Chapter Two dollars a week from the Great Benefit Life Insurance Company of Cleveland, Ohio. I study the debit book, a little journal used to record the weekly payments. It appears as though the agent, one Bobby Ott, actually visited the Blacks every week.
AN HOUR LATER, THE LANGUID BATTLES over Chinese checkers and gin rummy peter out, and the last of the geezers leaves the building. A janitor waits near the door as Smoot gathers us around him for a postgame summary. We take turns briefly summarizing our new clients' various problems. We're tired and anxious to leave this place.
Smoot offers a few suggestions, nothing creative or original, and dismisses us with the promise that we will discuss these real legal problems of the elderly in class next week. I can't wait.
Booker and I leave in his car, an aged Pontiac too large to be stylish but in much better shape than my crumbling Toyota. Booker has two small children and a wife who teaches school part-time, so he's hovering somewhere just above the poverty line. He studies hard and makes good grades, and because of this he caught the attention of an affluent black firm downtown, a pretty classy outfit known for its expertise in civil rights litigation. His starting salary is forty thousand a year, which is six more than Brodnax and Speer offered me.
"I hate law school," I say as we leave the parking lot of the Cypress Gardens Senior Citizens Building.
"You're normal," Booker replies. Booker does not hate anything or anybody, and even at times claims to be challenged by the study of law.
"Why do we want to be lawyers?"
"Serve the public, fight injustice, change society, you know, the usual. Don't you listen to Professor Smoot?"
"Let's go get a beer. "
"It's not yet three o'clock, Rudy. " Booker drinks little, and I drink even less because it's an expensive habit and right now I must save to buy food.
"Just kidding," I say. He drives in the general direction of the law school. Today is Thursday, which means tomorrow I will be burdened with Sports Law and the Napoleonic Code, two courses equally as worthless as Geezer Law and requiring even less work. But there is a bar exam looming, and when I think about it my hands tremble slightly. If I flunk the bar exam, those nice but stiff and unsmiling fellas at Brodnax and Speer will most certainly ask me to leave, which means I'll work for about a month then hit the streets. Flunking the bar exam is unthinkable -it would lead me to unemployment, bankruptcy, disgrace, starvation. So why do I think about it every hour of every day? "Just take me to the library," I say. "I think I'll work on these cases, then hit the bar review. "
"Good idea. "
"I hate the library. "
"Everyone hates the library, Rudy. It's designed to be hated. Its primary purpose is to be hated by law students. You're just normal. "
"That first old lady, Miss Birdie, she got money?"
"How'd you know?"
"I thought I overheard something. "
"Yeah. She's loaded. She needs a new will. She's neglected by her children and grandchildren, so, of course, she wants to cut them out. "
"Twenty million or so. "
Booker glances at me with a great deal of suspicion.
"That's what she says," I add.
"So who gets the money?"
"A sexy TV preacher with his own Learjet. "
"I swear. "
Booker chews on this for two blocks of heavy traffic. "Look, Rudy, no offense, you're a great guy and all, good student, bright, but do you feel comfortable drafting a will for an estate worth that much money?"
"No. Do you?"
"Of course not. So what'll you do?"
"Maybe she'll die in her sleep. "
"I don't think so. She's too feisty. She'll outlive us. "
"I'll dump it on Smoot. Maybe get one of the tax professors to help me. Or maybe I'll just tell Miss Birdie that I can't help her, that she needs to pay a high-powered tax lawyer five grand to draft it. I really don't care. I've got my own problems. "
"Yeah. They're coming after me. My landlord too. "
"I wish I could help," Booker says, and I know he means it. If he could spare the money, he'd gladly loan it to me.
"I'll survive until July 1. Then I'll be a big-shot mouthpiece for Brodnax and Speer and my days of poverty will be over. How in the world, dear Booker, can I possibly spend thirty-four thousand dollars a year?"
"Sounds impossible. You'll be rich. "
"I mean, hell, I've lived on tips and nickels for seven years. What will I do with all the money?"
"Buy another suit?"
"Why? I already have two. "
"Perhaps some shoes?"
"That's it. That's what I'll do. I'll buy shoes, Booker. Shoes and ties, and maybe some food that doesn't come in a can, and perhaps a fresh pack of Jockey shorts. "
At least twice a month for three years now, Booker and his wife have invited me to dinner. Her name is Charlene, a Memphis girl, and she does wonders with food on a lean budget. They're friends, but I'm sure they feel sorry for me. Booker grins, then looks away. He's tired of this joking about things that are unpleasant.
He pulls into the parking lot across Central Avenue from the Memphis State Law School. "I have to run some errands," he says.
"Sure. Thanks for the ride. "
"I'll be back around six. Let's study for the bar. "
"Sure. I'll be downstairs. "
I slam the door and jog across Central.
IN A DARK and private corner in the basement of the library, behind stacks of cracked and ancient law books and hidden from view, I find my favorite study carrel sitting all alone, just waiting for me as it has for many months now. It's officially reserved in my name. The corner is windowless and at times damp and cold, and for this reason few people venture near here. I've spent hours in this, my private little burrow, briefing cases and studying for exams. And for the past weeks, I've sat here for many aching hours wondering what happened to her and asking myself at what point I let her get away. I torment myself here. The flat desktop is surrounded on three sides by panels, and I've memorized the contour of the wood grain on each small wall. I can cry without getting caught. I can even curse at a low decibel, and no one will hear.
Many times during the glorious affair, Sara joined me here, and we studied together with our chairs sitting snugly side by side. We could giggle and laugh, and no one cared. We could kiss and touch, and no one saw. At this moment, in the depths of this depression and sorrow, I can almost smell her perfume.
I really should find another place in this sprawling labyrinth to study. Now, when I stare at the panels around me, I see her face and remember the feel of her legs, and I'm immediately overcome with a deadening heartache that paralyzes me. She was here, just weeks ago! And now someone else is touching those legs.
I take the Blacks' stack of papers and walk upstairs to the insurance section of the library. My movements are slow but my eyes dart quickly in all directions. Sara doesn't come here much anymore, but I've seen her a couple of times.
I spread Dot's papers on an abandoned table between the stacks, and read once again the Stupid Letter. It is shocking and mean, and obviously written by someone convinced that Dot and Buddy would never show it to a lawyer. I read it again, and become aware that the heartache has begun to subside-it comes and goes, and I'm learning to deal with it.
Sara Plankmore is also a third-year law student, and she's the only girl I've ever loved. She dumped me four months ago for an Ivy Leaguer, a local blueblood. She told me they were old friends from high school, and they somehow bumped into each other during Christmas break. The romance was rekindled, and she hated to do it to me, but life goes on. There's a strong rumor floating around these halls that she's pregnant. I actually vomited when I first heard about it.
I examine the Blacks' policy with Great Benefit, and take pages of notes. It reads like Sanskrit. I organize the letters and claim forms and medical reports. Sara has disappeared for the moment, and I've become lost in a disputed insurance claim that stinks more and more.
The policy was purchased for eighteen
My little table is covered with neat stacks of papers, and I read everything Dot gave me. I keep thinking about Max Leuberg, the visiting Communist professor, and his passionate hatred of insurance companies. They rule our country, he said over and over. They control the banking industry. They own the real estate. They catch a virus and Wall Street has diarrhea for a week. And when interest rates fall and their investment earnings plummet, then they run to Congress and demand tort reform. Lawsuits are killing us, they scream. Those filthy trial lawyers are filing frivolous lawsuits and convincing ignorant juries to dole out huge awards, and we've got to stop it or we'll go broke. Leuberg would get so angry he'd throw books at the wall. We loved him.
And he's still teaching here. I think he goes back to Wisconsin at the end of this semester, and if I find the courage I just might ask him to review the Black case against Great Benefit. He claims he's assisted in several landmark bad-faith cases up north in which juries returned huge punitive awards against insurers.
I begin writing a summary of the case. I start with the date the policy was issued, then chronologically list each significant event. Great Benefit, in writing, denied coverage eight times. The eighth was, of course, the Stupid Letter. I can hear Max Leuberg whistling and laughing when he reads this letter. I smell blood.
I HOPE Professor Leuberg smells it too. I find his office tucked away between two storage rooms on the third floor of the law school. The door is covered with flyers for gay rights marches and boycotts and endangered species rallies, the sorts of causes that draw little interest in Memphis. It's half open, and I hear him barking into the phone. I hold my breath, and knock lightly.
"Come in!" he shouts, and I slowly ease through the door. He waves at the only chair. It's filled with books and files and magazines. The entire office is a landfill. Clutter, debris, newspapers, bottles. The bookshelves bulge and sag. Graffiti posters cover the walls. Odd scraps of paper lay like puddles on the floor. Time and organization mean nothing to Max Leuberg.
He's a thin, short man of sixty with wild, bushy hair the color of straw and hands that are never still. He wears faded jeans, environmentally provocative sweatshirts and old sneakers. If it's cold, he'll sometimes wear socks. He's so damned hyper he makes me nervous.
He slams the phone down. "Baker!"
"Baylor. Rudy Baylor. Insurance, last semester. "
"Sure! Sure! I remember. Have a seat. " He waves again at the chair.
"No thanks. "
He squirms and shuffles a stack of papers on his desk. "So what's up, Baylor?" Max is adored by the students because he always takes time to listen.
"Well, uh, have you got a minute?" I would normally be more formal and say "Sir" or something like that, but Max hates formalities. He insisted we call him Max.
"Yeah, sure. What's on your mind?"
"Well, I'm taking a class under Professor Smopt," I explain, then go on with a quick summary of my visit to the geezers' lunch and of Dot and Buddy and their fight with Great Benefit. He seems to hang on every word.
"Have you ever heard of Great Benefit?" I ask.
"Yeah. It's a big outfit that sells a lot of cheap insurance to rural whites and blacks. Very sleazy. "
"I've never heard of them. "
"You wouldn't. They don't advertise. Their agents knock on doors and collect premiums each week. We're talking about the scratch-and-sniff armpit of the industry. Let me see the policy. "
I hand it to him, and he flips pages. "What are their grounds for denial?" he asks without looking at me.
"Everything. First they denied just on principal. Then they said leukemia wasn't covered. Then they said the leukemia was a preexisting condition. Then they said the kid was an adult and thus not covered under his parents' policy. They've been quite creative, actually. "
"Were all the premiums paid?"
"According to Mrs. Black they were. "
"The bastards. " He flips more pages, smiling wickedly. Max loves this. "And you've reviewed the entire file?"
"Yeah. I've read everything the client gave me. "
He tosses the policy onto the desk. "Definitely worth looking into," he says. "But keep in mind the client rarely gives you everything up front. " I hand him the Stupid Letter. As he reads it, another nasty little smile breaks across his face. He reads it again, and finally glances at me. "Incredible. "
"I thought so too," I add like a veteran watchdog of the insurance industry.
"Where's the rest of the file?" he asks.
I place the entire pile of papers on his desk. "This is everything Mrs. Black gave me. She said her son is dying because they can't afford treatment. Said he weighs a hundred and ten pounds, and won't live long. "
His hands become still. "Bastards," he says again, almost to himself. "Stinkin' bastards. "
I agree completely, but say nothing. I notice another pair of sneakers parked in a corner-very old Nikes. He explained to us in class that he at one time wore Converse, but is now boycotting the company because of a recycling policy. He wages his own personal little war against corporate America, and buys nothing if the manufacturer has in the slightest way miffed him. He refuses to insure his life, health or assets, but rumor has it his family is wealthy and thus he can afford to venture about uninsured. I, on the other hand, for obvious reasons, live in the world of the uninsured.
Most of my professors are stuffy academics who wear ties to class and lecture with their coats buttoned. Max hasn't worn a tie in decades. And he doesn't lecture. He performs. I hate to see him leave this place.
His hands jump back to life again. "I'd like to review this tonight," he says without looking at me.
"No problem. Can I stop by in the morning?"
"Sure. Anytime. "
His phone rings and he snatches it up. I smile and back through the door with a great deal of relief. I'll meet with him in the morning, listen to his advice, then type a two-page report to the Blacks in which I'll repeat whatever he tells me.
Now, if I can only find some bright soul to do the research for Miss Birdie. I have a few prospects, a couple of tax professors, and I might try them tomorrow. I walk down the stairs and enter the student lounge next to the library. It's the only place in the building where smoking is permitted, and a permanent blue fog hangs just below the lights. There is one television and an assortment of abused sofas and chairs. Class pictures adorn the walls- framed collections of studious faces long ago sent into the trenches of legal warfare. When the room is empty, I often stare at these, my predecessors, and wonder how many have been disbarred and how many wish they'd never seen this place and how few actually enjoy suing and defending. One wall is reserved for notices and bulletins and want-ads of an amazing variety, and behind it is a row of soft-drink and food dispensers. I partake of many meals here. Machine food is underrated.
Huddled to one side I see the Honorable F. Franklin Donaldson the Fourth gossiping with three of his buddies, all priclash sorts who write for the Law Review and frown upon those of us who don't. He notices me, and seems interested in something. He smiles as I walk by, which is unusual, because his face is forever fixed in a frozen scowl.
"Say, Rudy, you're going with Brodnax and Speer, aren't you?" he calls out loudly. The television is off. His buddies stare at me. Two female students on a sofa perk up and look in my direction.
"Yeah. What about it?" I ask. F. Franklin the Fourth has a job with a firm rich in heritage, money and pretentiousness, a firm vastly superior to Brodnax and Speer. His sidekicks at this moment are W. Harper Whittenson, an arrogant little snot who will, thankfully, leave Memphis and practice with a mega-firm in Dallas; J. Townsend Gross, who has accepted a position with another huge firm; and James Stra
ybeck, a sometimes friendly sort who's suffered three years of law school without an initial to place before his name or numerals to stick after it. With such a short name, his future as a big-firm lawyer is in jeopardy. I doubt if he'll make it.
F. Franklin the Fourth takes a step in my direction. He's all smiles. "Well, tell us what's happening. "
"What's happening?" I have no idea what he's talking about.
"Yeah, you know, about the merger. "
I keep a straight face. "What merger?"
"You haven't heard?"
F. Franklin the Fourth glances at his three buddies, and they all seem to be amused. His smile widens as he looks at me. "Come on, Rudy, the merger of Brodnax and Speer and Tinley Britt. "
I stand very still and try to think of something intelligent or clever to say. But, for the moment, words fail me. Obviously, I know nothing about the merger, and, obviously, this asshole knows something. Brodnax and Speer is a small outfit, fifteen lawyers, and I'm the only recruit they've hired from my class. When we came to terms two months ago, there was no mention of merger plans.
Tinley Britt, on the other hand, is the largest, stuffiest, most prestigious and wealthiest firm in the state. At last count, a hundred and twenty lawyers called it home. Many are from Ivy League schools. Many have federal clerkships on their pedigrees. It's a powerful firm that represents rich corporations and governmental entities, and has an office in Washington, where it lobbies with the elite. It's a bastion of hardball conservative politics. A former U. S. senator is a partner. Its associates work eighty hours a week, and they all dress in navy and black with white button-down shirts and striped ties. Their haircuts are short and no facial hair is permitted. You can spot a Tinley Britt lawyer by the way he struts and dresses. The firm is filled with nothing but Waspy male preppies all from the right schools and right fraternities, and thus the rest of the Memphis legal community has forever dubbed it Trent & Brent.
J. Townsend Gross has his hands in his pockets and is sneering at me. He's number two in our class, and wears the right amount of starch in his Polo shirts, and drives a BMW, and so he was immediately attracted to Trent & Brent.
My knees are weak because I know Trent & Brent would never want me. If Brodnax and Speer has in fact merged with this behemoth, I fear that perhaps I've been lost in the shuffle.
"I haven't heard," I say feebly. The girls on the sofa are watching intently. There is silence.
"You mean, they haven't told you?" F. Franklin the Fourth asks in disbelief. "Jack here heard it around noon today," he says, nodding at his comrade J. Townsend Gross.
"It's true," J. Townsend says. "But the firm name is unchanged. "
The firm name, other than Trent & Brent, is Tinley, Britt, Crawfbrd, Mize and St. John. Mercifully, years back someone opted for the abbreviated version. By stating that the firm name remains the same, J. Townsend has informed this small audience that Brodnax and Speer is so small and so insignificant that it can be swallowed whole by Tinley Britt without so much as a light belch.
"So it's still Trent & Brent?" I say to J. Townsend, who snorts at this overworked nickname.
"I can't believe they wouldn't tell you," F. Franklin the Fourth continues.
I shrug as if this is nothing, and walk to the door. "Perhaps you're worrying too much about it, Frankie. " They exchange confident smirks as if they've accomplished whatever they set out to accomplish, and I leave the
lounge. I enter the library and the clerk behind the front desk motions for me.
"Here's a message," he says as he hands me a scrap of paper. It's a note to call Loyd Beck, the managing partner of Brodnax and Speer, the man who hired me.
The pay phones are in the lounge, but I'm in no mood to see F. Franklin the Fourth and his band of cutthroats again. "Can I borrow your phone?" I ask the desk clerk, a second-year student who acts as if he owns the library.
"Pay phones are in the lounge," he says, pointing, as if I've studied law here for three years now and still don't know the location of the student lounge. "I just came from there. They're all busy. " He frowns and looks around. "All right, make it quick. " I punch the numbers for Brodnax and Speer. It's almost six, and the secretaries leave at five. On the ninth ring, a male voice says simply, "Hello. "
I turn my back to the front of the library and try to hide in the reserve shelves. "Hello, this is Rudy Baylor. I'm at the law school, and I have a note to call Loyd Beck. Says it's urgent. " The note says nothing about being urgent, but at this moment I'm rather jumpy. "Rudy Baylor? In reference to what?" "I'm the guy you all just hired. Who is this?" "Oh, yeah. Baylor. This is Carson Bell. Uh, Loyd's in a meeting and can't be disturbed right now. Try back in an hour. "
I met Carson Bell briefly when they gave me the tour of the place, and I remember him as a typically harried litigator, friendly for a second then back to work. "Uh, Mr. Bell, I think I really need to talk to Mr. Beck. " "I'm sorry, but you can't right now. Okay?" "I've heard a rumor about a merger with Trent, uh, with Tinley Britt. Is it true?"
"Look, Rudy, I'm busy and I can't talk right now. Call back in an hour and Loyd will handle you. "
Handle me? "Do I still have a position?" I ask in fear and some measure of desperation.
"Call back in an hour," he says irritably, and then slams down the phone.
I scribble a message on a scrap of paper and hand it to the desk clerk. "Do you know Booker Kane?" I ask.
"Good. He'll be here in a few minutes. Give him this message. Tell him I'll be back in an hour or so. "
He grunts but takes the message. I leave the library, ease by the lounge and pray that no one sees me, then leave the building and run to the parking lot, where my Toyota awaits me. I hope the engine will start. One of my darkest secrets is that I still owe a finance company almost three hundred dollars on this pitiful wreck. I've even lied to Booker. He thinks it's paid for.