Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Death by Default: Chapter 3 - Voices

Photo courtesy of jgolby,

Alex drifted back into the crowd while I tried to talk Michelle out of saying anything about Emily Mara. Eventually she agreed – with a huff – and abandoned me when she spotted Derek Ubel. She and Derek had a fling during our 1L year, which started after the “Race Judicata” fundraiser in October – Michelle and Derek tied for first – and ended just before On-Campus Recruiting in January. She never told me why they broke up.

Last I’d heard, Derek worked at Wade Harris, a tax law firm that worked their associates to the nub and had been founded by the surviving partners of an M&A firm that went belly-up after the dot-com bubble burst. Derek looked like a tax attorney – blonde hair, spectacles, and a bow tie – and was excited to see Michelle. After watching them greet each other with a hug, then laugh hysterically at something I couldn’t overhear, I meandered over to the appetizer table. My eyes lit up at the brie and fruit tray. Finally, something filling I could eat besides sodium-packed ramen. I filled a plate greedily, noshing a few bites in between, and wondered if Michelle would notice if I left early. I was enjoying my third bite of fig chutney so much that I barely noticed when Professor Rick Judas sidled up to me.

“Mavis Noir,” he crooned with a smile, offering me his hand.

Shit, I thought, setting down my plate and covering my stuffed mouth with one hand. And so it would begin – the questions.

“As I live and breathe,” he said, wagging his finger at me while I tried not to choke on a stray hunk of water cracker, “the only student ever to ace my final exam.”

I smiled and chewed a few more times, holding up one finger as the last bite finally made its way into my gullet. Wiping away a few stray crumbs, I said, “As I live and breathe, the only professor ever to cop to grade inflation.”

He laughed and I hoped that would buy me enough time to slink away with a lame excuse, but he seemed intent on catching up. Professor Judas was the only instructor who ever saw promise in me. Maybe it was because he hoped I’d follow in his footsteps, establishing myself among the ranks of social justice warriors like him who fought against the man tooth and nail at the PD’s office, before settling into comfortable academic life. Things didn’t quite turn out that way.

“So how’ve you been, Mavis? Any good trials coming up on the docket?”

I’d never noticed before how much he actually looked the part of an ex-hippie, indigent-clients-only, if-you’re-not-making-enemies-then-you-don’t-stand-for-anything, seasoned law professor. He was the only man in the room wearing tweed, his shaggy salt-and-pepper hair brushing the collar of a tieless blue dress shirt. He still believed in me, I could tell. And I could tell I was about to disappoint him just like I’d disappointed Alex.

“No, not really,” I said, grabbing my plate again, hoping to stuff the dread of impending humiliation back down my throat.

“You’re probably still doing DUIs and stuff, right? Don’t worry, things’ll get more interesting. I remember my first big trial a few years into my career - had to rep the Pulaski Park Prowler. I was scared shitless when the press showed up to the bail hearing, but I loosened up a few weeks later when I got some evidence tossed.” A nostalgic chuckle escaped him and he took a sip of his beer. “You doing all right?”

I nodded, trying to think of something – anything – to say. What came out next was pure ego overriding whatever logic remained in my head, all the blood rushing to my stomach to help digest the cheese. “I’m great!” Easy there, Mavis. 

“Yeah,” I continued, as though trying to convince myself, “Actually I’ve got something coming up in a few weeks. A big…thing. A client.” I couldn’t stop nodding my head. “A trial, you know. Drug case. Doesn’t look like it’s going to settle.” What the hell are you talking about?

“That’s great,” Professor Judas said, crossing his arms and leaning in to hear more. “I mean, not so great your client’s in a pinch but it’s great that you’re going to the mat for him. You challenging any of the science?”

My heart fluttered in my chest and my stomach turned. I set down my plate, regretting how quickly I’d scarfed everything down. “Mhm,” I said, stealing a glance at the double doors past his shoulder, where I knew a bathroom lay just beyond. I needed to get out of there.

“Remember, in drug cases it’s about technicalities. Look at your statutes, make sure you know the weight requirements for everything. And don’t let the crime lab get away with any chain-of-custody shenanigans.”

I hadn’t stopped nodding. “I won’t.”

“Listen to me, why am I telling you all this? You know what you’re doing.”

If ever a bigger lie had been spoken. “Will you excuse me?” I said. With that, I slipped past him toward the doors leading to the back of the first-floor stacks, where the bathroom awaited. I could feel Professor Judas’ eyes burning into the back of my head as I picked up the pace. The only thing worse than the shame of disappointing everyone else was the shame of disappointing myself. 


Photo courtesy of janko ferlic,
Tears burned my eyes as I tore through my purse, searching for the roll of Tums I’d been working my way through all day.

Why did I come to this thing?

Why did I lie to Professor Judas?

Why did I still care what everyone thought of me?

I smacked away a few tears and turned over my purse, shaking out the contents into the sink. The white and gold invitation soaked up a smattering of water droplets on the edge. Finally I found what I was looking for and popped three cherry-flavored hunks of chalk into my mouth, nearly gagging at the taste. Anxiety always went straight to my esophagus.

As I chewed, I took a long, hard look at myself in the mirror. I didn’t like that I saw. Gripping the edges of the sink, I leaned forward and studied my hollow brown eyes and mousy hair. Is this how I always looked? Or maybe it was just tonight – this place, these people, this time in my life that I couldn’t seem to escape. I tried to summon words of wisdom, but the best I could come up with was something my second-grade teacher used to say.

Exhaling slowly, I looked myself square in the eye and said, “Always be yourself.” It sounded ridiculous.

“Unless you suck,” a woman’s voice echoed from one of the stalls.

Shit, I thought. I wasn’t alone. 

I jumped and whipped my head around, darting my eyes back and forth trying to figure out which one it came from.

“What?” I called to the disembodied voice.

The far corner toilet flushed and the stall door squeaked open as a petite woman, shoulders draped by a curtain of jet black hair, emerged, wearing a navy blue cocktail dress and a wry smile. She looked familiar.

“I read it on a bumper sticker,” the woman said, click-clacking to the sink next to me in a pair of shiny heels. “Always be yourself, unless you suck.”

“Oh,” I said with a nervous laugh. “Sound advice.”

She shrugged and ran her hands under the faucet. “You look like you need it.”

Had I just been insulted? I tried not to think about that for too long, opting to collect my things instead. As I tossed everything back into my purse, I could feel the woman watching me out of the corner of my eye.

“Are you ok?” she said.

“Do I know you?” I replied, shooting her the side-eye, annoyed that someone had witnessed my quasi-breakdown and wouldn’t stop rubbernecking.

She ripped a paper towel from the dispenser and wiped her hands, then nodded toward the invitation soaking on the edge of the sink. “We were in the same class. I’m giving a speech tonight.”

I picked it up by its dry corner, letting it drip over the sink, and read the runny fine print at the bottom. “’The Alumni Committee is pleased to announce Winnie Detter, summa cum laude, as guest speaker.’”

Winnie Detter. I know Winnie Detter.

“Oh…I remember…” I said, letting the invitation fall back onto the sink. My mind connected the dots and I wondered why she’d agreed to come to this thing. “We were in the same study group. You were friends with—”

“Emily.” She dropped her eyes to the grimy tile floor.

“Yeah. Emily.” I bit my lip, wishing I hadn’t said anything. Winnie had always been smart; she probably didn’t even need a study group, but everywhere Emily went, Winnie followed. I recalled a moment in our trust and estates class when they put on a show for everyone, performing a modified duet of I’m My Own Grandpa titled I’m My Own Grandma. Winnie played the guitar while Emily sang lead. “I’m sorry about what happened.”

She shrugged and turned toward the mirror, blotting her olive cheeks with the paper towel before tossing it into the waste can. “Yeah, well, as they say, law sucks and then you die.”

I laughed grimly. “Who said that?”

She smoothed out her dress and turned toward the door, her eyes laser-focused on something beyond our metal and tile surroundings. “Emily said that,” she whispered as she brushed past me. Then she jerked the handle, hinges screaming in protest, and vanished into the darkness of the stacks.

Coming up in Chapter 4: An apparent suicide leaves Mavis with more questions about her fellow graduates...

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