In late August, just before the fall semester began, we were noticed by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
An Administration Shaken, A Department Decimated
Southeast Kansas State University Struggles to Rebuild
When students return this fall to Southeast Kansas State University, home of the Fighting Prairie Dogs, a quiet campus located in the small rural town of Weirton, they will encounter an institution struggling to find recovery and purpose in the wake of tragedy and scandal.
The University’s President, Provost, and Dean of Faculties all resigned last spring after it was revealed that the Provost, Deborah Marvelle Axelrod, had made incorrect statements on her CV—namely, that she had received graduate degrees from accredited universities. Further investigations revealed that the Vice-President for Community Relations, the Vice President for Development, and the Dean of Engineering all made similar incorrect statements. All resigned. (Deborah Axelrod’s husband, Peter Arnold Axelrod, Zane County District Attorney, also resigned his position when it was disclosed that he had incorrectly claimed to be a former Navy SEAL). The Kansas Bureau of Investigation is conducting a review of hiring practices in the state university system.
“It’s been a difficult few months,” says Acting Provost Kermit Keaton. “But we in Kansas are made of stern stuff. We will not be deterred. We will reach the stars through difficulty.”
At the same time that the CV scandal was unfolding, the English Department—“the soul of Southeast Kansas State’s Liberal Arts Program,” according to Mr. Keaton—was facing serious tragedy of its own: the loss of seven popular faculty members.
Also missing from the department is graduate student Shawn Cudahy, 25, who died after being mauled by dogs.
“Our English Department has taken a massive hit,” says Acting Chair Earl Renner. “But we’re seeing this series of tragedies as an opportunity to re-commit to academic excellence.”
And so forth. Annuit coeptis.
The only thing that bothered me about the article was the headline—“Decimated Department.” I’m enough of a fussy academic to prefer the archaic root meanings of the word “decimated,” meaning not just the death or loss of large numbers, but the death of one in ten. The SEKSU English Department didn’t lose a measly ten percent of its faculty—we had losses of almost forty percent.
Yet Old Earl was correct when he said these losses were an opportunity.
The same week the Chronicle article came out, I was awarded tenure and promoted to Associate Professor.
Three weeks after that, I won the Prairie Dog Award for Teaching Excellence, which came with a check for $10,000.
“You’ve done really amazing work,” Kermit Keaton told me when I got the award. “And your students do outstanding work! Why, every student you had last year got an A! I guess it must really be a testament to your teaching ability.”
I took the check, of course. Then I took Sally and Lynnie to happy hour at the Tri-State to celebrate.
“To Devon Shepherd,” I said, holding up a shot of Jägermeister.
“To us!” Lynnie said.
Sally said, “To the Revengers!”
In late September, the department finally got around to holding a memorial service for Brenda and Ted and Courtney. It was a much more sedate event than the ones Courtney had organized earlier, without the Prairie Dog Brass and without any poetry. Without prayers. There were only two speakers, Dean/Acting Provost Keaton, who was just a little hungover, and Old Earl. While they spoke of the lost colleagues, slides were projected on a screen showing the dead professors doing various academic things. If two of the three honorees hadn’t been embezzling murdering rapists, it might have actually been kind of tasteful.
I sat with Lynnie in our usual place, off to the side and up a little bit. Sally sat with Earl in the front row. The new faculty members—seven of them, five women and two men—all sat together in the second row. Only one of the new people was hired for a tenure-track position—Jody Horowitz, our second candidate in the original search to replace Devon. The other six new people had all been hired as Visiting Assistant Professors, with the hope—and there was actual, true hope now in the Southeast Kansas State English Department—that they could or would or even might at some point be converted into tenure track positions.
Old Earl introduced Brenda’s family—husband, two daughters, a few grandchildren—and Ted’s family—his mother and sister. Courtney apparently didn’t have surviving family, but Ted’s mom and sister cried enough to honor all the dead.
“I don’t know,” Lynnie said. She looked over at me. “You think they really loved him that much?”
I shrugged. I thought for a moment about hearts. About mysteries. I said, “Maybe. Who knows?”
When the service was over, we ducked out through a side door. We fistbumped until later, and then Lynnie went back to her office in Fontenot, and I went back to my office in Reeb.
Over the summer I had moved up in the world—I’d inherited Fred’s enormous old office. Once Fred’s family had moved out all his books and furniture and porn, the university let me choose my own color for the new coat of paint. I chose Cajun Teal, a pleasant peaceful dreamy dark blue-green. I filled the bookshelves with my books and with Devon’s books, too. I had a nice cute photo of Fuzzhead sitting on the windowsill, and, next to it, in a little holder, Devon’s iPhone that I had rescued from Courtney’s house. In an old ashtray next to the phone was the mood ring Courtney gave me, and whenever I tried the ring on, it glowed a healthy deep blue.
And so after the memorial service I sat in my calming soothing office looking out my window at always-desolate Weirton, watching gray clouds scud above the broken grain elevator. I sat—and, after a while, I heard voices. Muffled voices, coming from the office next door. From Ted’s old office. And then I heard—crying.
I went out in the hall and found Ted’s mom, Karen, and his sister, Jenny. They were finally boxing up Ted’s office, his books and papers. I shook my head—there were probably photos of Ted’s penis in there, and poems about raping dead women. I started to turn and go back to my sitting and staring—to my brooding—but Ted’s mom noticed me.
“You teach here!” she said.
I stopped. “Yeah,” I said. “I do.”
Karen quickly came over and hugged me. I stood there stiffly, inhaling her heavy patchouli perfume. Jenny sat at Ted’s desk, smiling softly at me.
“Teddy loved everyone here,” Karen said. “All his friends and all his students—it was all he ever talked about at Christmas.”
“Yeah?” I asked. “Well, he was a very important part of the department.”
“Mom’s just always been very proud of Ted,” Jenny said.
“All these books!” Karen said. She had her left hand on my chest, fingers looped around a shirt button, like she was going to drag me all the way into Ted’s office. With her right hand she pointed at Ted’s bookshelves. “He read all these books! It’s amazing!”
“He loved his work,” I said. I suppose he did, at least at first, in a way—no one goes into academia—especially into English—unless they really, really love the subject. Ted probably did love poetry. I said, “He was a sharp guy—he really knew teaching poetry.”
“Oh, I know,” Karen said. “Teddy was my dream.” She let go of my shirt button and went back to Ted’s desk. She picked up his nameplate and started crying again. “I just wish they’d find his body, though! Why do you think they can’t find his body?”
And that. Lynnie had been busy with the Schwable brothers over the summer, helping them round up grant money to pay for filling in the mineshafts. Work was scheduled to begin in November. If everything went well, the odds were very good that Ted’s body would never be found.
“Mom,” Jenny said. “It was a big tornado.”
Karen nodded, still crying, and Jenny came around the desk to hug her. I stepped back and eased down the hall to my office.
And you know what?
I’d kill him again if I had the chance.
I’d kill him ten times if I had ten chances.
Poking around in Devon’s Dropbox one evening, I found a folder containing PDFs of Devon’s teaching evaluations. She’d taken the time to scan in the written remarks students had added to the scantron forms, saving the good and the bad alike. Some of the evaluations were excellent, most of them were good, but a few were terrible. Nasty. Hateful. A lot of Devon’s classes didn’t quite come together, for some reason. Courtney and Nancy had always just assumed that Devon was incompetent and stupid, and they’d even tried to get her fired halfway through her first year. Tee took Devon’s side that one time—not because she had any faith in Devon as a teacher, but because the department couldn’t afford to run another job search. Tee thought it was cheaper to keep her, incompetent or not.
What a fucking place Gulag State was.
Yet Devon had had some good classes, classes with kind students. Classes that were successful, where learning happened. At least I remembered her talking about classes like that.
There was one time we were driving to Joplin to go to dinner and do some shopping, a 30-mile or so drive past cutover wheat fields, pastures of shaggy cattle, lonely cemeteries, and Devon talked about a good class she’d had, a section of Advanced Fiction that she’d taught during the fall of her second year.
“I think they actually liked me!” Devon said.
Like all academics, Devon wanted to be liked by her students.
I certainly did. I always hoped the young people liked me.
But Devon wanted it more—maybe she needed it more.
“Of course they liked you,” I said.
“It was a small class, you know?” Devon said. “There were only eight students, and I’d had all of them in previous classes—some of them in more than one class. And so they all knew me, and they were used to me—and, you know, they liked me.”
“Sounds nice,” I said.
“Yeah!” Devon said. “It was! And they all knew each other and liked each other, too. And we got so much work done! And it was such good work. Everyone’s writing improved—and a couple kids got their stories published. It was the kind of class you just want to go on forever.”
And—I knew. I understood that. Maybe every teacher did—college, primary, secondary. What it was like to be accepted, to have your ideas listened to, to watch students discuss and understand difficult concepts, to just sit in a room with a bunch of smart people and talk for hours about something you loved—a subject you’d devoted your fucking life to. Being in a good classroom—anybody who’d been in one knew there wasn’t anything else like it.
But for Devon, being in a good university classroom was something even more than just a good or special experience—it was something more complicated, something spiritual, a sort of weird rapturous golden haunting dream. I know she had fantasies about what it would be like to teach at a good university, in a good English department, in a place where she would be valued, a place where she would be respected, a place where she would be honored, a place where she could spend her time between classes in a comfortable, windowed office, beneath bookshelves filled with beloved books, sipping tea while interesting students came by to discuss their writing, their reading, their ideas, their futures—a place where she had time to do her own important creative work—a place where she was valued, respected, honored. Devon was sentimental. She was an idealist. She was a Romantic. She truly believed that her sentimental idealized romanticized academic life was out there, somewhere—and she believed that it was something she might actually achieve for herself, if she worked hard, if she was a little lucky—that those were reasonable goals: talented students, friendly colleagues, an office with a window. She really believed that! And if her friends from grad school would tell of their sometimes-unfortunate experiences in the profession, and if her own experiences as a post-doc or a visiting prof weren’t so great, and if the Chronicle of Higher Education published depressing downer articles about life in academia—well, Devon could accept all of that as fact and still hold in her heart that crazy golden longing—that yearning—for a good life doing something she loved. That love—that desire—that hunger—it glowed inside her all the time. I knew it was there—I saw it. You could touch her wrist and feel that glimmering glow inside her, that hope for a good life, a life where she would do good things, where people would care about her—where she would be valued and respected and honored.
What Devon actually got, though, was a shit job at Gulag State University, a vile corrupt cesspit of psychopathy and mediocrity.
And—I was complicit in the cesspit. I didn’t act until it was too late.
I remember once at happy hour I was hanging around with Devon and Lynnie, and we were all complaining about the university, and Lynnie said something like—universities are graveyards of broken dreams. I agreed with her. I guess that’s probably true of a lot of things, a lot of institutions, not just universities, but Lynnie was talking about universities that day, about how delicate academic dreams get killed and buried and left to rot, and on that day it made sense to me. But in the year after Devon died I came to learn that there are sometimes second chances with dreams—times when, if you’re lucky, you get a chance to catch and resurrect a dream and set it to healing.
So. I was staring out the window, watching oddly silvery light peep through the clouds and light up the grain elevator, thinking about Devon, and about Devon. I could hear Ted’s mom’s sniffling coming through the thin walls. Then there was a soft knock on my door. I slowly wheeled my chair around and there was—a young woman, standing in the doorway. A student in one of my classes, I think, from one of the sections of Intro to Lit. I recognized her face—brown hair, glasses—but I couldn’t recall her name. It was still early in the semester.
“Hey,” I said. “Come on in. Sit down.”
A week later. Last day of class.
Last days are always bittersweet. There’s a sadness in the act of saying goodbye to the students—many of whom I get to know a little over the previous three months, and like a little—the sadness always balanced against the brain-numbing exhaustion of a long semester and the anticipated delight of a coming rest. This year, the year everything went crazy, the exhaustion was deeper because of all I’d been through, and because the sheer number of students I’d had to deal with—there were too many of them, and I never got to know them as well as I should have, and I probably didn’t teach them very well.
It was the last day of a bad year for education.
So. I was in my office between classes, brooding about goodbyes, and brooding too about Shawn’s graduate reading, scheduled for that evening, when I heard familiar heavy footsteps in the hallway and I looked up—and Sally appeared in my doorway. Always now a cheerful sight. She smiled at me and looked over her shoulder.
“Yeah!” Sally said. “He’s still here!”
Then Earl was standing behind her. “Tom,” he said. “It seems that Courtney hasn’t shown up for her morning classes, and she’s not answering her phone. We’re going over to see if she’s okay. Would you like to come?”
And maybe I was sort of expecting this, somehow? Expecting something to interrupt the last day of a badly interrupted year.
“Sure,” I said. I grabbed my phone and a hat and the thee of us went around the corner and got onto the elevator.
“I had a private meeting with Courtney on Monday,” Earl said to me. “It was very—unpleasant. It seems like a lot of her sense of self is wrapped up in this job.”
“Then she shouldn’t have screwed it up,” Sally said.
“Oh, yes!” Earl said. The elevator door opened and we got out and left the building. “But she doesn’t seem to see it that way—she doesn’t think she did anything wrong.”
Like killing Devon. For fuck’s sake.
I said, “That’s our girl.”
“Yes,” Earl said. “She thinks everyone in the department has been unkind to her—especially you, Tom.”
“Good,” I said. “I can live with that.”
We went over to Earl’s car—an older maroon Buick—and Sally got in back and I got up front with Earl. He took his time heading to Courtney’s house—heading south and around the big cemetery and the fetus monument.
“This has been a very difficult year,” Earl said.
Yeah, I thought. No kidding.
“But I actually also think that we’re down now to core quality faculty—and staff.” Earl looked in the mirror at Sally. “And now we can prepare to smoothly expand, you know, and try to get back to doing our jobs.”
More hiring committees, I thought. Fuck me.
We turned north on Front Street and headed up the west side of the campus. Past fraternity row. Heading downtown, and the downtown was as grim and gray on a warm, cloudy day as it was in winter or at night.
“I got into higher education because I loved it, you know,” Earl said. “American literature—”
“Melville,” I said. Earl was a Faulkner guy.
“Yes—Melville, and others. Faulkner. Yes, and I wanted to share that love with other people, and I somehow ended up—here. I know thought then I’d move on, but I didn’t. I guess I settled. I guess, you know, my life turned out rather differently than I once thought it might. But maybe I can still do some important work in the time I have left.”
I looked over at Earl. He took a deep breath or two. I think he was about to cry.
“We’re lucky to have you,” I said. I think I sort of believed that. Even if I didn’t, it was an appropriate thing to say.
“Hey!” Sally said suddenly. “Has anyone looked at Courtney’s Facebook today?”
I pulled out my phone.
Courtney’s Facebook. Jesus. Even though I despised her, I never got around to unfriending her—unfriending seemed a step too far, too uncollegial even for me—and I merely blocked her, so that I wouldn’t have to look at her stupid shit on my timeline.
“’I have been manipulated and persecuted for far too long,” Sally read. “The too is in all-caps.”
Early slowly shook his head and hit the turn signal to make a left onto Ottawa street.
“‘I have been trashed with vile slander,’” Sally read.
Vile slander again. For fuck’s sake.
“And I have suffered false charges and attacks….”
I got to Courtney’s page.
especially by “Doctor” Thomas Holt, whose vendetta against me is infantile, idiotic, and stupid. On the contrary, I am an artist and an high achiever and I have achieved great things at SoutheaST Kansas State University. But, whilst I am a Woman of Steel will and determination, I am also a Woman of Compassion and overwhelming kindness. I have decided to fight back against my Enemies the best way I can, with logic and with language and WITH LOVE.
I said aloud, “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
I will love my Enemies.
I will love even “Doctor” Thomas Holt, the slanderer.
“Hey!” I said. “Did she just violate the Social Media Policy?”
Sally said, “And there’s a poem!”
Think about those times You
helped someone by helping
Yourself. Think about times
people near You by the
Brilliance of Your own Self.
Think of Your Willpower,
how it sanctified the
people around You, how
You made existence much
Sweeter for so many.
Never forget how You
were too cruelly stabbed
in the back—but always
remember that pain with
“I like how she stretched love into six syllables,” Sally said. “That’s poetry.”
I could see the roof of Courtney’s house ahead of us. Earl came to the house from the east and parked across the street from Courtney’s steps. A FOR SALE sign dangled from a metal frame. That was something new.
Who was she going to find to buy this dump?
“Well, I’m surprised,” Earl said. “I would have expected her to be a bit more—prolix—in her message. She sure had a lot to say on Monday—and she sure had no love for you, Tom.”
“There’s probably more to come,” Sally said. “I’ll try calling her again.”
We got out of the car and stood looking across the street at the house. The big dogs were barking in Courtney’s backyard but the street was quiet. I could hear Sally’s phone—her call to Courtney went to voicemail. Sally disconnected.
“Courtney!” Earl called in his creaky old man’s voice. It barely carried across the street. “Come out!”
“Those dogs out back are going nuts,” Sally said.
But—there was something wrong. Weren’t there supposed to be two dogs assigned to the front porch? None there now. I started to cross the street.
“Better be careful,” Earl said.
I guess that was good advice.
Closer. I didn’t go up the steps. Stood there. The front door of the house was half-open. A friendly hand-lettered piece of notebook paper was taped to the door, fluttering in the Kansas wind.
Come on in!
Earl and Sally came up to the bottom of the steps. Out back the dogs were barking, howling. Something was wrong.
“Maybe she’s inside asleep,” Earl said.
“She might have us on TV,” I said. I pointed up at a camera bubble. “She has video cameras out here.”
I nudged the door the rest of the way open with my foot. I went on inside, the front room overheated and cluttered with knickknacks. Messy. Sally came up right behind me.
“Courtney!” Sally yelled. “Hey!”
I smelled—gas. I went around to the kitchen and the oven door was open—no poet head inside—and the burners were all turned up and nothing was lit. I shut them off as fast as I could. In the backyard, the five giant dogs had stopped barking. Through the window I saw them staring up at the house—and then, right there on the deck, I saw Shawn’s mangled body. Bloody and all torn up, and next to it a torn-up bag of dog food. The big brindled dog came up on the deck—the gate, open—and sniffed around at the food, pausing to lick at Shawn’s blood. Then he looked hopefully at the kitchen.
“Jesus!” Sally said. She was standing next to me—I didn’t even hear her come into the kitchen.
“He told me he’d come over and feed the dogs sometimes,” I said.
“Jesus,” Sally said again. “Listen—there’s gas heaters on all the upper floors. We need to check those.”
We went around to the front of the house. Earl was inside, standing at the foot of the stairs, looking confused and old and shaken. But he followed us up the stairs.
On the next floor it smelled like the gas heaters were all turned on. I went looking for the heaters. Sally and Earl went on up the stairs to find Courtney. In the Poetry Room the big photo of Sylvia Plath looked out at me, happy and smiling. Courtney had built an—altar?—in front of it, with candles, lit fucking candles—and odd offerings in dishes—rocks, colored pens, nails, walnuts, various small knickknacks. I bent to blow the fucking candles out and noticed one of the offering dishes. There was an iPhone in it. With a blue metal case. It looked like—Devon’s phone. I slipped the phone into my back pocket and went around to the Authority Room, with the big pictures of Ayn Rand and Josef Stalin and the gas was on in there, too, though no candles. I bent to turn off the gas--
Then I heard Sally. “Out! Out! Out!”
I ran back out to the stairs. Earl was going down slowly—too slowly—Sally with a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
“She’s got gasoline poured around up there!” Sally said.
“Did you see her?”
“Yeah,” Sally said. “She was on a daybed and she saw me and she yelled something.”
“I think she said for us to wait,” Earl said. He paused and half turned around. “I heard her. Maybe we should wait.”
“Earl, there’s fucking gasoline up there—we need to get out of the house!”
Earl was braced himself between the wall and the banister and turned and went down the stairs slowly, stepping carefully with his old man’s eyesight and balance
“C’mon, Earl,” Sally said. “Let’s go.”
I thought I could smell smoke. Probably just the stupid candles. I hoped. I fell in behind Sally and we clomped slowly down the stairs and out and across the street. Sally was already on the phone to 911.
I asked Earl, “Did you see her?”
“I don’t know,” Earl said. He was breathing heavily—wheezing. “I got all the way to the top—and then Sally started pushing me back down.”
I looked back at the house. I said, “It was a trap.”
Earl asked, “What?”
There was a soft thump then and I saw flames in the windows of the fourth-floor garrets. Then a bigger soft thoomp and a flash and flames on the third and second floors. In a moment, windows began busting out. Bats fluttered from the attic vents. Sirens off in the distance. The dogs in the back yard began to howl again. Nothing else to do now. I put my arm around Sally and the three of us leaned back against Earl’s car and watched the big house burn.
...to be continued....
An email from Earl came in over the listserve, saying that Deborah the Provost would be sitting in on our regular Thursday faculty meeting to discuss the future of the department and to help build up our morale.
And—that was just what I was waiting for.
The bomb. The big one.
I found Constance Olmanson in her office, a pert pasty pale roundish woman with graying hair. I said, “I’ve got something important to show you.”
I passed her my notes—a memo, I guess—summarizing what I had learned about Deborah, and her husband, and the other administrators. And Courtney.
“Gosh!” Constance said. “Is this real?”
“Totally,” I said. I had another document—a list of the sources for the summary. I gave that to her, too.
“My god—we can finally get rid of them all!” Constance said. She looked up at me. “Can I share this with Aaron and Olivier?”
“Sure,” I said. “But use your discretion, okay? If Deborah finds out about this, she won’t come to the meeting—and we need her to be there. And I’d like to see you take the lead and just hit her in the face with the facts.”
Constance looked at the memo and thought about that. She said, “Yeah, I guess I can….”
“If I bring this up, everybody’ll just blow me off as a troublemaker,” I said. “But people respect you, and if you take the lead, you’ll have power and surprise. And I’ll follow you all the way—and so will everyone else.”
“Yeah—I see it.” Constance looked at the documents again and nodded grimly. She said, “We can finally get rid of them all.”
The diminished faculty were already seated when Deborah and Earl and Sally entered the room together. Deborah had brought along an assistant, a young woman almost as big as she was. Earl sat up on a stool behind the computer platform. Deborah sat heavily at a table at the front of the room. Sally paused by her usual chair in the corner, and then she came over to me.
“C’mon, Holt,” she said. “What are you up to?”
I sat back. “Me? What?”
Sally leaned over me and whispered. “I ran into your new girlfriend Constance down in the copy room and she was talking about your great research skills and how you were going to rescue the department….”
Blabbermouth Constance. I asked, “What?”
“Yeah,” Sally said. “And I felt kind of fucking left out….”
Deborah’s assistant placed a red folder in front of Deborah and stood back. Deborah opened the folder and looked at whatever was inside. I looked up at Sally, her green eyes, a haft of black hair trailing across her forehead. I sort of half-shrugged.
Sally said, “You can’t get anything past me.”
“I guess not,” I said.
“Remember that.” Sally looked at me for a moment. Then she bent over and whispered, “Good luck,” and went back to her chair and sat down.
“Welcome,” Deborah said. “Let us pray….”
I raised my hand. I said, “I move that we skip the praying part this time.”
Across the room, Constance yelled, “Second the motion! No prayer!”
Deborah tried to keep going. “Heavenly Father….”
Courtney looked over at me. “She has a right to pray if she wants to!”
“Then she can go out in the fucking hall and pray,” I said. “She can join us when she’s ready.”
Earl said, “Now, Tom….”
Deborah shut her eyes and concentrated. “Heavenly Father—”
“She shouldn’t be here at all!” Constance yelled. She stood up and pointed at Deborah—and Deborah opened her eyes, shocked. “I move that we expel her from the meeting!”
“I second the motion!” I said. “Deborah needs to go!”
Aaron and Olivier got up and began distributing handouts—when one came by me, I saw that it was a smart-looking infographic of the memo I’d given Constance. Nice work. Rhetoric profs get things done.
“We did some research,” Constance said. “And we found that Deborah doesn’t have any kind of graduate degree!”
“She shouldn’t be in this room!” Aaron said. “She shouldn’t even be at this university!”
“Hey!” Courtney said. “My name’s on this list!”
“Deborah’s not the only phony around here,” Olivier said. I thought he was going to spit on her.
I stood up and pointed at Deborah. “So, basically—you don’t have a right to be at our meeting, much less pray at our fucking meeting.”
Deborah clinched her fists and closed her eyes again—praying silently, I guess.
“And!” I said. I kept jabbing my finger at her even though she couldn’t see my jabs. “I’ve gone ahead and sent this information to the President of the University, to the Kansas Board of Regents, to the Governor, and to the KBI.” I caught my breath. Whew. Breathless. My heart was beating hard, too. “And—to the Chronicle of Higher Education, to Inside Higher Education, and to the Kansas City Star, and to the Weirton Wind.”
“But,” Courtney said. She was staring at the handout. Surely she understood what it meant. “Why is my name on here?”
“Because you couldn’t finish your stupid thesis,” Olivier said.
“You couldn’t even write fifty pages of shitty poetry,” Aaron said.
Courtney broke. She began—crying. Not even phony tears.
“Shame on you!” Constance said. “Shame on all of you!”
“Shame!” Jackie Sewell yelled.
“Shame!” Dawn Gaske yelled.
“Shame! Shame! Shame!” The rhetoric teachers were all standing and yelling at Deborah and Courtney. “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
“Fucking shame!” I yelled.
Behind me, Bart stood up and yelled, “Shame!”
Deborah had been sitting with her eyes closed and her face angled up toward—heaven. Now she opened her eyes and looked at us and she was—scared. Frightened. She braced herself against the table and lurched to her feet. Almost fell backwards. The assistant—frightened, too, I think—stepped up and collected the red folder, and they slowly made their way past shocked laughing Sally and out the door.
The rhetoric people kept shouting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
Courtney sat alone, and shriveled and crying. Sniveling. Aaron and Olivier stood looming over her yelling “Shame! Shame!” and after a moment Courtney got up and blundered toward the door, knocking over a couple of chairs, almost falling on Sally.
The rhetoric people cheered and clapped when she left the room. I joined them—so did Bart. Victory. Annuit coeptis! Old Earl slipped off the stood and stood behind the lectern and looked at us all, gray and astonished.
...to be continued....
Courtney never got back to me about setting a date for Frankie’s defense, so I went and set it myself for April 21, a Thursday. The usual MA defense program would have the degree candidate read from their thesis and then answer a few questions from the thesis committee. Frankie’s original thesis committee consisted of Devon and Nancy and some hack from the Theater Department. But then Devon died and I was drafted to replace her, and then the Theater hack bolted, and so I recruited Lynnie to replace her, and then Nancy somehow went into a coma, and Tee grudgingly agreed to replace Nancy, as long as she didn’t have to read anything. I think she just wanted Frankie out of the department. But then Tee left and her position was vacant. Earl was honest enough to say that he didn’t have time to be on the committee, though he also said he’d sign off on her thesis if I thought it was good enough. And I did.
We reserved the library’s Special Collections Room, down in the basement, and maybe 40 or so people showed up—almost all the surviving English faculty and most of the grad students. I introduced Frankie and then sat in the back row, between Lynnie and Sally. Frankie wore her stupid backpack into the auditorium, but she actually took it off before she stepped up to the lectern.
“Dr. Devon wanted me to write this story,” Frankie said. “But Dr. Nancy didn’t. But then Dr. Tom said it was okay, and so I wrote it, and it’s called ‘Eating Ice.’”
I was watching at Frankie closely, trying to telepathically send her courage, strength, an audible voice. I whispered, “Come on!”
Frankie leaned into the mic and barely softly breathed the first line of her story. “My dad used to sit on the edge of the bed—and put his hand on my knee.”
Lynnie leaned into me. “This is in her thesis?”
“You didn’t read it?”
“Well, I kinda looked at it….”
Sometimes he put his hand up high but this night right then to start, his hand was on my knee. His hand was dirty from where he’d been working on the tractor. I was afraid I’d get grease smudged on my kneecap and then it would get on my sheets, but I still liked his hand there because it was warm and because it was his….
I felt Lynnie look at me. I shrugged. Around the room, some people were leaning forward, and some people were leaning back. But we were all off in Frankie’s story, and it was the story I’d insisted she read, because despite being full of incesting, dog-eating, and heroin-snorting, it was by far the least gruesome, least disturbing story in the thesis.
Frankie relaxed a little when she got through the incest/molestation scene, and spoke a little louder. She moved on to the dog-murder scene. The narrator in the story gets fed up with her dad’s mean dog—the dog’s name is Ice—which barks all the time outside her window, and so she shoots it with a shotgun while he’s off working in the fields, and then she skins it and cooks it in a stew for daddy. Then she snorts some heroin and stumbles up the stairs to bed and wait in creepy awful dread for daddy again. And—the end, all in eight tight pages.
Frankie stood at the lectern blinking. The room was silent at first—people just sitting looking. Puzzled, maybe grossed out. Finally, I shouted “Yes!” and began clapping, and then other people began clapping, a little, and Frankie smiled.
There were four copies of the thesis spread out on a table to the side of the room, and I went over and signed them, and Lynnie signed them, and Old Earl signed them. All done. Frankie was now an MA and could maybe get out of Weirton and avoid FLP-hood and do something with her life.
All the time we were signing the thesis and chatting and posing for photos, I was keeping an eye on Shawn Cudahy. He stood chatting with the other grad students, eating cake and sipping lemonade. When he was alone for a moment, I went over and tapped him on the shoulder and he flinched.
“A word with you?” I asked. Lynnie and Sally were right behind me.
Shawn had bits of frosting on his chin. He said, “Sure!”
I sort of shoved him toward the door. I was aware that other people were around—that people might notice the four of us leaving the Special Collections room—and I knew the witnesses meant I couldn’t kill him right then. Really, I kind of wanted to—I found him almost as loathsome as Ted—but I think Sally still felt sort of sorry for him, and Lynnie was indifferent to Shawn but not bloodthirsty, and I didn’t have my Ruger with me, anyway, and so we were just going to talk to the punk.
Outside the Special Collections Room, I led the way down a long dim row of bound periodicals—magazines going back to the early 20th Century--New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, all bound in heavy green library bindings.
“I’m glad you wanted to talk,” Shawn said. “I meant to come to your office.”
“Yeah?” Lynnie asked.
We came to a little cul-de-sac at the end of the row. I stopped suddenly, and Shawn almost ran into me. Behind him stood Lynnie and Sally. They looked—troubled.
“So, Shawn,” I said. I look at him—looked down at him—the little pretty boy from a farm near Parsons who tried to pretend he was a hipster from Brooklyn or San Francisco, and I hated him. I hated guys like him when I was in elementary school, in high school, in college and grad school, guys who dressed oh so nice and held themselves like they were superior, when they were really kind of fucking stupid brownnose suck-up toadies—but I hated Shawn especially because of what he did to Devon, and while I knew that he didn’t kill her or rape her, I knew that he helped make Devon miserable the last few weeks of her life. I took a breath. I felt hatred toward Shawn grow in my chest like a fucking blood clot, like an aneurysm, building and building—and, yeah, I thought of the fucking craft beer festival I didn’t get to go to. I felt like I was going to explode and kill him, and I might have.
“Yeah,” Shawn said. He looked at me, worried. “I need to do my grad reading, too, and Courtney hasn’t returned my emails and she’s never in her office and the semester’s almost over.”
What? I couldn’t think. Fucking Shawn. I grabbed at a bookcase—bound copies of Esquire from the 1960s. I pulled one from the shelf. I was aware of Lynnie looking at me—concerned.
“Well,” Sally said to Shawn. “You passed all the exams. You’re still going to graduate.”
“But don’t I get to do a reading? I mean—my parents would like to come, and my friends—it’s kind of a big deal….”
Sally hesitated. Then she said, “Come by my office tomorrow—I’ll help you reserve a room. It’s easy.”
Shawn looked at me, and the bound Esquires. The one in my hand I wanted to smack him with. He asked, “Maybe you could talk to Courtney?”
“We try not to talk,” I said. I thought—nothing. My mind was dark, I didn’t want to think.
Sally said, “Dr. Holt can maybe call the Thesis Office and make sure you’re all set.”
“Sure,” I croaked. I took a breath. “I can maybe do that.”
“Thanks,” Shawn said. He shook hands with Lynnie and with Sally. He wanted to shake hands with me and I had to shift the Esquire volume to my left hand. We shook. His hand was small and limp and damp—I thought, He touched Devon with that hand. After a moment, Shawn turned and headed back to Frankie’s reception
“Jesus, Tommy!” Lynnie said. “Your face! I thought you were going to fucking kill him!”
“I thought so, too,” I said. I reshelved the big volume of Esquire. It took effort. “I might have. But I guess I won’t.”
The next day I began getting rid of the execution evidence. I drove over to Joplin in the morning and found a run-down laundromat, and I washed the clothes we’d been wearing that night, along with the bloody old blanket, and I used heavy detergent and heavy bleach and hot water and high heat and everything came out faded and smelling chemically clean. Then I loaded it all into the back of my car and drove on to Tulsa, a two hour drive. I got a motel room and that night I sat around and I cut up the blanket and all the clothes, shredded everything. At one point I went out to the ice machine and I looked up and saw the full moon. I wondered what Courtney was doing—if she was having a cult meeting. No telling.
In the morning I took my car to a carwash and got the “Elite Detail” package for $200. Worth it. Then I drove on to Texas, leaving handfuls of shredded clothing in litter barrels and gas station trashcans along the way. I also tossed pieces of the dissembled Walther away—the spring and the slide and the clips—and I was left with the frame, the only part that looked like a gun. I tossed it off a bridge into a reservoir, into what I hoped was deep water. Then I drove on and met up with Lynnie in Fort Worth.
We sold my car for a lot less than it was worth—something I expected, but still found annoying—and then we drove on up to Denton and spent the night with Lynnie’s family, and the next day her dad got me into a nice, gently-used Toyota Matrix. We had a pleasant dinner with Mom and Dad and Lynnie’s girlfriend, Samantha, and then we caravanned back north to Weirton.
...to be continued....
The next day my students all wanted to talk about the storm. Many of them had good photos taken at tornado parties—tornado parties are a real thing in Weirton—and I set up the computer projector so that they could share their pictures with the rest of the class. Everyone talked about near-misses, miraculous escapes, other tornadoes experienced, and the weird pervasive stench of gasoline and new-split wood—gas leaking from all the battered cars, and the sap smell from all the busted trees. Everyone was cheerful—they were good, happy classes.
At noon I had a break and I found Old Earl Renner in his office.
“It’s a sad day,” Earl said. “Looks like we lost two colleagues.”
“Ted,” I said. Word had already gone around that Ted hadn’t shown up to teach his morning classes.
“And Brenda, too,” Earl said. Brenda Seibold, a quiet Brit Lit professor who’d been at Gulag State for years. Fifty years? Seventy years? Forever. About as long as Earl. “Looks like she was at the Walmart when it got hit.”
“Damn,” I said.
“Terrible thing,” Earl said. “Nothing’s built to withstand storms, anymore.”
I hesitated. Then I asked, “Any word on Ted?”
“Nothing,” Earl said. “Tee sent a grad student out to look at Ted’s house—looks like it might have had some roof damage, but Ted’s not there.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“And Fred’s farm,” Earl said. “You heard about that? All those dozens of guard dogs got sucked up or let loose.”
I shook my head. Those giant crazy dogs could terrorize fucking Kansas forever, for all I cared.
“Well,” I said. “I’ve got something else to brighten your day.”
I passed him a copy of the intercepted email.
“I found this in Devon’s files. Looks like Courtney and her friends—and Tee—have been embezzling from the visiting writers fund.”
“Lordy.” Earl read the email—it was short, he read it three or four or five times. His lips moved. He said, “I don’t see Ted’s name on here.”
“Yeah, I noticed that,” I said. “And I have a theory….”
Earl looked up at me.
“Ted attacked Nancy,” I said. “He wanted her out so he could get her share of the money.”
Earl shook his head sadly. “I knew they were all up to something.”
I wondered how much he really knew—about everything. Probably something. But that didn’t matter now. I needed Earl.
“Yeah,” I said. “Devon told me they were up to some bad shit, but she never told me what.”
“Well,” Earl said, He rubbed his nose. “I guess we need to take this to the KBI.”
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation. I sort of expected that.
“Sure,” I said. “But let’s do something today, too. Let’s take this to Tee and get her to fucking resign.”
Earl stared out his window for a moment—stared at the broken grain elevator, the downtown, the messed-up neighborhoods beyond.
“A KBI investigation will take months,” I said. “Let’s do something right the fuck now. Get rid of Tee, get you in as acting chair, and then we can all go to work trying to heal this department.”
Earl took a deep breath. “Let’s take this down to Tee and see what she says.”
We left Earl’s office and went down the hall. Earl went on back to see Tee. I stuck my head into Sally’s office.
“No word from Ted?” I asked.
“Nope,” Sally said. Was there a trace of a smile at the corners of her mouth? Maybe.
“I’m glad to see that you and Bear got through the storm okay!”
“Thanks!” Sally said. “I guess we’re lucky.”
I said, “We’re all very lucky.”
Earl sat across the desk from Tee, the room reeking from those vanilla candles. Tee was reading the email, tired and haggard and pasty sick gray-complected. I took a seat next to Earl. Tee glanced up at me and went back to staring at the email.
Finally, Tee said, “So?”
“So, we’re going to take this to the KBI,” Earl said. “But even before they do anything, we want you to resign.”
“We?” Tee asked. “Fucking we?”
I flinched. I think that was the first time I’d ever heard Tee curse.
“Yes,” Earl said. “We think—”
“Tom Holt,” Tee said. She swiveled her chair to face me straight on. “You are the most pompous fucking fool I’ve ever met.”
I sat back as far as I could. “Me?”
“Don’t act innocent,” Tee said. “You’re smart-alecky, you’re pompous, you’re rude, you think you’re better than everyone else—”
I laughed. “But I am better than everyone else!”
“—lazy, inept, vulgar, clueless—”
“Tee, stop,” Earl said.
“At least I’m not an embezzler!” I said.
“I didn’t ask for a dime!”
“But you apparently took some dimes, anyway,” Earl said. “And you helped Courtney take a lot of dimes.”
“You’ve caused problems ever since you got here,” Tee said to me. “And you’ve never had the slightest idea how things work here.”
“Yeah, but I’m learning,” I said.
“You think your stupid classes are important. You—”
“Right,” I said. “I teach the young people of fucking southeast Kansas!”
“—You think we hired you to teach your stupid classes and leave you alone to do—whatever you want!”
“Yeah!” I said. “That’s how it’s supposed to work.”
“No!” Tee slapped her desk so hard Old Earl cringed. She was staring at me like I was the one who’d done something wrong. “You don’t matter and your students don’t matter! Books don't matter! The department is what matters—the department. Always. And the university—always. And the institution—always. But your students don’t matter and you don’t matter! Ever!”
For fuck’s sake. I asked, “What?”
“So, Tee,” Earl said. “About your future—”
“I took this department over and I turned it into something good,” Tee said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Except for all the sexual harassment and bullying and embezzlement and shit like that.”
“You know what?” Tee asked me. “Fuck you.”
I taught my afternoon classes—cheerful, too, with tornado stories—and then it was time for the faculty meeting. I went into the room and took my usual seat—and I was struck at how diminished the faculty were. Courtney especially seemed lonely, sitting by herself with her hands folded on the desk in front of her. Who was she without her flunkies?
Sally came in and took her seat by the door. Tee entered and stood behind the lectern. She didn’t bother turning on the computer projector. No agenda today, I guessed.
“Everyone?” Tee asked. The room quieted down. “Let’s go ahead and get started—this has been a very bad day for the department.”
Olivier asked, “Is there any news about Ted?”
Tee pointed at Sally. Sally sat up and squared her shoulders. She said, “I heard from the sheriff’s office about ten minutes ago—they found Ted’s car along the railroad tracks over around Merricat Street.”
I tried to think. That was about—maybe—four or five blocks east of the Strip Pit. Pretty powerful tornado.
“But have they found Ted, though?” Olivier asked.
“Nope,” Sally said. “But they’re finding a lot of cars….”
Everyone was silent, thinking about that.
“Also,” Tee said. “I have an announcement—a personal announcement. I’m—I’ve got some serious family issues, and I’m going to have to retire, effective today.”
Today. Tee croaked the word out. I looked around the room. People were puzzled. No one said anything at first.
“And so, my last act—”
“What?” Courtney asked.
“—as a member of this faculty—”
“Tee!” Courtney said.
“—is to move that Earl take over—as acting chair—”
“This is crazy!” Courtney turned around to face the rest of the room. No one wanted to make eye contact with her.
I said, “I’ll second the motion!”
“Any discussion?” Tee asked the room.
“Yeah!” Courtney said. “What’s going on?”
Tee looked over at Sally. She said, “Let’s just call this unanimous consent.”
Tee gathered up her papers and left the room.
Courtney turned around again and looked at everyone. She asked, “What the heck just happened?
Old Earl was sitting straight behind me. He got up and went to the lectern and looked at his notes for a moment.
“Earl,” Courtney said. “What’s going on?”
“Okay,” Earl said. His old midwestern voice was harsh. “This is going to be tough. There’s three weeks left in the semester, okay? We’ve got to bear down and get through it.”
“You’re going to give us more classes,” Bart said.
“That’s right,” Earl said. “Ted was teaching—Jesus!—four sections of his own classes, and one of Devon’s classes, and two of Nancy’s classes. Brenda was teaching three classes of her own and two of Fred’s.”
“Tee was teaching one class,” I said.
Behind me, Bart said, “Rank has its privileges.”
“And, so,” Earl said. “That makes thirteen classes we have to cover.”
“Lucky thirteen,” Bart said.
Earl finally took noticed of Courtney. He looked down at her over the edge of the lectern. “So, Courtney—this is what’s going on. Everybody’s going to have to share in the work. Even you, this time. No more course releases. Okay?”
For once, Courtney didn’t say anything. She looked—puzzled. Confused. Lost.
“This is so crazy,” Constance said. “Those poor students don’t know who’s teaching their classes from day to day!”
“Yes, it’s crazy,” Earl said. “But necessary. The classes have to be taught. What else can we do?”
No one had an answer to that. We all sat silently.
“I’m going to suggest we adjourn for today,” Earl said. “I’ll get to work on the class schedules and we’ll meet again soon.”
I said, “Second.”
Sally looked around. Everyone was quiet. She said, “Apparently without objection.”
Earl grabbed his folder and made for the door, followed by just about everyone else. I got up and lurched down the aisle to intercept Courtney. I said, “Hey.”
Courtney turned, surprised.
“I needed to talk to you about Frankie,” I said. “She’s finished with her thesis—we need to set a defense date.”
“Now?” Courtney asked.
“We’re here,” I said. “We might as well….”
Courtney looked—appalled. “After all that’s happened today?”
“Yeah, well,” I said. “You know, Tee was just telling me that the university’s the university, and it’s more important than any one individual, or something.”
Courtney looked at me like I was crazy. She shook her head. “This place is falling apart.”
I laughed at that. I said, “Yeah, it is….”
Courtney asked, “What, you think this is funny?”
I leaned down close to her. “Maybe it’s justice,” I said into her ear. “Maybe you shouldn’t have fucked with Devon, you know?”
Courtney jumped back like her heart had stopped and she stared at me for a moment. Then she backed away and went out the door. She peered back in at me through the window, and then she disappeared.
That night Lynnie and Sally came over to celebrate. We grilled steaks out on my deck, and after we ate, while the coals were still glowing red, I took Ted’s ID, his credit cards, and the SIM card from his phone, and I tossed them in to melt. The plastic burned, melted, drooped, sent up a thin stream of black poisonous smoke that drifted off toward Missouri. Then, at dusk, as the day began to cool, we walked down to the strip pit and took turns happily throwing Ted’s keys—plunk, plunk, plunk—one at a time into the dark water, making wishes.
...to be continued....
I woke slowly the next time, coming up warily from another blank dream and finding—space—next to me. Then, oh—Sally was gone. Lynnie was there sleeping solidly, but Sally was gone. I got up and went to the bathroom and then found her sitting on the couch with Fuzzhead, drinking coffee and looking at the Weather Channel.
“Hey, there,” Sally said. “Sleep well?”
“I did, pretty much,” I said. “I felt—safe.”
“I feel better, too,” Sally said. She pointed at the TV. “Your tornado last night hit the dogfood factory.”
“Oh, good!” I looked at the TV but didn’t see video of the stupid dogfood factory, just a bald meteorologist drawing a bold line on a map from central Oklahoma, though Weirton, and on up into Missouri.
“We’re going to get hit today, too,” Sally said. “Torcon 8—it only happens a few times a year.”
Sally put down the TV remote and hugged Fuzzhead tight. She looked at me. “I think we’re all going to be okay.”
It took me a moment to realize she was talking about last night—about what we did, the murder or whatever—and not about any tornados. It wasn’t that I had forgotten shooting Ted, exactly, but the weather on the TV seemed much more real and important. I said, “Oh, of course!”
Sally nodded. “You need to take me home so I can get ready for work.”
I got up and found a pair of khaki shorts and put them on. Sally got her phone and cigarettes and keys and wallet—she held her stuff in one hand, and held up my underwear with the other. She noticed me watching her. She said, “Dude, you’re fat.”
In the garage the bag with our dirty clothes was still sitting there, along with the bucket holding my pistol and Ted’s car keys and wallet and phone. I was going to have to do something about all that. What the hell. I got behind the wheel. Sally was already in the car and she leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, cheerful.
“Yeah!” I said. “It’s a good day!”
I hit the button to open the garage door and backed out into bright sunshine. We drove down along the edge of town to Sally’s house. There didn’t seem to be much storm damage—a few branches down, and the Pray to Me and I will HEAL THIS LAND billboard by Chrissy’s had been flattened. I drove on across some old railroad tracks and around a block to Sally’s house and pulled into the driveway behind her car.
Sally leaned over again and kissed me—oh, soft and close and tasting of coffee and wet flesh and I pulled her tight and put my hand on her warm starburst tattoo. Then she broke back and I took a deep breath.
“Yeah,” Sally said. “I need to get out of your pants and off to work.”
“I’d like that….” The pants part, I meant.
“See you this afternoon?”
“I don’t teach today,” I said. “I’m taking the fucking day off.”
“Lazy!” Sally opened the car door and started to get out.
“I’ll text you,” I said.
“Don’t worry about anything!” Sally shut the car door and made her way up the steps—clumsy, holding the waistband of my underwear—and unlocked her door. She looked back and smiled at me, then disappeared inside.
When I got back home I found Lynnie on the couch with Fuzzhead eating cold pizza.
“I woke up and thought you’d left me,” Lynnie said.
“I’ll never leave you.” Then I thought of the aborted job at Midwestern. I would have left her if I’d had the chance. “Well—morally, at least.”
“I guess that’s reassuring,” Lynnie said. She nodded at the TV. “Two people got killed up by the dogfood factory.”
“Damn,” I said. I got a Coke and sat next to Lynnie and Fuzzhead. Cold pizza—best breakfast, ever.
“I’ve been thinking about Ted’s car,” Lynnie said.
“I say we pick it up tonight and drive it to Kansas City and drop it off somewhere.”
“Okay.” I thought about that. “We could drop it off by a strip club, maybe.”
“There you go! Two hours up, two hours back—we’ll be tired tomorrow, but it’ll be worth it.”
“Okay,” I said. It was a plan, at least.
“And I’ve been thinking about your car, too.”
“You’ve got more herpes blood in that backseat there than I did Nancy’s blood in my car,” Lynnie said. “So you get one of those high-end detail jobs somewhere out of town—maybe Tulsa? Then take it on down to Fort Worth or Dallas and sell it at one of those cash for cars places.”
“Yeah, but I’ll lose money….”
“Sure—but then we’ll go over to my dad’s dealership and he’ll get you a great deal on a used Toyota.”
I thought about that. Get rid of my car in Fort Worth or somewhere, dispose of the pistol and the clothes and everything along the road between here and there.
“Okay,” I said. “That’ll work.”
Lynnie said, “We’re a team.”
I settled back on the couch and stared at the TV. More radars showing not much going on. Video of tornado damage in Sedan—the town hit pretty hard, though the stupid clown museum survived. Fucking Kansas. I closed my eyes.
“Don’t fall asleep,” Lynnie said. “You need to drive me home to get ready to go teach.”
“Yeah,” I said. I stood up heavily. I slept well but I was exhausted again, ready to go back to bed. “Jesus. I’m going to sleep all afternoon.”
“That’s what Sally said.”
“Yeah,” Lynnie said. “That girl likes you.”
Out in the garage we turned on all the lights and went through the car’s back seat. The old blanket took most of the blood spatters, but there was blood on the backs of the front seats—and on the roof, too.
“It’s not terrible,” Lynnie said. “But you still ought to get rid of the car.”
I nodded. “It’s time.”
We drove back to Lynnie’s house in the bright warm sunshine. In the vacant lot next to Chrissy’s a video crew was taking footage of the flattened HEAL THIS LAND billboard—the loss of the billboard cheered Lynnie—and it looked like at least a dozen storm tracker vehicles were lined up in the Chrissy’s parking lot for breakfast. I drove past the hospital and around a bend and dropped Lynnie off at her house—Fist bump! Soulmates!—and I watched her scamper up the steps, like Sally with part of her butt showing. Sugar was jumping around in the window, happy to see her.
After I dropped Lynnie off, I went over to the grocery store—the one across the street from the cenotaph for the Unknown Fetus—and picked up a big porterhouse and some sweet potatoes and some frozen peas, and then I swung north to Mocol’s Liquors.
Old Mr. Mocol came to the drive-thru window. He said, “Looks like you’re getting an early start.”
“Taking a mental health day,” I said. “Also maybe a tornado party.”
Mr. Mocol leaned out the window and studied the April sky and nodded. He said, “It might get pretty bad.”
Then I went home and broiled the steak and roasted the potatoes and cooked the peas and had a shot of rum and some beer and watched the Weather Channel until I grew too drowsy, and then I stumbled off to bed and collapsed with Fuzzhead.
The aftermath of an execution is exhausting.
I woke up in the afternoon and the light in my bedroom was—dim. Fuzzhead was curled up next to me. I got my phone off the nightstand and there were a bunch of texts.
From Sally, just before noon.
Tee says Fred’s farm got hit by the tornado last night
Those big dogs are all running loose
Texts from Lynnie, around two o’clock.
TOMMY its getting dark
TOMMY go look outside
There was a rumble of thunder outside.
I got up and went to the front door and looked out. The sky was—green. I’d seen that only two or three times before, green from sunlight filtering through millions of tons of water—rain, hail—suspended in the clouds above, eerie and oceanic. I went out and stood on the steps. No wind. Everything still. A couple of neighbors were out in the driveway, gazing up at the sky. I tried taking a couple of pictures to capture the green.
Then I texted one of them to Lynnie.
The sky is beautiful!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Inside the weather radar showed a big, big line of storms heading toward Weirton from the southwest.
My serious tornado options were the same they had been the night before—nonexistent. I liked my house, but the construction was actually kind of flimsy, and I had no inside rooms to hunker down in. No tornado bunker. Sitting it out was all I could do, and so I grabbed Fuzzhead and put him in the cat carrier—a little extra protection for him, maybe—and plugged my iPad in to charge, and made sure my portable battery and wireless hotspot were charged. Then I grabbed a beer and waited.
Outside the sky grew darker. The town’s tornado sirens went on. Sally texted me.
We’re seeking shelter now—you too!!!!
There were tornado shelters on every floor of Reeb Hall. I texted back
big world/small tornado
A moment later she answered
My phone buzzed again—a weather warning. SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY. I had nowhere to run, so I went back out and stood on the steps. More rumbles of thunder and then I saw a line of wind-driven rain sweep across the open field to my west and it hit me—boom!—and I went inside to stay dry.
I texted Lynnie
The funnel cloud dropped to the ground on North Front Street, taking out the Starbucks, the Sizzler, and the Walmart, killing maybe 14 people. The body count would have been higher, but a quick-thinking assistant manager at Walmart herded people into the meat locker, and they lived. The tornado skipped a bit to the southeast, jumping over the American Legion Hall, but still taking the roof off Mocol’s Liquors (Mr. Mocol and Dan and the other clerks were fine, sheltering in the walk-in). Then it hit the Strip Pit square-on. There were only a few people around on a stormy Wednesday afternoon, but the bartender and the DJ and the dancers and the customers all hid in the keg room and were okay. Two customers went out into the parking lot to look at the storm, and were killed—and in the parking lot every car was sucked up, battered, blown away. Every car.
Me? My power was out for about an hour.
...to be continued....
A little while later I pulled the car into my garage and hit the button to close the door behind us. I’d been thinking about what to do for a while.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ve all got Ted’s DNA on us, and I don’t want it in my house. So you’re going to have to strip before you go in.”
“Oh, Tommy,” Lynnie said. “Your seduction skills are lame! You’re supposed to get a girl drunk before you tell her to strip.”
“We’ll do it backwards,” I said. “We can get drunk inside.”
We all got out of the car and I looked over at Sally and Lynnie. They were—filthy. Dirt and blood smeared across their faces and arms and shirts. I suppose I looked as bad. I found an old Styrofoam ice chest and sat it on the hood of my car.
“Keys, phones, money, whatever,” I said. Then I pulled a big lawn and leaf bag from a box. “Clothes and shoes in here.”
“I’m glad I wore old boots,” Sally said. She tossed her phone and cigarettes and money and keys in the ice chest and then balanced against the car and began unlacing her boots.
I emptied my pockets into the ice chest. My billfold, my keys, my phone. Ted’s big wad of cash. Ted’s wallet and keys and phone and SIMM card, though—I wanted to keep those separate. I found a blue plastic bucket and tossed them in.
Sally and Lynnie undressed quickly and stood naked uncomfortably in their bare feet on the gritty garage floor, Lynnie totally fit and strong with packs of muscle on her shoulders and a tattoo of a tornado on one arm and a mushroom cloud on the other, Sally soft and full with that big red orange flaming starburst tattoo on her upper left thigh that ran up her hip to her waist and an intricately-patterned sleeve that ran up to her collar, both of them with smeared dirty dusty faces and hands, both wonderful. They were looking at me, too.
“You always crack me up, Holt,” Sally said. “Your body’s so—white.”
“Vampire purity,” I said. I slipped out of my boxers and stuffed them into the trash bag.
“Try looking at him sometimes when he thinks nobody’s looking at him,” Lynnie said. “I’ll bet he killed a man.”
“I’m not that mysterious,” I said. “So—go inside and get cleaned up.” I was lucky—my little house had two full bathrooms. “Sally—end of the hall. Lynnie—my bedroom. I’ll find you some clean clothes in a minute.”
They stepped delicately up into the house. I reached under the car seat and pulled out the Walther. I unloaded and disassembled it, and here was an unexpected problem: there were only three pieces to the gun—the slide, the spring, and the frame. The barrel and the frame were one piece, a piece that would look kind of conspicuous if someone found it. My Ruger, by contrast, broke down into six pieces, and the barrel and frame were separate and probably easier to toss.
Well, I’d have to make sure nobody found the Walther parts.
Murder was fucking complicated.
I dumped the pieces of gun and my extra clip in the blue bucket with Ted’s stuff.
Inside, I found Fuzzhead sitting on the couch looking puzzled. I could hear water already running in the bathrooms. I sat the ice chest of belongings on the kitchen counter and went down to my bedroom, my closet, and found some clothes—t-shirts, boxer shorts, athletic socks. Enough for tonight.
I knocked on Lynnie’s door and ducked in. I said, “Clothes!”
Lynnie yelled, “Peeper!”
I ducked back out. In the guest bathroom, I could see Sally’s outline, sort of, through the shower curtain. She stuck out her wet head and looked at me.
I said, “Clothes.”
She asked, “Yeah?”
I closed the door and went back out to the kitchen. Fuzzhead trotted over, hungry. I opened a can and dumped it into a bowl for him. I looked in the fridge—beer, Coke, 7-Up. There was wine, too, and rum. Nothing to eat. I hadn’t planned this evening very well.
Suddenly—I felt exhausted. Like fainting, like every bit of energy suddenly drained away. I grabbed hold of the kitchen counter and looked at the clock on the microwave—it wasn’t even ten o’clock yet. Jesus.
Lynnie came down the hall wearing a gray Pete the Prairie Dog t-shirt and black boxer shorts. She said, “Tommy, you’re just standing there naked looking confused.”
I said, “I’m tired.”
“So go get cleaned up.”
I went down to my bathroom and got in the shower. Oh—warm water. Enough warm water. Washing off the sweat and mine grit and Ted DNA and guilt—or something like that. The sweat and grit and blood, at least. There wasn’t much guilt guilt to wash away. I stood there for a while, holding on to the shower head, thinking. There was so much to do—get rid of the clothes, the gun, Ted’s car. My bloody car, too, maybe. Murder was complicated—it was a lot of work. Though maybe crimes of passion were simple—you just got pissed at someone and shot them and that was that. Executions, though—executions took planning.
Well, I could plan.
All my life I’d been smarter than everyone else—except maybe Lynnie.
We would get through this—we’d get out of this. All I had to do was think.
I washed my body, rinsed off. Felt better. I forgot to grab a dry towel so I used Lynnie’s. Her DNA was good. Probably lucky. I put on a t-shirt and shorts and went down the hall and found Lynnie and Sally sitting on the couch watching the Weather Channel.
“We ordered pizzas,” Lynnie said. “We’re starving.”
“There was a tornado outside Independence,” Sally said. She pointed at the TV.
I felt tight in my chest. I thought—I love them.
Those two women. My conspirators. Love them.
I got a beer and sat down.
“The line of storms will hit us around two-thirty,” Sally said.
“And tomorrow’ll be worse,” Lynnie said. “The whole system’s train-tracking right over us.”
“Good,” I said. Maybe the storms would wash out any sign we’d been at the Schwable Boy’s mine. Maybe even raise the water level.
“Tommy loves big storms,” Lynnie said.
Sally said, “I can do without.”
The pizza guy rang the doorbell and Lynnie answered the door—the boxers half-falling off her slim hips but not quite. I grabbed money from the ice chest—from Ted’s big wad—and paid for the food. We ate pizza and watched the weather guys, not talking much. After a while, Lynnie got up and stumbled off to bed, and then Sally. I watched the weather a bit more and tried to think of everything I had to do—but then I thought, Fuck this. I needed to sleep.
I went down the hall and crawled between the warm soft soapy-smelling women, Lynnie on my left, Sally on my right. Felt good between them.
Lynnie woke up—or was still awake. She said, “I don’t feel bad about what we did, but I don’t want to get caught.”
“We’re not getting caught,” Sally said. She sounded sleepy. She rolled over and reached across
me and took Lynnie’s hand. I took both their hands. Sally said, “We’re not getting caught, sweeties.”
There was a—boom. Boom. I jerked away from an unremembered dream and opened my eyes, and everything was black dark—and I weirdly thought of a girlfriend from years ago who would insist on sleeping with a big overhead light on, afraid that if she woke up in the dark, she’d be dead.
But I wasn’t dead. And there was a flash and another boom—lightning, thunder. The line of storms were moving into Weirton. I wasn’t dead. I was squeezed in between Lynnie and Sally. Fuzzhead was stretched out on Lynnie’s back. Sally was snoring. I had an erection. Rain was hammering on the roof.
I scooted out of bed, stopped in the bathroom, and went to look at the storm. I’d left the TV on with the sound off, and the local weather guy was up and excited, pointing at the radar, diagramming some rotation. A big storm was hitting us, and a chyron under the radar read SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY.
Yeah. Then the town tornado sirens went off, a distant wail. I opened the front door and looked out—saw nothing, of course, except blackness and lightning flashes and rain running off my roof. A light went on at the house down the road—they had a tornado bunker, and were probably heading for it. I didn’t have one—and didn’t worry about it, too much. If the tornado was going to get me, it was going to get me. So there was nothing for me to do except stand on the steps and feel the wind, the rain, the power, the sublime, the beauty.
My favorite thing about Kansas. Spring weather.
The only thing I could love about Kansas.
Still there was nothing to see, just blackness and flashes, and after a few minutes the wind shifted and I was wetter than I wanted to be, so I went back inside and got a beer and went to my computer. I was thinking about the email that Courtney mistakenly sent to Devon.
And I quickly found it. One of the emails with attachments I’d forwarded to the Yahoo address.
So I removed 10k from the endowment for the Martens reading, 2k for him per our agreement, and T wants in this time so 1k for her and 6.5k for you and me and Nancy to split and 500 for expenses. Let me know what you think.
And that was it. Devon died for that lame bullshit.
I printed off a few hard copies of the email, and made a PDF, too, and emailed it to my seksu.edu account. Ammunition for me. Another bomb I was going to lob at the department.
The rain was letting up. I finished my beer and crawled back into bed.
“What’s happened?” Sally asked, sleepy.
“A tornado,” I said.
“I’m so happy for you,” Lynnie murmured.
...to be continued....
Ted let out a little mewling moan.
“Thank Jesus!” Lynnie said.
Sally turned around and looked at Ted in the back seat. “He’s a piece of shit.”
A death sentence for Ted.
A life sentence for us, maybe? I still don’t know when we decided to kill Ted. I put duct tape and the rope in the car. I brought along my pistol. We never mentioned what we were going to do after we found Ted, we just thought that we would find him, and talk to him, and then--whatever. We’d do something. I had a sudden brief little chilling notion of getting caught. That wouldn’t be good. Then I thought—Well, that's just too fucking bad. I’d just have to make a life in prison. Shit, I was in a prison now. Gulag fucking State. Ted was going to die.
Sally said, “We need to take him somewhere.”
I grasped the steering wheel. Shrugged. Yeah. Where do you take someone to—execute them?
Ted mewled again.
“Shut up, asshole,” Sally said. She settled back into her seat.
“The Schwable boys,” Lynnie said suddenly. “They have those abandoned mines on their property.”
I said, “Tell me where.”
I started the car and put it in drive and we headed on up into the darkness. Silence in the car at first—there was nothing too much to say about Ted. I drove and I tried to imagine Devon’s last night—Devon under pressure but stubborn, honorable as always, not wanting to give in to Courtney’s bullshit, just wanting to be left alone. Then feeling sleepy, feeling woozy, feeling suddenly scarily weirdly loaded the way I felt loaded when they dosed me. Did she have a moment of lucidity when she knew she was being killed? Probably not. Just passing out, a dreamless nothing blackness, and of course she was dead or almost dead when Ted raped her. I twisted the mirror around and looked into the back seat. I could see the outline of Lynnie’s head. No sign of rapist Ted. No idea what he was thinking—if he could think. Fuck Ted.
“Just keep going straight,” Lynnie said.
Which in a couple of miles would take us across the state line into Missouri. Which might put us in a nice federal prison if we got caught.
We weren’t going to get caught.
A town called Bolair was just ahead, another mile past the border. I’d driven through it a few times during the daytime, an ugly scabby little place of collapsing wooden houses and shuttered stores. Now, though, coming up to it at night, it was just—blank. A light inside a closed gas station. A flashing yellow light at the town’s one intersection.
“Turn left at the light,” Lynnie said. She was up leaning over Sally’s shoulder.
I made the left and we drove north through downtown Bolair—what had been downtown Bolair a hundred years ago, before the mines played out. Now there was nothing but dirty-looking gloominess and a beer joint with a couple of pickups parked in front.
“It’s not far,” Lynnie said. “About four miles? Then make a right. I’ll tell you when.”
I have bad dreams sometimes. Nightmares. Devon was haunted by prison and torture dreams, I’m haunted by fighting dreams, dreams where I get attacked. Sometimes I’m stalked and attacked by monsters, sometimes I’m ambushed and attacked by brutish men, and the monsters or men are all bigger than me and more powerful and implacable than me. It’s fucking scary. Sometimes I try to run away. Sometimes I fight them with a sword, sometimes with a pistol, often with my bare hands, and there is real fear as the dream creatures chase me and grapple with me and try to kill me. And yet—sometimes as I’m fighting, cornered and the brutes coming at me, an odd thought will enter my mind—and—I’ll step back and jolt awake in my bed, bathed in sweat with my fists clenched and the thought will be there--
What if I’m the bad guy?
What if I’m the one oppressing the—apparent—monsters and brutish men?
Lynnie knew where she was going. A right in the dark. Then a left. Across a cattle guard. A gate. Sally got out and opened the gate, then closed it and got back in the car once I drove through. Ted kicked the back of my seat once or twice. Lynnie punched him the face a couple of times. Ted mewled like a sick cat. Crying. I had the windows down and we breathed warm damp spring air. I drove around a rolling rise—no hills here on the prairie—and then in the headlights I spotted a couple of shadowy collapsing buildings.
“This is a mine?” I asked. I was expecting something like I’d seen in old pictures of West Virginia—dark tunnels disappearing into a hillside.
I turned on a flashlight and looked around into the back seat. Lynnie squinted. Ted sat breathing heavily with his eyes closed—closed, swollen shut, too. And the thought came—what if I’m the bad guy? After all—I’d abducted Ted and was planning on killing him—what if killing him was wrong? What if everything that had happened in the English Department was somehow my fault? What if I really was the fuckup they all thought I was? What if Courtney and Tee and Nancy and Ted were the good guys? What if--
I took a breath and shook my head. No. No. That was just my subconscious, gaslighted, sympathizing with oppression, Stockholm-syndromed. No.
I asked Sally, “Can you watch him while I check this out?”
“I guess—for a little while.”
I handed Sally the Walther. I got out of the car, and so did Lynnie. The warm wind felt good. Lynnie led the way over to the closest old building—the size, maybe, of a small barn, with a roof that was half-caved-in. The front door was hanging open.
“I was going to do a chapter on this place in my mining book,” Lynnie said. “But I guess I can’t, now. We don’t want to draw attention to it.”
“History erased,” I said.
“Yeah. The Schwable boys would like to sell it but they can’t,” Lynnie said. “It should be a Super-Fund site, but it’s not. If the Schwables ever get hold of some money they’ll knock all this down and fill in the mine shafts—and whatever’s down there is going to stay down there.”
I followed her inside. A dark dryness all around me. Rubble on the floor—rocks, bricks, coils of ancient wire, bits of broken machinery. Ahead of us a wooden platform and a—hole, a square hole, maybe eight feet on all sides. Black.
“Be careful,” Lynnie said. She found a rock and tossed it into the darkness. There was a splash—pretty far below, it sounded like.
“I have the plans and engineering reports for this back at my house,” Lynnie said. “The main shaft’s eighty feet deep, then there’s tunnels that go out in different directions. The water level is at about twenty feet down. So everything down there is flooded.”
“We’ll have to tie him to something so he sinks,” I said.
“The water down there’s like all full of acids and heavy metals,” Lynnie said. “I don’t know. It might dissolve him—but it might turn him into a pickle or a mummy, too.”
I almost laughed. This was just—a problem to be solved. Ted wasn’t a person anymore, just a problem. A potential pickle.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do this.”
Outside we found Sally standing in the dark, aiming the pistol at the car.
“He wanted me to let him go,” Sally said. “I didn’t want to listen to his bullshit.”
I opened the back door and Ted sort of ineffectually kicked at me. I grabbed his foot and dragged him out of the car and dumped him on the ground. In the flashlight beam I saw that Lynnie had duct-taped his wrists and had wrapped lengths of rope around his arms and torso. It’s difficult, I guess, to tie someone up in the backseat of a moving car, but Lynnie had done a pretty good job.
That last kick at me was about all the fight Ted had left. He looked up at me, dazed. A distantly familiar look: I’d seen a few videos from the Syrian civil war—people being executed, and they always looked sort of dazed, looking around at their surroundings with disbelief and also what seemed like a weird curiosity. That was Ted: dazed, curious, disbelieving.
“You don’t have to point the gun at us,” I said to Sally. She lowered the pistol.
Lynnie came over and helped me stand Ted up, and we led him shuffling half-hopping into the building. Sally followed us with the pistol. We threw Ted to the ground and I took my flashlight and went looking for something to tie him to and sink him, when I heard a clicking, grinding noise. I turned and saw Sally standing on Ted’s face, balancing on his cheek, grinding his broken jaw.
Lynnie found an old car wheel and rolled it out of the dirt.
“Perfect,” I said.
Sally got off Ted’s face. He was oozing blood and snot—I wondered if he might die, choke to death, before I had a chance to shoot him. We worked quickly and tied his legs to the wheel. I went through Ted’s pockets—keys, a wallet, a big wad of cash for lap dances at the Strip Pit.
“I don’t want his bullshit money,” Sally said.
Ted was watching me, gasping wetly through his broken jaw. Choking.
“It spends,” I said. I stuck the wad in my pants pocket. The wallet, too. And the keys—keys to Reeb Hall and his house but also the electronic key fob to his Volvo. I was going to have to do something about Ted’s car. What, though?
I decided to think about it later.
“Well?” Lynnie asked.
I held out my hand and Sally handed me the Walther. I guess we were doing this. We were doing this. I was doing this.
“Stand back in case there’s a ricochet,” I said.
Lynnie and Sally took a few steps back.
I thought of Devon. She once asked me, “Could you kill a person?” We were at Chrissy’s having dinner—Devon was having a burger, I was having a chicken-fried steak—and somehow killing animals came up.
“I don’t think I could kill an animal,” Devon said. She pointed at her plate. “I mean, eat one, yeah—but I don’t think I could kill one.”
“I’ve killed animals,” I said. I shrugged. “I used to go hunting when I was a kid—I don’t now, but I used to.”
Devon nodded, chewed a bite. She swallowed and said, “So, could you kill a person?”
I thought about that. “Yeah,” I said. “Sure, I guess—some people.”
Devon nodded again, and we finished dinner and went back to her place and watched a movie and did some grading—but now I was standing over Ted Shuey—and, yeah, he was definitely a person I could kill.
There was already a round in the chamber. I thumbed off the safety and shot Ted in his soft belly. Ted jerked—gasped. I’d never shot anyone before. I guess it was like shooting at a target. Shooting an animal. He was close enough that I didn’t miss.
Ted gasped again and opened his eyes to look at me. I quickly shot him twice more in the belly and once in the chest.
I said, “That’s enough.”
“He’s still alive,” Sally said.
“Not for long,” I said. “C’mon.”
Together we dragged Ted a few feet and dumped him down the mineshaft—into the darkness. There was a huge echoing splash, and then the sound of our own breathing.
We shined flashlights down into the pit. Just distant reflections. Bubbles, maybe. A ripple.
“If he snags on something just under the surface,” I said to Lynnie, “you have to go down there and fish him out.”
“Fair enough,” Lynnie said. “You hold the rope and I’ll go.”
I picked up the brass shell casings and stuck them in my pocket. We scuffed around in the loose dry dirt to make it look—scuffed up. Then we left the mine, and Ted.
Not one of us looked back.
Outside the warm damp wind was still blowing. There was more lightning across the horizon. Smell of grass. A beautiful night, really. We all got into the car.
Sally was looking at her phone. She said, “There was a tornado in Stillwater.”
“Ouch,” I said. I had a friend from grad school who was teaching at Oklahoma State, in Stillwater.
“Another in Sedan,” Sally said.
“Sedan,” Lynnie said. “Isn’t that where that creepy clown museum’s at?”
I said, “Fuck any state that has a clown museum.”
I wanted to get away before the storm hit and we got mudded in. I drove out the way we’d come in—Sally again opening and closing the gate—and when we were going through Bolair, Lynnie wanted to stop at the beer joint and pee.
“No!” Sally said. “You’re all covered in blood—we’re all covered in blood.”
“Yeah, I bet that’s not too unusual around here,” Lynnie said.
I went on through Bolair and kept going south on a road that paralleled the Kansas-Missouri border. After a few miles, I came to another wildlife area—again, a former strip mine. This one had filled with water and made for a good-sized lake. There was a boat ramp and a filthy outhouse.
Lynnie ran to the outhouse and Sally followed her and waited by the door. I walked down to the water and tossed in the brass shell casings—plunk, plunk, plunk, plunk. If someone found them, they wouldn’t attract any attention—rednecks were always shooting guns out here. I stood there smelling the water and the mud, feeling the wind, looking up into the dark night clouds.
...to be continued....
There’s a line in Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” that goes, “I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.” And this was on my mind, going through my head like a stuck song, the next day after work, when I went home and packed my car. Could I carry off whatever it was we were going to do—could I kidnap someone? Or pick them up to—talk? Or yank them off the street, or whatever you want to call it. In my own ideal conception—in my secret heart—I liked to think that I was capable of almost anything, if I thought about it—if I focused. This despite a lack of opportunity in my life for almost anything.
So. What do you need when you’re going to kidnap someone? Or pick them up to talk? Or whatever you want to call it?
Rope. Duct tape. Knife. Flashlights—I found four of them in my garage.
I owned two pistols, and I had to make a decision—the Ruger or the Walther. They were both small pistols, shooting a .380. I’d bought the Ruger new, and it could be traced to me. So I chose the Walther. I’d bought it in South Texas from a guy I’d worked with offshore. It was an older gun, probably made in the 1970s, and had been knocked around some over the years, but it worked fine.
I covered my car’s back seat with an old quilt and tossed in the rope and duct tape. I tossed the flashlights onto the front passenger floor. I slid the knife into my pocket. I stuck the pistol under my seat.
I drove by Sally’s house, and she was waiting for me on the front porch wearing a khaki work shirt and jeans and hiking boots. She hopped down and got into the car like we were going on a date.
“I don’t know exactly what we’re doing,” Sally said. “But—let’s do it.”
“We might be breaking a lot of laws,” I said. “We need to be ready for that.”
Lynnie was ready, too, when I pulled up into her driveway. She came down the steps all dressed in black—with a black bandanna around her throat and a black watch cap on her head—and climbed into the back seat.
“Jesus,” I said. “You look like an anarchist.”
“No,” Lynnie said. “I’m going for ninja. I don’t like anarchists, except for maybe the ones in the Spanish Civil War.”
“I always rooted for the Communists,” I said.
“You and Courtney and Stalin,” Lynnie said. “We’ll never agree.”
“So, Holt,” Sally said. “You have a plan?”
“The Strip Pit, I guess. We just wait for him to show up.”
Sally shook her head. I think she wanted to go to Ted’s house and roust him out. She was direct like that. But Ted lived in an old farmhouse northwest of town, surrounded by pastures, and there was a long open driveway, and even though the nearest neighbors were a couple of hundred yards away, they might notice a strange car going up the driveway. So, no. Sally was willing to go along with my plan, though.
I pulled out of Lynnie’s driveway and headed west, then north on the highway bypass. It was getting dark, but still light enough to see a convoy of vehicles headed south, vans and SUVs with antennas and radar dishes and satellite uplinks. Storm chasers—there was big weather coming. I’d checked the radar before I’d left my house, and there was a line of strong spring storms off to the southwest, stretching down into Oklahoma. We were under a tornado watch until the early morning.
I got off the bypass up by the Walmart and came down on the Strip Pit from the north, the way Ted would be coming if he came to the bar from his house. The Strip Pit didn’t seem to be very busy—the parking lot was only about half full. I didn’t see Ted’s green Volvo anywhere. I circled around the block and came back to the bar from a side street, and, like I had in December, parked sort of behind a dumpster—sort of behind, but with a view of the parking lot and the front door.
Not much happened. Sally and Lynnie played with their phones. A couple of cars pulled into the parking lot, and men got out and went inside. A tall girl with long stringy hair got dropped off and she skipped inside. Nice to see a happy stripper in Weirton. Nice to see anybody happy in Weirton. Other cars drove down the street, people in them doing whatever it is people do. Warm gusty winds shook the trees, the sun went down, evening came.
But we didn’t wait long. I spotted the green Volvo come around the corner and turn into the parking lot.
“The Eagle has landed,” I said.
“Okay!” Sally said. She looked up and unbuckled her seat belt. “So—I just get him over to the car, right?”
“Yep, tell him we want to talk—we want to get things settled.”
“We’ll all go to dinner,” Lynnie said.
“Right,” Sally said.
She got out of the car and walked loosely down the street. Relaxed. Just watching her made me feel good. I saw Ted and his beard get out of the Volvo. The windows in my car were up, and I saw Sally raise her arm and wave. Hey, Ted!
I pulled the Walther from under the seat and held it in my lap.
“Oh, this is going to be good,” Lynnie said. She was leaning up between the seats, watching over my shoulder.
Ted walked a few feet toward Sally. They talked. Sally pointed at me—us, my car. Sally and Ted began walking our way.
“Okay,” Lynnie said. She sank back and half-disappeared into the backseat darkness.
Sally and Ted got closer. They were talking—about what? Sally looked intense—she was half a head taller than Ted. A big strong girl. Ted’s stupid beard fluttered in the wind. I didn’t know which side of the car they were coming to, so I hit the buttons and lowered both front windows.
They were coming to my side of the car.
“Hey, Ted!” I called out. “What’s up?”
Ted got a little closer. “She says you want to talk.”
She—he wouldn’t even say Sally’s name.
“That’s right,” I said. “Get in the car—we’ll go for a drink.”
“We can have a drink here,” Ted said. He came closer to my car window and bent down to look inside. I think he saw Lynnie in the back seat—he seemed wary. He fucking well should have been wary. But he stepped closer. Sally was standing right behind him.
“Ted, the ladies don’t want to go to a fucking strip club,” I said. “Get in—we can go get something to eat. We can go to the Sizzler.”
“Well,” Ted said. “I’ll meet you there.”
I raised the Walther and stuck it right in his beard.
“Ted, I swear to god I’ll shoot you if you don’t get in the car.” I worked the action and stuck it deeper into his throat. Sally smartly stepped out from behind him. “I swear to god I don’t care.”
Ted’s stood looking at me, frozen.
“Just get in the back seat,” Sally said.
Lynnie kicked open the back door and scooted over to let him in, and Ted got in slowly, carefully. Sally got in after him and shut the door.
“Don’t worry,” I said. I looked in the mirror at Ted’s shape behind me. “If I really wanted to kill you, you’d be dead already.”
A line, sort of, from The Godfather. I guess I hoped that proved to Ted that I knew what I was doing. That I was serious.
I put the car in drive and drove back out through the neighborhood and headed north out of town on Front Street, past the Walmart and the Holiday Inn and the chain restaurants.
“Guess we’re not going to Sizzler,” Lynnie said.
“Where are we going?” Ted asked.
“Someplace private,” I said. I drove on north.
“How’d you know where to find me?”
“You’re at that bar every night!” Sally said. “Everybody that drives by sees your car.”
“So, tell me,” Lynnie said. “What do you do all the time in there at the Strip Pit?”
In the mirror I could see Ted’s head bobbing around like the was trying to think of something to say. He ended up sort of shrugging.
“Hey, there’s no shame in a titty bar,” I said over my shoulder. “The great Richard Feynman would go to strip clubs and work on math and physics—and he won a Nobel Prize.”
“Ted’s not doing physics,” Lynnie said. “I bet he’s writing poems.” She pronounced it pomes.
“Well, yes,” Ted said. His deep rich voice was still mostly locked down inside himself with those wired jaws. “I’m writing poems about the body—the—uh—the female body.”
“Oh, for fucks sake,” Sally said.
“Tom,” Ted said. Speaking to me—trying to ignore the women who flanked him. “You’re kidnapping me.”
“We’re abducting you,” I said. “We’re not asking for a ransom.”
“Who’d pay it?” Lynnie asked.
“Tom,” Ted said again—I couldn’t remember when he’d ever addressed me directly. “Tom—this is wrong.”
“Wrong is sending me pictures of penises!” Sally said.
“What?” He turned to face Sally. “I never did that!”
Lynnie hit Ted. I caught a dark blur in the mirror, heard a thunk.
Ted said, “Ow!”
“He’s fucking bleeding on me!” Sally said.
Which meant he was probably spaying blood around the back seat, too. But I’d have to deal with that later.
“Get his phone, please,” I said.
There was a tussle in the back seat—Ted grunted, Sally yelped. Then Lynnie said, “Oh, it’s just a cheap little flip phone.” She tossed the phone up on the seat next to me.
“Tom, you can’t do this,” Ted said.
Lynnie hit him—hard.
Ted didn’t say anything more. I drove on north through Auburn, the next little town up the road from Weirton, and then I made a right, heading for the Missouri border. Right before Kansas ended, I pulled off into a small graveled parking area at a state wildlife refuge. Wildlife refuge—it was like Forest Preserve Park, an old strip mine that had grown back with sickly stunted mutant trees. A trail wound through the area, in and out among brush-covered piles of mining waste. Devon and I went for walks there a couple of times. Now, on a warm blustery Tuesday night in April, it was deserted. I turned off the car and we sat quietly in darkness. After a moment, I took the back cover off Ted’s phone and pulled out the battery and the SIMM card. I tossed the battery and put the card in my shirt pocket for later.
“So,” I finally said over my shoulder. “Why don’t you tell us what happened to Devon the night she died?”
“How would I know?” Ted asked wetly. “I was at home.”
Lynnie hit Ted. Thunk. He grunted.
“Fuck,” Sally said. “He’s bleeding on me again.”
“Stop bleeding on her!” Lynnie grabbed Ted by his ear and his beard and started shaking him around.
“I’m getting up in the front seat,” Sally said. “I got fucking herpes blood on me!”
Sally opened the door and the light went on. I saw that Lynnie had a rope around Ted’s neck and was choking him. Then Sally shut the door and the light went out.
“Lynnie, let him breathe,” I said.
The front passenger door opened and the light went on again. Ted’s eyes were kind of bulged out but he was breathing—gasping, really. He looked scared. Good.
Sally got in and shut the door and the light went out.
“Ted,” I said. “We have Courtney’s texts to Devon saying you were all coming over that night. We have your fingerprints on the fucking wineglasses.”
“One of the neighbors saw you driving up,” Sally said. She was a good liar. “They described your fucking beard!”
I said, “You were there.”
Ted took a big long sighing gasp. He said, “We just wanted to talk to Devon about some things.”
Lynnie cuffed Ted. He cringed.
“No,” Ted said. “You told me you knew everything!”
“Yeah, Devon told me a few things,” I said. “And her notebooks told me some other things. And now you’re going to tell me all the fucking things. Okay?”
“It was Courtney’s email,” Ted said. He was breathing heavily, talking fast through his wired jaws. He didn’t want to get hit again. “Courtney was sending it to Fred and she wanted to cc it to Nancy but she clicked the wrong name and it went to Devon.”
Ah, I thought. I bet I had that email on a drive somewhere.
“Bitch never has learned how to use email,” Sally said.
“The subject?” I asked.
“You know that—it was the visiting writers fund. The endowment.”
Actually, I didn’t know that.
"Wait." Sally turned half around. “You guys are skimming from the endowment?”
The endowment—some rich alum no one remembered or had even heard of left the department an absurd enormous pot of money to fund creative writing. Courtney was in charge of it. Fuck—of course she was dipping into it.
“Courtney and Nancy,” Ted said. “Fred was, too—he used to be on the visiting writers committee. But I never got anything.”
“Well,” Sally said. “Boo-fucking-hoo for you.”
I asked, “Was Tee in on it?”
Sally leaned around to hear the answer.
“She knows about it,” Ted said. “She usually doesn’t take any money. But sometimes she does when she’s short—I think she did last fall. You really didn’t know about this part?”
Sally said, “Damn.”
“How much got skimmed?” I asked.
“Maybe ten or twelve thousand a year,” Ted said. “I mean—since I got here. I don’t know before then.”
Ted had been at the Gulag 15 years. So—I tried to do the math. $160,000? $180,000? Split three or four ways over 15 years….
Sally was doing math, too. “So that’s only like four thousand a year apiece. Fuck, my drug addict husband was a better embezzler than you losers!”
Well—still, that extra money was enough to help Fred buy a farm, to help Courtney buy a big house and sponsor a moon cult….
“Yeah, and I didn’t get any of the money!” Ted said.
I thought of something. I said, “And so that’s why you tried to kill Nancy, huh? You wanted her share of the money?”
“What?” Ted yelped. “No—Courtney told me you did it!”
“I was in Texas, dumbass.”
“Really? Courtney said—”
Lynnie smacked Ted a couple of times. “Beating up on an old lady! You asshole!”
I waited until Ted caught his breath again. I asked, “So, okay—you all went over to Devon’s. What happened?”
“Courtney offered to cut her in,” Ted said.
“And?” I asked.
“Devon didn’t want to cooperate,” Ted said. “You know what she was like—she thought she was better than everybody else. She was too good for the money.”
“Fucking bastard,” Lynnie whispered. “She was better than everybody else.”
“So—Courtney spiked her wine—”
“Fentanyl,” Lynnie said.
“Yeah—right—I guess—and Devon passed out, and, you know—and then Courtney got on the computer and deleted her emails.”
“You didn’t delete shit!” Sally said. “You people don’t know anything about computers!”
I thought—All those emails are sitting on a university server somewhere. I wondered if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Would anyone ever look for them?
“You took her phone,” I said. “And all the notebooks you could find.”
Ted grunted, “Yeah.”
“And then you raped her.”
Lynnie jerked Ted over and hit him four or five times. Then she pushed him back up.
“And then you raped her,” I said again.
“No—” Ted raised his hands. “Don’t hit me! I didn’t rape her—she was already dead!”
Sally asked, “What?”
I turned on a flashlight and shined it in Ted’s face. He winced, shut his eyes. Bleeding from his nose and mouth, beard clotted and tangled scraggly. He was a mess.
I said, “She was already--dead?”
“Yes,” Ted grunted wetly. Hissed. “You can’t rape a dead woman—rape’s about consent, right?”
We were all silent, trying to figure that out. I shut off the flashlight. Over the horizon lightning flashed up into the clouds. Ted was still breathing heavily.
“Wait a minute,” Lynnie said. “A dead woman can’t consent—so it’s totally rape!”
“And you probably didn’t know she was dead until you were through,” Sally said.
“No!” Ted said. He leaned forward, trying to talk to me—me, ignoring the women. “Anybody can rape a drunk woman, right? You all know that! But a dead woman? That takes courage!”
Courage. The fuck? I remembered that stupid poem Ted wrote.
The difference between
courage and cowardice
is a mere
We were all silent for what seemed like a long time.
Finally, Lynnie asked, “So, what’re we going to do with this piece of shit?”
The car was silent again. Sally and Lynnie—and Ted—were waiting for me to decide.
I said, “We might as well kill him.”
...to be continued....