Creative Writing. Introduction to Creative Writing. What did they try to do in this class, anyway? I had no idea. The single CW class I took as an undergraduate was long ago, a bit of a blur. I remember a cute girl named Becky. I remember the prof hated Hemingway. I remember that we wrote some stuff, we talked some shit about writing. Simple enough—but. How to actually do it. How to teach it.
That afternoon, totally unprepared, caught off guard by Tee’s anvil and her buckets of shit, I stood behind the classroom smart podium and looked out at my new students. There weren’t very many, only twelve or so. A couple of them seemed a little familiar from some of my lit classes. That might make things easier. I busied myself turning on the computer and the overhead projector.
“Are you taking over the class?” a young woman asked. She was one of the familiar ones—Erin something? I looked down at the class roster Sally had given me. Erin Flournoy. So, I guess I knew somebody, sort of.
I said, “Yeah, I guess I’m taking over.”
“I’m surprised we’re even having class today,” Erin said.
“This university doesn’t stop for much of anything,” I said. “You were here last winter, right? You remember—we should have had a couple of snow days back in March, and we didn’t.”
“They always screw us around,” Erin said.
“Well, I know this university doesn’t care much about its people.”
I heard the door open and looked up—but it wasn’t a student coming in, it was Tee.
“Well—hello, everyone!” Tee sounded cheerful and somber at the same time, her voice a little deeper and classroomy. She walked over and stood in front of the class. “Okay, some of you know me—I’m Dr. Wheeler, Chair of the English Department. I’m sure you’ve heard what happened to Dr. Shepherd—”
“What did happen?” Erin asked. “Nobody really knows….”
“Well, Dr. Shepherd passed away—unexpectedly,” Tee said. “It’s very sad.”
“We don’t know yet,” Tee said. “But it’s very sad.”
I thought, Oh, Tee, you’re such a fucking phony.
“There was that Facebook thing,” a skinny boy in a camouflage Ruger Firearms cap said. A farm kid or a cowboy, tall and gaunt, he was sitting in the back row and squinting at Tee like he didn’t quite trust her. Smart kid.
Tee ignored him. “Dr. Holt is taking over the class. Some of you probably know him already. He’s very capable.”
A few students looked at me and then back at Tee while she told some lies about how her door was always open to students with problems, and how if they were upset by the sudden loss of Dr. Shepherd they should feel free to drop by her office—or perhaps talk to one of the counselors at the health center—and how they should continue to work hard and persevere in their studies because Dr. Shepherd would have wanted it that way. I stood off to the side behind the podium, my mouth once again hanging open a little bit. Tee was really good at lying and shit like that. Unbelievable.
Finally, Tee finished. She said cheerily, “I guess the class is yours, Dr. Holt!”
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks a lot.” I watched Tee leave the room—envied her for being able to leave the room. Resented her, too. I felt the dozen or so students staring at me.
It was time to do some educating.
Erin asked, “So—what really happened?”
I shook my head, pulled out a chair and sat down next to the podium. “I really don’t know,” I said. “I guess we’ll hear from the coroner at some point.”
“But what about that Facebook post?”
“Well,” I said. “You know, Devon wasn’t really happy here. A lot of people aren’t.”
Erin asked, “Are you happy here?”
After class I didn’t go straight back to my office—I needed some air. I went down three flights of stairs and out the front door of Reeb Hall into the cool damp afternoon. Across the street and over to the mall, just walking, thinking. I was mad about what happened to Devon, and I was mad about Tee, and I was mad about the creative writers—and there was no one close by I could talk to about being mad. When Devon was next door I could always talk to her—but she was dead and I was on my own.
The mall was sort of ellipse-shaped—had been an ellipse at one point, but when the administration building had expanded, one of the circular ends had been flattened. The interior of the mall was grassy with a few bare-limbed trees and it was circled by wide concrete sidewalks and faced by the older university buildings, most of them dating from back in the days when the institution was known as Weirton Normal School—later known as Weirton State College, Weirton State University, and finally as Southeast Kansas State, SEKSU. In my four years at the school, I’d still never entered some of the old buildings. Harman Hall, for instance, rising up five stories with those old fashioned dull Martian-red bricks—what happened in Harman Hall, ever? A deeply strange-looking place. Unsettling. Also Doyle Hall—not quite as old as Harman, but equally as dark and forbidding and creepy. What went on in there? I stopped and watched students go up the worn cupped steps—I had half a mind to stop one or two and ask, “Where are you going?” but wisely resisted the urge, and I kept walking. Past Fontenot Hall, which housed the History Department and my friend Lynnie Carson—a reminder that I needed to text Lynnie back—and then past the Old Library, which was now a media tech center of some sort—the Computer Capos worked out of there, undergraduates who would come to your office and straighten out computer problems and find lost files. Past the Old Education Building, now home to the music and theater departments, and up to Stiles Hall, the administration building, a big pile of ugly sick-looking pale gray bricks. In front of Stiles was a statue of Pete the Prairie Dog, official mascot of the Southeast Kansas State Fighting Prairie Dogs, bronze and nine feet tall, peering benevolently down the mall at the campus.
This damn place.
I sat on a bench outside Stiles, sat in the shadow of Pete, stared calmly at the passing students.
This damn place.
That I was stuck at.
I pulled out my phone and texted Lynnie.
Meet for happy hour tonight?
She got right back to me.
I hate this place.
I hated the place—yet, you know, I couldn’t hate the students. There were a few rednecks among them, but they were mostly nice enough, young people from dying towns and dusty farms whose overriding goal was to get the hell out of southeast Kansas. I couldn’t hate that—could totally relate to it, actually, since a big part of my life had been devoted to getting the hell out of South Texas. And I couldn’t hate the official mission of the school, either, which was, basically, to educate the young people of southeast Kansas so they could get the hell out.
But, damn, I sure could hate this fucking place—the gloom, the grit, the desolation. And I sure could hate the people I worked with, a department of half-senile old fossils. Most of them had been hired 25 or 30 or even 40 years earlier and had spent the ensuing years—coagulating, or something. Stagnating. Fossilizing. I was the first hire in the English Department in 11 years. Devon was hired just a year after me. And, as Tee had pointed out, the fossils saw us as snobs—standoffish, aloof snobs—from big universities who looked down on little Southeast Kansas. We never fit in. They rejected us from the time we arrived. And in response, of course, we did look down on them. We stood off. We aloofed. We hated them. What was I going to do without Devon?
“What’re you staring at?”
I looked slowly up. Yes—Courtney, standing there like she was dressed for a blizzard in a puffy pink parka and a long pink scarf wrapped around her neck, her black hair tucked up in a pink knit cap atop her pale round head. Pink parka, pink scarf, pink cap, little pink circles of blush painted on her cheeks—and those cold blue bulging eyes.
“I’m not staring,” I said. “I’m thinking.”
“Yeah?” Courtney asked. “I’ll think with you.” Courtney sat down next to me on the bench. She said, “I was just in Stiles talking to Deborah.”
Deborah Axelrod, the university provost. Of course Courtney was going off behind Tee’s back talking to the provost—among other things, Courtney was a tattletale, a liar, a rat, an informer, a sneak, a stool pigeon, a mole. A gossip.
“Deborah totally agrees with me about the Facebook thing,” Courtney said.
The Facebook thing. Devon’s rant.
I said, “Yeah, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”
“Really?” Courtney asked. “Well, I think it’s vile. We really need to take it down.”
“What’re you going to do?” I turned and looked at Courtney full on. “You’re going to file a lawsuit against Facebook?”
“Well, we could,” Courtney said. She sniffed at the damp air. “Yeah, like—Deborah’s going to get the university attorney to look into it.”
I turned away and shook my head. Fucking idiots.
“I mean, I just want to say that I totally think we should file a lawsuit to get it taken down,” Courtney said. “It’s pure slander. But Deborah thinks that the post—the rant—is actually in violation of the Board of Regents’ social media policy.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake. The stupid social media policy. The one that made Kansas a nationwide laughingstock. The one that specified sanctions against people who used social media to say mean things about the university or its administrators.
“What’s the point?” I asked. “Devon’s dead. You can’t do anything to her. She quit, and she died.”
“Yeah—but,” Courtney said. “Deborah thinks we can use the policy to deny Devon’s death benefits—like, we can maybe keep her brother or whoever from collecting the insurance money unless they take the rant down.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said. They were all fucking crazy. I stood up. “I have to get back to work.”
“I’ll walk with you,” Courtney said.
Classes were getting out and across the mall students were descending the steps of the melancholy old buildings.
Courtney said, “I heard you took Devon’s cat.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You’re a good man, Tom.”
If she thought so, it pretty much meant I wasn’t. And—really, objectively, I didn’t think I was, or am.
I said, “He’s a nice cat.”
“So—what was it like inside?” Courtney asked.
“Inside?” I asked.
“Inside Devon’s house.” Courtney lowered her voice, almost whispered. “Finding the body.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I said. “You want to hear all the goddamn details?”
“Of course!” Courtney said. Laughed. A cold laugh. “I’m a writer! Writers want to know everything!”
I walked on. Courtney walked beside me.