Page 48 of Ford County

By order from the home office, Ms. Wilma Drell suddenly becomes very nice. She calls me in and tells me that my performance has improved so dramatically that I'm getting a raise. From six bucks an hour to seven, and I'm not to tell anyone else on the floor. I give her a load of sappy thanks, and she's convinced we're bonding now.

Late that night, I read Mr. Spurlock a magazine story about a developer in Tennessee who's trying to bulldoze a neglected Civil War battlefield so he can throw up another strip mall and some cheap condos. The locals and the preservation types are fighting, but the developer has the money and the politics on his side. Lyle is upset by this, and we talk at length about ways to help the good guys. He doesn't mention his last will and testament, and it's still too soon for me to make a move.

*

In retirement homes, birthdays are a big deal, and for obvious reasons. You'd better celebrate 'em while you can. There's always a party in the cafeteria, with cake and candles and ice cream, photos and songs and such. We, the staff, work hard at creating merriment and noise, and we try our best to drag out the festivities for at least thirty minutes. About half the time a few family members will be here, and this heightens the mood. If no family is present, we work even harder. Each birthday might be the last, but I guess that's true for all of us. Truer for some, though.

Lyle Spurlock turns eighty-five on December 2, and his loudmouth daughter from Jackson shows up, along with two of her kids and three of her grandchildren, and along with her customary barrage of complaints, demands, and suggestions, all in a noisy and lame effort to convince her beloved father that she cares so deeply about him that she must raise hell with us. They bring balloons and silly hats, a store-bought coconut cake (his favorite), and several cheap gifts in gaudy boxes, things like socks and handkerchiefs and stale chocolates. A granddaughter rigs up a boom box and plays Hank Williams (his alleged favorite) in the background. Another mounts a display of enlarged black-and-white photos of young Lyle in the army, young Lyle walking down the aisle (the first time), young Lyle posing this way and that so many decades ago. Most of the residents are present, as are most of the employees, including Rozelle from the kitchen, though I know she's there for the cake and not out of any affection for the birthday boy. At one point Wilma Drell gets too close to Lyle, who, off his saltpeter, makes an awkward and obvious grab for her ample ass. He gets a handful. She yelps in horror, and almost everyone laughs as though it's just part of the celebration, but it's obvious to me that Queen Wilma is not amused. Then Lyle's daughter overreacts badly by squawking at him, slapping his arm, and scolding him, and for a few seconds the mood is tense. Wilma disappears and is not seen for the rest of the day. I doubt if she's had that much fun in years.

After an hour the party loses steam, and several of our friends begin to nod off. The daughter and her brood pack quickly and are soon gone. Hugs and kisses and all that, but it's a long way back to Jackson, Daddy. Lyle's eighty-fifth celebration is soon over. I escort him back to his room, carrying his gifts, talking about Gettysburg.

Just after bedtime, I ease into his room and deliver my gift. A few hours of research, and a few phone calls to the right people, and I learned that there was indeed a Captain Joshua Spurlock who fought in the Tenth Mississippi Infantry Regiment at the Battle of Shiloh. He was from Ripley, Mississippi, a town not far from where Lyle's father was born, according to my fact-checking. I found an outfit in Nashville that specializes in Civil War memorabilia, both real and fake, and paid them $80 for their work. My gift is a matted and framed Certificate of Valor, awarded to Captain Spurlock, and flanked on the right by a Confederate battle flag and on the left by the Tenth Regiment's official insignia. It's not meant to be anything other than what it is - a very handsome and very bogus re-creation of something that never existed in the first place - but for someone as consumed with past glory as Lyle, it is the greatest of all gifts. His eyes water as he holds it. The old man is now ready for heaven, but not so fast.

"This is beautiful," he says. "I don't know what to say. Thank you."

"My pleasure, Mr. Spurlock. He was a brave soldier."

"Yes, he was."

*

Promptly at midnight, I deliver my second gift.

Lyle's roommate is Mr. Hitchcock, a frail and fading gent who's a year older than Lyle but in much worse shape. I'm told he lived a pure life, free from alcohol, tobacco, and other vices, yet there's not much left. Lyle chased women his entire life, caught many of them, and at one time chain-smoked and hit the bottle hard. After years in this work I'm convinced that DNA is at least half the solution, or half the problem.

Anyway, at pill time I juiced Mr. Hitchcock with a stronger sleeping pill, and he's in another world. He won't hear a thing.

Miss Ruby, who I'm sure has been hitting the Jimmy with her usual fealty, follows my instructions perfectly and parks her massive Cadillac next to the Dumpster just outside the back entrance to the kitchen. She crawls out of the driver's side, already giggling, glass in hand. From the passenger's side I get my first glimpse of Mandy, one of Miss Ruby's "better" girls, but it's not the time for introductions. "Shhhh," I whisper, and they follow me through the darkness, into the kitchen, into the dimly lit cafeteria, where we stop for a second.

Miss Ruby says proudly, "Now, Gill, this is Mandy."

We shake hands. "A real pleasure," I say.

Mandy barely offers a smile. Her face says, "Let's just get this over with." She's about forty, a bit plump, heavily made up, but unable to hide the strains of a hard life. The next thirty minutes will cost me $200.

All lights are low at Quiet Haven, and I glance down the south hall to make sure no one is stirring. Then we, Mandy and I, walk quickly to room 18, where Mr. Hitchcock is comatose but Mr. Spurlock is walking the floor, waiting. He looks at her, she looks at him. I offer a quick "Happy Birthday," then close the door and backtrack.

Miss Ruby and I wait in the cafeteria, drinking. She has her toddy. I sip from her flask, and I have to admit that after three months the bourbon is not as bad as it was. "She's a sweetheart," Miss Ruby is saying, thoroughly delighted that she has once again managed to bring people together.

"A nice girl," I say, mindlessly.

"She started working for me when she dropped out of high school. Terrible family. Couple of bad marriages after that. Never had a break. I just wish I could keep her busier. It's so hard these days. Women are so loose they don't charge for it anymore."

Miss Ruby, a career and unrepentant madam, is bemoaning the fact that modern women are too loose. I think about this for a second, then take a sip and let it pass.

"How many girls do you have now?"

"Just three, all part-time. Used to have a dozen, and kept them very busy."

"Those were the days."

"Yes, they were. The best years of my life. You reckon we could find some more business here at Quiet Haven? I know in prison they set aside one day a week for conjugal visits. Ever thought about the same here? I could bring in a couple of girls one night a week, and I'm sure it would be easy work for them."

"That's probably the worst idea I've heard in the past five years."

Sitting in the shadows, I see her red eyes turn and glare at me. "I beg your pardon," she hisses.

"Take a drink. There are fifteen men confined to this place, Miss Ruby, average age of, oh, let's say eighty. Off the cuff, five are bedridden, three are brain-dead, three can't get out of their wheelchairs, and so that leaves maybe four who are ambulatory. Of the four, I'd wager serious money that only Lyle Spurlock is capable of performing at some level. You can't sell sex in a nursing home."

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