by Eileen Brener

I started Tulane Law School with a few handicaps. At 40, the oldest in the class, and newly divorced, I viewed the world darkly. Having recently left a thirteen-year marriage with few assets—no real estate, no children—and just enough in savings to live on and pay tuition for three years, I felt like Joe Btfsplk, the Li’l Abner character with a perpetual black cloud over his head. My niece, a lawyer, encouraged me to apply. My favorite family member, she assured me I could do well; however, she was full of warnings: don’t raise a hand to volunteer an answer to a question, never assume any goodwill on the part of the professor for if I answered his first question correctly, he would skewer me with one question after another until he found the limits of my knowledge. He’ll never leave you feeling the least bit competent, she told me. This grim scene suited me. I relished the idea of three demanding years.

Most of my classmates were 22 to 24 and nonchalant about appearances. They dressed in tattered blue jeans or warm-ups, stained shirts and sneakers. There was one exception: Miss Lilly Labourgeois. Miss Labourgeois, as I thought of her then, wore outfits that highlighted her curvaceous figure: short skirts, tight-fitting blouses, and high-heeled shoes. I soon learned she was the youngest in our class—barely 20; she hailed from Lafayette, LA, a town in Cajun Country known for its Zydeco music. I heard that before law school Miss Labourgeois sang with a Zydeco band.

I wasn’t surprised to find that she had stage experience for she certainly had the presence. Her shoulder-length red hair, her spirited expressions and her confident swagger reminded me of Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise. I wondered how ready she was for the tedium. not to mention the challenges of law school.

All my professors that first semester worked at being abrasive if not abusive, but one, Professor Sternler, stood out from the rest. He taught Civil Procedure—court rules—and he imposed many rules on our class. For instance, at the moment class was to start—8 a.m.—he would lock the door so that anyone a fraction late would miss class. That first day when he was explaining his rules with emphasis on the penalty for being tardy, Miss Labourgeois appeared at the door about five minutes late. We could see her through the glass upper section of the door. (The class was in an amphitheater with the professor and door into the class on the lowest level.) As our professor repeated his warnings to her, Miss Labourgeois nodded and smiled beguilingly at him. He concluded by pointing to an empty seat on the top row of the classroom and saying, “Please, don’t let this happen again.” To our amazement, she took a curl of her red hair in her left hand and wound it around her finger and mounted the steps singing, “Do dee do, do dee do.” I was fascinated yet terrified for her; the prof watched her with his mouth open.

He said, “You are?”

“Lilly Labourgeois.” She paused and turned toward him.

“Perhaps, Miss Labourgeois, you’d be so kind as to give us the facts of Pennoyer v. Neff.”

“That’s an 1877 case where Neff was sued by a third party, but because Neff was not to be found, the third party won the lawsuit in a default judgment . . .” She continued giving the complications of the case while walking up the steps to her seat.

“Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s holding?”

“I don’t have the slightest idea. I studied to remember the facts for class. I expect you to tell me what it means.” Once again she wound a red curl about her finger, but she did not sing.

Professor Sternler’s face darkened and he turned to someone else for the next question.  The next day at 8 a.m. on the dot he made a wry face at the class and turned to lock the door. As soon as he turned the lock, we saw her through the glass pane in the door smiling at the professor.

“Well, I do believe it’s Miss Labourgeois gracing us with her presence today just in the nick of time.” He opened the door.

“Good morning, sir.” She climbed the stairs humming.

“Would you comment on the issue of foreseeability in the court’s decision in Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad, Miss Labourgeois?”

Without a moment’s hesitation she began: “A person is liable only for the consequences of an act that can be reasonably foreseen rather than every single consequence that could follow. It’s somewhat parallel to being 30 seconds late to class as opposed to 3 minutes.“

“Enough, Miss Labourgeois.” Professor Sternler had forgotten to lock the door after letting her enter and while he was questioning her, two hung-over-looking students had crept into the classroom trying not to attract notice.

About a week into classes, the forces-that-be declared that students would be seated alphabetically so that a secretary could take the role. As luck would have it, my surname—Lacrosse—placed me next to Lilly Labourgeois in two of my classes. She surprised me by being very friendly. I felt that I was invisible to most of my classmates who rarely spoke to me and certainly didn’t invite me to any of the many parties I overheard them discussing. Yet in spite of our age difference, Lilly and I became study-buddies and regularly had lunch together. One evening a week we worked on our course outlines together. I had the advantage of owning a computer at a time when few classmates did. Lilly was eager to learn to use it and caught on very quickly as she and I regularly updated our outlines. After our study sessions we drank red wine and complained about our heavy workloads.

Lilly’s extra-curricular activities– which she described to me in great detail—were impressive. She went out every night, had boyfriends from her hometown coming to see her and boyfriends from law school as well as admirers from among the professors. She laughed as she told me our contracts professor had invited her into his office to discuss a research project.

“He’s so old! He should be after you.” She gave my shoulder a squeeze to soften the blow.

I tried to smile, but the bitter lines in my face wouldn’t bend that way.

“Say, why don’t I fix you up with some men I know from Lafayette? I can think of two judges who are single.”

“Oh, maybe after exams, Lilly. I ought to focus on studying these next few weeks.”

I hadn’t had a date in fifteen years. The prospect was formidable. I wasn’t ready for a date. Lilly said we’d talk about it later.

There were no classes the week of Thanksgiving and I had no plans to do anything but study, because exams were the following week. A few days before our break, I was sitting in the cafeteria with Lilly discussing her Thanksgiving options. She told me that one of her hobbies is wing-walking, where she wears a harness attached to the top wing of a biplane and strolls along the lower wing or sits on the upper wing while the plane is in flight. The plane doesn’t go very high or very far, and it is all for a good cause, she assured me. She had plans to practice one day next week. I was amazed to learn that Lilly had soloed as a pilot at aged 16, and she now had a certificate to fly as a private pilot. Her father was a pilot for Delta; flying was a passion—one of many—with her.

This new aspect of Lilly was too much for me. I gave up on eating my lunch and just stared at her. Glowing with youth, beauty, and breath-taking confidence, she seemed my exact opposite. I felt like an unlucky Cinderella with no glass slippers while Lilly danced like a princess down an enchanted path. Breaking all my resolutions to study the entire week during the break, I told Lilly I wanted to see her wing-walk and that I would drive to Lafayette for the event.

Lilly called to arrange our meeting on the Friday after Thanksgiving at a small airfield outside of Lafayette. She mentioned that the pilot of the biplane was one of the judges that she intended to fix me up with. I began to whimper my excuses, but she shushed me by saying this meeting was all about wing-walking.

On Friday I arrived just as Lilly and Judge Allard drove up in his convertible. Lilly leaped out of the car wearing a yellow spandex jumpsuit. She walked me around to meet Judge Allan Allard, a pleasant looking, balding man who appeared to be about 50—the owner of the biplane and the pilot in this adventure.

As we walked toward the hanger, I saw the small plane being rolled out to the field. Lilly climbed into the front seat, put on goggles, secured her hair into a bun and buckled a harness around her. Allan piloted from the second seat. I knew I should be worrying about my young friend, but visions of Snoopy in goggles and scarf gave me the giggles. The plane took off and after it was in the air a few minutes, Lilly got out of the cockpit and walked to the end of the lower wing. She waved to me, turned around a few times and walked back to the cockpit. Then she raised herself so that she was sitting on the top wing over the cockpit. She lifted her arms and kicked her legs as though she were in a swing at a park.

After the plane flew a few more circles around the field, Lilly slowly lowered herself into the cockpit. The plane gained altitude and I lost sight of it. About thirty minutes later, I saw it return, land and roll to a stop. Lilly was not on board. I rushed out to meet Allan hardly daring to think what might have happened. When I saw his smile, I relaxed.

“Lilly had an idea,” he said. “She wanted to stop at Grand Coteau for coffee. I left her there and came back to get you. Would you like to fly over there? If you are nervous, we could drive.”

Of course, I would NOT like to fly over there. I’ve always kept a healthy distance from small planes. But I had been too damned cautious all my life and missed so much. . . . So I said, “Sure! Let’s fly!” trying to hold steady my trembling hands.

I climbed into the front seat and put on goggles and a helmet. Allan explained that we could hear each other during the flight, and I should tell him if I was nervous or felt sick. Otherwise I should stay buckled into my seat and enjoy the beautiful ride. It was mercifully short and uneventful. Grand Coteau is a rural village; I saw rolling green hills dotted with a few impressive homes and buildings.

We arrived and found Lilly at the coffee house in the center of a group of friends from her days performing with a band. She decided to get a ride back to Lafayette with them and told us we were on our own.

After coffee, Allan said, “Well, I guess you’re up for the return flight to the airfield in Lafayette.“ As though I had a choice.

“Sure!” I guessed the man thought that’s all I could say. The return trip was almost enjoyable; I was catching on to this Snoopy thing.

* * * * * *
After our last exam, Lilly and I met for lunch. We hadn’t seen each other since the day of her wing-walk. When I complimented her on her stunt skills, she asked me how I liked Allan and if I enjoyed flying in the biplane. I told her we had dinner together that evening and we were going out next weekend. Lilly smiled and predicted that before long I’d be wing-walking. She was right: Reader, I married him.

Eileen Brener has enjoyed studying writing–poetry and prose–at the IRP.