Dos Santos Park sat at the corner of Davis and Healy in a small town of no more than a thousand—twelve hundred during Thanksgiving or Christmas. The park, during the day, boasted a pebble pit with a set of rusty swings and monkey bars that in the summer were hot enough to burn skin and a sturdy plastic slide decorated in the cave paintings of transients and teenagers, felt-tip homages to awkward sex and who got stuck in what hole by whom. Most of the activities recorded on the slide were done either in the parking lot or the dugouts of the adjoining baseball field, which is why, to most of Genoskwa, Texas, the corner of Davis and Healy was known as Perversion Park.
At night, it was the place to be besides the local burger joint, Stout’s. Some kid always had a case of warm beer in the back of his daddy’s pick-up and the smell of ditchweed was soon to fill the neighborhood around the park. But, Genoskwa was a small place where everyone judged, yet no one said anything ‘on the record.’ They knew nothing for certain, but would often say things like ‘I coulda sworn I saw the Perkins’ boy smoking cigarettes out at Perversion Park. Was holding it funny, too, if I ain’t mistaken’ or ‘Thought I saw Mr. Saldivar’s sedan out at Perversion Park, but it couldn’t’ve been…that girl of his is too good for that.’ And it was that kind of discussion, the ones held in hushed tones and usually behind raised hands that weighed heavily on the mayor’s mind.
Mayor Guillermo Munguia sat in his office, shades drawn, and face in his hands. At points, he felt himself slipping into an exhausted sleep, but fought the urge, knowing he’d have another one of those dreams. The ones where he’s campaigning at the town hall, the bunting and banners and streamers all moving as though alive. The whole town—including an aged Ursula Endress in her Bond bikini and a spry General Custer though trapped in the body of a ten year old black boy—was there to hear him speak from behind the podium.
The people clapped and he smiled. Waved. Spoke of values and safety and a future that wouldn’t look like the rest of the state and beyond. The world may be going down the toilet, he’d say in a dreamy autotune, but not my town. Not on my watch. He’d hit the podium for emphasis, nodding along with his constituents. Even in his dream, he tried to count the number of registered votes there, all of them taking his words as truth, a bold public declaration that he’d be a guide to keep the town from straying.
Then, the crying would start.
An infantile sob would pierced through the claps and whistles and J. P. Sousa marching music. The crowd, every night he had the dream, turned to regard some center point, the origin of the bleating. They’d all step back in disgust, their cheers now whispers hidden behind hands, slowly revealing the cause of the commotion: Prudencia. His angel. His daughter.
There she’d be, thrown in the center of the room, hair caked into dreadlocks by her own vomit, shirt pulled up over her round belly and jean skirt riding high enough on her back to reveal that her underwear was on inside out. Eyes closed, she’d bleat and bleat until, even in his dream, Mayor Munguia thought he’d die of shame. It was at the height of his horror that Prudencia whined Daddy…Daddy…in the shrill voice she got when she was drunk or mad or during her woman’s time. I think I’m pregnant. It was a nice party, though…
The room gasped and Mayor Munguia felt a pain in his chest.
Don’t worry, I’ve gotta list of suspects, she’d laughed and pull out a wad of business cards. Here, a strong wind caught the cards and sent them flying, their crisp edges hissing in the air, until the room was covered in a dizzying plague of possible sperm donors. His ears would fill with the thwap, thwap, thwap of cards, all the boys he knew desecrated his daughter…
All he heard was the thwap, thwap, thwap.
“This a bad time, Willie?” the mayor heard from his door. “Been knocking for like a minute.” It was Sheriff Christopher Espen, a short man of forty whose thin skinned face turned an almost permanent pink from years of living under the harsh Texas sun.
“Sorry, sorry,” Mayor Munguia said and motioned the sheriff in. “Come in, please.”
“You feeling all right? Look like you’re coming down with something, if you ask me,” Sheriff Espen said as he sat. He reached into his pocket for a pack of cigarettes and offered one to the mayor, who waved it away.
“No, no,” he said. “I’m fine. It’s just…didn’t really get any sleep last night.”
“Just part of getting older,” the sheriff said.
“I wish it was sweet Death getting closer,” the mayor replied, his hands clamping the sides of his head as if keeping all the horrible thoughts from bursting out of his skull in a shower of gray and red. “I was waiting up for Pru. She didn’t get home until four-something.”
“Hell…she’s just getting to that age,” Espen said. “Nothing to worry about.”
“The hour wasn’t…the worst part of it, Chris,” the mayor said, his hands coming together over his eyes. “I was sitting there on my chair, lamp off and all that…Imagine, sitting in the damn dark until four. Can’t even tell you the kinds of crazy stuff I was getting ready to tell her. It was going to be the big one. The one that’d get her to stop running around this town, drunk and crass…Doesn’t even have the decency to try to hide it. No shame in her. Can you imagine, Chris…kicked out of school for two weeks for giving it up under the god damn bleachers. Not with just one boy neither. No. One boy wouldn’t suffice to give me a damn heart attack.” The mayor shook his head and went to his bottom drawer, which held a small bottle of whiskey.
The mayor put the bottle on the table and let go of it for a second. His lack of sleep made the internal formulations of his weary mind transfer out to his features. He considered the bottle, nodded, and took it up.
“Jesus, Will, its morning,” Sheriff Espen said, making a move for the bottle.
“Only if you’ve slept,” Mayor Munguia said and drank. “If you ask me, the sun just butted into my shitty, shitty night. Spent it pissed, my guts all hurting and my teeth clenched. Then, to top it off, I wouldn’t even say that Pru even got home. More like she was delivered.”
“Don’t tell me—”
“Dropped at my doorstep. Whatever boy she’s taken a liking too or just has a marijuana cigarette handy…whoever she was with just dropped her on my doorstep,” Mayor Munguia said and took a sip from his bottle.
“Must’ve been rough, did she—”
“I froze,” Munguia said, not meeting his friend’s stare. “I opened the door, found her with the god damn welcome-mat on her like a blanket. Then…all that stuff I thought of…all the things I was going to say to hurt her, to break her…Shit, it just went out the window. I folded. Make-up all smeared, basted in beer and pot smoke…Should’ve tossed a bucket of ice water on her, the old ‘skillet alarm clock’ like when we were young. But,” the mayor sighed. “I just picked her up and got her on the couch and said all the ranting and raving could wait until tomorrow, though I couldn’t even say I was mad anymore.”
“Just a sign of a good dad,” the sheriff said.
“This morning,” the mayor said and smiled. It was an expression of both confidence and acute desperation. “I was making coffee and she told me to, what was it…Oh, yeah. She told me to ‘keep it the fuck down’ then called me a dumb piece of shit. When I raised my voice to her, she gave me the finger and told me ‘to tell it to one of the hicks that gives a flying fuck.’”
The sheriff opened his mouth a bit as if with some retort, but found nothing sufficient to say.
“I’m at my wit’s end,” the mayor said.
“Maybe you could get Reverend Gregg to talk to her,” the sheriff offered. “Bet he can—”
“She’s libel to get me and Iracema kicked right out of the parish,” the mayor said. “And, I can’t ask Iracema. God, to give birth to a girl you’re terrified of…She acts like a wild dog’s on the couch. Won’t say a thing but ‘please’ and ‘sorry’ and nothing else.”
“Can’t stop that age,” Espen said, thinking the words wise, though they contained nothing.
“But, I can take that venue they love,” the mayor said. “Force them away from that damnable park. There’s nothing but manure farms for twenty miles. They’ll be forced back into the light of Genoskwa. Places where we can police easier.”
“Not a one in this town’ll let you take the park, Will,” Espen scoffed. “Barely let the last mayor get the tax hike to get it built.”
“Of course I’m not proposing that, but, I was thinking that we could make it a more unattractive place,” the mayor said and sipped his bottle. He motioned for a cigarette and puffed at it as though for the taste alone. “We could scare them away.”
“Like put on monster costumes and stuff?” Espen asked.
“Good God, no! This isn’t a cartoon,” Munguia spat. “I thought we could make up some crime. A criminal that stalks that area. A killer, maybe.”
“You want me to make up a murder?” Espen asked. “It’s a small town. Everyone’ll ask around until there’s a head count. Knowing kids, they’ll just think a couple of murders makes the park that much cooler.”
“A rapist then,” the mayor said. “No one wants to be raped…oh, no. If we want to get the word out, the paper would need a name—”
“Not if it’s a minor,” the sheriff said. “Can’t disclose that.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” the mayor said. “It’s the kind of thing no one talks about and no one dare ask about. We just need…” Though the synapses were firing off, the web of his scheme forming, the process was a slow one. “Do you think Rigby could get a sketch. Something generic. Hispanic. Between eighteen and twenty-eight. About 5’5 to 5’11.”
“Hell, that sounds like most of the town,” Espen said.
“Exactly,” the mayor said, snapping his fingers. “It’ll get the kids away from that park at night and it’ll damn near give you carte blanche when it comes to hassling those kids.”
“And what happens when everyone expects me to catch this nobody,” the sheriff asked.
“He can be anyone,” the mayor said. “He’ll be a drifter for all you know. It’ll be our Santa Claus. Don’t keep in line, the Rapist’ll get you. Stay out past curfew and bam! The Rapist is there, creeping out of the shadows. I swear, if we do this right, we can keep the next twenty years of kids in line. Our ace in the hole. Foolproof. Absolutely foolproof.”
There wasn’t a place in Genoskwa that wasn’t in view of the wanted posters. The quick sketch of an anybody under a baseball cap. Soon as the paper printed the article, the change Mayor Munguia hoped for started happening. More and more teenagers—girls mostly—were confined indoors when the sun went down, which led to more teenagers—mostly boys—to stay home as well. Yes, there were rumors by the dozen. In those weeks, any child who missed a day of school was labeled a victim in whispers and any of the many men in town that fit the description called Sheriff Espen themselves to report on their whereabouts on the days in question.
Even Prudencia, his daughter, started to show the effects of the fictional rapist. She no longer went out in the evenings, due mostly to her parents new use of the rampant sex-offender as ammunition, and lounged around the house, tinny music coming from her oversized headphones or talking nonsense with a friend from school over the phone. They ate dinner together and had mildly forced conversations in which Prudencia reserved her sarcastic voice and thinly-veiled insults for the end of the meal.
The mayor had never slept better now that his daughter spent her nights in the room down the hall instead of the single-cab of some dusty Chevy.
And, the true beauty of his plan, of this Rapist of Perversion Park, was that it never stopped working. It could be used over and over. When the park was vandalized by a group of three boys, the paper reported that another assault had occurred and a tighter watch was kept by both sheriff and citizen. Calls would flood in from concerned citizens saying things like ‘better get Espen over to the park. A bunch of kids are out there…libel to get raped, the fools’ or ‘I smell something funny in the air, I think the rapist is drugging a poor child out by the park.’
Soon, the community took up a watch program that really put an end to any funny business at the park. Concerned fathers, rifles in hand, took turns patrolling the park in shifts, making Perversion Park a social spot of the past.
But, like all diseases, physical or social, when a cure was found, the sickness adapted. One day, when the rapist had six ‘victims’ to his name, Prudencia came home before sundown red-eyed and reeking of weedsmoke. When Mayor Munguia tried to talk to her, he found his daughter unresponsive and giggling. The scolding ended with him tomato red and Prudencia pulling at the end of his moustache, her slurred voice going qwerk! qwerk! qwerk!
The next day, Iracema told him that Pru had been at Mark Duncan’s house the day before.
“The founder of the Dos Santos Park Patrol?” Mayor Munguia said. “How could that—”
“She said all the patrol kids are throwing parties,” Iracema said. “She said ‘if they’re dumb enough to announce to the world where they are all the time, why’d they expect any different?’ Can you imagine, the kids of this town—our own daughter among them—take something good like this and turn it into an excuse to party. I suppose it’s safer indoors than it is out there with this god-awful rapist on the loose.” She shivered. “Is Espen any closer to catching him?”
“Working on it, working on it,” Munguia said, thinking of how to use his made-up man to his advantage. “He’s clever, very clever,” he told his wife and then stopped listening.
Within the next week, the Rapist of Perversion Park struck twice, once breaking into a home and assaulting a drunk boy who’d passed out in a friend’s spare bedroom and then lured another victim with the promise of marijuana, which was laced with some drug or the other. The names, like all the others, had been withheld since the victims were still in high school, ‘classmates or friends’ of Prudencia.
There was no more stink of ditchweed and incense cones bought off a spinning wire display at the corner store. No more parties thrown at patrolmen’s homes since now the patrols went beyond the park, spoiling the misadventure of youth, flushing them out of the brush and behind buildings and dirt alleys that cut through whole neighborhoods and the abandoned buildings left to rot. Even seeing one armed patrol pass his window, Mayor Munguia knew it was worth it.
The day before, he’d been eating dinner with his family and told the story of when he’d gone deep-sea fishing with Iracema on their honeymoon. Munguia snared a tuna and, after twenty minutes, managed to reel in the fish and snap a photo with his two prizes, the tuna and his new bride. Yet, moments after, the tuna floundered and sent Munguia tumbling into the sea. It was a poor charter boat from nearby that had no ladder and Munguia proved too big to lift, so they drove the boat with him holding onto a thin net. He told the table that he was just waiting for a shark to nibble at his toes, so most of the ride involved him urinating and then wondering if urine attracted sharks, which, in turn, made him urinate even more. As he told the story, a marvelous thing happened.
And it wasn’t a vicious laugh, the kind that told the mayor his daughter thought him a fool or too stupid to see how ridiculous he was. No. It was a genuine laugh as though Pru had, without judgment, imagined her father and mother on their trip and could identify the comedy in his fall, in his irrational fear.
He stood in his office, the sound of the laugh in his mind, when the sheriff came into the room without knocking. “Will, we’ve got us a huge problem,” he said, his face pale. The radio on his belt was whispering and bleeping frantically and he turned it off. “Been non-stop. My radio is about to melt.”
“How do you figure we’ve got a problem,” Munguia said, turning and scooting his chair out to sit. “Seems to me things have been going great this month. I’d say—”
“They caught him,” Espen said.
“Who? Wait…who caught who?” Munguia asked.
“They caught the Rapist.”
Mayor Munguia rode in the passenger seat of the sheriff’s cruiser in silence. All he kept thinking of was the extent of what he was rocketing towards. He told himself that the people of Genoskwa were level-headed. No doubt they were currently scaring the hell out of a traveler by locking him in the filling-station bathroom or were huddled in the corner of Stout’s, watching some trucker like good citizens and waiting for the law. But, he thought too of the hundreds of flyers, the days spent sketching out details with Espen to call into the paper, and his intestines felt as though trying to wriggle into a square-knot. Mayor Munguia gripped his cramping belly and hoped nobody had been killed.
The sheriff, on the other hand, was a man set into panicked motions. Lights on, he blasted through the old downtown block and blew past the highway intersection. When he wasn’t chanting ‘oh-shit-oh-shit-oh-shit,’ Espen was on the radio, trying to get some kind of information other than a patrol had cornered the Rapist at Perversion Park.
He kept the windows down to listen for gunfire.
Turning the corner, neither man could see the park through the mob that had formed. The sound coming from the gathered citizens of Genoskwa was a gale of jumbled words and oaths. The red and blue lights did little other than cause a wave-like bucking that surged through the people. Even from the angle of the low cruiser, they counted a number of rifles and pistols clutched in upraised fists.
Exiting the cruiser, there was a palpable lust for blood in the air that caused another spasm to tighten Mayor Munguia’s guts. The sheriff flipped a switch on the console in the cruiser and took the radio receiver in his hand. “All right, all right, folks,” he said, his pose—half standing in and out of the cruiser with his arm propped on the door—made him seem calm, but the man’s head looked scaly with sweat. “Disperse, disperse,” he said and honked the horn.
At first, those closest to him turned and gave the sheriff a look that made him contemplate reaching for his pistol. The sheriff didn’t know if it was the lights or the sight of the mayor and sheriff standing there, but the feral looks of friends and neighbors soon subsided. It faded into a general recognition. First, that that Mayor Munguia and Sheriff Espen were men they knew. Second, they were men of authority for some reason they didn’t immediately remember. And, finally, that the reason for the men’s authority was due to a democratic election taken part in a civilized country in a civilized age and a civilized time.
The people—teachers and bankers and waitresses and mechanics and war vets in their chairs—eventually parted, giving way to a sight that nearly made Mayor Munguia soil himself in horror.
Tied to the monkey bars by rope and belts knotted around his wrists was a man no older than twenty-two. Average on all accounts save the color of his skin, which was a mystery hidden under a coat of blood that sprung from his mouth and nose and cuts hidden in his hair. Two men were pulling at his ankles, the bindings making him go diagonal while two women armed with rocks beat the man’s ribs and shoulders.
The mayor was certain the man was dead, but, as he approached, the poor soul spat a mouthful of blood and pled with them in what sounded like Spanish. Broken teeth and swollen lips made it gibberish. He faced them though he could no longer see, his eyes bloated and purple.
A man moved to strike him, but a general whisper of the mayor’s arrival brought enough sense to him that he lowered his fist. At first, against the setting sun and face twisted in rage, the man was unrecognizable to the mayor, but the more sense that came to the man, the more he came to resemble Mark Duncan once more.
For a moment, the mayor was at a loss for something to say. “Let’s…uh…Let’s all just calm down,” he finally said. He stood in front of the restrained man, his fiction made real, and put his hands out like the practiced orator he was. “Why doesn’t someone tell me and the sheriff there exactly what’s going on.”
Like one fool with a hundred voices, the crowd bellowed accusations.
“One at a time, people!” the mayor called out, patting the air to silence them.
Mark Duncan was the first to speak. “We caught him peeping into May Sue Jensen’s bedroom window,” he said, each word reigniting the righteous anger burning below the surface. “One of the patrols tried to question him—”
“That’s my job, Mark,” Sheriff Espen said, joining the men and wincing at the sight of the supposed-rapist who’d apparently been caught looking into the window of May Sue Jensen, a woman who changed in front of an open window for the delight of men all over Genoskwa.
“My job as a man is to protect me and mine from some no-good, raping piece of shit,” Duncan snarled, the anger twisting his face again. “He ran too. Ran like hell until we caught him. Put that sketch in the paper right up next to his face. Matched to the word.”
The mayor and sheriff exchanged looks.
“Maybe so, Mark,” the sheriff said. “But, we’ve got procedures. You can’t just go around tying people up—”
“That ain’t no person,” Duncan spat. “According to you, he’s gone at eight of our kids that we know of. God knows how long this bastard’s been eyeing our town. Lusting and scheming with his dick in his hand.”
“Even if that’s the case, Mark, this ain’t the Wild West,” the sheriff said. “You should’ve—”
“What?” Duncan bellowed. “Let him get away? Let him go off and rape again?”
All around them, the ones that had been infected by the rationale that Sheriff Espen brought with his presence started thinking, but the ones still whipped up by the smell of blood and retribution still wanted to see justice served. As the two men argued, calls for the mayor’s opinion were demanded. He was the elected leader of the town and it should be by his word that the notorious Rapist of Perversion Park be dealt with there or by the courts.
Mayor Munguia felt the eyes of the whole town on him, sending him into a brief retreat into his happy-place. There were no people there for it was his kitchen tucked safely away in the past where it held his beautiful Iracema and his newly returned Prudencia, who had laughed like she had when she was a little girl and used to chase dragonflies out in the yard and wasn’t sucking and snorting, just content with the little universe that was the Munguia’s home, their family. It was all she needed, for her father was her hero for nothing more than existing and her mother the most beautiful woman to walk the earth because hers was the last face her little girl saw at night. It was a beautiful blanket memory that the crowd would not let him keep.
“I…uh…now, uh…we’ve…,” he stammered. The mayor knew there was no way he could tell them to arrest the poor soul tied to the monkey bars. There’d be a trial. Witnesses would need to be called and for that, records and documents and witness statements would be demanded. Rape kits catalogued and their findings faxed to attorneys and a judge. It would come out before that when the man, once restored and mended enough to speak, was questioned about a series of rapes that never happened. But, there was no way he could tell them then and there. They’d kill him. To hear their mayor lied about such a thing so he could keep a tighter leash on his daughter, so she could laugh at the table again, as angry as they were…
Mayor Munguia focused on the bleeding man splayed out like a gutted buck. Mark Duncan was looking at him and the sheriff too, one eager for an order and the other for an exit. When the mayor opened his mouth to speak, he remembered the notes of his daughter’s laugh, amplified the sweetness of it so that the memory droned out the sound of his words, so that all he saw was his family, happy and safe, instead of the lusty crowd throwing up their hands, shouts rumbling through even the air in his lungs.
One of the crowd cut the man’s bindings.
Not far from the playground, someone threw a rope over the thick branch of an oak tree.