Friday, March 17, 2017

Death by Default: Chapter 4: Warm Bodies

Photo courtesy of jgolby,

I saw Michelle talking to Alex on one of the mahogany benches in front of the view of Lake Michigan. The violinist had switched from Bach to the Beatles, the gloomy strains of Eleanor Rigby providing an appropriate soundtrack for a room full of would-be lawyers.

Michelle sat sideways, leaning toward Alex until she spotted me out of the corner of her eye. I made a beeline for them and watched Michelle whisper something to him. He turned around and clammed up when he saw me.

“Pop a squat, we were just talking about you,” she said, patting the bench. I slumped down next to her, Alex flanking her on the other side. It was dark, but the lights from the law school reflected off of the surface of the lake. There was no visibility that night, just a sea of cold black water in front of us.

“Really?” I said, thinking about my run-in with Winnie in the bathroom. “What about me?” I wondered how long Emily had been saying law sucks and then you die. How long had she been miserable? How many others in my class felt that way?

Michelle stood and raised her empty wine glass. “I’ll let you two talk about that. I’m going to get a refill.”

“What happened to Derek?” I said.

Michelle waved away my question. “Went looking for his wife. Did you know he married Winnie Detter? She always had a stick up her ass.”

“Yeah, actually I just ran into her in the bathroom—”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “Want me to get you anything?”

I shook my head and took a seat next to Alex, watching Michelle disappear into the crowd surrounding the bar.

“Reminds me of old times,” he said. “You, me, Michelle, in the law library. Feels like a million years ago.” He took a long sip from his drink and frowned at the bottom of the glass.

“It was a million years ago.” One of the 0Ls stood just a few feet in front of us, leaning against the glass picture window down at the water below. She had curly brown hair, and wore khaki trousers and a gray sweater rather than a cocktail dress like all the other women in attendance. She looked lost. Out of place. Maybe she was just a plus-one, I told myself.

“You seeing anyone?” Alex asked.
I shrugged and he nodded. I wasn’t seeing anyone, but I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing it.

“How’s life out in the real world?” he said.

“Well, let’s see.” I leaned back with a sigh. “I lied to Professor Judas about trying a big case and Miss Summa Cum Laude caught me talking to myself in the bathroom.”

He let out an oof, then handed me his vodka. “You still do that? I remember when we were taking trial ad and I’d hear you whispering ‘May it please the court’ late at night in the bathroom.”

I took a sip from his glass. “You could hear me? I thought you were watching Conan.”

He laughed, then paused before turning to me. “Did you know I spent all of civil procedure making a list of every job I’d rather have than being a lawyer?”

I bumped his shoulder playfully. “I spent it at the movies.”

He sighed. “I’ve heard the first five years are hell and then it starts to get better.”

I looked away and smoothed out my dress. I knew where this was going.

“You could always come back, you know,” he said.

I cleared my throat. “Is that so?”

He dropped his eyes and bit his lip. “I’m sorry. You’ve just always had a lot of potential.”

That’s the way things were with me and Alex. He was always waiting for me to morph into someone he could love.

I stood and handed him his drink. “And you’ve always had a lot of nerve.”


I couldn’t stop thinking about Alex and Professor Judas and Winnie Detter as I gulped my glass of wine. They all thought I was a loser, and they were right. I’d told my professor I was about to try a big drug case when really, I was in the middle of writing a piece about all the bars in town that would offer St. Patty’s Day buffets next week. Winnie was right – I shouldn’t be myself because my self sucked.

I ordered another glass and made my way to the wall of windows, where I found the curly-haired 0L still lingering by the view of the lake. She reminded me of someone. Emily, maybe, although I hadn’t seen Emily in years and barely recognized her newspaper photo. Maybe it was the way she kept staring down at the water. It made me wonder if she was the type who could fling herself off a bridge someday.

She didn’t notice me watching her as I sipped my wine. I recognized her V-neck sweater because I owned the same one in a different color. It was from Target. I caught myself smiling at her, seeing myself eight years ago in her distracted gaze and the way she stuck out like a sore thumb in a room full of Type As.

Suddenly she spotted me out of the corner of her eye and snapped back to the present.

“Hi,” I said apologetically, holding out my hand. “I didn’t mean to scare you, I just wanted to introduce myself. I’m Mavis Noir.”

“Sarah Lemming.” She shook my hand and crossed her arms in front of her chest, her puppy dog eyes scanning the crowd. “I didn’t mean to be anti-social, it’s just that everyone’s so intimidating.”

I took a sip of liquid courage, hoping I’d have the guts to tell her the truth, like Michelle had wanted us to. I wanted to tell her to run away from this place and never look back. I wanted to tell her to find something – anything – else to do rather than making and receiving threatening letters for the rest of her career. I wanted to tell her I owed over sixty thousand dollars to Upper Peninsula Lending and couldn’t afford the cab fare it took to get here just to tell her these things. I wanted to tell her she was a warm body like all the others, a federally-guaranteed source of income for the school, whose non-dischargeable debt would serve only make the top ten percent of the class look good.

But instead, I said, “Are you thinking of going here?”

“Yeah. I think so anyway. I’m not sure yet. I’ve been interviewing for jobs and stuff, but nothing’s really panned out.”

I nodded, wanting to tell her to run for the hills but my ego stopped me just like it had with Professor Judas. “What makes you want to be a lawyer?”

She shrugged. “I guess I want to help people.”

I took a long gulp of wine and recalled eight years ago when I’d written the exact same thing on my admissions essay. None of us knew back then that most of the people who need help are the ones who can’t afford to pay. And they’re the most damaged.   

“What do you do?” she asked.

I write puff pieces about senior citizens who form Kiss tribute bands, and serve overpriced coffee to indebted grad students at night. “Um, criminal law,” I said, rubbing the back of my neck, hoping she couldn’t detect the lie.

She raised her eyebrows. “Seriously? What’s that like?”

I thought of my last client, a seventeen year-old dropout who’d been charged with battery for hitting his younger sister in the face with a toaster. “It’s…illuminating. Sometimes I think of quitting.”

“Why?” She furrowed her brow and dropped her eyes to my wine glass.

I wondered if I was slurring. I still hadn’t had much to eat and I’d already guzzled my limit in wine about twenty minutes ago.

“I don’t know,” I said, taking another sip and recalling the day I left Alex. He’d come home from work to find me sitting in the living room with my bags already packed. He called me a selfish bitch and I spent the next month in Orlando with my parents, who tried to talk some sense into me as I drafted a fake resume and landed myself a job interview at the Cold Lake Weekly. “I don’t know if I have the stomach for it. I think I should’ve taken some time off after college to figure things out.”

She looked down and made a face. “I’ve thought the same thing, but I don’t know what to do with myself. I majored in English Lit.”

I laughed and finished the last of my wine. “I hear you. I majored in Philosophy. What else was there to do but take the LSAT?”

“Oh, I didn’t take the LSAT,” she said, her eyes darting back up to me. “They said I didn’t have to.”

Suddenly, an earsplitting scream tore through the library and the violinist dropped his bow. Sarah and I both jumped, our eyes darting around the room like everyone else’s. Then, more screams and gasps, followed by “Call 9-1-1!” I caught a glimpse of the dean, a portly version of Alan Arkin, as he made his way through suits and cocktail dresses and headed for a crowd of people gathering in front of the window a few feet away from us.   

I heard more pleas for someone to call 9-1-1 as I stepped closer to the murmuring crowd. I scanned the room for anyone I knew, but didn’t see Michelle or Alex anywhere. My heart skipped a beat as the onlookers abruptly began to dissipate, heading for the library exit. As I approached the window, the violinist sidled up behind me to see what everyone was gawking at.

“Holy shit,” he mumbled. “Is that what it looks like?”

My body froze and I couldn’t answer him. I didn’t know if “that” was what it looked like because I’d never seen anything like it before. I recognized the navy blue cocktail dress. The long curtain of jet black hair. But it looked like those were now soaked in a puddle of blood. It looked like a woman had fallen from a great height, maybe even as high as the rooftop deck above the tenth floor, where Michelle, Alex, and I used to listen to Con Law lectures on especially warm days. It looked like the woman had broken every bone in her body. It looked like the entire party was gathering around her to stare. It looked like the rain was already starting to wash away her blood.

It looked like Winnie Detter.


Coming up in Chapter 5: Mavis considers exposing the law school debt crisis and gets a surprise visitor at work...

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