I sat staring into my computer screen for a few moments, suddenly exhausted. Maybe depressed. I was staring at the page for PrairieDogMail and already Courtney had sent out four or five emails promoting the memorial service. Jesus.
There was a soft knock on my door, and I wheeled around to tell Ted to fuck off—but it wasn’t Ted standing there with his beard, but Earl Renner, Old Earl, standing there with his broad shoulders filling the doorway.
I said, “Oh.”
“I just wanted to come by and offer my—private—condolences,” Earl said. “For the loss of Devon.”
“Well—thanks,” I said. “Come on in, sit down.”
Earl sat carefully in one of the hard student chairs. A big, powerful man, though gray and wizened, Earl had played football at the University of Oklahoma in his youth, had gone to grad school at Duke, and had somehow ended up at Southeast Kansas. Where he stayed—forever. He was at least 80 years old, I think.
“I’m just heartbroken about Devon’s loss,” Earl said. “I know it hurts you more—but it’s just so sad.”
I didn’t know quite what to say to that. I mean, yeah. Well. I said, “It is sad.”
“I was very happy when we managed to hire Devon,” Earl said. “We had you, and you’re very capable, and now we had Devon, and she’s—was—very capable. And, you know.” Earl sighed an old man’s sigh, deep and tired. “I thought you two would take over the department and run it for the next 30 years or so, and I could retire and rest easy.”
I really never liked it when people planned out my future, even in a benign way, like Earl. What if I didn’t want to run this department? I thought, Don’t pin your hopes on me, Old Earl.
“And then the fact that the two of you cared for each other,” Earl said. “That just made the two of you even more special.”
Yeah, well. Special. There was really nothing I could think of to say to that. I changed the subject.
“So, tell me—what’s going on with Courtney? The last time I talked with Devon, she was having trouble with Courtney.”
“Ah!” Earl looked grim. He twisted around in the chair to check over his shoulder, to see if anyone was out in the hall, listening. No one was. He eased the door shut. He said, “There are spies everywhere.”
I said, “Yeah….”
“As you know, Courtney’s an authoritarian,” Earl said. “She wants to control everything—she wanted to control Devon. In many ways she already controls this department.”
“Sure,” I said.
“She’s an authoritarian who’s very—confused. She can’t seem to decide if she’s a classic fascist, or a Stalinist, or an Ayn Rand libertarian….”
I nodded. I sort of knew that—I mean, you’d be around Courtney for five minutes and you’d know she believed in top-down command. In a hard hierarchy. Authority. And I knew her thinking was weirdly muddled, too. My first year at SEKSU she gave a talk about her research, and I went expecting to hear her talk about poetry, but instead she rambled on about Ayn Rand and “Collective Individualism” or “Individual Collectivism” or some such bullshit she’d made up.
“Courtney’s first semester here,” Earl said. “I had her teaching a senior seminar in the American Novel, and she wanted to add Atlas Shrugged to the reading list.”
“Jeeze,” I said.
“Yes—and I suggested that she might not want to use it, for obvious reasons. But I didn’t forbid it—you know, because of academic freedom.”
“Then she put a poster of Josef Stalin on her office door, and—”
“Wait,” I said. “Who likes Stalin? Even Ayn Rand hated Stalin.”
“Right,” Earl said. “And a number of people in the department were offended. And I told her she needed to take the poster down—and she did, but she was very angry about it.”
“So she replaced the Stalin poster with an Ayn Rand poster, and then someone drew a swastika on Ayn’s forehead—”
“Yes, and then she called campus police and wanted a vandalism investigation.” Earl shook his big head. “It was—absurd.”
“She’s crazy,” I said.
“Yes,” Earl said. “But I hope you know by now that she’s not stupid. She’s a fool, but she’s a clever fool, and she remembers things.”
“A dangerous combination,” I said.
“It certainly can be,” Earl said. “I was chair back when we hired Courtney, you know. Bringing her into this department—that was the single worst thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Creative Writing Workshop. Not class--workshop. How did those things operate? I wasn’t so sure, but the students seemed to know what was going on, so I followed their lead. They sat in a loose semi-circle, with me on the flat side, and they took polite turns discussing a story by a young man named Raymond, a slight boy with a big bushy head of blond curls.
I’d read Raymond’s story before class. It wasn’t much: a little boy wanted to take his Christmas present, a new sled, and go out sledding on the fresh-fallen snow. But the boy’s mom kept saying, “Don’t take your sled to town, son.” And then it just sort of ended after about two pages. Raymond said he hadn’t had time to finish.
He certainly hadn’t had time to copyedit—it was two pages of crazy grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. A mess.
At first the other students were mostly positive about the story, though they all thought it was too short and had too many errors.
“Did you even run spell-check on it?” Erin asked. “That might have helped.”
Workshop rules said that the writer being workshopped couldn’t respond until everyone else had spoken, and so Raymond didn’t speak. He made notes, looking kind of hurt and sad.
“Why a sled?” the guy with the camo Ruger cap asked. “Why not a toboggan? Or a saucer?”
“You need hard-packed icy roads for a sled, right?” Erin asked. “New snow is fluffy.”
“Also,” Ruger cap said. “I think your paragraphs need to be indented.”
My turn to comment came last.
“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “There’s not much here to comment on. Why don’t you tell us, Ray? What’s behind the story?”
“Well.” Raymond took a deep breath. “See, I heard that old Johnny Cash song—‘Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,’ and then I started wondering what would happen if a kid took his sled to town and got run over and died, and then he’s a ghost.”
“Casper,” Erin said.
“Yeah,” Raymond said. “I was sort of basing it on the Casper movie.”
“Casper?” I asked. “The friendly ghost?”
Fuck me. Casper! I asked, “Why?”
“Because Casper’s awesome!” Raymond said.
Okay. Well, then.
“But this is sort of like fan fiction,” Erin said. “And Dr. Shepherd didn’t want us writing fan fiction.”
“But—she’s dead,” Raymond said.
“But you wrote it before she died!”
Raymond looked sorrowfully at me, wanting a judgment.
“He wrote it under Dr. Shepherd’s rules,” Erin said.
I thought, Fuck this. I said, “We’re still using the same syllabus, but—”
“See?” Erin asked.
“—but, you know, Raymond, you’re going to want to make that story more personal—like, make it less the movie and more your own. Use your vision of the world, you know?”
“But I heard that old song!” Raymond said. He was getting defensive. “‘Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.’ That makes it mine! And real Casper died of pneumonia, not from getting run over. So, it’s different.”
“Yeah, I get it. But it’s also a little too short. Dr. Shepherd’s syllabus calls for stories of six to eight pages, and so—so, when you expand, you’ll just have to be more original, or something.”
I didn’t know what the hell I was saying. Really. Creative writing was more complicated than I’d thought. How did Devon do it? The time spent grading and prepping was insane. After less than two weeks I’d already given up—I’d already decided that I wasn’t going to grade anything, or even really read anything more, that everyone in the class was going to get an A.
“I always bring my guns to town,” the Ruger cap kid said. “A gun, at least.”
I looked at him. The new campus concealed firearms law said that we couldn’t ask students if they were carrying. But here he’d said that he was.
“My first gun was a Ruger,” I said to him.
“Ah, yeah?” The kid brightened. “One of those 10/22s? My first gun, too.”
“I still have mine,” I said. I had a Ruger pistol also—a nice little .380. I had another pistol, too, an old Walther, and a couple of shotguns. I wasn’t a concealed firearms kind of guy—I left my guns at home. I think it was assumed that most people in Weirton had firearms somewhere. Where I grew up in South Texas, every house had an arsenal. It was much the same in Kansas.
“So—what’s this about a memorial service for Dr. Shepherd?” Erin asked suddenly. “What’re they going to do?”
“Well, it’s sort of like a funeral,” I said. “Has anyone been to a funeral?”
Almost every hand went up. I wasn’t too surprised—the students were mostly from rural Kansas, where it seemed like just about everyone had had a family member or a high school friend who’d died in a car wreck. Country roads were deadly.
“Okay, so it’s going to be like a funeral,” I said. “People will get up and say things about Dr. Shepherd.”
Nice things, I hoped. Honest things.
“Are you going to say anything?” Raymond asked.
“They asked me to,” I said. “But I don’t know if I will or I won’t—I haven’t decided yet.”
“Why not?” Erin asked. “You were her friend, right?”
“You guys were dating, right?”
“Well….” I felt myself flushing. Yeah, well. I thought for a moment. I said, “But it might be better if you guys read something—or wrote something for me to read, at least. Right?”
The entire class sat back in their desks a little bit. They sort of cringed at the thought of writing about Devon. It’s always good when you could make the students cringe in surprise. I thought—Ha! I win!
“Really,” I said. “Why don’t you get out your notebooks and then write a short little memory of Dr. Shepherd?”
There was some minor grumbling and rustling as the students brought out their notebooks and pens or opened their computers and began to write.
“Do we put our names on these?” Erin asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Unless you’re writing something that you’re ashamed of.”
Students started staring off into space, thinking. Erin was staring out the window. I followed her gaze and stared out the window, too, out into the world. Wasn’t much out there to see—the edge of the parking lot, a line of shabby apartments across the street, gray leafless trees, the crumbling grain elevator. I could hear scratching, clicking—the students writing, thinking.