Ford County: Stories
“Grisham shows off his literary chops:
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“The best writing John Grisham has ever done.”
By the time the news of Bailey’s accident spread through the rural settlement of Box Hill, there were several versions of how it happened. Someone from the construction company called his mother and reported that he had been injured when some scaffoldingcollapsed at a building site in downtown Memphis, that he was undergoing surgery, was stable, and was expected to survive. His mother, an invalid who weighed over four hundred pounds and was known to be excitable, missed some of the facts as she began to screamand carry on. She called friends and neighbors, and with each replaying of the tragic news various details were altered and enlarged. She neglected to write down the phone number of the person from the company, so there was no one to call to verify or discountthe rumors that were multiplying by the minute.
One of Bailey’s co-workers, another boy from Ford County, called his girlfriend in Box Hill and gave an account that varied somewhat: Bailey had been run over by a bulldozer, which was next to the scaffolding, and he was practically dead. The surgeonswere working on him, but things were grim.
Then an administrator from a hospital in Memphis called Bailey’s home, asked to speak to his mother, and was told that she was laid up in bed, too upset to talk, and unable to come to the phone. The neighbor who answered the phone pumped the administratorfor details, but didn’t get much. Something collapsed at a construction site, maybe a ditch in which the young man was working, or some such variation. Yes, he was in surgery, and the hospital needed basic information.
Bailey’s mother’s small brick home quickly became a busy place. Visitors had begun arriving by late afternoon: friends, relatives, and several pastors from the tiny churches scattered around Box Hill. The women gathered in the kitchen and den and gossipednonstop while the phone rang constantly. The men huddled outside and smoked cigarettes. Casseroles and cakes began to appear.
With little to do, and with scant information about Bailey’s injuries, the visitors seized upon every tiny fact, analyzed it, dissected it, then passed it along to the women inside, or to the men outside. A leg was mangled and would probably be amputated.There was a severe brain injury. Bailey fell four floors with the scaffolding, or maybe it was eight. His chest was crushed. A few of the facts and theories were simply created on the spot. There were even a few somber inquiries about funeral arrangements.
Bailey was nineteen years old and in his short life had never had so many friends and admirers. The entire community loved him more and more as the hours passed. He was a good boy, raised right, a much better person than his sorry father, a man no onehad seen in years.
Bailey’s ex-girlfriend showed up and was soon the center of attention. She was distraught and overwhelmed and cried easily, especially when talking about her beloved Bailey. However, when word filtered back to the bedroom and his mother heard the littleslut was in the house, she ordered her out. The little slut then hung around with the men outside, flirting and smoking. She finally left, vowing to drive to Memphis right then and see her Bailey.
A neighbor’s cousin lived in Memphis, and this cousin reluctantly agreed to go to the hospital and monitor things. His first call brought the news that the young man was indeed undergoing surgery for multiple injuries, but he appeared to be stable. He’dlost a lot of blood. In the second call, the cousin straightened out a few of the facts. He’d talked to the job foreman, and Bailey had been injured when a bulldozer struck the scaffolding, collapsing it and sending the poor boy crashing down fifteen feet intoa pit of some sort. They were putting the brick on a six-story office building in Memphis, and Bailey was working as a mason’s helper. The hospital would not allow visitors for at least twenty-four hours, but blood donations were needed.
A mason’s helper? His mother had bragged that Bailey had been promoted rapidly through the company and was now an assistant job foreman. However, in the spirit of the moment, no one questioned her about this discrepancy.
After dark, a man in a suit appeared and explained that he was an investigator of some sort. He was passed along to an uncle, Bailey’s mother’s youngest brother, and in a private conversation in the backyard he handed over a business card for a lawyerin Clanton. “Best lawyer in the county,” he said. “And we’re already working on the case.”
The uncle was impressed and promised to shun other lawyers–“just a bunch of ambulance chasers”–and to curse any insurance adjuster who came slithering onto the scene.
Eventually, there was talk of a trip to Memphis. Though it was only two hours away by car, it may as well have been five. In Box Hill, going to the big city meant driving an hour to Tupelo, population fifty thousand. Memphis was in another state, anotherworld, and, besides, crime was rampant. The murder rate was right up there with Detroit. They watched the carnage every night on Channel 5.
Bailey’s mother was growing more incapacitated by the moment and was clearly unable to travel, let alone give blood. His sister lived in Clanton, but she could not leave her children. Tomorrow was Friday, a workday, and there was a general belief thatsuch a trip to Memphis and back, plus the blood thing, would take many hours and, well, who knew when the donors might get back to Ford County.
Another call from Memphis brought the news that the boy was out of surgery, clinging to life, and still in desperate need of blood. By the time this reached the group of men loitering out in the driveway, it sounded as though poor Bailey might die anyminute unless his loved ones hustled to the hospital and opened their veins.
A hero quickly emerged. His name was Wayne Agnor, an alleged close friend of Bailey’s who since birth had been known as Aggie. He ran a body shop with his father, and thus had hours flexible enough for a quick trip to Memphis. He also had his own pickup,a late-model Dodge, and he claimed to know Memphis like the back of his hand.
”I can leave right now,” Aggie said proudly to the group, and word spread through the house that a trip was materializing. One of the women calmed things down when she explained that several volunteers were needed since the hospital would extract onlyone pint from each donor. “You can’t give a gallon,” she explained. Very few had actually given blood, and the thought of needles and tubes frightened many. The house and front yard became very quiet. Concerned neighbors who had been so close to Bailey justmoments earlier began looking for distance.
”I’ll go too,” another young man finally said, and he was immediately congratulated. His name was Calvin Marr, and his hours were also flexible but for different reasons–Calvin had been laid off from the shoe factory in Clanton and was drawing unemployment.He was terrified of needles but intrigued by the romance of seeing Memphis for the first time. He would be honored to be a donor.
The idea of a fellow traveler emboldened Aggie, and he laid down the challenge. “Anybody else?”
There was mumbling in general while most of the men studied their boots.
”We’ll take my truck and I’ll pay for the gas,” Aggie continued.
”When are we leavin’?” Calvin asked.
”Right now,” said Aggie. “It’s an emergency.”
”That’s right,” someone added.
”I’ll send Roger,” an older gentleman offered, and this was met with silent skepticism. Roger, who wasn’t present, had no job to worry about because he couldn’t keep one. He had dropped out of high school and had a colorful history with alcohol and drugs.Needles certainly wouldn’t intimidate him.
Though the men in general had little knowledge of transfusions, the very idea of a victim injured so gravely as to need blood from Roger was hard to imagine. “You tryin’ to kill Bailey?” one of them mumbled.
”Roger’ll do it,” his father said with pride.
The great question was, Is he sober? Roger’s battles with his demons were widely known and discussed in Box Hill. Most folks generally knew when he was off the hooch, or on it.
”He’s in good shape these days,” his father went on, though with a noticeable lack of conviction. But the urgency of the moment overcame all doubt, and Aggie finally said, “Where is he?”
Of course he was home. Roger never left home. Where would he go?
Within minutes, the ladies had put together a large box of sandwiches and other food. Aggie and Calvin were hugged and congratulated and fussed over as if they were marching off to defend the country. When they sped away, off to save Bailey’s life, everyonewas in the driveway, waving farewell to the brave young men.
Roger was waiting by the mailbox, and when the pickup came to a stop, he leaned through the passenger’s window and said, “We gonna spend the night?”
”Ain’t plannin’ on it,” Aggie said.
After a discussion, it was finally agreed that Roger, who was of a slender build, would sit in the middle between Aggie and Calvin, who were much larger and thicker. They placed the box of food in his lap, and before they were a mile outside of Box Hill,Roger was unwrapping a turkey sandwich. At twenty-seven, he was the oldest of the three, but the years had not been kind. He’d been through two divorces and numerous unsuccessful efforts to rid him of his addictions. He was wiry and hyper, and as soon as hefinished the first sandwich, he unwrapped the second. Aggie, at 250 pounds, and Calvin, at 270, both declined. They had been eating casseroles for the past two hours at Bailey’s mother’s.
The first conversation was about Bailey, a man Roger hardly knew, but both Aggie and Calvin had attended school with him. Since all three men were single, the chatter soon drifted away from their fallen neighbor and found its way to the subject of sex.Aggie had a girlfriend and claimed to be enjoying the full benefits of a good romance. Roger had slept with everything and was always on the prowl. Calvin, the shy one, was still a virgin at twenty-one, though he would never admit this. He lied about a coupleof conquests, without much detail, and this kept him in the game. All three were exaggerating and all three knew it.
When they crossed into Polk County, Roger said, “Pull in up there at the Blue Dot. I need to take a leak.” Aggie stopped at the pumps in front of a country store, and Roger ran inside.
”You reckon he’s drinkin’?” Calvin asked as they waited.
”His daddy said he’s not.”
”His daddy lies, too.”
Sure enough, Roger emerged minutes later with a six-pack of beer.
”Oh boy,” Aggie said.
When they were situated again, the truck left the gravel lot and sped away.
Roger pulled off a can and offered it to Aggie, who declined. “No, thanks, I’m drivin’.”
”You can’t drink and drive?”
”How ’bout you?” he said, offering the can to Calvin.
”You boys in rehab or something?” Roger asked as he popped the top, then gulped down half the can.
”I thought you’d quit,” Aggie said.
”I did. I quit all the time. Quittin’s easy.”
Calvin was now holding the box of food and out of boredom began munching on a large oatmeal cookie. Roger drained the first can, then handed it to Calvin and said, “Toss it, would you?”
Calvin lowered the window and flung the empty can back into the bed of the pickup. By the time he raised the window, Roger was popping the top of another. Aggie and Calvin exchanged nervous glances.
”Can you give blood if you’ve been drinkin’?” Aggie asked.
”Of course you can,” Roger said. “I’ve done it many times. You boys ever give blood?”
Aggie and Calvin reluctantly admitted that they had never done so, and this inspired Roger to describe the procedure. “They make you lay down because most people pass out. The damned needle is so big that a lot of folks faint when they see it. They tiea thick rubber cord around your bicep, then the nurse’ll poke around your upper forearm looking for a big, fat blood vein. It’s best to look the other way. Nine times out of ten, she’ll jab the needle in and miss the vein–hurts like hell–then she’ll apologizewhile you cuss her under your breath. If you’re lucky, she’ll hit the vein the second time, and when she does, the blood spurts out through a tube that runs to a little bag. Everything’s clear, so you can see your own blood. It’s amazing how dark it is, sortof a dark maroon color. It takes forever for a pint to flow out, and the whole time she’s holdin’ the needle in your vein.” He chugged the beer, satisfied with his terrifying account of what awaited them. They rode in silence for several miles.
When the second can was empty, Calvin tossed it back, and Roger popped the third top. “Beer actually helps,” Roger said as he smacked his lips. “It thins the blood and makes the whole thing go faster.”
It was becoming apparent that he planned to demolish the entire six-pack as quickly as possible. Aggie was thinking that it might be wise to dilute some of the alcohol. He’d heard stories of Roger’s horrific binges.
”I’ll take one of those,” he said, and Roger quickly handed him a beer.
”Me too, I guess,” Calvin said.
”Now we’re talkin’,” Roger said. “I never like to drink alone. That’s the first sign of a true drunk.”
Aggie and Calvin drank responsibly while Roger continued to gulp away. When the first six-pack was gone, he announced, with perfect timing, “I need to take a leak. Pull over up there at Cully’s Barbecue.” They were on the edge of the small town of NewGrove, and Aggie was beginning to wonder how long the trip might take. Roger disappeared behind the store and relieved himself, then ducked inside and bought two more six-packs. When New Grove was behind them, they popped the tops and sped along a dark, narrow highway.