Authors: Laura Dave
We take a cab this time.
Bailey stares down at her hands, not blinking, looking more than a little stunned. I'm spinning too, working to hold my center. It's one thing when a private investigator intuits that your husband's name is different, that the details of his life are different. But if this pans outâif Owen took this class with this Professor Cookmanâit's our first piece of proof, real proof, that Owen lied about the story of his life. It's the first proof that my instinct was right, that his story, Owen's real story, somehow may begin and end in Austin. It feels like a victory that we are moving closer to the truth. But when the truth is taking you somewhere you don't want to go, you also aren't sure. You aren't sure you want that win.
The cab pulls up to the College of Natural Sciencesâa collection of buildings that's bigger and more expansive than my entire liberal arts college, campus and dorms included.
I turn and look at Bailey. She is taking in the buildingsâthe relaxed green running through and around them.
Even considering the circumstances, it's hard not to be impressed, especially when we get out of the car and start walking through the green and over the small bridge that leads to the Department of Mathematics.
The building that is home to UT's mathematics, physics, and astronomy departments. The ego wall proudly showcases that this
building graduates hundreds of the most impressive science and math students in America each year. And it's also home to Nobel Prize winners, Wolf Prize winners, Abel Prize winners, Turing Award winners, and Fields Medal winners.
Including our Fields Medal winner, Professor Cookman.
As we take the escalator up to his office, we see a large poster of Professor Cookman's face. Same frown, same wrinkled brow.
The poster reads:
TEXAS SCIENTISTS CHANGE THE WORLD
. And it lists some of Professor Cookman's research, some of his awards. Fields Medal winner. Finalist for the Wolf.
We arrive in front of his office and Bailey cues up her phone to a photograph of Owen, the oldest photograph either of us has with us in Texasâin the hope that Professor Cookman is someone who is willing to look at it.
The photograph is from a decade ago. Owen is hugging Bailey after her first school play. Bailey is still in costume and Owen has his arms wrapped proudly around her shoulders. Bailey's face is mostly obscured by the mess of flowers he gave herâgerbera daisies and carnations and lilies, a bouquet larger than her whole body. Bailey is peeking out from behind the flowers, a big smile on her face. Owen is looking at the camera. Happy. Laughing.
It's almost too much to look at the photograph, especially when I zoom in on Owen. His eyes bright and lively. Almost like he's here. Almost like he could be here.
I try to give Bailey a supportive smile as we walk inside and find a graduate student sitting behind a desk in the outer office. She wears black wire-rim glasses and is focused on grading a thick stack of student papers.
She doesn't look up, doesn't put her red pen down. But she clears her throat.
“Can I help you?” she says, like it's the last thing she wants to do.
“We are hoping to speak with Professor Cookman,” I say.
“That much is obvious,” she says. “Why?”
“My father's an old student of his,” Bailey says.
“He's teaching,” she says. “Besides, you need an appointment.”
“Of course, but what Bailey here is trying to explain to you is that she too is interested in becoming a student. At UT. Like her father. And Nielon Simonson, over in admissions, suggested that she sit in on Professor Cookman's class today.”
She looks up. “Who in admissions?” she asks.
“Nielon?” I say, trying hard to sell the name I just made up. “He said if Cook can't convince Bailey to come here, no one can. He thought she should sit in on his class today.”
She raises her eyebrows. My use of his nickname Cook stops her, makes her believe me.
“Well, class is half over, but if you want to sit in on the rest of it, I guess I can take you down thereâ¦”
“That would be great,” Bailey says. “Thanks.”
She rolls her eyes, uninterested. “So let's do this,” she says.
We follow her out of the office and walk down several staircases until we arrive at a large lecture hall.
“When you walk in, you'll be at the front of the class,” she says. “Don't stop. Don't look at Professor Cookman. Head up the stairs and go directly to the back of the lecture hall. Got it?”
I nod. “Sure.”
“If you disrupt his class in any way, he'll ask you to leave,” she says. “Believe me.”
She opens the door and I start to thank her, but she puts her finger to her mouth, shushing me.
“What did I just say?”
Then she is gone, shutting the door behind her, leaving us inside.
We stare at the closed door. Then we do what she said. I keep my eyes straight ahead as we walk up the staircase, heading to the back of the lecture hall, passing the eighty-something students who fill the seats.
I motion to a spot against the back wall and we head there, trying to make ourselves invisible. Only then do we turn and face the room.
Professor Cookman stands at the front, behind a small podium. In person, he looks to be about sixty and no taller than five foot five, even in those red cowboy boots, which seem to add an extra few inches.
Everyone's eyes are on him. Everyone is focused. No one is whispering to his or her neighbor. No one is checking email. No one is sending texts.
As Professor Cookman turns to write something on the large blackboard, Bailey leans toward me.
“Nielon Simonson?” she whispers. “Did you make that up?”
“Are we standing here or not?” I say.
“So what does it matter?”
I think we are being quiet, but we are loud enough that someone in the back row turns and looks at us.
What is worse, Professor Cookman stops writing on the blackboard and turns too. He glares at us, the whole class following suit.
I feel myself flush and look down. He doesn't say anything, but he doesn't turn away from us either. Not for a good minute. A minute that feels like it's lasting far longer than that.
Thankfully, eventually, he turns back to the blackboard and continues his lecture.
We observe the rest of class silently and it's easy to see why
everyone is so focused on Professor Cookman. Despite his stature, he's an impressive man. He runs the class like a show, captivating his students. And maybe, also, scaring them. He only calls on students who aren't raising their hands. When they know the answer, Cookman looks away, no acknowledgment. When a student doesn't know the answer, he keeps his eyes on the offender. He stares until it is uncomfortable, a little like he looked at us. Only then does he call on someone else.
After he writes a final equation on the board, he announces that the class is over and he dismisses everybody for the day. The class streams out and we head down the stairs to where he stands by his desk, packing his messenger bag.
It seems like he doesn't see us, continuing to pack up his papers. But then he starts speaking.
“Do you make it a habit to interrupt lectures?” he says. “Or should I count myself as special?”
“Professor Cookman,” I say. “I'm sorry about that. We didn't mean for you to hear us.”
“Do you think that makes it better or worse?” he says. “Who are you exactly? And why are you in my classroom?”
“I'm Hannah Hall. And this is Bailey Michaels,” I say.
He looks back and forth between us, searching for more. “Okay.”
“We're looking for some information about a former student of yours,” I say. “We're hoping you might be able to help us.”
“And why would I do that?” he says. “Especially for young women who disrupt my class?”
“You might be the only one who can,” I say.
He holds my eyes, as if taking me in for the first time. I motion to Bailey, who hands Professor Cookman her phone, the screen opened to the photograph of her with her father.
He reaches in his shirt pocket and pulls out a pair of glasses, turns his gaze to the phone.
“The man standing next to you in the photograph?” he says. “Is he the former student?”
She nods but stays quiet.
He tilts his head, takes in the photo, like he is truly trying to remember. I try to help jog his memory.
“If we have his correct graduation year, he took your class twenty-six years ago,” I say. “We were hoping you might know his name?”
“You know he took my class twenty-six years ago?” he says. “And you don't know his name?”
“We know the name he goes by now, but we don't know his real name,” I say. “It's a long story.”
“I've got time for the short version,” he says.
“He's my father,” Bailey says.
They're the first words out of Bailey's mouth and they stop him. He looks up, meets Bailey's eyes.
“How did you tie him back to me?” he says.
I look to Bailey to see if she wants to answer, but she is quiet again. And she looks tired. Too tired for sixteen. She looks up at me and motions. She motions for me to jump in.
“It turns out that my husband made up a lot of detailsâ¦ about his life,” I say. “Except he did tell us a story about you, about the influence you had on him. He remembers you fondly.”
He looks back down at the photograph, and I think I see a flicker in his eyes when he stares down at Owen. When I look at Bailey, I know she thinks that she's noticed the same thing. But, of course, this is what we want to see.
“He goes by Owen Michaels now,” I say. “But he used to go by a different name, when he was your student.”
“And why did he change his name?” he says.
“That's what we're trying figure out,” I say.
“Well, I've taught many students over the years and I can't say I know him,” he says.
“If it helps, we're fairly certain it was your second year of teaching.”
“Maybe memory works differently for you, but in my experience, it gets harder the further away you get.”
“In my recent experience, it's all pretty much the same,” I say.
He smiles, taking me in. And maybe he sees it, what we are going through, because his tone softens.
“Sorry, I can't be of more helpâ¦” he says. “Maybe try the registrar's office. They could possibly steer you in the right direction.”
“And what are we going to ask them?” Bailey says.
She's trying to stay controlled. But I see it. I see her anger brewing.
“Excuse me?” he says.
“I'm just saying, what are we going to ask them? If they have a student on file who now goes by Owen Michaels but used to go by something else?” she says. “This person who has apparently evaporated into thin air?”
“Yes, well, you're not wrong. They probably wouldn't be able to help with thatâ¦” he says. “This really isn't my forte though.”
He hands Bailey her cell phone.
“I wish you both luck,” he says.
Then he puts his bag over his shoulder and starts walking toward the exit.
Bailey stares down at her phone, back in her hands. She looks scaredâscared and desperateâProfessor Cookman moving away from her, Owen moving nowhere closer. We thought we were getting closer. We found Owen's professor. We got here. But now Owen just
feels farther away. Which may explain why I call out to Professor Cookman, why I refuse to just let him leave.
“My husband was the worst student you ever had,” I say.
Professor Cookman stops walking. He stops walking and turns around, facing us again.
“What did you just say?” he says.
“He loves to tell this story about how he struggled in your class and, after killing himself studying for the midterm, you told him that you were going to keep his exam in a frame in your office as a lesson to future students. Not as a how-to on applying yourself, but more like, at least I'm not as bad as that guy is.”
He stays quiet. I keep talking, filling the silence.
“Maybe that is something you do with a student every year, especially since you had him so early on, and really by then who could have been a worst anything? But it worked with him. He believed you. And instead of it frustrating him, it made him want to work harder. To prove himself to you.”
He still doesn't say anything.
Bailey reaches for my arm, like that is something she does, trying to pull me back, to let him go.
“He doesn't know,” she says. “We should go.”
She is eerily calm, which is somehow worse than when I thought she was going to lose it.
But Professor Cookman isn't moving, even though he is off the hook.
“I did frame it,” he says.
“What?” Bailey says.
“His exam. I did frame it.”
He starts walking toward us.
“It was my second year teaching and I wasn't much older than
the kids were. I was trying to prove my authority. My wife eventually made me take the exam down and throw it out. She said it was too mean for a crappy midterm to be any student's legacy. I didn't see it that way, at first. She is smarter than I am. I kept that thing framed for a long time. It scared the crap out of my other students, which was really the point.”
“No one wanted to be that bad?” I say.
“Even when I told them how good he became afterward,” he says.
He reaches his hand out for Bailey's phone, Bailey handing it over, both of us watching as he tries to put something together.
“What did he do?” he says. “Your father?”
He directs his question to Bailey. I think she is going to offer an abbreviated version of what is happening at The Shop and with Avett Thompsonâand say that we don't know the rest of the story yet. We don't know how he fits into the fraud there, or why it led to him leaving us here alone, trying to put the pieces together. These impossible pieces. But, instead, she shakes her head and tells him the worst part of what Owen has done.