Courtney never got back to me about setting a date for Frankie’s defense, so I went and set it myself for April 21, a Thursday. The usual MA defense program would have the degree candidate read from their thesis and then answer a few questions from the thesis committee. Frankie’s original thesis committee consisted of Devon and Nancy and some hack from the Theater Department. But then Devon died and I was drafted to replace her, and then the Theater hack bolted, and so I recruited Lynnie to replace her, and then Nancy somehow went into a coma, and Tee grudgingly agreed to replace Nancy, as long as she didn’t have to read anything. I think she just wanted Frankie out of the department. But then Tee left and her position was vacant. Earl was honest enough to say that he didn’t have time to be on the committee, though he also said he’d sign off on her thesis if I thought it was good enough. And I did.
We reserved the library’s Special Collections Room, down in the basement, and maybe 40 or so people showed up—almost all the surviving English faculty and most of the grad students. I introduced Frankie and then sat in the back row, between Lynnie and Sally. Frankie wore her stupid backpack into the auditorium, but she actually took it off before she stepped up to the lectern.
“Dr. Devon wanted me to write this story,” Frankie said. “But Dr. Nancy didn’t. But then Dr. Tom said it was okay, and so I wrote it, and it’s called ‘Eating Ice.’”
I was watching at Frankie closely, trying to telepathically send her courage, strength, an audible voice. I whispered, “Come on!”
Frankie leaned into the mic and barely softly breathed the first line of her story. “My dad used to sit on the edge of the bed—and put his hand on my knee.”
Lynnie leaned into me. “This is in her thesis?”
“You didn’t read it?”
“Well, I kinda looked at it….”
Sometimes he put his hand up high but this night right then to start, his hand was on my knee. His hand was dirty from where he’d been working on the tractor. I was afraid I’d get grease smudged on my kneecap and then it would get on my sheets, but I still liked his hand there because it was warm and because it was his….
I felt Lynnie look at me. I shrugged. Around the room, some people were leaning forward, and some people were leaning back. But we were all off in Frankie’s story, and it was the story I’d insisted she read, because despite being full of incesting, dog-eating, and heroin-snorting, it was by far the least gruesome, least disturbing story in the thesis.
Frankie relaxed a little when she got through the incest/molestation scene, and spoke a little louder. She moved on to the dog-murder scene. The narrator in the story gets fed up with her dad’s mean dog—the dog’s name is Ice—which barks all the time outside her window, and so she shoots it with a shotgun while he’s off working in the fields, and then she skins it and cooks it in a stew for daddy. Then she snorts some heroin and stumbles up the stairs to bed and wait in creepy awful dread for daddy again. And—the end, all in eight tight pages.
Frankie stood at the lectern blinking. The room was silent at first—people just sitting looking. Puzzled, maybe grossed out. Finally, I shouted “Yes!” and began clapping, and then other people began clapping, a little, and Frankie smiled.
There were four copies of the thesis spread out on a table to the side of the room, and I went over and signed them, and Lynnie signed them, and Old Earl signed them. All done. Frankie was now an MA and could maybe get out of Weirton and avoid FLP-hood and do something with her life.
All the time we were signing the thesis and chatting and posing for photos, I was keeping an eye on Shawn Cudahy. He stood chatting with the other grad students, eating cake and sipping lemonade. When he was alone for a moment, I went over and tapped him on the shoulder and he flinched.
“A word with you?” I asked. Lynnie and Sally were right behind me.
Shawn had bits of frosting on his chin. He said, “Sure!”
I sort of shoved him toward the door. I was aware that other people were around—that people might notice the four of us leaving the Special Collections room—and I knew the witnesses meant I couldn’t kill him right then. Really, I kind of wanted to—I found him almost as loathsome as Ted—but I think Sally still felt sort of sorry for him, and Lynnie was indifferent to Shawn but not bloodthirsty, and I didn’t have my Ruger with me, anyway, and so we were just going to talk to the punk.
Outside the Special Collections Room, I led the way down a long dim row of bound periodicals—magazines going back to the early 20th Century--New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, all bound in heavy green library bindings.
“I’m glad you wanted to talk,” Shawn said. “I meant to come to your office.”
“Yeah?” Lynnie asked.
We came to a little cul-de-sac at the end of the row. I stopped suddenly, and Shawn almost ran into me. Behind him stood Lynnie and Sally. They looked—troubled.
“So, Shawn,” I said. I look at him—looked down at him—the little pretty boy from a farm near Parsons who tried to pretend he was a hipster from Brooklyn or San Francisco, and I hated him. I hated guys like him when I was in elementary school, in high school, in college and grad school, guys who dressed oh so nice and held themselves like they were superior, when they were really kind of fucking stupid brownnose suck-up toadies—but I hated Shawn especially because of what he did to Devon, and while I knew that he didn’t kill her or rape her, I knew that he helped make Devon miserable the last few weeks of her life. I took a breath. I felt hatred toward Shawn grow in my chest like a fucking blood clot, like an aneurysm, building and building—and, yeah, I thought of the fucking craft beer festival I didn’t get to go to. I felt like I was going to explode and kill him, and I might have.
“Yeah,” Shawn said. He looked at me, worried. “I need to do my grad reading, too, and Courtney hasn’t returned my emails and she’s never in her office and the semester’s almost over.”
What? I couldn’t think. Fucking Shawn. I grabbed at a bookcase—bound copies of Esquire from the 1960s. I pulled one from the shelf. I was aware of Lynnie looking at me—concerned.
“Well,” Sally said to Shawn. “You passed all the exams. You’re still going to graduate.”
“But don’t I get to do a reading? I mean—my parents would like to come, and my friends—it’s kind of a big deal….”
Sally hesitated. Then she said, “Come by my office tomorrow—I’ll help you reserve a room. It’s easy.”
Shawn looked at me, and the bound Esquires. The one in my hand I wanted to smack him with. He asked, “Maybe you could talk to Courtney?”
“We try not to talk,” I said. I thought—nothing. My mind was dark, I didn’t want to think.
Sally said, “Dr. Holt can maybe call the Thesis Office and make sure you’re all set.”
“Sure,” I croaked. I took a breath. “I can maybe do that.”
“Thanks,” Shawn said. He shook hands with Lynnie and with Sally. He wanted to shake hands with me and I had to shift the Esquire volume to my left hand. We shook. His hand was small and limp and damp—I thought, He touched Devon with that hand. After a moment, Shawn turned and headed back to Frankie’s reception
“Jesus, Tommy!” Lynnie said. “Your face! I thought you were going to fucking kill him!”
“I thought so, too,” I said. I reshelved the big volume of Esquire. It took effort. “I might have. But I guess I won’t.”
The next day I began getting rid of the execution evidence. I drove over to Joplin in the morning and found a run-down laundromat, and I washed the clothes we’d been wearing that night, along with the bloody old blanket, and I used heavy detergent and heavy bleach and hot water and high heat and everything came out faded and smelling chemically clean. Then I loaded it all into the back of my car and drove on to Tulsa, a two hour drive. I got a motel room and that night I sat around and I cut up the blanket and all the clothes, shredded everything. At one point I went out to the ice machine and I looked up and saw the full moon. I wondered what Courtney was doing—if she was having a cult meeting. No telling.
In the morning I took my car to a carwash and got the “Elite Detail” package for $200. Worth it. Then I drove on to Texas, leaving handfuls of shredded clothing in litter barrels and gas station trashcans along the way. I also tossed pieces of the dissembled Walther away—the spring and the slide and the clips—and I was left with the frame, the only part that looked like a gun. I tossed it off a bridge into a reservoir, into what I hoped was deep water. Then I drove on and met up with Lynnie in Fort Worth.
We sold my car for a lot less than it was worth—something I expected, but still found annoying—and then we drove on up to Denton and spent the night with Lynnie’s family, and the next day her dad got me into a nice, gently-used Toyota Matrix. We had a pleasant dinner with Mom and Dad and Lynnie’s girlfriend, Samantha, and then we caravanned back north to Weirton.