Page 44 of Ford County

It takes hours of tedious research in the county land records to find these little nuggets. Many of my searches go nowhere, but when I find such a secret, it makes things exciting.

*

I'm off tonight, and Miss Ruby insists that we go out for a cheeseburger. Her car is a 1972 Cadillac sedan, half a block long, bright red, and with enough square footage for eight passengers. As I chauffeur it, she talks and points and sips her Jimmy, all with a Marlboro hanging out the window. Going from my Beetle to the Cadillac gives me the impression of driving a bus. The car will barely fit into a slot at the Sonic Drive-In, a modern-day version of an earlier classic, and built with much smaller vehicles in mind. But I wedge it in, and we order burgers, fries, and colas. She insists that we eat on the spot, and I'm happy to make her happy.

After several late-afternoon toddies and early-morning highballs, I've come to learn that she never had children. Several husbands abandoned her over the years. She has yet to mention a brother, sister, cousin, niece, or nephew. She is incredibly lonely.

And according to Rozelle back in the kitchen, Miss Ruby ran, until twenty or so years ago, the last surviving brothel in Ford County. Rozelle was shocked when I told her where I was living, as if the place were infested with evil spirits. "Ain't no place for a young white boy," she said. Rozelle goes to church at least four times a week. "You'd better get outta there," she warned. "Satan's in the walls."

I don't think it's Satan, but three hours after dinner I'm almost asleep when the ceiling begins to shake. There are sounds - determined, steady, destined to end real soon in satisfaction. There is a clicking sound, much like the cheap metal frame of a bed inching across the floor. Then the mighty sigh of a conquering hero. Silence. The epic act is over.

An hour later, the clicking is back, and the bed is once again hopping across the floor. The hero this time must be either bigger or rougher because the noise is louder. She, whoever she is, is more vocal than before, and for a long and impressive while I listen with great curiosity and a growing eroticism as these two abandon all inhibitions and go at it regardless of who might be listening. They practically shout when it's over, and I'm tempted to applaud. They grow still. So do I. Sleep returns.

About an hour later, our working girl up there is turning her third trick of the night. It's a Friday, and I realize that this is my first Friday in my apartment. Because of my accumulation of overtime, Ms. Wilma Drell ordered me off the clock tonight. I will not make this mistake again. I can't wait to tell Rozelle that Miss Ruby has not retired from her role as a madam, that her old flophouse is still used for other purposes, and that Satan is indeed alive and well.

Late Saturday morning, I walk down to the square, to a coffee shop, and buy some sausage biscuits. I take them back to Miss Ruby's. She answers the door in her bathrobe, teased hair shooting in all directions, eyes puffy and red, and we sit at her kitchen table. She makes more coffee, a wretched brew of some brand she buys by mail, and I repeatedly refuse Jim Beam.

"Things were pretty noisy last night," I say.

"You don't say." She's nibbling around the edge of a biscuit.

"Who's in the apartment right above me?"

"It's empty."

"It wasn't empty last night. Folks were having sex and making a lot of noise."

"Oh, that was Tammy. She's just one of my girls."

"How many girls do you have?"

"Not many. Used to have a bunch."

"I heard this used to be a brothel."

"Oh yes," she says with a proud smile. "Back fifteen, twenty years ago, I had a dozen girls, and we took care of all the big boys in Clanton - the politicians, the sheriff, bankers, and lawyers. I let 'em play poker on the fourth floor. My girls worked the other rooms. Those were the good years." She was smiling at the wall, her thoughts far away to better days.

"How often does Tammy work now?"

"Fridays, sometimes on Saturdays. Her husband's a truck driver, gone on weekends, and she needs the extra money."

"Who are the clients?"

"She has a few. She's careful and selective. Interested?"

"No. Just curious. Can I expect the same noise every Friday and Saturday?"

"More than likely."

"You didn't tell me this when I rented the place."

"You didn't ask. Come on now, Gill, you're not really upset. If you'd like, I could put in a good word with Tammy. It'd be a short walk. She could even come to your room."

"How much does she charge?"

"It's negotiable. I'll fix it for you."

"I'll think about it."

*

After thirty days, I'm beckoned to the office of Ms. Drell for an evaluation. Big companies adopt these policies that fill up their various manuals and handbooks and make them all feel as though they're being superbly managed. HVQH wants each new employee evaluated at thirty, sixty, and ninety-day intervals, then once every six months. Most nursing homes have similar language on the books but rarely bother with actual meetings.

We dance through the usual crap about how I'm doing, what I think of the job, how I'm getting along with the other employees. So far, no complaints. She compliments me on my willingness to volunteer for overtime. I have to admit that she's not as bad as I first thought. I've been wrong before, but not often. She's still on my list, but down to number three.

"The patients seem to like you," she says.

"They're very sweet."

"Why do you spend so much time talking to the cooks in the kitchen?"

"Is that against the rules?"

"Well, no, just a bit unusual."

"I'll be happy to stop if it bothers you." I have no intention of stopping, regardless of what Ms. Drell says.

"Oh no. We found some Playboy magazines under Mr. Spurlock's mattress. Any idea where they came from?"

"Did you ask Mr. Spurlock?"

"Yes, and he's not saying."

Attaboy, Lyle. "I have no idea where they came from. Are they against the rules?"

"We frown on such filth. Are you sure you had nothing to do with them?"

"It seems to me that if Mr. Spurlock, who's eighty-four and paying full rent, wants to look at Playboys, then he should be allowed to do so. What's the harm?"

"You don't know Mr. Spurlock. We try to keep him in a state of non-arousal. Otherwise, well, he's a real handful."

"He's eighty-four."

"How do you know he's paying full rent?"

"That's what he told me."

She flipped a page as if there were many entries in my file. After a moment, she closed it and said, "So far so good, Gill. We are pleased with your performance. You may go."

Dismissed, I went straight to the kitchen and told Rozelle about the recent events at Miss Ruby's.

*

After six weeks in Clanton, my research is complete. I've combed through all public records, and I've studied hundreds of old issues of the Ford County Times, which are also stored in the courthouse. No lawsuits have been filed against Quiet Haven. Only two minor complaints are on record with the agency in Jackson, and both were handled administratively.

Only two residents of Quiet Haven have any assets to speak of. Mr. Jesse Plankmore owns three hundred acres of scrub pine near Pidgeon Island, in the far northeastern section of Ford County, But Mr. Plankmore doesn't know it anymore. He checked out years ago and will succumb any day now. Plus, his wife died eleven years ago, and her will was probated by a local lawyer. I've read it twice. All assets were willed to Mr. Plankmore, then to the four children upon his death. It's safe to assume he has an identical will, the original of which is locked away in the lawyer's safe-deposit box.

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