Devon was never able to ignore the stupid shit. She thought Southeast Kansas State was backwards, illogical, weird, stupid, oppressive, repressive, bullying, soul-destroying. Coming to Southeast Kansas from a series of good universities, she found nothing that made any sort of sense. In the spring, toward the end of her tough second year, maybe about six months before she died, Devon asked me the big question.
“Holt, what the fuck are we doing in this shithole?”
Devon stood there in the doorway of my office looking tired—haggard, almost—leaning against the frame, shaking a strand or two of brown hair from her eyes.
“Have you ever thought about that at all?” Devon asked. “I mean--really?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” I said. Devon had caught me by surprise when she suddenly appeared in the door and I’d jolted back in my chair. “I don’t know,” I said again. Then, without really thinking, I gave her my usual response to questions about academic purpose. “I guess—I guess we’re educating the young people of Kansas?”
Devon looked at me for a long, silent moment. She never liked that answer when I used it before—she always thought it was sort of passive-aggressive and smart-alecky. This time she said, “Yeah, that’s what I was afraid you were going to say. But—really, Holt, seriously, tell me—is that enough for us?”
Now, at home, half-drunk or maybe more than half, sitting at my computer, I remembered that day. No, I thought—No, teaching these kids is not enough.
Fuck no. It’s not nearly enough.
I couldn’t go back in time and talk to Devon and re-say it, though, or unsay it. That day had been—what?—about the time our little fling had come to an end. Fling. Affair. Comradeship. Whatever it was—the eight or nine or ten or 12 or 14 months we’d spent together. What passed for a romance in Kansas.
Poor goddamn Devon.
But what was enough? Every day or so I tried to get my depression under control and do a gratitude check—to run through in my mind the things I liked, the things that worked in my life, the things that didn’t make me miserable. It wasn’t a long list. Like, I had a relatively decent car—some people didn’t. I liked my duplex—it was pretty nice, for Weirton. My computer was up-to-date and I had good internet. And I liked my office at work—it was safe, and I could shut the door and be alone. And I liked the parking lot by Reeb Hall (well, I liked it nine months a year—three months a year it was treacherously covered in ice and snow). And there was a shapely oak tree I drove by every day that made me sort of happy. And there was a friendly liquor store I liked—and the Tri-State Saloon, too.
See? My life wasn’t bleak—I wasn’t miserable.
I had to remind myself of that.
I even had a friend—Lynnie Carson.
And for a while I had a girlfriend—Devon Shepherd.
Now I had her cat.
Was all that enough?
Poor goddamn Devon.
There’s just some bad shit going on with Courtney and Nancy.
I sighed again.
Yeah, okay—but what kind of bad shit?
I clicked on the Dropbox website, entered Devon’s gmail address, and then—guessing—the password fuzzhead.
Boop. Went right in. Devon was never really very creative with her passwords.
I wasn’t sure what I expected to find in Devon’s computer files. Some word, maybe. Some indication of something. Anything more than the stupid Facebook post that was pissing off those idiots at school—a post that really didn’t say anything except that she was fed up and tired and angry. A post that didn’t say anything directly about Courtney or Nancy’s bad shit.
Fuzzhead the cat jumped up onto a chair behind me—jumped onto a pile of paper stacked precariously atop a chair. Fuzzhead yipped a soft meow. My new life companion.
“Chill,” I said. “You’re going to get me evicted.”
Devon’s files. A lot of stuff for school—lesson plans, course rosters, responses to student writing. I opened one of her critique files of student writing and glanced at a document or two, and I shook my head—it was like two pages, single-spaced. No way I was going to write that much commentary for some kid who wasn’t really my student. I closed the document quickly.
There were some files of her writing. A lot of files. Devon had published two books, a story collection and a novel, but she’d been having trouble getting her writing going after she came to SEKSU. I found a folder of files for the new novel she’d been trying to write, but the files were in Scrivener, a program I didn’t have installed on my computer. So I didn’t read them—but I did notice that none of the files were dated any more recently than last July—four months earlier. Devon hadn’t been writing much. There wasn’t enough time for her to write. There was never enough time. Courtney and Nancy and Tee worked her so fucking hard she didn’t have time to think, much less write. They kept weighing her down with extra assignments—work far beyond the standard writing and teaching and prepping and grading it took to run four classes with three or four preps for 90 or 120 or so students each semester—far more work than that, more than I’d ever done, and I was putting in 60-hour weeks at times. They had her writing press releases for Courtney’s visiting writer series, being faculty advisor for the student literary journal, writing grad exam questions for Nancy, supervising seven or more MA theses a year, attending meeting after meeting after useless meeting—meetings for nothing, for no reason except to give Courtney a chance to talk and be a big shot. Devon didn’t have enough time to write. She didn’t have time to think. The department wanted a drone, and Devon was an artist.
The regular Thursday faculty meeting.
Tee came into the room and tried to not look anyone in the eye. Just ignored everyone. She went to the front and turned on the computer and the projector and plugged in her flash drive. When all her files were open, she finally looked around the room with her baggy tired eyes. I was sitting in the front row, on the far end by the window, and I had my chair turned so that I could see the whole room. I sat back and waited for the bullshit.
“Okay,” Tee said. “Is everybody here? I guess we can start.”
“Well, I just want to say,” Courtney said. “That I think we should have a moment of silence for poor Devon.”
Aw, no, I thought. Come on.
Around the room a few other people were shaking their heads. No. No. A waste of time. No.
“I’m serious!” Courtney said. “We need to show a little respect for our fallen colleague!”
More mumbling, grumbling. No one wanted to be silent for a moment. But no one wanted to be the big disrespectful meanie who said No, much less the grumpy disrespectful asshole who said Hell no.
In the back row, old Brenda Seibold, who taught Brit Lit and was showing signs of dementia, asked, “What? That blond girl? Did she die?”
“The brown-haired girl,” Barton Simms said.
“Ah—that’s the one that died?” Brenda asked. Brenda was ancient, a true fossil, who had been at Southeast for over 50 years. She refused to retire. They were going to have to take her out in a box. “I heard somebody died. I thought it was the blond girl!”
“That blond girl was an adjunct,” Bart said slowly. Kindly. “The blond girl took a job at Missouri State.”
“Well, good for her!” Brenda said. “I hear the job market’s very tight these days!”
Courtney was all twisted around in her chair, glaring back at Brenda. She said, “We’re talking about the moment of silence!”
“What?” Brenda asked. “Who?”
“Silence,” Bart said gently. “For the brown-haired girl who died.”
“Oh, her,” Brenda said. “Well, why not? But only a moment. These meetings last forever….”
“I’ll take that for a second,” Tee said softly. “Do we have to vote on this?”
Of course. What, if anything, did Robert’s Rules of Order say about moments of silence? About a moment of silence for a colleague whose death and angry last words were pretty much an embarrassment to all the people in the department and the university—all the people in the room—who might vote up or down on a moment of silence. Robert would probably want to call a vote. But that was absurd. Devon was an important person in my life—obviously, the most important person in my life—and I wanted to vote No. Screw the silence, get the stupid meeting over with.
“I think we can just call it unanimous consent,” Sally said. Sally sat by the door and took notes on all the meetings—she knew everything.
“Okay,” Tee said. “A moment of silence. But only a moment.”
“So!” Courtney said happily. “I win! A moment of silence for Devon!”
Tee pulled out her phone and watched the clock. How long was a moment? A minute? A minute was a long damn time when you were just sitting there, silent. Less than a minute? Tee made a big deal out of holding her phone up so that we could see her looking at it.
“She won’t go a minute,” Barton Sims said. He was sitting behind me and leaned forward and whispered. “Maybe 40 seconds, tops.”
Down the front row of the classroom, the three creative writers sat solemnly with their heads down in no-doubt fake prayer. Just about everyone else—the Brit Lit, American Lit, and Rhetoric professors—just stared at their own phones or gazed out the window at the tops of bare trees. Not me, though—I was watching Courtney fake pray. She was obviously up to something.
“Okay,” Tee finally said.
“Thirty-eight seconds!” Bart cackled quietly.
Tee said, “Let’s get started.”
“Well—I just want to say that I think we need to talk about a memorial service for Devon.” Courtney looked around, nodding. No one nodded back at her.
One of the rhetoric professors in the back row mumbled, “Oh, come on….”
“That’s on the agenda,” Tee said. “But it’s not at the top of the agenda. So, first—”
“Well,” Courtney said. “I think we need to talk about the hiring committee.”
“That’s on the agenda, too,” Tee said. “I emailed the agenda to everyone this morning.”
“Well,” Courtney said, smiling. “You know, I don’t usually read all your emails—there’s so many of them.”
“Perhaps you should,” Tee said. “Read them all.”
“My inbox is clogged,” Courtney said.
Tee frowned and clicked on her first slide and it appeared behind her on the projection screen. She said, “This is today’s agenda. Okay? You can look at it right now. So—first thing, Earl’s going to talk to us about the assessment profile.”
Tee sat down before Courtney could say anything. Old Earl Renner, who’d been here for years and years—almost as long as Brenda Seibold—and who had been Department Chair before Tee, made his way up to the front to talk about his meeting with the dean and the deanlings, who wanted more statistics to show to the provost and the president and the board of regents, statistics that would prove that students were learning, learning, learning—statistics that would also confirm that the members of the English Department were earning their salaries….