Two days later I found the marching band brass ensemble—the Prairie Dog Brass—playing show tunes while people filed into the Old Education auditorium and up the stairs to take their seats. Show tunes. I tried to think. Did Devon even like show tunes? I didn’t know. Probably not. When she was grading she liked listening to older jazz—Milt Jackson, Nat Adderly, Dexter Gordon. I heard her play Black Violin sometimes, too. When she was driving around she’d listen to old Prince or current Beyoncé or pop singers like Kelly Clarkson or Pink. She’d probably laugh at the thought of hearing “Cabaret” at her own funeral—she probably would have laughed and stayed alive so that it would never happen.
And what kind of crazy person decided to play “Cabaret” at a funeral, anyway?
Life is a fucking cabaret?
Southeast Kansas State, some cabaret.
Old Education Hall was one of those antique lecture auditoriums, with the podium at door-level and rows of narrow wooden seats rising steeply up and up and up toward the high ceiling. I went on in and took an aisle seat on the fourth row on the far side of the room and watched the President and the Provost and the Dean come in together, the President a well-groomed, well-knit man in a tan suit, the Provost giant and fat in a purple and gold mu-mu (purple and gold, the school colors of Southeast Kansas State), the Dean nervous and fidgety and sick-looking, like he needed a few more drinks. They stood around the podium looking important and shaking hands and clapping shoulders. Tee came into the room clutching her purse to her chest—and then she locked eyes with me and momentarily stopped.
Fuck you, I thought.
Tee took a seat in the front row. More faculty came in, two or three at a time—Fred Van Buskirk came in by himself, pipe clenched in his jaw. He sat up with the other Brit Lit professors. Sally Baldwin sat in the row behind Tee, with Old Earl Renner. Then the creative writers entered in their usual group and stood around shaking hands with the administrators and hugging each other. In the back—the top—of the auditorium, some grad students were setting up a video camera to record the service, new content for the department website.
Fuck all of you, I thought.
Now the band started blaring out music from Oklahoma!
Fuck me, I thought.
Lynnie Carson came in through a different door, stage left of the podium, and she stood looking around for a second or two before she saw me and came up and sat next to me.
Lynnie asked, “What’s with the music?”
“I bet you anything that fucking idiot Ted picked it out,” I said.
“Somebody should fucking shoot him,” Lynnie said.
Courtney spotted me and came over and slid into a seat behind me. She leaned forward and said into my ear, “Did you get my email? You have something to read today?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I have some things Devon’s students wrote.”
“But I said it’s supposed to be something by you,” Courtney said quickly. “And—you didn’t run it by me first.”
I didn’t bother to turn around and look at Courtney when she was talking to me. Who wanted to look at Courtney? I said, “I don’t know—I just think it’s kind of appropriate to have student voices today.”
Courtney put a hand on my shoulder. I could smell her breath mints. “But students don’t really know what we do in higher ed, right? They’re not professors. They don’t govern. What they say won’t mean anything.”
“Hey, you can skip my part if you want,” I said.
“And you really should have run it by me first.”
“Courtney, really—you can skip my part if you want. I don’t care.”
Courtney got up and went down a couple of steps, to the second row. She didn’t say anything, she just stared. Pouted. After a moment she turned and went back over to the podium to hang around with the bigshots.
“Man,” Lynnie said. “She’s got eyes the size of croquet balls!”
I said, “She’s up to some kind of bad shit.”
I watched Courtney walk over to Tee, who sitting in the front row between the always boozy-smelling dean and Deborah the Provost. Courtney bent down and said something to Tee, and then they both turned and looked at me. Frowning. Then Deborah said something and they both looked at her. Deborah was immense—she bulged up out of her seat and was squishing Tee sideways up against the Dean. The Dean was probably liking that, though. The band ripped into “Hello, Dolly!” I looked over and recognized one of my former students playing lead trumpet—Karla Krause, a very good student. A nice young woman. “Hello, Dolly!” though. This fucking place.
Jesus, I thought, give me some fucking pills and some wine and let me go join Devon.
The band stopped suddenly and Ted got up with his greasy waxy beard and introduced the President, who got up in his expensive tan suit and said how sorry he was—how sorry we all were—the entire Southeast Kansas State family—the Prairie Dog family! The Prairie Dog Nation!—which had members and graduates not just locally but around the world! It was a sad loss for all Prairie Dogs around the world. Very sad. Then he sat down and Ted introduced the Provost, who stomped up in her mu-mu and said that she was so so sorry for the loss of this brilliant young mind, and she urged everyone to pray for Devon no matter what, that God would forgive Devon no matter what she’d done, even if it was drugs or suicide, and then she sat down, and then Ted introduced the rumdum Dean, who got up in his tattered herringbone jacket and mumbled-slurred something about being sorry, too, and he sat down. They were all so fucking sorry. Then Ted introduced Courtney, and she got up to read her poem.
Courtney tapped dramatically on the mic.
“Can you all hear me?” she asked.
Behind me I could hear people muttering—“Yes.” “No.”
Lynnie said, “Hurry the fuck up.”
Courtney stood smiling with her slightly bucked teeth and freshly highlighted hair and huge unblinking blue eyes, happy that everyone was staring at her—the star.
“Yeah? I’m okay?” Courtney’s eyebrows shot up with the questions.
Sure, I thought. You’re okay—for a fucking narcissist.
“Okay! Well, I just want to start by saying that the loss of our dear colleague, Devon Shepherd, has really shooken me up.”
I almost recoiled back into my seat.
“This woman has an MFA?” Lynnie asked.
“I guess,” I said.
“—and, so, like, I personally always respond to the many tragedies and upheavals in my own life through the gift of language. Through poetry.”
Courtney smiled at everyone. Nodded.
“Because I personally find peace and serenity in language—again and again, you know, it’s language that touches me, and heals me, and makes me whole.”
Courtney smiled at everyone again.
“A very great man once said that writers are the engineers of the human soul—”
Lynnie choked laughing. “Stalin said that!”
“—and so I want to say that I have done some very personal soul-engineering—and I have wrote a poem about the loss of Devon. It’s called ‘Fitting.’”
Think of those times
Courtney had a serious Poet Voice, slow and oddly-accented and harsh and nasaly: “Think! of those Ti-IMES!”
you fit and you
don’t fit. And
then think of
when there’s a
door, and it’s not
a door. And think
of those times
when people look at
you but don’t see
you. And think of
those times when
you want to run
Courtney paused, still smiling.
Lynnie whispered, “Is the poem over?”
Courtney said, “Thank you all very much! God bless our beloved friend Devon Shepherd!”
Ted went up to the podium, his shiny hipster beard bristling.
“Thank you, Courtney,” Ted said. He watched her sit down. “That was a beautiful, moving poem that truly captures the spirit not just of your personal loss but the vital essence of our communal loss.” As big an idiot as Ted was, he really did have a wonderful deep rich voice, and I wondered again why he was wasting his time in a classroom when he could be on ESPN or something. Though with that wretched beard, maybe ESPN Radio.
“Thank you,” Ted said again. “Now, we’d like to have a few words from Devon Shepherd’s special friend—”
Special friend. I recoiled again. Lynnie laughed.
“—Dr. Thomas Holt.”
Special friend—why not just say we were fucking?
A smattering of applause. I walked over to the podium, feeling annoyed and probably looking annoyed, too.
I stood behind the podium and tried to read the audience. I looked them over—the English Department faculty, plus Sally Baldwin the admin assistant, and Shawn Cudahy—but not Frankie Gougon—sitting with eight or nine other graduate students, and the always-loyal Reeb Hall custodians, Martie and Otto. The overly-dapper President, the enormous god-loving Provost, the bibulous Dean, a couple of men in cheap suits. A dozen undergraduates. Fifteen? Fewer than twenty.
And the brass ensemble. The Prairie Dog Brass, featuring the great Karla Krause.
I took a deep breath and tried to smile—I felt the smile failing. I said, “I really don’t have anything to say. At all.”
Tee sat there stonefaced. Courtney’s bulging eyeballs bulged a bit more. Lynnie was smiling.
“Because I don’t think it’s really appropriate for me to say anything—not as Devon’s colleague, not as a friend. I don’t think it’s appropriate for any of us to say anything, you know?”
I thought—You bastards.
“Especially at an institution like Southeast Kansas State, which is a teaching institution.”
I could see Deborah and the President nodding.
“And, as you know, Devon directed all her time and energy--all her time and energy—into teaching, into her classes. Into her students.”
I glanced over at Courtney. Courtney thought Devon was lazy—so did Nancy, and Ted, and Tee—they all thought she was lazy. Yet Devon really did put every bit of her fucking time and energy into the job.
Too much of her time and energy.
So, fuck you, Courtney. Fuck you, Tee. Fuck all of you.
“And, you know, I actually think it’s important to let Devon’s students have a say. And so I asked some of her students to write down their memories of Devon. And now I’ll read—just a couple.”
I opened my notebook and looking out I noticed that the President and the Provost and the Dean were all leaning forward and beaming up at me.
“I’m not going to name the students,” I said. “I forgot to ask their permission!”
Chuckles out in the audience. But Courtney was shaking her head, No.
“So—Student R says, ‘Dr. Shepherd showed me a different way of looking at the world and showed me how to value where I came from and how to describe what I value.’”
I looked up again. Tee was still staring back at me, grim, but the Dean was nodding again. Maybe he was passing out.
“Student E says, ‘At first Dr. Shepherd puzzled me because she is so different than the other English teachers but then I saw that she was different because she actually cared about us and valued us.’” I looked out at the audience. “Valued. There’s that word again, right? And I’ll tell you all right now—Devon Shepherd truly valued her students, and they valued her.” I looked down and started reading again. “E says, ‘She wanted us to succeed, and she was always enthusiastic when she was teaching us and even when she was sick she was happy to be in class.’”
I looked up. I said, “And that’s all I have.”
I walked back to my seat and the band started playing a bit of “Cabaret” again. When I sat down and looked back, the President was leaning around the Dean and giving me a thumbs-up. Idiot.
“That was fucking terrific,” Lynnie said. “All her fucking time and energy! That was really Devon!”
Ted was at the podium. “Okay—thank you, Dr. Holt! Now, to close our memorial, Pastor Karl Sezler, our campus pastor—well, our unofficial campus pastor.”
Sezler was one of the guys in the cheap suits. He came down to the stage to the tune of “Amazing Grace” and stood at the podium beaming at everyone.
“Thank you, Jesus,” Lynnie said. “We get to say a prayer!”
Get this over with, I thought. These people at SEKSU always tried to work praying into everything, especially the Provost, who’d gotten her PhD at some rustic bumfuck bible college. Pastor Sezler seemed cheerful enough, though he was a poor speaker. He quickly mumbled through the 23rd Psalm and the Provost responded to the “Amen” by shouting “Jesus!” and thrusting her fist in the air—and elbowing Tee in the eye.
Then band kicked in again to “Amazing Grace” and Lynnie and me were up and out one of the side doors and off to the Tri-State before—I hoped—anyone noticed.