The next afternoon I was in my office finishing up some overdue paperwork and trying to gather up enough energy to go home, when I noticed my Potemkin notebook sitting on the edge of the desk, folded back and open. My handwriting--
Look up Deb’s CV
I’d almost forgotten that.
I wondered again—what really is the deal with our provost?
I swiveled my chair around to the computer and quickly found Deborah Axelrod’s CV online—everyone at Southeast Kansas had to post their CVs to the university website.
It was a PDF, and I opened it. Under education, it read
- BA—Oklahoma State University
- MA—Oklahoma State University
- PhD—Black Hills Baptist University
No dates on any of the citations. Usually you include the year you graduated and your major—English, History, whatever. And for a PhD, you also usually include the title of your dissertation, and sometimes your dissertation director.
There was none of that.
I’d always heard that she had gone to some no-name church college, but—Black Hills Baptist University? Where the fuck was that? I had a friend who taught at Black Hills State University, in Spearfish, South Dakota, a real place—but, Black Hills Baptist?
So I copied “Black Hills Baptist University” and pasted it into Google, and—boom.
Just like that.
Black Hills Baptist University was a website. And nothing much else. They’d sell you a diploma for $450. For $700, they would provide a fake transcript, with fake classes, and for $1000 an alleged person would write you a letter verifying that you were a former student.
I stared at the screen for a long time.
So—Deborah Axelrod was a big-praying phony.
How come no one noticed this before?
For the stupid Assistant Professor job that we were trying to fill, we were asking applicants to include official transcripts, which cost eight or ten dollars most of the applicants probably didn’t have. Deborah got hired as provost, and nobody asked for her certified transcripts? Nobody checked her CV?
I made screen grabs of the website and saved them as PDFs to my dropbox.
Then I wondered—How many other phonies are there around here?
I started with Deborah’s husband, Pete Axelrod, the Zane County attorney. His official bio said that he was a former Navy SEAL. Oh, come on. That had to be bullshit. That was a big claim—and a stupid one, too, since it was easy to check out at a Stolen Valor website. Pete was as phony as his wife.
Who the hell else?
The President of Gulag State, C. Peter Sturges, checked out. A real PhD, though a plastic man. He was who he claimed to be.
But—the Vice President of Development had a diploma mill PhD.
So did the Vice President for Community Relations.
So did the fucking Dean of Engineering.
Someone—at some level, the Board of Regents level or above—was deliberately not noticing this shit. Southeast Kansas State was supposed to be a real university, with real professors, but something had gone very, very wrong. Deliberately wrong.
I skipped down the hierarchy to the English Department, and almost everyone in our department checked out. Almost: Courtney didn’t really have an MFA.
She claimed she did, from the University of Alabama, but I couldn’t find a record of her graduation. It was late in the afternoon, but I managed to get someone at the Alabama Registrar’s Office on the phone, a nice lady who looked things up and told me that Courtney had been a student, but that she apparently had never finished her thesis.
Why the fuck didn’t Courtney finish her thesis? She’d had 23 years!
And she’d been dogging poor Frankie for taking four years on her thesis.
And I thought of Old Earl—he’d hired Courtney. Did he know she’d never finished? He must have, right? Was he in on everything? Maybe he just gave up—maybe he looked the other way. But looking the other way—settling—that’s a form a complicity, too. Still, I kind of needed Old Earl to be on my side.
“There’s Tom!” someone said.
I jolted around and Jackie Sewell and Dawn Gaske were standing in my doorway, smiling.
“Hi, Tom,” Dawn said,
“You’re working late!” Jackie said.
“For once!” Dawn said.
“I’m plotting my revenge,” I said.
“Good!” Dawn said.
They went cheerfully on down the hall, heading off and away.
I looked back at my computer—at my revenge. I thought for a moment, and I decided to keep it tight for right now—I decided not tell anyone what I’d found, not Sally or even Lynnie. Not right now. Not yet. I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to use this information, but I knew I was sitting on a fucking bomb. I had to think it through. I could blow up the university any time I felt like blowing it up.
Almost a week later, Thursday night, on the edge of spring break, and the NCAA basketball tournament was starting—a big deal in Kansas. Lynnie met me at the Tri-State for happy hour, and we had drinks and talked over everything that was going on—the social media deal, the sexual harassment deal, the teaching deal, cute dogs, cute cats, teaching, grading, the slowness of spring, Allison Wigginton’s visit, Lynnie’s lame history colleagues. We talked over just about everything. That’s what happy hours are for.
And so we were sort of half-watching a game between Old Dominion and Rhode Island, minding our own business, gossiping, when Courtney and Ted and Tee and a pack of grad students came stomping into the bar. This happens when you live in a small town like Weirton—you run into people you know, even when you don’t want to run into them, even when you don’t like them. Courtney spotted us and came over to our table.
“Hey, guys,” she said, beaming like nothing bad had ever happened between us. And, you know, that was always something I guess I kind of admired about Courtney—that hard stupid cheery phoniness. Phoniness like that is a good skill to have, much like Tee’s pompous lying. I can’t be that way—my affect generally runs on a scale from affable to sulk to pout to rabid and I can’t hide any of it. I’d be a terrible poker player. Courtney asked, “What’re you doing?”
“Watching basketball,” I said.
“It’s Ted’s birthday! We’re taking him on a pub crawl!”
Ted stood with Tee and the grad students—one of the grad students was Shawn Cudahy. He nodded at me. Tee and Courtney were saying something to each other. It seemed like they couldn’t decide to sit at the bar or get a table.
Lynnie leaned over and whispered in my ear. “We need to warn whoever gives Ted his birthday blowjob.”
“Hush,” I said. But I laughed, too.
“Come over and join us,” Courtney said. “If you want.”
Ted and Tee and the grad students finally decided on a table—the next table over from Lynnie and myself. We were sort of joined with them, whether we liked it or not.
Tee sat directly behind Lynnie. Ted sat with his back to the bar—and the TV—and then the grad students sat on the far side of him. Courtney sat where I had to see her every time I looked at Lynnie.
Lynnie asked, “You want to leave?”
“We were here first,” I said. “Fuck those motherfuckers.”
Lynnie scooted around to my side of the table—she didn’t want Tee to overhear what we said—and we sat side-by-side, like sweethearts, and watched the game. Though it wasn’t fun--fuck those motherfuckers is always easier to say than to do, and I was very aware that my enemies were all sitting just a few feet away making noise. Ted, the birthday boy, was making the most noise, knocking back shots while the five or six grad student toadies cheered.
Just as the second half of the game began, Tee leaned around and asked, “Tom? Can we talk for a bit?”
Lynnie rolled her eyes. “Talk,” she said. “I have to go pee.”
She got up and left, and I moved over a couple of seats to sit by Tee.
“I haven’t told anyone else this.” Tee leaned over and sort of whisper-shouted into my ear. The bar was pretty loud. “But when I called Allison Wigginton to make an offer, she turned me down flat.”
“Jeeze,” I said.
“She didn’t even want to think about it—which is crazy! Where’s she going to find another job like this?”
Good question. I shrugged. “Nowhere.”
“We’re going to have to start over again, go back through all the applicants.”
“Okay,” I said. I’d just choose new applicants at random. No problem for me.
“And I’m not going to say that it’s your fault that Allison bailed on us,” Tee said. She thought about that. “Well, it’s not entirely your fault. But—I am going to ask you to be more—restrained. And professional.”
“Oh, come on!” I said. What bullshit.
“Restrained,” Tee said. “You can do that!”
I sat back. “Go find somebody else to be restrained.”
“There isn’t anybody else,” Tee said. “You have to do this.”
I saw Lynnie come out of the restroom and head our way. She stopped and talked to a couple of old FLPs she knew—Lynnie always liked stopping and talking to people.
“This is important to the department,” Tee said. She leaned closer to my ear. “Tom, I still think we can rescue your career.”
Fuck, I thought. They must really be desperate.
Well, I wasn’t that desperate. And I wasn’t particularly interested in my career any more.
Fuck those motherfuckers.
Lynnie came further down the bar and stopped in front of Kenny the bartender. She held up two fingers. Two. Another round for us.
I said, “Tee, I don’t know….”
And then I saw drunk Ted twist around in his chair and his drunk arm elevate to horizontal—saw his hand move toward Lynnie’s butt. The grad students watching, holding their laughter. And—I saw this, and it was unreal, like it was happening underwater, in slow motion, in a stupid dream.
I thought--maybe I thought--STOP—!!
And then Ted’s hand darted between Lynnie’s legs and--up—like he was trying to lift her by the pussy--
This was Lynnie, remember.
She had a 20-ounce glass of beer in her hand. She spun and dashed the beer in Ted’s face and then grabbed his pussy-grabbing arm and yanked him from his chair to the floor and she began stomping on his face, yanking Ted’s arm up every time her boot came down.
Boom. Like that. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Three, four--
I couldn’t crawl across Tee so I had to round the table and take a few steps—stomp five, stomp six—before I could grab Lynnie around the waist and pull her away. She kept trying to kick at Ted.
“Stop it!” I yelled. I wasn’t worried about Ted—I was worried about Lynnie. She might twist her ankle or something.
“The fuck did he try to do to me!” Lynnie was trying to pull my arms away and stomp on Ted some more.
I don’t think she knew right then that she was beating up on Ted. Just somebody who grabbed her. Just—an attacker. An intuitive response after her years of training. But it was Ted—laid out cold, blood running from his nose and mouth. Courtney and Tee and the grad students were looking at her, us, shocked.
“Stupid shit,” Lynnie said. She took a deep breath and I let her go.
I turned to Kenny the bartender. “How much do we owe you?”
“You don’t have to leave,” Kenny said. “That fucking guy needs to leave.”
“No, it’s all right.” I gave Kenny twenty dollars. I could see one of the grad students on her phone, calling the cops, probably. Shawn had his phone out, too, taking video, focusing on bleeding Ted. I clapped Lynnie on the shoulder and she pushed back at me. I said, “C’mon—let’s go.”
“Fucking bitch!” Lynnie yelled at Ted. He didn’t hear her. She yelled, “No more dick pics!”
I grabbed Lynnie’s jacket and dragged her toward the door and she stumbled along. I heard Tee call my name but I kept going and I pulled Lynnie out into the chill March night.
Outside on the sidewalk Lynnie tried to stop and catch her breath. I grabbed her again and dragged her up the street. I said, “Let’s get out of here!”
“Did you see that, Tommy?” Lynnie asked. “I kicked his ass, huh?”
“I saw it,” I said. Lynnie was coming along. I let go of her coat sleeve. “You fucked him up.”
“I wish he’d fought back,” Lynnie said. “I could’ve showed you something.”
“You showed me something,” I said. A block up the street was a bar called the Sail On Inn. It was kind of a redneck saloon, but I figured we’d be okay—we were white, after all.
“I felt that hand on my—place—and I was like—what the hell?” Lynnie clapped me on the shoulder. “And then it was just muscle memory after that—I didn’t even think.”
Lynnie was all elated and happy. Adrenalized. I knew how this worked from the bits of violence I’d seen growing up along the Texas coast—high school, working offshore, beer joints—if you won the fight you were elated and talkative for a while and then, when the adrenaline dropped, depressed. If you lost you were ashamed and talkative at first and then depressed. There was almost always going to be depression, one way or the other.
The Sail On Inn was dark and smoky and smelled like sour spilled beer, with a few older men and women sitting along the bar watching basketball. I parked Lynnie at a table and went over and ordered two Budweisers—and, after a thought, two shots of Jack Daniels.
“I can’t believe he just grabbed me like that,” Lynnie said when I brought the beers over. “Why’d he do that?”
“He’s an arrogant pervert,” I said. I went to the bar and got the shots and brought them back to our table. “An entitled arrogant pervert.”
“He doesn’t even know me,” Lynnie said.
“He’s not going to forget you now,” I said. “Unless he has a concussion. Cheers.”
We touched glasses and knocked back the bourbon. Lynnie sighed and stared up at the TV.
“Fuck,” Lynnie said. “I wish that hadn’t happened. I mean—fuck that piece of shit, but I can just see this becoming a big hassle.”
I shrugged. There probably wouldn’t be any legal problems—she’d been assaulted in front of a whole barroom full of people and she defended herself. Beating up a colleague might be a violation of the faculty code of conduct—but, again, Lynnie was defending herself.
“This is a small campus,” Lynnie said. “People are going to talk—people already think I’m a weirdo.”
I shrugged again. “Now they’ll think you’re a scary weirdo.”
“Yeah—that’s funny for you, mister professor cis-gendered white man,” Lynnie said. She shook her head and took a long drink of beer. “Not so funny for me.”
She was right, I guess. I hadn’t thought about how it might actually be for her. I said, “Yeah….”
Lynnie was thoughtful. “Did I ever tell you how I came out to my dad? Like—I was fourteen, and I went and told him who I was, and he thought about that for a minute, and then he said, ‘People are going to be mean to you.’ And so then the next Saturday he took me down to a boxing gym so I could learn how to fight—and, man, I just loved that. It changed my life!”
“Yeah?” I asked.
“And the thing was—my dad was right. People were mean to me, mostly petty bullshit—but, still, you know, people really will fuck with you if you’re different.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess.”
“Grad school sucked but I thought it might be better once I got to a university and got a tenure track job,” Lynnie said. “But then I got to this fucking—lamprey factory—and I saw the shit Devon went through, and I see the shit you’re going through, and I’m thinking right now about the shit I’m going probably going to go through because I kicked that asshole’s ass.”
I said, “Yeah.”
We were silent. On the TV, Old Dominion was losing.
Lynnie said, “It’s all a bunch of shit.”
I nodded. I didn’t say anything.
“Tommy, all I ever wanted to do was write books and teach classes and do history. You know? I don’t think that’s too much to ask, right? But then I ended up at this fucking gulag shithole—and I still do the best I can. And I look around and I know my best doesn’t mean anything. I’ll never get what I really want.”
“We’re going to get you what you want,” I said.
I was silent. I didn’t have an answer to that. Empty words. I didn’t even shrug. Nothing.
“Yeah, see?” Lynnie asked. “You don’t know. They’re going to fire your ass, Tommy!”
“They’re not going to fire me!”
“Yeah, they’re going to fire your ass—and then where’ll I be? Alone. A weirdo. A scary weirdo. Stuck in this shithole with a bunch of rednecks and FLPs and perverts with infected penises. I mean—fuck me.”