What do you do with an old madam when she’s peddled her last pound of flesh?
They never had any ambivalence about it in the old days. If she’d saved her money, they propped her up in a gondola bed piled high with satin pillows, parked her opium pipe among the crystal atomizers and pots of face cream and scent, and when the time came they carried her downstairs in a white coffin and buried her in a Protestant cemetery, Presbyterians and Methodists being notorious for their democracy. If her circumstances were straitened, the sisters of charity drifted to and fro past her bed in a ward smelling of quicklime and carbolic, put a damp cloth on her forehead when she moaned, and at the end gave the gravedigger’s boy a coin to dump her in Potter’s field.
That was in the old days. The new belonged to the self-employed, and whorehouse matrons had no more place than gondola beds or nuns in stiff linen. Why spring for a parlor and a bouncer when streetcorner space is free? Beryl Garnet was the last of her kind, and her reward for outliving all her contemporaries was the Grenloch Assisted Living Village in Farmington, an eighth of a tank of gas north of the house she’d run on John R in Detroit for nearly forty years.
The facility sprawled over six acres of greensward, with a retention pool-the Grenloch that had given the place its name—in front, where overfed ducks and geese paddled their feet and littered the surrounding walk with their waste. The building’s facade had been made to resemble a Scottish hamlet, steep-roofed, half-timbered, and girded round with decorative ironwork for fat lairds to lean on and direct the monthly whipping of the serfs. The Dutch doors were plastered to solid brick. In order to get inside, I had to park in a half-empty visitors’ lot and tug open a faux chapel door with a steel core.
The foyer was large, with shining black-and-white checkered ceramic tile and a white baby grand piano waiting for some old fish to sweep aside his tails and plunk himself down on the padded bench and trundle out Chopin’s Sonata No. 3 in B Minor. Meanwhile the residents had to make do with the Dixie Chicks. The P.A. was cranked up to hearing-aid level.
I found Beryl’s room number on a wall directory, black with white plastic lettering that snapped in and out, suitable for discreet editing when rooms turned over. It beat erasing names from a blackboard.
A maintenance worker installing a wall rail directed me to the nursing wing, where residents who needed a little more than just assistance were sequestered. This was separated from the rest of the facility by a fire door with a gridded window set into it. There the carpeting and potpourri ended and the linoleum and disinfectant began.
“Who you here for?”
I looked down at the man seated in a vinyl-upholstered armchair in the corridor. I’d have had to walk around him to ignore him. He was thin and bald, with long arms and legs in an electric-blue jogging suit zipped to his wattles. His withered-apple face was bright-eyed and he appeared to have most of his teeth, unless he’d had them made crooked on purpose. I told him who I was there for.
He shook his head. “Don’t know her. I ran the Detroit Edison office downtown for twenty-seven years. Took a hundred thousand in a lump sum to retire. That was in nineteen seventy. If I knew I’d live this long I’d have taken the pension. You make your choices in this life and you stick with them. As if you could do anything else.”
“I guess that’s true.”
“Don’t just yes me because I said it. You don’t know me. I might be a liar.”
“You might be, at that.”
“Well, I’m not. Back in seventy, a hundred thousand was so big you couldn’t see around it. I’ve seen around it now, and there’s nothing in back. What do you do?”
“I came to tune the piano.”
“Horseshit. You look like a cop to me.”
“It’s the gum soles.”
“Who’d you say you’re here for?”
He looked at the wall across the corridor. It was finished in corkboard, with childrens’s; pictures drawn in bright crayon thumbtacked all over it. He mouthed the name a couple of times. Then he shook his head again. “Don’t know her. You make your choices in this life and you stick with them.”
“As if you could do anything else.”
He squinted up at me as if he’d just realized I was there. Then he pointed a finger at my chest. “You’re pretty smart for your age. You take the pension when they offer it.”
I said I would and left him. I turned a corner and stopped at a nurses’ station. A plump, sweet-faced redhead in her twenties smiled when I told her who I was visiting. She wore a floral smock and had a blood-pressure indicator draped around her neck. Another nurse twice her age sat on a low turning stool speaking in murmurs on the telephone to someone she called Mortie. Lines 1 and 3 kept on flashing all the time I was standing there, and an oval glass fixture mounted above one of the doors in the hall glowed on and off with a querulous buzz. It didn’t have anything to do with me.
“She’ll be happy to see you,” said the redhead. “She doesn’t get many people.”
“I think a gentleman around the corner may be in the same boat.”
“You must mean Wendell. He stakes out that spot every day about this time. Did he tell you he used to run the Edison office in Detroit?”
“He advised me to take a pension.”
“He tells everyone that.”
“I don’t get a pension,” I said. “No one’s ever offered me a hundred thousand, either.”
“You should tell him. It might make him feel better.”
I was tired of talking about Wendell. I’d expected the visit to depress me, but not before I’d made it. “How is Beryl?”
Her smile turned noncommital. “Are you a friend or a relative?”
“She’s in good spirits. She tells the most outrageous lies about her past.”
“Any of them involve the old mayor?”
She looked down suddenly at a chart on the desk. I felt a little better then. It isn’t every day you make a trained health-care professional blush.
Copyright © 2004 by Loren D. Estleman