So one grim Monday I was sitting there staring vaguely into a dark corner of my office at work—staring not at the coat rack, but beyond it into a void of deeper gloomier shadows—staring and trying to come up with enough energy to do something academic. Grade a paper. Prep a class. Write an email. Anything. But—sadly, my brain would not respond, the energy would not come, and--
Out of the corner of my eye I spotted Sally Baldwin, the English Department’s administrative assistant, step busily by the half-open door, tight black jeans and bright red sweater. That might mean trouble. Sally might be trouble. I spun my chair around to face the computer and tried to remember if I had any paperwork due. Sally only usually came stomping down to the offices if some poor professor missed the filing deadline on something—Sally believed in direct forceful contact, not email, not phones. I heard Sally’s big ring of keys jangle, heard her knock on the office next door—the office of Devon Shepherd, my former girlfriend, who taught fiction in the creative writing program—heard the keys jangle some more when she opened Devon’s door, heard her call out to someone, “Nope—she’s not here!”
I jolted and spun the chair around again. The department chair, Tee Wheeler, was standing in the doorway, leaning around the half-open door, looking flatly at me with her dull tired baggy eyes.
“Tom?” Tee asked. “Have you seen Devon today?”
“Uh—no.” I felt suddenly guilty. Devon? I sort of had been thinking about Devon, indirectly—mostly I’d been thinking about me. But I hadn’t seen her. Where was Devon? “I don’t think so—I haven’t seen her around.”
“Devon didn’t show up to teach her morning classes,” Tee said. “She didn’t call in or anything.”
“Wow,” I said. I thought—Something’s wrong. I said, “No, I haven’t seen her today. I guess I saw her—Friday….”
Out in the hall, Sally the admin assistant said, “I’m trying her phone again—no answer. Just voicemail.”
I sat back in my chair. Waited for something bad to happen. Something bad was happening, and
I could tell that Tee was going to want me to do something about it.
I thought, I’m going to have to go find out what’s up with Devon.
After a moment, Tee ducked her head back into my office. She asked, “Tom? Are you busy right now?”
Devon once told me that the hardest thing about teaching young students to write fiction was getting them to conceptualize the world of their stories, to think through what they were writing about. An example: she said students always liked writing about characters who were grieving, or depressed, without thinking through how having a depressed, grieving character might impact the overall story. What do depressed people do? Not a whole lot, right? They watch TV, they stare vaguely into dark corners, and they can be limited in engaging in the conflict that drives most good stories. Devon said there was a way to get around this problem: to have a secondary or tertiary character drag the depressed protagonist out of their house and get them engaged in doing--something.
So, that day I was sort of depressed. Why? Well, I was living in Weirton, Kansas, and teaching at Southeast Kansas State University—two things right there big enough to depress almost anyone with a heart or a soul. But on that day, at that moment, I was sort of depressed because I was thinking about leaving Southeast Kansas, about getting another job at a different university. In fact, a few minutes before Tee stuck her head into my office, I’d hit the send button on a job application at Midwestern State, down in Wichita Falls—I’d applied for a job, and I immediately had a case of post-application remorse. I thought—I suddenly worried—What if I got the job? Because if I got the job I’d have to leave Weirton and SEKSU, places I truly hated, but I’d also have to leave Devon Shepherd.
What would I say to Devon?
So. Look at everything that happened after that day—look at the murders, the suicides, the ruined careers, the weird unexpected opportunities—look at it all this way: one day I was staring off into a corner, bummed, worried about what I might say to Devon, and then Tee stuck her head into my office and told me that Devon was missing. And after that everything changed.
Tee asked, “Tom? Are you busy right now?”
Yes. I was busy right then. I was busy being depressed. Busy staring into a corner.
I said, “Well, I have a class at two-ten.”
My class, a section of Introduction to Literature. We were covering A Streetcar Named Desire, coming up on the end, and I was planning to go over the text but also show the ending to the classic Marlon Brando film version, which has a different ending than the actual play. I was going to focus on the shot where Blanche collapses and the camera spins around and—Blanche is upside down. Destroyed. Her life is upside down. Then I was going to show a similar scene from the more-or-less recent Batman movie, The Dark Knight, where the Joker is suspended upside down, and then the camera suddenly spins around so that the Joker is right side up and the audience is upside down. Gotham—society—human existence—is upside down. I used those clips every semester, they’d become one of my favorite days of teaching, because when you were a member of the faculty at Southeast Kansas State University, your life was fucking topsy-turvy, out of kilter, upside down, lopsided, backwards, and inside out all at once.
You were in the Joker’s world.
Basically, you were fucked.
“We’ll be back in time for your class,” Tee said.
I sat there for a moment, annoyed. I already had a bunch of things to do that I didn’t want to do—I didn’t need an extra task to not want to do. But Devon not coming to work—that might actually be something serious. Might actually be a problem. On Friday Devon hadn’t been doing too well. She’d been upset—more upset than usual, even, upset about a lot of things. So I grabbed my phone and my keys and a light jacket from the coat rack and followed Tee out into the hall. Sally was striding back down to the departmental office. She called over her shoulder, “I’ll keep trying!”
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Tee said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Well, I don’t know—it could be anything.”
A guess. A suddenly worried guess.
Maybe Devon just decided to take the day off.
Maybe she was just lounging around drunk watching Netflix.
I followed Tee into the elevator and the door closed.
“Have you seen Devon around much?” Tee asked.
I thought—Well, just about every day. Every work day. Her office is next door to mine. I’ve seen her every fucking day except today, I guess.
I said, “Yeah—pretty much.”
“Did she look—I don’t know, tired?”
“Hey, everybody’s tired,” I said. “I’m tired—it’s the tired time of the semester, you know?”
Tee said, “Yeah….”
The elevator door opened. I followed Tee out of the building and across the parking lot to Tee’s car. She clicked open the doors and we got in. I wondered if I should lower the window—Tee was one of those people who used cherry-scented air fresheners in their cars—but decided not to. I’d sit and inhale the cherry.
“I appreciate you doing this, Tom,” Tee said. “I really don’t want to go out there by myself.”
“Yeah, no problem,” I said. I thought, I have classes to prep, papers to grade, corners to stare into, but—there might be something wrong with Devon. I wondered, What the fuck is she doing?
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Tee said. She started the car and pulled out of the parking lot. “Really bad.”
Weirton, Kansas was a gloomy town all year, in any weather. It wasn’t the Kansas most people imagine—the agricultural Kansas of rippling wheat fields, or nodding sunflower fields, or stinky cattle feedlots. Weirton was different, on the edge of the plains on one side, the west, and almost on the edge of the Ozarks on the other side, the east. It was southeast Kansas, three miles from the Missouri border, 12 miles from the Oklahoma border, isolated and poor. There were fields and farms around, but it was mostly an ex-mining area, mines for lead and tin and coal, and the whole area was pitted with water-filled strip mines and riddled with drowned and lost and forgotten deep mines that sometimes collapsed, sucking down whatever was unlucky enough to be above—cattle or cars or even whole houses.
In Weirton itself, no place was very far from any other place. The campus was on the south side of town, but close to everything, and Tee drove north beneath melancholy twisted bare-branched oaks and maples, fallen leaves skittering across the cracked, chuckhole-pitted pavement, past rotting old ramshackle houses that had been turned into duplexes, triplexes, four-plexes for student housing. A gloomy town in any season, it was gloomiest in the fall. I always thought the town looked like a good setting for a horror movie.
“It’s not like Devon to not call in,” Tee said.
“Yeah,” I said. Honestly. I tried to think of Devon—about why she might not come to work. Why she wouldn’t even call in. Devon was actually pretty reliable, maybe the most reliable person in the world. The most reliable I knew, at least. There was really had no telling what was going on, except it might not be good. I said, “Maybe she’s sick? Maybe she’s got a new boyfriend?”
Tee glanced over at me but didn’t say anything.
The SUV passed an abandoned warehouse once belonging to a dog food factory that had relocated to the north side of town, the old building crumpled and collapsing, tin roof rusted, but still a painting of a faded smiling cheerful pup on the last standing wall. Just beyond the old warehouse was a billboard, a simple black field with giant yellow lettering: PRAY TO ME AND I WILL HEAL THIS LAND. Those billboards were all over southeastern Kansas and western Missouri—there was one right by my house—put up by some crazy church, and I always felt sorry for the believers who would shut their eyes and pray and pray and pray and pray and then open their eyes and find themselves still in unhealed grimy ruined Weirton.
“Maybe Devon quit,” I said.
Tee didn’t even look at me. “Don’t say that.”
Yeah, I thought, maybe Devon came to her senses and quit this fucking place. She said she’d had it, she said she was fed up—said that a lot of times. Too many times. Shit, she’d said it the last time I talked to her, on Friday. She stood in front of my desk, sliding my gray plastic nameplate back and forth.
“You know, I’ve come to the point where I really just hate this fucking place,” Devon said. “I mean, I can’t take the shit anymore. I’ve just—I’ve just had it.”
“Yeah,” I said. I was kind of bored—we’d had this discussion before. “I know. I hate it, too.”
“But you don’t know the things I know,” Devon said. “You haven’t experienced the things I’ve experienced. You don’t hate it like I hate it.”
“Maybe,” I said. I tried to make a joke. “But I’ve hated it longer than you have!”
“Oh, fuck you,” Devon said. Exasperated. Mad. “Really, Holt—you’re blind. And you’re deaf. You really are. You don’t know a fucking thing about anything that’s going on around here, you know?”
And then she went back next door to her own office, and shut her office door, and that was the last time I saw Devon alive.