Later I stood out front in the sad cool damp yard with my phone in my hand and I sent a couple of emails: an email on the listserve to my students in the afternoon lit class, telling them that class was canceled, and then an email to Sally the admin assistant, asking her to please put a cancelation notice on the classroom door, in the likely event that students didn’t check their emails. What I wanted to do was go home and have a drink and think about Devon—think about what the hell had happened—and maybe look again at her Facebook post. Maybe look at it—the more I thought about the Facebook post, the more it seemed kind of frightening. There was no telling what it said. I wanted to know—but I was afraid to know, too. For now I had to wait for Tee, and I leaned back against Devon’s dirty car, and the cold gray low clouds started to drizzle. There was a lot going on: a handful of neighbors up and down the street were standing out on their steps, watching, and at Devon’s house the cops were still wandering around, and a Sherriff’s deputy was there, too, and two squads of EMTs, and a fire truck. Not much ever happened in Weirton, so the first responders all had to come out and get in on the action. After a while, a bored, beefy-bellied cop named Lundgren came over and asked me a few questions.
“Did you know this lady very long?” he asked.
“A couple years,” I said. “Our offices were next door to each other.”
Tee was standing on the steps talking to another pair of fat cops and the deputy. A pair of brawny EMTs came to the door pushing a gurney—Devon, in a big bag—and Tee and the cops all stepped aside and let the EMTs pass and put Devon in the ambulance.
My phone vibrated. I looked at it. A text from Lynnie Carson, who taught in the History Department. My friend—Devon’s friend, too.
TOMMY I heard something happened to Devon
Whats going on?????
Jesus. There was just too much to say about that, way too much to text.
Lundgren the cop asked, “Did she seem—okay?”
“Aw, man,” I said. “I don’t fucking know. She just seemed really tired.”
It’s that time of fucking year, you asshole.
The cop shook his head. Over at the house, Tee was talking to someone on her phone again.
Lundgren asked, “What’d she teach, anyway?”
“Creative writing,” I said. “Fiction, stories.”
“They teach that?”
“They try to.”
Tee came over to the car. “I guess we can go now. You need a ride back to campus?”
I stared at her for a moment. Tee was in shock or something.
“Well—my car’s at the office,” I said. Tee was in shock or she was a fucking idiot, one. “I rode over here with you.”
“Oh. Right.” Tee walked around and got in.
I opened the passenger door and leaned in. I asked, “What about the cat?”
Tee said, “Oh.”
I’d put Fuzzhead in a closet when the EMS arrived. Now I went back in the house—the landlady and a cop were in the front room talking about whatever—and I found the cat carrier on a shelf above the washing machine. I pulled the confused little cat from the closet and stuck him in the carrier and grabbed the bag of cat food from the kitchen and went back out to Tee’s SUV.
“I can’t keep a cat!” Tee said quickly.
“Neither can I,” I said. “But I guess I am.”
At home, later, four or five drinks later and still shocked though pretty much through weeping, I was finally brave enough to sit down at the computer and open up Facebook to Devon’s page. Her post was still there. I was still almost afraid to read it. Maybe she was mad at me when she wrote it. What if she was mad at me? Though, really, seriously—why would she be thinking of me when she was about to die?
Then I wasn’t afraid anymore and I had a mild rush of guilt for thinking only about myself and not poor dead Devon. There were so many goddamn narcissists in the SEKSU English Department that maybe narcissism was spreading, like a virus.
There’s just some bad shit going on with Courtney and Nancy.
Really, everything was fucked up.
I was certainly fucked up—I knew that.
How many people had seen the Facebook post? Probably not too many—Devon didn’t have many Facebook friends. Very few at the university—none, really, except for me and our friend Lynnie Carson in the History Department, and maybe one or two others from our department for the sake of collegiality. Beyond Lynnie and myself she didn’t really know or trust anybody, as far as I knew.
The cover photo on her Facebook page was a nice shot of the campus mall—an open space with pretty, well-groomed trees, antique red and pale brick buildings, strolling students. I always wondered—why that picture? She hated Southeast Kansas State. She wanted to burn it the fuck down. Below that her profile picture looked out at the world. I remembered taking the photo—one Saturday we’d gone for a drive in the country and ended up out at a nice state park on the prairie across the border in Missouri, watching bison graze in the spring flowers. Devon was smiling, slightly, with flat dark brown hair, intelligent eyes, long nose, square chin. The picture caught her well. She looked like the kind of woman who ought to be hosting a cable network news show. A pretty, smart-looking woman—but kind of sad-looking, too, around her eyes.
Okay. The fucking post. I scrolled down. It was dated 10:28pm Friday.
This has been the worst 980 days of my life. A goddamn nightmare. I’ve had to endure a hostile, sexist work environment populated by human sewage--
I read that hoping that I wasn’t the human sewage.
—whose idea of fun is torture and persecution and brutality. I’ve put up with 980 days of bullying and sexual harassment and ignorance and lazy-assed pedagogical incompetence, and now I am done. I’m done! Fuck Southeast Kansas State amd fuck the fucking English Department and all the toads and pimps and syphilitic idiots it contains. I’m done eating the shit of my moral and intellectual inferiors. Fuck them all. I am DONE.
Below the post a few of Devon’s friends had responded. I didn’t recognize any of them.
Allyson Worth: Oh Devon I’m so sorry!
Candace Goerig: Dev r u ok?
Steve Wiley: You need to get out of there!
Candace Goerig: Devon CALL ME!!!!!!!!!
On the ride back to campus, Tee had said, “I’ve had faculty pass away before—Jim Delany, he had a heart attack. It was very sad.” Tee glanced over at me quickly and then back at the street. She swerved to avoid a pothole. “You replaced him. And then Cara Driskill died—and Devon replaced her. But I’ve never had a suicide.”
“Did the cops say it was a suicide?” I asked. It—Devon. Devon’s death. It.
“Why wasn’t it a suicide?” Tee asked. She glanced at me again. “You don’t think it was a suicide?”
I didn’t say anything. I took a deep breath sitting there in Tee’s cherry-smelling car, tearing up. Trying not to cry in front of Tee. Fuzzhead was softly mewling in his carrier. We were driving past the backside of the towering crumbling grain elevator. Rain was coming down harder. I didn’t say anything. Just thinking about Devon. I knew Devon pretty damn well, right. And I knew Devon liked wine, and I knew Devon liked pills. And so maybe she was just thinking about stuff Friday night—stuff about her life, stuff about the university, stuff about the repulsive upside-downness of everything around her—and maybe she’d gotten a bit carried away.
Well, maybe more than a bit.
Ah, I thought—Devon, what did you do? What the fuck happened?
My phone rang and I looked at the screen. Lynnie Carson calling. I let her go to voicemail. Sorry, Lynnie.
Then a text.
TOMMY talk to me
I couldn’t bear talking—to anyone. Not even Lynnie. I went to my own Facebook page and started to update my status. I typed
Thank you, Devon Shepherd
But I didn’t post it. Wrong tone—it sounded like I was thanking poor Devon for being dead. Jesus. I backspaced and typed
Just that, her name. With a period. The end.
Fuzzhead the cat came into the room and nosed around.
I said, “Poor kitty.”
I went back to Devon’s Facebook page and reread her last post. Damn. Toads and pimps. Syphilitic idiots. Then—down at the bottom, a new reply popped up.
Courtney K. Keadle: I’m so sorry! I heard!
Oh, sure, Courtney, I thought. I’m sure you’re so fucking sorry.
I bet you’re sorry, you bitch.
And—hey, what sort of bad shit are you up to, anyway?
The next morning, tired and a bit hungover, still feeling this weight—this pressure—on my shoulders, in my chest, I had just arrived at my office and dumped my jacket on the coat rack when the phone rang. Always a bad sign. Something was always wrong when the phone rang first thing. But I answered it anyway, and it was Sally, who told me that Tee needed to see me right away.
Right away. Of course Tee needed to see me right away.
Going down the long hallway I was stopped by Fred Van Buskirk, an old silverback of a professor, a fossil, an asshole, a jerk, who taught British Literature. He lurched out of a side hallway and grabbed me by the elbow. I yanked my arm away.
“My boy, I heard what happened,” Fred said. He had a pipe clenched in his teeth. An empty pipe—an affectation, a fake. Southeast Kansas was a tobacco-free non-smoking campus. He just carried the stupid pipe around to look like what he thought an old-school academic would look like. He wore tweed jackets with elbow patches, too. “Such a waste!”
“Yeah…” I said flatly. “A waste.”
“Such a fine-looking young woman. Very athletic. Such a career ahead of her.”
“Yeah,” I said. I sort of backed away from the old fossil. “Listen, I need to go talk to Tee.”
“A waste,” Fred said. He took the pipe out of his face and shook his head gravely.
Tee was back in her inner office with three vanilla-scented candles burning. Sally was with her, looking like she’d been crying. Tee waved at me, and I went on in and sat down.
“Tom, this is confidential,” Tee said. She passed me an official university envelope. “And it’s important.”
I looked at the envelope—addressed to Tee. It was opened. Sally, I guess, had opened and read it first, and then Tee. I pulled out and unfolded a sheet of paper—a letter. English Department letterhead.
Dear Dr. Wheeler,
This is to inform you of my resignation as Assistant Professor of English, effective at the end of spring semester.
Devon Shepherd, PhD
I said, “Whoa.”
“I know—right?” Sally asked. “She quit—she quit and then she killed herself!”
“Well, maybe,” Tee said. She stared at me with her tired old eyes. “Tom doesn’t seem to think it was suicide.”
I read the letter again—and again. It was dated Friday. I tried to think. So Devon—she must have written the letter on Friday, and then she put it into the molasses-slow campus mail, and then she talked to me—or she tried to talk to me—and then she went home and—died, somehow. Jesus.
I didn’t even ask her what was going on.
Sally sank onto one of the hard wooden chairs that faced Tee’s desk. “It’s crazy, you know? I just can’t—believe it.”
“Yes,” Tee said. “It’s—very sad.”
“I mean!” Sally said. “Jesus, Dr. Shepherd came in here Friday morning and asked for an envelope and I just gave it to her—and I didn’t even know why she wanted it!”
Tee asked, “Was she—like, different?”
“I don’t know!” Sally shook her head. Eyes red, breathing hard, starting to cry again, trying not to cry. “She just asked for a fucking envelope and I didn’t think anything about it. If I’d known I would’ve….” Sally shrugged.
Tee took the letter back from me and then looked at me for a long moment. She asked, “So, Tom, about this letter—do you remember anything about this?”
I sat back in the hard chair. I glanced at Sally and then looked back at Tee. I asked, “What?”
“Do you remember anything about this letter?”
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
“Remember?” I asked. “Like—you think I knew about this?”
Tee said, “Well, you’re close to Devon. Were close.”
I glanced again at Sally. I said, “Jesus—all I knew was that she was unhappy—I knew she hated this place. But everybody knew that.”
“Not everybody knew that,” Tee snapped. “I didn’t know that!”
It’s always astonishing to see how willfully clueless a person can be. Or maybe how willfully some people can lie—lie to the world, to themselves.
After a moment, I said, “Well, maybe you should’ve talked to her.”
“I talked to Devon very often,” Tee said. She paused. “I was never aware of any unhappiness on her part.”
I said, “Wow.”
Sally said, “Tee, you know she had real problems with some of the people here. You know she wasn’t happy.”
“Oh, please,” Tee said. She leaned back and waved her hand dismissively. “Tell me—what did Devon ever have to be unhappy about?” She looked at Sally, and then at me. “Devon had a great job here—I mean, I know she had some problems with some of her classes, but she was working on it. Things were getting better for her. She had colleagues who supported her and cared for her. Everything was going fine for her.”
I shook my head back and forth, No, No, No. I said, “Well, Tee, you know—that’s not what I heard.”
“Well, all I know is that Devon had a good life in this department,” Tee said. She stood up. “But it doesn’t make any difference now. Sally, I’m going to take this—thing—down to the dean. Can you get hold of the creative writing people and tell them we need to talk? At ten o’clock?”
“Courtney doesn’t come down to campus that early,” Sally said. “She’s never here until noon.”
“Noon, then,” Tee said. “Tell them—tell them it’s an emergency. Tom—I’d like you to be here, too. Do you have class?”
“At noon?” I looked past her out the window, trying to think of a way to avoid the meeting. But I failed. I sighed, said, “Well, I get out of class at 11:50.”
“Perfect,” Tee said. She folded up Devon’s letter and then picked up her phone and checked it for messages.
I looked at Sally. I asked, “Perfect?”
“There’s not a whole lot that’s perfect about this place,” Sally said.
Tee said, “Well, some people just don’t know perfect when they see it.”
Then she left the room.