I don’t normally write dark stories. However, I lived in Mount Vernon, Washington during a dark time. The protagonist of this story first caught my attention while I was riding a local bus to the top of the hill. The bus passed a Mexican restaurant tucked into a pink Victorian house. I imagined that the top part of the house was rented out to a timid woman who required a giant push to get her moving in the right direction.
Maiden of Mount Vernon
(The Story of Marianne Bradley)
By Patricia L. Herlevi
How could I have known that a man with musician’s hands and indigo eyes would pose a danger to the children? How could I have known that he held tight onto a secret for many years until one damp April day when the river overflowed its banks, this man overflowed his?
I’m boasted as a local hero by community leaders and children. But what am I really but a timid woman named Marianne Bradley who hid behind an Apple computer? I dreamed about a career as an elementary school teacher. I even graduated with a BA degree in teaching, only to flub up the audition. However, my shyness coupled with unruly sixth- graders, got the best of me. With that combination working against me, I panicked and ran out of the classroom breaking a heel and my heart in the process.
So I hid away in my apartment, located above a Mexican café on Mount Vernon’s hilltop, where the smell of frying chilies, and beans prevented my heart from freezing. Thankfully the Mexican matriarch who ran the place brought food to my doorstep every evening. Though she didn’t speak English, her eyes conveyed comfort to me, similar to Mother Mary or Mary of Fatima at the grotto down the street.
After earning a certificate in multimedia design through an online program, I landed a job at an private elementary school a few blocks from my home. While I didn’t teach children, I heard their laughter passing through the halls, the slam of their locker doors, and their pounding feet as they ran to their classrooms during the late bell. They intrigued me.
I interview teachers and award-winning students for the school’s newsletter which I also designed. I watched the children play at recess through the window near my desk. One girl in particular, blonde, ten years old, Sarah Anne caught my attention. I admired the way she lead the other children, and showed them who was boss. My desire was to teach precocious children at a private school. But at that time, I didn’t have the gumption to handle them.
Getting back to my main story, Sarah played cello in the school’s fourth grade orchestra. Watching her small frame haul that instrument around the school and waiting in the rain for the bus, increased worry lines on my face. This kid possessed determination that I envied. But did her parents feel anxious about their daughter’s early physical development? I would if I had a daughter like that.
That winter we experienced a snowstorm that paralyzed most of the community. With the snow piling up rapidly, the children were let go early. But some of them hung out in the playground and sledded down a nearby hill that had been closed off to traffic. Working against a newsletter deadline, I huddled under my shawl in the quiet office.
That’s when I noticed a man, clean cut, and dressed in athletic wear. I guessed that he was in his early twenties. He seemed harmless at the time as he stood on the peripheries of the playground watching the children through the chain link fence. From what I knew, he could have been the father of a first grader, but I doubted that. Most likely he was a college at the nearby community college checking out the neighborhood. But I doubted that too. Call it women’s intuition.
I watched as he inched his way into the playground and made snowballs with the boys. A few moments later, I saw him chatting with the girls, but they shied away from him, perhaps out of instinct or good parenting.
Feeling somewhat tense by the man’s appearance, I cracked the window and eavesdropped on the conversation the man had with the boys.
“Hey…Looks like you’re enjoying the snow.”
Two boys nodded but remained speechless and in awe of the athletic man. “Where I came from it snowed all winter long. We waded in snow up to here.” The man pointed at one of his taut muscular thighs.
The boys edged closer to the man. One of the boys, pale, blonde and painfully thin with large penetrating blue eyes responded. “Where are you from?”
The man squinted his eyes as he stared at the whitened horizon. “I’m from far away.”
“Are you from China?”
The other boy, a Hispanic sporting curly black hair that sprouted out from beneath his red wool hat, and large brown eyes, rolled his eyes scoffed at the blonde boy. “Does he look like he’s from China?”
The blonde shrugged, “No, but my mom tells me that China is far away.”
More boys gathered around the man who had taken on a Pied Piper persona. My heart beat furiously as I watched this man charm the kids.
The man continued getting to know the boys. “See the thing is, I’m not from Mount Vernon, and I recently moved to Skagit. I’m new here and I need some friends to show me around.”
The Hispanic boy chipped in, “I’m not from Mount Vernon either or Burlington.” He rolled the “r” in Burlington with Mexican pride. “My family came here from Mexico so I’m from far away too. But we didn’t see any snow.”
Meanwhile, I had learned enough from eavesdropping. I slammed the window shut capturing the attention of the man who took that as a hint and swaggered away from the playground.
I don’t know where he came from since I’d not seen him around the community prior to his appearance at the schoolyard. I thought I’d never see him again after that snow day. But he became a regular hanging out across the street from the playground where he lounged on a bench pretending to read a book.
I pointed the man out to the principal. “Aren’t you concerned about that man pestering the children?”
The principal shrugged his thick shoulders. “He’s harmless and is probably reliving his schooldays through the children.”
As time went on, the man took more risks. He waited for children to leave the playground after school and he befriended some of the boys by showing them his I-Pad and fancy cell phone which showed movies on a tiny screen. He might have well been selling lollipops to five-year-olds. A smooth operator, he reeled in the boys first, finding out where they lived by walking them home, finding out which kids went to an empty house. Then he began taking pictures of the boys, which we didn’t discover until months later.
Meanwhile Sarah’s family moved closer to the school so she stopped taking the bus but still hauled that cello a few blocks. She took an interest in the man and eventually, he coaxed her into playing her adult-size cello for him on the playground. Tension grew around me and I kept my eye on this man as he infiltrated his way into the children’s lives.
One day after I couldn’t keep my mouth shut any longer, I stood outside the principal’s door trembling like a child. “Excuse me Mr. Duvall, but have you noticed that man is still hanging around the school and he follows children home. Why doesn’t this concern you?”
The principal looked up from the document he was reading and fixed his tired gray eyes on me. “I’ve brought it up at PTA meetings. I’m wondering Marianne, why any of this concerns you. Don’t you have a deadline coming up?”
The following April as I surfed the web, I found a questionable site hosted by a Manny Lobe. When I downloaded the man’s picture, I nearly fainted. As I browsed his site, my face and hands perspired and my eyes glanced at photographs of little boys that I knew personally. While I saw nothing risqué about any of the photographs, the parents of these children would have gone livid knowing that their child’s privacy had been violated. As I searched further on the site, I learned that it was a type of brokerage focused on children—ours.
However, when that Monday rolled around shyness paralyzed me. I knew that I needed to report the site to the principal. But I couldn’t manage to get out of bed. I thought the principal would just dismiss me once again. My throat burned and my lung filled with grief. I stayed home on that following Tuesday and Wednesday too. I feared that they would tie me in with the young man’s crime or that I would be accused of not speaking up earlier.
But by Thursday I had to go into to work or lose my job. I trembled for most of the day, felt terrified when the principal glanced at me dressed in my usual gray or when teachers failed to notice me at all. I overheard Sarah Anne talking to her classmates in the restroom. “Manny’s so cool. He asked me to play my cello for him.”
The other girls smiled in admiration, but I wanted to shake the child by the shoulders. Doesn’t anyone teach these children how to protect themselves?
I knew that I needed to act, but my feet turned to clay. But on my break, I visited Lobe’s site again and noticed the photographs of girls. I didn’t recognize any of them. Making rounds of the schools, one page featured pre-teens girls dressed in skimpy cheerleading outfits—I cringed.
Pacing my small office, I resolved myself to show the principal the website, but I hadn’t seen him around that day. I approached the secretary. “Do you know if Mr. Duvall will be checking into the office?”
The secretary looked away from her sandwich and focused her hazel eyes on me. “Mr. Duvall is attending an education conference for two days. Is there something I can help you with?”
As she said this her eyes bored holes through me. I stammered, “No, it can wait.”
After the secretary left for the day, I glanced out the rain-spattered window and saw Sarah Anne lugging her cello towards a red VW Bug. Then I saw the driver of the car. I high tailed it out of the office, tossed off my three-inch heels, soaking my feet in a stream that had formed from a torrential downpour. I dashed towards the car and reached it just as Sarah Anne dripping wet, climbed into the passenger’s seat. Her cello got caught in the door and I grabbed and pulled at it.
“Sarah Anne, get out of the car!”
Stunned she tried to obey me, but Manny coaxed her and pulled on her down jacket. I shouted at people passing by on the street, “Call 9-11!” I yanked on Sarah’s arm causing the confused child to wince. Finally, she tumbled onto the ground. Her cello did a few somersaults onto the sidewalk.
Manny sped off with the open passenger door flapping like a bird’s broken wing. I pulled out my cell phone and called the police, since no one standing around gawking bothered to make the call. When I inquired, one man muttered, “The Skagit overflowed her banks. Where are you going to find a law officer under these conditions?”
Eventually, the sheriff tracked down Lobe’s operation in a trailer on an abandoned lot near Concrete. They found stashes of water-damaged children’s pictures throughout the trailer, video equipment, a laptop, and a digital camera. But we never fully learned Manny’s story of how a twenty-one-year-old star athlete from Vermont became a broker for pedophiles or ended up in our community where his secret destroyed him. What was he thinking?
And me, I’m a local hero who currently teaches sixth grade. The children gaze at me with star-crossed eyes and compare me to Joan of Arc—the Maiden of Mount Vernon they call me. But I still buckle at the knees and worry about the future of these kids.
All Rights Reserved by Patricia Herlevi, 2011
Photograph by Patricia Herlevi, All Rights Reserved