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I had not expected to receive any mail on my first day at work. After all, the start of my career as a new lawyer at Butler and Yates was not exactly the talk of Atlanta. In fact, the firm wouldn't even mark the occasion until later in the summer--after I had presumably passed the bar exam.
Even then, it wouldn't exactly be a media event. Instead, there would be a couple hundred engraved cards mailed to friends of the firm announcing that Charles F. Hunter had become an associate there.
That's why the letter came as such a surprise. Outside of my family and a few close friends, I had no idea who would know--much less care--that I was here.
I also noticed that the postmark was two weeks old. The letter had apparently been lying around for a while. Whoever sent this little missive must have known for some time that I was coming to work at Butler & Yates.
To add to the mystery, it bore no return address. The only clue about its origin was the postmark from Augusta, Georgia, just a hundred miles or so east of Atlanta on Interstate 20. Aside from its significance as the home of the Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters tournament, I couldn't think of any real connection that I had with Augusta.
I knew the letter wasn't from one of my classmates in law school. Almost all of them preferred E-mail to the U.S. Postal Service.
There wasn't anything distinctive about the envelope. It certainly wasn't Crane's Crest. Instead, it looked to be right out of a box of the cheap kind you could buy at the corner drugstore. Judging from its slightly yellow tint, the box had been on the shelf for a long time, too.
In contrast to thecomputer-generated addresses usually seen on mail received at a law firm, this envelope was addressed to me in a crude handwriting. That certainly added to my interest.
My reverie was broken by the sound of a soft female voice. I looked up to see an auburn-haired 40-something secretary standing in my doorway with a cup of coffee in her hands. She had the no-nonsense look of someone who knew a whole lot more about the law business than I did.
"Sorry if I surprised you."
"Oh, no," I assured her.
She smiled at my obvious lie.
"I'm Gloria. I was here when you clerked last summer. I work for Mr. Guidry down the hall. He asked me to give you a hand if you need anything."
I suppose it was her way of letting me know that she hadn't volunteered for the job. I could imagine that few secretaries relished the notion of transcribing the awkward dictation of a new lawyer, or otherwise nursing him through his early efforts at malpractice.
Nonetheless, I was pleased that Emile Guidry had taken an interest in me. He was one of the stars of the firm. Now in his mid-50s, Guidry was at the top of his game as a trial lawyer.
He had built his reputation by defending chemical companies against suits brought by individuals who claimed to have been poisoned by various kinds of noxious emissions. It was no easy trick convincing a jury that his Fortune 500 clients were the good guys, but he brought in one defense verdict after another. Usually, he was able to persuade the jury either that the plaintiff hadn't been hurt too badly or that his condition had some other cause. No one was better at medical causation than Emile Guidry.
Guidry was originally from New Iberia, a small town in South Louisiana. Perhaps its most noteworthy claim to fame was its close proximity to Avery Island, home of the McIlhenny family plantation where the world-famous Tabasco pepper sauce is produced. Guidry was a genuine Cajun or, as he preferred, "coonass."
When I first heard him use the term, I was a bit surprised. I had heard it used before, while I was in law school in Louisiana at Tulane, but always with somewhat derogatory connotations.
However, I had never been altogether sure what it meant, so I asked. Guidry said that it was a slang word for Cajun. He then explained that, like most colorful references to race or nationality, "coonass" was either a term of endearment or an insult, depending on who said it to whom--and how much alcohol had been consumed at the time. I asked him where the term came from. "You don't want to know," he laughed, and I knew it wouldn't do any good to ask again.
I had first gotten to know Guidry when he asked me to draft a research memorandum for him on the recovery of nonpecuniary damages for breach of contract. I busted my tail on it, and it came out well. It was the high point of my budding professional career when he called me in to compliment me on it.
"This is a good piece of work, Charley. I can see why you made the law review."
Since it was my first research assignment outside of law school, I was thrilled by his approval. Guidry was confirming for the first time that what I had learned in class was transferable to the real world.
He gave me several more research assignments during the course of my clerkship. I must have passed muster as a law clerk, because now he wanted to put me under his wing. Having his secretary check on me was a good sign. He knew better than I that you can only learn so much in law school. I had years of on-the-job training ahead of me before I'd be able to do all the things real lawyers do. An old hand like Gloria could teach me a lot of things my law professors couldn't.
Holding up the mysterious envelope, I said to Gloria, "I've already gotten my first piece of mail."
My ragtag little trophy obviously didn't impress her. "Maybe it's your first big case," she said in a clearly facetious tone.
She then excused herself to finish typing a brief, and I turned my attention once again to the envelope. Tearing it open, I found a clipping of an obituary from the Augusta Chronicle. It read:
George "Chico" Carter
George "Chico" Carter passed away yesterday, May 24, at his home in Augusta after a long illness. He was 86.
Mr. Carter was a lifelong resident of Augusta. He retired from the Augusta National Golf Club, where he worked for many years as a caddie master. He was a member of the Knights of St. Peter Claver and the Hip-Hop Social Club. He is survived by five children, eleven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are made through Thompson Funeral Home. There will be a rosary tomorrow at 7:00 p.m. and a funeral mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Friday at 2:00 p.m.
The family has requested that memorial donations be made to the American Cancer Society and the Sacred Heart Altar Fund.
I had no idea why someone would want to send me this obituary. I noticed a small slip of paper that was also in the envelope. I pulled it out and looked at it. It consisted of only two words, written in the same crooked hand as the address on the envelope. The note read: "It's time." It was unsigned.
Time for what? As far as I could tell, I had no connection whatsoever to George "Chico" Carter or his family. Whoever sent this couldn't have expected me to attend the funeral; the clipping was over two weeks old. Someone thought it was important nonetheless to let me know that Mr. Carter had passed on to his great reward.
That made me a little uncomfortable. Getting an obituary in the mail wasn't exactly the bright note on which I had hoped to start my new career. I don't know how long I spent pondering the whole thing when I suddenly noticed Emile Guidry standing in front of me.
"You okay, Charley?"
I must have jumped, because he quickly added, "I didn't mean to startle you. You were looking awfully deep in thought about something."
I quickly pushed the envelope and its meager contents aside. "I'm sorry. I was just daydreaming."
Guidry seemed placated and changed the subject. "My secretary's name is Gloria. I don't know if you met her last summer, but I've asked her to help you if you need anything at all."
I nodded appreciatively. "Yeah, thanks. She's very efficient; she already came by a little while ago. I can use all the help I can get."
"She's first-rate. I lucked into her when her boss at Marcus and Scofield retired. She can show you around the courthouse and introduce you to the few people in it who are willing to help you when you really need it. In a pinch, that kind of information can save a lawyer's ass."
With that he was out the door. I burst out laughing. Emile Guidry was never one to beat around the bush. It was a great exit line.
Gloria may be good, I thought, but could she help me figure out why someone would send me Chico Carter's obituary? I tucked the envelope into the top drawer of my desk.
I didn't have a whole lot of time to worry about the mysterious obituary. Before the end of the day, Emile Guidry had dropped a foot-high stack of files on my desk.
"I've been holding onto these for your arrival. They're collection files that First National Bank sent over a couple of weeks ago. Each file has a note that's in default. Your job is to turn them into money."
It must have been obvious from the vacant expression on my face that I had no idea how to go about doing that. Guidry pointed to the top of the stack.
"That top folder is a form file. It's got fill-in-the-blank pleadings, everything from the petition to the judgment debtor examination. Bring me your first one, and I'll look it over. You'll be fine after that."
As he was leaving, he offered one last bit of advice. "Make sure you ask for your attorney's fees. If you don't plead it, you don't get it."
Being a bill collector was not exactly the glamorous start I had in mind. I knew that I had to begin somewhere, though, and I comforted myself with the realization that this would at least force me to learn my way around the courthouse. Besides, the amounts of the various promissory notes indicated that these were just small consumer loans. Whatever mistakes I made while climbing the steep learning curve ahead of me weren't going to hurt my client a whole lot.
Too, I liked the idea that these were my files. Although I couldn't sign pleadings until I passed the bar, I would be in charge of each case I filed. I would get to make the decisions about whether to give the defendant a little more time to plead (or to pay), when and how to take a default, and what to do if a defendant failed to show up for a debtor examination. If I showed good judgment about these things, I knew that I would get to move on to bigger and better things.
I worked very hard on my first set of pleadings. So hard, in fact, that it took me several days to complete them. It's kind of embarrassing to think about it now. Any experienced secretary in the firm could have cranked out 20 sets of pleadings in the time it took me to do one, but I didn't care how long it took. I wanted Emile Guidry to be impressed.
If I was expecting high praise for my work, I was sorely disappointed. He took one quick look at my initial pleadings, handed them back, and said, "Good. Go with that."
Heading back to my office, I felt a little embarrassed at having expected more. This was, after all, routine collection work, not a Supreme Court brief.
I spent the next several days calculating the amounts due on each note and plugging the numbers into my form pleadings. My confidence grew as my first pleadings were accepted by the Clerk of Court, which meant that I had at least satisfied certain minimum requirements of form.
The pace of my work naturally quickened as I grew more comfortable with what I was doing. While most of the cases I filed met with no opposition and proceeded quickly to a default judgment, a few prompted answers that denied the debt. This allowed me to send interrogatories to the other side to learn if there was any basis to contest our claims. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that engaging the enemy was fun. It made me feel a little more like a real lawyer.
That's when I got the second letter. It arrived on a Wednesday morning, tucked in the middle of the various pleadings, CLE ads, and court notices that otherwise dominate every lawyer's daily mail. Next to all the crisp and neatly addressed business mail, the crude, hand-addressed envelope stood out like a sore thumb.
It appeared to be in the same handwriting as the first letter. Again, there was no return address. Again, the postmark was from Augusta, Georgia.
It was another obituary. This one was even more yellowed. Given how rapidly newsprint ages, that didn't really mean much. I opened it carefully, I suppose out of a lawyer's instinct to preserve the evidence (of what, I had no idea).
Funeral services for Eddie Eumont, 83, will be held at 10:00 a.m. Monday, February 18, at New Sunlight Baptist Church in Aiken, South Carolina.
The Rev. Isiah Russell will officiate. Burial will be in Gray's Cemetery in Augusta.
Mr. Eumont died recently in a local hospital.
He was a native of Augusta. He was a graduate of Kalb West High School. He spent most of his adult life working at the Augusta National Golf Club. He moved to Aiken when he retired.
Survivors include his wife, Dorothy (Jones) Eumont; three sons, Jay Anthony Eumont of Savannah, Paul Michael Eumont of Dallas, Texas, and Samuel George Eumont of Atlanta. He is also survived by six grandchildren.
Immediately, I noticed that this obituary related to another former employee of Augusta National. Other than that, though, I didn't have a clue what it meant.
Of course the obituary came with another note. It was just as cryptic as the first. All it said was, "He knew about it, too. So did Stedman."
That got my attention. Stedman seemed to refer to Beau Stedman, the great player befriended by Robert T. "Bobby" Jones Jr. As almost every sports fan knows, Bobby Jones was arguably the greatest golfer of all time. Although he was a career amateur, the young man from Georgia with movie star looks dominated the world of golf during the Roaring Twenties, winning five U.S. Amateurs, four U.S. Opens, three British Opens, and a British Amateur--all in a span of eight years. His greatest triumph, of course, came in 1930, when he won all four of these major championships--what sportswriter Grantland Rice dubbed the "Impregnable Quadrilateral" --in the same competitive season. Sensing that there were no worlds left to conquer, Jones shortly thereafter retired from competition at the ripe old age of 28.