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Damn notes, Bing thought. Should've kept them in a pocket.
And where had they left off? What was said? He couldn't recall having even lectured. The syllabuses were passed out, surely. Introductions were made, of course. But today—where to begin? He had no idea.
"Well, let me see. Perhaps I should ask you. I suspect some fledgling astronomers in the room have a few thoughts on how to proceed."
This was the Thursday class, supposedly the same students as from the Tuesday class, yet Bing found himself standing in front of quiet strangers—sixty-eight blank faces staring at him, slouched bodies occupying seats in the Thompson Planetarium, not a single person worth remembering. But the first weeks always seemed awkward, a required adjustment period while minds were being made up (some students would drop the course, latecomers would appear). And sometimes a month passed before a class formed its own distinct personality—morose, cheerful, maybe chatty—and from that collective one or two promising individuals usually emerged.
"Professor Owen, can I ask a question?"
A young woman's voice, very deep and loud. But she hadn't raised her hand. So Bing peered forward, looking for her, and said, "You just did. Ask another if you wish."
No one smiled or laughed. A tough crowd.
"Stand up please. I don't know where you are."
She cleared her throat and then stood, asolitary soul in the back row.
"There you are," he said.
Yes, there she was. Bleached hair as white as milk, cropped close to her scalp. Black tank top. Fingers fidgeting with the loops of her blue jeans.
"This might be off the subject, but I was wondering if you believed in alien life, as in extraterrestrial beings visiting us. Because I do. I mean, if you consider that we all come from the same source then it doesn't seem so impossible that equally intelligent beings or even smarter-than-us beings might actually be here from another galaxy. Because when I was fourteen my brother and me actually saw what was obviously an alien craft one night at my grandparents' house in Virginia. There's no other explanation, really. So I'm not surprised at all."
Sit down, he thought. Go away. Die.
Blank faces turned to see her. Then, as if on cue, the very same faces returned to Bing, who was rubbing his chin. Chewing absently on the cap of his pen, a boy sitting in the front row smirked and shook his head. Bing liked that kid.
"There was a question somewhere in there, I think."
"Seems you want to know if I believe extraterrestrials visit the earth?"
"Something like that, yeah."
"But you already know they do. I'll just take your word for it."
He glanced at the boy in the front row, giving him a wink.
"Well, I guess I was wondering if you feel our government has been lying to us about—"
He knew her. He had known her for years and years. Sometimes she was male, sometimes black, sometimes Latino or Asian, more often than not she was female and white and young. And she had to be heard. He had never taught a class in which she didn't exist. And when her peers grew tired of her rambling—her inane questions and comments—she would still fail to sense the complete meaninglessness of her own words and thoughts. White-girl disease, he called it. How she talked talked talked, blathering with authority. He hated her with every inch of his flesh.
"Hitler's mother," Bing said, interrupting her.
That got their attention.
One hundred and thirty-six eyes gazed at him beneath the starless planetarium sky, indifference now tinged with curiosity. This was Origins of the Universe? No Big Bang. No expansion of space. Wasn't Professor Owen supposed to inflate a balloon—a balloon that represents galaxy clusters—explaining that the space between the clusters increases, but the size of the clusters doesn't?
"Hitler's mother had a saying. She'd go, `If you believe it, it is so.' Unfortunately, her son took that to heart. Anyway—and what I suppose I'm trying to say is—if you believe it, dear, it is so. Frankly, this whole extraterrestrial thing leaves me limp."
And that was that.
She shrugged, sinking into her seat.
But what he wanted to tell her was that the universe was rich with tangible mysteries. Honestly, no aliens need apply. And in our galaxy—where vast storms rotated counter-clockwise on Neptune, and ice volcanoes shot frigid geysers on Triton, and the sun's magnetic activity inexplicably waned and intensified again every eleven years—there was profound violence and beauty. That's what I should tell you, he thought, but I won't. I'm bored and restless and I don't want to be here any more than the rest of you do. So I'm sorry. My notes are in my office; that's where I'll be going. I thought we could manage without them. I guess not. Some days are better than others, I suppose.
He consulted his watch.
Over ten minutes late in arriving. Then about ten minutes of engaging zombie children, a brief discussion concerning aliens in Virginia and government cover-ups. Approximately fifty minutes remaining.
"Do your reading or readings. Do whatever the syllabus says to do. Be ready on Tuesday, all right? Have a great weekend. Do yourself a favor—have a super weekend!"
And Bing watched them all rise from their seats en masse, gathering books and backpacks. The pen-chewing boy shuffled by without as much as a nod. No one said a word, at least not to him; they filed out through the side doors, making a hasty escape—quiet as church mice, just the sounds of big jeans swooshing, sneakers clomping, the doors opening and shutting.
Then he was alone.
How long had it taken? Thirty seconds? Maybe fifteen? He hadn't noticed White Girl Disease leaving, but, thank God, she was nowhere to be seen.
You keep haunting me, he thought. You're a ghost. Good riddance.
And just then, how peaceful the planetarium felt; this was the only decent place in Houston for watching the stars. At night the city glowed, eclipsing the heavens. But in here—with the flip of a switch, the twisting of a few knobs—the city disappeared, the Milky Way shone clear and perfect; one could almost imagine sitting in the countryside after nightfall, an unclouded sky above, the constellations revealing themselves.
As a college student, Bing worked at a similar place, though it was smaller and in disrepair. He ran the Star Show for high school field trips, putting on elaborate displays while selections from Holst's The Planets played through a single loudspeaker. The ceiling leaked, the dome interior was streaked with water damage. But when the lights dimmed and the stars faded in, the ruin became invisible.
"This is where you find your spot in the galaxy," he would explain to his audience. "My role is to guide you along."
At eighteen, he wasn't much older than most of the field trippers. Still, he sensed that he was further along, that he'd digested vast amounts of knowledge in a short period of time. He ate textbooks.
"I'm probably a genius," he told his mother.
"You're a genius of something," she'd reply, "except I don't know what."
It was 1958, and he studied under Professor Graham Wilmot, a teacher whose lectures made Bing fall in love with the universe.
"That's why you're here," Wilmot told his students, "to find your place in the universe. My function is to help you."
And he did; it was Wilmot who offered Bing the job of running the Star Show, and it was Wilmot who wrote him a flattering recommendation when it came time to apply for graduate school. But the Star Show—listening to Holst, running the projector, speaking to a group of high schoolers as if he were a professor—that was the best. He couldn't thank Wilmot enough.
And some evenings, after swimming practice, he unlocked the planetarium, snuck inside, and performed a Star Show for his own enjoyment. And more than once, when the occasion presented itself, he brought someone along with him in the middle of the night, a man he'd met at a bar near campus. A stranger. Romantic, not sleazy, he reasoned. A discreet encounter, a mutual exchange. The chance of discovery was slim. Forget that he never knew the man's name, or that he felt miserable for days afterwards. How many ended up going with him? As a freshman, six. As a sophomore, nine. None as a junior—that's when he began dating his future wife. Never again, he promised himself. I'm a new man, I'm changed.
That was forty years ago.
Posted June 6, 2001
Was hooked by the first page and kept reading. Another delight by the author of Whompyjawed, though this time set at Moss University in Houston. As he has done in his earlier rural fiction, Mitch Cullin turns his fine eye to the big city, and the results are surprising, funny, stylistically inventive, and very moving. An excellent and highly enjoyable book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.