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ASTRONAUTS / Wally Lamb "TWT EXT SLIDE," THE ASTRONAUT SAYS. For a second, the J.^l auditorium is as void and dark as space itself. Then a curve of the earth's ulcerated surface flashes on the screen and the students' silhouettes return, bathed in tones of green. This is the third hour in a row Duncan Foley has seen this picture and heard the smiling public relations astronaut, sent, in the wake of the Challenger disaster, to the high school where Duncan teaches. It's September; attendance at the assembly is mandatory. A hand goes up. "Yes?" the astronaut says. "What did it feel like out there from so far away?" "Well, it was exhilarating. A whole different perspective. I felt privileged to be a part of a great program." "But was it scary?" "I'm not sure I know what you mean?" "Could you sleep?" The astronaut's smile, which has lasted for three periods, slackens. He squints outward; his hands are visors over his yes. "Truthfully?" he says. "No one's ever asked me that one. I didn't sleep very well, no." "What were you afraid of?" another voice asks. "Crashing?" "No," the astronaut says. He has walked in front of the screen so that the earth's crust is his skin, his slacks and shirt. "It's hard to explain. Let's call it indifference. The absolute blackness of it. Life looks pretty far away from out there." For five seconds longer than is comfortable, no one moves. Then ten seconds. "So, no," the astronaut repeats. "I didn't sleep well." A student stands, his auditorium seat flapping up behind him, raising a welcome clatter. "How do you go to the bathroom in a space suit?" There is laughter and applause. Relief. The astronaut grins, returning to his mission. He's had the same question in the first two sessions. "I knew somebody was going to ask me that," he says. Scanning his juniors in the middle rows, Duncan spots James Bocheko, his worst student. Jimmy's boots are wedged up against the back of the seat in front of him, his knees gaping out of twin rips in his jeans. There's a magazine in his lap, a wire to his ear. The Missouri Review · 7 He's shut out the school and the astronaut's message from space. Duncan leans past two girls and taps Jimmy's shoulder. "Let's have it," he says. The boy looks up—a confused child being called out of a nap rather than a troublemaker. His red bangs are an awning over large, dark eyes. He remembers to scowl. "What?" "The Walkman. You know they're not allowed. Let's have it." Jimmy shakes his head. Students around them are losing interest in the astronaut. Duncan snatches up the recorder. "Hey!" Jimmy says out loud. Other teachers are watching. "Get out," Duncan whispers. "Get laid," the boy says. Then he unfolds himself, standing and stretching. His boots clomp a racket up the aisle. He's swaggering, smiling. "Later, Space Cadets!" he shouts to all of them just before he gives the door a slam. On stage, the astronaut has stopped to listen. Duncan feels the blood in his face. His hand is clamped around the Walkman, the thin wire rocking back and forth in front of him. Stade Vars can't stand this bus driver. She liked the one they had last year—that real skinny woman with braids who let them smoke. Linda something—she used to play all those Willie Nelson songs on her boombox. Stacie saw Willie Nelson in a cowboy movie on Cinemax last night. It was boring. He wears braids, too, come to think of it. This new bus driver thinks her shit don't flush. Nobody at school knows Stacie is pregnant yet, not even the kids in Fire Queens. She's not sure if they'll let her stay in the drum corps or not. She doesn't really care about marching; maybe she could hold kids' jackets and purses or something. Ever since she got pregnant, she has to go the bathroom all the time. Which is a pain, because...


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