Eventually we moved on to business, or what passed for business. On Monday Sally would send us link to a dropbox with all the application materials for all the 600-plus job applicants, and we would all read the 600-plus applications and narrow them down to 20. Then we would send our list of 20 names to Courtney, who would compile a master list. Then we’d meet and narrow the big list down to five, and then we’d do phone interviews with the five, and narrow that group down to two, and then we’d invite the final two to on-campus interviews.
I went back to my office and sat at my desk and stared into the corner for a moment. I thought of all the wasted work those 600-plus people had done putting their job applications together—the cover letters, the updated CVs, the official transcripts, the letters of reference, the teaching portfolios. The money. Those poor bastards.
This fucking job. This fucking place. And yet the job market for creative writing instructors was so dreadful that over 600 of them wanted to work here!
I spun my chair around to the computer and opened the job ad that Tee and Courtney and HR had put together
Creative Writing. Southeast Kansas State University seeks an Assistant Professor of English/Fiction Writing. Full-time tenure track with 4/4 teaching load. Requirements: MFA or PhD with fiction emphasis, extensive college-level teaching experience, and national recognition for fiction writing (preferably two books with reputable presses). Duties will include teaching graduate and undergraduate fiction and CNF writing, introduction to multigenre creative writing, as well as first-year composition and 19th and 20th Century American Literature courses. Duties will also include advising graduate theses, advising the literary magazine, arranging and promoting the visiting writer program, editing departmental publications, and miscellaneous departmental service. Salary: $38,500. Send CV, cover letter, 50-page creative writing sample, statement of teaching philosophy, evidence of teaching excellence, three recent letters of reference, and official transcripts to Dr. T. Wheeler, Chair, English Department, Southeast Kansas State University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. SEKSU is an AA/EO Employer.
All that work for $38,500! It was crazy. And yet people were desperate enough to apply, were willing to work for that shitty wage—which was actually about four thousand less than Devon’s starting salary, or mine. Tee and the dean were lowballing the wage, hoping to save money, knowing that in a shitty job market they could get away with it. The bastards.
Then I thought—Fuck, I should warn the stupid applicants.
I googled the academic jobs wiki and went to the site. It was a website that compiled almost all academic jobs nationally by field and posted them—and, since it was a wiki, people could comment or ask questions about the jobs.
I quickly found the SEKSU creative writing posting. Not unexpectedly, several people had commented about the low pay and high work load. I clicked on the editor and began typing
STAY AWAY! STAY FAR FAR FAR AWAY! Not only does this shithole offer stupidly low pay, it is an actual no-kidding shithole. Ugly surroundings, polluted city and campus, locally active Klan-klaverns, retarded colleagues--
I stopped and deleted that. Retarded was ablest and rude and insensitive.
--narcissistic ill-educated bullying racist colleagues, sexual assault and dick-pic harassment an English Department specialty. And remember--
I paused and took a deep breath and looked up to the ceiling—noticed some cobwebs in the corner that Martie had missed—looked up to where I hoped Devon’s ghost or spirit or guardian angel was hovering, and I said aloud, “Sweetheart, I’m sorry.”
And remember—they sexually harassed and bullied and abused the last fiction writer until she committed SUICIDE. Look it up!
I logged off the wiki and I felt—good. Maybe I’d saved a life.
My mood ring was—gray.
The spring semester began with the usual first-day confusion—misguided students, malfunctioning technology, full parking lots. Tee had assigned me a Tuesday-Thursday teaching schedule, quite rare in our department. Two very long teaching days per week—five classes, insane—and then maybe a half-day on Wednesday when I came in to do paperwork. That was fine with me—if I was in a classroom all day, I didn’t have to see—didn’t have to deal with—the perverts and murders who surrounded me.
So—on Wednesday of that first week the Department held a memorial service for Fred over in the Old Education auditorium. I took the same seat I’d had for Devon’s service—off to the side, on the aisle, up a few rows—and watched people come in. The President and the Provost. The Dean and Tee. Old Earl. The writers. They all milled around behind the podium, shaking hands and hugging. Someone had figured out how to use the computer projector, and there was a giant ugly picture of Fred’s pipe-smoking face gazing out at the auditorium. The Prairie Dog Brass was again playing showtunes—I recognized “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Oklahoma!
Lynnie came in through a side door, looked around, spotted me, and came up the steps, huffing in a big down jacket and a knit cap. She collapsed into a seat next to me.
“Fucking freezing out there,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s January.”
“Fuck winter,” Lynnie said. She began unwrapping a big black wooly muffler from around her neck, then stopped. “Hey, Tommy—there’s no women here.”
“What?” I looked around—really looked around. There was Lynnie next to me. And there were the women who had to be there, or who didn’t care about Fred’s misconduct: Deborah Axelrod the Provost, and Tee, and Courtney and Nancy, and a dumpy little gray woman I assumed was Fred’s unfortunate wife. But—no other women. Sally wasn’t there, the women faculty members weren’t there, none of the women grad students or undergraduates. Otto the custodian was there but Martie wasn’t. And Karla Krause and all the other women in the Prairie Dog Brass were missing, leaving only young boys to blow the Broadway standards.
“Jesus,” I said.
“Everybody in this fucking university knew there was something wrong with that guy,” Lynnie said. “And nobody ever did anything about it until us.”
“Devon tried,” I said. “And Sally Baldwin.”
“All those fucking men knew,” Lynnie said. She was sneering down at President Smith and Dean Keaton in the front row. “And they didn’t do a goddamn thing to stop it—we had to.”
“Annuit coeptis,” I said.
“Yeah, I guess.” Lynnie sat back. “But you know this must’ve been going on for years—and all those fossils in your department are fucking complicit.”
Ted got up from his seat next to Fred’s widow and went to the podium. He stuck his beard out at us and took a deep breath.
“Friends and colleagues,” Ted began. I assumed I was a colleague, because I sure wasn’t a friend. “We’re here to celebrate the life of Dr. Frederick Van Buskirk, who was such a big, big part of our lives for such a long, long time here at Southeast Kansas State University.”
“Ol’ Fred the wienie-waggler,” Lynnie said loudly. Shawn Cudahy and another grad student turned and looked at us, big-eyed.
Ted introduced the President, who said that Fred’s passing was a sad day indeed for the Prairie Dog Nation. He sat down. Deborah the Provost got up and said that she was going to pray for Fred’s eternal soul.
“Please tell me Jesus didn’t welcome Fred into heaven,” I said to Lynnie.
“Absolutely not!” Lynnie said. “No dick pics or sexual harassment allowed in heaven—I have that on the highest authority.”
The hungover dean looked like he wanted to be anywhere else in the world. He mumbled “Once a Prairie Dog, always a Prairie Dog,” and sat down. Tee got up and said, “This is a shocking loss, and we’re all very sad.”
“Yeah, right,” I said. The poor bastards who were teaching Fred’s classes were the only ones who were sad.
Then Ted introduced Courtney and she stood at the mic and tapped it a few times and stared out at everyone with her bulging eyes.
“I just want to say that this is a sad day,” Courtney said. She nodded a couple of times. “And I have responded to this sadness the way I respond to everything else in my life—through language and through literature. Our friend Fred did not die—the world died for Fred.”
I asked, “Huh?”
“She mangled an Ayn Rand line,” Lynnie said. “Moron.”
Courtney held up a sheet of paper. “But Fred’s world and Fred’s life live on in this poem I have written. It’s called ‘Sunflowers,’ because Kansas is the Sunflower State, and because Fred was always a sunflower in our lives. You’ll find it printed on the back of the program—something you can keep always, and treasure.” She blinked at us. “You might want to frame it.”
Courtney began reading
Think of sunflowers
nodding under a stormy
sky. Think of bats dancing
on currents of affection.
“Dick pics!” Lynnie almost yelled. I laughed. The grad students looked around, alarmed. “And penises!”
—welcome rain and
lo-ove. Think of--
“Fuck this shit,” Lynnie said. She stood up and pushed past me, clutching her muffler. “See you at the bar.”
Courtney stopped reading and watched Lynnie stomp down the steps and push noisily out the side door. Everyone turned and watched her.
After a moment, frowning Courtney looked up at me. She said, “If I may begin again….”