The red notebook was half-filled with Devon’s poetry. Devon wasn’t really a poet, she didn’t see the world in the sideways sort-of way poets did, but I knew she tried a poem from time to time as another form of practice writing. I leafed through the notebook. I remembered that she liked roadkill poems—she collected them, and wrote one or two.
That time in the car we
saw a coyote tugging a
bloody broken deer carcass
across a ditch into the dark
and you slowed down
so we could both cheer.
I think I was with her that night—I was driving. We were in Missouri, coming back from Joplin. So I’m in the poem, I guess. Part of the We.
I put the red notebook aside.
The blue notebook was mostly fiction notes—character sketches, titles, short passages that might be part of some longer projects. I think she tried to write a little every day during the short hectic in-between class periods—but that again was more like writing practice, just trying to keep her brain supple, and I’m not sure if any of those notebook passages led to progress on her stalled long projects. None of it seemed to be important to me, now.
I put the fiction aside, too, and took another gulp of rum.
Only the brown notebook was left—the heavy notebook. It was different than the colored ones, more like a scrapbook, with heavier, unlined pages, and photographs and drawings and clippings and poems and advertisements glued to the pages, a collage of whatever seemed to have struck Devon as—interesting. Meaningful. I’d seen two or three other journals like this at Devon’s house—visual journals, scrapbooks, images that attracted her, made her think of something. So this wasn’t totally unusual. This one started off with an archival photo of what looked like a World War II prison camp—towers, barbed wire, cold and dreary. Beneath it Devon wrote
GULAG STATE UNIVERSITY
And—yep. That was Devon.
I remembered the night Gulag State came up for the first time. We were at Tri-State happy hour, all of us complaining about the university, as usual—and then Lynnie slapped the table.
“No!” she said. “They call this place fucking SEKSU, right?” Everyone usually pronounced it SEK-su. “They need to call it SUCKS-U.”
Devon and I laughed.
“Yeah! Right? Because this place sucks the life out of you!”
Devon caught her breath and leaned forward. She said, “No—”
“Might was well get rid of Pete the Prairie Dog,” Lynnie said. “Bring in Larry the Lamprey!”
Devon said, “No—”
“Suck us until we’re all dry,” Lynnie said. She was pretty loaded that night. “Just fucking dry husks.”
“No!” Devon said. “The mascot should be a prison warden!”
Lynnie and I looked at Devon. Larry the Lamprey made sense, but a prison warden—Willie the Warden—might make bigger sense.
“Then we can call this place Gulag State University and just leave it at fucking that.” Devon sat back and took a drink of her beer, happy.
But the thing was, the idea of Gulag State went deeper with Devon, and it wasn’t a joke. After that night we talked about it often. She told me that almost from the time she arrived she felt like she was in a prison. Then, as time passed and things in her life got more and more grim, Devon started having recurring nightmares about prison and jail and barbed wire and torture. I was with her some nights when she’d wake up yelling, flailing, panicked, and it went on and on—it never stopped.
And, damn—she was right about it, too. SEKSU was SUCKS-U was a prison.
I turned the page. There was a photo of a bad car wreck, clipped from the Weirton newspaper—a wreck out on the highway not far from my house, a wreck Devon and I drove by just as the ambulances were leaving, the broken cars twisted tangled death traps. A math professor and his wife had been killed. Why did Devon put that in the notebook? Then, on the next pages, car ads, perfume ads, an old photo of Madonna silvery and smooth and serious. A sad picture of Amy Winehouse skinny and crazy and loaded. An archival photo of women in old clothing—19th century? early 20th?—gazing out solemnly over what looked to be the Grand Canyon. A picture of Benedict Cumberbach as Sherlock Holmes. A picture of George C. Scott as Sherlock Holmes. A photo of the parking lot behind Reeb Hall, all covered with snow and ice. I remembered that day, one of those times last winter when classes should have been canceled, but weren’t. It was the day Devon fell and injured her back.
Fucking SEKSU. SUCKSU. Fucking Gulag State.
Then, on the next page, a book cover was glued to the page. A Penguin Classics edition of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, showing a closeup of a curious brown cow’s nose. But Devon had drawn a giant swastika in thought bubbles coming out of the cow’s head.
What the fuck? A swastika? What the hell was wrong with Devon?
What was she pissed about?
“What’s it all mean?” I asked the cat.
Fuzzhead just looked up at me, purring.
I paged past four black and white photos of old Greek or Roman statues, and then I came across a photo of the Strip Pit, Weirton’s only titty bar. Below the picture Devon wrote
He said I should work here instead.
Who? No idea.
I looked at the picture a bit closer—it didn’t look like it was clipped from a magazine or copied from the internet. Somebody took it—maybe Devon?—from out in the street in front of the bar. Took it with her iPhone and then printed it on a color printer and pasted it onto the page.
And then I noticed the front fender of a green Volvo, right up in the foreground.
That dumbass Ted Shuey drove a cheerful green Volvo. The most noticeable car in the Reeb Hall parking lot—or in the Strip Pit parking lot.
Did fucking Ted say Devon should be working at a strip club?
Somebody needed to punch him in the nose.
I turned the page. There was a picture of a naked woman with reddish hair and big hanging heavy pale tan-lined breasts, a tattoo of an X on her lower belly. She actually looked kind of familiar—that tattoo. Like I’d seen her in some porn somewhere. I was pretty sure I had. Beneath her picture Devon had written
This is NOT ME
No, it wasn’t. On the next page, the same woman was sucking a big wet pulsing cock.
This is NOT ME, EITHER!!!
This naked woman, twice. A mature porn star, a milf star. That was obviously something—but what was it? “This is not me, either!!!” And what did that mean, besides the fact that Devon knew how to use a comma?
I turned the page. A photo of a young man, white and very skinny, naked, with an absurdly long dangling limp penis—a serious 12 or 14-incher. Beneath it, Devon wrote
This is NOT Dr. Thomas Holt
Devon was correct. That was not me! But—what. Why--
The photo kind of creeped me out. I turned the page. There was a photo of a big pile of sand next to a hole in the ground. Below it, Devon wrote
This is Dr. Thomas Holt
I caught my breath. Yeah, that’s what I’d been dreading. Something about me. Something negative about me. Some prick, some barb—something about me—I’d been dreading it since I looked at her last Facebook post on the day she died, or was found dead, worried that she might slam me or shame me or claim that my wienie was too small or that I was a plagiarist or a that I was a student-fucker or that I didn’t pay my taxes, or whatever, and all that time I didn’t worry once about what she might be thinking about—about her world, or her life, or anything. I just worried about me. And now here it was. My worry. What Devon really thought about me.
I wasn’t the creepy guy with the giant dick.
I was a fucking hole in the ground.
I was a nothing pile of sand.
One the next page there was a photo of a sack of concrete and a pile of tools. At the bottom of the page
This is also Dr. Thomas Holt
I sat Fuzzhead aside and got up and went and stood at the front door. My duplex—much the same layout as Devon’s, maybe designed by the same person, though somewhat newer—was at the literal edge of town. My steps, a yard, a ditch, a road, a fence—and then, no more Weirton, just country. Edgeland. A grassy pasture with cattle leading off to a line of trees, and beyond the trees was a strip pit filled with water and Canada geese. Many quiet nights I could hear coyotes tearing after the geese—yips, howls, squawks, honks. Now I went outside and stood on the steps. Not much going on—the pasture dreary gray in the chill November air. The cows looked cold and bored. A pickup went down the road. Nothing out there. Bleak. I was a fucking hole in the ground. I was a fucking pile of sand. A goddamn sack of concrete.
And—it was true. All true.
Devon knew who I was.
I went back inside. Fuzzhead was dozing on the tan scrapbook and I pulled it out from under him, and he looked at me—offended.
“Sorry,” I said. I sat back on the couch, gulped the rest of the rum.
I skipped past the middle of the notebook—past most of it, dozens of pages—almost to the end. Then a news clipping that caught my eye—not a clipping, exactly, but a printout from an online edition of the Houston Chronicle, a news article about a teacher in the Houston suburbs, a woman, who’d been caught having sex with a student and was headed for prison. Maybe that was something. Also, judging by her photo, the teacher was hot—I’d have done her, if I was sixteen. Or thirty-eight. The article was long, and I took the time to read it—apparently the teacher was also being blackmailed by other students who wanted to fuck her. Also the father of the first student was pressuring her for sex. Damn. What a mess. That poor woman. There’s just some bad shit going on with Courtney and Nancy. So—were they fucking students? The idea of those two having sex with anyone was—repugnant.
Then, on the next page, was Courtney herself. A photo of Courtney standing with SEKSU mascot Pete the Prairie Dog, not the giant bronze statue Pete out on the mall or the concrete Pete downtown but a student wearing the Pete costume—students in the Pete costume were always wandering around football or basketball games or other university events. Courtney in the picture rodent-grinned at the student. Ugh. Then, on the next page, a picture of Courtney wearing Pete’s head. A big improvement.
The following page was blank except for a crudely-drawn circle. Below the circle, Devon wrote
Fuck Courtney’s stupid cult!!!
Courtney’s cult. Something I’d heard people talk about—or joke about, if Courtney wasn’t around. Not a cult, really, but a feminist poetry gathering she’d been running for years, women meeting on nights of the full moon to read poems and drink wine and do whatever. In this drawing, the circle at the top would be a moon. But Devon told me she’d never been invited to any cult meetings. Though—I didn’t know. About anything.
I looked at my phone’s calendar—full moon was coming up soon, on the next Wednesday, the night before Thanksgiving. Maybe I could sneak by and spy on them, somehow, maybe I should….
The next page. Another crude little drawing—Devon wasn’t much of an illustrator. This one was of four little frowny-face circles with names under them—Courtney, Nancy, Ted (Ted’s frowny face had a big scratchy beard attached to it)—and Fred, with his pipe. Fred? Why Fred? Beneath the faces Devon wrote
I turned the page and there was a photo I knew Devon had taken, with Courtney and Nancy sitting at a table with visiting writer Adrian Martens when he came to campus back in September. I knew it was Devon’s picture because I’d been at the event and I saw her take it—the department had taken the poet out to dinner at Chrissy’s, a squalid little sports bar that passed for fine dining in Weirton. Beneath the photo Devon wrote
I assumed Courtney and Nancy were the corrupt ones—Adrian was a very good poet and seemed like a nice guy. I tried to remember if there was anything corrupt about the night, but all I could remember was Nancy’s phony cackle anytime poor Adrian said anything. Adrian looked somewhat appalled in the picture.
I turned another page and found a clipping of the big advertisement the creative writing program ran in some professional journals. Pete the Prairie Dog was sitting at a desk with an open notebook in front of him and a pen in his paw. The caption read
WRITE LIKE A PRAIRIE DOG!
Attend the Southeast Kansas State Pre-MFA Program!!!
It was a stupid ad. It seemed like the department was officially encouraging students to go into debt to get a non-terminal degree that would do them little good on the lousy academic job market. Also, what the hell was a pre-MFA? No one knew—it didn’t exist—it was just something Courtney devised to make the creative writing program sound important.
Devon hated the ad—hated it here in this notebook much, much more than I remembered her hating it when it came out. Then, at the time, she’d just seemed kind of irked and embarrassed by the whole stupid thing, like it was typical Courtney shit. Here, now, in the notebook, she’d taken a deep black Sharpie and written below the ad
Fuck these people!!!!!!!
Then the last two pages of the notebook. On the next to last page, a dong. A photograph of a penis. A big one, pale and fetid grayish like a rancid spoiled sausage. Circumcised, resting on a bleached gray soft hairless thigh.
What the hell? There was no caption—just the big pale dong.
And on the next page—another dong. This one big, too, and half-erect and reddish, and circumcised, with an ugly goddamn damp oozing sore right on its head. Herpes? Syphilis? I had no idea—the thing sure looked gross and sick.
And I was—stunned. Puzzled. What were these things doing in her notebook—at the very end of her notebook? I went to graduate school to learn how to analyze texts, but nothing in this scrapbook was making sense. It was all just—scraps.