Thomas’s ankle was quite sore, and each time he took a step a little white-hot flash of pain would shoot through it so he decided he would stop and have a cup of tea and rest a bit. It turned out that this was one of the three times this century (the Twenty-First, according to some) that it has been verified that a Starbucks was not the closest place to Thomas’s current location. The first time had been in Murdo, South Dakota. When asked why he had gone to Murdo he will just say that Presho doesn’t have enough wind, and he’s already seen the Corn Palace. The second time was on an overnight stay in Orem, Utah. Reports about that trip vary widely, and so far have never been substantiated. His analyst, however, now owns a thirty-two foot yawl named ‘Orem,’ and the Orem city council has passed a law banning the sale of mango-coconut gelatin and feather dusters. Nobody knows why.
Looking around, he considered his options.
CJ’s was too far away, and anyway Thomas very seldom went there. Its frequent problems with health department inspectors was only part of the reason. He had learned when he was an undergrad that there were very few restaurant kitchens you wanted to look into closely, if at all. The real reason he avoided CJ’s was that he never really enjoyed their famous loose meat sandwiches. “You just never developed a taste for mutt,” had been one friend’s explanation.
“You mean mutton?”
“If it makes you feel better.”
The Division Street Diner was also too far away. The cooks at the Division Street Diner—holdovers from life styles two or three decades in the past—all have doctorates in some obscure field, usually their father’s south forty, but are taking a few years off to like get it touch with themselves. The food at the Division Street is generally very good if you avoid the suspiciously damp pecan rolls, but if the line cook doesn’t agree with your interpretation of Vladolov’s Third Theory of Interdependent Apathy they are apt to over cook your eggs. The wait staff, on the other hand, are usually practitioners of lifestyles as yet undiscovered by either Oprah or Dr Phil, or even the Bravo Network or HBO.
That left Gander’s.
Now, ever since Socrates dusted off a few steps along one side of the forum, and began giving lectures on the knowledge of geometry in the servant classes, every school vaguely worth its tuition has had at least one place like Gander’s somewhere along the borders of its campus. It might be famous for its hamburgers or its pizza or its breakfasts or its liver and cantaloupe sandwiches (the rye bread is what really brings out the flavor), but it is a certifiable Campus Institution and every visitor to the school is taken there to experience the true wonders of whatever it is they make. Gander’s claim to fame is its ice cream.
At one time the ice cream was made in the basement, but rising labor costs and some pesky laws concerning how food was handled had put an end to that a couple of generations ago. For the last thirty years they have acquired their ice cream from the same distributor that supplies the local supermarkets. Of course everyone still raves about how wonderful Gander’s ice cream is, and how nothing else compares to it, but if it has a creamier texture and richer taste it is because you paid at least ten times more for it than you would have at the supermarket.
The waitresses’ uniforms have thin, lime green stripes, and were designed when women’s stockings still came in actual pairs. The ages of the waitresses ranged from forty-something to Neolithic, and as Thomas eased himself onto a stool he wondered if this was the same waitress that had served Truman when he had made his famous stop at the campus. There was a picture above the malt mixers of “Give ‘em hell, Harry” sitting at the counter grinning like he just got a refund on his daughter’s piano lessons as he dug into a dish of butter pecan. He had wanted chocolate, but even though she had refused to leave Independence Bess had decided he would eat butter pecan and like it. Thomas decided this was not the same waitress however because, even though her back was to the camera, the woman in the picture was obviously far too young to be the same woman facing him now. Either that or she had led a far more, shall we say, active life than Thomas had ever dreamed of; and considering the quality of his dreams this is highly unlikely.
Thomas placed his order, and watched for signs the rain was letting up. Just as the waitress brought his tea, Thomas saw Geoffrey Spenser duck under Gander’s awning. He quickly turned his back to the window, but had not quite been quick enough. Spenser waved and then came in shaking his umbrella.
“There you are, Milton, old man!” Spenser had a way of saying things that gave them several connotations which were almost always incorrect. For example, you might think “old man” had been an attempt to sound vaguely British, or he might have been using it as a euphemism for “old fart,” and you would have been wrong. The true interpretation was, of course, the one that gave him the political advantage at the moment. He was also famous for never quite listening to anything said to him, and giving answers unrelated to anything you might have asked. Naturally, he taught communication.
“Yes, I think I’m here. I’m not too sure about other places, but I am fairly sure I am here.”
“I said that I was fairly sure I am here, but I could be wrong. It might be wise to check with the wildebeests.”
Spenser was never quite sure if Thomas was completely stoned, being humorous, deeply profound, trying to live up to his initials or just obtuse. “Um, yeah. Anyway, I tried to call you earlier, but it just went straight to voicemail. So, when you get my message tomorrow you can just ignore it.” Thomas was just about to say that he always ignored Spenser’s messages when Spenser plunged on. “Tried to leave Twila—do you know Twila in the Art Department? Tried to leave her a message the other day, but couldn’t. Her mailbox was completely full. Can you believe it? Completely full. Had to send her an email.”
“Mind you,” he continued, “she’s a marvelous artist. Does amazing things with a bit of clay and a few twigs, but it’s all a bit too much ‘Mother Goddess’ fecundity of nature kind of stuff for me. Guess I’m getting old, but if you want to talk fecund just give me an old Vargas drawing. Those were something. Still kind of miss garters.”
Spenser’s eyes had an introspective look to them that Thomas had not thought he was capable of. Then he decided that it was just the brightness of a flickering light that was making him squint that way. “Yes, I know Twila. I had lunch with her just the other day.” Thomas neglected to add that Twila spent an afternoon every few weeks making sure her voicemail box was full by playing music into it. “What was it you wanted, Geoffrey?”
“I wanted to see if she was for us or agin us, as they say, on the president’s proposal that tenured faculty be required to teach at least twelve hours each semester.”
Thomas carefully refrained from pointing out that that had been his proposal, and that he had initially thought fifteen hours not too excessive. “Not quite what I meant. I was asking what you wanted with me today.”
“Oh, coffee would be fine.”
“Still not quite what I meant. What did you want to talk to me about?”
“When you left me the voicemail message this afternoon.”
“Oh, you got it? Great! So tell me, what do you think?”
“Have you ever considered how lucky Gracie was George Burns didn’t own a gun?” For a second Spenser’s brain groped wildly for a reference it could hang onto, but he had not made it this far in the academic world by letting the relevance of a statement slow him down, and then Thomas continued, “I didn’t get your message. You just told me you left me a message. Now I am asking you what you wanted to know when you left the message this afternoon that I haven’t listened to yet.” The unspoken portion of Thomas’s answer has been lost to history, but is thought to have involved a biological act that is technically impossible, and definitely on Sister Rose’s list of things you should never, ever do even if you could.
It took Spenser a few seconds to work that out. “Um, yeah. Well, you see, I have an idea for a new class, but I’m not sure it would be in my department’s domain, so to speak.” He looked expectantly at Thomas like a small puppy looking at a person who might be holding something good to eat. The image was spoiled, however, when the waitress startled him by setting a cup of coffee in front of him.
Against his better judgment, Thomas pressed on. “And this new class is?”
“I got the idea the other day when I was clearing out some of Ed’s old books and things. Do you ever wonder where kids get all that shit? I mean there’s probably a kid over in China or Uganda or something that’s just got a stick and couple of small rocks and he’s having a hell of a good time. My kid’s got enough crap to stock a fair sized toy store, and he’s whining about being bored.”
Twenty-some years of departmental meetings had given Thomas the necessary skills to deal with situations like this. “And this new class is?”
“What new class?”
“Geoffrey, today is not the day for this. I am under some particularly shitty weather today—you might have noticed it before you came in; I just twisted my ankle while getting shoved off the sidewalk by some semi-perfect stranger who insisted on sharing an existential crisis; and in some hidden part of my soul my Being is being compared unfavorably with a wildebeest.” Spenser looked at Thomas with an expression of total incomprehension. “So why don’t you come to my office next week, and we’ll talk about your proposal?”
“Um, sure. Sorry about your ankle. Twisted my elbow once—hurt like hell for a week. How does Thursday sound?”
“Nothing. Tuesday would be better. I’m in San Diego on Tuesday.”
“Great. I’ll see you then.”
Spenser was not totally stupid, and after a few seconds certain facts started lining themselves up in ways that certainly would not please the school’s famous Marching Band Director. They were also slightly puzzling to Spenser. “ Umm, Thomas.”
“Two o’clock is best. I’ll be totally unavailable then.” Thomas limped out of Ganders vaguely comforted by the fact that a couple of thousand miles would separate him from Geoffrey on Tuesday, and that he had stuck Geoffrey with the bill for his tea.