The window in the no-contact booth isn't made of glass, but of something like scratched-up Plexiglas, only thicker, both sides smeared with grease, or worse. My lawyer sits on the other side because they say I'm a sex offender now and he, everybody, has to be protected from me. "When did things start to go wrong?" he asks, peering in through the thick slab of dirty plastic as if I'm an animal in the zoo.
Going wrong, I want to ask. They were never right.
I wanted the four of us, Amy and our daughters, to walk into the sanctuary together, enter God's house as a family. The girls in their pretty dresses, swinging little white pocketbooks. Maybe they'd wiggle a little if the sermon got too long, but that's all they'd do. They wouldn't cry as they did, making a hoarse, bleating sound, and they wouldn't have pushed their heads against Amy and whined for treats till she started slapping at them. The older church women would smile at Amy when she'd put a finger to her lips, still curved in a sweet smile, shush now, give them Bible pictures to color. When we'd go down to the fellowship hall after the services, the way I pictured it, those ladies would fuss over the girls. One of them would touch the barrette in Bethany's soft, thin hair, say roguishly, "I think this little pink bird perched on your head is going to swoop down and give you a kiss."
I'd escort my little family over to the cookies and punch, tell them it was a party, "A party we can have every day to celebrate God sending us his only Son so that we might have eternal life," I would say. I imagined it so many times, their faces like flowers, turned to listen, it could have happened.
If I told my lawyer it would just be another thing for him to mock.
Amy was never ready for church on time. She wouldn't get up when the alarm went off. "Just ten more minutes," she'd say. "I'm so tired. I was up late with Bethany. I think I'm coming down with something. Let me sleep. You don't know how tired I am. We can't bring them to church if they're sick." Every week, the same thing.
She and I talked about it before we married. How she would accept my authority. Be a helpmeet, homeschool our children. That's the way she'd been brought up and she said she didn't want anything different. My mother didn't like it but she can make a shit sandwich out of anything, pardon my French. "That girl is eighteen years old. She's never had a job; she doesn't go to school. All she's ever done is read Christian romance books and help her mother. You just want somebody who'll think whatever you do is wonderful."
Of course I did. That's what love is. And we had it, each of us upholding the other in the place God intended for us. But that only lasted as long as I had my job at the radio station and we had money. Not that I ever made enough for Amy. "Let's go to Olive Garden. Let's go to Target." She didn't understand what it meant to be a helpmeet. Some of them at the church had plenty. The wives had their own SUVs so they could go with their friends to the science museum or the aquarium. Let the kids go wild while they sat in the café and drank six-dollar lattes. That's how it is for my lawyer, I bet. He and his wife would tell themselves their money is a sign of God's favor and he'd never have to listen to her complaining he doesn't make enough money.
"Tell me in your own words what happened," he says now. If he's got so much respect for my words why does he argue with everything I say and roll his eyes like he's in high school? He already knows it all anyway, got my paperwork right there in front of him. Six folders of it, calculated to make me look bad.
I tell him anyway. I was in my senior year of college the first time I was arrested, never been in trouble before, not even as a juvenile. I was majoring in broadcast journalism, wanted to get a job at a Christian radio station after I graduated.
The program was a sore disappointment to me. The other students weren't Christians; I didn't fit in. I remember giving an editorial in Communication Ethics about how our society pressures girls into having sex before marriage and how they'd go along with it but then they'd never feel good about themselves afterward.
"I felt a powerful compassion for those girls," I say, and my lawyer smirks.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised because the whole class thought it was a joke, even the professor. He pretended to scowl, said "That's enough now," when they wouldn't stop, but he was laughing too, saying "It's always a pleasure to hear your rich baritone, Mr. Maakestad," like it was some sexual joke.
I didn't like having to get my broadcasting hours at the college radio station. It was secular. I couldn't share my testimony, couldn't play Christian music, but I had my listeners.
A girl, not a college student, somebody who lived in the town, wrote to me, said she liked my show, liked my voice, wanted to meet me.
"I didn't write her back," I tell my lawyer.
"You must have known she was underage."
She was fifteen, older than Mary was when Jesus was born. But, no, I hadn't known, and I never invited her to come see me at the station, and I didn't tell her, when she got there, to lean across my desk, her T-shirt pulled tight across her breasts. What did she think was going to happen?
"Even if we accept that," my lawyer says, and he's my lawyer so he should accept anything I have to say, "why did you touch her?"
Because she waggled her tight little bottom in my face, Stupid.
"She made sexual overtures towards me."
"She was underage," he says again.
Nobody blamed her, coming to me in the form of the woman. My lawyer doesn't either. It all falls on me, no responsibility attached to her.
"Couldn't you get a college girl?" one of the policemen asked when they arrested me, on campus, in front of everybody. "They're easy."
"Or a fur coat with a slit," the other one said, a stupid grin pasted across his fat face. "Can't call that Indecent Liberties."
Which is what they charged me with. Indecent Liberties. A felony. I could have spent a year in prison, and I'd have to register as a sex offender for the rest of my life.
My parents got me a lawyer who told me to plead guilty to Fourth Degree Assault.
"I didn't assault her."
"It's a misdemeanor. Stay out of trouble for four years, take their little Healthy Sexual Behaviors class, and the charge is expunged. Goes away. Like it never happened."
"Nothing did happen," I said and he shrugged, got that take it or leave it look on his face, the way my lawyer does now. Because none of them care about me.
The tip of my mother's nose and her eyelids were pink from crying, the day we met with the lawyer. She looked like a rabbit but there's nothing timid about the stuff coming out of her mouth. "All the money we spent on your college and now this. You want everything handed to you. This is coming out of our IRA. There's a twenty percent penalty. But you don't care. All you think about is yourself."
I wasn't having that with Amy, thank you very much. It isn't her place to question me or criticize me. No, I never told her, and I never told her about the class either. "She didn't need to know," I say to my lawyer.
"I went to it once," I say today, "right after I graduated college."
"They let you graduate?" he sounds surprised.
"Why wouldn't they?"
The school seemed to think they were doing me a favor, "letting" me graduate, though they didn't have a choice. I'd done the work and it was just a misdemeanor.
You'd think a lawyer could figure that out for himself.
He doesn't apologize; wants to know why I didn't finish Healthy Sexual Behaviors, my court ordered class, doesn't understand, or pretends he doesn't understand, why that's offensive to me, being ordered to take a class about filth.
Give me a break. They called me a pervert, as if the girl was an innocent bystander, didn't have any part in what happened. The therapist just sat there, as if he were in traffic, waiting for the light to change—while the others, the clients is what they called us, as if they were actually performing a service for us—attacked me like I was Public Enemy Number One. God knows what they'd done. They were too busy telling me I was minimizing, making excuses.
Like we don't all fall short of the glory of God.
"I didn't feel comfortable there," I tell my lawyer.
"That's kind of the point, isn't it?"
I let my parents think I'd finished the class.
I'd met Amy by then, at church. Her closest relationship, like mine, was with Jesus Christ. We had a Christian courtship. Not a long one. "If God sends you a gift you don't delay accepting it," I say, when my lawyer raises his eyebrows.
He's a court-appointed public defender. My mother said they didn't have the money to pay for another lawyer. My father said my mother wouldn't agree to refinance the house.
My first real job in broadcasting looked as if it was going to be a blessing too because it was at a Christian station, but it was a sore disappointment right from the start.
"You don't need to wear a suit here," the station manager told me at the interview. "This is radio. Nobody sees you. You don't even need pants." Looking around to make sure everyone heard. When they laughed he laughed right along with them. He didn't ask about any legal issues and I didn't tell him because what business did he have judging me?
The other DJs wanted the afternoon show. It gave them a chance to flap their jaws, have a personality. I never turned down the morning slot. I worked hard, made sure the soccer moms got their traffic reports. Told jokes I got off the Internet. "How do you make a German Chocolate Cake?" "First ve occupy ze kitchen."
They said the moms called in to complain that I sounded angry, talked politics too much. It's not politics to say marriage is between a man and a woman but they care more about not offending somebody than the truth.
I made good money, anyway.
Never enough for Amy.
"That's not godly, Amy," I'd tell her. "We are to enjoy the gifts we have, not covet more." Why couldn't she take pleasure in sitting with the girls at the kitchen table, teaching them? Being patient with them as God is patient with His children.
I started DJing at skate parties so she'd leave me alone. I liked it, making sure the kids had a good time. The station was okay with it, figured it was good publicity for them.
My lawyer asks if I told my community supervision officer. "Until you completed the class, you were on supervision, were to report any contact with minors."
Why does he even ask? He knows I didn't.
I don't know who reported me. Somebody who didn't want me providing for my wife and family.
The station said I was an untreated sex offender, a liability, and they fired me.
Amy was all over it. "I think you could have done something different." Differently, she meant. Even if there was anything I might have done differently, she knows it isn't her place to question me. "There had to be something."
"Be ye my shelter in the storm," I admonished her. I hadn't looked for Amy to throw it in my face. My parents, yes, especially my mother. I knew better than to expect anything from her. After I got fired from the radio station they let us move in to the apartment over their garage, acted like they were doing us a favor, though they didn't care about Amy and me, just the girls. They couldn't have rented it anyway; it wasn't up to code. My parents talk poor but they have money. They both work. My mother, out in the world every day. It coarsened her. I could see it even if my dad couldn't. They should have helped us out more and with a cheerful spirit, the heart of a servant. My mother telling me she'd dig ditches before she'd take SNAP. I'd like to know who'd hire her; the only muscle she uses is her tongue. Same as Amy, always after me because I'd lost my job. "One little class," my mother said. "That's all you had to do."
Amy hated it. My mother was always on her about what a mess the apartment was. "The girls have so much stuff, I can't make it look nice."
Put yourself under my mother's authority, I told her. "Like Ruth submitting to Naomi. It won't be forever. We'll get our own place again soon, and such obedience is pleasing to the Lord."
I came home after dark one night, from a little temporary job I'd gotten cleaning leaves out of gutters for an apartment building. As soon as I got out of the van I could hear Jael and Bethany crying. When I went inside I saw Amy was crying too. She was sitting at the kitchen table and my mother was standing over her, screaming. "This place stinks. You live like pigs. There's garbage on the floor. You let your little girls live in garbage. We do everything for you and you can't even clean the toilet. You get a job. You get a job right now."
The stink was Bethany's poopy pants. Amy lets them eat all the popcorn they want. It's cheap, she says, a cheap snack. The good popcorn smell mixed with the poop smell. I took Bethany to the bathroom to change her but my mother pushed the bathroom door open and came in, stood over me, kicked at the dirty clothes on the floor. "If Amy is such a wonderful mom why isn't this child trained yet?" She stared at the soiled Pull-Up beside Bethany as if it was an exhibit at the museum. "Popcorn. You give a two-year old popcorn." I looked down at the un-popped kernels. Old maids, they used to call them. "But you and Amy don't care if she chokes."
Childcare, I told Amy. That's an important ministry. "She isn't good at it," my mother said, "but, of course, she doesn't have any skills."
I helped Amy write the ad, "Loving Christian mother to care for your little ones when you can't." We added "in your home" because my mother said Amy wasn't bringing any more kids into our rat hole.
Mercedes was the first to call and Amy was excited. Her daughter was an only child, four, the same age as Jael, and she said Amy could bring the girls. They'd be company for Daisy, her little girl; Daisy didn't like being bored. I had a bad feeling about it, invited myself along to the interview. Amy didn't want me to come. "I think she'd be more comfortable if it's just us two."
Her and Mercedes. Against me.
I have a right to know, I told her, about anything to do with her and the girls. "I need to ask if she has a close personal relationship with Jesus Christ." Amy said I shouldn't mention religion; it wouldn't be professional.
"Really, Amy? The girl who needs a babysitting job is telling me what's professional?" I expected sharp words from her as soon as I'd said it but she turned around and started talking to the girls about company manners. She wanted that job bad.
Mercedes was okay with my coming. Said it was important for us to get to know each other, though she did all the talking. She told us she was a single mother, as if that was something to be proud of. She'd left her daughter's father, she said, because he was never there for her. Meaning herself, Mercedes, not Daisy. I didn't care for that, figured it was probably because he was disgusted by her slutty ways, but all Amy could think of was the eleven dollars an hour. She wouldn't even have to get up early; Daisy went to preschool in the morning. "I think this will be acceptable," I told Mercedes.
"Do you?" Mercedes said, just like that, in front of Amy, our daughters. "It isn't your decision."
Daisy was smart-mouthed, same as her mom. I didn't want the girls around her but Amy said we might be able to claim Daisy's soul for Jesus.
Amy liked it at Mercedes' house. Getting away from my mother, eating snacks, everything her own way. I started going over there myself in the afternoon to keep an eye on things.
No homeschooling as there should have been. Because Daisy didn't want to sit nicely and listen to Bible stories. She didn't want to do projects or sing anything except the nasty grinding songs she saw on the Internet. Mercedes didn't care. "She's tapped out from school. Let her do what she wants."
I'd still be there, sometimes, when Mercedes came home. Didn't bother her; Mercedes liked an audience. One night she was holding forth about self-care, or "me time" as she called it, when Daisy came up to her.
She didn't ask her for anything, pull at her as Jael and Bethany did with Amy, just stood there, smiling down at the floor. Mercedes put out her hand to touch Daisy's cheek and Daisy clutched Mercedes hand in both of hers.
"Like they were putting on a show," I told Amy on the way home. Mercedes had pulled Daisy up, nestled her in her arms like a bundle, a baby, to show us how much she loved Daisy and Daisy loved her.
"Mercedes is all right," Amy said, as if that was all that needed to be said. They sat together at night and gossiped. Mercedes drank wine and the girls fended for themselves.
Mercedes was a bad woman, I tell my lawyer. I don't look at him when I say this because I know there will be no sympathy in his face.
I picture Mercedes' long bright fingernails, hard and glossy. Her great big hair. Honey-colored, she told Amy, who was impressed. Bottle blonde. Every inch of her burnished to please, entice. Holding herself up to her daughter as a model.
"The judge won't want to hear it," my lawyer says.
No, the judge won't want to hear anything I have to say. He's not interested in what really happened. "Mercedes wasn't leading a godly life. Nothing changes that."
"You ripped that child apart like a wishbone." He says it softly, as if there is no weight to his words.
He'd acted nice at first, as if he liked me, said, "I believe we can make a strong case for the lower range of the sentencing guidelines and you can get on with your life." I had hopes the first time I met him and saw the little gold cross on his lapel.
Now he tells me to take the plea. "You've got no choice. There's DNA evidence."
I tell him I don't feel guilty, not the way they mean it. He rolls his eyes.
"Listen," I say, "you can do something for me."
"Why would I want to do anything for you?"
Antagonistic, the way everyone is now, but I needed this. "You could talk to the judge. I was thinking I could enlist. The Army, maybe. I could support my family and help my country. Give back. It would save the state money. If they still wanted me to get treatment I could pay for it myself."
"Can't happen, not with the mandatory sentencing guidelines." A loud sigh, like I'm supposed to feel sorry for him, my public pretender. "You're thinking of the Vietnam days, during the draft. The military doesn't accept felons now. And because it is insulting to the men and women who enlisted because they wanted to serve, not to escape legal problems." Well he'll be cut down in time. That I do know.
"But the judge can do whatever he wants, can't he?"
The first time I saw him, my lawyer made me read the transcript of the CPS interviews with Mercedes and Daisy. "You need to know what we're up against. What you're up against." Mercedes, saying because of me Daisy has nightmares and cries when Mercedes leaves for work. I'll bet she always did; Mercedes wouldn't have noticed.
The child needs her mother but it's me they'll blame. Nothing about how Mercedes was out with someone she'd met at work. That's all work was to her, a place to hook up. How she said she'd be home by nine so could Amy stay? Amy said yes, wanting the money. Mercedes called at ten, saying she wasn't sure how much longer she'd be but Amy didn't mind, did she? Daisy was okay, wasn't she?
She may have sounded drunk. Talked slow, holding each word a little too long, like she'd taken something that tasted good into her mouth. "Take the girls home," I told Amy. "They should be in bed." Daisy, of course, got to stay up as long as she wanted so the girls wouldn't sleep either, if they were with her.
"There's a new sheriff in town," I told Daisy when they were gone. "Bed time."
I was ready for one of her sassy little answers but she didn't look at me, just kept dancing, twirling around, glancing at me sideways over her shoulder. "Busting moves," she said. "I'm busting a move." The knowing look on her face, the lips just parted, as if her tongue would come thrusting out any moment. I took the iPod from her sticky hand.
Daisy gave me a sleepy-eyed look, as if she could barely keep her eyes open. Meant to be sexy, I guessed. That's the way she thought. I'd walked in on her telling Jael what was sexy once. Hot, she'd said, putting her eyelids at half-mast. This is hot. My daughter listening to whore lore.
"Why did you do that?" Bold. "It belongs to me. It's mine."
"Because it's high time you were in bed, young lady."
She didn't look at me. "You know what my mom says about you?"
"No." I could guess. "Now. You're going to bed now."
She lolled against the couch, her legs apart. Slack. "She says you're a prick." Well, if she wanted to see how that would affect me, I was happy to show her. I yanked her up and carried her to the bathroom, her breath hot and sugary in my face. From the junky cereal she ate whenever she wanted, not bothering with a bowl and milk, just sticking her hands into the box, going straight for the pogey bait. She didn't struggle and for a moment I thought she was scared, knew she'd gone too far, would yield to my authority with sweet relief. "You brush your teeth." But she stared up at me, made no move to obey. The toilet lid was down and I set her on it, a little hard, maybe, but she needed to know I meant business.
"Brush them good."
Well, I should have said, brush them well.
Bubblegum-flavored toothpaste. Like everything's a treat. How's that supposed to prepare her for life. She swiped the brush across her front teeth once, and handed the brush back to me.
"You think you're done? You think you did a good job?" She stood and looked at me, kind of a distant look like she can't place me. I grabbed the brush, thrust it in, and brushed that tight little mouth hard. Up, down, all over, hard. Daisy didn't struggle. She sat there, watching me rinse the pink from the brush, stick it back in the holder. I told her to find her pajamas, put them on.
Get moving, I said, but she stayed there staring into space. Jael always wanted pants like Daisy's. Yoga pants, something an adult woman would wear. Some of the pink fabric was wadded between her legs. She laid her hands on the soft cloth over the mons veneris. She didn't stroke it, just rested her hands there. Something I'd seen her doing before, no one to tell her it was wrong.
"Daisy," I said, and I could hear my voice become quiet, knowing what was going to happen, "don't do that."
She looked at me again and I swear there was no fear in her face. No fear, no surprise. Nothing at all. Nobody home.
Oh, they all lined up to take a shot at me. The police, the prosecutor. Like unto whited sepulchers. That baby is what they called Daisy. You tore her up, they said, you impaled her, that baby, but I tell you I never hurt her. She didn't cry once. She never cried.
I slid her pants down, pulling them out from under her hands.
She closed her eyes. Tight, in excess of what was needed to stop seeing. She was playacting, feigning a fear I know she did not feel. I'll hear my girls doing that sometimes. Monsters. Sharks. Shrieking with delight and excitement.
Daisy was quiet in recognition of the secret between us so I heard clearly, can hear still, her rapid, shallow breathing. It throbbed in my ears, throbbed through the bathroom's fusty air, through Daisy, through me. Her eyes shut tight as a fist; the eyelashes sticking out like spikes.
I tire of my public defender and I stand, because when the guards see you do that they'll come get you, take you back. "If you don't want to help me, I'll find someone who does."
Title image "View of the Future" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2020.