Thursday, March 9, 2017

Death by Default: Chapter 2 - Sacrificial Lambs

Photo courtesy of jgolby,

Kerner Law School, founded in 1965 and regrettably named after Otto Kerner, Jr., one of several Illinois governors who eventually landed in prison, overlooked Lake Michigan and was recently anointed by Time magazine as the school whose graduates were least likely to repay their student loans. It was located in Cold Lake, Illinois, just a few miles north of Chicago and three short blocks from Cold Lake University, where Michelle and I earned useless humanities degrees before taking the twenty-thousand-dollar-a-year plunge at Kerner Law School. Tuition now cost forty thousand a year, a hefty increase since we graduated five years before, which hardly seemed justified considering they still hadn’t changed the name. The school didn’t boast any particularly impressive faculty, but the library was really something. Lots of mahogany and marble, with a wall of windows facing out toward the lake, and a rooftop deck where classes were sometimes held on especially warm days. Back in 2007 during my 1L year, just being there made me feel the weight of American jurisprudence. Brown v. Board of Education, Miranda v. Arizona, Cohen v. California – in each case the rule of law outweighed prejudice, shady police tactics, even good taste, simply because it was that important. All of those cases had been argued and decided by lawyers. And all of them were contained within the hallowed stacks of the Kerner Law School Library.  That was probably why the recruitment mixer was being held there, among the towering rows of legal journals, law reporters, and statute books.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Bergin,
As Michelle and I climbed the concrete steps to the entrance, I still couldn’t shake the feeling I had earlier that I should have stayed home. It was March and all of the 0Ls that would be in attendance had been granted early acceptance. Michelle and I, along with the rest of the class of 2010, had been invited to sell the benefits of a Kerner legal education. I wondered why Michelle even wanted to go, considering she was just as bitter about her decision to attend law school as I was. Maybe even more so.

“What do you say we try to talk them out of it?” she suggested as we made our way to the coat check.

“Talk whom out of what?” I said, shaking the rain from my black parka.

“The newbies – should we tell them the truth?” She handed her coat to a willowy redhead who cocked an eyebrow at Michelle’s question.

“I don’t know, you think you have the stomach for that?”

“Sure,” she said, leading me past a sign at the entrance that read Welcome, Class of 2018! “We just look them straight in the eye and tell them ‘You’re about to take out loans the size of a mortgage for the privilege of dipping your toe into a dried-up puddle known as the legal job market. Danger, Will Robinson!’”

I sighed and rubbed my stomach, trying to calm the butterflies. “You know I can’t crush anyone’s dreams. Can’t we just fast-talk them out of their drink tickets instead?”

“Don’t be so unimaginative, it’s not good in your line of work.”

I laughed and rolled my eyes, scanning the room for familiar faces. All I saw were black ties, white wine, and professors greasing wide-eyed twenty-two year-olds who desperately wanted to extend undergrad for three more years. “My line of work? Since when do I have a line of work? Last I checked, I write for the Cold Lake Weekly, readership approaching two digits.”

She led me toward one of the cocktail bars that had been set up near the front, right by the view of the lake. A violinist played Bach in the far corner. They were laying it on thick.

“I wasn’t talking about your column, I was talking about your book,” Michelle said as we took our place in line behind a half dozen alums I didn’t recognize. Most of them were chatting animatedly with each other, although I wasn’t sure why they appeared to be having so much fun.

I waved to the dean as he walked by. He probably reciprocated simply to appear in-touch with all of his graduates because I don’t think he had the foggiest notion of who I was. “You mean the book I’m writing that will never be published? The one I don’t have time to finish since I also sling coffee five nights a week?”

She squeezed my arm and whispered, “See? That’s what I’m talking about. We need to tell them that being a lawyer sucks. That the market sucks. That student loans suck. That Mitch Johnson was on moot court and now he works at Rosati’s Pizza. Let’s tell them the truth.”

I shrugged. “When did the truth ever help anyone?”

“It might help them. You never know.”

“And what’s in it for us?”

She leaned in and giggled, “Light refreshments.”

I laughed along with her until my eyes drifted to the appetizer table and my heart sank into my stomach. “Oh God, there’s Alex.”

“What?” Michelle craned her neck, but I yanked her arm and told her to knock it off.

“I don’t want to see him,” I said, but it was too late. He’d already spotted us from the crudité platter where he’d been hovering and eyeing the crowd.

“Why not?” She waved him over despite my protests. “It’s been two years, aren’t you over it by now?”

“Of course I’m over it – why wouldn’t I be? He was the asshole, not—”

“Ok, shh shh shh,” she said as he approached.

“Don’t shush me—”

“Alex!” she beamed, holding out her arms toward him. 
Photo courtesy of yutacar,
There he was. Alex Bragg. Tall, dark, handsome Alex. Thirty years old, five years into his career at the DA’s office, and destined for political greatness – if his father, Judge Bragg of the Seventh Circuit, had anything to say about it. We started dating during our 3L year, when we both interned for the Innocence Project. We managed to stay together for three years after that, despite the fact that he’d taken a job at the DA’s office purely on political ambition (the idea being that voters were more likely to elect a good guy who put criminals away rather than a bad guy who got them out). I overlooked his quest for power during my time at the PD’s office, but the cracks in our relationship were too much to overcome when I walked away from my legal career.

Alex briefly embraced Michelle, then studied me up and down with a smile. “Mavis,” he said, offering his hand. “You look great.”  

I took it, feeling my face flush and wishing the marble floor would swallow me up. “Likewise.” It was true; he did look good. But he was still an asshole. I really should have stayed home.  

“So, what have you ladies been up to?” Alex said, smacking his hands together. “Michelle, still at New Start?”

New Start was the bankruptcy firm that hired Michelle a year after we graduated. She didn’t mind the work or the clients, but they paid her peanuts. In some legal circles, New Start was considered a “bankruptcy mill,” one of those high volume, low quality outfits that offered a no-frills approach and whose attorneys were routinely listed in the disciplinary section of the state bar journal for providing shoddy representation. Michelle wasn’t like that, though. She cared about her clients and genuinely wanted to help them, but she couldn’t risk going out on her own and walking away from the regular – albeit meager – paycheck.

“Mhmm,” she nodded as we moved forward in line. “And you? Still with the DA?”

“Yeah, just got assigned to the narcotics prosecution unit. Hoping to get to homicide, but that’ll be a while.”

Christ, why was the bartender taking so long? I nervously rubbed my drink tickets together and hoped Alex hadn’t noticed I was wearing an old dress. I hadn’t bought a new one in two years, ever since I left the PD’s office. It was a nice shade of red, but he had seen me in it a dozen times before.

“What about you, Mavis?” Alex said. “I think I saw your byline a few weeks ago. Still at the Cold Lake Weekly?”

I smiled sheepishly and moved a few steps forward. “Yeah, still doing five hundred words a week.” I’d been hired two years before to write a weekly column of puff pieces on colorful local residents and neighborhood happenings. It started as a temporary job. I was supposed to fill in during the regular columnist’s maternity leave, but she never came back. I didn’t make nearly as much as I did at the PD’s office, but a major perk of the job was the cheap rent the editor offered me to lease her coach house.

Michelle put her arm around my waist and gave me a playful squeeze. “One of Mavis’ columns actually just got picked up by Yahoo.”

Alex cocked an eyebrow and grinned. “No kidding? That’s great.”

I shook my head and eyed the bar again. “It was just the ‘Odd News’ section. About a guy whose dog can play ‘The Entertainer’ on the piano.” I cringed as I heard myself say it.

Alex laughed. “That does sound odd.”

“Actually, he can only play the bass notes. His owner plays treble.” Stop talking now, Mavis.  

Finally, we were up. Michelle slapped her drink tickets down on the bar and Alex leaned in toward me to whisper, “You really do look great.”

I couldn’t help but smile even though I still hated him with every fiber of my being. Or at least, I was still annoyed by him with every fiber of my being. He was close enough that I could smell the cologne he used to wear back when we were together. “Thanks. How’ve you been?”

He shrugged. “Eh, you know…” His voice trailed off as he dropped a drink ticket on the bar and ordered a double vodka. He looked like he wanted to say something but thought better of it.

Watching him struggle with his words made me remember why I fell in love with him in the first place. Behind the blind ambition was vulnerability. He had kind, brown eyes – eyes that told me deep down, he was a scared little boy afraid of disappointing his father.

Suddenly he turned to me and furrowed his brow. “Hey Mavis? There’s something I meant to tell you—”

But Michelle interrupted us before he could finish.

“Ok, let’s just tell them about Emily Mara,” she said as she rejoined us and took a sip of her wine.

Her voice snapped me back to reality. “What?”

“Emily Mara. She jumped off a bridge last week. We went to school—”

"I know who you’re talking about,” I said, stealing a glance at Alex. “I mean, what are you talking about?

She darted her eyes back and forth, leaning in conspiratorially. “I mean let’s tell these newbies what the real deal is. Let’s tell them about Emily.”

I sucked in a breath, the butterflies in my stomach raising another protest. “I don’t know about that—”

Alex shook his head and brought the vodka to his lips. “What are you up to, Michelle?”

“Just a little guerrilla warfare. You in?”

I grabbed her arm and pulled her aside, a few feet away from him. “We can’t do that,” I hissed. “Someone died, it’s nothing to joke about.”

Michelle cocked her head to the side, narrowing her icy blue eyes. “Who’s joking, Mavis?” She nodded toward a group of chatty 0Ls admiring the marble columns that lined the main reading area. “Emily killed herself. Don’t you think we should tell these people why?”


Coming up in Chapter 3: Mavis spins a web of lies and has an unsettling encounter with a fellow graduate.  

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