After class I was heading back up the stairs to my office when I encountered Nancy heading down the stairs. She had a big bag of books in a tote over her shoulder and was clutching her hands. Pensive, nervous, shrewish. She asked, “So, how’s that creative writing class going?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” I said. I went past her on up the stairs.
“What? You don’t know?”
I stopped and turned around. Didn’t say anything. Turned and looked—down—at her. Nancy stood still and gray and reedy with an honestly horrified look on her face, pulling at her fingers—right, left, right, left. Psycho.
She asked, “What do you mean you don’t know how it’s going?”
“I mean I don’t know,” I said. I started back up the stairs. “It’s going, I guess.”
Below me I heard Nancy blurt, “That sounds very bad!”
I went through the fire door and down the main hall and then--
“Ah—Dr. Holt! We’re looking for you!”
Courtney’s voice. Fuck. I turned around and saw Courtney standing there in the doorway of the side hallway, smiling with those improbably-bucked teeth—and, really, who doesn’t get braces in the 21st century? Especially an alleged professional with decent dental insurance. Courtney must have liked the rodent look.
Behind Courtney a student was lurking—Frankie Gougen, a heavy, round-shouldered young woman wearing a gigantic orange backpack. One of Devon’s graduate students.
Well, I thought--my graduate student, now. One of the ones Tee dumped on me.
I asked, “Yeah?”
“Uh, this is Frankie,” Courtney said. Kind of flatly, like she was saying this is a turd. Still, she was smiling. “So—you’re taking over her thesis, right?”
“Yeah, I guess I am,” I said. I still wasn’t used to the idea. Wasn’t used to it, didn’t like it. Thesis committees were a lot of work for just one student. And this one student in particular I knew was a lot of work. “Frankie and I have already met—she was in my Contemporary American Lit last year.”
“Yeah,” Frankie said. Unenthusiastically. Sort of a sigh. She’d done poorly in that class. Poor attendance, poor effort, poor writing. Her B grade was a gift.
“Well—let’s go on to my office,” I said.
When we got to my office and I opened the door, Frankie lurched past me into the room, still wearing that gigantic orange backpack, and she sat down without taking her backpack off. The backpack forced her to lean forward and face the floor like she was about to vomit. I stood in the doorway staring warily at the top back of Frankie’s head.
“Tom?” Courtney asked. “A minute with you?”
I left Frankie sitting there looking dazed, and Courtney led me across the main hallway to the south pod, almost to Nancy’s office. Almost enemy territory.
“Okay,” Courtney sort of half-whispered. “I just want to say thanks for taking over this retard, you know? Everybody appreciates it.”
I stood there, waiting, looking into Courtney’s watery goggly blue eyes.
“She’s one of these first-generation college students, and they’re always a lot of trouble.”
“I was a first-generation college student,” I said.
“Yeah,” Courtney said. She didn’t even blink. “Right. And, so, if she starts to cry on you, just ignore it, okay? Frankie’s the biggest fake in this department—all she wants is sympathy.”
I asked, “Yeah?”
“Thanks,” Courtney said. She leaned forward and whispered. “You’ll do great.”
Courtney disappeared around the corner and up the hall to her office. I wondered, What am I supposed to do with Frankie?
“Courtney hates me,” Frankie said, looking at the floor.
“Oh, I doubt that,” I said.
I’m a bad liar, but I try sometimes, anyway.
“She doesn’t want me to finish my thesis.”
“Well,” I said. “I know for a fact she does want you to finish your thesis.”
Frankie began crying. Hunched over with that absurd backpack, facing the floor, sniffling, sobbing. I reached across the desk with a box of tissues. Tears were falling straight down from Frankie’s eyes. I waggled the box, hoping that Frankie might see it in her peripheral vision, and she finally did, and she pulled a tissue from the box and dabbed at her eyes. Years earlier in grad school I had a girlfriend, Emily, who always said, “I don’t care if the students fucking cry, because the fucking students make themselves fucking cry,” and I’d found that to be mostly true. Students who were sad or upset usually had more to contend with than whatever I was saying or doing to them. Emily also always added, “So fuck ‘em.” But Emily had a hard, unforgiving heart and I didn’t, or I didn’t think I did. Crying made me nervous. I never wanted anyone to cry, for anything.
“C’mon, now,” I said. Trying to be comforting. Probably failing. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t want Devon to be dead!”
“Yeah,” I said. “Well, neither do I.”
“She was going to help me finish my thesis!”
“We’ll get your thesis finished,” I said.
Man, I thought, I hope that’s not a lie.
“Oh, gosh,” Frankie gasped. “I hope so.”
In the dim office light I watched sparkly salty tears drop from Frankie’s eyes to the floor. I shook my head. Devon hadn’t ever said much about working with Frankie except that she was a sad girl who was damaged somehow, and dealing with Frankie made her—Devon—sad too. And it was true, I thought—Frankie was contagious. She sure had been a bummer student in the Contemporary American Lit class, and now, sitting crying in my office, she was still a bummer. I felt fucking sad.
I asked, “Want to put your pack on the floor? You might sit easier?”
“No!” Frankie blurted. Noooooooo. “I might need it!”
Whatever the hell that meant.
I said, “Okay.”
Frankie snuffled some more.
“Okay,” I finally said. “Why don’t you email me what you’ve written so far on your thesis? Then I can read through it and we can talk.”
“You’ll probably hate it!”
“No, really, I probably won’t.”
Frankie reared back as much as she could and looked directly at me—broad flat pale face, watery brown eyes red from crying.
“Why wouldn’t you hate it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. Shrugged. “Maybe I’ll hate it. But even if I do—so what? We’ll just fucking fix it.”
Frankie looked back at the floor and snuffled. She said, “Oh, gosh.”
“C’mon,” I said. “Give me a fucking chance, okay?”
I said fuck twice to this student. Look at me! I gave two fucks about Frankie’s stupid thesis! More than Courtney or Tee or anybody else gave. Maybe even more than Devon gave.
Frankie dabbed at her eyes with the tissue. She said, “Oh, I wish Devon was still alive.”
After Frankie left, I sat for a moment and caught my breath. She wasn’t a bad person—just damaged and depressed, and her depression was infectious. A bummer. Jesus.
I got up to go to the bathroom and when I stepped out of my office I almost collided with a student lurking out in the hallway. A young man—Shawn Cudahy. A grad student, a poet. He’d been in my Contemporary American Lit class, too.
“Ah!” Shawn said, startled. “I was just waiting to see if you were alone!”
I looked around—there was no one else in the hallway. I said, “I’m always alone.”
“Can I talk to you?” Shawn asked.
Shawn was a prissy little guy, well-dressed in a neat pale blue shirt and a loosely-knotted red tie, and his hair was gelled up in a Mohawk-like ridge, a fantasy, maybe, of a Brooklyn writer, though Shawn grew up on a small farm outside of Parsons. He was one of Courtney’s star poets.
“I guess,” I said. I guessed I could pee later, too. I led the way back into my office and sat behind the desk. I asked, “So, what’s up?”
“Tee assigned you to be on my thesis committee,” Shawn said. “To replace Devon?”
“Ah,” I said. “Really?”
“Yes,” Shawn said. He seemed kind of nervous. “And—I know you’re not a creative writer—”
“Well, I know how to fucking read,” I said.
“Oh, yes!” Shawn said. “And Courtney thinks very highly of your reading skills!”
I asked, “What?”
“I remember last spring, in class, we talked about Natasha Trethewey—you were very insightful.”
Shawn was an annoying brown-nose, a fluff-boy student. But I wasn’t in the mood to be fluffed. And I still had to pee.
“So—what do I have to do?” I asked.
“Well, I guess—they want you to read my poems?” Shawn’s eyes were focused above me, on a print I had hanging on the wall—Alfred Jacob Miller’s The Lost Greenhorn, a frontiersman in buckskins seated on a white pony, rider and pony both gazing anxiously off into the distance. I always sort of hoped the painting might reassure students who felt lost—and perhaps reassure me when I felt lost. I don’t know if Shawn was lost, or what. He was squinting disbelievingly at the painting. Then he looked back at me. Shawn said, “I have most of them written—but Courtney says more feedback always helps….”
Now it was my turn to gaze past Shawn. Over his shoulder and out the door and across the hall to the closed door of a storage room—a room stuffed with old file cabinets, three-legged chairs, and busted computers. Junk no one ever threw away. Some of the file cabinets were old enough to have WNS painted on the side—Weirton Normal School. One of the antique computers had a slot for 8 ½-inch floppy disks. There were stacks of green-bound MA theses in there, too, unread and forgotten and gathering dust, and Shawn’s thesis was going to join them.
“What the hell,” I said. I stood up. “Send me your work. Now I have to go to the bathroom.”