There's no doubt in my mind that Wilma will be number two, with the potential of moving up. We wedge into a small cinder-block office, walls painted government gray, cheap metal desk, cheap wooden credenza adorned with Wal-Mart photos of her chubby children and haggard husband. She settles herself behind the desk and into an executive swivel, as if she's the CEO of this exciting and prosperous outfit. I slide into a rickety chair that's at least twelve inches lower than the swivel. I look up. She looks down.
"You've applied for a job," she says as she picks up the application I mailed in last week.
"Yes." Why else would I be here?
"As an attendant. I see you've had experience in retirement homes."
"Yes, that's correct." On my application I listed three other such places. I left all three without controversy. There are about a dozen others, though, that I would never mention. The reference checking will go smoothly, if it happens at all. Usually there is a halfhearted effort to place a couple of calls. Nursing homes don't worry about hiring thieves or child molesters or even people like me, guys with a complicated past.
"We need an attendant for the late-night shift, from 9:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., four days a week. You'll be in charge of monitoring the halls, checking on the patients, caring for them in a general way."
"That's what I do," I say. And walking them to the bathroom, mopping floors after they've made a mess, bathing them, changing their clothes, reading them stories, listening to their life histories, writing letters, buying birthday cards, dealing with their families, refereeing their disputes, arranging and cleaning their bedpans. I know the routine.
"Do you enjoy working with people?" she asks, the same stupid question they always ask. As if all people were the same. The patients are usually delightful. It's the other employees who find their way onto my list.
"Oh yes," I say.
"Your age is - "
"Thirty-four," I say. You can't do the math? My date of birth is question number three on the application. What she really wants to say is, "Why does a thirty-four-year-old man choose to pursue such a demeaning career?" But they never have the guts to ask this.
"We're paying $6.00 an hour."
That was in the ad. She offers this as if it were a gift. The minimum wage is currently $5.15. The company that owns Quiet Haven hides behind the meaningless name of HVQH Group, a notoriously sleazy outfit out of Florida. HVQH owns some thirty retirement facilities in a dozen states and has a long history of nursing home abuse, lawsuits, lousy care, employment discrimination, and tax problems, but in spite of such adversity the company has managed to make a mint.
"That's fine," I say. And it's really not that bad. Most of the corporations that operate chains start their bedpan boys at minimum wage. But I'm not here for the money, at least not the modest wages offered by HVQH.
She's still reading the application. "High school graduate. No college?"
"Didn't have the opportunity."
"That's too bad," she offers, clucking her teeth and shaking her head in sympathy. "I got my degree from a community college," she says smugly, and with that Ms. Wilma Drell hits the list hard at number two. She'll move up. I finished college in three years, but since they expect me to be a moron, I never tell them this. It would make things far too complicated. Postgrad work was done in two years.
"No criminal record," she says with mock admiration.
"Not even a speeding ticket," I say. If she only knew. True, I've never been convicted, but there have been some close calls.
"No lawsuits, no bankruptcies," she muses. It's all there in black and white.
"I've never been sued," I say, clarifying a bit of language. I've been involved in a number of lawsuits, but none in which I was
a named party.
"How long have you lived in Clanton?" she asks in an effort to drag out the interview and make it last more than seven minutes. She and I both know that I'll get the job because the ad has been running for two months.
"Couple of weeks. Came here from Tupelo."
"And what brings you to Clanton?" You gotta love the South. People seldom hesitate to ask personal questions. She really doesn't want the answer, but she's curious as to why someone
like me would move to a new town to look for work at six bucks an hour.
"Bad romance in Tupelo," I say, lying. "Needed a change of scenery." The bad romance bit always works.
"I'm sorry," she says, but she's not, of course.
She drops my application on the desk. "When can you start work, Mr. Griffin?"
"Just call me Gill," I say. "When do you need me?"
"How about tomorrow?"
They usually need me right away, so the instant start date is never a surprise. I spend the next thirty minutes doing paperwork with Trudy. She goes about the routine with an air of importance, careful to convey the reality that her rank is far superior to mine. As I drive away, I glance at the forlorn windows of Quiet Haven and wonder, as always, how long I will work there. My average is about four months.
My temporary home in Clanton is a two-room apartment in what was once a flophouse but is now a decaying apartment building one block off the town square. The ad described it as furnished, but during my initial walk-through I saw only an army-surplus cot in the bedroom, a pink vinyl sofa in the den, and a dinette set near the sofa with a round table about the size of a large pizza.. There's also a tiny stove that doesn't work and a very old refrigerator that barely does. For such amenities I promised to pay to the owner, Miss Ruby, the sum of $20 a week, in cash.
Whatever. I've seen worse, but not by much.
"No parties," Miss Ruby said with a grin as we shook hands on the deal. She's seen her share of parties. Her age is somewhere between fifty and eighty. Her face is ravaged less by age than by hard living and an astounding consumption of cigarettes, but she fights back with layers of foundation, blush, rouge, mascara, eyeliner, lipstick, and a daily drenching of a perfume that, when mixed with the tobacco smoke, reminds me of the odor of dried, stale urine that's not uncommon in nursing homes.
Not to mention the bourbon. Just seconds after we shook hands, Miss Ruby said, "How about a little toddy?" We were in the den of her apartment on the first floor, and before I could answer, she was already headed for the liquor cabinet. She poured a few ounces of Jim Beam into two tumblers and deftly added soda water, and we clinked glasses. "A highball for breakfast is the best way to start the day," she said, taking a gulp. It was 9:00 a.m.
She fired up a Marlboro as we moved to the front porch. She lives alone, and it was soon obvious to me that she was a very lonely woman. She just wanted someone to talk to. I rarely drink alcohol, never bourbon, and after a few sips my tongue was numb. If the whiskey had any impact on her, it wasn't obvious as she went on and on about people in Clanton I would never meet. After thirty minutes, she rattled her ice and said, "How 'bout some more Jimmy?" I begged off and left soon thereafter.
Orientation is led by Nurse Nancy, a pleasant old woman who's been here for thirty years. With me in tow, we move from door to door along the North Wing, stopping at each room and saying hello to the residents. Most rooms have two. I've seen all the faces before: the bright ones happy to meet someone new, the sad ones who couldn't care less, the bitter ones who are just suffering through another lonely day, the blank ones who've already checked out of this world. The same faces are on the South Wing. The Back Wing is a little different. A metal door keeps it secured, and Nurse Nancy enters a four-digit code on the wall to get us through.