Page 45 of Ford County

The other property owner is my pal Lyle Spurlock. With six hundred and foty acres of unencumbered land in his neglected portfolio, he's one of the brightest prospects I've seen in years. Without him, I would begin my exit strategy.

Other research is revealing, and good for gossip, but not that valuable. Miss Ruby is actually sixty-eight years old, has three divorces on record, the most current one filed twenty-two years ago, has no children, no criminal record, and her building is appraised by the county at $52,000. Twenty years ago, when it •was a full-fledged whorehouse, the appraisal was twice that. According to an old story in the Ford County Times, the police raided her eighteen years ago and arrested two of her girls and two of their customers, one of whom was a member of the state legislature, but from another county. Other stories followed. The legislator resigned in disgrace, then killed himself. The moral majority raised a ruckus, and Miss Ruby was effectively out of business.

Her only other asset, at least of interest to the county, is her 1972 Cadillac. Last year the license tags cost her $29.

It is the Cadillac I'm pondering when I allow her to catch me arriving home from work at 8:00 a.m. "Mornin', Gill," she rasps through her tar-laden lungs. "How 'bout a Jimmy?" She's on the narrow front porch, in some hideous ensemble of pink pajamas, lavender bathrobe, red rubber shower shoes, and a sweeping black hat that would deflect more rain than an umbrella. In other words, one of her usual outfits.

I glance at my watch, smile, say, "Sure."

She disappears inside and hurries back with two large turn biers of Jim Beam and soda water. There's a Marlboro stuck between her sticky red lips, and as she talks, it bounces rapidly up and down. "A good night at the nursing home, Gill?"

"The usual. Did you rest well?"

"Up all night."

"I'm sorry." She was up all night because she sleeps all day, a holdover from her previous life. She usually fights the whiskey until about 10:00 a.m., when she goes to bed and sleeps until dark.

We ramble about this and that, more gossip about people I'll never meet. I toy with the drink, but Fm afraid not to consume most of it. She's questioned my manhood on several occasions when I tried to slip by without fully enjoying the bourbon.

"Say, Miss Ruby, did you ever know a man by the name of Lyle Spurlock?" I ask during a lull.

It takes quite a while for her to recall all the men she's known, but Lyle eventually does not make the cut. "Afraid not, dear. Why?"

"He's one of my patients, my favorite, really, and I was think' ing of taking him to the movies tonight."

"How sweet of you."

"There's a double feature at the drive-in." She almost blows a mouthful of whiskey across the front yard, then laughs until she can't breathe. Finally, when she collects herself, she says,

"You're taking an old man to the dirty movies?"

"Sure. Why not?"

"That's funny." She's still highly amused, her large yellow teeth on full display. A pull of Jimmy, a drag of the cigarette, and she's now under control.

According to the archives of the Ford County Times, the Daisy Drive-In showed its outdoor version of Deep Throat in 1980, and the town of Clanton erupted. There were protests, marches, ordinances, lawsuits attacking ordinances, sermons and more sermons, speeches by politicians, and when the brouhaha was over and the dust settled, the drive-in was still in business, still showing dirty movies whenever it wanted, fully embraced by a federal court's interpretation of the First Amendment. As a compromise, though, the owner agreed to show the XXX stuff only on Wednesday nights, when the church folks were in church. The other nights were heavy on teenage horror flicks, but he promised as much Disney as he could get. Didn't matter. A boycott by the Christians had been in place for so long that the Daisy was generally regarded as a blight on the community.

"I don't suppose I could borrow your car?" I ask, apologetically.

"Why?"

"Well," I nodded at my sad little Beetle parked at the curb. "It's a bit small."

"Why don't you get something bigger?"

As small as it was, it was still worth more than her tank.

"I've been thinking about that. Anyway, it might be crowded. Just a thought, no big deal. I understand if you don't want to."

"Let me think about it." She rattles her ice and says, "Believe I'll have just a tad more. You?"

"No, thanks." My tongue is on fire and I'm suddenly groggy. I go to bed. She goes to bed. After a long sleep, we meet back on her porch at dusk, and she continues, "I think I'll have a little Jimmy. You?"

"No, thanks. I'm driving."

She mixes one, and we're off. I never expressly invited her to join me and Lyle for our boys' night out, but once I realized she had no intention of the Cadillac leaving without her, I said what the hell. Lyle Spurlock won't care. She confesses, as we sort of float through town in a vehicle that must feel similar to an oil barge going downriver, that she hopes the movies are not too raunchy. She says this with an exaggerated flapping of the eyelids, and I get the impression that Miss Ruby can take whatever filth the Daisy Drive-in can dish out.

I crack a window to allow fresh air a chance to dilute the fumes emanating from Miss Ruby. For the night out, she's chosen to give herself an extra dousing of her various perfumes. She lights a Marlboro but does not crack her window. For a second I fear that the flame might ignite the vapors engulfing the front seat and we could both be burned alive. The moment passes.

As we make our way to Quiet Haven, I regale Miss Ruby with all the gossip I've picked up in the kitchen on the subject of Mr. Lyle Spurlock and his roving eyes and hands. She claims to have heard the rumor, years back, about an elderly gent caught bedding a nurse, and seems genuinely excited about meeting such a character. Another nip of Jimmy, and she declares that she might just remember a Spurlock as a client after all, back in the glory days.

The second shift is run by Nurse Angel, a pious, hard •woman who's currently number two on my shit list and may quite possibly become the first person I get fired here. She immediately informs me that she doesn't approve of my plans to take Lyle to the movies. (I've told no one but Lyle, and now Miss Ruby, which movies we're going to.) I fire back that it doesn't matter what she disapproves of because Ms. Wilma Drell, the number-one Queen Bee, has given approval, said approval not coming forth voluntarily until Mr. Spurlock and his daughter (by phone) had raised more hell than the Queen could take.

"It's in writing," I say. "Check the file. Approved by W. Drell."

She flings some paperwork, mumbles incoherently, frowns as if migraines were attacking. Within minutes, Lyle and I are shuffling out of the front door. He's wearing his nicest slacks and his only jacket, an old shiny navy blazer he's had for decades, and he walks with a determined limp. Outside the building, I grab his elbow and say, "Listen, Mr. Spurlock, we have an unexpected guest with us."

"Who?"

"She goes by Miss Ruby. She's my landlady. I borrowed her car and she came with it, sort of a package deal. Sorry."

"It's okay."

"She's nice. You'll like her."

"Thought we were going to watch dirty movies."

"That's right. Don't worry, they won't bother Miss Ruby. She's not much of a lady, if you know what I mean."

Lyle understands. With a gleam in his eyes, Lyle gets it completely. We stop at the front passenger's door and I introduce them, then Lyle crawls into the cavernous backseat. Before we're out of the parking lot, Miss Ruby is turning around, saying, "Lyle, dear, would you like a little Jim Beam?"

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