The Case of the Misplaced Hero
by Camille LaGuire
Episode 4 - The Outrage of Old Thorny
ALEX FOUND PROFESSOR Thornton in a local restaurant, calling loudly for the waitress, who studiously ignored him.
The man was a living caricature in a tweed coat with leather patches at the elbows, and tousled graying hair. His lectures were the well-tuned performances of an old vaudevillian. Same show twice a day, take a bow and answer the same old questions by rote. Alex had never been sure that Old Thorny even knew what he was saying any more.
There were several empty glasses on the table, and a half pitcher of beer, though the old professor was sitting alone. When he saw Alex, he half stood and pointed at him, shouting:
"Then give him a drink!"
The waitress looked at Alex and said, through a clenched jaw, "Are you with him?"
"I, uh, wanted to talk to him."
"Take him home," she said.
"That boy shattered my existence with his nonsense!" called Thorny in a booming, theatrical voice. "Give him a drink!"
Alex agreed to take him home. Since neither of them had a car, they walked. It wasn't far, just across the river. As they walked, Alex waved the envelope with his essay under the professor's nose. The professor squinted at it and then waved his hand dismissively.
"You're not so clever, my boy," he said.
"I got a four point."
"Do you think in forty years of teaching, I haven't had students say 'up yours' with an assignment before? It's dreary how you all do the same thing. Discuss the novel from the point of view of an established critic... and you pick your dear old Aunt Bessy!"
"Aunt Flavia," said Alex.
"Auntie Mame, I don't care. You're not the first to choose grandmaw or Hitler, or Snoopy or Snoop Dawg. Not clever at all."
"Then why the four point?"
They were crossing the bridge over the river, and the professor stopped, and held on to the railing for a moment. He might have been thinking, or just on the verge of passing out.
"Because," he said finally. "In all of it, all my teaching days, I have never seen anyone compare Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man to Zorro. Not once."
"Nobody's ever made a ridiculous comparison?"
"Nobody's ever meant it."
The professor pushed past him and headed the rest of the way across the bridge.
"I didn't actually mean it," said Alex. "I was just--"
Old Thorny stopped, but he didn't turn around. He balled his fists, and his shoulders raised up stiffly.
"You don't understand!" he said, half shouting. Then he finally wheeled around. "You made me believe it!"
"I didn't mean to," said Alex. "I meant to do the opposite, actually."
"For just one small shining moment, I believed in what you were saying. I believed that the modern world and Zorro could coexist. Then I came crashing back into reality when you misspelled 'there.' T-h-e-i-r is the possessive. T-h-e-r-e is the place."
"I'm sorry. I was trying to flunk."
"Bah!" Old Thorny wheeled around again and began to stagger away.
"It was a tribute to my aunt. She really believed in Zorro," said Alex. "But she was eccentric. She also advised me to go jump in the lake."
At that, the professor stopped. He half turned, as if puzzled.
"Jump in the lake? She told you to go jump in the lake?"
"And not as an insult," said Alex. "It was advice."
"I don't know," said Alex with a shrug. "She had interesting ideas."
"Of course she did," said the old professor, and he stood swaying for a moment. His head turned slowly toward the river. "Jump in the lake and see what happens."
By this time the professor had moved beyond the bridge, but Alex didn't like the manic look in his eye, so he braced himself to catch the old man if he tried to race back to the center and throw himself in the river.
"Let's do it!" said the professor, but instead of heading back for the bridge, he jumped the lower barrier next to him, and ran down the bank.
Alex had no choice but to vault over and try to catch him.
Stay Tuned for Episode Five: "The Wrong River"
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