“Go’n get me the hair clippers out from under the sink, Gracie. I’mma cut this boy’s hair ‘fo he leaves.”
It was a tried and true reference for any Southerner over the age of 60 when they encountered a male family member whose locks fell within an inch of their shoulder blades. Retention of masculinity was a trope that Russell Martin carried with him like a war medal, but his grandson knew better than to take offense to it: it was just the preferred way of greeting him. Nothing said “I love you and am proud of the man you’ve become” like accusing your kinfolk of being a hippie.
“You ain’t gonna do nothin’, ol’man.”
This was not the venue that the Watson Mill Kid had preferred to pay a long overdue visit to his beloved Pawpaw. The most treasured times typically involved sitting along a body of water further into the outskirts of Crawford, Georgia. At present, they were just on the edge of the booming metropolis. As expected, Russell Martin had failed to take any of the doctor’s advice following his recent visit to the hospital, resulting in a second trip due to a blocked artery. While the stroke was successfully treated, his physician was insistent upon him being discharged to a rehab facility before he would authorize a return home.
Of course, Pawpaw’s response to the suggestion was laced with several four-letter words and one-finger hand gestures. They had finally struck a compromise: the social worker would pull a few strings and get him a bed that was at least a little closer to home.
However, the Echo Center was a little more high-end than your average nursing care facility. It was one of the few in the area that did not accept Medicaid, which was the only form of coverage that Russell had. They would gladly accept a check or credit card if you had the means, though: a steal at only $2,000 a week.
This was a situation that further exemplified the character Zeb’s stepfather. Without any hesitation, he coordinated with the facility and made sure that the arrangements were made so that Pawpaw could take up residence that very day. While the stubborn old mule continued to put up a fight and threaten to walk the 30 miles back from St. Mary’s General Hospital to his doublewide residence, his bluff was called by his very own daughter. Offering to hold the door open for him so that he could start his hike home, Pawpaw caved and reluctantly agreed to stay “a day or two.”
A week later, the sight of his only grandson was an unexpected but welcome surprise. A petite orderly was just wrapping up with his vital checks for the afternoon. Before he’d finally laid eyes on Pawpaw, Zeb had taken in the surroundings of the nursing home. Like most individuals, the lingering smell of soured wheat triggered an unpleasant reaction as he paced past the lobby in search of his room. The neutral grays and dull-tint browns that lined the walls and ceilings were such a compliment to the odor that it felt like the paint was the one emitting the smell. As he walked down the hall, casual conversation amongst a group of nurses was drowned out by the sound of a repetitive four-second moan. Zeb could tell that although the voice was loud and powerful, it must have been coming from someone in their most fragile state of life.
This cadence of frailty must have been going on for quite some time, as no one around seemed bothered by it. Martin pretended not to hear it too, politely tipping his brim toward the staff as he slid by.
The fact that this place was referred to as a rehabilitation facility was irony lost on the average mind of Zeb. Much like a prison, the Echo Center did not have the resources necessary to prepare their inhabitants to become productive members of society. It was considered a successful discharge if the patients made it out of there in something besides a hearse. Sentiments in greeting cards that read “get well soon” may as well have been attached to a gravesite bouquet.
Feelings of weakness and crippling anxiety overtook his mental state only moments after stepping foot into the place. Is this the place where he’d ultimately end up years from now, too? Forging a family tradition of being filled to capacity with hopes and dreams only to spend his last days crying out to an audience that would just simply ignore it?
After his last defeat, Zeb had retreated to the banks of the ocean to clear his mind in preparation for a future success that would not come. Visiting his grandfather in a level of Hell that insurance wouldn’t cover wasn’t exactly a matching equivalent to the trip from two weeks ago. The kid hadn’t so much as seen a photo of Pawpaw since Christmas. He feared that he would have the same look as his Mawmaw did just before she passed away when he was younger, as if her body had given up appearances both on the inside and out. Or that he’d walk into the room and find Russell Martin caught off guard, all misty-eyed and proclaiming that he “didn’t have much time left.”
It wasn’t the smells or the sights of the place that made him feel small and alone. It was the images that he’d conjured up in his own mind.
Zeb braced himself before entering through the threshold of the open door.
“Well well well. Somebody musta dun called Make-uh-Wish fer me: I’m gettin’ a visit from a big time ‘rassler!”
The Watson Mill Kid exhaled a sigh of relief. There he was. Still as spry as ever, only dressed in a hospital gown as opposed to his usual white T-shirt and Wranglers.
“I thought I told ‘em tuh send that Dean feller, though.”