The next day my students all wanted to talk about the storm. Many of them had good photos taken at tornado parties—tornado parties are a real thing in Weirton—and I set up the computer projector so that they could share their pictures with the rest of the class. Everyone talked about near-misses, miraculous escapes, other tornadoes experienced, and the weird pervasive stench of gasoline and new-split wood—gas leaking from all the battered cars, and the sap smell from all the busted trees. Everyone was cheerful—they were good, happy classes.
At noon I had a break and I found Old Earl Renner in his office.
“It’s a sad day,” Earl said. “Looks like we lost two colleagues.”
“Ted,” I said. Word had already gone around that Ted hadn’t shown up to teach his morning classes.
“And Brenda, too,” Earl said. Brenda Seibold, a quiet Brit Lit professor who’d been at Gulag State for years. Fifty years? Seventy years? Forever. About as long as Earl. “Looks like she was at the Walmart when it got hit.”
“Damn,” I said.
“Terrible thing,” Earl said. “Nothing’s built to withstand storms, anymore.”
I hesitated. Then I asked, “Any word on Ted?”
“Nothing,” Earl said. “Tee sent a grad student out to look at Ted’s house—looks like it might have had some roof damage, but Ted’s not there.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“And Fred’s farm,” Earl said. “You heard about that? All those dozens of guard dogs got sucked up or let loose.”
I shook my head. Those giant crazy dogs could terrorize fucking Kansas forever, for all I cared.
“Well,” I said. “I’ve got something else to brighten your day.”
I passed him a copy of the intercepted email.
“I found this in Devon’s files. Looks like Courtney and her friends—and Tee—have been embezzling from the visiting writers fund.”
“Lordy.” Earl read the email—it was short, he read it three or four or five times. His lips moved. He said, “I don’t see Ted’s name on here.”
“Yeah, I noticed that,” I said. “And I have a theory….”
Earl looked up at me.
“Ted attacked Nancy,” I said. “He wanted her out so he could get her share of the money.”
Earl shook his head sadly. “I knew they were all up to something.”
I wondered how much he really knew—about everything. Probably something. But that didn’t matter now. I needed Earl.
“Yeah,” I said. “Devon told me they were up to some bad shit, but she never told me what.”
“Well,” Earl said, He rubbed his nose. “I guess we need to take this to the KBI.”
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation. I sort of expected that.
“Sure,” I said. “But let’s do something today, too. Let’s take this to Tee and get her to fucking resign.”
Earl stared out his window for a moment—stared at the broken grain elevator, the downtown, the messed-up neighborhoods beyond.
“A KBI investigation will take months,” I said. “Let’s do something right the fuck now. Get rid of Tee, get you in as acting chair, and then we can all go to work trying to heal this department.”
Earl took a deep breath. “Let’s take this down to Tee and see what she says.”
We left Earl’s office and went down the hall. Earl went on back to see Tee. I stuck my head into Sally’s office.
“No word from Ted?” I asked.
“Nope,” Sally said. Was there a trace of a smile at the corners of her mouth? Maybe.
“I’m glad to see that you and Bear got through the storm okay!”
“Thanks!” Sally said. “I guess we’re lucky.”
I said, “We’re all very lucky.”
Earl sat across the desk from Tee, the room reeking from those vanilla candles. Tee was reading the email, tired and haggard and pasty sick gray-complected. I took a seat next to Earl. Tee glanced up at me and went back to staring at the email.
Finally, Tee said, “So?”
“So, we’re going to take this to the KBI,” Earl said. “But even before they do anything, we want you to resign.”
“We?” Tee asked. “Fucking we?”
I flinched. I think that was the first time I’d ever heard Tee curse.
“Yes,” Earl said. “We think—”
“Tom Holt,” Tee said. She swiveled her chair to face me straight on. “You are the most pompous fucking fool I’ve ever met.”
I sat back as far as I could. “Me?”
“Don’t act innocent,” Tee said. “You’re smart-alecky, you’re pompous, you’re rude, you think you’re better than everyone else—”
I laughed. “But I am better than everyone else!”
“—lazy, inept, vulgar, clueless—”
“Tee, stop,” Earl said.
“At least I’m not an embezzler!” I said.
“I didn’t ask for a dime!”
“But you apparently took some dimes, anyway,” Earl said. “And you helped Courtney take a lot of dimes.”
“You’ve caused problems ever since you got here,” Tee said to me. “And you’ve never had the slightest idea how things work here.”
“Yeah, but I’m learning,” I said.
“You think your stupid classes are important. You—”
“Right,” I said. “I teach the young people of fucking southeast Kansas!”
“—You think we hired you to teach your stupid classes and leave you alone to do—whatever you want!”
“Yeah!” I said. “That’s how it’s supposed to work.”
“No!” Tee slapped her desk so hard Old Earl cringed. She was staring at me like I was the one who’d done something wrong. “You don’t matter and your students don’t matter! Books don't matter! The department is what matters—the department. Always. And the university—always. And the institution—always. But your students don’t matter and you don’t matter! Ever!”
For fuck’s sake. I asked, “What?”
“So, Tee,” Earl said. “About your future—”
“I took this department over and I turned it into something good,” Tee said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Except for all the sexual harassment and bullying and embezzlement and shit like that.”
“You know what?” Tee asked me. “Fuck you.”
I taught my afternoon classes—cheerful, too, with tornado stories—and then it was time for the faculty meeting. I went into the room and took my usual seat—and I was struck at how diminished the faculty were. Courtney especially seemed lonely, sitting by herself with her hands folded on the desk in front of her. Who was she without her flunkies?
Sally came in and took her seat by the door. Tee entered and stood behind the lectern. She didn’t bother turning on the computer projector. No agenda today, I guessed.
“Everyone?” Tee asked. The room quieted down. “Let’s go ahead and get started—this has been a very bad day for the department.”
Olivier asked, “Is there any news about Ted?”
Tee pointed at Sally. Sally sat up and squared her shoulders. She said, “I heard from the sheriff’s office about ten minutes ago—they found Ted’s car along the railroad tracks over around Merricat Street.”
I tried to think. That was about—maybe—four or five blocks east of the Strip Pit. Pretty powerful tornado.
“But have they found Ted, though?” Olivier asked.
“Nope,” Sally said. “But they’re finding a lot of cars….”
Everyone was silent, thinking about that.
“Also,” Tee said. “I have an announcement—a personal announcement. I’m—I’ve got some serious family issues, and I’m going to have to retire, effective today.”
Today. Tee croaked the word out. I looked around the room. People were puzzled. No one said anything at first.
“And so, my last act—”
“What?” Courtney asked.
“—as a member of this faculty—”
“Tee!” Courtney said.
“—is to move that Earl take over—as acting chair—”
“This is crazy!” Courtney turned around to face the rest of the room. No one wanted to make eye contact with her.
I said, “I’ll second the motion!”
“Any discussion?” Tee asked the room.
“Yeah!” Courtney said. “What’s going on?”
Tee looked over at Sally. She said, “Let’s just call this unanimous consent.”
Tee gathered up her papers and left the room.
Courtney turned around again and looked at everyone. She asked, “What the heck just happened?
Old Earl was sitting straight behind me. He got up and went to the lectern and looked at his notes for a moment.
“Earl,” Courtney said. “What’s going on?”
“Okay,” Earl said. His old midwestern voice was harsh. “This is going to be tough. There’s three weeks left in the semester, okay? We’ve got to bear down and get through it.”
“You’re going to give us more classes,” Bart said.
“That’s right,” Earl said. “Ted was teaching—Jesus!—four sections of his own classes, and one of Devon’s classes, and two of Nancy’s classes. Brenda was teaching three classes of her own and two of Fred’s.”
“Tee was teaching one class,” I said.
Behind me, Bart said, “Rank has its privileges.”
“And, so,” Earl said. “That makes thirteen classes we have to cover.”
“Lucky thirteen,” Bart said.
Earl finally took noticed of Courtney. He looked down at her over the edge of the lectern. “So, Courtney—this is what’s going on. Everybody’s going to have to share in the work. Even you, this time. No more course releases. Okay?”
For once, Courtney didn’t say anything. She looked—puzzled. Confused. Lost.
“This is so crazy,” Constance said. “Those poor students don’t know who’s teaching their classes from day to day!”
“Yes, it’s crazy,” Earl said. “But necessary. The classes have to be taught. What else can we do?”
No one had an answer to that. We all sat silently.
“I’m going to suggest we adjourn for today,” Earl said. “I’ll get to work on the class schedules and we’ll meet again soon.”
I said, “Second.”
Sally looked around. Everyone was quiet. She said, “Apparently without objection.”
Earl grabbed his folder and made for the door, followed by just about everyone else. I got up and lurched down the aisle to intercept Courtney. I said, “Hey.”
Courtney turned, surprised.
“I needed to talk to you about Frankie,” I said. “She’s finished with her thesis—we need to set a defense date.”
“Now?” Courtney asked.
“We’re here,” I said. “We might as well….”
Courtney looked—appalled. “After all that’s happened today?”
“Yeah, well,” I said. “You know, Tee was just telling me that the university’s the university, and it’s more important than any one individual, or something.”
Courtney looked at me like I was crazy. She shook her head. “This place is falling apart.”
I laughed at that. I said, “Yeah, it is….”
Courtney asked, “What, you think this is funny?”
I leaned down close to her. “Maybe it’s justice,” I said into her ear. “Maybe you shouldn’t have fucked with Devon, you know?”
Courtney jumped back like her heart had stopped and she stared at me for a moment. Then she backed away and went out the door. She peered back in at me through the window, and then she disappeared.
That night Lynnie and Sally came over to celebrate. We grilled steaks out on my deck, and after we ate, while the coals were still glowing red, I took Ted’s ID, his credit cards, and the SIM card from his phone, and I tossed them in to melt. The plastic burned, melted, drooped, sent up a thin stream of black poisonous smoke that drifted off toward Missouri. Then, at dusk, as the day began to cool, we walked down to the strip pit and took turns happily throwing Ted’s keys—plunk, plunk, plunk—one at a time into the dark water, making wishes.