Tina McIntosh was the gossip queen every single small town has. She worked the front desk at the high school part-time, the front desk at the only doctor’s office in town part-time, and volunteered for just about everything just so she could be in the midst of everyone’s business at all times.
Reaching out to Tina while I was in town for the next couple of weeks was a great idea. One negative thought did flash through my mind though. Talking to Tina probably meant I would also have to talk to Ronnie McIntosh.
Ronnie was one of those kids you were forced to kind of be friends with when you were young because your parents knew his parents. You knew he was off, but who else were you going to pass the time with when your parents ditched you at the grown up party?
Something was seriously wrong with Ronnie, but it was the early-90s in rural Tennessee and people weren’t really on top of that stuff yet. Kids weren’t shooting up schools yet, so everyone just let it slide. The first time I remember I remember being concerned with Ronnie was when he was eating sand out of the sandbox in his backyard when we were playing. His response to me about why he was doing it was that it tasted like “salt.”
The second incident which made me slowly recoil away from Ronnie’s presence as much as possible came in the early days of puberty, probably 11 or 12. My dad set up a play date over at Ronnie’s place while he went “fishing” and Ronnie could not have been more eager to show me some pictures as soon as I walked through the door of his little single-wide down by the bend of the river.
“Come see. Come see,” Ronnie announced once he led me into his little bedroom.
The pictures Ronnie couldn’t wait to show me were Polaroids of his 14-year-old step-sister in various stages of undress in her bedroom which shared a wall with Ronnie’s room. Ronnie was even more excited to show me the little peephole he drilled in the back of his closet which peered into his step-sister’s room.
This whole thing would have been beyond creepy even if his step-sister had been a complete stranger, but the morbid facts were:
1. She was his step-sister
2. He spent the first 10 years of his life believing she was his real sister, only recently finding out she was not his sister by blood a couple of years back after his step-dad split.
I was tempted to tell Ronnie’s mom or step-sister about the pictures, but didn’t want to set the kid off. I had seen what he did to the frogs and snakes we would catch by the river and in no way wanted to get myself in that path of that rage. No thanks.
Ronnie finally separated himself from the rest of the normal, peaceful congregation of our class about halfway through high school when he started voluntarily not showing up to school anymore. Everyone in town was pretty shocked that a woman who worked at the high school let her own son drop out, but the kids who knew him well appreciated her letting him give us non-scary kids some distance.
Rumors swirled all around town about exactly what Ronnie did after that. Some said he joined a motorcycle gang in California. His mom always said he was getting ready to join Navy, but I knew the truth because I still had to go over to his house about once a year for some awful get together around Christmas. I would see Ronnie in his old bedroom – still surrounded by an army of stuffed animals, still taking pictures of his step-sister changing and still having the sticky remnants of green Jolly Ranchers stuck to the skin around his lips.
I wondered if Ronnie was still back in that little wood-paneled room, masturbating to pictures of his step-sister and playing endless rounds of Donkey Kong Country when I knocked on the door of his mom’s trailer and waited for an answer.
“Just a minute. Just a minute,” the cheerful drawl of Tina McIntosh answered back on the other side of the door.
The cherubic face of Tina popped into the doorway once the trailer door opened up. She beamed back at me through little round glasses and a plume of red hair.
“Levi Green?” Tina couldn’t have sounded more excited. “What are you doing here?”