I didn’t teach Monday, but on Tuesday I went to work. I got to my office and before I’d had time to take off my jacket the phone rang. Always a bad sign. It was Sally.
“Tee wants you to come down to the conference room, okay?” Sally asked. “And, listen—you’re not going to like what’s going to happen. They were hiding it from me. Really, I didn’t know anything about this until just now.”
I asked, “What?”
“Really—I would’ve told you if I’d known,” Sally said. “Be careful, okay?”
And she was off the line. I looked for a moment at the phone, and then I grabbed my Potemkin notebook and my phone and started up the hall. I saw Old Earl Renner coming my way.
“Tom,” Earl said. “I’ll be with you today.”
Again, I asked, “What?”
“I guess I’m the union rep, now that Nancy’s—hospitalized.” Earl peered down at me over the tops of his reading glasses. “It’s not going to be pleasant, I don’t think—but I will be with you.”
I managed two more words. “What’s going on?”
“A lot,” Earl said. “Apparently there’s some people here who really dislike you. But if you just keep your mouth shut we’ll be okay.”
I wondered—did they find the bat? Did Courtney have videos of Lynnie driving around? Did Anthony get picked up and rat us out?
“We grieved a lot of cases the last time I was union rep,” Early said. “And we always won. Don’t worry about anything.”
I slowly walked with Earl up the hall. A group of people were sitting in the little study area outside the conference room: Deborah Axelrod the Provost, Kermit Keaton the Dean, Ted and his beard, Hannah Jackson from HR. They were drinking coffee and talking and they stopped talking when I came through the doorway.
“Hey, Colleagues,” I said.
No one said anything.
Earl nudged my elbow, nudged me toward the conference room, and I went on in. Tee and Courtney were sitting on one side of the long table, along with Officer Lundgren of the Weirton Police Department. I wasn’t expecting to see him—I felt a mild twinge of anxiety. Sally was sitting off by herself in a corner, with a notebook, looking at her phone. I went to the other side of the conference table—with my back to the window—and sat down. Earl sat next to me.
“So,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“Tom,” Tee said. “Do you remember Officer Lundgren?
“Sure,” I said. I wondered—Was this about Devon? Or Nancy? Or Fred? Or something else. I said, “Hello.”
“Hi, Dr. Holt,” Lundgren said, slowly. He nodded at me, friendly. Stupidly.
Tee said, “He wants to ask you a few questions about Nancy.”
“How is Nancy?” I asked. “I haven’t heard anything today.”
“We’ll get to that,” Tee said.
“Dr. Holt,” Lundgren said. He was still a big, beefy beady-eyed gray ill-looking PP, beefier even than normal, since he was wearing a fucking stupid bulletproof vest underneath his jacket. He looked at his notes and frowned and blinked a couple of times. “So, I guess we were just wondering where you were Thursday night?”
“I was in Wichita Falls,” I said. “I had a job interview at Midwestern State.”
“No!” Courtney said. She said No but she looked delighted. “See, Tee? He’s a traitor—he’s leaving, he doesn’t care anything about us.”
I pointed at Courtney and asked Lundgren, “What’s she doing here?”
“I wanted Courtney here,” Tee said.
“But what’re you doing here?” I asked. “I don’t mind talking to—to Officer Lundgren—but why the audience?”
“Oh, I said I didn’t mind,” Lundgren said. He sort of smiled. Like Lynnie said back in December, Lundgren was stupid. You could look at his dull eyes and see there was something not working in his brain. A FLP, not a PP. Though—heck, maybe he was just stoned. There was no telling. He said, “This is all just a formality.”
A formality. I knew I didn’t have to talk to him at all. In my wallet I had one of the ACLU ‘What to Do in Case of Arrest’ cards. Though of course because I was a white guy I’d never had any trouble with the cops, and had never had to pull it out.
“I was in Wichita Falls,” I said. “I can send you my credit card receipts, if you want.”
“No,” Lundgren said. “That won’t be necessary, no. But do you have any idea who might have attacked Dr. Buckley?”
“Tom always hated her,” Courtney said.
I looked at Old Earl. He shrugged.
“He might have put somebody up to it,” Courtney said.
I looked straight at the cop. “What the fuck is this?”
The cop read from his notes. “Do you have any idea who might want to harm Dr. Buckley?”
“Of course he does,” Courtney said. Tee put her hand on Courtney’s wrist.
“No,” I said. “I don’t.” I glanced down at my phone, laying face-up on the table. I had a sudden thought of Lynnie’s texts.
TOMMY something bad happened
I read somewhere that cops couldn’t look at your phone if the security code or the fingerprint was activated—I mean, they could get a search warrant, but they couldn’t just grab it and look through it. And my phone was laying there on the table, open. I rarely enabled security—too much trouble. But now the phone might be a problem.
“I heard it was a gang-related incident,” Earl said.
I thought, Bless your innocent old white heart.
“Yes,” Tee said. “I heard that, too.”
“It’s something we’re looking into,” Lundgren said. Idiot.
My phone vibrated then—an email coming through. An excuse. I grabbed the phone—the email something useless from my bank—and went to Settings and enabled security. Then I placed the phone face-down on the table.
I looked up. Everyone was staring at me. Mostly frowning.
“I’m sorry we’re disturbing you,” Tee said. “Are you ready to talk to us now?”
“Sure,” I said. I sank back into the chair. “Ask away.”
Officer Lundgren asked the same question several times—Did I know anything about Nancy’s assault. Worded slightly differently each time. No, I answered. No, No, No, No….
After a while, Courtney got impatient. “He’s lying!” she said. “Of course he knows what happened. He’s totally guilty!”
Lundgren blinked a couple of times and looked around at her, annoyed. I don’t think he liked being interrupted.
I was annoyed, too—no, maybe I was just disgusted. And bored. After that first mild rush of anxiety, I realized that they didn’t have anything on me. I had to sit there, though, bored and disgusted and maybe annoyed.
I guess Lundgren got bored, too, and after a while he gathered up his notes and left—hopefully, to go smoke some weed. I got up, too.
“We’re not through, yet,” Tee said. “You can sit back down.”
“I have classes to teach,” I said.
“I told Sally to go ahead and cancel your classes,” Tee said.
I looked at Sally. She shrugged. I said, “Well, at least the students are happy today.”
Dean Kermit Keaton came in, looking sick and hungover, as usual. Hannah Jackson came in, too, and went to the front of the room and messed with the computer projector. A screen lowered from the ceiling.
I tried to catch Hannah’s eye. We’d dated for a while just after I moved to Weirton—a few weeks, a couple of months—two people with nothing in common except being single and lonesome in Weirton. I didn’t think Hannah hated me—I hoped she still liked me. We were still Facebook friends, at least.
“This is going to be big bullshit,” Earl whispered. That caught my attention. Old Earl didn’t curse very often. “Until today I didn’t realize how deeply these people hate you.
I thought of Frankie’s warning. And I knew this was it—they were stepping on me, or trying to. And again I was—I don’t know—annoyed and disgusted. Not anxious, not afraid, not angry. Just kind of irked. Like this was just a hassle, a crummy way to spend a morning. I mean—did they really want to take my job? Well, good! Fucking fire me! Take it! Fuck this place. I had nothing to lose. They could fire my ass and kiss it too. I didn’t care.
“Fuck it,” I said to Earl. “Today’s a good day to die.”
Across the table, Courtney sat staring at me with her enormous hard blue eyeballs, and she leaned over and whispered something to Tee.
“I’m ready,” Hannah said.
“Well, okay,” Dean Keaton said. He cleared his throat. Probably wished for a drink. “Uh, well, I’ve got here a report, and this report says that you’ve been accused of sexual harassment of an undergraduate. And, uh—I don’t know if this report is accurate or not, you know, but it’s here in this email that someone sent me—”
“Someone?” I asked.
“—and so I guess you’ve been accused of something—that’s, well, something.”
“It’s all over the internet!” Courtney said.
“This is outrageous,” Earl said. I could feel him swell up beside me. He was feeling it. “This is wrong.”
“It’s a perfectly valid accusation,” Tee said.
At the podium, Hannah said, “Yeah, like Dean Keaton says—this was reported to us, sort of…kind of…I guess….”
The computer screen came up and was at a website called grademyprofessor.com. My heart sort of kind of sank. Ah. I knew about this. I think I might have blushed.
Hannah did a search for my name, and found me, and went to my entry at the University of Texas page. A student whose handle was nelli-ut had given me a frowny face rating. She wrote
He looks at you like you were naked he drools at you hes creepy and hes not hott at all or even hot and you really really need to stay away from him
Dean Keaton looked at me. “Have you ever seen this before?”
“I have,” I said.
“This means nothing,” Earl said.
“He looks at you like you were--naked?” Dean Keaton was reading the review aloud. He shook his head. “Apparently, I guess, this person is talking about you, Dr. Holt. I mean—gosh.”
I looked over at Hannah and she was smiling. She thought this was funny. Well, at least I’d seen her naked in real life a few times, so there was that.
“This means nothing,” Earl said again.
“It means he was accused,” Tee said.
“Accused of what?” Earl asked. “By who?”
“We’re trying to find that out,” Courtney said.
I said, “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
“Aha!” Courtney said. “I’m taking that as an admission of guilt!”
“Nonsense!” Earl said. He was getting worked up again. He kind of went in cycles. “This is insane. Every one of you—” he pointed around at everyone “—every single one of you knows, all of you, you know that the university code of conduct says nothing—no-thing—about sexual relations between faculty and students.”
“Well,” Courtney said. “It should.”
“Yes, it probably should,” Earl said. “And behavior of that nature is of course unprofessional and unethical and all that. I get it.”
“Really?” Courtney asked. “Do you get it?”
Across the table from me, Dean Keaton was falling asleep, nodding, dozing off, dreaming perhaps of happy hour.
“Yes, I get it,” Earl said. He took a couple of deep breaths. Was he having a heart attack? I thought—Don’t die, Old Earl. “And besides—Tom didn’t do anything!”
“Maybe he did,” Tee said.
“We know he gave her the male gaze!” Courtney said. She looked horrified. “He looked at her like she was naked!”
“She?” I asked. “You don’t know if this nelli’s a girl!”
Courtney and Tee sat back. They had to think about that.
“And,” Earl said. “Besides that—this nelli thing, whatever it is, this happened ten years ago at another university in another state!”
Courtney took a deep breath and recovered. She said, “Predators like Tom—”
Hannah laughed. Sally was smiling, too.
“Predators like Tom,” Courtney began again. “Behave in patterns. And we’re going to find his pattern.”
“Good luck with that,” I said. Really. Since I’d come to Southeast Kansas, I’d pretty much kept my dick in my pants—student-wise, at least. My only recent pattern was milf porn on the internet.
“This is ridiculous,” Earl said. “You follow through on this? You harm Tom? The union will grieve this so fast you’ll be amazed, and we’ll make you look like fools.”