Page 47 of Ford County

At times he's sharp with the details - battles, generals, troop movements - and at other times he draws blanks. I keep the conversation on my latest hot topic - the preservation of Civil War battlefields. I rant about the destruction of the sacred grounds, especially in Virginia, where Bull Run and Fredericksburg and Winchester have been decimated by development. This gets him worked up, then he nods off.

On the ground, we look at a few monuments and battlefield markers. He's convinced that his grandfather Joshua Spurlock was wounded in the course of some heroic maneuver during the battle at Brice's Crossroads. We sit on a split-rail fence and eat sandwiches for lunch, and he gazes into the distance in a forlorn trance, as if he's waiting for the sounds of cannon and horses. He talks about his grandfather, who died in either 1932 or 1934, somewhere around the age of ninety. When Lyle was a boy, his grandfather delighted him with stories of killing Yankees and getting shot and fighting with Nathan Bedford Forrest, the greatest of all Southern commanders. "They were at Shiloh together," he said. "My grandfather took me there once."

"Would you like to go again?" I ask.

He breaks into a grin, and it's obvious that he'd love to see the battlefield again. "It'd be a dream," he says, moisture in his eyes.

"I can arrange that."

"I want to go in April, when the battle was fought, so I can see the Peach Orchard and the Bloody Pond and the Hornet's Nest."

"You have my promise. We'll go next April." April was five months away, and given my track record, I doubted if I would still be employed at Quiet Haven. But if not, nothing would prevent me from visiting my friend Lyle and taking him on another road trip.

He sleeps most of the way back to Clanton. Between naps, I explain that I am involved with a national group working to pre-serve Civil War battlefields. The group is strictly private, no help from the government, and thus depends on donations. Since I obviously earn little, I send a small check each year, but my uncle, who's stout, sends large checks at my request.

Lyle is intrigued by this.

"You could always include them in your will," I say.

No reaction. Nothing. I leave it alone.

We return to Quiet Haven, and I walk him to his room. As he's taking off his sweater and his shoes, he thanks me for a "great day." I pat him on the back, tell him how much I enjoyed it too, and as I'm leaving, he says, "Gill, I don't have a will."

I act surprised, but then I'm not. The number of people, especially those in nursing homes, who have never bothered with a will is astounding. I feign a look of shock, then disappointment, then I say, "Let's talk about it later, okay? I know what to do."

"Sure," he says, relieved.

*

At 5:30 the following morning, the halls deserted, the lights still off, everyone asleep or supposed to be, I'm at the front desk reading about General Grant's Southern campaign when I'm startled by the sudden appearance of Ms. Daphne Groat. She's eighty-six, suffers from dementia, and is confined to the Back Wing. How she managed to pass through the locked door is something I'll never know.

"Come quick!" she hisses at me, teeth missing, voice hollow and weak.

"What's the matter?" I ask as I jump up.

"It's Harriet. She's on the floor."

I sprint to the Back Wing, punch in the code, pass through the thick locked door, and race down the hall to room 158, where Ms. Harriet Markle has lived since I went through puberty. I flip on the light to her room, and there she is, on the floor, obviously unconscious, naked except for black socks, lying in a sickening pool of vomit, urine, blood, and her own waste. The stench buckles my knees, and I've survived many jolting odors. Because I've been in this situation before, I react instinctively. I quickly pull out my little camera, take four photos, stick it back into my pocket, and go for help. Ms. Daphne Groat is nowhere to be seen, and no one else is awake on the wing.

There is no attendant on duty. Eight and a half hours earlier, when our shift began, a woman by the name of Rita had checked in at the front desk, where I was at the time, and then headed to the Back Wing. She was on duty, alone, which is against the rules because two attendants are required back there. Rita is now gone. I sprint to the North Wing, grab an attendant named Gary, and together we swing into action. We put on rubber gloves, sanitary masks, and boots and quickly get Ms. Harriet off the floor and back into her bed. She is breathing, but barely, and she has a gash just above her left ear. Gary scrubs her while I mop up the mess. When the situation is somewhat cleaner, I call an ambulance, and then I call Nurse Angel and Queen Wilma. By this time, others have been awakened and we've drawn a crowd.

Rita is nowhere to be seen. Two attendants, Gary and me, for fifty-two residents.

We bandage her wound, put on clean underwear and a gown, and while Gary guards her bed, I dash to the wing desk to check the paperwork. Ms. Harriet has not been fed since noon the day before - almost eighteen hours - and her meds have also been neglected. I quickly photocopy all the notes and entries because you can bet they'll be tampered with in a matter of hours. I fold the copies and stick them into a pocket.

The ambulance arrives, and Ms. Harriet is loaded up and taken away. Nurse Angel and Ms. Drell huddle nervously with each other and begin flipping through the paperwork. I return to the South Wing and lock the evidence in a drawer. I'll take it home in a few hours.

The following day, a man in a suit arrives from some regional office and wants to interview me about what happened. He's not a lawyer, those will show up later, and he's not particularly bright. He begins by explaining to Gary and me exactly what he thinks we saw and did during the crisis, and we let him ramble. He goes on to assure us that Ms. Harriet was properly fed and medicated - it's all right there in the notes - and that Rita had simply gone outside for a smoke and fell ill, which required her to dash home for a moment before returning, only to find the "unfortunate" situation relative to Ms. Harriet.

I play dumb, my speciality. Gary does too; it's more natural for him, but he's also worried about his job. I am not. The idiot finally leaves, and does so with the impression that he has eased into our little redneck town and skillfully put out yet another fire for good old HVQH Group.

Ms. Harriet spends a week in the hospital with a cracked skull. She lost a lot of blood, and there's probably some more brain damage, though how the hell can you measure it? Regardless, it's a beautiful lawsuit, in the hands of the right person.

Because of the popularity of these lawsuits, and the sheer number of vultures circling nursing homes, I have learned that one must move with haste. My lawyer is an old friend named Dexter Ridley, from Tupelo, a man I turn to on occasion. Dex is about fifty, with a couple of wives and lives under his belt, and he made the decision a few years ago that he could not survive in the business by drawing up deeds and filing no-fault divorces. Dex stepped up a notch and became a litigator, though he seldom actually goes to trial. His real talent is filing big lawsuits, then huffing and puffing until the other side settles. He's got billboards with his smiling face on them scattered around north Mississippi.

I drive to Tupelo on a day off, show him the color photos of Ms. Harriet naked and bleeding, show him the copies of the attendants1 notes, both before the tampering and after, and we strike a deal. Dex kicks into high gear, contacts the family of Harriet Markle, and within a week of the incident notifies HVQH that they have a real problem. He won't mention me and my photos and my purloined records until he has to. With such inside information, the case will likely be settled quickly, and I'll be unemployed once again.

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