Page 13 of The Firm

The saturday after the bar exam Mitch avoided his office and his house and spent the morning digging in the flower beds and waiting. With the remodeling complete, the house was now presentable, and of course the first guests had to be her parents. Abby had cleaned and polished for a week, and it was now time. She promised they wouldn't stay long, no more than a few hours. He promised to be as nice as possible.

Mitch had washed and waxed both new cars and they looked as if they had just left the showroom. The lawn had been manicured by a kid down the street. Mr. Rice had applied fertilizer for a month and it looked like a puttin' green, as he liked to say.

At noon they arrived, and he reluctantly left the flower beds. He smiled and greeted them and excused himself to go clean up. He could tell they were uncomfortable, and he wanted it that way. He took a long shower as Abby showed them every piece of furniture and every inch of wallpaper. These things impressed the Sutherlands. Small things always did. They dwelt on the things others did or did not have. He was the president of a small county bank that had been on the verge of collapse for ten years. She was too good to work and had spent all of her adult life seeking social advancement in a town where there was none to be had. She had traced her ancestry to royalty in one of the old countries, and this had always impressed the coal miners in Danesboro, Kentucky. With so much blue blood in her veins, it had fallen her duty to do nothing but drink hot tea, play bridge, talk of her husband's money, condemn the less fortunate and work tirelessly in the Garden Club. He was a stuffed shirt who jumped when she barked and lived in eternal fear of making her mad. As a team they had relentlessly pushed their daughter from birth to be the best, achieve the best, but most importantly, marry the best. Their daughter had rebelled and married a poor kid with no family except a crazy mother and a criminal brother.

"Nice place you've got here, Mitch," Mr. Sutherland said in an effort to break the ice. They sat for lunch and began passing dishes.

"Thanks." Nothing else, just thanks. He concentrated on the food. There would be no smiles from him at lunch. The less he said, the more uncomfortable they would be. He wanted them to feel awkward, guilty, wrong. He wanted them to sweat, to bleed. It had been their decision to boycott the wedding. It had been their stones cast, not his.

"Everything is so lovely," her mother gushed in his direction.

"Thanks."

"We're so proud of it, Mother," Abby said.

The conversation immediately went to the remodeling. The men ate in silence as the women chattered on and on about what the decorator did to this room and that one. At times, Abby was almost desperate to fill in the gaps with words about whatever came to mind. Mitch almost felt sorry for her, but he kept his eyes on the table. The butter knife could have cut the tension.

"So you've found a job?" Mrs. Sutherland asked.

"Yes. I start a week from Monday. I'll be teaching third-graders at St. Andrew's Episcopal School."

"Teaching doesn't pay much," her father blurted.

He's relentless, thought Mitch.

"I'm not concerned with money, Dad. I'm a teacher. To me, it's the most important profession in the world. If I wanted money, I would've gone to medical school."

"Third-graders," her mother said. "That's such a cute age. You'll be wanting children before long."

Mitch had already decided that if anything would attract these people to Memphis on a regular basis, it was grandchildren. And he had decided he could wait a long time. He had never been around children. There were no nieces or nephews, except for maybe a few unknown ones Ray had scattered around the country. And he had developed no affinity for children.

"Maybe in a few years, Mother."

Maybe after they're both dead,thought Mitch.

"You want children, don't you, Mitch?" asked the mother-in-law.

"Maybe in a few years."

Mr. Sutherland pushed his plate away and lit a cigarette. The issue of smoking had been repeatedly discussed in the days before the visit. Mitch wanted it banned completely from his house, especially by these people. They had argued vehemently, and Abby won.

"How was the bar exam?" the father-in-law asked.

This could be interesting, Mitch thought. "Grueling." Abby chewed her food nervously.

"Do you think you passed?"

"I hope so."

"When will you know?"

"Four to six weeks."

"How long did it last?"

"Four days."

"He's done nothing but study and work since we moved here. I haven't seen much of him this summer," Abby said.

Mitch smiled at his wife. The time away from home was already a sore subject, and it was amusing to hear her condone it.

"What happens if you don't pass it?" her father asked.

"I don't know. I haven't thought about it."

"Do they give you a raise when you pass?"

Mitch decided to be nice, as he had promised. But it was difficult. "Yes, a nice raise and a nice bonus."

"How many lawyers are in?"

"Forty."

"My goodness," said Mrs. Sutherland. She lit up one of hers. "There's not that many in Dane County."

"Where's your office?" he asked.

"Downtown."

"Can we see it?" she asked.

"Maybe some other time. It's closed to visitors on Saturdays." Mitch amused himself with his answer. Closed to visitors, as if it was a museum.

Abby sensed disaster and began talking about the church they had joined. It had four thousand members, a gymnasium and bowling alley. She sang in the choir and taught eight-year-olds in Sunday school. Mitch went when he was not working, but he'd been working most Sundays.

"I'm happy to see you've found a church home, Abby," her father said piously. For years he had led the prayer each Sunday at the First Methodist Church in Danesboro, and the other six days he had tirelessly practiced greed and manipulation. He had also steadily but discreetly pursued whiskey and women.

An awkward silence followed as the conversation came to a halt. He lit another one.

Keep smoking, old boy,Mitch thought. Keep smoking.

"Let's have dessert on the patio," Abby said. She began clearing the table.

They bragged about his gardening skills, and he accepted the credit. The same kid down the street had pruned the trees, pulled the weeds, trimmed the hedges and edged the patio. Mitch was proficient only in pulling weeds and scooping dog crap. He could also operate the lawn sprinkler, but usually let Mr. Rice do it.

Abby served strawberry shortcake and coffee. She looked helplessly at her husband, but he was noncommittal.

"This is a real nice place you've got here," her father said for the third time as he surveyed the backyard. Mitch could see his mind working. He had taken the measure of the house and neighborhood, and the curiosity was becoming unbearable. How much did the place cost, dammit?That's what he wanted to know. How much down? How much a month?Everything. He would keep pecking away until he could work in the questions somewhere.

"This is a lovely place," her mother said for the tenth time.

"When was it built?" her father asked.

Mitch laid his plate on the table and cleared his throat. He could sense it coming. "It's about fifteen years old," he answered.

"How many square feet?"

"About three thousand," Abby answered nervously. Mitch glared at her. His composure was vanishing.

"It's a lovely neighborhood," her mother added helpfully.

"New loan, or did you assume one?" her father asked, as if he were interviewing a loan applicant with weak collateral.

"It's a new loan," Mitch said, then waited. Abby waited and prayed.

He didn't wait, couldn't wait. "What'd you pay for it?"

Mitch breathed deeply and was about to say, "Too much." Abby was quicker. "We didn't pay too much, Daddy," she said firmly with a frown. "We're quite capable of handling our money."

Mitch managed a smile while biting his tongue.

Mrs. Sutherland was on her feet. "Let's go for a drive, shall we? I Want to see the river and that new pyramid they've built beside it. Shall we? Come on, Harold."

Harold wanted more information about the house, but his wife was now tugging on his arm.

"Great idea," Abby said.

They loaded into the shiny new BMW and went to see the river. Abby asked them not to smoke in the new car. Mitch drove in silence and tried to be nice.

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