A long time earlier—maybe a year or so before Devon died—I was sitting in my office when Devon and Nancy Buckley got into an argument about motive in fiction. It started over something some grad student had written—Nancy thought the motive of whatever the character in the story had done should be emphasized—thought through—named—explained—spelled out.
“We simply have to know what the motive is,” Nancy said.
“No, not really,” Devon said. She was sitting in one of the chairs across from my desk, and Nancy was standing frowning in the doorway with a file folder tucked under her arm, pulling at her stupid fingers. Devon and I had been talking about whatever, and Nancy had stuck her pinched gray face in and interrupted us, and Devon was annoyed about that, and annoyed too that she had to twist around and look up to talk to Nancy. Devon said, “No—I don’t think motive means anything. Not in this story, not in any story. I mean, nobody really ever knows why anybody does anything.”
Nancy blinked behind her glasses. “That’s—ridiculous. Psychologists know—”
“Oh, bullshit,” Devon said. Yow—Devon cursed. Unusual for her, to curse around Nancy or the others, in a professional setting. But one thing Devon would never give in about and never back down about was writing—her writing, her students’ writing, writing in general. She knew what she was talking about. “Most people aren’t psychologists, right? That has nothing to do with people.”
“Look at Holt.” Devon gestured at me. I sat back in my chair, a little confused. “Holt doesn’t know why he does whatever the fuck it is he does. And I don’t know why he does whatever the fuck it is he does, either—he’s a mystery. All I can do is watch him and try to understand how his behavior affects my life. And—”
Nancy said, “But—”
“No!” Devon said. “And listen—I don’t know why I do what I do, either—and neither do you. All you can do is observe my action.”
“But that’s—obtuse.” Nancy stood there pulling her fingers, frowning. “Of course I know why I do things….”
“People display their inner selves through action,” Devon said. “We’re not in the 19th century anymore. Having some narrator speculating about fucking motives is what’s obtuse. All we can do is watch people and try to understand them—and usually we fail.”
That was pretty much that. Nancy stumbled back to her office, and a year later she killed Devon, or helped to kill her.
Did Nancy know why? Was there a motive? Did there need to be one?
I mean, I guess there was a motive—the bad shit Devon tried to tell me about.
But the observable fact was that Devon was dead.
That was enough for me.
Lynnie wanted more, though. She was a historian, after all, and she believed in History--istoria, The Story—which for her not just a narrative of something that had happened, but an interpretation of facts. She wanted to know whatever the thing was that had happened and she wanted to know what it meant—and the why it happened was important for her.
So on the day of Devon’s memorial service—the day I became enlightened—we sat there at the Tri-State, thinking. We moved from the bar to a table in the corner. I was quiet at first—still sort of stunned over what I’d figured out—stunned and growing angry, staring down at Courtney’s crumpled threat poem. Lynnie pulled out her black Moleskine notebook and wrote things down—words, phrases, ideas—as they occurred to her. She was left-handed and her writing hand sort of curled around her notebook, but I could see
I said, “Wine glasses.”
Lynnie nodded and wrote that down, too. I could see that she was roiling, inwardly hovering somewhere between wanting to punch someone—she was a fighter, after all—and wanting to think through to an answer.
To me, the answer was obvious—the bad shit was behind everything.
“No,” Lynnie said. She stared at her notebook for a moment, and then she looked up at me. “I mean, you might be right. Maybe they did kill her. But why? She resigned—they won.”
“They didn’t know she resigned,” I said. “Maybe she didn’t tell them—she didn’t tell me.”
Devon tried to tell me. But I didn’t listen.
“I don’t know, Tommy,” Lynnie said. “I mean—one of the reasons I’m right all the time is that I don’t commit, you know? I’m cautious. I don’t commit until I know a few facts.”
“Good strategy,” I said. I guessed.
“You should try it sometime.”
Maybe. But, no—I didn’t want to be the guy that knew everything—I wanted to be the guy who learned everything. Even if things took me a while to learn. Too long to learn.
Lynnie was looking down at her notebook. Tapped it with her pen. “So—the writers were over there that night. Okay. I get that. But how’d they kill Devon? I don’t know those people, but you and Devon always made it sound like they’re total fucking incompetents—”
“They’re fuckwits,” I said. “They barely know how to send email.”
“So how does a fuckwit kill somebody?”
“Stupidly,” I said. “The prisons are full of murdering fuckwits.”
“I don’t know,” Lynnie said. “Killing somebody’s a big deal—even in Kansas killing somebody’s a big deal.”
“The writers went over there to talk to her about—something.” I shrugged. “Devon ended up dead. That’s all I need to know.”
“Nope,” Lynnie said. “I’m not seeing it. I’m not saying you’re wrong—at all. But where’s the motive?”
“Devon didn’t believe in motive,” I said.
“Yeah, well,” Lynnie said. “You know, Devon wasn’t like me—she wasn’t always right about everything. I bet motive believed in her.”
The next day I went by the department office to ask Sally Baldwin for the key to Devon’s office. I told her I wanted to get Devon’s files on Frankie, but really I wanted to look for anything that might have to do with—the bad shit. The motive, or whatever. Sally had me sign for the key, but she didn’t give it to me. She just slid it back and forth on her desk.
Sally said, “You know, it’s been three weeks.”
“What?” Three weeks what? Then I remembered—three weeks since Devon’s death. Three weeks and a couple of days. “Oh—yeah, it’s been tough.”
“No,” Sally said sharply, quietly, almost. “Three weeks since I saw you at the Tri-State? When I said we needed to talk?”
“Ah!” I remembered, sort of—Sally wanted to talk about Devon. Reminisce, or something? I remembered she touched my wrist. “I guess I forgot.”
“You did not,” Sally said. Still quiet. She sat back in her chair. “You know, Dr. Holt—you want to know what the weirdest thing about my job is? It’s all the liars I have to deal with. All you professors—educated people, and most of you are enough to be my grandparents, and you’re all a bunch of effing liars. You people forget to post your grades, or you misfile your paperwork, or you miss some deadline—and then when I ask what’s going on and try to help, all you guys just make excuses and tell me a bunch of lies. About petty bullshit! You’re all just a bunch of liars.”
I shrugged. Felt guilty. “I’m sorry….”
“The overall morality of this department is pretty damn low.”
That was something. To hear her say something like that—someone who worked closely with Tee. I could tell Sally was pissed. I took a step back. I said, “Yeah, I know that.”
“And the attitudes are bad, too. People here are fucking rude.”
I said, “Yeah.”
“Actually, you’re not that bad compared to the others,” Sally said. After a moment she sat forward and slid Devon’s key across the desk. She said “Find the time, okay?”
“Sure,” I said.
“This isn’t petty bullshit.”
“Sure.” I picked up the key.
“Your friend Courtney’s been wanting to get in Devon’s office, too.” Sally sat back in her chair and looked up at me with sharp green eyes. Waiting.
“Yeah?” I asked. I looked back at Sally for a long moment, uncertain. She was a powerful, tight-looking woman. Jeans and boots. Hint of a tattoo or three at her open collar. Little black stars, maybe. But possibly—she wasn’t quite trustworthy? She worked for Tee, after all. She worked for the university. Was dangerous, maybe? She was a part-time grad student in criminal justice. Had a drug-addict ex-husband in federal prison for embezzling money from FEMA after the big Joplin tornado—she found out and turned him in. Around here, I guess, that made her an expert on morality. I asked, “So—what did Courtney want in Devon’s office?”
“Oh, she said something about Devon having some important creative writing papers that they needed for some stupid thing or other.” Sally shifted in her chair and looked past me, into the outer office, to see if anyone was listening. I looked over my shoulder, too. No one was out there. Sally said, “You know, I just told her that the office was locked until Devon’s brother shows up to clean it out.”
I said, “I bet she didn’t like that….”
Sally chuckled. “Oh, man—she said something about getting a court order!”
I laughed at that. Anything that irked Courtney was funny. But maybe I laughed too loud, though—Tee heard me.
“Tom?” Tee called from her office. “Is that you out there?”
“Yeah…” I said. Grumbled. I turned to leave.
Sally said, softly, “Be careful.”
Tee was sitting staring blankly at her computer—at a spreadsheet, it looked like—when I stuck my head in her office. I asked, “Yeah?”
Tee slowly turned to me and said, “Sit down.”
I reluctantly sat in one of the low stiff chairs. Now that I had Devon’s key, I wanted to go look at her office. Anxious.
Tee asked, “Are you busy?”
“I was just asking Sally if I could have the key to Devon’s office—I thought I might find some notes on those thesis students you gave me.”
“Yeah, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Tee said. She leaned forward. “Courtney tells me you had a meeting with Frankie last week?”
“Yeah…” I nodded warily. “Tuesday.”
Tee looked at me like she wanted me to talk more. She didn’t like silence. So I waited. Silently.
“So…” Tee said. “How’d it go?”
I shrugged. Something else I knew she hated. “I think it went—okay, I guess.”
Tee looked at me flatly. I shrugged again, just to piss her off.
“Well—tell me,” Tee said. “Did she cry?”
“Oh,” I said. I thought, What? Crying? I said, “Yeah…?”
“Oh, she’s such a fake!” Tee said. She sat back in her big chair. “She wasn’t really crying, you know—she was just trying to get your sympathy.”
“Yeah, well, so what if she cried?” I asked. “I mean, Tee—listen, I’ve had that girl in classes before—she’s one of the most fucked-up people I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“You’re kidding,” Tee said. “Everyone else who’s worked with her thinks she’s a fake—they all think she’s just trying to get out of doing work.”
They all—that would be Courtney and friends. Devon didn’t think Frankie was a fake—she thought Frankie was a bummer, but not a fake.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I saw the tears, Tee—they fell right on my office floor.” I pointed at the floor.
“Manipulation,” Tee said.
“Does it make a difference?” I asked. “I mean, if she’s faking being fucked up or she really is fucked up? Either way she won’t get the work done. Or maybe she will. You know? Who cares? That thesis is up to her, not me.”
Tee’s jaw dropped. She sat back in her chair and looked at me like I was crazy.
“No—the thesis is entirely up to you.”
I stared at back her, wary. Silent.
“Tom,” she said. “You’re in your fourth year here, right? And yet you’re still kind of clueless about how things go in this department. You know? It’s not just about books and students and teaching—it’s always more than just about books and students and teaching. I mean, books and teaching and students don’t really matter around here.”
“Ah,” I said. “Well, yeah, I guess I’m kind of finding that out.”
Tee stared at me some more, like she was expecting me to say more. I didn’t say anything.
Finally, Tee said, “You’re such an odd man.”
I actually laughed at that—an honest laugh. Tee othered me! Called me odd.
“Okay, whatever,” Tee said. Suspicious of my amusement. Annoyed. She leaned forward. “The thing with Frankie is, we want her out of here as soon as possible. It’s a two-year program, and Frankie’s been here four years. She’s used up all her extensions. It’s time for her to go—to graduate or go on welfare, or whatever. And that means you need to sign off on her thesis no matter what.”
“Ah,” I said. “Okay.”
“Yeah?” Tee asked. “Okay? Really? Am I clear? No matter what, the thesis is up to you.”