The Professor Ambrose M. Thatch that I knew looked to be in his sixties, short and barrel-like, with a thick mop of white hair all trained to one side. That thick shock of hair tried like hell to cover his enormous ears. They were curled and wavy along the edges, like a pig’s ears. His face was broad and flat except for a bulbous nose sprinkled with tiny red explosions, no doubt the residue of thousands of bottles of Bombay Blue Sapphire Gin, his acknowledged beverage of choice. During the frigid Minnesota Januarys, particularly during the most bone-chilling ice storms, he would peer out of the classroom window into the murky gray and would say, dependably: “Ice. Ice has but one and only one purpose in the world, and that is to cool so gently my Madam Blue Sapphire. Anywhere else ice vexes me. Begone!” He would snap his fingers in the air as if he were twisting the wings from a fly. The Blue Sapphire gin evidently had few ill effects upon the man’s blue cerulean eyes. Large, clear and remarkably blue, they were made even more pronounced by the thick spectacles at the end of his nose. The glasses were wire-rimmed and approached the comical. Too small for his expanding head, they were almost always in dire need of cleaning. The smudges and fingerprints were detectible even where I sat, in the back row. If you were to witness Thatch for the first time, you might guess that the man had worn his spectacles to personally fry six hundred pounds of side pork.
“What about this one?”
He began again amid groans. “The great-grandson of Neil Armstrong becomes a gifted young astronaut and is selected by the United States to make the first human landing on Mars. Kind of a marketing gimmick for NASA – they love their heroes. But this is a big deal and he has to overcome all of the typical charges of nepotism to rise to this Hollywood assignment. But he’s good, really good – maybe even better than grandpa. On the surface of Mars he steps from the capsule and proclaims: ‘One small step for an Armstrong, one humongous increase in my biography rights.’
The class sighed collectively.
“Wait – I’m joking – just a little piece of Thatch to brighten your day. Let me start again: Upon assembling and deploying his Martian land rover, young Armstrong begins to fiddle with its core driller. On his third, no, fourth try, at a depth of say, ten feet, he sifts through his core sample and finds that the red dust contains tiny ribbons of metallic paper. After further excavation, he unearths – pardon the expression – pieces of a book cover with letters and words in what purports to be a Martian language. It comes home with him to NASA and is presented to the world’s most renowned cryptologists for interpretation. The language, made up of odd letters, smears and symbols is completely foreign to the team, but is finally cracked after weeks of obsession and one suicide. The book’s title?…The Holy Bible.”
Most were beyond confused and near catatonic. I smiled.
“Get it? The Holy Bible. In Martian. Holy shishhhh – this has potential. Think of the implications!” Shaking his fist skyward he thundered, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Chicago Divinity School.”
Slightly unnerved expressions ricocheted back and forth between my classmates. A few even looked scared. I tossed my attention back on Thatch.
“That will be the end of my inspiration for today,” announced a glowing Thatch, staring down into his cupped hands like a prospector eying a chunk of gold in his dented pan.
In retrospect, Ambrose Thatch’s quirks were entertaining in September, still amusing in October, tepid by Christmas, and thoroughly mind-numbing by February. But now it was April and only the most committed and focused of us retained any capacity for learning anything of value from old Thatch. Like him, we were panning for gold on the surface of Mars. There was nothing left to discover. So it seemed to me anyway, even though I appreciated him and liked to watch him in action. He seemed so solitary and disconnected, whispering occasionally to an invisible woman in the wings named Irene.
“They just don’t see it, Irene.”
I may have been the only one who took notice of this particular quirk as no one else seemed to acknowledge it.
To diffuse boredom, I determined to turn my attention and energies toward a certain female in the class who could provide enough fantasy value and downright potential for action to get me through Thatch’s final weeks.
Her name was Nikki. She was an anomaly – tall and attractive with no outward traces of bookishness, but for some reason eager to graft onto Thatch’s every word. She rooted herself in the same seat – front row – every day. I timed my arrival carefully to enter just after she sat down. It was my daily thrill, however agonizingly fleeting, to see her up close, from the front, at least those portions of her unobstructed by her desk. It was plenty, though, particularly now that Spring had arrived. And, since it was customary for her to be instantly engaged in reading or in review of yesterday’s lecture notes, she paid no mind to my subtle delay at her desk to secure a high quality and unbroken stare at a fair percentage of her impressive breasts. These days it was warm enough to bring out snug tee shirts, low cut, with abundant cleavage and smooth skin flavored slightly exotic by the sunny days of Minnesota May.
Spring unleashes a geyser of romance in a place buried in snow and frigidity for five dark months every year. Once I sat down, it was her neck that paralyzed me, fixed my gaze, should she honor me by wearing her long brown hair up, or in a pony tail. God, how I adore pony tails on smart girls, whipping to and fro as they correctly identify tertiary characters in Light in August. She wore faded jeans that seemed thoroughly delighted to be stretched taut across her tantalizing curves. Her perfume smelled vaguely of peppers. I’d say she was Brazilian if I didn’t know she was from Duluth. Who cares? Not me. Apparently not Thatch either.
Nikki liked Thatch, too, or at least gave every indication that she respected his position. More than likely she appreciated his authority to grant perfect scores. She was a climber – you could feel it – a driver, a winner.
Considering my new infatuation, I was far less bored these days with Thatch than most others, and was optimistic enough to recognize the comedic qualities of the man’s affectations and complete absence of tact. One day, standing as erect as a lumpy old man in a suit coat two sizes too large could, Thatch deliberately ground his metal belt buckle against the front edge of Nikki’s desk, making an annoying scratching sound. Then he spread his finger tips out wide, as if he were gripping two invisible cantaloupes from the top. He tapped his outstretched finger tips gently on top of Nikki’s desk. He was as near to Nikki as the desk would permit, tapping and grinding away. From behind, I could see her gently pull back as far as the desk chair would permit, and fold her arms across her bosom, preserving just a flirtatious smile for the old professor. Her defensive posture clearly perturbed Thatch, who grimaced with furrowed brow. I felt oddly disappointed, too.
Thatch’s eyebrows were magnificent, appearing as two satiated gray caterpillars jockeying for a comfortable position on the ridge of the man’s thick and scholarly brow. “Gentlemen,” Thatch addressed the young men specifically, an indication that whatever verbiage was about to spill forth was bound to concern females. “Gentlemen, when one practices to consume Updike, one needs occasionally to read aloud, preferably into a mirror, in order to learn and to appreciate the nuances of each word, to understand the sexual rhythm of the prose and the author’s own genius, and, in every sense, to begin to fondle the words, faawwwn-dell, faawwwn-dell, as you would a girl.”
“Good Lord,” said a deflated female student without make-up.
But besides that solitary and modest protest, there was general acquiescence to Thatch’s declaration. In September, that might have been different, but we were close to the end. For me, the idea that I could combine Updike (homework) and Nikki (approaching obsession) was a message from on high.
The image of Thatch clad only in unwashed boxer shorts and reading to himself in the mirror made me queasy, but this was Thatch in all of his glory. He was what he was, just like the matched buildings set in careful angels to one another across the campus of Christiansen College. These patterns were put in place long before they grew to maturity, both on our campus and in a man named Thatch. Anyway, it was too close to the end of the semester to rock a sinking ship. We let it all slide – might as well enjoy the remaining ride. It was the wonderful world of tenure with old Thatch driving the bus.
Now, in my own humble opinion, Thatch was at his best toward the end. He had taken his act up a notch – the demented had skipped over the absurd to become pure perverted farce in one dramatically rendered sentence.
“Faawwwn-dell, as you would a girl.”
Farce is hard to pull off. It takes a caustic edge underpinned by intelligence that few truly possess with any agility. You need to be in on your own joke. Farcical or not, it was May, and Thatch and I had Nikki, her bobbing pony tail, her golden breasts, and her delicious, freshly scented Levis trapped neatly between us.
Professor Thatch finally relented and withdrew from poor Nikki, returning to his podium he resumed his lecture. A fellow next to me asked Thatch about the astronaut story.
“Oh the hell with that!” He snapped. “That was a dead end street. What about this one? A young boy grows up in – South Dakota – on an Indian reservation – yes – absolutely on an Indian reservation, very poor. He struggles in school and no one knows why, or cares really, because…he lives on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. A talented young female teacher – white girl, curvaceous – she concludes that he’s really quite intelligent, but he suffers from… a variation of dyslexia and can only write words phonetically, without separation or punctuation. He writes things like this…” Thatch turned to scratch frenetically on the black board behind him.
“People are watching.” Thatch tapped on each syllable with his knobby thumb. “That’s how the kid writes ‘people are watching.’ Well, with no resources to speak of on the reservation, this ambitious teacher, a white girl with red hair, flowing red hair, like Ann Margret…we’ll call her… Holly. She has a brainstorm. The boy’s writing is strange looking and it suggests to her some ancient Indian language, a long dead indigenous Sioux dialect, coming through this little Indian, even though she knew better. But Holly is a clever young girl. She busied herself to write an anonymous newspaper editorial about a kid who was channeling the spirit of his ancient ancestors and writing down strange messages. She sent the story to the newspaper in Rapid City, and being a slow news day, it appeared in print. A month later her school received an unsolicited grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to continue study of this amazing phenomenon. Twenty-five thousand bucks! They give these kinds of grants all the time. Nubile, ivory-skinned Holly gets the money and promptly hires a reading specialist to solve the kid’s problem. But here’s the hook: The little Injun didn’t have a reading problem at all. He really was talking to the dead, and they had some whopper ideas. He began issuing commands from dead Chiefs who had been dust for a thousand years.”
Thatch grabbed the chalk and went to work. “Like this.”
“There!” Thatch returned to tapping out the syllables as he translated.
“The future is slot machines!”
“Buy Dow Chemical at eleven!” He rapped a knuckle frantically against the board. “The past rescues the future. The pain and suffering of a whole people is ended by the victims themselves. It is epic in its proportion. Get it? The kid is dialed in. Now: the tribal elders decided they had better listen to the wee lad and by so doing they got wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. Casinos, profits, investments through the moon! The kid soon became Chief, and together they bought back most of South Dakota, renamed it Lakota, and seceded from the union. The kid, now a Chief, was Lakota’s first Ambassador to the U.S. They joined goddamned NATO!”