Devon’s office had been untouched since she’d died, and I felt weird, you know, stepping into it, like I was some sort of creepy snoop. Even though I knew—and know—you can’t snoop on a dead person. The dead might have secrets, but they can’t be hurt or shamed. I knew Devon pretty damn well, and I knew that she’d led a pretty exemplary life—she worked hard, paid her taxes, was kind to people. I was sure nothing I might find would embarrass her. Pretty sure. Still—something weird had happened to her.
Something weird happened to her. Right? There was motive again. Maybe Devon was wrong about motive.
I sat at her computer. It was still switched on, and after a couple shakes of the mouse the screen woke up to the SEKSU sign-on screen. Pete the Prairie Dog. I tried Fuzzhead but it didn’t work, and I tried several versions of Fuzzhead—with numbers, symbols, other words—but none of them worked, and after the fifth wrong password, the computer locked me out.
So there was that. Maybe Devon wasn’t as bad at passwords as I’d thought. I looked around the familiar cramped orderly room. Here was all Devon’s work stuff—blank legal pads squared neatly on the desk, colorful file folders of graded papers on top of a filing cabinet, a pile of apparently ungraded papers on a bookshelf. A bowl of healthy protein bars to offer hungry students.
Lots of books.
An umbrella. A sweater.
A dusty, musty, vacant smell.
I sat in Devon’s desk chair, looking around. Officially looking for the grad files.
But also looking for anything else that might be interesting.
Devon, I thought. Maybe it was a prayer.
A prayer to Devon up there in suicide heaven with Jesus.
Devon—I know you wrote things down.
You were a writer—where’s all your writing stuff?
I shuffled through a neat stack of paper on the far-left corner of the desk. No grad files, though, nothing that might be something, just a bunch of memos and flyers that needed to be tossed into the recycling.
But that’s not my job, I thought.
I opened the big bottom drawers of the old steel desk. The left drawer held reams of paper and hoarded office supplies—binder clips, staples, highlighters. Tools for teachers and writers. The bottom right drawer—boom. I sat back. Notebooks. Not many—four or five. I bent over and counted them. Four. Three were the cheap 70-page wire-bound notebooks you could get anywhere with black or red or blue covers, and I knew Devon wrote drafts of things in notebooks like these—her office at her house was full of them. But the fourth notebook was heavier, with unlined high-quality paper and covered with stiff heavy brown cardboard. An art book—a sketchbook. A scrapbook. I glanced up at the door—guilty, feeling like a snoop—and leafed through them. All the notebooks had Devon’s cramped slurred handwriting. Journals of some sort. Notes. The art book had clippings and pictures pasted into it.
It was—something. What I was looking for, maybe.
Then I looked up again to see if anyone was outside the door, listening. No one was there, but down the hall somewhere I could hear the clank of Martie the custodian dragging her mop bucket around.
I placed the notebooks in the middle of the desk. What else was I looking for? Stuff, Anything. Links to the bad shit. I went over to the bookcase—books on the top shelves and the bottom shelves—a lot of creative writing texts, along with Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, Eric Auerbach’s Memesis, and Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, a novel both of us had loved.
Shit. I had a sudden depressing thought that I probably should read some of those textbooks so I would know what the fuck I was doing in her creative writing classroom. I picked up Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction—glanced at it, put it back. It was a stupidly heavy book. It weighed too much to read, and any book that weighed that much was probably highly prescriptive. It was easier for me to just give all the students an A without reading their stupid stories.
What else? I looked around. The middle shelves of the bookcase held stacks of file folders, mostly full of student writing. I went through the folders and after a while I found a folder with parts of Frankie’s thesis, and some annotations in Devon’s handwriting. Below it was a folder that said SHAWN on it in big red letters, but it was empty. Well—I got part of what I wanted, part of my official reason for snooping. My motive.
“Knock-knock!” a voice called, followed by an actual knock at the big wooden door. I jumped, of course—and it was only Martie, leaning in with a broom in her hand.
“Hey there,” I said.
“First time I’ve seen this door open in a couple three weeks,” Martie said. “What’re you doing—sorting papers?”
“Something like that,” I said. “Looking for Devon’s notes on a couple of her grad students.”
“Ah, such a shame.” Martie stood peering around the room, a sunflower tattoo on her neck bobbing and stretching. She was an old hippie farmgirl—and at 60 or 65 or so, she looked far healthier than most people around the department, not a FLP or even a PP. She probably had a better water supply. She said, “I bet you got a lot of papers to sort through, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said. And then I thought—Courtney already wanted to get in here and snoop around, and Nancy probably did, too. I glanced around the dim room—I wondered if there were important things I’d missed. Things I needed to protect. Like it was part of a crime scene.
“You know,” Martie said. “You were the best one up there at the memorial service—I liked those couple little student things you read.”
“Hey, thanks,” I said. I stepped away from the bookcase and sat back in Devon’s chair. “You didn’t like Courtney’s poem?”
“Ha!” Martie laughed and looked over her shoulder to see if anyone was listening—people did that a lot at SEKSU. People always seemed to worry about spies. She said, “No! Actually, you know, I thought it was kind of rude!”
“Yeah?” I asked. “Well, a poem’s only as rude as the poet.”
“You’d know more about that than I do,” Martie said.
“Maybe,” I said. Actually, I did—I knew, thought I knew, that the poet was a murderer. That was pretty rude. Then I thought of something else. Martie had been here forever. I asked, “So, tell me—has Courtney always been the way she is?”
“Oh, yeah—she’s always been the same as she is now,” Martie said. She peered into Devon’s two wastebaskets, both empty. She jabbed at the floor a time or two with her broom. “I mean, Courtney was skinnier then, when she first got here, and her hair was sort of blondish-brown before she dyed it black—but, yeah, she was the same. Bossy and mean—man, she filed a complaint against me with Dr. Renner the first week she was here!”
“Yeah! Said I didn’t empty her trash often enough!”
“That’s our Courtney—she has a lot of trash.”
“Dr. Renner told her to concentrate on her teaching—at least, that’s what I heard.”
“Ha! Yeah, and then she came out to the farm that weekend wanting to buy some pot from my husband!”
I said, “Bitch.”
Martie laughed. “Yeah, and she always hated Dr. Renner. She plotted and plotted until she got him removed from being chairman. But she always talks nice to him, to his face.”
I said, “Phony bitch.”
Martie laughed again. “Yeah, but you need to be careful talking that way around here—she might remove you!”
“Well—good,” I said. I guess removal was good. I mean, What could be worse than working at SEKSU? Being dead, I suppose. But they weren’t going to kill me. I said, “I’m cool with removal.”
“I wish I had your confidence!” Martie backed out of the room with her broom, and I thought she maybe winked. “You have a good day, Dr. Holt.”
Martie was nice. Man, that first week I was at SEKSU, she was about the only person in Reeb Hall who talked to me. I remember sitting at my desk for most of the day, every day, bummed, wondering what I’d gotten myself into, trying to figure out what I should do next, not knowing too many people in the department, and certainly not trusting the few people I did know, and Martie showed up a couple of times to sweep the floor and empty the trash and ask how things were going. She even brought me a little jar of honey from her beehives.
At home with Devon’s notebooks. The three wire-bound ones—red, blue, and black covers. The one covered in brown cardboard. I fell back onto the couch with the notebooks and Fuzzhead the cat and a mug of rum, and I sipped at the rum and rubbed Fuzzhead’s soft belly and contemplated the notebooks
I knew Devon kept some notebooks at her house that were just for writing practice. She would get up in the morning and write two or three pages on—whatever came to her mind. Just writing as a daily exercise to keep her brain working. She might write in the notebooks daily for three weeks, or a month, and then she’d stop for a while, and then start up again. She had boxes of those notebooks in her office at her house. These four that she kept in her office at work appeared to be a little different.
The black notebook. I leafed through it and found that it was a teaching diary that Devon had kept for a few weeks during the spring semester of her nightmarish second year. Nancy Buckley probably put her up to it, demanding that Devon document how she spent every minute of every class. Nancy had wanted me to keep one, too, back when she was my faculty mentor, saying it was something I could put in my tenure folder. Then I used the Evernote app as an online notebook, though I’d given it up after a few weeks, simultaneously bored with my teaching and so frenzied with overwork that I didn’t have time to take notes. Devon was obviously a purist, going with a hardcopy notebook, but like me she gave up the teaching diary three months or so.
03/04. Met with Frankie to discuss unfinished short story. Many errors. Implausible. Tears.
Why did Devon scratch out tears? Frankie was a crier. She either cried or she didn’t. Maybe Devon didn’t want to be reminded of Frankie’s bummer tears.
Shit, I didn’t want to be reminded of Frankie’s bummer tears, either. Nobody did.
03/23 ENGL 250-502 Discussed F. O’Connor. Missing legs. What else can be missed? Body parts. Dialogue tags. Writing.
Nancy probably freaked at the mention of body parts. Too sexy!
The last entry.
04/15 ENGL 250-502 Only 3 people show up to class! What the fuck! Big extra credit for attendees.
I remember that class, or that week. Devon was depressed. The students in that class were apparently an unusually blockheaded bunch. Then Nancy made another official complaint about Devon’s workshop standards, and, as with every complaint from Nancy or Courtney—and there were, that year, really, probably dozens!—Devon had to trudge down to Tee’s office and explain what was going on. Or not going on. Defend herself, at any rate—defend her Self, her ethics, her integrity. Her teaching. Devon was stubborn—she wasn’t ever going to give in, but at the same time she was too nice a person to ever call out Nancy or the others for being big-ass liars. She had to keep examples of graded stories so that Nancy and Tee could examine her comments and if she didn’t bring them to the meeting, she had to trudge back to her office and fetch them for Tee, and if Tee wanted to look over her creative writing syllabus, Devon would have to trudge back to her office and fetch a copy—never mind that the syllabus was online and Tee could see it on her computer any time she wanted to. Tee and Nancy and Courtney just wanted to make Devon trudge. Devon hated them all, of course, all the lying idiots, all the bullies. But for some weird reason she always thought that her personal honesty would win the day. Reason was on her side! And justice! And strength! Even though those things didn’t matter at Southeast Kansas State, ever.
It was a grim spring for Devon. And, you know, I didn’t do too much to help her, either. Basically nothing. I listened, or half-listened, or pretended to listen, to her complaints about Nancy and Courtney and Tee and the students, but I didn’t really do anything constructive. It was a bad spring—a bad situation. Devon slipped on the ice in January and drilled her back, and then in February she got the flu, and then she got bronchitis, and then she got that bad cold, and the whole time she was overworked and harassed and shit-on by Courtney and Nancy and Tee, and she was in constant pain the whole time—and, still, I think she only missed like two half-days of work the whole semester. And where was I? In the office next door, and around. I brought her soup when she was sickest, and watched some TV with her, sat with her a time or two while we graded together, and I drove her to the doctor in Kansas City for back x-rays. But I didn’t really do anything to help her, to comfort her, and by the end of the semester, in May, we were pretty much through as whatever we had been.
Face it—I was a bad boyfriend. I’ve always been a bad boyfriend.