I sat in my office for a long time, expecting the phone to ring, expecting Tee to order me down to her office for—some counseling, or an ass-kicking. But the phone didn’t ring, and I sat in my office and graded a few papers—I awarded everyone an A, easy enough—and then taught my afternoon classes. I went home, had a drink, fed Fuzzhead, and then went out to have dinner with Lynnie and Anthony.
We met at Chrissy’s, the raggedy little sports bar, and they were already seated in a booth, drinking margaritas, when I arrived. Anthony tried to get up to greet me, but his bulk had him trapped between the table and the wall. I shook his hand and clapped him on the shoulder and scooted in next to Lynnie.
“I about finished packing,” Anthony said. He looked tired. “I might get out Thursday night, Friday morning—the minute I’m done, I’m out of here.”
“He doesn’t like Weirton,” Lynnie said.
“Damn shithole,” Anthony said.
“With funny-looking strippers,” I said.
“I know that’s right!” Lynnie said. “Flisses.” FLSs.
We ordered food and we ate and drank and Anthony knocked back a lot of drinks and got sort of effusive and weepy about Devon—and, of course, listening to him, I got sort of weepy, too.
“I remember when she was about—oh, eighth or ninth grade,” Anthony said. He leaned back in the booth and looked up toward the ceiling. “I guess I was in college then. And I heard that the kids at her school were being mean to her—teasing her, you know, she didn’t fit in, all she wanted to do was read books.”
“I know what that’s like,” I said. There were places in America where nobody trusted a reader—I grew up in one.
“Bastards,” Lynnie said.
“Yeah—and I said I’d go kick their asses for her, but she said—‘Oh, they’re just stupid.’ And Mom and Dad were hard on her, too—Dad was hard on her cause she was a girl, you know, and Mom—she was just Mom, you know, that’s the way she was, and then after they died, Devon went to live with Aunt May and her kids, and that wasn’t easy for her, either.”
“Assholes everywhere,” Lynnie said.
“Man, you look at Devon, and she was pretty, and she was smart, and she wrote books—” Anthony sighed, on the verge of tears. “You’d never know she had it hard. And then she came here and all those assholes treated her like shit, too.”
It was about a five-hour drive from Weirton to Wichita Falls. I left my house early and went over to Joplin and picked up a rent car that the Midwestern hiring committee had reserved for me—a new, roomy Suburban—and I buckled in and headed off. It was a good drive, unexciting in a pleasant, reflective way through the rolling hills of northeast Oklahoma, through Tulsa and Oklahoma City, the skies all gray and low and the plains gray and brown and stubbly, a cold winter day—but I drove on and felt good, good to get out of Weirton and away from all the drama at Gulag State, good to be heading toward whatever unknown thing would happen at Midwestern State.
I kept thinking—They might hire me!
I was a finalist for the job, after all, one of two people they were bringing in for interviews. I tried to damp down the imposter syndrome that lurks in the back of all academic minds—I tried to remind myself that I was the best.
They might hire me. They needed to hire me.
And then my problems would be solved, right?
Somewhere past Altus I saw a big coyote standing on the embankment, looking out at the highway. I took that for a good sign. I always liked coyotes—Devon did, too. She wrote that poem about one we saw in Missouri, and some nights we’d lie in bed and listen to the coyotes tearing into the geese at the strip pit by my house. Ah, Devon.
I arrived in Wichita Falls by midafternoon and checked into a hotel near the university and got ready for an early dinner with the hiring committee.
I kept thinking—They might hire me….
So. What to say about the next 36 or so hours? That I spent time in what seemed like a normal place—what should be a normal place anywhere, a normal English Department filled with smart, friendly, bookish people. Midwestern State was normal. Compared with the psychotic cesspit of Southeast Kansas, it was a golden dream. A golden goddamn dream. The dinner with Paul Lampland and Leon Bloomfield and Buffy Whitacre was—fun. They were nice people. I felt my defenses—my anger, my wariness, what the dumbasses at SEKSU called my aloofness—slipping away, and I actually enjoyed myself. We talked about normal stuff—about books, football, movies, music (Buffy had an encyclopedic knowledge of 70s punk, and had written a paper about the relationship between Flannery O’Connor and the Ramones). I knew it was a job interview, but at the same time I felt like I was hanging around with friends.
A weird feeling.
In the morning Buffy and Leon picked me up and took me over to the university, where I went through the usual campus visit series of meetings: I met with the Director of First-Year Writing (the job entailed teaching a little comp, in addition to American Lit, and I was fine with that) and then I had a meeting with Paul Lampland in his office, and then Paul took me over to see the Dean, a leathery, cheerful old man. I noticed the Dean’s diploma on the wall and saw that his PhD was from Georgia, so I name-dropped Devon as a distinguished alum who was a friend of mine—and the Dean had heard of her. Then the Dean took me upstairs, where I had lunch with the faculty and staff—I couldn’t keep track of everyone’s names. Then I had a formal meeting with the hiring committee, the actual interview, where they asked me more or less the same questions they’d asked in the Skype interview.
Then on to my teaching demonstration, where I led a discussion on Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” I approached the text as I always did, focusing not on Bartleby but on the unnamed narrator and how his life is—changed. This was one of those texts that spoke to my time at Southeast Kansas, too—the mystery of Bartleby, the unknowableness of his refusal to work, the imagined darkness of his past—the Dead Letter Office!—and the shattering impact Bartleby has on the narrator. But there in the middle of my talk—showing a PowerPoint slide of a guy with “I Prefer Not To” tattooed on his forearm—I thought of Devon and realized that she was right about motive—motive is a myth. It’s unknowable. Right?
My own writing, my own scholarship, my reading, my thinking, kept coming back to the Transcendentalists, and my dissertation, on 19th century nature writing, had been full of Thoreau and Emerson and their intellectual descendants. But by the time I finished, I’d found old Waldo a little too gentle and optimistic for my own aloof and damaged nature, and I was drawn more and more to Melville and his darkly chaotic world—a world where a fucking whale would come out of nowhere to smash your boat to splinters or a clerk would suddenly stubbornly passively refuse to work. It was an inscrutable world I operated in. Standing there in that strange classroom I could look at the projection screen above me and see the guy’s silly tattoo, but I would never really know what motivated him to get that ink. I stood there sort of knowing what I was doing—giving a lecture in the hope that Midwestern State would rescue me from the darker chaos of Kansas. But could I understand anyone else? No! While I could more or less observe what other people were doing, I would always be blind to why they were doing whatever they were doing. I looked out at the faculty members and students in the classroom—all of them mysteries—I thought of the people I knew in Weirton—mysteries, too. Every single one a Bartleby.
After my class, Barb Simon whisked me off for a tour of the library, then back to the English Department for an hour-long Q&A with more faculty and more students. I was starting to get tired, and I was glad when a professor from the Philosophy Department sort of hijacked the meeting with a long and complicated question that had to do with his own research—it was more of a lecture than a question. I was fine with that. I liked him—I liked everyone I met at Midwestern State.
And then—that was that. The end of the official part of my campus visit. Paul and Barb and Buffy took me to dinner again—and again, it was fine. When they finally dropped me off at my hotel, I said, “This has been the best fucking day of my academic life.”
Everyone in the car laughed—fun laughs.
“I’m serious,” I said. “I don’t know if this is proper job interview etiquette or not—but I really feel like I’ve made friends with you all.”
Barb and Buffy got out of the car and hugged me, and Paul walked me up to the hotel entrance. He said, “We feel like we made a friend, too.” He shook my hand and got back into the car and drove off.
Really—it was the best day of my academic career.
I was exhausted. I went back to my room and took a shower and flopped back onto the bed and fell immediately asleep.
Sometime in the night I got up to go to the bathroom, and when I staggered back to the bed I looked at my phone and saw a text from Lynnie.
TOMMY I think something bad happened
Fuck it, I thought. I went back to sleep.
I slept a long time and woke for real sometime just before 10:00, and I looked at the phone and there was another text from Lynnie.
TOMMY I need to talk to u
The text was time-stamped five hours earlier. Okay. There was no rush. I packed my stuff and loaded it all into the back of the Suburban and checked out of the hotel. Before I drove off, I texted Lynnie.
I waited a minute or two but didn’t get an answer. Maybe Lynnie was still asleep. I tried to remember if she had had classes on Friday. I sort of thought she did, but maybe she was still asleep.
I pulled out of the hotel and circled the university. I thought it was—beautiful. Lovely. Dreamlike. Golden in the cold morning sunshine. Beautiful. My salvation. I thought of what might happen if I got the job—I thought of all the biting cutting angry vengeful FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK all of YOU MOTHERFUCKERS emails I could send out to the Gulag State English Department. That would be nice. Then I took a deep breath and got on the highway headed back to Kansas—back to hell.
The phone rang just as I crossed the Red River. I looked at the phone—looked back at the highway. It was a SEKSU university extension. I figured, What the hell, and answered.
“Holt? Is that you?” I recognized Sally’s voice. “Where are you?”
“I’m—out of town,” I said.
“Yeah, I know you canceled your classes yesterday.”
“I’m in Oklahoma,” I said.
“Oh.” Sally paused. “Well, Tee wants everyone here for an emergency faculty meeting.”
Emergency. Lynnie’s text.
TOMMY I think something bad happened
“I’m in Oklahoma,” I said again. “I’m five or six hours away.”
“Jesus,” Sally said. “What’re you doing in Oklahoma?”
Well. Usually, when you’re thinking about leaving an academic job, you don’t want people in your current department to know, in case they retaliate against you. But I didn’t want to lie to Sally, and she wouldn’t retaliate, anyway.
“I had a job interview,” I said.
“Really? No shit? Good for you—I guess.”
“Yeah,” I said. “If I get an offer, I’m going to take it.”
“Of course you’ll take it!” Sally said. “But try to get back here as soon as you can—all hell’s breaking loose.”
I asked, “What happened?”
“Somebody assaulted Nancy!” Sally said. “She’s in the hospital—she’s really messed up.”
TOMMY I think something bad happened
“Yeah, I hear she’s really hurt,” Sally said. I could hear Tee saying something in the background. “Listen—I have to go. Let me know when you get back—and good luck.”
I lowered my phone and hit the disconnect key. I was driving north through scrubby brown country, a few cold-looking cattle standing bunched together.
Fucking Nancy in the hospital. Assaulted.
No tears there—Nancy was an evil and ignorant woman who did a lot of damage to the world in small, petty ways. Fuck Nancy.
TOMMY I think something bad happened
Lynnie didn’t have it in her to assault Nancy—I mean, physically, sure, she could kick the asses of a thousand Nancys with one leg tied behind her back. Lynnie could fight—she was a rock. But morally—no. Without any sort of direct provocation, Lynnie didn’t give enough of a shit about Nancy to stomp her into the hospital.
There was a rest area up ahead, one of those weird ones with the exit on the left side, and I sped up and pulled off and parked in front of a lonely-looking Oklahoma Tourism Center. I called Lynnie. She answered on the second ring.
“Tommy—I need to talk—”
“Wait,” I said. “Let’s not talk on the phone.”
“What? Oh!” I heard some scratching noises—I pictured Lynnie tapping the glass on the face of her phone. She got it. Someone might be tapping the phone.
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe. I don’t know. But let’s talk when I get back, okay?”
“So—it’ll be a while. I’m still in Oklahoma. And I have to go through Joplin to drop off the rent car.”
“Well, hurry up!”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll come straight to your house after Joplin. Just—just—go teach your classes, or go to the gym or something, and be cool.”
“Oh, I’m cool,” Lynnie said. “I’m fucking chill—but I’m fucking pissed, too.”
I could feel that through the phone—Lynnie nervous, tense, pissed. But also chill.
“Well,” I said. “We’ll both be chill. I’ll see you this evening.”
I disconnected the phone and tossed it to the car seat and left the rest area and drove on across the cold gray plains.