They said Auriel (Aury) Lugner was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he always demurred. Silver was never good enough.
In this as well as other respects he was, like most children, a product of parental presence and absence, although in his family that absence often took the form of mental as well as physical disengagement. As a young child he had tried innumerable ways to capture their attention, the most dramatic being hanging by one hand out of his second story bedroom window, but they had nonchalantly called the fire department and gone back to calmly eating their breakfast and reading the morning paper. However, when he was elected president of his third-grade class after promising his classmates the pick of his uneaten Halloween cache, his parents were ecstatic, calling all their friends and family to share the news. Thus Aury learned early that their interest in him waxed and waned in concert with the degree to which his actions managed to enhance their own ambitions as well as his reputation. The balance of their interest in him remained tilted toward absence unless personal or familial advancement was involved in which case the rule was clear: “Go!”
In his early years, the games he played were simple and he played against imaginary opponents, figuring out ways to finesse their attacks, circumvent their moves, ferret out their weaknesses, duck if they came after him, then counterattack and aim for the jugular. In high school on the playing field, where the stakes rose and reputation, not to mention the right college, was on the line he had once looked about to lose out to a better player until his father stepped in and put his finger on the scales.
Thus football provided an easy proving ground, especially with one of the managers from his father’s company as his coach. Slight but with a natural quickness, he slid in as a wide receiver, taking the passes of other, quicker boys and running with them. With his coach dutifully yelling from the sidelines: “Aury’s open, Aury’s open,” his stature rose with the TDs piling up each time he crossed the line. His teammates and their parents noticed he didn’t quite measure up to the hype, but most kids in the stands saw only the scoreboard lighting up the sky.
By the time Aury entered college in the fall of 1989, he had stretched up to six feet tall and grown into a slim, dark haired young man with a boyish face that might have been described as handsome except for a petulant look that crept into his eyes and across his mouth when any of the pronouncements that he tended to toss out with a flourish provoked a challenge from a fellow student. The look usually worked its magic for him until he continued talking and those listening realized he had given no thought to what he was talking about. Nevertheless, his tone was usually definite and often enough served to blot out the lack of content thus cowing others into silence. There was however, one subject upon which he was an undisputed expert.
That exception flowed from an introductory course in American history in which seventy-five percent of the final grade depended upon a paper due after winter break. Aury’s chosen topic was “A Phenomenon of the 1980s: The Rise of the Yuppie.” The topic captured his imagination, and he scanned newspaper articles and wrote both a summary of what he had learned and his thinking about what might become of the idea. His history professor was impressed, gave him an “A” and wrote: “Well done! You seem to have internalized the subject.”
That had been his first and last major effort in his college years, for he had learned the fine art of economy of time, a necessary attribute for one to whom social interactions yielding useful connections were paramount. That had not however been the end of his history paper. It had in fact reappeared numerous times afterwards during his college career as he turned it in as his major paper in courses ranging from sociology to economics to political science and unblushingly even in psychology.
Once ensconced in the top law school for networking, Aury proved to be the same quick, if careless, learner, taking the questions tossed his way and running with them. Facile with words and forceful with pronouncements, he piled up ways to win while racing off at high speed toward illusive ends, dropping weighty complexities by the wayside. Sure of himself, never in doubt, he was racing up the rungs of an unmoored ladder. And then he met Karina. He had never met her like before. She simply refused to be impressed.
They met because she was in his way. Verne Rosenbaum, revered Professor of Constitutional law, had stopped her in the hall to talk. “I want you to speak up more in class.” Aury heard the revered professor telling her. ”Don’t be intimidated by all these blatherers; you have important observations they need to hear.”
“Thank you, Professor,” she nodded thoughtfully, “I will.”
And she continued on her way to the bookstore.
As she left, Aury moved in to take her place, but the Professor’s mood had changed.
“Yes?” he asked curtly as if irritated by the interruption.
Undaunted, Aury continued. “I was fascinated by your discussion of NYTimes v. Sullivan and wondered if we could meet to discuss the implications…”
“Have you read the material in the syllabus?” the professor asked sharply.
“Well, not yet sir, but I am really looking forward to discussing the case with you…”
“Good,” the Professor cut him off. “Read the material and we can all discuss it after my lecture on it two weeks from today,” he said as he turned to walk out the door.
Stung, Aury raced down the hall after Karina.
What did this nonentity, this quiet woman the same age as he but not nearly as sophisticated, have that he didn’t? He had to know. If Rosenbaum thought she was worth listening to…. But no, the professor was just being nice. So why didn’t he bother being nice to him, a student who had ambitions and was clearly going somewhere?
He raced after her and amazed them both by asking her if she’d like some coffee in the student lounge now emptying in time for afternoon classes. He wanted to know the secret of her success. Why did the Professor treat them so differently? What was it about her, seemingly so ordinary, that he, clearly a star, had somehow missed? But as they sat talking he soon realized she had no idea what it was he wanted to know.
As it turned out, they had in common growing up in small, midwestern towns, buoyed by parental expectations, but there the similarity ended. As his father was a tech exec, he had spent his youth in the white mansion with the rolling lawn and portico where the alcohol flowed, especially on the weekends while his parents were busy socializing in Chicago, a temptation to which his older brother had succumbed and as a result was in rehab once again. Her early days had been filled with hiking and camping out from a modest home base, collecting specimens and photos with a mom who was a high school biology teacher and a dad who was the town pediatrician. Both were generally present and available to their girls, the need to impress being utterly foreign to them. Her sister Amy, a student at the local state university, was studying environmental science. In the summers Karina loved helping her take school kids from the city to the Fox River Trail Loop and the Red Oak Nature Center. It was these trips that had set her on the path toward environmental law. He, on the other hand, carried the force of absolute commitment to the cause of self-promotion.
“But why are you here, what do you want to achieve?” she asked, looking straight at him with honest interest, waiting for an answer.
He shrank back from her, not quite knowing what to say. It was not that he didn’t have a ready answer. It was just that the answer he had depended upon to this point seemed at that moment to be somehow insufficient.
Sensing his discomfort, she changed the subject.
“You know my Dad has often expressed a concern to me that a person can be a lawyer without ever really dealing with the results of advocacy, particularly if that person’s path leads into the political forest and gets lost in winning the game. He just can’t get over that aspect of our chosen profession. Maybe that’s part of the reason he keeps reminding me to hang onto my humanity.”
“So we go to law firms instead of hospitals to train—what’s the difference?” he asked unsure where any of this was going.
“How many clients do we interact with at a law firm during our first years? And what if we don’t go to a firm? What if we just hang out a shingle and literally practice on anyone who happens to walk in the door and ask for help?”
“Well,” he tilted back his chair, balancing now on its hind legs. “That won’t be me. I’m planning on clerking and then it’s a well-connected firm, an appropriate launching pad into politics.”
“Great!” she said, her eyes boring in on him. “You want to determine the fate of people with no real world experience, no sense of who they are or how what you do will affect their lives?”
“Oh come on!” He was laughing at her now, her naiveté. “What do you think this is all about?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Why don’t you tell me?”
She looked at him with full attention as few had before. He straightened up and began his spiel: the law firm, clerkship, political position, but for the first time it all rang hollow.
She glanced at the clock above the cash register. “Sorry,” she tossed at him, hopping down. “Late for study group—”
Two weeks later he was, by appointment, in Professor Rosenbaum’s office, sitting across a wide oak desk from the revered professor who was looking down at him with his sad brown eyes beneath bushy gray eyebrows. Aury held his breath and waited. He had after all aced all of the quizzes so far by spotting the issues as expected, answered all of the questions thrown his way in class.
“Auriel,” the professor said, finally taking pity on the honest confusion of the boy sitting across from him.
“Yes, Professor Rosenbaum,” Aury answered nervously.
“You still don’t understand, do you?” Professor Rosenbaum countered. “Constitutional law is not a game for clever boys and girls. It is a calling. It provides the underpinnings of our civilization. It disciplines our worst instincts, defines our aspirations and orders our society. And the underlying question you should be asking yourself every day is not ‘what?’ or ‘how?’ but ‘why?’ When you learn that, come see me again.
“I think I see sir,” Auri answered slowly.
“Do you, son? Do you really? The law is not a prop nor is it rungs on a ladder to where exactly? Have you thought of that, the end game? The law is a sacred trust. It is all we have between civilization and barbarism. Respect it, guard it, use it wisely, so that you can hand it down unsullied to the next generation.”
In the hall Karina was waiting for him. He was surprised. “Moral support?” he asked.
“No, just curiosity,” she replied. “Where will you go from here?”
He shrugged. “Nice guy, not very realistic though—pretty ivory tower. Coffee?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” she replied. Then turned on her heel with a backwards half-wave. “Catch you later maybe—”
Sitting at his desk in the corner office on the 51st floor of Popinjay and Mulligan, one of the most prestigious law firms in town with excellent political connections, Aury smiled to himself. True, there was the change in perception after 9/11 that made office altitude less valuable, but that hadn’t lasted, and anyway, had little to do with him. He’d won his last three cases. There was no question he was on his way up. True, there was that momentary yet memorable encounter when the Judge had come close to censoring him for misrepresenting the facts, but the firm’s senior partner had smoothed out that little wrinkle, and they had eventually won the case. Still, it had proven to be an uncomfortable moment and for some strange reason Karina and Professor Rosenbaum had crossed his mind.
Karina—it had been years, yet he had been unable to erase the memory. Though they had given each other a passing glance on the way to class or in the law library, that was the last time they had spoken until their paths crossed once again in a committee hearing room in the Nation’s Capitol.
“Surprised?” he asked proudly.
“Not at all,” she replied curtly.
He was irritated, angry. He wanted her to know how well he had done though the fact that he was in that room should have told her that. He was proud of his career. He had accomplished what he set out to do—partnership in the best tech law firm in the state, and now, the honor of representing that firm’s president in front of a committee of the United States Congress.
“So you’ve read about me?” he asked.
“I’m not surprised,” she answered, looking straight through him with those honest brown eyes that had so discomfited him years ago and had the power to do so still.
“And I’m married now.”
“So I’ve heard, congratulations.”
“She’s very wealthy.”
Karina nodded thoughtfully. “I believe you’re working for your father-in-law’s firm?”
“Yes,” he said nodding proudly. He’s supporting my run for Congress. And you?”
“Just a worker bee—”
“United States Department of Justice,” she said quietly.
“Oh,” he said.
“Are you happy?” she asked.
“I’m winning,” he answered.
“What exactly?” she asked.
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