"These are the more difficult ones," she says softly. "A few Alzheimer's, a few crazies. Really sad." There are ten rooms, with one patient each. I am introduced to all ten without incident. I follow her to the kitchen, the tiny pharmacy, the cafeteria where they eat and socialize. All in all, Quiet Haven is a typical nursing home, fairly clean and efficient. The patients appear to be as happy as you could expect.
I'll check the court dockets later to see if the place has ever been sued for abuse or neglect. I'll check with the agency in Jackson to see if complaints have been filed, citations issued. I have a lot of checking to do, my usual research.
Back at the front desk, Nurse Nancy is explaining visitation routines •when I'm startled by the sound of a horn of some variety.
"Watch out," she says and takes a step closer to the desk. From the North Wing a wheelchair approaches at an impressive speed. In it is an old man, still in his pajamas, one hand waving us out of his way, the other squeezing the bladder of a bike horn mounted just above the right wheel. He is propelled by a crazed man who looks no older than sixty, with a large belly hanging out from under his T-shirt, dirty white socks, and no shoes.
"Quiet, Walter!" Nurse Nancy barks as they fly by, oblivious to us. They speed off into the South Wing, and I watch as other patients scurry to their rooms for safety.
"Walter loves his wheelchair," she says.
"Who's the pusher?"
"Donny Ray. They must do ten miles a day up and down the halls. Last week they hit Pearl Dunavant and near 'bout broke her leg. Walter said he forgot to honk his horn. We're still dealing with her family. It's a mess, but Pearl is thoroughly enjoying the attention."
I hear the honk again, then watch as they wheel around at the far end of the South Wing and head back to us. They roar by. Walter is eighty-five, give or take a year (with my experience I can usually get within three years of their age - Miss Ruby notwithstanding), and he's having far too much fun. His head is low, his eyes are squinted as if he were going a hundred miles an hour. Donny Ray is just as wild-eyed, with sweat dripping from his eyebrows and gathering under his arms. Neither acknowledges us as they go by.
"Can't you control them?" I ask.
"We tried, but Walter's grandson is a lawyer and he raised a ruckus. Threatened to sue us. Donny Ray flipped him over one time, no real injuries, but we think maybe a slight concussion. We certainly didn't tell the family. If there was more brain damage, it wasn't noticeable."
We finish orientation precisely at 5:00 p.m., quitting time for Nurse Nancy. My shift begins in four hours, and I have no place to go. My apartment is off-limits because Miss Ruby has already fallen into the habit of watching out for me, and when I'm caught, I'm expected to have a little touch of Jimmy on the front porch. Regardless of the hour of the day, she's always ready for a drink. I really don't like bourbon.
So I hang around. I put on my white attendant's jacket and speak to people. I say hello to Ms. Wilma Drell, who's very busy running the place. I stroll down to the kitchen and introduce myself to the two black ladies who prepare the wretched food. The kitchen is not as clean as I -would like, and I begin making mental notes. At 6:00 p.m., the diners begin their protracted arrivals. Some can walk with no assistance whatsoever, and these proud and lucky souls go to great lengths to make sure the rest of the seniors are reminded that they are much healthier. They arrive early, greet their friends, help arrange seating for those in wheelchairs, flit from table to table as quickly as possible. Some of those with canes and walking carts actually park them at the door of the cafeteria so their colleagues won't see them. The attendants help these to their tables. I join in, offering assistance and introducing myself along the way.
Quiet Haven currently has fifty-two residents. I count thirty-eight present for dinner, then Brother Don stands to say the blessing. All is suddenly quiet. He's a retired preacher, I'm told, and insists on delivering grace before every meal. He's about ninety, but his voice is still clear and remarkably strong. He goes on for a long time, and before he's finished, a few of the others begin rattling their knives and forks. The food is served on hard plastic trays, the kind we used in elementary school. Tonight they're having baked chicken breasts - no bones - with green beans, instant mashed potatoes, and, of course, Jell-O. Tonight it's red. Tomorrow it'll be yellow or green. It's in every nursing home. I don't know why. It's as if we spend our entire lives avoiding Jell-CD but it is always there at the end, waiting. Brother Don finally fades and sits, and the feast begins.
For those too frail for the dining room, and for the unpredictable ones on the Back Wing, the food is rolled out on trays. I volunteer for this service. A couple of patients are not long for this world.
Tonight's after-dinner entertainment is provided by a den of Cub Scouts who arrive promptly at 7:00 and hand out brown bags they've decorated and filled with cookies and brownies and such. They then gather near the piano and sing "God Bless America" and a couple of campfire songs. Eight-year-old boys do not sing voluntarily, and the tunes are carried by their den mothers. At 7:30 the show is over, and the residents begin drifting back to their rooms. I push one in a wheelchair, then help with the cleanup. The hours drag by. I have been assigned to the South Wing - eleven rooms with two each, one room with a single occupant.
Pill time is 9:00 p.m., and it's one of the highlights of the day, at least for the residents. Most of us poked fun at our grandparents for their keen interest in their ailments, treatments, prognoses, and medications, and for their readiness to describe all of this to anyone who would listen. This strange desire to dwell on the details only increases with age, and is often the source of much behind-the-back humor that the old folks can't hear anyway. It's worse in a nursing home because the patients have been put away by their families and they've lost their audience. Therefore, they seize every opportunity to carry on about their afflictions whenever a staff member is within earshot. And when a staff member arrives with a tray of pills, their excitement is palpable. A few feign distrust, and reluctance, and fear, but they, too, soon swallow the meds and wash them down with "water. Everyone gets the same little sleeping pill, one that I've taken on occasion and never felt a thing. And, everyone gets a few other pills because no one would be satisfied with just a single dose. Most of the drugs are legitimate, but many placebos are consumed during this nightly ritual.
After the pills, the place gets quieter as they settle into bed for the night. Lights are off at 10:00 p.m. As expected, I have the South Wing all to myself. There's one attendant for the North Wing and two on the Back Wing with the "sad ones." Well past midnight, when everyone is asleep, including the other attendants, and when I'm alone, I begin to snoop around the front desk, looking at records, logs, files, keys, anything I can find. Security in these places is always a joke. The computer system is predictably common, and I'll hack my way into it before long. I'm never on duty without a small camera in my pocket, one I use to document such things as dirty bathrooms, unlocked pharmacies, soiled and unwashed linens, doctored logbooks, expired food products, neglected patients, and so on. The list is long and sad, and I'm always on the prowl.
The Ford County Courthouse sits in the middle of a lovely and well-kept lawn, in the center of the Clanton square. Around it are fountains, ancient oaks, park benches, war memorials, and two gazebos. Standing near one of them, I can almost hear the parade on the Fourth of July and the stump speeches during an election. A lonely Confederate soldier in bronze stands atop a granite statue, gazing north, looking for the enemy, holding his rifle, re' minding us of a glorious and lost cause.