The Firm(7)


by John Grisham

After croissants and eggs Benedict, they sat in the lobby of the hotel, drinking coffee and watching the ducks swim in circles around the fountain. Kay had suggested a quick tour of Memphis with a late lunch near her home. Maybe some shopping.

"Have they mentioned the low-interest loan?" she asked.

"Yes, at the first interview."

"They'll want you to buy a house when you move here. Most people can't afford a house when they leave law school, so loans you the money at a lower rate and holds the mortgage."

"How low?"

"I don't know. It's been seven years since we moved here, and we've bought another house since then. It'll be a bargain, believe me. The Firm will see to it that you own a home. It's sort of an unwritten rule."

"Why is it so important?"

"Several reasons. First of all, they want you down here. This firm is very selective, and they usually get who they want. But Memphis is not exactly in the spotlight, so they have to offer more. Also, is very demanding, especially on the associates. There's pressure, overwork, eighty-hour weeks and time away from home. It won't be easy on either of you, and The Firm knows it. The theory is that a strong marriage means a happy lawyer, and a happy lawyer is a productive lawyer, so the bottom line is profits. Always profits.

"And there's another reason. These guys - all guys, no women - take a lot of pride in their wealth, and everyone is expected to look and act affluent. It would be an insult to if an associate was forced to live in an apartment. They want you in a house, and after five years, in a bigger house. If we have some time this afternoon, I'll show you some of the partners' homes. When you see them, you won't mind the eighty-hour weeks."

"I'm used to them now."

"That's good, but law school doesn't compare with this. Sometimes they'll work a hundred hours a week during tax season."

Abby smiled and shook her head as if this impressed her a great deal. "Do you work?"

"No. Most of us don't work. The money is there, so we're not forced to, and we get little help with the kids from our husbands. Of course, working is not forbidden."

"Forbidden by whom?"

"The Firm."

"I would hope not." Abby repeated the word "forbidden" to herself, but let it pass.

Kay sipped her coffee and watched the ducks. A small boy wandered away from his mother and stood near the fountain. "Do you plan to start a family?" Kay asked.

"Maybe in a couple of years."

"Babies are encouraged."

"By whom?"

"The Firm."

"Why should care if we have children?"

"Again, stable families. A new baby is a big deal around the office. They send flowers and gifts to the hospital. You're treated like a queen. Your husband gets a week off, but he'll be too busy to take it. They put a thousand dollars in a trust fund for college. It's a lot of fun."

"Sounds like a big fraternity."

"It's more like a big family. Our social life revolves around, and that's important because none of us are from Memphis. We're all transplants."

"That's nice, but I don't want anyone telling me when to work and when to quit and when to have children."

"Don't worry. They're very protective of each other, but does not meddle."

"I'm beginning to wonder."

"Relax, Abby. The Firm is like a family. They're great people, and Memphis is a wonderful old town to live in and raise kids. The cost of living is much lower and life moves at a slower pace. You're probably considering the bigger towns. So did we, but I'll take Memphis any day over the big cities."

"Do I get the grand tour?"

"That's why I'm here. I thought we'd start downtown, then head out east and look at the nicer neighborhoods, maybe look at some houses and eat lunch at my favorite restaurant."

"Sounds like fun."

Kay paid for the coflee, as she had the brunch, and they left the Peabody in the Quin family's new Mercedes.

The dining room, as it was simply called, covered the west end of the fifth floor above Riverside Drive and high above the river in the distance. A row of eight-foot windows lined the wall and provided a fascinating view of the tugboats, paddle-wheelers, barges, docks and bridges.

The room was protected turf, a sanctuary for those lawyers talented and ambitious enough to be called partners in the quiet Bendini firm. They gathered each day for lunches prepared by Jessie Frances, a huge, temperamental old black woman, and served by her husband, Roosevelt, who wore white gloves and an odd-fitting, faded, wrinkled hand-me-down tux given to him by Mr. Bendini himself shortly before his death. They also gathered for coffee and doughnuts some mornings to discuss firm business and, occasionally, for a glass of wine in the late afternoon to celebrate a good month or an exceptionally large fee. It was for partners only, and maybe an occasional guest such as a blue-chip client or prospective recruit. The associates could dine there twice a year, only twice - and records were kept - and then only at the invitation of a partner.

Adjacent to the dining room was a small kitchen where Jessie Frances performed, and where she had cooked the first meal for Mr. Bendini and a few others twenty-six years earlier. For twenty-six years she had cooked Southern food and ignored requests to experiment and try dishes she had trouble pronouncing. "Don't eat it if you don't like it," was her standard reply. Judging from the scraps Roosevelt collected from the tables, the food was eaten and enjoyed immensely. She posted the week's menu on Monday, asked that reservations be made by ten each day and held grudges for years if someone canceled or didn't show. She and Roosevelt worked four hours each day and were paid a thousand each month.

Mitch sat at a table with Lamar Quin, Oliver Lambert and Royce McKnight. The entree was prime rib, served with fried okra and boiled squash.

"She laid off the grease today," Mr. Lambert observed.

"It's delicious," Mitch said.

"Is your system accustomed to grease?"

"Yes. They cook this way in Kentucky."

"I joined this firm in 1955," Mr. McKnight said, "and I come from New Jersey, right? Out of suspicion, I avoided most Southern dishes as much as possible. Everything is battered and fried in animal fat, right? Then Mr. Bendini decides to open up this little cafe. He hires Jessie Frances, and I've had heartburn for the past twenty years. Fried ripe tomatoes, fried green tomatoes, fried eggplant, fried okra, fried squash, fried anything and everything. One day Victor Milligan said too much. He's from Connecticut, right? And Jessie Frances had whipped up a batch of fried dill pickles. Can you imagine? Fried dill pickles! Milligan said something ugly to Roosevelt and he reported it to Jessie Frances. She walked out the back door and quit. Stayed gone for a week. Roosevelt wanted to work, but she kept him at home. Finally, Mr. Bendini smoothed things over and she agreed to return if there were no complaints. But she also cut back on the grease. I think we'll all live ten years longer."

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