Late that afternoon, I walked into the Tri-State Saloon and stood for a moment, my eyes adjusting to the barlight, dimmer even than the gloominess outside. There were some afternoon drunks strung along the bar, mostly staring up at ESPN on a big TV suspended in the corner, though there were a few people sitting alone or in pairs at tables. Then I saw Lynnie—Dr. Lynn Carson of the History Department—and I began walking toward her.
“Tommy!” Lynnie spotted me, too. She met me halfway up the long bar and gave me a quick hug and then stepped back, looking at me closely. “Dude, what the fuck happened? Are you okay?”
“Oh, everything’s fucked up,” I said. I slid onto a barstool and ordered a large Boulevard pale ale. “Devon’s dead and nobody knows what they’re doing. You know how this place runs.”
The two of us had been hired the same year and had met during new faculty orientation, sitting at the same table in the student union ballroom, the only liberal arts hires. I was sitting at a table with Nancy Buckley, my faculty mentor, and Lynnie Carson and her mentor, some History nonentity who didn’t even have a PhD—and we watched our new Provost, Deborah Axelrod, slowly stomp up to the podium, gigantic in a white and black-striped mu-mu, a grotesque pregnant troll-like zebra, and she stood behind the microphone, breathing heavily, and said, “Let us pray.”
Praying. At a state school. At a public university. I was puzzled. Then shocked. I looked over at Nancy and asked—whispered, “What?”
“What do you mean—what?” Nancy asked. Whispering back. Hissing. Annoyed. “No! Be quiet! That’s—this is just how we do things here.”
“Thank you, Lord,” the Provost said from the stage. Arms spread out, eyes closed, face lifted to heaven. “Thank you for giving us these new faculty members, so bright and so full of promise, so faithfully dedicated to molding our students, our precious young people with their beautiful plastic minds, in Your divine image.”
I looked across the table at Lynnie. Her formal orientation nametag said that she was from Rice University. Medium-tall and fit, with powerful shoulders beneath a man’s navy blazer that was a size or two too big, and wearing a reddish regimental tie around her neck tied with a loose half-Windsor knot. Lynnie looked back at me and shrugged. But unlike me she seemed more amused than shocked at this crazy new place.
“Amen,” Deborah finished.
“A-the-fuck-men!” Lynnie laughed. Nancy and Lynnie’s History mentor glared at Lynnie but I laughed too. Lynnie obviously didn’t give a shit about anything.
“This place is nuts, huh?” she asked during a break. “It’s like we walked in on somebody else’s shitty Jesus hallucination—maybe the whole state’s this way. I bet it is. Man, this is going to be a fucked-up place to live.”
A sickening thought—but that’s what I immediately liked about her. Odd, fucked-up, sickening brilliant thoughts. Lynnie wasn’t afraid of anybody, either. She did boxing and mixed martial arts and over the years I saw her in a few fights—she was quick and strong, she wasn’t afraid to get hit, and she was beautiful and frightening and deadly, if somewhat erratic. I made a friend.
Now we sat at the bar, drinking, and I told her most of what I knew about Devon’s death—finding Devon’s body, dealing with Tee and Courtney and the other writers, Devon’s resignation letter. Most, but not all, because I didn’t finish. I found myself crying—weeping, not sobbing, and Lynnie put her hand on my knee and I was at a loss—sniffling, breathing deep.
“It doesn’t make sense,” I said. “I just—”
“I don’t know what to say, either,” Lynnie said. “I saw that thing on Facebook, you know.”
“Yeah, that’s fucked, too,” I said. “That’s all the writers wanted to talk about, the stupid Facebook post.”
“Those fuckers,” Lynnie said. “Do you think it was really some sort of—suicide note?”
“Hell, no.” I shook my head. “I mean, I think—and I don’t really know but I think—I think Devon was just drunk and pissed off and then she took a few pills too many and—”
“Yeah, Jesus, that sounds like her,” Lynnie said. “Man, my heart’s hurting.” After a moment she leaned over the bar and called to Kenny the bartender. “A couple Jägermeister shots, please!”
“Aw, no,” I said. “I have to teach tomorrow.”
“Cancel your classes. No one will notice.”
“In that department? People will notice.”
“Fuck those assholes who notice,” Lynnie said. Kenny he bartender brought over shot glasses of Jägermeister and Lynnie slid one over to me. She said, “To Devon Shepherd!”
Devon always liked Jägermeister, or claimed to—she always brought along a pint when the three of us were watching football games. It became kind of a joke tradition.
“To Dr. Devon Shepherd.” I said. “Artist and friend.”
An odd-looking little man with a giant round hairless head and thick glasses came up from one of the tables and stood beside me and ordered a beer. Lynnie looked suddenly happy.
“Aw, leave the poor guy alone,” I said.
“Research,” Lynnie said. A notebook appeared in her hand and she slipped off the barstool and went around to the little man. “Hey—hi!” she said to him. “Can I ask you a few questions?”
The guy was another FLP—a Flip, a Funny-Looking Person. There were a lot of them around Weirton, people who had things wrong with them, people who looked funny, who were just plain sad and unfortunate. Many of the people we saw out on the street were—damaged. Bad things were wrong with them—they had hunched backs, twisted limbs, giant hydro-cephalic heads—others were incredibly obese. Many of them were just plain short. Some were missing arms or legs, others used walkers or canes, or rode around in little carts. Weirton was a poor town, a poor town in an especially impoverished corner of a poor state—but I don’t think it was the poverty that made the people look funny. I was from Texas, and Texas had a lot of poor people, too, and I remembered going to Goodwill or the Dollar General and seeing poor people—but they were just people who were poor, robust enough and normal. In Weirton, though, I was half-horrified every time I left the house, creeped out by the parade of sad damaged humanity, so many people who were just miserable and odd-looking and wretched.
I even mentioned it to Tee once the first month or so after I moved to Weirton.
Tee just shrugged. “Oh, it’s incest,” she said. “All these poor people around here? They all just have sex with each other all the time—and that’s all they do. Brothers, sisters, cousins, daddies—it’s disgusting.”
But incest took generations—decades, at least. And I looked around and saw that my new colleagues in the English Department had things wrong with their bodies, too. They weren’t outwardly deformed, but many of them looked radically unwell—white people all, they had watery rheumy eyes and their complexions were unusually nasty and puffy and gray and pasty and damp-looking, like cold congealed moldy oatmeal. Late middle-aged or elderly or ancient, male or female, something seemed wrong with every one of them. None of them were native to Weirton; they’d moved to the town and lived in it for 15 or 30 or 40 years or more, and Weirton had somehow changed them. Lynnie, whose academic specialty was environmental and labor history, speculated that the FLPs and the PPs—the Pips, the Pasty People—were all products of polluted groundwater, and so in her first year at SEKSU she’d started research on two different books—one, a history of the mining industry of southeast Kansas and its toxic environmental and social legacy, and the other an oral history of the region’s longtime residents. She suspected that the whole region’s water supply was poisoned from a century or so of mining lead and coal and tin, and she got me to buy—and we both got Devon to buy, when she arrived in Weirton—big, heavy-duty water filters. None of us wanted to become a FLP or a PP.
Now Lynnie followed the little man back to his table, where he’d been sitting with another old man, another FLP. They might have been brothers—or cousins, or both, or something. Daddies. A pair of Tee’s Incesters. I ordered another beer and two more Jäger shots. I took a sip of beer and looked around and saw Sally Baldwin looking back at me. Sally, standing next to a table of women, some of them a bit familiar-looking, maybe administrative assistants in other SEKSU departments. Sally was wearing the same clothes she’d worn during the workday, a tight blue sweater and jeans and Doc Martens. She started walking over and I put down my beer and tried to sit up a bit straighter.
“Hey,” I said.
“Yeah, hi,” Sally said. At work she always called me Dr. Holt, formal and professional, though it made me a little uncomfortable. We were about the same age, and she knew far more about the university than I did, and though I honestly thought I was better than the other faculty members, my alleged colleagues, I never felt that I outranked Sally in any way. She was a little scary, somehow. She said, “I just wanted to say again that I’m sorry about Devon. I know this is hard for you.”
“Thanks,” I said. I looked over at Lynnie talking with the FLPs and then back at Sally. Her green eyes, tear-stained. Healthy, though. Not at all a PP. I bet she had a water filter. “I still haven’t really processed everything yet.”
“Oh, of course not,” Sally said. “I don’t think anybody has—I know I haven’t.”
“I’m going to cancel my classes tomorrow,” I said.
“Good!” Sally said. “You should! You need to take care of yourself. Just send me an email in the morning to make it official and I’ll put up notices in the classrooms.”
“Okay, I will.” I reached for my glass and took a gulp of beer.
“And, you know,” Sally said. Looking at the glass of beer, at me. “I’m thinking—we should get together and talk about Devon sometime…?”
“Yeah?” I asked. Puzzled. I put down the glass of beer and looked at Sally.
“Probably not at school,” Sally said quickly. “But—yeah, we should talk. There’s some important things about Devon.”
“Sure,” I said. I wondered, Huh?
“Okay,” Sally said. She touched me on the wrist. “Be well.”
“Sure,” I said again.
Sally started walking back to her table. Over her shoulder she said, “Send me that email tomorrow!”
I watched Sally walk away, all powerful boots and tight jeans. I rubbed my wrist where she’d touched me. What was that all about? Sally and Devon had been friendly, more or less. I at least knew Devon respected her. And I think they’d had lunch a time or two….
Lynnie bustled back and tossed her notebook onto the bar and slid up onto a stool.
“Those guys are great,” Lynnie said. She took a long drink of beer. “The Schwable brothers, from Bolair.” Bolair, a tiny near-ghost town a few miles to the northeast, just across the Missouri border, a place that sat precariously atop a series of collapsing underground mines. “I’m going to go out there next week and interview the whole family. They all have health problems—everybody’s sick, generations of illness—cancer, diabetes, brain problems….”
“Damn,” I said. I slid one of the Jäger shots over to Lynnie and lifted my own. “To Devon.”
“Always!” Lynnie said. She knocked back the shot and grimaced.
“You know, I feel like I just fucking woke up,” I said. “Like I just woke up and looked around and all I see around me is shit.”
“Yeah, but you’ve always hated this place,” Lynnie said.
“Well, I tried to ignore the stupid shit and just do my job,” I said. “But I don’t know if I can do that anymore.”