The Threat of an Ending

By the beginning of fall, we had agreed that Jody would be the one to die this time. We’d all seen it in his shaking hands and sallow skin and stuttered speech — the drugs. And so, because we had already decided it would be Jody who was going to die, no one stepped forward to help him in the graduate student breakroom when he cracked open the plastic container, took out the last snickerdoodle cookie, brought it to his mouth, and started to choke. We were listening to Lily telling a story about how Carmen had gone to Seattle for a conference where she also visited Prof. Tanner, who was on sabbatical. She and Prof. Tanner consumed some edibles and Carmen was convinced she was dying because she “couldn’t talk” and “was paralyzed,” even though Prof. Tanner was telling her she could hear Carmen talking and see her moving. And Prof. Tanner wouldn’t be able to drive Carmen to the hospital anyway because she was so high.

We listened to Lily, but we watched Jody. Saw the soft clouds of cinnamon-sugar dust puff off his lips. Heard him trying to breathe, the hollow scratch attempts at the air.

Lily was forcing a laugh about how ridiculous it all was. Not Jody, of course, but poor Carmen, stoned and paranoid, worried she was petrifying, and Prof. Tanner trying to talk her down.

Jody fell, his forehead hitting the edge of the table, before crumpling to the floor. We were still looking at him, and he was looking at us. Between us. Through us. Because he knew we weren’t going to help him. Because someone had to die, and his death meant it wouldn’t be one of us.

When we’re tasked with talking to a new Ph.D. admit, the curse always comes up. I’ve heard, they always begin, and we know what’s coming. What comes after I’ve heard varies, but it all eventually leads to the same thing: the curse of the Bass Graduate Program in English. I’ve heard everyone who graduates comes out with a book, they might begin, or, I’ve heard you get a stipend you can actually live on… or, simply, I’ve heard the grad program is cursed.

Those who have already found the Wiki page have read about the program’s founder, Richard Marks, who established the Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Bass University in 1973, “with the goal to provide a high caliber blend of critical and creative work that will prepare graduate students to become successful and insightful professors and mentors.” They will have read about Richard Mark’s eventual battle with the university’s administration, the changes to the pension packages and insurance plans for retirees, and they will have read about how when Richard Marks was lying in his hospital bed in 2008, dying of throat and lung cancer, he cursed the program. Or he cursed the administration. Or he cursed the entire university. A quote attributed to an unnamed fellow professor who was purportedly at the hospital visiting Marks reads, “He said with that voice like gravel, ‘there’s no thanks for a life of service.’ ”

The Wiki article says that since 2009 at least one Ph.D. student in the Bass Graduate Program in Creative Writing has died every year. Not all years are accounted for online, but 2009, 2010, 2013, 2015, and 2017 are:

  • Jonathan Frazier: Frightened by a cardboard cut-out of Patrick Stewart that a fellow graduate student snuck into his apartment as a prank. Tried to flee the “intruder” whose shadow he saw in the dark, and stumbled backwards, falling down two flights of stairs. COD: brain hemorrhage.
  • Cass Marshall: Was burning excerpts from a peer’s recently published book in a bonfire outback of their duplex. Kicked over the open gasoline container used to ignite the fire, spilling flammable liquid on themself in the process. COD: Third-degree burns.
  • Pheony Robberts: Chased by angry bees and stung over 20 times. COD: anaphylactic shock.
  • Jamal Robinson: Insomnia that lead to the breakdown in the fabric of his reality. COD: Accidental death: jumped from the top of Bass Hall, thinking he was wearing a squirrel suit that would save him.
  • Audrey Sheff: Hit and run on the outskirts of campus. COD: Internal bleeding.

Below this are the names of all the graduates from 2010-present. Well, all of them who lived, with the names of their first books (and sometimes second, too), the year it was published (while still in the program, of course), the publisher, and footnotes for links to reviews (all positive).

Whoever wrote, or edited, this page has pointed out the consistency of publication within the years of graduate attendance; students who make it into their third year seem to always survive. The article is wrong about this. There have been two students who have died after publishing their first book — one in their fourth year and one a semester before graduating — but no one talks about them, maybe because it ruins the idea of a consistent, manageable curse.

I’ve heard, the new admit might say, that everyone who comes out does so with a job. Security. Tenure track.

So we say, yes, that’s true. And then we ask, because someone has to, how bad do you want that?

On the first day back from winter “break,” we receive an email from the Director of Graduate Studies, Professor X, with a mandatory meeting notification. Friday. 3 pm. In the Richard Marks Memorial Meeting Room.

We spend all week wondering what this meeting is about. Maybe someone has dropped out? Maybe there’s a new Title IX complaint? Maybe a faculty member is leaving? Maybe we’re getting a new faculty mentor?

For days, we dream about the possibilities of niche scholarship: the Anthropocene, Posthumanism, an up-and-coming scholar coming to teach us the ways of late-stage capitalism and its effect on BIPOC communities. We remember that there are literature students in our grad program, and we try to remember their names, but we forget them because our program is not known for literature. We brainstorm new books with subtle political and social undertones.

At the meeting, fourteen of us sit in the chairs so shellacked we flight not to slide off them. We shift to get comfortable. Dana, a second-year poet, leans forward to get the water bottle she’s set on the floor and falls out of her chair, her knees hitting the Berber carpet. I’m okay, I’m okay, she says quickly, holding up her hands in defense, or in proof.

She could have died. Dana could have fallen right out of that chair and cracked a tooth which could have led to an infection that spread to her brain. Or she could have poked an eye out, or both eyes out, never to see a computer screen again. Or she could have jabbed her hand on an old, forgotten, rusty carpet nail and gotten tetanus.

Do you have a tetanus shot, we ask.

She nods.

We congratulate her on remembering to get her booster and then congratulate her on surviving the potentially near-death experience.

We sit in the chairs and huddle in our sweaters and jackets. The room’s automated temperature control has been set low — only kicking the heat on when movement triggers the sensors. We peel the lids off coffee and blow into the brown liquid. We scroll through our emails, looking for good publication news, or opportunities. We tap our feet, wiggle our legs, twist the tips of our mechanical pencils until the lead is an inch long and threatens to break. Thank God it’s not real lead. Real lead can break off in your hand. It can poison you. Rebecca Murntel in ’11 died when she had a seizure with a thermometer in her mouth. Her teeth shattered the glass and all that mercury spilled out into her mouth. She didn’t die of poisoning, though. She died from the lack of oxygen to the brain, seizure-related.

At 3 pm Prof. X comes in. Behind her trails the novelist Daniel Keum, the essayist Nakina Permoud, and the poet George Mercado. These are our most notable creative writing faculty: the Trifecta. Where the rest of the faculty are no one knows. Most likely, they have not been invited to this meeting. Most likely, they have received emails or been asked to attend a “junior faculty” round table, which occurred earlier today, or at the latest, a few days ago.

Prof. X doesn’t waste any time. Prof. X doesn’t even sit in a chair. She stands at the front of the room with the Trifecta at either side and says, Some shit is about to go down.

We want to ask, what shit? but we know better than to ask questions, even desperate ones, so we wait, nodding, though we’re not sure what we’re nodding about.

Prof. X says, the name Tellie Baker might be familiar to you.

We nod. Tellie Baker. Class of ’18. Essay collection published by the University of Georgia Crux Series: Snowflake Voodoo, in 2017. Second essay collection published by Farrar G. Strauss: Night Ride, in 2019. Current Assistant Professor at the University of Eastern New Mexico. Her photo is one of many that lines the walls of the basement where our cattle-pen offices are located. Her name is printed on a brass plate. She looks like she is terminally lonely.

Prof. X says, Tellie Baker is writing a memoir.

We think this is expected — the shift from essay to memoir.

Prof. X says, She is writing about her time here at Bass.

We think we understand now where this is going, and why shit is about to go down.

Prof. X says, Tellie Baker is going to spill the beans, and this isn’t going to be good for any of us.

Margie Bourne raises her hand, and Prof. X nods at her. Does she already have a publisher? Margie asks.

Yes. Prof. X tells us. It was an editor at Harper that brought this all to my attention.

We are impressed. Big Five.

Fact checking, Prof. X hisses. You can expect them to start grubbing around here.

The Trifecta produces papers. They have magic wands we can’t see, or pockets the size of manila envelopes hidden on their persons.

Prof. X says, These are non-disclosure agreements.

We sign them.

Those of us who have books already published gather for “Happy Hour” at The Tree Top. They know us by name here, the hoard of writers coming from three blocks away, squinting with our outdated prescription glasses and laughing like we mean it. They know us by name, but call us “Hey y’all.”

We want to talk about Tellie Baker but we have just read The Sympathizer in our Global Fictions seminar and are wary of those around us. Frank Boreo tries to make a joke — Baker is the only spy we need to worry about — but no one laughs.

We wonder about the implications of this memoir. Wonder how, and why, Tellie Baker decided to break the code of silence. Wonder if she’s convinced other past graduates to talk. Wonder what she’s eating for dinner. Wonder what she looks like now.

We check her Twitter, which is oddly scarce.

We pull up her faculty profile and enlarge her picture with our thumbs and forefingers. We say, she looks so good! We see that she’s publishing in places we’ve been told to avoid: O Magazine, Vogue, Medium.

We pretend we don’t hear Mikey Colm when he says, we should call her.

We talk about TV shows we’ve read reviews of but haven’t watched. We discuss the new visiting writers series and who is going to apply for manuscript consultations. We order pitchers of cheap beer and eat the free popcorn. We excuse ourselves, one by one, to go home and write. Only we do not go home to write.

One by one, we find ourselves in Mikey’s apartment, and he says, I talked to Anita who talked to Jess who talked to Jeff and I got her cell phone number. It was not a mistake that we gathered here. We all agree: we should call her.

It’s a cult, Tellie says over the phone. Her voice doesn’t sound like her picture looks. Her voice is deep and filled with the ringing of bells. Not a real cult, not Branch Davidian or Rajneesh. That’s not what I mean. I guess it’s kind of what I mean.” She pauses and inhales loudly. Then: “It’s a cult of personality, and the leader is the program itself. All hail the savior — Richard Marks whose sacrifice makes others’ dreams come true. You’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, she says. It’s not too late to get out, you know.

We do not know how to leave other than through death.

You ever think about that? She asks. What would happen if you got your book published and then gave a big, fat middle finger and walked through those iron doors?

Of course, we haven’t thought about that. Impossible.

We want to ask, what prompted the shift from essay to memoir, but now we understand. Now we have an answer and don’t need to ask. All our lives our programs have taught us what to write — bite-sized chunks that can be workshopped in a class period, half-formed things that can be “revised” completely in the short arc of the academic semester. Prose with open-endings, narratives that end at precipices, and poetry with alarming imagery and line breaks that shift meaning with every stanza.

You just think about that, Tellie says. How these programs have shaped you for the worst. In ways you don’t know. You want to know why I’m writing this book?

We hold our collective breath.

First, because Audrey meant something to me. You don’t know, because I’ve never talked about it publicly, but I loved her. Was going to ask her to marry me. And grad school killed her. Second, because this book is going to make me rich, which is something academe will never do.

That was not the answer we were expecting.

When Audrey Sheff died, she did so in one of the most mundane ways out of all those cursed: with the loose papers of her work-in-progress cradled in her arms — fresh from the printer in the library — while crossing the street in front of the coffee shop, back towards central campus where she had a counseling appointment when she was hit by a car. There is a picture of her at that moment. Not a picture. A screengrab. Some undergrad had been videoing the homeless man playing violin with Audrey in the background, stepping into the street. That undergrad used video editing software to separate a stationary image of Audrey: dozens of papers in the air, her body prone on the ground, her pink blouse bright against the blacktop. Her head, in that image, is turned away from the phone’s camera. The position of her body looks like an old-timey chalk outline pose.

The video helped the police identify the drivers of that car, but we do not remember their names, or what happened to them. And that screengrab won the undergrad some internet award.

We think of Audrey Sheff now while we sit in our basement offices. One of us has printed that screengrab, blown it up to 8×11.5, and taped it to the wall of fame between the plaques of Bass Graduate Program’s successful alum. Audrey has no frame, no brass tag. She did not graduate, did not publish her book, and so she is forgotten. Until now. Whoever taped her photo to the wall also taped a brass-tag-shaped piece of cut-out cardboard that, in cursive, reads, Audrey Sheff, died 2017, Manuscript: Bee Songs.

We walk by this new author on the wall. Some of us stop and look, jaws hanging open and rubbernecking. But some of us look the other way, those of us who have been here long enough to remember Audrey, to remember the way her hair always smelled like lemongrass, the way she smiled all the time, even with that crooked front tooth, and the way she would bring cupcakes and zucchini bread and pieces of fruit with rinds carved and pulled and studded with toothpicks to look like cute zoo creatures. Others have been here long enough to remember her short stories and poems. Others have been thinking and remembering and dreaming about Audrey’s work, understanding that her death is an erasure. Others have been thinking that “unfair” is too weak a word to describe what happened to Audrey and Jonathan and Megan and Rebecca and Jianfeng and Pheony and Jamal and Mona and Brandon and Jody — that “unfair” does not begin to encapsulate the unspoken guilt we all feel. You died for us, we would say if confronted with the army of their ghosts. You made all of us possible.

Others are remembering the way, in the 2016 fall fiction workshop, students were awed at Audrey’s short story about the native American man lynched in rural Texas. Others remember coming out of that room, in tears, but smiling, because the sharing of that story had been cathartic. Others remember Audrey explaining that the story wasn’t really fiction — it was fictionalized — and that this had happened to her great, great-grandfather. Others still have this story because the LMS stored it on the class discussion page, and others send it to all the students who did not know Audrey Sheff. The title of that email reads, press this to your skin.

Others begin to comb through emails and scroll through old, downloaded files on laptops, sort through the pits of papers in their desk drawers — anything to find what is left of Audrey’s work. Others say, who has her computer? Her mom? Did anyone read that manuscript? And then someone remembers that there is a copy of that book out there. Bee Songs. That Audrey Sheff had sent the file to Arcadia Press, even though she’d been warned nepotism wouldn’t help her in the end. Audrey Sheff had sent Bee Songs to the manuscript contest Jeff had been a reader for.

We feel ourselves splitting and rending: those who knew Audrey Sheff and those who did not: those in their last two years and those in the first four. Those who had read “Painted Ponies” and “Just about Hunger” and “Beauties in the Red,” and those who had not. Those others who have published their first books in their first years, and those still waiting to die.

Those who are waiting to die have a betting pool. Its been diagramed on a poster board and push-pinned into the wall above the copying machine in the graduate breakroom. The odds favor — or condemn — Barb Hertford. She asks, why am I the one who’s going to die, but when she asks this she is not upset; she is genuinely curious.

Those of us who knew Audrey Sheff can give Barb reasons, but we know they will not satisfy her. We could say, it’s because you’ve only managed to publish three poems. We could say, it’s because you don’t network. Have no social media. Don’t go to AWP. We could say, it’s because instead of rationing your fellowship money for contest entry fees, you buy nutritious, fresh food. We could say, it’s because we know you need to visit a psychiatrist — you know there’s a waitlist for appointment times you have to wade through — but instead, you tell yourself, and us, “we just gotta get over it”. We could say, it’s because we see you bowing with the weight of this life already, and like the small trees outside our office window, the ones covered in ice and bent to the ground, we know people can only take so much before they break.

Those of us who knew Audrey Sheff gather at Mikey’s apartment on a Wednesday afternoon. Mikey calls Jeff and puts our old classmate on speaker.

Jeff does not remember Bee Songs. He remembers the titles of Audrey’s other manuscripts-in-progress — a poetry collection, For All the Water, and a novel, Casting Stones. He remembers the winner of that contest he read for blindly, though, a short story cycle called More Than One Kind of Harem. He does not remember the writer’s name, but he remembers how the book somehow managed to be both a novel and a short story collection.

When we press him, Jeff logs into his old Submittable account and finds he is still listed as staff for Arcadia Press. When we press him, Jeff navigates to those manuscript submissions and scrolls through them. When pressed, Jeff reads off the secret codes and labels of submissions, leading us all to the knowledge that Audrey Sheff’s manuscript never made it past a first reader.

Everything I was supposed to read has a blue label, Jeff says, and Bee Songs has nothing. Either no one read it, which I doubt because Acadia isn’t there to steal money, or someone did read it and didn’t think it was good enough to send to the next round.

We ask Jeff how many manuscripts he did read.

He tells us five.

We ask Jeff how many manuscripts were submitted.

He counts aloud, but barely audible, and tells us 132.

When we press him, Jeff downloads Bee Songs and saves the file to his hard drive. What the fuck do I care, Jeff says. They’ll never know. Jeff sends Bee Songs to a Gmail Mikey sets up expressly for this purpose.

At the beginning of February, admissions decisions have been made. We gather in the Richard Marks Memorial Meeting Room. Those of us who knew Audrey Sheff sit at the massive conference table; those who did not know Audrey Sheff sit in chairs against the wall. Prof. X and the Trifecta are a semi-circle at the head of the table.

Prof. X has a PowerPoint. She guides us through the first round of admission offers — at least two people are always scared away by the curse and we have to dip into the waitlist — and each admitted student has a picture and bullet-point list to the right of it. We never know where the pictures come from, or how Prof. X and the Trifecta obtain them, but Margie says she suspects they grabbed them from Facebook or Instagram or author photos that occasionally accompany online publications.

Every year, we accept 2 poets, 2 fiction writers, and 2 nonfiction writers: an incoming class of six. The pictures we see — of Diana Torres and Kyle Matters and Arjun Shaw — show us faces who do not yet understand the world they are about to enter. Those of us who knew Audrey Sheff feel a little sick looking at these six desperate (or soon-to-be desperate) writers.

Prof. X reads the bios they’ve assembled. She announces Laboni Pike. She says, Laboni writes magical realism with heavy political undertones. Maybe Cooper should reach out to her.

Cooper agrees.

Prof. X is saying something, but those of us who knew Audrey Sheff are fading out, away, into the language of Audrey’s manuscript that clouds our thoughts, recalling the language that no one will ever see:

our hobblebush ancestry of bones & hands, these trappings, snapshot bodies, more than a family name spinning too fast

I’ll be headless past the playground slide shaped like an elephant, or maybe a firetruck, blazing RESCUE (me) (rescue)

perhaps we dive into any empty space as if to close the absence between bodies

What about you, Mikey? Prof. X asks one of us. Good fit?

Mikey has not been listening. He has been smudging clear the varnish of the conference table with the dirty oil of his pointer finger. When he looks up and reads MICK on the slide, we understand why it’s him who is being asked to call him. The bullet points read:

“1: Experimental, hybrid nonfiction

2. Self-identifies as Native American (Navajo)

3. Documented cognitive disability”

We know it’s a mistake as soon as it comes out of his mouth, but by then it’s too late. Are you allowed to share all this with us, Mikey asks.

Prof. X doesn’t miss a beat. It’s going to get around anyway. Better in here and right now than playing telephone with it later.

FERPA, someone whispers, and heads swivel to locate the word’s directionality.

Prof. X frowns. Can you call him?

Mikey says, I don’t think I can.

Audible gasps. Nakita’s sly smile. Perhaps a slight nod.

Backtracking, Mikey adds, I really don’t have time. I almost have a draft of my next book finished. That’s the priority.

Prof. X frowns and writes something on her notepad. She assigns Mick to Kyle, and by the time we leave the meeting, we have all googled the new recruits, found their online poems and essays and short stories, and are reading them on the small screens between our hands, saying to each other, shit. this is good. Really good.

We meet at Mikey’s apartment. April and Kinsie have snuck through the darkness in dark clothing because they live in the same apartment complex as some of the others who did not know Audrey Sheff, and they worried that, if spotted, they might be asked where they were going. Mo has brought guacamole in a thin plastic pouch which we squeeze into a melamine bowl. Demian has brought blue corn tortilla chips, and Bryn has brought bite-sized brownies. He was going to bring cookies until reminded of Jody.

Each of us has a copy of Audrey Sheff’s manuscript. Mikey tells us he knows the general copy code for the Department — the secretary gave it to him once when he made flyers at the request of the Trifecta for their faculty reading — and says, shit didn’t cost a thing.

Our copy and print codes would not allow for this much free printing.

Five copies of Bee Songs. 192 pages of double-spaced Times New Roman standard manuscript prose, held together by large rubber bands.

For a long time, we reread. We hold these papers and turn pages carefully; we know now that our reading of this manuscript on our computers was disrespectful, hurried, and frenzied. We crunch. We munch. Every now and then, someone reads a sentence aloud, followed by, I remember this, or, she revised that line; I loved the old version, or, oh snap, or, oh shit, or, holy fucking shit.

By the time we are done, we all know this book needs to go out into the world, but we also know how many good writers are actually out there, how many good books are written and never see the light of day. We think that if this stands a chance, it will because of Tellie Baker. We send Bee Songs to her.

Afterward, we talk about our WIPs, the books we’re writing in coffee shops and in apartments with old aluminum windows that don’t quite filter the cold, and in dog parks where we play with dogs that aren’t ours because our dogs are long gone or back at home with parents who, when they see us now, do not recognize us.

Kinsie’s poetry collection is about all those years of conversion therapy. Demian’s short story collection about retired freak show performers. Mikey’s poetry collection of found and erasure poetry generated from slave records of the 1800s, April’s near-future sci-fi short story collection investigating what defines a body, Tony’s essay collection about passing: as white, as male, and neuro-typical.

Oh my god, Lindsey is almost crying. I never would have done any of this!

Lindsey’s essay collection is about body-hacking. She had an RFID chip put in her hand, sub-dermal horn implants on her forehead, her ears notched. Shit, shit, shit, she keeps saying. I only did this shit so I’d have something new to write about. No one writes a literary essay about body-hacking. Her voice is rising. I can sell my work, right? I can sell it, right? Her eyes are wide and too white.

We nod. We know the value in finding a kind of writing no one has quite seen before.

When Jeremy dies, he picks a bad time: Welcome Day.

Our six recruits are here on campus, touring, sitting in on workshops and lit seminars, being shown the alumni center, the gym, the student union — all the places they will find themselves never going.

Mick, whom Mikey was originally asked to call weeks ago, was with Jeremy when it happened. They had just come back from lunch with the Trifecta when Jeremey went to the soda machine in the basement of Bass Hall, put in his two dollars, pressed the button for a Coke, heard the bottle fall, but never saw it emerge in its basket. Jeremy was not having a good day. He’d told Mikey who told Barb who told Taylor about a rejection that morning, the last one in his queue, and that all the contests he’d entered this year were over and done with. He’d have to cull the lists again. Next year. The problem was, the next year would be his third year, and we all knew how rare it was to survive so long without a book.

Jeremy, by all accounts, was also in a foul mood because, at that lunch, Prof. Keum had described his poems, in front of the recruits, as “punctuated with moments of brilliance.”

Maybe it was a compliment, Jeremy had said to Mick right before heading to the vending machine. But what does that mean? Moments? Like everything else is trash?

Jeremy, when his Coke failed to appear, grabbed both sides of the vending machine and shook it. No Coke. He cursed and said something like “you twitbag” or “fucking donkeybutt.” Kicked it, and shook it again. The second time he wrestled with the machine, it fell over. On top of him. Crushed his ribs.

Mick was screaming. We came streaming out of our offices, all staring at Jeremy on the ground with the impossible thinness of his body.

Barb started whooping and ran to the breakroom. She’d survived. And won the pool. All twenty-seven dollars of it.

It’s a battle now, between Mick and Tellie Baker.

On the phone, Tellie says, Asshole! You know how many re-tweets he has already?

The recruit posted an essay about seeing Jeremy die and the curse of Bass to Medium, and it has gone viral. It is a multi-media essay accompanied by campus photos, selfies, images of vending machines, and sound clips. I have read it. The essay is not smart or literary. It does not do the work an essay should. It is topical at best, gawking at worst.

We are starting to wonder about the curse, and whether it is a curse at all. Is it possible, we ask each other, those of us who knew Audrey Sheff, that our success, past and present, comes from the drive, and desperation, academe instills in us? Is it possible that the fear of death is what pushes us? Is it possible, we wonder, to survive this program without publishing a book? What if, we ask, someone came in and refused to be cursed? What if someone came in and refused to push their work to the “ready” stage despite knowing it wasn’t ready? We talk about ourselves, about those who did not know Audrey Sheff, about the new admits who are slowly backtracking on our offers of admission: “Named by Bolero as one of the top 30 under 30 emerging writers,” “PEN America Winner,” 1st prize contest after contest after contest. All of us, over all the years, cream of the crop.

We know it’s useless to suggest this course of action to anyone below us: refusal. So easy it would be to advise against playing the deadly game, words coming from the mouths already fed with the taste of publication. Maybe they are gathered right now, Mikey suggests, talking about us with our smoking jackets and decanters of brandy, laughing in front of a fire, declining our multiple requests for author interviews.

We look around Mikey’s apartment: the bent blinds, the bookcases made of particle board and cinder blocks, the cushions of the third-hand sofa we sit on, threadbare and stained with God knows what.

Lindsey is unraveling. She’s saying, on repeat, when does it end? When does it end? When does it end?

We ask Tellie, when does it end?

It doesn’t.

What do you mean ‘it doesn’t’?

I mean you’re always going to struggle, and you’re always going to be afraid. When you leave Bass, despite your record, you’re going to be afraid you won’t get a job. And when you land that tenure track, you’re going to be afraid because it’s not at an R1 or R2. Then you’re going to be afraid of the politics in your department — what you don’t see now as a grad student — and how to navigate those, along with the administrative politics, without rubbing someone the wrong way. And then you’re going to be afraid that you can’t balance writing and teaching and committee work and advising students, and you won’t be able to. You’ll be afraid the family you put off will suffer, and they will. You will be afraid when you submit your tenure binder, and you will be afraid after it’s been approved because like Marks, your pension will change, and your insurance will change, and your benefits — the one about your kid attending the school where you teach, for free — that will change. And then, when you’re dying of throat and lung cancer, you’ll be afraid that all the work you did won’t matter because there are so many good writers in the world, in thirty years from now, who will read your books. Who will assign them to their classes? Academia, Tellie says, is the worst kind of ephemera.

That would be a great title for a book. ‘The Worst Kind of Ephemera.’

Snap out of it!


Look, Tellie continues, I’m on Lexapro for anxiety, Hydroxyzine, too, with a PRN, and Quetiapine for insomnia. Jen and I want to have a kid, and we don’t want to go to a sperm bank, and do you know how much adoption costs? I make $57,000 a year with almost $70,000 worth of student loan debt from my MFA. Salacious sells. Literary? Phew.

We are in Demian’s old mini-van, the one with the sliding door that can only be opened from the inside. Those of us who remember Audrey Sheff are driving the streets, slowing down outside the Trifecta’s houses. Like some Tiny Tim caricatures, we press our faces to the windows. Watch our professors at their dinner tables, in their living rooms. We squeal tires when Prof. Mercado opens the front door to retrieve the morning’s forgotten newspaper.

Lindsey is breaking. She says, Mercado didn’t even get a Ph.D.!

But he won the National Critics Award, we remind her.

And then it hits us, like a brick to the face, like that car hitting Audrey Sheff: None of the Trifecta came out of anything like Bass. They all got here another way, without the threat of an ending that’s death.

Tellie Baker’s memoir is released. Oracles and Other Lies gets a starred review and is recommended by Kirkus. She is on a press tour, visiting bookstores and universities. Bass is not among them.

Tellie Baker is on NPR, talking about Audrey’s manuscript, open-access records requests, and how grad school killed the woman she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.

Tellie Baker’s memoir is now cited on the Bass Wiki page.

But despite Tellie Baker’s book, six incoming students off the waitlist have accepted their offers. We will have a full, incoming class of burgeoning writers looking to see if death is grinning up from toilets, lurking in bushes, hiding inside of a Hot Pocket.

We — all of us, those who knew Audrey Sheff, and those who did not — are speaking about Tellie in whispers. We are reading coverage about the book only at home when we’re off campus Wi-Fi. We are wondering what is possible for us, and if there is another way to live. We are so preoccupied with Tellie that when Barb sends an email about her book’s acceptance, it’s less congratulatory and more… just noted.

When Barb’s book is released the following fall, it will be one week before Elise dies. Elise will have known she should have gone to the doctor, but she also will have known that admitting this was giving the curse more power. Elise will have been one of 10% of the population subject to the terrifying possibilities of a Brown Recluse bite, and she will have let that spot in her left thigh eat itself away until it was septic, and she will die of shock, in her bed, alone in her apartment, her laptop still sitting in her lap, her manuscript open and highlighted with track changes and comments.

Barb’s book will get blurbed here and there, but it isn’t until we — those of us who knew Audrey Sheff — get an email from Demian (TT at Nevada State now), saying that he read it and recognized the story about the Cherokee man who was lynched, that we will understand what Barb did: stealing Audrey’s workshop story, changing the title, and making it the thematic glue of her collection.

Those of us who knew Audrey Sheff gather at April’s apartment; Mikey is gone, away to God-knows-where because after graduation he went off the grid. Rumor has it he became a forest ranger. Lindsey is gone, too — at a regional college in Montana, teaching and editing their literary journal.

We call Barb, put her on speakerphone, and confront her.

It’s the best thing that could have happened, she argues back. Look, the book is published; I’m not going to die. It’s a win in more ways than one.

We know that, in some way, she is right. Bee Songs is still out there, and it’s a bidding war for the book. Barb will not choke on a hotdog or get struck by lightning or sneeze so hard she has an aneurism. Her name will go on the Wall of Fame, like ours, and though her success will not be her own, we realize it will not matter in the long run.

Photo by Farknot Architect/Adobe Stock


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