Fiction | Befriending the Scum of the Earth – Joshua Britton

Britton’s story is a conundrum come to life. A legally convicted pedophile moves next door to the protagonist, and the latter finds himself drawn into a somewhat reluctant friendship with him. As the friend of a child molester, he understandably finds himself being shunned by the rest of the world, and yet does not quite manage to abandon his new-found friend. The reason is for the reader to decipher. – Shreya, The Bombay Review.

I believe in forgiveness. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt. In theory, I have faith in the justice and rehabilitation system. I do not, however, want to be friends with a pedophile.

Vince bought the house between the nuns and me. On moving day, the neighborhood residents formed a receiving line and Vince shook hands with each of the parents from across the street, the middle-aged divorcees, the nuns, and the Elder Statesman. The Elder Statesman gathered everyone and gave a speech, not only to offer Vince his gracious hospitality, but also to speak of the long-standing tradition of high character and moral fiber exuded by the residents of his beloved street.

Perhaps Vince should simply have taken advantage of the gathering to make one announcement and get it over with. Instead, he shook everybody’s hand, told jokes, laughed at theirs, and accepted fruit baskets and plates of brownies. Not until the following week did he go door-to-door to inform everybody of his record.

I was slow to react, having had zero prior experience listening to a man found guilty of diddling little boys. When he finished his court-mandated speech, he stuck out his hand. I hesitated, as if his arms and hands were covered in slime or crawling with parasites. But I resisted the urge to back away, and, because social convention says so, I shook it. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” I said.

Compared to the reaction of the rest of the neighborhood, I might as well have said, “You and I are going to be best friends.”

At first, I was one with the neighborhood. Neighbors complained to me as much as to anyone. “There ought to be a law.” “How can someone like that be allowed back into civilized society?” “We should send them all to an island where they can rape each other to death.” “If nothing else, we need to pray for him.” That last was from one of the nuns. The nuns and I were showered with pity for having to live on either side of the offender.

The Elder Statesman had inherited his home when his own parents died thirty years earlier, decades after he was born in that same house, in the same bedroom he slept in now. He polled interest in holding a neighborhood meeting to discuss how to oust Vince from the zip code, but the general feeling was that nothing legal could be done. And, because of the moral fiber of the neighborhood’s residents, nothing illegal was even suggested.

I happened to be on my porch, reading, when Timmy lost control of his soccer ball and it bounced into Vince’s front yard. Vince wasn’t outside; I don’t think he was even home. Timmy ran across the street to retrieve his ball. From inside the house his mother glanced out the window and screamed at the top of her lungs, “Timmy, get out of that yard right now! Timmy, do you hear me?! Come inside! Now!!!”

In less than a week Timmy’s house was on the market. The family moved not long after, before the house was even sold.

Our only other family couldn’t risk taking on a second mortgage. They installed a full-perimeter fence instead.

“I’m grilling burgers,” Vince said to me on Saturday. I was still half-asleep and didn’t have a shirt on. “Come on over!”

“Uh, ok.”

In his backyard the charcoal grill was already fired up. He threw on two patties as I walked through the gate. He gave me the choice of several cheeses, recommending the Gruyere. I sat in front of one of two placemats set on his new patio furniture. I was either the only person invited or the only one who had accepted. Also on the table was every condiment I’d ever heard of and a half-dozen flavors of Lays potato chips. I loaded up and took a bite. With blood dripping down my chin, I gave the chef my compliments.

I spotted the nuns sitting in their sun porch next door. I waved, and after several seconds one of them reluctantly waved back. Mrs. Hafenrichter, my next-door neighbor in the other direction, stepped outside to refill her bird feeder. She glared. For a moment I felt bad for Vince before I realized she was glaring at me.

About this time in my life, Maria and I had the awkward but ultimately pleasant conversation in which we agreed to date each other exclusively. This was exciting since she was my first serious girlfriend since my ex-fiancée had ended our relationship a while back following our miscarriage. Suddenly, Maria was coming over several times a week, and it was inevitable that she and Vince would meet.

“This is a heck of a spread, Vincenzo,” I remember saying. When he had suggested we come over to watch the playoff game and “get something to eat,” I had assumed he meant ordering a pizza. But, no, his entire dining room table was filled with sandwiches, salsa, queso, chips, veggies, microbrews, and cocktail wieners.

“Thanks for having us,” Maria said, giving him a half-hug and kissing him on the cheek.

“Is anyone else coming?” I asked.

Nobody else was coming.

Later, when I was home alone, I googled him. He’d been accused and found guilty of molesting two boys, brothers age six and eight. He adamantly denied the charges throughout the trial and into his incarceration. Actually seeing this in print made my heart flutter. He looked horrible in the pictures, too, as twisted as the descriptions made him out to be, like a real-life monster. But he did his time and was even released early. Not long after, those same two brothers were in the news again. This time, though, it was their father who was found guilty of molestation and sent to jail.

#

Vince talked me into going out to lunch one day. He came to pick me up from work, but he was early and I had a few things to finish up, so he sat nearby hobnobbing with my co-worker, really hitting it off. Then my co-worker’s wife and four-year-old son arrived for his lunch. Vince stopped joking long enough to say, “Ma’am, when knowingly in the vicinity of a child I am legally obligated to inform you that…” It was downhill from there.

When I got back to work after lunch, my boss approached me. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize it was Bring a Pervert to Work Day. Did y’all realize it’s Bring a Pervert to Work Day? If I’d known it was Bring a Pervert to Work Day, I would’ve gone over to the penitentiary and picked me up a pervert so he could mingle with these fine people and their families. But I didn’t know! Why didn’t somebody tell me it was Bring a Pervert to Work Day?”

It took some doing, but finally I was able to convince him that it was not Bring a Pervert to Work Day.

“Don’t you be bringing a pervert here, man. I don’t want no perverts in this office. Nobody else wants no perverts in this office. You want to hang out with perverts, you do it on your own time. But keep your pervert away from here.”

Ever since then people have been keeping their distance.

#

I come home and Vince is outside, and he waves hello so I wave back, but I’m really thinking, “go away, man, you disgust me”. He calls for me to come over but it’s windy, the leaves are rustling, and a car drives by, so I pretend not to hear him and I go inside.

But he comes over and suggests we “watch a movie or something”, so I tell him I have plans and I have to get ready to leave. I don’t actually have plans, though, and Maria is busy, so I go to Barnes & Noble and read until it’s time to go to bed.

But Maria likes Vince, and she invites Kristen over to meet him. Kristen likes him, too, and next thing I know the three of them plan and rope me into double dates. Vince makes elaborate three-course meals, spending entire days on prep work, refusing Kristen’s and Maria’s help, though unofficially appointing me sous chef. Sometimes he makes name cards so we don’t sit at the same places every week: men on one side, women on the other; Maria and me on one side, Vince and Kristen on the other; or pairing himself with Maria, and me with Kristen.

In the living room we sit around and play games, talking late into the evening, until Kristen and Vince hint that they’re ready to be alone, leaving Maria and me to walk the twenty feet from Vince’s front door to mine.

The Elder Statesman knocks on my door and invites himself in. Along with the rest of the neighborhood he is concerned with my budding friendship with Vince, when “What we want to do is make him feel unwanted. We want to be hostile. We want to drive him away.”

The Elder Statesman is a nice man, but with his long white beard he resembles an ancient Greek philosopher and I feel inferior in his presence.

“I don’t know,” I mumble. “I try to treat others the way I’d like to be treated.”

“That’s admirable, son, and you have fine character. But a monster should be treated like a monster.”

“But he’s a nice guy, if you get to know him.”

“No, son, he’s not a nice guy. He’s the lowest of the low. Less than dirt. I hate to think of what he’s doing to that poor girl he’s brainwashed into coming over all the time. Please don’t trap yourself into defending the scum of the earth.”

“But he didn’t do it. It was the father. Vince was framed; I’m sure of it. He always denied it. But he did the time, and now the father is doing his.”

“Is that what he’s been feeding you? You’re a good boy, son, but you’re naïve, and I’m sorry you fell for his tricks.”

“But it’s in the papers.”

In truth, Vince has never once talked about it, and I sure never brought it up. Even when he went door-to-door when he first moved in, instead of saying “I’m a child molester,” he said, “I was accused and found guilty of –” which is not actually a confession. And if little boys really do turn him on, what’s he doing with Kristin all the time? I generally choose to have faith in the legal system, but if what they say is true, then I am friends with a pervert.

I hear Maria pull up to the curb but several minutes pass and she still hasn’t come inside. I go outside to investigate and I see her two doors down, out of earshot, but having what looks like a serious conversation with the nuns. One of the nuns notices me first. Then Maria turns around, wide-eyed and in shock.

“Is Vince a pedophile?” she demands. She won’t come inside, and the nuns are watching. “They said he raped all these kids and went to prison for it. They said there was a family across the street that moved away because he was preying on their children.”

“Vince never touched the kids across the street.”

“But you knew and didn’t tell me?”

I put my head down and stare at the ground. Lying never does any good.

“I knew, yes.”

“And you let me go inside his house?”

I shrug and softly nod.

“You let me hug him? Kiss him on the cheek? You left the two of us alone in the same room?”

“It was little boys, not grown women,” I mumble.

“Ew! Gross!” She shudders. “You’re his friend!” she accuses. “Why wouldn’t you tell me? You even let me set him up with Kristen. Oh my God, Kristen!”

She backs away from me as if I’m infected by pedophilia by association. She rushes for her car, dialing Kristen as she goes. I know this will be the end of Vince and Kristen. And a phone call the next day finishes off Maria and me.

“Maria left me,” I tell Vince.

“I too am single again,” Vince replies matter-of-factly.

I buy the beer, he the rib eyes, and we console each other.

“Did I ever tell you I was engaged?” I say to Vince.

“No, I didn’t know that. What happened?”

“It shouldn’t’ve happened, really. This was a few years ago. We started dating in college, and after graduation she got a job down here and moved. We kept it going, long-distance, but to be honest it wasn’t going that well. But then she got pregnant so we decided to get married. I got a job down here real easily, and we made an offer on a house. But then she miscarried. Everything happened so fast. She was twelve weeks in, maybe only ten. So we decided there was no need to rush into marriage anymore. But I’d already started my new job, and I liked the house, so even though she broke up with me pretty soon after that, I bought this house anyway.”

Vince puts a hand on my shoulder, caresses it with his pinky, and squeezes. “Sorry to hear that.”

“I still like this house, “ I say. “And I like this neighborhood. I plan on staying here for a long time. I’m glad you moved in.”

“You’re a good friend,” he agrees.

“So that’s my story,” I say. “What about you? Do you have any long-ago tales of sorrow and woe? Any deep dark secrets?”

This is as blunt as I can be. He stares off into the distance, as if he’s thinking really hard, before turning to me with a smile. “Can’t say that I do,” he says. “Life’s been ok to me.”

“Huh,” I say.

That’s it. We finish our steaks. Later, I go home.

A graduate of Florida State University and Roberts Wesleyan College, Joshua Britton has published fiction and non-fiction in Tethered By Letters, Cobalt Review, Bodega Magazine, Steam Ticket, Typehouse Literary, The Tarantino Chronicles, and Spank the Carp. A native of Rochester, NY, Joshua now lives in Evansville, IN, where he is a freelance trombonist and teacher. Contact Joshua at Joshua_ britton@yahoo.com.

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