Late the next day, after I got out of my last section of intro to creative writing, I was in my office stuffing paper into my briefcase and getting ready to go home when Frankie silently appeared in the doorway. I just looked up and there she was.
Frankie said, “You’re busy.”
“No,” I said. “Come on in—sit down.”
Frankie lurched through the door and plopped onto a chair, sniffling. Snot dripped from her nose to the floor. I don’t think she was crying—maybe she had a cold.
“I’ve been writing,” Frankie said.
“Good!” I said. “Send me something and I’ll read it.”
“It’s about where I grew up,” Frankie said. Which was some dismal farm in northeast Oklahoma. “I think maybe you’ll hate it.”
“I probably won’t,” I said. “Just send it to me and we’ll see.”
“It makes me feel funny writing about that place—like, kind of nervous.”
I asked, “Yeah? Devon would probably say that’s why you should write about that place.”
I glanced down at my phone. A text from Lynnie complaining about her stupid department chair. Whoa, I thought—I’ll trade. Stupid is better than corrupt. Stupid is better than evil. Then I looked up and Nancy was standing in my doorway, frowning, sticking her long gray nose at me.
“So,” Nancy said. “Are you two talking?”
Poor Frankie cringed like she was going to get hit.
I asked Nancy, “What do you want?”
“I asked if you two were talking.”
“We’re not,” I said. “Frankie just stopped by to tie her shoe or something. I didn’t ask.”
"Well,” Nancy said. “If you’re talking about her thesis, you need to include me in the conversation, so that I can lead the discussion.”
“We’re not,” I said again. And we won’t include you if we do. I asked again, “What do you want?”
Nancy began pulling at her fingers—right, left—right, left.
“Hey!” I said. “You’re not wearing your mood ring!”
I said, “I won’t tell Courtney.”
Nancy blinked again. “I just came here to tell you that I need to observe your teaching this semester.”
“Okay,” I said. “That’s fine.”
“Did you spend time over break reading any creative writing pedagogy texts?”
I laughed. “Fuck no, I didn’t.”
Nancy quickly went from lead-like gray to pale almost pink. Like a squid or something. Was she blushing? Angry? Having a stroke?
She said, “You cursed at me in front of a student.”
“Yeah?” I asked. Grinned at Frankie. “Well, fuck me—I guess I did.”
Frankie’s jaw dropped. She looked—delighted.
Nancy stood changing colors, right hand locked in mid-pull of her left fingers. She was mad, mad and trying to come up with something to say but failing.
But then a shadow filled the doorway behind Nancy, and a man—a big man, not tall, especially, but broad-shouldered and powerful. He said, “I’m looking for Tom Holt.”
Nancy started, almost jumped fully into my office. Frankie—smiling, maybe the first time I’d ever seen Frankie happy—pointed at me and said, “That’s Dr. Holt.”
The big man said, “I’m Anthony Shepherd.”
Anthony Shepherd—Devon’s brother.
I could sort of see a resemblance around his eyes—brown, though Devon’s brown eyes were intelligent, and Anthony’s were more wary and cagy—and in his long nose and square chin. But Devon had been slender, and Anthony was burly with massive forearms and clublike fists.
“I just got here,” Anthony said. “I wanted to meet you.”
I stood up and we shook hands. “I wanted to meet you, too,” I said. “I’m so sorry about—Devon.”
“Yeah,” Anthony said. He nodded and thought. He said, “Yeah….”
Which could mean anything, and probably did. I gestured at Nancy. “This is Nancy Buckley, she was Devon’s—colleague.”
Anthony frowned and stared hard at Nancy, hard and curious, as if he had never seen a nervous spotted pink-and-gray-complected woman before. Nancy took a tottering step back, almost tripped over Frankie.
“Yeah—Devon told me about you, you fucking bitch.”
I laughed. Frankie looked even more delighted.
Nancy said, “I have to go, please.”
Anthony stepped aside and Nancy scooted past him and disappeared.
“She really is a fucking bitch,” I said to Anthony. “One of the fuckingest—right, Frankie?”
Frankie nodded, “Uh-huh!”
I led Anthony down to the department office to introduce him to Sally and to get a key to Devon’s office. I noticed Tee was sitting at her computer, staring into another spreadsheet, so I introduced her to Anthony, too.
“Yeah, we talked on the phone a couple of times,” Anthony said. I waited for him to call Tee a bitch, but he didn’t. He said, “I’m going to see the probate lawyer tomorrow, then I guess I’ll start packing up her stuff.”
Tee said, “Well, we’re very sorry for your loss.”
Anthony looked back at her impassively. He said, “Devon deserved better than this place.”
Then he backed out of Tee’s office and left me standing there, and Tee sitting there.
“You know, he’s pretty much right,” I said. I turned to leave but Tee stopped me.
“Nancy called me,” Tee said. “She’s very upset. She said both you and that man cursed at her.”
“He didn’t curse at her,” I said. “I might have cursed in front of her, but not at her.”
“Well,” Tee said. She took a breath or two. “You’ll need to apologize.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
In Sally’s side office, Anthony was chatting happily with Sally, talking about—his life, I guess.
“Man, Devon was totally different from me,” Anthony was saying. “She was always the smart one. I mean, I went to college, too, but it was only to little pissant Georgia Southwestern to play football, and I didn’t even get my degree, and then I started as a bouncer at a strip club, and that was fun, but then this guy got me a gig working for this lighting company that did big concerts and festivals—they needed somebody to move heavy shit around, maybe run a spotlight sometimes, and then once they needed somebody to drive the truck, so I learned how to do that, and that’s all I do now.” He stopped when he noticed me.
Sally was smiling—she looked happy. I wasn’t sure if Anthony was a goof or a savage, but he seemed to make the people around him happy—well, at least, Sally and Frankie and myself. And he frightened Nancy and Tee, which was also good.
Sally produced a key and the sign-out sheet, and Anthony picked up the key and we headed back to Devon’s office. In the hallway, he said, “This building’s about like she says it was—all run down.”
“Our little bit of heaven,” I said. “Reeb Hall.”
Anthony unlocked Devon’s door and went into her office. He went in and stood in front of Devon’s big shelf of books.
“Wow, look at all those books,” Anthony said. “I don’t know what I’ll do with them—give them to you, I guess.”
I looked at the bookcase. All those creative writing texts that Nancy wanted me to read. No thanks. But—I was also an academic, and I coveted all books. So, yeah. I guess.
“Fuck,” Anthony said. “I don’t know.” He went around Devon’s desk and sat in her big chair. “I don’t know about any of this shit.”
“It’s got to be tough for you,” I said.
“You, too,” Anthony said. “And there’s Devon’s sweater hanging from a hook—what the hell am I supposed to do with that?”
I shrugged. Me, I kind of wanted to leave everything alone—to make Devon’s office a museum, a time capsule, a shrine. I knew—know—that’s kind of stupid, but I felt protective of her stuff. That’s what pissed me off when Courtney or whoever took Devon’s snacks, the idea that some asshole violated the sanctity of Devon’s office. There was no telling what kind of sad unfortunate monster Tee would move into the office once Devon’s stuff was gone—I much preferred a quiet unused office with Devon’s stuff, and Devon’s ghost.
I wasn’t teaching the next day, but I came down to the office anyway to deal with those stupid job applications. When I got there, I found Anthony in Devon’s office, packing up her stuff. I leaned in to say hello and he looked up at me.
“I suppose you’re wanting those books,” Anthony said.
“Well, sure.” I hadn’t been thinking about that, but why not. I gathered up an armload of books--Steph Cha’s Dead Soon Enough, Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life, Elizabeth Hand’s wonderful Cass Neary novels, Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad, others I didn’t bother to look at—and carried them over to my office and dumped them on my desk. Thunk. When I went back for another load, not ten seconds later, I found Anthony seated at Devon’s desk, staring off into space. There were tears, maybe, at the corners of his eyes. I started to step back, to give him some privacy but he noticed me.
“Man, I never expected any of this shit to happen, you know?” Anthony asked. He wiped his big hand across his face and sighed and tried to smile. “But—hey, there’s drawers full of office supplies here—you probably need some of that shit, right?”
“Sure.” I grabbed some binder clips and some highlighters and some Sharpies and retreated back to my office and left Anthony alone.
I sat at my desk and I stared off into the corner for a moment, thinking of Anthony and Devon and those job applications. Jesus. I thought of those jab apps, all 600-plus of them, sent off with such hope, or desperation. Maybe with dread, too, with gnawing fear of unemployment and poverty and failure.
I didn’t want to work on this shit but I had to. I turned to the computer and I opened the file of a random candidate, a woman who had graduated from Florida State, a good school. Her job letter:
…I see creative writing as a model for demonstrating to my students how to BE in the world….
Which was nice, and probably true. But it was unlikely that Courtney and Nancy and Tee would let this highly qualified woman model anything other than what they wanted her to model, and they probably wouldn’t want her to model anything at all, they’d just want her to teach the fucking class the way they wanted the fucking class taught and to shut up.
Also, Ted would send her a dick pic.
I tried to send a telepathic message to the Florida woman—This place is vile! Go look at the wiki! You don’t want to be here!
The next application was from a new PhD from Penn State.
…My goal is to help create a community of literary citizens….
Several applicants mentioned literary citizenship, and that was a good thing, a good goal. But it wasn’t going to happen at Gulag State. “Citizenship” and “community” were two concepts antithetical to the authoritarian Stalinist Ayn Rand environment Courtney and Tee and Nancy and Ted had created in our sad department.
A California woman with an MFA and three books said
…My goal is to develop robust individual voices among my students….
Again—a great goal. Worthwhile and good for the students. But it wouldn’t happen here. Courtney would change the goal that of MFA to something like taking notes at meetings, or writing press releases for the visiting writer program, and she’d never have time to write another book.
I closed the California MFA’s application and stared off into the corner. From Devon’s office next door I heard muffled thumps—maybe Anthony was banging his head against the wall. I’d felt like doing that plenty of times—sort of felt that way now. Really, what was the use of reading these miserable applications? I was deeply aware that all these unhappy people needed jobs, needed an income, needed health insurance, needed a home—but I was also aware that whomever actually got the job was going to be profoundly unhappy, was going to be professionally stifled, was going to be psychically tortured—and, if they were a woman, they were going to get a picture or two of a herpetic penis. Southeast Kansas was a moral swamp, and I got the feeling that reading these applications, being a part of the process, made me a part of the fucking swamp. I was complicit—like all the big shots Lynnie had been dissing at Fred’s service. I was slimy. I was one of Them, almost a You People.
I looked over at my computer and saw an email had come in from Nancy, with the subject line, “Job Applications.” I clicked to open, and saw that it was her list of 20 applicants she wanted to move along. She’d sent it to all members of the committee.
My problem, mostly solved.
I copied her list of names and pasted it into a Word doc.
Then almost instantly an email from Ted appeared—his list of 20 names. I copied and pasted his list, too.
There was some overlap between Ted and Nancy—eight names. So I copied them and pasted them into a new column. Then I chose eight more at random from their lists for a total of sixteen. Then I added the four applications I’d actually read.
And I had my list of twenty.
And, no! I get it.
Selecting a job candidate in a haphazard random way was not fair, or honest, or just. But what was, in the English Department at Gulag State?
I get it! I was as bad as anyone else—actually, I was worse, since I actually knew that I was doing something unethical.
Another email popped into my inbox. From Dr. Paul Lampland, whoever that was. I clicked it open.
Dear Dr. Holt,
We read with great interest your job application for the American Literature position here at Midwestern State University, and we hope that you are still interested in the position and that you are available to meet with us via Skype for an interview within the next week….
My heart stopped—and started again.
I thought—There is a god, maybe.
I thought—I might get out of here.
I thought—Everything around me is shit and I might be able to clean myself off and get away.
I was suddenly nervous. I couldn’t sit still. I got up from my desk and went down the hall to the restroom. Elated—practically floating. I was almost there when Courtney stuck her head out from the side hallway and hissed, “Tom!”
I stopped. Elation gone. Back to the cesspit. I took a deep breath and walked over to her. Her big eyes were half-squinted.
“Hey, yeah,” I said. “I’m about done with my candidate list.”
“Your emails are always last,” Courtney said.
I said, “Yeah….”
“But,” Courtney said. “What I want to know is—is that guy still here?”
“That guy?” I asked. Anthony, obviously. But I wanted to make Courtney say Devon’s name.
“Devon’s brother.” Courtney’s voice was just about a whisper.
“Ah,” I said. “Yeah, he’s down there packing up Devon’s stuff. You should stop by—you might get a free box of paperclips or some protein bars or something.” I kind of wanted to get them together to see what would happen.
“They don’t look anything alike,” Courtney said. “I bet they had different fathers.”
“Same last name,” I said.
“Different mothers, then—or maybe the mother was cheating. Or maybe she was adopted. You think?”
I didn’t say—anything. Just stood there.
“Anyway,” Courtney said. “Nancy thinks he’s very rude.”
“That’s Nancy,” I said. “But he sure does hate this place.”
“I know that from Facebook,” Courtney said. “He totally slandered the university—and me.”
“Well,” I said. “He thinks we killed Devon.”
I turned and headed toward the restroom.
“Tom!” Courtney called.
I stopped and turned around.
“You’re not encouraging him in that belief, are you?”