Inside, I find the land records in the office of the chancery clerk, the same place in every county courthouse in the state. For these occasions I wear a navy blazer with a tie, nice khakis, dress shoes, and in such a getup I can easily pass for just another out-of-town lawyer checking titles. They come and go. There is no requirement to sign in. I don't speak to anyone unless I'm spoken to. The records are open to the public, and the traffic is scarcely monitored by clerks who are too disinterested to notice. My first visit is to simply get acquainted with the records, the system, to find everything. Deeds, grants, liens, probated wills, all sorts of registries that I'll need to peruse in the near future. The tax rolls are down the hall in the assessor's office. The lawsuit filings and cases are in the circuit clerk's office on the first floor. After a couple of hours, I know my way around and I've spoken to no one. I'm just another out-of-town lawyer pursuing his mundane business.
At each new stop, my first challenge is to find the person who's been around for years and is willing to share the gossip. This person usually works in the kitchen, is often black, often a woman, and if indeed it's a black woman doing the cooking, then I know how to get the gossip. Flattery doesn't work, because these women can smell bullshit a mile away. You can't brag on the food, because the food is slop and they know it. It's not their fault. They are handed the ingredients and told how to prepare them. At first, I simply stop by each day, say hello, ask how they're doing, and so on. The fact that one of the fellow employees, a white one, is willing to be so nice and to spend time on their turf is unusual. After three days of being nice, Rozelle, aged sixty, is flirting, and I'm giving it right back to her. I told her that I live alone, can't cook, and need a few extra calories on the side. Before long, Rozelle is scrambling eggs for me when she arrives at 7:00 a.m., and we are having our morning coffee together. I punch out at 7:00, but usually hang around for another hour. In my efforts to avoid Miss Ruby, I also arrive for work hours before I punch in, and I sign up for as much overtime as possible. Being the new guy, I am given the graveyard shift - 9:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. - Friday through Monday, but I don't mind.
Rozelle and I agree that our boss, Ms. Wilma Drell, is a dim-witted, lazy slug who should be replaced but probably won't because it's highly unlikely anyone better would take the job. Rozelle has survived so many bosses she can't remember them all. Nurse Nancy gets passing grades. Trudy at the front desk does not. Before my first week is over, Rozelle and I have assessed all the other employees.
The fun begins when we get around to the patients. I say to Rozelle: "You know, every night at pill time, I give Lyle Spur-lock a dose of saltpeter in a sugar cube. What's the deal, Rozelle?"
"Lawd have mercy," she says with a grin that reveals her enormous teeth. She throws up her hands in mock surprise. She rolls her eyes around as if I've really opened up a can of worms. "You are one curious white boy." But I've hit a nerve, and I can tell that she really wants to shovel the dirt.
"I didn't know they still used saltpeter," I say.
She's slowly unwrapping an industrial-size package of frozen waffles. "Look here, Gill, that man has chased ever' woman that ever stayed here. Caught a lot of 'em too. Back a few years ago they caught him in bed with a nurse."
"Lawd have mercy, son. That's the dirtiest ol' man in the world. Can't keep his hands off any woman, no matter how old. He's grabbed nurses, patients, attendants, ladies from the churches who come in to sing Christmas songs. They used to lock 'im up during visitation, else he'd be chasin' the girls from the families. Came in here one time, lookin' around. I picked up a butcher's knife and waved it at him. Ain't had no problem since."
"But he's eighty-four years old."
"He's slowed a little. Diabetes. Cut off a foot. But he's still got both his hands, and he'll grab any woman. Not me, mind you, but the nurses stay away from him."
The visual of old Lyle bedding a nurse was too good to ignore. "And they caught him with a nurse?"
"That's right. She wadn't no young thang, mind you, but he still had thirty years on her."
"Who caught them?"
"You met Andy?"
She glanced around before telling me something that had been a legend for years. "Well, Andy was workin' North Wing back then, now he's in the Back, and, you know that storage room at the far end of North Wing?"
"Sure." I didn't, but I -wanted the rest of the story.
"Well, there used to be a bed in there, and Lyle and the nurse wadn't the first ones to use it."
"That's right. You wouldn't believe the hanky-panky that's gone down round here, specially when Lyle Spurlock was in his prime."
"So Andy caught them in the storage room?"
"That's right. The nurse got fired. They threatened to send Lyle somewhere else, but his family got involved, talked 'em out of it. It was a mess. Lawd have mercy."
"And they started giving him saltpeter?"
"Not soon enough." She was scattering the waffles on a baking sheet to put in the oven. She glanced around again, obviously guilty of something, but no one was watching. Delores, the other cook, was wrestling with the coffee machine and too far away to hear us.
"You know Mr. Luke Malone, room 14?"
"Sure, he's on my wing." Mr. Malone was eighty-nine years old, bedridden, virtually blind and deaf, and spent hours each day staring at a small television hanging from the ceiling.
"Well, he and his wife were in room 14 forever. She died last year, cancer. 'Bout ten years ago, Mizz, Malone and ol' Spurlock had a thang goin'."
"They had an affair?" Roselle was willing to tell all, but she needed prodding.
"I don't know what you call it, but they's havin' a good time. Spurlock had two feet then, and he was quick. They'd roll Mr. Malone down here for bingo, and Spurlock' d duck into room 14, jam a chair under the doorknob, and hop in the sack "with Miw Malone."
"They get caught?"
"Several times, but not by Mr. Malone. He couldn't've caught 'em if he'd been in the room. Nobody ever told him, either. Poor man."
She shooed me away because she had to prepare breakfast.
Two nights later, I give Lyle Spurlock a placebo instead of his sleeping pill. An hour later, I return to his room, make sure his roommate is fast asleep, and hand him two Playboy magazines. There is no express prohibition against such publications at Quiet Haven, but Ms. Wilma Drell and the other powers that be have certainly taken it upon themselves to eliminate all vices. There is no alcohol on the premises. Lots of card playing and bingo, but no gambling. The few surviving smokers must go outside. And the notion of pornography being consumed is virtually unthinkable.
"Don't let anyone see them," I whisper to Lyle, who grabs the magazines like a starving refugee goes for food.
"Thanks," he says eagerly. I turn on the light next to his bed, pat him on the shoulder, and say, "Have some fun." Go get 'em, old boy. Lyle Spurlock is now my newest admirer.
My file on him is getting thicker. He's been at Quiet Haven for eleven years. After the death of his third wife, his family evidently decided they could not care for him and placed him in the "retirement home," where, according to the visitors' logs, they pretty much forgot about him. In the past six months, a daughter from Jackson has dropped by twice. She's married to a shopping center developer who's quite wealthy. Mr. Spurlock has a son in Fort Worth who moves rail freight and never sees his father. Nor does he write or send cards, according to the mail register. Throughout most of his life, Mr. Spurlock ran a small electrical contracting business in Clanton, and he accumulated little in the way of assets. However, his third wife, a woman who'd had two previous marriages herself, inherited six hundred and forty acres of land in Tennessee when her father died at the age of ninety-eight. Her will was probated in Polk County ten years ago, and when her estate was closed, Mr. Lyle Spurlock inherited the land. There is a decent chance his two offspring know nothing about it.