The room was silent. This one had gone further into madness than most. He seemed to believe it. Even I, arguably his only admirer other than Nikki, felt an uneasy chill from the pitch and fervor of Thatch’s diatribe. He was sweating and had chalk dust on his shoulders and on his glasses. It looked like a terminal case of psoriasis. White dust hung in the lifeless air. He looked ill and trembled.
“And,” Thatch waggled a potato-like finger at us, “the kid married the teacher,” he finished with a nauseating grin in Nikki’s direction. “What do you think?” He croaked.
It seemed like forever before Nikki politely obliged. “Professor Thatch, that’s the kind of story that gets made into a movie,” she offered with a teasingly tilted head.
“Thank you Nikki, I shall cherish your comments enormously and often.” The words sounded oily coming from Thatch’s rubbery, wet lips. Each syllable dropped from his maw like a wet marble. “Do fail and take my course again next semester young lady.”
Looking out of the window past Thatch, Christiansen College was an architectural masterpiece. It could be taken up in a single scoop and dropped alongside any east coast college without giving any ground on design or materials. Its master plan, in fact, was the product of a renowned east coast firm, Crumb & Smith, who had provided the structural engineering for the pedestal supporting the Statue of Liberty.
In the intervening years its administrators diligently stuck to the plan, even when altering course would have brought large gifts for new buildings placed egotistically on rises otherwise kept open and pristine for the sake of the principles of landscape architecture. Waves of architectural leanings rise and fall through the years, often leaving horrendous scars on campuses like Christiansen. Buildings are easily misplaced or jarring in their context. Imagine the ornamentation of Louis H. Sullivan or the more modern lines of his protégé Frank Lloyd Wright or even Ghery’s three dimensional Picassos smack dab in the middle of this gothic village. Not here though. At Christiansen all temptations were quietly, but ferociously resisted – suffocated by infinitely patient leaders who were wired for inaction rather than mistakes. It was a medieval stone village, and its stones and mortar held no proclivity to waiver from course. There is a simple grace found in continuity. It was all in the brochure, and honestly one of two reasons I enrolled. Its timelessness had caught my imagination and promised to temper my own natural impulsiveness and unfocused ambitions. The other reason was to find a smart girl with a pony tail who I could sit behind. Mission accomplished.
Thatch’s tale about the clairvoyant kid on the reservation was the last idea he would ever share with us. That was strange, looking back, since we had never gone more than a few days between his literary outbursts. Looking back, the other strange development during our last month of class was the sudden manifestation of a mounting collection of paper on Thatch’s desk – crinkled, torn, musty, coffee stained and scribbled upon, either resting on Thatch’s desk, or bulging the leather satchel that accompanied him everywhere. In any case, our experience in his legendary course had ended. The calendar advanced and we became sophomores.
In September summer was exhausted and we were back on campus and making new friends to go with the old ones. On Thursday of our first week we got the news about Thatch. According to reports, he had strolled to his familiar power position in front of the room and rested an elbow on his waist level podium. He smoothly extracted an envelope from his jacket pocket, a vanilla-colored, business-sized envelope with a distinctive gold foil logo with crossed flags or a crest of some sort.
“Boys and girls…this…,” Thatch waved the envelope slowly above his head as if he were a waving parade queen, “this is a response from Doubleday, one of our country’s most revered publishers of American Letters. It is the Wall Street of books. It is the Taj Mahal of novels. Star creation. Doubleday. Doubleday published Kipling. Not just Kipling, but Joyce and London, and Hemingway, and Updike. There is no firm with more astonishing credentials than Doubleday.
This envelope, right here, is my reward for a lifetime of perfecting my craft. You all are witnesses to history.”
The new class was uncertain, glassy-eyed and fidgety. They were not yet accustomed to Thatch, or anyone like him.
“The Miracle of the Rosebud. That is the title and you’d be wise to commit it to space in your underdeveloped craniums as it will become a staple of this course – beginning this semester.” Thatch maneuvered himself to complete a three step jig of unknown origin, solemn but animated, maybe Druid. He had finally taken one of his unlikely yarns and committed it to manuscript. He continued. “The Miracle of the Rosebud, featuring a protagonist who is new and fresh in American Literature – there is nothing derivative here, young friends, this is the real McCoy, a new American novel with an Indian hero. His name is Billy Snowball and boy, does he have an angle!”
The young audience was frozen, tense and wide-eyed.
Thatch took in and released a mammoth breath that wiggled the tops and bottoms of his floppy ears. He commenced to slide open the sealed flap with a thick finger. It contained one sheet, evidently a letter, and based on the information gleaned from students present, it was a very short letter. Thatch finished reading and carefully returned the letter to the envelope and the envelope to his jacket pocket. Without a sound he reached into his opposite pocket and withdrew a small caliber handgun and wedged the narrow black barrel into his left ear.
Looking up at the ceiling he said, “God bless you all. I am tapped out. I am pleased to make your acquaintance Miss Irene Adler.” Then he pulled the trigger sharply, masterfully emptying the contents of his massive skull with a loud report, and splattering a shrieking female sitting in Nikki’s old desk.
Those were all the details we could muster on Professor Thatch’s final minutes. Thanks to his English Department colleagues, we later learned that Irene Adler was a fictional character in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Evidently Miss Adler was the only female that ever made Holmes momentarily dismiss logic for the sake of his more brutish, sexual side. I guess what was good enough for Sherlock Holmes made for an appropriate imaginary companion for our Thatch.
The day after Thatch’s suicide, the college elders collectively made a suspiciously cryptic summation of the violent surrender of the tenured Dr. Ambrose M. Thatch. Professor Thatch, they explained, had committed suicide in his classroom due in large part to an untreated psychological condition of which the college, its administration and its faculty had been wholly unaware until after the tragedy.
So that was it. Thirty years of teaching Freshman Lit got Thatch a one sentence eulogy from the college elders. It seemed to me cold, clinical, and altogether disingenuous. Why not call it what it was? Thatch was a lovable kook with an IQ that may well have raced right by most of us campus dwellers, faculty included. He loved romance, the pursuit of humor and the hereafter – a lethal combo, by the way. There would be, I guessed, properly composed accolades and flowers and quotes and Scandinavian hymns later on, but in the moment, there was only caution and reserve in the wake of an untidy event.
Thatch was not a man that serious-minded people openly embraced. That much was now convincingly proved, but those of us who had enjoyed his quirks and oddball personality knew better. At the campus memorial service there was no mention of his quest for redemption through arranging words on a page to induce salvation or orgasm. Perhaps few other than a handful of his students actually understood this. I did.
I think Thatch had the most diabolical of the human curses. He was gifted enough to both recognize his ambition to be a great writer as well as the likelihood that he did not have adequate talent to get there. That is a curse of mythological proportion. Thatch ruminated for years to take his one shot at the target. Trouble is, saving up until the end – for one shot – demands absolute perfection, inviolable integrity – talent. Thatch had scraps, little more. Though, like I said, I liked him, enjoyed him, admired him even. He was clear in his convictions, unlike my own meanderings, which always had been driven more by biology than purpose. He may have been a one trick pony, but he was unapologetic. He was pure. He was Thatch.
I like to think that Nikki had been his greatest muse. He deserved a good muse, for company if not for inspiration. Something had convinced him to finally commit pen to paper, after so many years of trotting out his stories like an aging vaudevillian, it could have been Nikki. Or it could have been simply his curtain call. No doubt every one of his semesters of teaching at State College brought forth a fecund doll or two in the front row, like Nikki, so the fact that he actually wrote down the story she endorsed with a tilted head and a tantalizing smile seemed significant. Or, he was simply tired and felt crowded against the edge of a very deep chasm – that of a life wasted. In any case, he needed Doubleday to show the thumb up or down, like Nero, or Caligula – he needed to play the game out – and with an audience. He would rather force his fate than linger about. Until getting to know Thatch, I would likely have lingered about, had I been in his worn out shoes.
Now Thatch is dead and my old freshman class has scrambled back amongst the student population to be re-deposited in new buildings and in new classrooms. I gradually lost my infatuation in young Nikki and my fantasies of her light brown body now are poisoned by Thatch’s violent departure. A door slammed shut for me there. Oh well, I am young with years to burn. She is a ghost now when I see her crossing campus with a book-filled bag over one shoulder. I miss old Thatch. I think we could have been friends one day.
He would have appreciated that I took it upon myself – a mediocre writer – to pencil up this account of his last season, complete with all his warts and impure thoughts. And, further, that I committed the story to several typewritten pages (my first) and sent it all off in an envelope stolen from the English Department to a small periodical I had read about in one of Thatch’s magazines.
It was not Doubleday. It was the Fort Dodge Review in Fort Dodge, Iowa, founded and still managed by two twin sisters, Ester and Inez Jacobson, who publish a quarterly magazine leaden with short stories by new authors. (That definition was loose enough, apparently, to include me.) The Fort Dodge Review has 333 subscribers mainly in Iowa and southern Minnesota, no advertisers and an erratic quality that some readers find endearing. The sisters paid their authors in free subscriptions. Kurt Vonnegut was allegedly published for the first time in the Fort Dodge Review with a wretched story of aliens living in Dubuque. Vonnegut later successfully protested any connection to the publication. But what had caught my eye in their biography was that sisters Ester and Inez had attended Christiansen College in the 1960s and attributed their passion for stories to their instructor of Freshman Literature, one svelte and debonair Professor Ambrose Thatch. Ester and Inez are unmarried, it said. My story was accepted for inclusion in the winter edition. In fact they asked me for another. Thatch was in print.