The Absinthe Literary Review

a short story by Ronder Thomas Young 

Mr. Cordovan talked, from one bell to the next, sure and shimmering, with dancing fingers. He did not write with chalk.

Mr. Cordovan never returned our papers; we took them from his desk on our way out the door. “Nice work,” he said to me. “You think like a man.”

I smiled into third period.

“World too much for you?” He found me crouched in the supply room.

I claimed the close spaces. Closets and corners. “Not nearly enough,” I said.

He smiled a new smile, smug and surprised at the same time, with the left side of his mouth up, the right side down. I gave him my hand. He gave me sanctuary. Everyone was at the pep rally, so the halls were empty. We did it on his desk. “You are a logical girl,” Mr. Cordovan told me.

One night, when he let me out of his car at the bus stop two corners from my house, he said, “You’re too beautiful to be so accommodating.” He laughed.

In the summer Mr. Cordovan died by hanging, leaving me, no matter how hard I tried, more skeptical than sad.

That August I went far north for college. I tunneled with Nicky, he moved back through me, and it may have been love. Winters were long enough for reinvention. Springs were explosive and distinct. He strayed. He panicked. He wrapped his arms around my legs. He cried. I promised. I looked down on his voluptuous curly hair and touched it, surprised as always by its softness.

I dropped down to his level. “It’s okay,” I said. “I forgive you.” Nicky’s eyes, more than sorry—scared, I thought—pushed away jealousy, hurt and anger, but an uglier thought whispered in my ear. 

I really have you now.

And I did. And at the same time, I had a reason to leave when I was ready. If it was love, it was not enough.

Mr. Cordovan was a wonderful teacher. “How best to achieve power?”  He folded his arms. “To seize it?” He paused a beat; the class looked around for a cue. “Or to have it given to you?” He raked his hair back off his forehead and sat down with a book. I don’t remember what it was, but I do remember that it was a serious and important title.

We waited.

He would not look up for the next fifty minutes. He did say, “One thousand words. By tomorrow. Get started.” This was inappropriate procedure for the high-school classroom, but Mr. Cordovan taught electives, not requirements, and we were all there because he impressed the hell out of us. He could get away with it.

“Seize it,” I wrote, “but make them think they gave it to you.” It was all drivel after that, but it was enough for Mr. Cordovan. “You think like a man,” he said.

Now I see that, no, it was a woman’s thought. A this-but-on-the-other-hand-that statement. It was the language, the bluntness, the directness, that confused him. It was the yes, but state of mind that allowed me to live. Mr. Cordovan died by hanging when he was twenty-seven years old. Too soon.

I remember his long fingers unzipping his pants. He watched them, then looked up at me, sitting, amazed and ready, on his teacher’s desk. “On school grounds,” he said. “You really have me now.”

I considered Katherine my best friend in high school. I told her about how I wet the bed when I was nine years old on a sleepover, and how I elaborately corrected my mistake. I admitted my knees were too fat and my toes too long and that I liked her hair better than mine. I did not admit to my time with Mr. Cordovan, because I didn’t understand what I was doing well enough to phrase it; because I was embarrassed by the secret sounds I made and odd instructions I followed.

I was only delaying my confession. I wanted Katherine for my best friend.  But then Mr. Cordovan died by hanging, and I was trapped on the other side.

When I was thirteen I had been hit by some vague adolescent guilt, some nagging seasonal depression. “A fine idea,” my father said, the first Christmas Eve he drove me to the Searchlight Mission to serve meals. The next year he was less certain. “I suppose you feel,” he asked, “a commitment?” The third year I went on Thanksgiving Day as well; that annoyed him. A week before Christmas a man died in a knife fight at the mission, and my father didn’t want me to go at all. “You need to get this out of your system,” he said. Still, he and his friends raised their glasses to me. “My daughter,” he announced, “the angel of mercy.”

Katherine went with me once. “They smell. They don’t smile,” she said.  “How do you do it?”

“It’s a habit,” I said.

“It’s a high, isn’t it?” Mr. Cordovan said, when I told him. “The spit of the depraved, right in your face.”

Mr. Cordovan knew.

Katherine said if she were patient like me, she’d still be with Jeff.  I studied Katherine and Jeff. The screaming on the phone. The slamming of car doors.  Perhaps, I thought, noise meant love, but in the end it was as ugly as it sounded.

I couldn’t tell Katherine about on the desk, in the car, crushed against the wall, in the last stall of the boys’ toilet on the second floor, because she would have expected me to save Mr. Cordovan.

Good. Logical. Patient and serene. “You’re an angel,” Nicky said, pushing my head down. “A wonderful girl,” my father’s friends murmured, lifting their eggnog to me. Words, shimmering and sure, over and over, rose up and around me.

“Your hair shines,” Nicky said, “like a halo.”

“Your skin,” Katherine said, “is so clear and white, I bet it would glow in the dark.”

The third year I was in college I went home for Christmas and stayed too late in Katherine’s basement apartment, drinking wine and dreaming, to drive home.  I slept with my feet on her coffee-table box, back pressed into the sofa end, arms open, in the conversation posture all night. The next morning I drank tea while Katherine heated her mother’s Christmas dinner leftovers on the stove. “I woke up early,” she said. “I was still tired, you know, but awake.” Katherine had slumped all night in the corduroy armchair. “And I watched you.” She looked down and pressed her finger into a piece of quiche. Warm enough, she decided, and pushed it over to me. She sat down. “And for just this moment, I felt—”  She raked back her hair; I saw Mr. Cordovan.  “I was in love with you.”

I chewed.  I wondered exactly what mix of cheese her mother had used.

“It passed, you understand.  I just thought I should tell you.  It was so distinctly weird.”

With my cheeks full, I looked around the little apartment to consciously lighten the moment. “You need better lighting in this place,” I said. And I patted her hand across the table. Once, and quickly, but I did it.

Katherine told others I was her all-time favorite person because I was so serene, because I transcended her raving. Or, I asked, am I only so distant? So alien? So of another place?

“Don’t you think,” Katherine would ask people, “that her skin glows in the dark?”

Ten years after the spring of Mr. Cordovan I ride from the city on a Friday afternoon, swaddled in a big scarf, pushed far into the corner of Ben’s convertible.

I know Ben from work. Perhaps it’s too soon to be here, but he has set me up and arranged me. He has passed my desk and played me well with words and smiles and wicked dark charm. Perhaps I’ve grown impatient and taken my place too soon, but still, it is my place.

Long fingers of one hand move up and down on the steering wheel to the radio music. Another hand lingers in my hair, on my shoulder. Slithers down.  “Angel hair,” he says.

The knife is small. I have used it twice to clean plastic from the necks of wine bottles. I stick his lavender shirt and resistant flesh—low, right above the waist. He strikes instinctively, as at an insect. Red plastic dangles in the cotton.  There’s not much blood.

“Jesus Christ!” Ben’s certainty surprises me. He slows to the curb, reaches over to open the door, and pushes me out.

Sidewalk strangers rush me. I look up to send the spit of the depraved right into their faces, but they tilt their heads. Offer their hands. They know—they can see—what has happened. Ben is out of his car. Reduced to confusion.

Mr. Cordovan pulled the buttons on my white shirt, one by one, back through their holes. “Over the edge,” he said, moving the long fingers up, then down the two sides of my face, his skewed smile shimmering. “But not nearly enough.”


© 2005 Ronder Thomas Young

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