A few days later, I left Reeb after class and drove by Devon’s house to see how Anthony was coming along. As far as I knew, his plan was to get rid of most of Devon’s stuff—her books, her clothes—and pack up the few more valuable pieces in a rent-truck, and then hitch up Devon’s car and tow it all back to Georgia.
When I got there, he was out in the driveway in the cold near-dark, changing the flat tire on Devon’s car.
“Looks like you could use a drink,” I said, leaning out my car’s window.
“Don’t have anything left,” Anthony said, sitting up.
“Well, let’s go to the liquor store,” I said. “Get in.”
Anthony slowly got up and came around to my car. I rolled back the passenger seat and he got in—the car sagged a little under his bulk.
“Making progress?” I asked. I put the car in drive and headed around the block and out to the highway.
“Boxed up a lot of books for you,” Anthony said. “Took her clothes, almost all her clothes, to the Goodwill in Joplin—and so, maybe I’ll get out of there by Thursday or Friday.”
“I’m going out of town Wednesday,” I said. My campus visit to Midwestern in Wichita Falls. “Maybe we can go out to dinner tomorrow.”
“Sure,” Anthony said.
There was a liquor store next to the high school—a big black and yellow HEAL THIS LAND billboard looming up behind it—and when I passed the store, Anthony looked over at me.
“You have to know where to go in this town,” I said.
“Not too many places to go in this shithole,” Anthony said. “Devon sure hated this place.”
“Yep.” I thought about that—about Devon, about the unfortunate job candidates I was going to have to interview. They were going to hate this place, too. I said, “But the thing about academic jobs is, you have to go where the jobs are—like this shithole.”
Anthony said, “Fuck this place.”
We crossed the railroad tracks and I turned north into a gloomy dark neighborhood of rundown crumbling houses.
I said, “Devon and I used to go for walks over here, look at the old houses.”
“Yeah, you guys must’ve had a lot of fun.”
Through the gloom and across another bridge—below, more railroad tracks, and a long train carrying cars of coal—and into another gloomy area with crumbling houses and abandoned commercial buildings. Up on the right was the sad titty bar, the Strip Pit.
“There’s our local strip club,” I said.
“Yeah, I went there Saturday,” Anthony said. He shook his big head. “I don’t know, man—a lot of those girls looked kind of funny, like they were all gray and sick-looking.”
Then I hit the brake—slowed. In the parking lot I spotted Ted and his beard getting out of his cheerful green Volvo. Ted and his beard and his herpes dick. I slowed a bit more and peered around Anthony.
“What?” Anthony asked.
“I see somebody,” I said. “Ted Shuey, he works—”
“That asshole.” Anthony turned and looked out behind us. “Yeah, Devon hated that little piece of shit. I was wondering if I’d run into him.” He settled back in his seat. “I guess it’s better if I don’t.”
I said, “Yeah…” and then the Strip Pit was behind us, and I drove on and came out onto Front Street, and then a couple of blocks north were the welcoming neon lights of Mocol’s Liquors, home of the 10% faculty discount. I pulled into the parking lot and drove around to the side. A friendly former student named Dan came to the window and I ordered a 12-pack of Boulevard Pale Ale, and then Anthony leaned across me—head almost in my lap—and ordered a handle of Jim Beam.
“Just something to keep me busy,” Anthony said.
Back at Devon’s house, Anthony showed me around, showed me the progress he’d made packing up. The house sure looked different—but the place still felt like Devon, somehow. Maybe her ghost was here, too.
Stacked by the front door were a dozen or so boxes packed with books. All mine. In Devon’s office the computer was packed up, but all of her old unpacked boxes—the boxes she’d never had time to unpack while she was alive—were resealed and stacked neatly. In another stack were boxes—seven or eight—of Devon’s notebooks and papers.
“All her writing stuff goes to the University of Georgia,” Anthony said. “She was an alum, you know, and she won that writing prize they have.”
One of the notebook boxes was open and I pulled out a notebook—the usual cheap wire-bound ones she liked to write in, with a blue cover. I opened it at random.
I was driving Grandad’s old Buick but not at home I was in Weirton and I couldn’t stop or maybe I was drunk and I didn’t want to run over anyone and I was swinging around and banging into other cars and then I was in the back seat and I was driving from there and I couldn’t reach the brake pedals at all and I couldn’t stop and I was afraid that I was going to kill somebody and I hit another car and another car and then I slammed into a building and I woke up YELLING!!!
A dream diary. Devon kept a lot of those, off and on. This dream, I guess, was a lack of control dream. Or an out of control dream. At least it was one night where she wasn’t being imprisoned or tortured.
I slipped the notebook back into the box and looked at Anthony—massive, with those shoulders and big arms.
“Man, you’ve done a lot of work here,” I said.
“There’s a bit more to do, too,” Anthony said. He looked around, sipped at his Jim Beam. “Well, let’s get those books out in your car.”
Anthony did most of the carrying. I carried maybe two boxes—Anthony carried the rest. We filled the trunk, and then the back seat, and then the front seat. I stuck one last box down on the floor. Anthony went into the house and then quickly came out with two unboxed books in his hand.
“These are from your school library,” Anthony said. “I guess Devon had ‘em checked out.”
I tossed the books onto the front seat. We stood out in the cold night, the quiet street.
“Well,” I said. “I need to get home and feed the cat.”
“You’re a good guy, Tom.” Anthony clapped me on the shoulder. “Devon was right about you.”
I drove home to Fuzzhead, feeling good about Anthony. When I got into the garage I looked at the two library books, the last two books Devon ever checked out: Faculty Incivility and Workplace Bullying in Higher Education.
For fuck’s sake.
Poor goddamn Devon.
The next day I was sitting in my office trying to read a series of emails from Courtney—she’d set up phone interviews with the last two candidates on her list, and she wanted us to come up with more questions to ask—when Frankie tapped on my door. As usual, I jolted around in nervous alarm.
I said, “Oh.”
“I have to talk to you,” Frankie whispered. She stepped in and eased the door shut. I was immediately concerned—edgy. Male faculty members shouldn’t be in a closed room alone with female students. Frankie said, “I don’t want anyone to hear.”
“The warning.” Frankie sat down—as always, with her stupid backpack on. She had to tilt her head back to look at me—and she just looked at me.
I asked, “You have a warning?”
“Well, yeah.” Frankie took a deep breath and looked at the floor. “I heard Courtney—she said he was going to step on you.”
Ah. I thought about that—came up with nothing. I asked, “Step on me?”
“That’s what she said! She said she’s going to step on you, and then she laughed.”
“And Nancy laughed too!”
Courtney and Nancy laughing about stepping on me—laughing. Made them sound like a couple of Bond villains. Which I guess there were, in a way. Scaled-down Bond villains—petty villains, micro villains, nano villains.
“Okay,” I said. “Wait—just tell me what happened.”
So. Frankie had been studying in the little lounge area just outside the conference room. She could hear Courtney talking in the conference room—the doors were open. Courtney said something like, “Tom’s really screwed with us this time,” and then Nancy said something that was unclear. And then Ted said with his big voice, “This is just inexcusable.” And then Courtney said, “Well, we’re really going to step on Tom,” and Nancy laughed and then Frankie came down the hall to warn me.
“And,” Frankie said. “I think they’re serious.”
“Yeah…” I said. They were probably serious. But they had no way of stepping on me. I hadn’t done anything—not really. So I talked to fucking Fred just before he shot himself. So what?
“You need to look out,” Frankie said.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “They don’t have anything on me.”
Tee went out for the afternoon and let the hiring committee use her more or less spacious Chair’s office to conduct the phone interviews. Courtney sat in Tee’s big chair behind the desk and Nancy and Ted clustered near her. I took my usual hard chair by the door, then realized that I’d need to be close to the speakerphone, so I scooted a bit closer to the desk. My head hurt a little bit—I got up and walked around and blew out the six vanilla candles Tee had left burning. Then I sat back down.
Courtney had compiled a list of questions and had had them approved by Hannah Jackson over in HR. They were boring, predicable questions, similar to the questions the Midwestern committee had asked me: Tell us about your best teaching day ever, Tell us about your worst teaching day ever, How would you teach a fiction class, How would you teach a multigenre class, how would you teach American Literature. At the bottom of the list, Courtney had included my question, one I’d stolen from Buffy Whitacre at Midwestern—What’s the nicest thing a student has ever said on your evaluation?
“Well,” Courtney said. “Let’s get started.”
Courtney punched in the numbers for the first candidate, Jody Horowitz, a post-doc lecturer at LSU. She had a story collection published by a small press in Texas.
Jody sounded like a perfectly nice person. I guess she probably was. She sounded a little nervous on the phone, a little breathless. Toward the end of the interview I got to ask my own question—what nice things have been said—and the speakerphone went silent for a moment.
“Oww,” Jody said. Oww—it sounded like she’d stubbed her toe. A sad painful sound. “I guess—I guess—that I’m fine?”
A sad, painful answer. Poor Jody. Having a student call me a pompous aloof know-it-all seemed better than a boring fine. Then I thought of something.
“Okay, that’s great,” I said. “So—how do you use technology in your classrooms?”
Nancy looked shocked. She ran her finger down and up the list of questions two or three quick times.
“That question’s not on the list!” she hissed. She showed her list of questions to Ted, who shrugged his beard. Nancy looked over at Courtney. She hissed, “That question’s not on the list!”
Courtney glared at me with her huge eyeballs.
But poor Jody was delighted. She went off with a long answer detailing how she used social media—especially Twitter and Instagram—to foster Literary Citizenship among her students. She made it all sound kind of interesting.
When Jody finished talking, Courtney thanked her, ended the interview, and shut off the call.
“That was embarrassing,” Courtney said to me. “Don’t go off the script anymore!”
I shrugged. “I felt sorry for her,” I said. “I was trying to draw her out.”
“Don’t draw them out,” Nancy said. “Let the candidates draw themselves out.”
“Or not,” Ted said.
“Let them sink and drown,” Courtney said.
I shrugged. Whatever. The poor unfortunate new hire would sink and drown once they got to Weirton, that was for sure.
Courtney dialed the number for the next candidate, Allison Wigginton. Just as the phone began to ring, Courtney whispered, “She’s Af-Am.”
Af-Am. African American. I knew that, though—I’d had a chance to Google her. Allison Wigginton had two well-received collections of short fiction and was a Visiting Assistant Professor at Texas State, in San Marcos.
Allison sounded peppy and confident and energetic. Right away, I liked her voice. We went through the list of questions again, and Allison gave interesting, informed answers. But when we went through the questions for the third time, Courtney jumped out of order and asked my question about student evaluations.
That threw me off. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, if I was supposed to go on to the next question—Nancy’s—or go back and ask the question that Courtney skipped. I was puzzling on this while Allison was talking about how her students found her to be positive, or something, and when she finished I jumped ahead to Nancy’s question, which was supposed to be the last question.
“That’s great,” I said. I guessed whatever she said was great. “So—do you have any questions for us?”
Nancy frowned at her sheet of questions again, confused.
Allison said, “Well, I guess maybe you could tell me a little about the—climate—in Weirton….”
“Oh!” Courtney said. She seemed delighted—was grinning at the phone. “Well, I’d just like to say that summers here can be really hot sometimes, and winters—”
What the fuck? Allison wasn’t asking about the fucking weather. Courtney obviously knew that. She must have.
“And we get tornadoes—”
“Yeah,” I said. “And last fall some frat boys here busted out all the windows in the African American Student Center. And over in Joplin some rednecks burned down the local mosque.”
Courtney stared at me, appalled. Nancy and Ted stared at me, shocked.
Quickly, Allison said, “Yeah, I saw all that online—”
“But!” Courtney blurted. She bent down close to the speakerphone. “The community came together! It was a beautiful moment—the community came together to rebuild that mosque!”
“Oh, you know those rednecks’ll just burn it down again,” I said. “That’s the third one they’ve burned since I moved here.”
Allison said, “Yeah, I read about that….”
“That’s not the community, though!” Courtney said.
“That’s not Weirton!” Nancy said.
“Well,” Allison said. “Okay—thank you, I guess….”
Courtney ended the call and just—glared at me. She was at a rare loss for words. She just stared with her croquet-ball eyes.
“Reprehensible,” Ted said.
“Yeah, fuck you,” I said. “I was honest.”
“You slandered us,” Nancy said.
Courtney was still glaring.
“Allison asked that question because she wanted to hear how you’d respond,” I said. “And—hey, she found out!”
Courtney whispered, “Slander….”