The Rental

It was a quiet neighborhood; townhouses filled with college students, young working couples, a few multigenerational families, and Ralph Granby. It wasn’t by design, his being the oldest person in Silverton Plaza. It was a coincidence, or maybe inevitable. His grandson and granddaughter had occupied the two-bedroom townhouse for six years, courtesy of Ralph’s son, John, and his wife, Karen. Ralph moved in when the grandkids graduated, as caretaker. He appreciated having a nice place to live and it was interesting being around college students. At 78, he felt old being around so many kids, but not as old as he’d felt in the retirement community where he’d lived for eight years.

Ralph didn’t smoke in the house, so he spent a lot of time on the patio. He liked being outside and not bothered by other people. He’d never been left alone in Country Life Retirement Center. Some lonely old guy or, worse, a nosy old broad, always wanted to talk about their pains or family. Memories. Ralph didn’t think about the past. He was trying to live in the present.

Ralph had a pretty good idea of what was going on in Silverton Plaza. He’d already met most of the dog walkers. But the three-bedroom townhouse across the retention pond from his patio puzzled him.

Two new SUVs that appeared at the same time caught his attention. He hadn’t seen a moving van or trailer. A woman in her early thirties, another ten years older, appeared with four children, all under ten, and walked their small dog around the pond. They responded curtly when Ralph greeted them. He always said hello. Didn’t want to seem like a curmudgeon. They came and went every day as if taking the children to school, maybe going to work, a Saturday outing with all of them packed into one SUV. They stayed a week. Nothing unusual about their behavior. But Ralph couldn’t help but wonder if they were sleeping on the floor. Maybe the house was a furnished lease.

One morning the two women packed some bundles in the SUVs. No suitcases that Ralph saw, but then he wasn’t watching continuously. This wasn’t a stakeout. He went in to make a cup of coffee. When he returned to the patio, they were gone. They didn’t come back, which seemed strange to Ralph.

Convinced that the transients’ lives were as mundane as anyone else’s, Ralph let his imagination transform the townhouse into a safehouse run by the Federal Marshall Service. In this fantasy, the two women were actually the wife and niece of an accountant testifying against the leader of an international crime syndicate.

A couple days later, a fat guy arrived in a beat-up sedan and unloaded a lot of cleaning supplies, including a vacuum cleaner. He was there all day. Took bags of trash to the dumpster, repacked his car, left. A Federal agent in disguise, doing some cleaning while checking for listening devices, collecting physical evidence.

Ralph invited John and Karen over for lunch on Sundays every few weeks, to demonstrate that he was getting around fine; and he liked talking to them, hearing how things were going now that their children had moved to other cities to begin careers. He knew what an empty nest felt like. He had moved to Tallahassee to be with the only family he had left; returning to the nest as it were. John and Karen always accepted his invitations.

John got another grilled pork chop and some green beans as he said, “What’s up at Silverton Plaza? These college kids driving you crazy yet?” They always joked about Ralph being surrounded by young people, knowing he actually enjoyed it.

“There are more families moving in, young people, some with babies. I think this place is turning into a regular community.”

“No troublemakers, I hope,” Karen interjected. “This place is close enough to the low-income housing that I worry about drug dealers. You haven’t heard any gun shots, have you? Police cars in the middle of the night?”

Ralph shook his head. “No, nothing like that. Just that damned train all day long. You’d think it wouldn’t be so loud a mile away.”

“Does it keep you up?” John asked.

“No. It’s just so loud that I can’t hear myself think. I don’t know how these kids can study with that all the time…but, you know, I noticed something curious last week.” They listened with interest as he told about the two women and children.

“Well, they don’t sound too threatening,” Karen said.

John added, “They must know the owner and were passing through, or maybe waiting for a deal to close. Like you and Mom did when I was in high school. We stayed in a friend’s house for two weeks.”

They agreed that was probably the case. John and Karen cleaned up the table while Ralph went to the patio for a smoke. A red SUV was parked in front of the townhouse. Three black men got out, without luggage, and unlocked the front door. They were all sizes and ages. Ralph assumed they’d gone out for lunch. Must have arrived while he was eating.

John joined him on the patio with a beer, an extra for Ralph.

“Another car just pulled in,” Ralph said, opening the can. He summarized what he’d seen while John studied the brick façade of the townhouse. “You don’t suppose it’s a government safe house, do you?”

“Maybe. But I’d put my money on an Airbnb rental. They’re not only for vacations. The renters must be getting a better deal than a motel.” He shook his head and added, “I don’t see how the owner’s making any money, though. Leasing would bring in a steady stream of income. Maybe they’ll be back from an extended trip and can’t tie it up for six months or more.”

John and Karen took the leftovers with them when they left; that was the deal: Ralph only ate heavy meals in restaurants or with the family. They had expressed concern about how thin he’d become, until he assured them that his physician approved of his weight loss and saw nothing in his blood results indicating any problems. In fact, Ralph was healthier than John, who had high cholesterol.

The three African American men stayed a couple of days, leaving together in the morning, returning in the afternoon. Ralph was convinced that John was right. It was an Airbnb rental. Still, it was possible that they were undercover agents laying low, waiting for their next assignment.

The red SUV left with the three men and was immediately replaced by a white sedan. The next morning, returning to the patio with a cup of coffee, Ralph had a front-row seat of what seemed like a reality TV show. The front door of the three-bedroom unit was open and a young black woman was standing behind the car. She was yelling something, her words drowned by the fountain’s cascade. The car backed up, threatening to run over her. She stepped out of the way, her fist pounding the windows. The distraught woman pulled out her smart phone and took a photo or maybe a video of the departing vehicle.

Her task complete, she reentered the open door, just before the sedan backed up at full speed. Ralph didn’t see what happened next because he went inside to make breakfast. He made a point of not spying on his neighbors.

The white sedan was gone all day. That afternoon, three children appeared on the front balcony, enjoying the view. The oldest kicked the balusters, dislodging one, which fell to the ground. The boy no more than nine or ten, slipped through the gap and climbed around on the outside of the balcony, hanging on the railing. Ralph was concerned because it was more than ten feet to the ground, probably not dangerous enough to intervene. The sedan returned at dusk and a tall, black man got out but didn’t go inside the townhouse. He wandered around by the pond, drinking from an aluminum can, maybe beer, maybe soda, until four children appeared, the youngest barely walking.

Ralph imagined the scenario: the young guy, tired of so many children and not wanting to take responsibility for their care, joined some friends for a few beers, maybe at a bar. His wife hadn’t been happy about that. This guy had to be a small-time drug dealer turned state’s evidence against a drug cartel.

They were gone the next day. The cleaning man who’d taken hours to clean the place before never showed up. Ralph wouldn’t want to rent a house that had been occupied by four children, the youngest in diapers, without being sanitized. Only an undercover operation would be so sloppy. They’d probably lose their permit if it really was an Airbnb rental.

Ralph watched with interest as another white sedan appeared, newer than the previous one. He couldn’t wait to see who it had brought. A young, Asian couple appeared the next evening with a toddler, her hair in two pigtails pointing up. The car remained two days, but the young family didn’t reappear. Ralph didn’t see them leave. This guy wasn’t a criminal. Probably a Chinese dissident from Hong Kong with a price on his head.

The same cleaning guy finally made an appearance, in a different vehicle. The battered, faded, reddish sedan had been replaced by a small SUV. He took a break at lunch time, maybe having a cigarette, and sat in the truck, door open. Ralph couldn’t see inside the vehicle. Pretty sloppy work, forgetting to use the same car. The Feds were asking for trouble.

The next day, a new SUV appeared in front of what Ralph was convinced was an Airbnb rental. The silver Nissan never moved, and no one came out. It sat for three days. They must have a cache of food in the house, he thought. By the third day, his curiosity was getting the best of him. All he’d learned was that the occupants were from Texas. Or at least their vehicle was. His patience was rewarded when his temporary neighbors appeared. A young, black couple in their mid-thirties, accompanied by identical twins, eleven-year-old girls, dressed the same, same hairstyle, same height. And a teenage boy. The children loaded suitcases in the back, the man piled two large bags of trash on the hood. They were a well-oiled machine. They stopped by the dumpster on their way out. This family was too cute to be real. Straight out of a Disney movie. He was either a geek in debt to mobsters, probably gambling losses, or the entire outfit was an undercover family. Maybe used in sting operations.

The cleaning guy didn’t come by…again…before the next visitor arrived.

Ralph was on the patio when a weather-beaten, green minivan pulled into a space in front of the rental. A young, white man got out first and went around the vehicle to open the passenger door. Ralph couldn’t see that side. After a couple of minutes, a young, black woman emerged with a baby and a toddler.

Jesus Christ, Ralph thought. There sure are a lot of children around these days.

The bearded guy followed, burdened by several suitcases. The man and woman seemed nervous. They looked around continuously as she got a key into the lock. His head popped out before the door closed, one last look. Ralph wished he’d seen the arrival of the previous guests.

The newcomers remained inside all day. Jim was on the patio having his last beer of the day when a visitor arrived. It was about time someone had a guest. Just sitting in a rented townhouse for days had to be boring, even with cable television and internet. Two black guys wearing jackets got out of the late-model black SUV, lit by the nearby streetlight, looking around the same way the current occupants had.

Ralph’s phone dinged, informing him of a WhatsApp text. It was a photo of a friend’s new seat covers, for his RV. They were bright red.

Ralph looked up when angry shouts erupted, threatening, indecipherable. One of the visitors threw his weight into the steel-sheathed door, splintering the wood jamb. Alarmed, feeling that this situation was worse than a child climbing on the balcony, Ralph unlocked his phone…

More angry shouts. Fear. Several shots shattered the stillness of the night.

Ralph had dialed 911 before the last echoes died against the brick, stucco, and vinyl of the townhouses.

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