The One to Tell the Parents
I’d never heard of a judge delivering orders to a guy off the street before, but this Wallace Henry Overbrink business had changed plenty, like the new gates around the rich houses, barred windows in the poor houses, and the kids on leashes when you saw them at all. Turned out the Hughes’ house was in my part of town and it was a nice night, so I walked it.
I wished I’d have driven when a news van pulled up alongside me and filmed me walking. I tried to ignore them, but I could tell that them being there had changed my stride. I felt my arms swinging more than usual. I looked thick, like an arm-swinging cartoon goat. Every ten seconds or so, I would look at the van, the camera, the newswoman. I’m not used to being news. Eventually we got there, me walking and them creeping along beside. No lights were on in the little yellow house.
Ms. Peterson popped out of the van and started doing her reporting in that blazer of hers. She tried to rope me into an interview but I didn’t stick around, just went to the door and knocked. Waited. Hoped to God they weren’t home. Cobwebs bordered the little porch and I poked them down with a stick. The man, Mr. Hughes, came to the door in jeans and an undershirt.
“Do you know who I am?” I said. I tossed the stick in the mulch.
He shook his head and frowned at the news van. “They’re not with me,” I said.
He ushered me in, offered me some nuts from a can. I took a small handful and told him my visit concerned him and his wife. He went to get her while I worked at those oily nuts. There were pictures of those beautiful twin girls everywhere, at different ages and occasions. I got a little sad, seeing those happy lives. I mean I know you smile in pictures. Still.
Mrs. Hughes was sweaty like she’d been on the exercise bike. I told them my name and that a judge had ordered me to come see them. Mrs. Hughes asked me right out, was I a sex offender? Didn’t bother me much because I knew why her mind would go there. I said, “I’m the one to tell you, you can’t have justice for your girls.”
They sat there, looking funny. Mrs. Hughes shrugged.
“Don’t know if you heard,” I said. “Overbrink’s going to jail his whole life instead of getting the chair.”
They nodded and I figured they’d already heard. Mr. Hughes said, “You had me wondering, talking about justice.”
“The judge said I had to say it like that.”
There was a little dent on the wall to the left of me. Under it, a shattered glass cereal bowl lay on the carpet with dust covering what was left.
“And what do you think, pal?” Mr. Hughes said. “You wish they’d killed him?”
“No, sir,” I said. And because it didn’t feel like enough, I added, “but I don’t wish him well.”
“I wish him well-done,” Mrs. Hughes said, staring at the TV, which was off. She said, “I wish the state would strap him down and hand me a rusty knife and say have fun.”
She said. “I’d like to douse that man’s pecker in gasoline and light a match.”
She said, “I’d like to feed him his fingers, fried with ketchup.”
She said, “I’d sic some hungry rats on him.”
She said, “I’d slow-boil him down to a nasty soup and make every rapist and killer on this earth take a bite.”
She said, “I’d make me a coat out of his blubbery white skin.”
She said, “I’d kill everyone he’d ever loved if I thought there were a name on that list.”
She said, “I’d throttle him in his crib on the day he was born.” And never once took her eyes off that TV. “You put that on the news.”
My throat was tight. I wanted water but not here.
“Settle down for the company, mother,” Mr. Hughes said, like she’d let slip who she was voting for. He smiled to himself and passed me some more nuts. “Like on the cop shows when they say justice and mean something else.”
“It’s something else, alright,” she said. She turned to me. “Think he’s getting raped there in prison?”
I made myself nod.
We sat a couple minutes more till I was sure there was nothing more to say, and I got up real slow like maybe they wouldn’t notice. There was a little part of me that said you ain’t leaving this house on your own feet. Course I was fine. Mr. Hughes walked me to the door, real friendly.
Outside, the van was gone. Seemed lucky then, but when I turned the news on later that night, there was Ms. Peterson at another house yelling to get a statement from an old lady who befriended homeless men for months at a time, helped them get fixed up, then mowed them down in her sedan.
“Thanks for giving us the word,” Mr. Hughes said. “Thanks to that judge you work for.”
I didn’t correct him about not having a choice in the matter, about him just picking me out of a phonebook. Anything I could say wouldn’t mean a lick to those folks.