Woodrow Hooper shifted in his chair. We’d been sitting on his porch for half an hour. Just when I thought he’d shift his way into comfort, he’d turn again. He noticed me watching him. He said, “Sorry, George. I just. Ah. I don’t know.”
I gulped some chicken soup from my thermos. “What is it, Woodrow?”
He frowned. “Trips like this. I don’t know.”
“Ah, you’ll be fine. Drive up to the mountains and hang out with your son-in-law and your daughter.”
He said, “My daughter ain’t the one that bothers me. I’ll have to listen to that yokel talk my head off about how the Vols can have a winning season this year. Hell, I don’t give a rat’s-
“Ha. Woodrow, I think something else is bothering you.”
He turned his white head of hair away from me. In his seventy-three years, he’d lost a brother to a car wreck, a wife to cancer and his best friend to suicide but every single strand of his hair remained on his head. He said, “It’s this house to be honest.”
I took a look through the windows into the living room of the two-bedroom abode. “Hey. It’s paid for. Right?”
He said, “Kids. Last time I left, some kids from the college over there came in and ransacked the place. Beer bottles and cigarette butts and the smell of dope and God knows what else. Hell, one of them hurled in the corner. Just an awful damn mess. Spray-painted stuff on the walls. Obscene stuff. I’m only glad my dear wife wasn’t here to see it. And who do you think cleaned it up?”
“That’s a shame.”
He said, “That’s why I try to keep these trips to the summer time when that fine university is empty. But my daughter insisted I come up this weekend.”
Woodrow pulled his jacket off the back of his chair and shoved his arms into it. A chilly wind passed by us like a stalker.
I said, “Well, if I was you, I’d just go up there and have a good time.”
He said, “I’ll try.”
I closed up my thermos and shook his hand. “And just buy you a Crimson Tide cap and wear it up there. That should shut your son-in-law up.”
He gave me a sneaky grin. “I’ll do that.”
I drove away and called up Glew. He left his office and met me over at the book store. We walked through, flipping through magazines until we made our way over to the cafe. I bought a regular coffee while he ordered one of those cappuccino frape crappay drinks or whatever. He flirted with the little curly-haired chick behind the counter and secured her phone number before we made our way outside.
I said, “You remember Woodrow Hooper?”
He sipped his drink and squinted. I waited. He pointed at me. “Got that full head of white hair?”
I told him about my conversation with Woodrow. Glew said, “Man, I hope those kids leave him alone.”
I said, “Hell, I don’t.”
He blew on his drink and then grinned at me.
An hour after Woodrow left that night, Glew drove us over to his house. I picked the lock and we stepped inside from the dropping temperatures. I opened the curtains and turned off the light Woodrow had left on. Then I opened up the garage door. Glew popped the trunk. We loaded Woodrow’s tools into it and I placed the bigger valuables down in Woodrow’s attic and shut the door. Then we left with the garage door down and the front door cracked open.
Two and a half hours drifted by. The orange and red sky faded into the crisp, starry night. I sipped my coffee. Glew had been toying with his phone, most likely texting that curly-haired girl at the book store. However, I looked over and found him sleeping. I rolled his passenger side window all the way down. That’s the great thing about the cold. Keeps me awake.
A group of kids walked by Woodrow’s house. They looked about college age but I couldn’t be sure. They paid the house no mind. I yawned. A bat flapped its wings against the backdrop of the moon. I yawned again. The college kids walked back by the house and huddled together. They were forming their plan.
Glew said, “Damn, stud. Turn down the AC.”
I slapped his arm.
“Ow! What are you doing?”
I said, “We’ve got some customers.”
Glew wiped his eyes. “Oh yeah?”
Four guys and three girls made up the group. One of the guys stood over the huddle. He stood tall enough that he towered over the others, despite hunching. I remembered guys like that from school. They always hunched like they were plotting something. The guys hovered around the guy, releasing plumes of breath or vape breath into the air. The girls stayed close by them with their gloved hands in the pockets of their vests and coats. Lips trembled. The hunching guy ushered them toward the house. One of the guys walked up and checked the front door. He turned back with a smile. The huncher danced around. The girls giggled. The group walked up the street.
Glew said, “Huh. False alarm. Roll that window up.”
I said, “They’re going to get their beer or weed or whatever and then they’re going to party in there. Window stays down.”
Glew yawned. “Shit. I guess you’re right.”
Twenty minutes later, the gang took a few looks around. Inside of ten seconds, they’d all entered the house. Their cell phone lights shined through the windows, hovering around like neon ghosts. Music blared from one of the phones. I made my way to the side of the house with Glew opening his trunk and pulling out several Lowes bags. Then he made his way over to me and set them on the ground. The music got louder. Laughing took over. Beer bottle caps came off. We let the kids enjoy themselves for an hour. A few folks walked by, taking notice but walking on through the cold. No one noticed us.
I said, “Let’s go.”
Glew crept inside the back. I walked around and entered the front door, shutting and locking it behind me. The huncher shotgunned a beer. The girls vaped on the sofa with candle light dancing over their laughing faces. Two other guys cheered the Huncher on while the fourth guy watched me, turning to stone. With the music blaring, I stood by the door watching everybody. Glew’s shadow flickered down the hall. I watched the guy in the corner who hadn’t moved. He could have been an old painting, placed in the corner of a condemned house. I looked at the living room. Beer bottles littered the floor along with candy wrappers. Tampons hung from the lampshades. A roll of toilet paper had been thrown across the entire living room. Someone had spray-painted the wall in the image of the local college mascot along with other drawings of more lewd objects. One of the messages read: “Got you, old man!”
The music stopped.
Everyone looked at me. The huncher stepped toward me. “Hey man. You lost?”
I shook my head.
One of the other guys said, “Who invited denim dave?”
Two of the girls snickered. The other one froze, her eyes so wide that the whites looked like two mini-globes. I peered down at my jeans and denim button-down shirt with the sleeves missing of course. I wore a leather jacket over the shirt at least. I looked back up.
The huncher said, “This ain’t your party, man. Move it on. Huh?”
I said, “This ain’t your house…man.”
The girls stepped behind the guys, except for the scared one. One of the other girls ushered her up with them. She grasped onto them and shut her eyes. “He’s going to rape us.”
The huncher said, “Don’t make us kick your ass, man.”
I said, “Were you kids really just going to desecrate this man’s house and just leave? I mean, I understand wanting to have a beer or two and listen to a little music. But all the stuff on the walls?”
The huncher laughed and high-fived his friends. Then he turned back to me. “It doesn’t matter what you understand, man. All that matters is that you’re killing our buzz. We’re not even on campus.”
He stepped toward me.
I said, “That’s right. You’re in the real world.”
The huncher stepped too close.
I fainted a jab at his face. He paused which gave me plenty of time to douse him with my pepper spray. The huncher groaned and fell to the floor, holding his face. Two of the other guys darted into the back, but Glew cut them off. The girls huddled together on the verge of tears. The frozen guy lowered himself to the floor, saying, “No. This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.”
I grabbed the huncher and dragged him to the nearest closet. After shoving him inside and locking it, I looked at the others. Glew corralled the other guys into the living room. Then he brought the Lowes bags out and dropped them on the floor. I said, “All right. It’s real simple. You folks spray-painted a bunch of obscenities on this kind old man’s walls. You littered here as well. All we want is for you to paint over the drawings and then clean up the place. After that, you’re free to go.”
One of the girls looked toward me. “That’s it?”
I spread my hands. “That’s it.”
One of the guys said, “Bullshit. We don’t have to do anything. I’m calling the police.”
I said, “So you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong?”
The kid typed on his phone. He swallowed and looked back at me. “Not really.”
I said, “Not really?”
He kicked the wall. “We don’t have to!”
His friend said, “That’s right!”
I said, “If you don’t want to help, that’s fine.”
The two guys swelled with confidence. “That’s what’s up. We’re walking out of here.”
I clicked my teeth. “No. You’re not walking out of here.”
The one guy said, “I’ll call my Dad. He’ll get this straightened out.”
I said, “Let me make the call. I’ll tell him all about it.”
The guy said, “Yeah. Tell him about how you’re holding us hostage.”
I said, “Along with the fact that you came in here and ruined this man’s home. He’ll have to hear about that, too.”
The guy said, “He won’t care.”
“You sure about that?”
The guy said, “I don’t think he would.”
One of the girls said, “Look, let’s just clean this stuff up.” To me: “That’s all you’re asking. Right?”
I said, “Yes, ma’am.”
She scoffed. “Ma’am? What am I? A granny?”
I said, “You will be one day. This is something you can tell the offspring about. Maybe they won’t bust into houses.”
She stared at me. The two guys hung their heads. The scared girl got down and pulled the cleaning items from the bags. The others followed suit, one by one, except for the one guy who threatened to call his dad. He sat on the sofa and crossed his arms. Glew and I stood by watching the clean-up. The huncher banged around in the closet, demanding to be let out. I banged back and said, “No! Now shut up.”
The kids wiped off what they could from the wall. The “Ma’am” girl turned and said, “Well? Is this good enough?”
I shook my head. “Pull out the paint bucket, brushes and drop cloth over there. Don’t spill on the floor either.”
The guy jumped off the sofa and stepped to me. “What if we do? Huh? I know you can’t touch us.”
I said, “That’s right. You can’t touch me either.”
He threw a right hand at my face but pulled back just before making contact. I stared into his eyes. He swallowed and drew the fist back. Then he returned to the sofa. Glew opened a box of Goobers and ate a couple. He dropped one on the floor. “Good work, kids.”
I said, “Ahem” and pointed to the Goober on the floor.
Glew rolled his eyes and picked the Goober up and slipped it into his pocket.
The girls got a little paint on their clothes and whined about it. The guys just did as they were told and got the wall painted. It was half past midnight when the walls looked like new. “Ma’am” girl said, “So? Is this enough?”
I walked over and took a long look. “It could use another coat.”
She said, “Aw, come on! We have to be up early tomorrow!”
I said, “Won’t take you long.”
“Ma’am” Girl tossed the brush into the wall and stormed toward the door. I stepped in her way. She said, “What? You can’t touch me. What?”
I said, “Same for you. I thought we’d been over this.”
She said, “Why do you have to be like this? We did what you said.”
I pointed to the wall. “Job’s not done.”
She said, “So? Big deal. Some old dude gets a little paint on his wall. So what? This is illegal!”
“So is vandalism.”
She said, “Oh, well if that’s the worst thing that goes on, I think the world will keep spinning.”
I said, “But it’s not the worst. Thefts, rapes and murders happen every day and night, ma’am.”
She said, “Well go after those people, then.”
I shook my head. “It’s funny how you commit a crime and all I ask is that you make it right but then you deflect to other criminals.”
“I’m no criminal.”
I pulled out my phone. “One call on this bad boy and you would be. You’d be arrested. All of you. Did you consider that?”
She paused. Then she looked to her friends. They wore dumb expressions. She turned back to me. “Another coat.”
“Then we can leave.”
She returned to her work. Her friends joined in. The scared girl painted over the spot where Ma’am Girl had thrown her brush against the wall. She didn’t get half-way through before Ma’am Girl stopped her and volunteered to finish it. After that, she turned to me. I nodded to her. She swallowed and helped them finish.
At one-thirty, I said, “All right. You’re all free to go.”
The guy on the sofa stomped his way outside, followed by his friend. The frightened guy made it to the door and turned back. Pointing to the closet, he said, “You going to let him out?”
I reached over and opened the closet. The huncher fell to the floor. He jumped up and stepped toward me. “You better watch your back. I’m coming for you, man. You won’t see it but you’ll feel it.”
When he stormed out of the place, he flipped us off with both hands. The scared girl and her friend sped by us. They urged Ma’am Girl to hurry up. She stopped though and looked at me. “Thanks for sticking to your word.”
I said, “Always do.”
Glew put his arm around my shoulder. “This guy’s good as gold.”
Then he tossed the empty Goober box onto the floor.
I said, “Damn you, Glew. What did I tell you?”
Glew started to pick up the box. Ma’am Girl bent down. “I’ve got it.” When she handed the box to Glew, she wore a trace of a smile. She turned to me. “You’re really looking out for people?”
I said, “We do. We’ll be camped out here until Woodrow gets back.”
“Oh? Is he the owner?”
I said, “Yeah.”
“Well, maybe you could tell him that one of us is…sorry.”
She whispered the last word.
I said, “He won’t ever know you all were here.”
She swallowed. “Thanks for that.”
Her friends urged her to join them in the yard. She stared at me. “I’m a…I’m a criminal justice major. I’m sure that’s hard to believe.”
I said, “Ha. Well, I’ve been a guest of the criminal justice system. You’re upstanding next to them.”
She grinned. “That’s…surprising. I guess, people can be reformed.”
“Not by a prison but yeah. It happens.”
Her friends called out to her.
She said, “When does he get back? Wood?”
“Woodrow. Sunday night.”
Glew said, “I think she’s too young for you, stud.”
I said, “Shut up, Glew.”
He left shortly afterward and then I picked up the cleaning supplies and placed them on the porch. Then I admired the clean wall for the rest of the morning until Glew relieved me in the afternoon. I returned on Sunday morning and waited things out until Sunday evening around five o’clock when Woodrow pulled back up. Several folks walked by but no one else made an attempt to break in. The huncher never showed up either.
I locked Woodrow’s doors and replaced all of his valuables. Then I sneaked out the back. I walked to my truck parked a few blocks away and rode around for an hour before driving back by. When I did so, Ma’am Girl stood on his porch with a plate of baked cookies. He invited her inside. She peered back and saw me idling by. She motioned for Woodrow to wait and bounced over to my window. “Chocolate chip?”
I grabbed one and bit half of it. “Hell yeah.”
She chuckled. “Thought I could do this at least.”
I said, “You can do a lot more.”
“I guess so. Um…”
She looked both ways and leaned toward me. “There’s a blue house around the corner. That tall guy who was with us? He parties there sometimes and always leaves trash and stuff. I was present a couple of times I’m sorry to say.”
I said, “That blue house?”
She nodded. “I can…well, keep a look-out for you guys. I mean, you’re not cops but you’re definitely helping people out. Maybe you’re what the system needs.”
I said, “Don’t need a system. Just need people looking out for each other. People like you.”
She smiled at me with the street light spreading over her face. I took another cookie and said, “If you see anything else, just tell Woodrow to call George.”
She said, “George? That’s a great name. I’m Martha.”
I gave her a sideways look. “Really?”
She giggled. “I’m Andrea.”
I shook her gloved hand. “Great to meet you. Keep those eyes peeled, Andrea.”
I drove away, watching her wave to me through the side mirror. I called up Glew. He answered sounding out of breath with the curly-haired girl’s voice in the background, asking him what he was doing. I said, “Get your drawers on. We’ve got a new job.”