فصل 03

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CHAPTER 3

Avery Stafford

AIKEN, SOUTH CAROLINA, PRESENT DAY

“Avery! We need you down here!”

Nothing takes you from thirty years old to thirteen faster than your mother’s voice rebounding up the stairs like a tennis ball after a forehand slice. “Coming! I’ll be right there.”

Elliot chuckles on the other end of the phone. The sound is both familiar and comforting. It calls up a memory trail that stretches all the way back to childhood. Between Elliot’s mother and mine giving us the hawkeye, we never had a prayer of stepping out of line, much less getting away with the sorts of miscreant deeds other teenagers were guilty of. We were more or less doomed to be good. Together. “Sounds like you’re on, sweetheart.”

“The family Christmas picture.” Leaning toward the mirror, I brush blond corkscrews away from my face only to have them fall again. My quick walk down to the stable after returning from the nursing home event has brought out the Grandma Judy curls. I knew it would, but a broodmare foaled last night, and a new baby is more than I can resist. Now I’m paying the price. No hair straightener known to man is a match for the water-laden breeze off the Edisto River.

“Christmas pictures in July?” Elliot coughs, and I’m reminded of how much I miss him. This business of living so far apart is hard, and we’re just two months into it.

“She’s worried about the chemo. They told her that Daddy wouldn’t lose his hair with this kind, but she’s afraid he will.” There’s really no doctor on the planet who can comfort my mother about Daddy’s colon cancer diagnosis. Mama has always been in charge of the world, and she’s determined not to abdicate now. If she says Daddy’s hair will thin, it probably will.

“Sounds like your mother.” Elliot laughs again. He should know. His mother, Bitsy, and mine are cut from two corners of the same cloth.

“She’s just scared to death of losing Daddy.” I choke a little on the last word. These past few months have rubbed us raw from the inside out, left each of us silently bleeding beneath our skins.

“Of course she is.” Elliot pauses for what seems like an eternity. I hear computer keys clicking. I remind myself that he has a fledgling brokerage firm to run and its success means everything to him. He doesn’t need his fiancée calling in the middle of a workday for no particular reason. “It’s good that you’re there, Aves.”

“I hope it’s helping. Sometimes I think I’m adding to the stress rather than reducing it.”

“You need to be there. You need the year in South Carolina to reestablish your residency…just in case.” Elliot reminds me of the same thing every time we have this conversation—every time I’m fighting the urge to catch a flight to Maryland and return to my old digs at the United States Attorney’s Office, where there was no need to worry about cancer treatments, early Christmas pictures, constituents, and people like that desperate-looking woman who grabbed my arm at the nursing home.

“Hey, Aves, hang on a minute. Sorry. Things are crazy here this morning.” Elliot puts me on hold to answer another call, and my thoughts drift back to this morning. I see the woman—May—standing in the garden, wearing her white sweater. Then she’s beside me, her face barely at the level of my shoulder, her bone-thin hands clenched over my wrist, the walking cane dangling from her arm. The look in her eyes is haunting, even in retrospect. There’s such a sense of recognition there. She’s certain she knows who I am.

Fern?

I’m sorry?

Fernie, it’s me. Tears frame her eyes. Oh, dear, I’ve missed you so. They told me you were gone. I knew you’d never break our promise.

For a second, I want to be Fern, just to make her happy—to give her a respite from standing by herself gazing into the wisteria. She seemed so very lonely out there. Lost.

I’m saved from having to tell her that I’m not the person she’s looking for. The attendant intervenes, red-faced and clearly rattled. I apologize, she whispers just to me. Mrs. Crandall is new here. She wraps an arm firmly around Mrs. Crandall’s shoulder and drags her hand from my wrist. The old woman is surprisingly strong. She surrenders inch by inch, and the nurse says quietly, Come on, May. I’ll take you back to your room.

I watch her go, feeling as if I should do something to help, but I don’t know what.

Elliot comes back on the line, and my mind snaps to the present again. “Anyway, stiff upper lip. You can handle it. I’ve seen you take on the big-city defense attorneys. Aiken can’t be too much of a problem.”

“I know,” I sigh. “I’m sorry for bothering you. I just…needed to hear your voice, I guess.” A blush rushes up my neck. I’m not usually so dependent. Maybe it’s a by-product of Daddy’s health crisis and Grandma Judy’s issues, but a painful sense of mortality clings to me. It’s thick and persistent like fog off the river. I can only feel my way through it, blind to whatever might be lurking.

I’ve lived a charmed life. Maybe I never understood that until now.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Elliot’s voice turns tender. “It’s a lot to deal with. Give it some time. You can’t solve anything by worrying ahead of yourself.”

“You’re right. I know you’re right.”

“Can I have that in writing?”

Elliot’s joke pulls a laugh from me. “Never.” I grab my purse from the bureau, looking for something to tie back my hair. A dump-out on the bed scores two silver bobby pins. Those will do. I’ll pull back the front and do a wavy look for the picture. Grandma Judy will love it when she sees the photo. It’s her hair I’m working with, after all, and she always wore it curly.

“That’s the way, Aves.”

Elliot greets someone who’s just entered his office, and we say a quick goodbye as I do my hair and give the mirror a final glance, straightening the green sheath dress I’ve pulled on for the photo. I hope my mother’s stylist doesn’t do a label check. The dress is a store brand from the mall. The hair actually looks decent, though. Even the stylist will approve…if she’s here…and she probably is. She and Leslie are in agreement that I need a bit of work, as they put it.

There’s a knock at the door, just a little one. “Don’t come in. I’ve got an octopus locked in the closet!” I warn.

My ten-year-old niece, Courtney, pokes her curly blond head in the door. She’s a throwback to Grandma Judy too. “Last time you said there was a grizzly bear in there,” she complains, rolling her eyes to let me know that, while this little joke may have been cute when she was nine, it’s lame now that she has officially reached the double digits.

“A shape-shifting mutant grizzly bear, thank you very much,” I say, taking a poke at the videogame she’s way too obsessed with. With a set of surprise triplets occupying the household, Courtney is left to her own devices much of the time. She doesn’t seem to mind the new freedom, but I worry about her.

She puts a hand on her hip and gives me attitude. “If you don’t get downstairs, you’re gonna need that grizzly bear, because Honeybee’s gonna sic the dogs on you.” Honeybee is my father’s pet name for my mother.

“Ohhhh, now I’m scared.” The Scottish terriers here at Drayden Hill are so pampered, they’d probably expect an intruder to come equipped with designer goodies from the dog bakery.

I ruffle Courtney’s hair and slip past her. “Allison!” I yell down the stairs, and start running. “Your daughter is holding up the family picture!”

Courtney squeals, and we race to the lower landing. She wins because she’s an agile little thing and I’m wearing heels. I don’t need the extra height, but mother will not be happy if I show up for the Christmas photo in flats.

In the formal receiving room, the staff and the photographer are on a mission. Christmas photo mania ensues. By the time we’re done with the shoot, my eldest sister’s teenagers are exasperated, and I’m ready for a nap. Instead, I grab a toddler and start a tickle war on the sofa. The others quickly join in.

“Avery, for heaven’s sake!” my mother protests. “You’re making a wreck of yourself, and you’re supposed to leave with your father in twenty minutes.”

Leslie cocks an eye my way, showing her iguana-like ability to focus in two directions at once. She wags a finger at the green dress. “That’s too formal for the town hall forum, and this morning’s outfit isn’t formal enough. Wear the blue pantsuit with the cording around the bottom. Very senatorial but not overstated. You know the one I mean?”

“Yes.” I’d rather wrestle with the triplets or talk to Missy’s kids about their plans to be junior counselors at summer camp, but nobody’s offering me those options.

I kiss my nieces and nephews goodbye and hurry upstairs to change. In short order, I’m sharing another limo ride with my father.

He pulls out his cellphone and scrolls to the recorded brief for this afternoon’s events. Between Leslie, numerous aides and interns, the staff here and in D.C., and the newspapers, the man is always well informed. He needs to be. In the current political climate, there’s a very real danger of a change in the senatorial balance should his bout with cancer force him to step down. Daddy would go to his deathbed before he’d let that happen. The length of time he ignored his symptoms and remained in D.C. for the congressional session is proof, as is the fact that I have been called home for grooming and reestablishment of residency, as Elliot put it, just in case.

In South Carolina, the Stafford name has always trumped political dividing lines, but the publicity about the nursing home scandal has everyone sweating like tourists on a Charleston summer afternoon. There’s a new story breaking every week—residents who’ve died after bedsores were left untreated, care facilities with unlicensed staff, places that were far from complying with the federal regulations requiring at least 1.3 hours of care per day for each patient yet were still allowed to bill Medicare and Medicaid. Devastated families who believed that their loved ones were in competent hands. It’s heartbreaking and horrible, and the slim connection to my father has provided his political enemies with endless emotionally charged ammunition. They want everyone to believe that if the pockets were deep enough, my father would use his influence to help a friend profit from human suffering and escape prosecution for it.

Anyone who knows my father knows better. He isn’t in a position to insist that supporters and campaign contributors offer up their balance sheets, and even if he were, the truth would be hidden beneath layer upon layer of corporate entities that look fine at a glance.

“Better brush up,” Dad says, and hits play on the voice memo. He holds the phone between us and leans my way, and suddenly I’m seven years old again. I get the gushy, warm feeling I always had when Mom walked me through the hallowed halls of the Capitol, stopped outside my father’s door, and allowed me to go in alone. Very quietly, with great gravity, I’d march to the secretary’s desk and announce that I had an appointment with the senator.

“Oh, well, let me confirm that,” Mrs. Dennison would say each time, lifting an eyebrow and restraining a smile as she picked up the intercom. “Senator, I have a…Miss Stafford here to see you. Shall I send her in?”

After I’d successfully been admitted, my father would greet me with a handshake, frown, and say, “Good morning, Miss Stafford. Wonderful of you to come. Are you prepared to go out and greet the public today?”

“Yes, sir, I am!”

His eyes always twinkled with pride as I twirled to display that I had dressed for the occasion. One of the best things a father can do for his daughter is let her know that she has met his expectations. My father did that for me, and no amount of effort on my part can fully repay the debt. I’d do anything for him, and for my mother.

Now we sit shoulder to shoulder, listening to the details of the day’s remaining activities, the topics that should be covered and the issues that must be avoided. We’re given carefully spun answers to questions about care facility abuse and foiled lawsuits and shell corporations that magically go bankrupt before damages can be paid out. What does my father intend to do about this? Has he been leaning on people, shielding political contributors and old friends from the long arm of justice? Will he now use his office to help the thousands of older adults who struggle to find quality care? What about those still living in their own homes, dealing with damage from the recent historic flooding, forced to choose between taking care of repairs, eating, paying the electric bill, and refilling medications? What does my father think should be done to help them?

The questions go on and on. Each comes with at least one well-scripted response. Many have several options we can use depending on the context, plus possible rebuttals. This afternoon’s town hall forum will be a carefully regulated press op, but there’s always the remote possibility of a mole sneaking to the microphone. Things could get heated.

We’re even told how to respond should someone manage to dig up the issue of Grandma Judy. Why are we paying for a facility that costs over seven times the per-day amount that low-income seniors are allotted by Medicaid?

Why? Because Grandma Judy’s doctor recommended Magnolia Manor as our best option given my grandmother’s familiarity with the place. One of her childhood friends lived on the estate before it was converted, and so it’s like going home for her. We want her to have whatever will comfort her, but we’re also concerned for her safety. We, like many families, find ourselves confronted with a complex and difficult issue for which there is no simple answer.

Complex and difficult issue…no simple answer…

I commit those lines to memory verbatim in case I’m asked. I’ll be better off not trying to ad-lib when such deeply personal issues are involved.

“Good op at the nursing home this morning, Wells,” Leslie comments when she slips into the car during a coffee stop a few blocks from the venue. “We’re on our way to nipping this thing in the bud.” She’s even more intense than usual. “Let Cal Fortner and his team try to make mileage off this business about senior care. They’re only putting out the rope we’ll hang them with.”

“They’re putting out plenty of rope.” Dad’s joke falls flat. There’s a well-thought-out attack plan in the opposition’s camp, a systematic strategy of painting my father as an out-of-touch elitist, a Washington insider whose decades in D.C. have left him blind to the needs of the people in his home state.

“More for us to work with,” Leslie answers confidently. “Listen, slight change of plans. We’ll be coming into the building from the back. There’s a protest under way across the street from the entrance.”

She shifts focus to me then. “Avery, we’ll bring you onstage for this one. We’re doing the forum with the senator seated across from the host, for a casual feel. You will be beside your father on the sofa, to his right, the concerned daughter having moved home to look after his health and manage the family’s business concerns. You’re the one who’s single and not busy raising children; you have a wedding to plan here in Aiken, et cetera, et cetera. You know the drill. Nothing too political, but don’t be afraid to show your knowledge of the issues and the legal ramifications. We’re looking for a relaxed, unscripted tone, so the opportunity may arise to filter a question of a more personal nature your way. Only local news outlets will be present, which makes this a perfect chance for you to gain a little face time without too much pressure.”

“Of course.” I’ve spent the last five years with juries scrutinizing my every move and defense lawyers breathing down my neck. Participants in a carefully monitored town hall meeting do not scare me.

Or so I tell myself. For some reason, my pulse is racing, and my throat feels rough and dry.

“Game face, kiddo.” Daddy sends me what we sometimes call “the million-dollar wink.” It oozes confidence like warm honey, thick and irresistible.

If only I had half of my father’s charisma.

Leslie moves on with the briefing for the event. She’s still talking when we arrive at the hall. Unlike the nursing home appearance earlier, there’s security this time, including local DPS officers. I can hear the commotion out front, and a squad car sits at the end of the alleyway.

Leslie looks like she’s ready to punch someone’s lights out as we’re hustled from the limo. A nervous sweat beads under my conservative navy suit.

“Honor thy father and mother!” a protester shouts above the din.

I want to hang a right turn, march to the curb, and tell these people off. How dare they!

“No concentration camps for seniors!” That one follows us through the door.

“What are these people, nuts?” I mutter, and Leslie gives me a warning look, then shrugs covertly toward the police officers. I’m being told to keep my opinions to myself in public, unless they’re preapproved. But now I’m fighting mad…which may be a good thing. My pulse slows resolutely, and I feel my game face settling into place.

The minute the door closes, things calm down. We’re met by Andrew Moore, the program coordinator for the hosts of today’s forum—a seniors’ rights PAC. Andrew seems surprisingly young to be in such a position. He can’t be past his mid-twenties. The neatly pressed gray suit combined with slightly askew necktie and haphazardly bunched shirt collar make him seem like a boy whose clothes were laid out for him in the morning but who had to get into them himself. He tells us that he was raised by his grandparents, who made huge sacrifices to provide for him. This is his way of giving back. When someone mentions that I was a federal prosecutor, he eyes me and quips that the PAC could use a good attorney on staff.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I joke.

We make a bit more small talk while we wait. He seems likeable, honest, energetic, and committed. My confidence that this will be a fair discussion of the issues ratchets upward.

Other introductions quickly take place. We meet the local reporter who will act as our moderator. We slide microphones under our jackets, clip them to our lapels, and hook the transmitter boxes over our waistbands.

We wait in the wings while the host takes the stage, thanks the organizers, then reminds everyone of the format for today’s forum before finally introducing us. The crowd applauds, and we ascend the stage, waving cheerfully at the audience. Everyone is well behaved, though looking out at the group, I see quite a few faces that seem concerned, skeptical, and somewhat unfriendly. Others eye the senator with what could only be classified as hero worship.

My father does a reasonable job of responding to the simple questions and deflecting a few inquiries that can’t be answered in a soundbite. There are no easy solutions to the problem of funding retirement years that last much longer than in previous generations or the issue of fractured families and the cultural shift toward relying on professional care rather than tending to senior relatives at home.

Despite the well-thought-out replies, I can tell that he’s a little off the mark today. He’s a bit slow when a young man asks, “Sir, I’d like to hear your response to Cal Fortner’s accusation that the goal of corporate-owned senior care chains is to warehouse the elderly in the cheapest way possible so as to increase profits, and that your repeated acceptance of campaign contributions from L. R. Lawton and his investment partners indicates your support of this profits-over-people model. Do you acknowledge that in these facilities seniors were tended to by minimum-wage workers with little or no training, if they were seen to at all? Your opponent calls for federal legislation to hold anyone who profits from a care facility or its holding companies personally accountable for the care provided there, as well as any damages awarded in lawsuits. Fortner is also calling for taxes on wealthy individuals such as yourself to fund an increase in benefits for our poorest senior citizens. In view of recent events, would you support this in the Senate, and why or why not?”

I can almost hear Leslie gnashing her teeth behind the curtain. Those questions weren’t anywhere in the script, and no doubt they’re not on the index card the guy is holding.

My father hesitates, appearing to be momentarily bewildered. Come on, I think. Sweat drips down my back. My muscles tense, and I clutch the armrest of my chair to keep from fidgeting.

The silence is agonizing. Minutes seem to pass, but I know it’s not that long.

My father finally launches into a lengthy explanation of the existing federal regulations on nursing homes and the taxes and federal trust funds that pay for Medicaid. He seems competent and unruffled. Once again in charge. He makes it evident that he is not in a position to single-handedly alter Medicaid funding, the tax code, and the current state of senior care but that these issues will have his foremost attention in the next Senate session.

The forum then returns to a more acceptable script.

A question eventually comes my way, and the host looks at me indulgently. I give the prescribed response about whether or not I am being groomed for my father’s Senate seat. I don’t say yes, and I don’t say, Never in a million years. Instead, I end with “In any case, it’s premature to even think about it…unless I want to run against the man himself. And who would be crazy enough to do that?”

The audience chuckles, and I follow up with the signature wink I inherited from my dad. He’s so pleased, he looks ten feet tall as he responds to a few more simple questions and the discussion wraps up.

I’m ready for pats on the back from Leslie as we exit the stage. Instead, she catches me with a worried look and leans close as we walk out the door. “The nursing home called. Apparently you lost a bracelet there?”

“What? A bracelet?” Suddenly, I remember putting one on this morning. There’s no movement on my wrist, and yes, the bracelet is gone.

“One of the residents was found with it. The director looked at her cellphone photos from the event and determined that it was yours.”

The woman in the nursing home…the one who grabbed my hand…

Now I remember the tiny gold legs of three little dragonflies raking down my wrist as May Crandall was pulled away. She must have ended up with my jewelry. “Ohhhh, I know what happened.”

“The director apologized profusely. The patient is new and struggling to adjust. She was found two weeks ago in a house along the river with her dead sister’s body and a dozen cats.”

“Oh, how horrible.” My mind takes flight, and I see the dismal, gruesome scene, even though I don’t want to. “I’m sure it was an accident—the thing about the bracelet, I mean. She grabbed my hand while we were listening to Daddy. The nurse sort of had to peel her off.”

“That shouldn’t have happened.”

“It’s okay, Leslie. It’s fine.”

“I’ll send someone to pick it up.”

I remember May Crandall’s blue eyes, the way she regarded me with such desperation. I imagine her coming away with my bracelet, examining it alone in her room, draping it over her wrist, and admiring it with delight.

If it weren’t an heirloom, I’d just let her keep it. “You know what? I think I’ll go back and get it myself. The bracelet was my grandmother’s.” The day’s agenda calls for my father and me to part ways from here. He’ll be spending a little time at his office before having supper with one of his constituents while my mother hosts a DAR meeting at Drayden Hill. “Is there someone who can drive me? Or can I take one of the cars?”

Leslie’s eyes flare. I’m afraid we’re about to lock horns, so I add a more compelling excuse. “I should run by and have tea with Grandma Judy while I’ve got a little time anyway. She’ll enjoy seeing the bracelet.” The town hall forum has left me feeling guilty that I haven’t visited my grandmother in almost a week.

Leslie’s jaw twitches as she acquiesces, making it clear that she finds my silly whim disturbingly unprofessional.

I can’t help it. I’m still thinking about May Crandall and remembering the plethora of newspaper stories about nursing home abuse. Perhaps I just want to make sure that May didn’t come to me because she’s in some sort of trouble.

Perhaps my curiosity has been piqued by her sad, macabre story. She was found two weeks ago in a house along the river with her dead sister’s body….

Was her sister’s name Fern?

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