The Last Thing He Told Me

2.12 Some Students Are Better Than Others

chapter
Chapter

Professor Cookman takes us back to his o􀏩ce, where he puts on a pot of co􀏦ee,
and Cheryl, the graduate student manning his desk, is much more attentive than
earlier. She powers on several computers on Cook’s workstation as a second
graduate student, Scott, starts going through Cook’s 􀏯ling cabinet—both of
them moving as quickly as they can.
While Cheryl downloads a copy of Owen’s photograph onto the professor’s
laptop, Scott pulls out an enormous 􀏯le, slamming the cabinet closed, and then
walks back over to the desk.
“The exams you have in here only go back to 2001. These are from 2001–
2002.”
“Then why are you handing them to me?” he says. “What am I supposed to
do with these?”
Scott looks dumbstruck as Cheryl puts the laptop on Professor Cookman’s
desk.
“Go and check the 􀏯ling cabinets in the archives,” he says. “Then call the
registrar and get me the class list from 1995. Also get 1994 and 1996, just to be
thorough.”
Scott and Cheryl head out of the o􀏩ce, tasked, and Cook turns to his laptop,
Owen’s photograph covering the screen.
“So what kind of trouble is your father in?” he says. “If I may ask.”
“He works at The Shop,” Bailey says.
“The Shop?” he says. “Avett Thompson’s operation?”
“Exactly,” I say. “He did most of the coding.”
He looks confused. “Coding? That’s surprising. If your father is the same
person that I taught, he was more interested in mathematical theory. He wanted
to work for the university. He wanted to work in academia. Coding’s not a
natural extension of that, really.”
That may be why he decided to do it, I almost say. It was a way to hide in a
􀏯eld adjacent to the 􀏯eld he was interested in, but far enough away that no one
would look for him there.
“Is he o􀏩cially a suspect?” Cook asks.
“No,” I say. “Not o􀏩cially.”
He motions toward Bailey. “I imagine you’re just interested in 􀏯nding your
father. Either way.”
She nods. And Cook turns his attention to me.
“And how does the name change 􀏯t in, exactly?”
“That’s what we’re trying to 􀏯gure out,” I say. “He may have been in trouble
before The Shop. We don’t know. We’re only just learning about all the
inconsistencies between what he’s told us and…”
“What’s true?”
“Yes,” I say.
Then I turn and look at Bailey, to see how she’s processing that. She looks
back at me, as if to say, It’s okay. Not that she is okay with what’s going on,
exactly—but maybe that it’s okay, all the same, that I’m trying to get to the
bottom of things.
Professor Cookman stares at the computer screen, not saying anything at
􀏯rst. “You don’t remember all of them, but I do remember him,” he says.
“Though I remember him having longer hair. And being much heavier. He
looks quite di􀏦erent.”
“But not entirely?” I say.
“No,” he says. “Not entirely.”
I take that in—trying to imagine Owen walking through the world, looking
the way Professor Cookman is describing. I try to imagine Owen walking
through the world as someone else. I look over at Bailey and I can see it on her
face. I can see it in her frown. How she’s doing the same thing.
Professor Cookman closes the laptop and leans across the desk, toward us.
“Look, I’m not going to pretend to imagine what this all feels like, but I will
say, for whatever it’s worth, in my years of teaching, I’ve discovered one thing
above all else that makes me calm in moments like this. It’s an Einstein theory
originally, which is why it sounds better in German.”
“You may have to go with English,” Bailey says.
“Einstein said, So far as the theories of mathematics are about reality, they are
not certain; so far as they are certain, they are not about reality.”
Bailey tilts her head. “Still waiting on the English there, Professor,” she says.
“It basically means, we don’t know shit about anything,” he says.
Bailey laughs—softly but genuinely—and it’s the 􀏯rst time she’s laughed in
days, the 􀏯rst time she’s laughed since this all started.
I’m so grateful that I almost leap over the table to hug Professor Cookman.
Before I do, Scott and Cheryl walk back into the o􀏩ce.
“Here’s the roster from the spring semester, 1995. In 1994, you were teaching
two di􀏦erent senior seminars. And in ’96 you taught graduate students
exclusively. Spring ’95 was when you taught underclassmen. So that’s the class
the student would have been in.”
Cheryl hands over the roster triumphantly.
“There were seventy-three people in the class,” she says. “Eighty-three the 􀏯rst
day, but then ten dropped out. That is pretty common in terms of normal
attrition. I’m assuming you don’t need the names of the ten who dropped?”
“No,” he says.
“That’s what I 􀏯gured, so I went ahead and crossed those out for you,” she
says, like she just discovered something smaller than the atom. And, in my book,
she has.
As Professor Cookman studies the list, Cheryl turns to us. “There’s not an
Owen on the list. Or even a Michaels on the list.”
“That’s not a surprise,” he says.
Cook keeps his eyes on the list, but he shakes his head.
“I’m sorry I don’t remember his name,” he says. “You think I would know,
having had his work framed above my head for all that time.”
“It was a long time ago,” I say.
“Still. It’d be far more helpful if I could recall that much, but these names
aren’t adding up to anything for me.”
Professor Cookman hands the list over and I take it from him, gratefully and
quickly, before he changes his mind.
“Seventy-three names are a whole lot more manageable than a billion. This is
a whole lot more manageable than having nowhere to start.”
“Assuming he’s on there,” Professor Cookman says.
“Yes, assuming that.”
I look down at the printout, seventy-three names staring back at me—􀏯fty of
them men. Bailey peers over my shoulder to look too. We need to 􀏯nd a way to
go through them as quickly as possible. But I am more hopeful than I have been
that we have somewhere to start from. That we have a list of names to cull from,
Owen somewhere among them. I feel certain of this.
“You don’t know how much we appreciate this,” I say. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure,” he says. “I hope it helps.”
We stand up to go, Cookman standing up as well. He is not particularly eager
to get on with his day. Now that he is invested, he wants to 􀏯nd out more. He
seems to want to know who Owen used to be, how that led him to where he is
now—wherever that is.
We start walking toward the o􀏩ce door when Cookman stops us.
“I do want to say… I’m not sure what is going on with him now, but I can tell
you that back then, he was a nice kid. And smart. It all starts to blend, but those
early years I remember some of them. Maybe because we try harder in the
beginning. But I do remember. I remember he was a really good kid.”
I turn back toward him, grateful to hear something about Owen, something
that feels like the Owen I know.
He smiles, o􀏦ers a shrug. “It wasn’t all his fault. The crappy midterm. He was
just too focused on one of the women in the class. He wasn’t the only one. In a
class of mostly men, she stood out.”
This is when my heart stops. Bailey turns back in Cookman’s direction too. I
can almost feel her, forgetting to breathe.
One of the few things Owen has told us about Olivia, repeatedly, one of the
few things Bailey had to hold on to about her mother is that her father had fallen
in love with her in college. He said they had been seniors—that she had lived in
the apartment next door. Had that been a lie too? The smallest detail changed to
avoid any trace of the actual past?
“Was she like… his girlfriend?” Bailey says.
“Can’t speak to that. I only even remember her, at all, because he made the
case that she was why his work was su􀏦ering. That he was in love. He made the
case in a long letter and I told him I was going to put it up, right next to his
terrible exam, unless his work improved.”
“That’s humiliating,” Bailey says.
“Apparently it was also e􀏦ective,” he says.
I look down at the list, scanning the names of the women. Thirteen in total. I
search the list for an Olivia, but don’t see one. Though of course, it may not be
an Olivia I need to 􀏯nd.
“I know this is asking a lot, but you don’t remember her name, do you? The
name of the woman?” I say.
“I remember she was a better student than your husband,” he said.
“Wasn’t everyone?” I say.
Professor Cookman nods. “Yes. There’s that too,” he says.


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