s problems have more to do with having a professional alcoholic for a mother.”

“Yep. Woman’s fault, obviously. Of course.”

“Okay. Tom was a delinquent father in more ways than he should have been.” I’d known Tom before he got married, when we were in the army, posted out in Berlin. I saw him reading something that wasn’t Mad or porn in the barracks and we started talking, before all the rest of it. After discharge, we each thought we’d take to marriage and kids a little better than we actually did. Probably knew otherwise, though; there was a reason we settled in the same small city.

Emily scrolled through potential responses. She took the phone out of her pocket and mashed out a quick text, thumbing the keypad buttons like she was forcing my eyes out.

“Who’re you talking to?”

“Julie,” Emily said. “Do you even know who that is?”

“No. Have you introduced us?”

“She writes all the materials with me. Been on the news with me about a dozen times, too.”

“Yeah, alright, you work with her, you hang out with her, maybe she’s the one making the chimpanzee hollers in my basement after midnight. That’s your business. You want to make it mine, I’d love that. Unlatch the baby gate and bring her to dinner, I’ll make something with a vegetable in it. But stop telling me off for not sticking my face where you’ve telegraphed it isn’t wanted.”

It was a pretty good little speech, and I was careful to steer it away from sounding courtroom when I realized that I was going to go on for more than a sentence. She kept texting throughout, making a face she didn’t know she made when she was concentrating, with her lower lip rolling on and off her bottom teeth and a near-wink happening around her right eye.

“We’re going to picket the station tonight,” Emily said. “Do you want to come?”

“No. Gotta talk to someone about a case.” I left my blazer behind on the table, knowing that it was still too cool for shirtsleeves, but not wanting to turn back once I reached the front door. 

Read Part Two.