Categories > Original > Drama0 Reviews
This is less a story than a word picture of a time and place.
The place did not look much different from the others tucked into the recesses of the mountains which stretched like stage flats against the horizon. It was just a big frame house with the usual outbuildings like all the other settlings in the area. Just the same until you spotted the faded, splintered sign at the gate.
Wexard County Gaol and Old Peoples Home
That was what it read if you squinted hard enough and had a good imagination. The odd spelling of 'jail' had never been explained and, since everyone had gotten used to it, was never questioned any more. And the missing apostrophe had never been really noticed in the first place. This was the South after all and things were often a little off kilter here.
So the big house with the peeling paint was simply one among several of the type sitting in the middle of plowed fields and the occasional orchard. The fact that it was the county jail seemed like a shameful secret not to be betrayed by fences topped with barbed wire or walls made out of solid stone or bars on the windows. Wait! There were bars on the upstairs windows and a patient watcher could sometimes catch a blurred image of a face between hands clutching the bars. But not often.
The establishment was run and served by Uncle Ed and Aunt Leila. That was what everybody around those parts called them. He was the red-faced, big-bellied, white-haired sheriff of the country; she was his near-midget wife, a dry little creature who scuttled around the place like a pale crab at low tide. Uncle Ed had been sheriff for years because nobody else wanted the job and he did it well enough. It was not as if there was much crime in Wexard County. On weekends, the more public of the drunks got put in the pokey to get them out of the way and sometimes a man who did not keep his fights far enough back in the woods would find himself occupying one of the barred rooms upstairs and waited on by Aunt Leila.
The most spectacular event which had ever happened in the country - that is involving the jail - was the time a black man was dragged out of one of the cells and deep into to the backwoods and lynched. That alone would not have been enough to make a stir had not one of the big city newspapers identified Uncle Ed as a black man himself. Now, since Uncle Ed was a member of the Klan in his spare time, he naturallly sued that paper and collected enough to treat all his kin and their friends to a real party. Then things died down again.
Aunt Leila was the real workhorse around the place. She did all the cooking and the washing and the house-keeping while Uncle Ed oiled his pistols and shotguns and polished his star badge. Sometimes if things got too much for her to handle and there were no prisoners to hand, Uncle Ed would send off to the state pen and borrow a few trusties to help out until everything was back in control again. The trusties were always glad to get back to the penitentiary because Aunt Leila was a lady who knew how to get the most work out of a man - except for Uncle Ed of course.
The house itself was a huge rambling affair with high ceilings and square rooms, but no indoor plumbing. The kitchen was big enough for a school, it had to be for Aunt Leila to be able to do all the cooking she did. In the center of the ground floor just opposite the front door was a flight of stairs, the risers hollowed out by the generations of feet which had climbed them. Upstairs was the jail or 'gaol', if you prefer. Ranged around the stair well were five rooms, each with a door made of metal bars. Inside the rooms were identical furnishings: a cot with a flat spring frame holding a thin mattress, a table, a chair and a chamber pot, modestly covered with a ruffled cotton skirt like a tea cozy. A plain mirror was hung on the wall and the word was if you broke yours you would not get another. The windows were uncurtained and looked out from between the bars on some of earth's most beautiful scenery - the Blue Ridge Mountains. One curious thing is that only three of the cells could be locked, Uncle Ed having long since lost the keys to the other two. It was a homey place.
The back door led to the swept yard - another of Aunt Leila's self-imposed tasks. The well was there, under a ramshackle roof with a windlass and bucket. Also there, but further from the house were a row of privies, four of them like a set of matching planting sheds. To the other side was a smoke house and the kitchen garden where herbs and vegetables were grown easy to hand. Uncle Ed was even known to stoop to pull a few peanuts or tomatoes from time to time and to lend a hand in the autumn when the potatoes and onions were ready.
A winding path led from the back door to the other substantial building on the land. Behind a chicken wire fence was the Old People's Home or the Pore House as it was better known. It was a long building only one story high. (Old folks cannot climb stairs with any comfort.) The tin roof was shaded, thankfully, by a line of pecan trees which, unthankfully, dropped their fruit with a steady clank-clank during that time of the year. At least it was not baking hot and everyone knows poor people take what they are offered. The front of the house boasted a porch along its entire length. Some of the generous people in the area brought their old yard furniture and put it on the porch so that the old poor people would have something to hold up their arthritic bones. And the poor old people were properly grateful. The rich people did not have to pass their cast-offs along. They could have used them for kindling in their own fire-places.
When old people had no where else to go and no family would take them in, they applied to the Pore House. Since there were only six spaces, you had to be lucky to get in. The rooms were somewhat smaller than the cells on the top floor of the main house but when people get older, they shrink so that worked out just like God planned. What happened to those old, poor people who did not get into the county Home? Who knows? They probably went somewhere else, maybe.
Now, being in the Pore House or in jail was not all bad in Wexard County. Aunt Leila was the best cook in the upstate area. In her huge kitchen with its enormous oven and wide cabinets she put together trays of cornbread rich enough to make an angel weep and the fried chicken made in the frying pans on her wood stove top was crisp and sweet as manna from heaven. She made turnip greens with turnips chopped up in them and green beans cooked with fat back until they glittered with grease. Corn was lovingly scraped from the cob and cooked into a luscious mush while pickled beets, chow-chow and picadilli added just the right note of sourness. And the bisquits! They had to be weighted down with fresh-churned butter and home-made jelly. Breakfasts were even better. Aunt Leily knew how to make grits with and without cheese and eggs every way they could be made. She sliced shoe-sole slabs off her own home-cured hams and thick-cut her own bacon and sausages. Fried potatos added to the feast and if that would not hold you until dinner, you were hopeless. She could also make griddle-cakes to murder for.
It was sometimes said that prisoners had to chased out of the jail because they lived better there than they did on their own what with Aunt Leila to feed them and do their washing. And as for the old poor people, well, never let it be said that they passed on due to starvation. Gluttony might have been the ticket to the Hereafter for some of them. But they smiled as they died with full bellies.
If truth be told, the Wexard County Gaol and Old Peoples Home was not that far distant from the communes of a later time. The outcasts of the community came there and were cared for until something else came along for them. They did what they could to help out - even Uncle Ed. Each served to the best of his ability. If there was no music around the place, it was because Aunt Leila believed any worldly music was evil and Uncle Ed was too stubborn and mean to sing church music. The lack of nudity and children, both common in the later incarnation of this life, can be explained by the age of the inhabitants. They did the best they could.
Alas, the Wexard County Gaol and Old Peoples Home is no more. In its place is another of a series of souless gated communities where the houses are all the same under the skin. There are no porches and no more pecan trees, no deep sweet-water wells and no uncurtained windows. No one ever looks out at one of the most beautiful views on earth. The outhouses have been paved over.