I pushed past Tee and back out to the lobby. Lynnie was standing there. I grabbed her arm and dragged her down to Fred’s office.
“Get your shit,” I said.
“He’s dead?” Lynnie looked around. “All I brought was my phone. My pen.”
I got my iPad and folder and clipboard. Phone was in my pocket. I said, “Okay, tell me—what were we doing here? They’re going to ask us.”
“Fuck, I don’t know,” Lynnie said.
I thought. Fred did British Literature. Lynnie was a historian. I said, “Something about the Great War…?”
“The Great War and Modern Memory!” Lynnie said. “I read that in grad school.”
“Good!” I looked around on Fred’s bookshelves and found the Paul Fussell book and pulled it down and tossed it on Fred’s desk. “Have you read those Pat Barker books about the war?”
“You should,” I said. “He would have recommended them to you. Those are good books--Regeneration, and—” I couldn’t think of the other two titles. Stressed, maybe. There were two others—it was a fucking trilogy. I took a deep breath. “Those other two.”
“Okay,” Lynnie said.
I made one last look around and we left Fred’s office and went back down to the lobby. Martie the custodian and Constance Olmanson were standing with Tee and Sally.
Martie said, “Dr. Van Buskirk always carried that pistol….”
I asked, “What?”
“You never saw him with his jacket off, right?” Martie asked. “Ever? He always had that little pistol in a holster at his back. I seen it once or twice when he was bending over and his jacket hiked up….”
I looked at Lynnie—astonished. She shrugged. I shrugged. If fucking Fred had been a fighter he could have capped us. Would have. But he didn’t—he just deflated.
Tee pulled me aside. “You guys were talking to Fred?”
“Yeah,” I said. I looked over at Lynnie. Thought. “We were just—talking about literature of the Great War. Lynnie’s thinking about adding some books to her survey class.”
Lynnie said, “Yeah, I don’t read enough fiction or poetry.”
“Huh.” Tee frowned. She thought. “Did Fred seem—different?”
Fuck. I didn’t know Fred that well—I never, even before I found out he was a pervert, wanted to know him that well. How would I know if he was different? As far as I knew, he was always a piece of shit. Now he was just a dead piece of shit.
I said, “He seemed kind of—preoccupied.”
“He said he had something to do,” Lynnie said. “He didn’t want to talk. He seemed, I don’t know—depressed?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Distracted.”
Tee shook her head and went back to Sally and Constance and Martie. They all stood looking at the restroom door.
Thursday faculty meeting. Two days after Fred killed himself. Five days before spring classes started.
I sat in my usual place, first row of seats, on the side of the room by the window. Third floor, I thought—we were more or less right below fucking Fred’s office. Tee came in and fiddled around with a flashdrive and the projector. The writers came in together and sat right in front of her. Bart and Old Earl sat behind me. The rhetoric people and the other Brit Lit people filtered in and sat in the back. Sally came in with her notepad and sat in a corner by the door.
“Man, we’re going to miss Fred,” Bart said.
I turned around. “Fred was an asshole.”
“Yes, he was, rather,” Earl said. “But he also taught a lot of classes other people don’t want to teach.”
“Irrelevant,” I said. I was aware of feeling—cold. Not physically, but emotionally. Distant. Maybe Lynnie was right—again. “We’re better off without him.”
“I don’t want to teach Fred’s classes,” Bart said. “Do you want to teach Fred’s classes?”
“Okay!” Tee said loudly. “We might as well start!”
“What’s happening to this department?” someone in the back asked. I turned around and it was Constance Olmanson. “Devon resigned and then she killed herself, and now Fred’s resigned and then he killed himself. What’s going on?”
That was a pretty good question, with a perhaps complicated answer. Tee raised her hands and looked a little lost—unusual for her. The room was quiet for a moment.
“Well, I guess—just don’t resign,” Tee said. “We need you—all of you.”
Bart’s hand shot up then and he began speaking before Tee even recognized him. “So, what are we going to do about replacing Fred? I think we should discuss replacing Fred. I think this is kind of—urgent. The semester starts on Monday.”
“Are we even going to be allowed to replace Fred?” Marilyn Bakke asked. “Creative writing has all the search money tied up, and—”
“That’s not true!” Courtney said. She turned around in her seat and looked at Marilyn. “No!”
“—and they have more faculty—plus Tom!”
I turned around, too, and I glared at Marilyn. I said, “I’m not fucking teaching CW forever!”
“Ha!” Nancy cackled. “You might have to, though!”
“Okay, everybody!” Tee said. “Just hold on, okay? First, I think maybe we should have a moment of silence for Fred.” Tee had recovered enough to use her serious solemn bullshit voice. She didn’t want a moment of silence for Fred any more than she wanted one for Devon. But silence was better than answering questions. Silence might calm people. “Okay? He was our colleague for many years, and I’m sure everyone in this room is feeling shock and—sorrow.”
“Nobody cares about Fred,” a woman in the back—Constance Olmanson, maybe?—muttered.
“Second the motion,” Courtney said loudly.
“Okay,” Tee said. She pulled out her phone and squinted at the clock. “A moment of silence for our fallen colleague.”
Bart leaned forward. “She won’t even make forty seconds,” he whispered.
I got out my phone, too, and tapped on the timer. The writers again bowed their heads in fake prayer. The rhetoric teachers played with their phones or gazed out the window at the chill January afternoon. Everyone was more or less silent.
“Okay,” Tee finally said.
“Thirty-eight seconds!” Bart was happy.
“What about Fred!” Marilyn asked again. “What’re we going to do?”
“I don’t know,” Tee said. “I need to go back and talk to the Dean again, and the Provost. But I don’t know what they can do for us, right now.”
“Who’s going to teach Fred’s classes?” Bart asked.
“Listen,” Tee said. “We’re going to be understaffed for the rest of the year. Maybe next year, too. And that—”
Courtney said, “But I just want to say—”
“And that means we’re going to have to sacrifice. Okay? We’re going to have to work together—”
I heard Old Earl laugh behind me.
“—and we’re going to have to do more with less.”
“Very clever phrase, that,” Bart said quietly. “Very original.”
“We’re going to do less with less,” Old Earl said grimly.
Courtney said, “But I just want to say—”
“All of us,” Tee said. “All of us are going to have to sacrifice.”
Which everyone in the room knew was bullshit, of course. Some of us were going to have to sacrifice. Some of us weren’t.
“But I just want to say,” Courtney said. Undefeated. “That I think—if you don’t have a decision about Fred, I think we should move on and talk about the CW hire.”
“Well, that’s on the agenda,” Tee said. “But shouldn’t we also talk about Fred’s memorial service?”
No one said anything at first. Then Marilyn said, “Okay….”
Tee said, “We can have it next week....” Tee looked at her phone—her calendar, I guess. “Maybe Wednesday?”
“Okay,” Courtney said. She wrote something down in her notebook. “That’s fine. I’ll organize it. I’ll write a poem. But now we need to talk about the hiring committee, okay?”
We’d moved on from Fred. Which seemed to be fine with everyone. I sat up a bit and paid attention. The stupid hiring committee concerned me.
“Well, we’ve gotten a lot of applications in,” Tee said. “How many, Sally?”
Sally looked up, light glinting off her glasses. She said, “Over six hundred.”
“Over six hundred,” Tee repeated. “And the deadline’s not until next Monday, so I imagine we’ll get quite a few more.”
Six hundred applications, I thought. Fuck me. Six hundred sad unfortunate desperate academics—they had to be sad and unfortunate and desperate if they actually wanted to work in the Gulag State shithole. I thought of the cost—every application probably cost the impoverished unhappy academics $50 or so to prepare and send out. A job here wasn’t worth investing fifty dollars.
“So,” Tee said. “The hiring committee will get to work next week, and I hope they can wrap up the search by—mid-March?”
“Oh, we will,” Courtney said. “I promise. And I think the hiring committee should have a quick meeting just after this meeting is over.” Courtney and Nancy and Ted’s beard all looked at me. Courtney asked, “Right, Tom?”
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. “Whatever.”
After a while the big departmental meeting petered out and Tee let everyone go. The hiring committee—the writers and myself—stayed behind. The writers clustered by themselves together on the other side of the room, and though I was comfortable where I was by the window I got up and moved closer to them—closer, but still apart.
“I just want to say that I brought presents,” Courtney said. She held up a white paper bag. “Gifts that will make our work flow much easier.”
“How wonderful!” Nancy said. “I love presents.”
Courtney pulled four little bags from her big bag, and she passed them around. She said, “Doesn’t matter which one you get—they’re all the same.”
I got mine and looked inside. A—ring? Yes. A mood ring. I opened the plastic and pulled it out and looked at it. A plastic oval—I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t a stone—on a cheap gold-colored plastic ring.
“Brilliant,” Ted said.
“I think so,” Courtney said. “These rings can inform us when we get too stressed—when we need to calm down, when we need to do something to stay healthy.”
Courtney and Nancy and Ted all slipped their rings on, so I did, too, pushing it up my pinkie. The plastic oval immediately turned black.
“Oh, Tom!” Nancy said. “That must be a bad sign!”
I looked at everyone else’s fingers—greens and purples. Mine stayed black.
“Tom,” Courtney said. “I think you need to engage in some self-care.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe it just means I take this job seriously.”
No one said anything. They all just stared at my ring. At my leprous pinkie.
“Well,” Courtney finally said. “I think we should talk about the hiring situation.”
“Right,” Nancy said. “But first I want to ask Tom something.” She turned to me, wrinkled and gray and grim. “Okay, I’d like to know what you were doing with Fred a couple of days ago.”
“The day he killed himself,” Courtney said.
“I heard you had that woman from History with you,” Ted said.
“Uh, yeah,” I said. My ring was black. “Lynnie’s thinking about assignments for one of her classes—a reading list for World War One.”
That still sounded plausible, I guess. When we talked to the cops who showed up—the campus cops and the city cops, too, and one of the city cops was our old friend, Officer Lundgren—they thought it sounded plausible. Because it was plausible.
I looked down at my ring. Still black.
Angry cold black.
“But that was right before he killed himself,” Courtney said. “He didn’t say anything?”
“Uh, he suggested that Lynnie read Paul Fussell’s Great War and Modern Memory….”
“Fred just left Charles in the lurch,” Nancy said. Charles, Nancy’s husband, Fred’s partner in the farm. “Now he has to do all the work at the farm!”
The three writers turned and looked at me like it was my fault. I shrugged.
“It’s very mysterious,” Courtney said. “Tom, you must’ve noticed something.”
“I barely knew Fred,” I said. Thank god.
“You were sure talking to him at my party!”
“Yeah,” I said. “And he was obnoxiously fucking drunk, too.”
The writers sat back, surprised.
“Well, he wasn’t drunk drunk,” Courtney said after a moment. “That was just Fred’s way—he acted that way to draw people out.”
“Interesting strategy,” I said.
“Something weird’s happening in this department,” Courtney said. She looked at me, squinted with her giant blue eyes. “I think you might know more than you’re letting on.”
I laughed. “I thought you thought I was clueless!”
Ted said, “That might be your interesting strategy.”
I laughed again and looked down at my finger—still black.