As noted in the foreword to Calico Joe , Grisham gave up playing baseball at the age of 18, after a game in which a hostile pitcher aimed a beanball at him, and narrowly missed doing the young Grisham grave harm. Grisham has been a Christian since he was eight years old, and has described his conversion to Christianity as "the most important event" in his life. After leaving law school, he participated in some missionary work in Brazil , under the First Baptist Church of Oxford. He wrote about the job: "there was no future in it". At 16, Grisham took a job with a plumbing contractor but says he "never drew inspiration from that miserable work". It was during this time that an unfortunate incident got him "serious" about college.
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And he has a father, a very sick old man who lives alone in the ancestral home in Clanton, Mississippi. He is known to all as Judge Atlee, a beloved and powerful official who has towered over local law and politics for forty years. No longer on the bench, the Judge has withdrawn to the Atlee mansion and become a recluse. With the end in sight, Judge Atlee issues a summons for both sons to return home to Clanton, to discuss the details of his estate.
It is typed by the Judge himself, on his handsome old stationery, and gives the date and time for Ray and Forrest to appear in his study. Ray reluctantly heads south, to his hometown, to the place where he grew up, which he prefers now to avoid. But the family meeting does not take place. The Judge dies too soon, and in doing so leaves behind a shocking secret known only to Ray.
And perhaps someone else. Excerpt Chapter 1 It came by mail, regular postage, the old-fashioned way since the Judge was almost eighty and distrusted modern devices. Forget e-mail and even faxes. He pecked out his letters with both index fingers, one feeble key at a time, hunched over his old Underwood manual on a rolltop desk under the portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest. It came with another letter, a magazine, and two invoices, and was routinely placed in the law school mailbox of Professor Ray Atlee.
He recognized it immediately since such envelopes had been a part of his life for as long as he could remember. It was from his father, a man he too called the Judge. Professor Atlee studied the envelope, uncertain whether he should open it right there or wait a moment. Good news or bad, he never knew with the Judge, though the old man was dying and good news had been rare. It was thin and appeared to contain only one sheet of paper; nothing unusual about that.
It was a business letter, that much was certain. The Judge was not one for small talk, hated gossip and idle chitchat, whether written or spoken. Ice tea with him on the porch would be a refighting of the Civil War, probably at Shiloh, where he would once again lay all blame for the Confederate defeat at the shiny, untouched boots of General Pierre G.
Beauregard, a man he would hate even in heaven, if by chance they met there. Seventy-nine years old with cancer in his stomach. He was overweight, a diabetic, a heavy pipe smoker, had a bad heart that had survived three attacks, and a host of lesser ailments that had tormented him for twenty years and were now finally closing in for the kill.
The pain was constant. During their last phone call three weeks earlier, a call initiated by Ray because the Judge thought long distance was a rip-off, the old man sounded weak and strained. They had talked for less than two minutes. The return address was gold-embossed: Chancellor Reuben V. Ray slid the envelope into the magazine and began walking. Judge Atlee no longer held the office of chancellor. The voters had retired him nine years earlier, a bitter defeat from which he would never recover.
Thirty-two years of diligent service to his people, and they tossed him out in favor of a younger man with radio and television ads. The Judge had refused to campaign. He claimed he had too much work to do, and, more important, the people knew him well and if they wanted to reelect him then they would do so.
His strategy had seemed arrogant to many. He carried Ford County but got shellacked in the other five. It took three years to get him out of the courthouse. His office on the second floor had survived a fire and had missed two renovations.
The Judge had not allowed them to touch it with paint or hammers. When the study was full, he lined them down the hallways into the dining room and even the foyer. Ray nodded to a student who was seated in the hall. Outside his office, he spoke to a colleague. Inside, he locked the door behind him and placed the mail in the center of his desk. The room was twelve by fifteen, with a small desk and a small sofa, both covered with enough work to make Ray seem like a very busy man.
He was not. For the spring semester he was teaching one section of antitrust. And he was supposed to be writing a book, another drab, tedious volume on monopolies that would be read by no one but would add handsomely to his pedigree. He had tenure, but like all serious professors he was ruled by the "publish or perish" dictum of academic life. He sat at his desk and shoved papers out of the way. The envelope was addressed to Professor N. A new ribbon had been needed for a decade. The N was for Nathan, after the general, but few people knew it.
The Judge liked titles and important addresses, and he wanted folks in Clanton, even the postal workers, to know that his son was a professor of law. It was unnecessary. Ray had been teaching and writing for thirteen years, and those who mattered in Ford County knew it. He opened the envelope and unfolded a single sheet of paper. The old man probably had an unlimited supply of the stationery.
It was addressed to both Ray and his younger brother, Forrest, the only two offspring of a bad marriage that had ended in with the death of their mother. As always, the message was brief: Please make arrangements to appear in my study on Sunday, May 7, at 5 p. Sincerely, Reuben V. The distinctive signature had shrunk and looked unsteady. For years it had been emblazoned across orders and decrees that had changed countless lives.
Decrees of divorce, child custody, termination of parental rights, adoptions. Orders settling will contests, election contests, land disputes, annexation fights. He had just been summoned, and as irritating as it was, he had no doubt that he and his brother would drag themselves before His Honor for one more lecture. It was typical of the Judge to pick a day that was convenient for him without consulting anybody else. It was the nature of the Judge, and perhaps most judges for that matter, to set dates for hearings and deadlines with little regard for the convenience of others.
Such heavy-handedness was learned and even required when dealing with crowded dockets, reluctant litigants, busy lawyers, lazy lawyers. He read the summons again, then put it away, on top of the pile of current matters to deal with. He walked to the window and looked out at the courtyard where everything was in bloom. But the old man was dying, he told himself. Give him a break. On a shady street in old Atlanta it would be worth over a million dollars, but not in Clanton.
It sat in the middle of five neglected acres three blocks off the town square. He and his brother could sell it for perhaps a hundred thousand dollars, but the buyer would need twice that to make it livable. Neither would ever live there; in fact, Forrest had not set foot in the house in many years. The house was called Maple Run, as if it were some grand estate with a staff and a social calendar.
The last worker had been Irene the maid. The Judge paid a local felon twenty dollars a week to cut the grass, and he did so with great reluctance. Eighty dollars a month was robbery, in his learned opinion. When Ray was a child, his mother referred to their home as Maple Run. They never had dinners at their home, but rather at Maple Run. Few other folks in Clanton had names for their homes. She died from an aneurysm and they laid her on a table in the front parlor.
For two days the town stopped by and paraded across the front porch, through the foyer, through the parlor for last respects, then to the dining room for punch and cookies. Ray and Forrest hid in the attic and cursed their father for tolerating such a spectacle. That was their mother lying down there, a pretty young woman now pale and stiff in an open coffin.
Forrest had always called it Maple Ruin. The red and yellow maples that once lined the street had died of some unknown disease. Their rotted stumps had never been cleared.
Four huge oaks shaded the front lawn. They shed leaves by the ton, far too many for anyone to rake and gather. And at least twice a year the oaks would lose a branch that would fall and crash somewhere onto the house, where it might or might not get removed.
The house stood there year after year, decade after decade, taking punches but never falling. Ray wanted nothing to do with it. For him the house was filled with unpleasant memories and each trip back depressed him. Forrest would burn it before he owned it. The Judge, however, wanted Ray to take the house and keep it in the family. This had been discussed in vague terms over the past few years.
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