Every morning when my history teacher, Mr. Meloy, pulled his white Chevrolet Corvair into the teachers’ parking lot, I watched from afar. Other boys watched because the Corvair was still a novelty in 1961, but I watched because I was in love with Mr. Meloy. Now, twenty years on, I still feel my butt go numb on the concrete steps where I sat waiting for a man in a black topcoat to unfold his elegant body from a low, boxy car. I still feel love in my chest and fear in my gut that I am the only boy at Ernie Pyle Junior High––perhaps the only boy in all of Albuquerque, New Mexico––to be bent this way. In my other universe––where school, my father, my status as an eighth-grader are details that don’t exist––I call him “Meloy,” he calls me “Kid,” and we are sidekicks. Road buddies. Adventurers.
During a New Mexico state history section on Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his disastrous expedition from New Spain to the Rio Grande Valley in 1540, I pass a note––to a girl, no less. I pass it the moment Meloy turns from the wall map back toward the class, because I want him to catch me. Knowing the punishment will be detention. Knowing detention will mean an hour alone with Meloy. Knowing I will end up here, after school, in this second-floor classroom of hypnotic quiet, sitting near the back at a desk richly carved and inked with years of hormone-fueled doodles. Breasts bulging out of a bikini top, blue nipples rising like dark moons. A penis not so much erect as straining heavenward, a rocket ready to leave Earth’s atmosphere. Meloy, at his own desk up front, ignores me. He lights a Chesterfield and uncaps a pen. I open my New Mexico history book to a map of the Coronado expedition.
And what am I in love with anyway? The man? Or his white shirtsleeves rolled back on his tan forearms, tan even in winter under a scrim of fine dark hair. The man? Or his eyes, slightly magnified behind black-rimmed glasses but always curious, always amused at the unlikely prospect of teaching anything at all to eighth graders. The man? Or his brown leather belt threaded through the loops of his gray wool trousers and resting on his narrow hipbones.
The room smells of orange peels and pencil shavings, chalk dust and my own confusion. Outside, early dusk. A few lonesome snowflakes scallop through the bare branches of the schoolyard elms. Meloy, softer somehow in the empty room, picks up a stack of quizzes and starts grading. I lock my dreamy gaze upon him. When he suddenly looks up, I look down. Coronado and his priests and lieutenants, his 300 Spanish soldiers, his 300 slaves and porters, and hundreds of sheep, cattle, pigs, and goats are making their way through present-day Arizona towards present-day Albuquerque. Their greedy Conquistador hearts lust after the Seven Cities of Cibola, streets paved in gold and doorways studded with turquoise. They are so stupid they don’t even have winter clothes. But I am on a different journey. Headed west with Meloy, his profile black-on-green in the Corvair’s dash lights, the high beams catching the occasional snowflake in the dark. Cold air swirls up from the floorboards, but I am warm. I am wearing the black topcoat and lighting him a cigarette. Billboards and road signs snap by in the night: Route 66; Gallup, New Mexico; Kingman, Arizona; See the Snakes; Gas, Food, Lodging. Now he’s by my desk, holding a sheet of paper, his belt level with my eyes. “Good work,” he says and hands it to me. It is my quiz from this afternoon, decorated with “10/10” and a racy red star. I ace all his quizzes because his is the only class I study for.
And what am I in love with anyway? The topcoat? The red stars? The gas? The food? A neon-trimmed motor court? A coffee shop with thick ceramic mugs and little one-serve cups of cream? The curious smile? The clever thing I’ve just said? The Corvair parked outside a cabin? The coat on a hook inside the door?
After an hour, Meloy locks his desk, I close my book, and we leave. Our steps echo in the deserted stairwell. A good time to say something clever, but I’m too nervous. On the landing, Meloy pauses and asks, “Fond of passing notes, are you?” Twenty years on, I feel my neck burn as I realize how transparent I was. Head down, I say, “Not really.” Downstairs, we push through heavy doors out to the cold concrete steps where I sat that very morning. The Corvair is the only car left in the teachers’ lot. The air is so cold and dry it hurts my throat. The tiny snowflakes are not giving up. One hits my forehead, stings, and melts. The sky is white. I stop to zip my ugly sweater, aware of the unraveling wool at the cuffs. Meloy, from two steps down, stops also and turns, so we are matched in height. He is buttoning the black topcoat, but his fingers stop mid-buttonhole. His eyes behind the glasses swim over my forehead, my sweater, my misery. Now he is unbuttoning the topcoat and taking it off. “Are you cold?” he asks. “Do you need a ride?”
ANDREA LEWIS — Andrea writes short stories, flash fiction, and creative nonfiction from her home in Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in over thirty literary journals, including Prairie Schooner, Catamaran Literary Reader, and Briar Cliff Review. Her collection of linked stories, What My Last Man Did, won the Blue Light Books Prize, and was published by Indiana University Press.
Art by AARON BURCH — Aaron is the author of the memoir/literary analysis Stephen King’s The Body; the short story collection, Backswing; and the novella, How to Predict the Weather. He is the Founding Editor of Hobart and HAD. His first novel, YEAR OF THE BUFFALO, will be released in 2022. Find him online at www.aaronburch.net or on Twitter @Aaron_Burch.