It was about 12:30 when the creative writing faculty—Courtney Katherine Keadle, Nancy Dulmage Buckley, and Ted Shuey—strolled in to Tee’s office. They came all together, which meant they had probably been having a meeting of their own in Courtney’s office. Up to some bad shit, maybe. Tee placed her hands on the desk and tried to stare at them, calmly. Trying to assert her authority. I was sitting on a chair to the right of Tee’s desk, almost on her side of the desk. Was I on Tee’s side? If she was fussing with the writers, I was.
“So, what was it like in the house?” Courtney asked. She looked at me, looked at Tee. “I mean, like—you guys saw everything, right?”
“Yes, we did,” Tee said. She looked at them coolly in their semi-circle around the desk. “But I don’t want to talk about that.”
“Well, it was a suicide, right?” Nancy asked.
“Of course it was,” Courtney said. “She left that crazy suicide note on Facebook.”
“I don’t do Facebook,” Nancy said. “I didn’t see it.”
“Well, see, she left this suicide note—”
“We don’t know if it was a suicide note,” Tee said.
“It was a rant!” Courtney said eagerly. She was tall and thin, a pale gray woman with crooked teeth and bulging cold blue eyes and jet black hair. Her eyes bulged a little more when she was excited. She said, “It was a suicide rant!”
I pulled out my phone and checked Facebook myself. Twelve people had reacted to my Devon Shepherd period post. Crying emojis, angry emojis. A couple of people said they were shocked. Whew. Yeah. Me too.
“Let’s talk about all that later,” Tee said.
“But it’s by far the most important thing, correct?” Nancy asked. She kept pulling at her fingers—right hand, then left hand. Devon told me the finger-pulling was a side-effect of the anti-psychotic medications Nancy was taking. I don’t know if that was true, but it made sense—and whatever she was taking, she probably should have taken more. Nancy was fucking nuts. She said, “I mean—I haven’t seen this computer thing, of course, but from what Courtney says it sounds very important!”
“We need to talk about something else first,” Tee said.
“But Nancy’s trying to make a point,” Courtney said.
“But Courtney wants to talk about the note—the thing, the rant, or whatever!”
Tee slapped her right hand on the desk. “Will you all just stop for a minute?”
I looked up from my phone.
Tee stared around at everyone. At me, at the creative writers—the surviving creative writers, now that Devon had passed. Ted, a poet, sat there pudgy and dull and stupid behind a great disgusting oily bushy beard, impassive, but Courtney and Nancy, who had been running creative writing for over 20 years, running it like a petty mafia, sat there staring hungrily back at Tee. They hated and disrespected each other, but they hated and disrespected everyone else much more—Tee, me, everyone.
“But—the rant…” Courtney said.
“No,” Tee said.
“No!” Tee said. Tee kept staring at them. Nancy finally lowered her eyes and pretended to look past me out the window at the wretched student apartments across the parking lot. But Courtney stared back at Tee, ready with another “But….” staring back with her own near-lidless bulging cold blue eyes, chilly and repulsive.
“No,” Tee said. She took a deep breath and tried to sound—calm. “We’ll talk about the rant in a moment, okay? But first—there’s something else.”
“But what’s Tom doing here?” Ted suddenly asked. Like he just noticed me sitting next to him.
I looked up from my phone again. I asked, “What do you care?”
“I was wondering that, too,” Courtney said. “He’s not in Creative Writing.”
“I think a meeting like this should only be for creative writers,” Nancy said.
Tee said, “I asked—”
“And Tom’s not a creative writer,” Nancy said. “He teaches American Literature!”
“And why’d Tom get to go look at Devon’s house?” Courtney asked. “That wasn’t fair to the rest of us!”
I said, “You people are fucking crazy.”
That really made them mad.
“See?” Courtney said. “He’s not one of us!”
“He called us you people!” Ted said. “He othered us! He cursed at us! That’s just totally unprofessional!”
Tee slapped her desk again. “Just stop!” she said. “Okay? Tom—why don’t you apologize?”
That’s how it was at Southeast Kansas State. No kidding. People fussing forever over nothing. There was silence in the room—for one moment, silence!—and I looked from Tee to Nancy to Courtney to Ted. I served with the three writers on the American Literature Committee—creative writers usually taught Am Lit as well as CW—and I’d had to listen to their aggressively circular bullshit for two or three hours a week, every week, since I’d arrived on campus. After a moment I sighed, tried to relax. Tried to be resigned.
“Yeah,” I said. “Well, okay—I’m sorry I called you people.”
That seemed to satisfy them. Nancy gave me some side-eye, pulling at her fingers, sensing an insult, but she didn’t say anything.
“Okay,” Tee said. “So let’s take care of some business.” She passed the resignation letter across her desk to Nancy—something she surely knew would piss off Courtney. “I got this in the campus mail this morning. Apparently Devon dropped it off Friday afternoon.”
Nancy bent over, squinted at the letter. “It looks like a resignation letter….”
“What?” Courtney snatched the letter from Nancy and quickly looked it over. She looked up smiling—almost delighted. “Ah! This is perfect! This explains everything! It’s all settled! And it’s just like Devon—she quits her job and kills herself!”
“Courtney, please,” Tee said.
“But think about it! You either quit your job or you kill yourself—you don’t do both! How incredibly stupid!”
“Well,” Nancy said, “Devon has passed away now. We’d best not speak of the dead.”
“But she’s still stupid! Since the day she set foot on this campus I’ve been telling everyone that she’s stupid!”
“Courtney,” I said. “Fucking stop.”
“Well,” Nancy said. “I will say—I will agree—that Devon was certainly a bad fit in this department. We all know she never should have been hired.”
“Just stop it,” I said.
Tee silently watched them, mouth pursed. Angry. But she said nothing. Anger never stopped Courtney. Words never stopped her—words never stopped any of them.
“But—no, seriously,” Courtney said. “We really have to do something about that rant on Facebook. I mean—it’s on Facebook. Everybody’s going to see it!”
“I haven’t seen it,” Nancy said. “I don’t do Facebook.”
Tee said, “Let’s talk about how we’re going to replace Devon.”
“Facebook!” Courtney said. “You know? It makes us all look bad!”
After an hour or so Tee gave up and let the writers go. An hour of wasted talk with nothing decided, except that Devon would have to be replaced—which meant that there would have to be a hiring committee. Courtney was delighted—she loved hiring committees because they gave her a chance to snoop around in peoples’ business.
Tee told me stay behind. That couldn’t be good. I shifted seats to face her head on and sat there waiting for something bad to happen—for an anvil to fall on my head. Or a bucket of shit. Something. Tee stared at me flatly—she was tired and pasty gray, with big droopy bags under her brown watery eyes. On the filing cabinet behind her the candles were still burning.
“You know,” Tee said. “You could be nicer to them.”
The writers. She wanted me to be nicer to the writers. To Courtney and Nancy, mainly. Nobody cared too much about Ted’s sensitive poet feelings, not even Tee.
I asked, “Yeah?”
“I know you’re grieving,” Tee said. “Okay? I know you’re mourning. But so are they. You know that, right? The writers just lost an important colleague.”
I didn’t say anything.
“This isn’t about you, okay? This is about the whole department.”
I still didn’t say anything. I was starting get pissed off, though.
Because of course it was about me.
My feelings were about me, not about the writers.
“Just a bit of advice,” Tee said. “Okay? People in the department think you’re—I don’t know—standoffish. Like you’re better than everyone else—”
I rolled my eyes. The standoffish thing—the aloof thing. That was nothing new. Tee had written about my aloofness in a couple of my annual evaluations. She didn’t like my level of interaction with the rest of the Department. Me, I was unimpressed with Tee’s judgement—I’d been hearing about my aloofness all my life. I grew up in Port Lavaca, Texas, a steamy industrial town on the Gulf Coast, where my father was a drunk who worked at the Alcoa Aluminum plant and my mom was a depressed sometimes-hostess at a seafood restaurant. Somehow, between the two of them, I turned out to be a reader—that’s what made me aloof. I remember days when I’d carry my books down to the bay and watch the shrimp boats head in or out, sometimes watching occasional freighters from far-off Africa delivering bauxite to the Alcoa plant. The books took me farther than any of them. And even though I did normal guy stuff—I hunted, I fished, I played sports—those books I was always reading marked me as different. In school I was the weird one, the quiet one—the aloof one. The standoffish one. That’s just how I was. Years later, when I got to Southeast Kansas State, my aloofness was more deliberate. I quickly saw that my new colleagues were a pack of losers and screwballs, and I had no interest in interacting with any of them. Tee thought I acted like I was better than everyone else in the English Department? Well, no shit. I really was better than everyone else, except for Devon.
“—and, like—you don’t talk enough,” Tee said.
“Hey, I’ve never learned anything talking,” I said. Actually, I never learned anything by asking questions, either. I learned by reading and watching. By listening. By figuring things out, even if some things took me a while to figure out.
Though sometimes some things sadly took me a bit too long to figure out.
“And you know you’re coming up for tenure next year, right? Courtney can be a good friend to you, if you want her to be. She can really help your career, if you’d let her. If you’d talk to her.”
My career. Right.
I sighed dramatically, like a rude teenager. Like a rude aloof adult.
“Tee?” I asked. “Why are you keeping me here? I have things to do.”
“Well, I guess you don’t want my advice,” Tee said primly. She looked down at her desk—at some spreadsheet printouts, at Devon’s letter. I could see that the letter had a big nasty thumbprint smudge on it. One of the writers had greasy hands. Probably Ted. Tee looked back up at me. “So—a couple of things. Okay? First—I really do want to thank you for going out to Devon’s house with me yesterday. I mean, I couldn’t have done that by myself.”
“Yeah, well.” I said. I was waiting. I’d had her advice, and now there were a couple of things—of course there were a couple of things with Tee. It was never, ever one fucking thing. First she offered a thank-you or a bit of praise, and then she dumped a bucket of shit on your head, or an anvil.
So, I sat there and I wondered—What’s it going to be? Anvil? Shit?
There was going to be something unpleasant dumped on my head.
“And,” Tee said, “I think it was appropriate, you know, for you to be there. Because I know you were closer to Devon than anyone else in the department.”
I nodded silently.
“So, you just really helped us all out there—you helped out the whole department.”
I said, “Yeah, well.”
“So!” Tee tried to smile a little. A faltering smile, sort of. “I’m hoping you’ll help us out again and take over one of Devon’s Intro to Creative Writing sections. The two o’clock section—it’s a Tuesday-Thursday section.”
“Yeah, I knew you wanted something.” This was a fucking joke, right? An extra class—that was a bucket of shit, and the bucket of shit was a fucking joke. “Ah—I teach American Lit—I’ve never taught creative writing. Nancy just told you that, right?”
“Right,” Tee said. “Yeah—I know what you teach. I’m the one that hired you! But—there isn’t really anyone else to take over the classes. I mean, Devon was teaching four classes—I’m trying to spread the work out equally.”
“So, what about my helpful friend Courtney? She’s Director of Creative Writing? She’s only teaching two classes this semester—I’ve got four—and now you want me to have five!”
Courtney was teaching two classes with a total of 17 students. I was teaching four classes with a total of 116 students. Fuck me.
“Right,” Tee said. “But she’s tenured, and she’s Director of CW, so she gets course releases.”
“So unrelease her!”
“Oh, Tom, come on—a few more students won’t really have that big an impact on your life.”
“And, anyway,” Tee said. She just was just staring down at her desk, ignoring me. “We also—”
“We also?” I asked.
“What?” I asked. “Wait--we decided? Who decided?”
“We,” Tee said. “Us. Dean Keaton and myself. The college, the department--we—decided that you should be on the hiring committee to replace Devon.”
“Aw, fuck me,” I said. Shit and an anvil both.
“It won’t be so bad,” Tee said. “There won’t be any real work until next semester.” Tee took a deep breath and tried to smile. “And, you know, this will be an opportunity for you to show yourself as a good departmental citizen.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Whatever.”
“And also—” Tee started.
“You’re going to need to take over a couple of Devon’s graduate students.” Tee leaned back and tried to smile, difficult with her tired gray face. “You’ll need to chair one of the thesis committees—but on the other you can just be a member.”
Thesis committees were a total pain in the ass. Chairing one took up almost as much time as a regular class, just for one student. Tee was dumping two more buckets of shit on my head.
I didn’t say anything. I was covered in shit—flattened by an anvil, too. I stood up and started to leave the room.
Tee said to my back, “I wanted you to do at least three thesis committees—but Courtney talked me down to two. You should thank her!”