I wasn't old enough to know that my father couldn't have obtained a long-lost letter from the famed lovers Héloise and Abelard, and since European history wasn't part of my third-grade curriculum, I felt no remorse at the time for bringing the handwritten document (on lined three-hole Blue Horse filler paper), announcing its value, and reading it to the class at Friday show-and-tell. My classmates—who would all grow up to be idiots, in my opinion, since they feared anything outside of Forty-five, South Carolina, thus making them settle down exactly where they got trained, thus shrinking the gene pool even more—brought the usual: starfishes and conch shells bought in Myrtle Beach gift shops, though claimed to have been found during summer vacation; Indian-head pennies given as birthday gifts by grandfathers; the occasional pet gerbil, corn snake, or tropical fish.
My father instructed me how to read the letter, what words to stress, when to pause. I, of course, protested directly after the first dry run. Some of the words and phrases reached beyond my vocabulary. The general tone of the letter, I knew, would only get me playground-taunted by boys and girls alike. My father told me to pipe down and read louder. He told me to use my hands better, and he got out a metronome.
I didn't know that my father—"a widower" is how he told me to describe him, although everyone knew that Mom had run off to Nashville and hadn't died—had once dated Ms. Suber, my teacher. My parents' pasts never came up in conversation, even after my mother ended up tending bar at a place called the Merchant's Lunch, on Lower Broad, more often than she sang on various honky-tonk stages, waiting for representation by a man who would call her the next Patsy Cline. No, the prom night and homecoming of my father's senior year in high school with Ms. Suber never leaked out in our talks, whether we ate supper in front of the television screaming at Walter Cronkite or played pinball down at the Sunken Gardens Lounge.
I got up in front of the class. I knew that a personal, caring, loving, benevolent God didn't exist, seeing as I had prayed that my classmates would exceed their allotted time, et cetera, et cetera, and then we'd go to recess, lunch, and one of the mandatory filmstrips that South Carolina elementary school students watched weekly, on topics as tragic and diverse as Friendship, Fire Safety, Personal Hygiene, and Bee Stings. "I have a famous letter written from one famous person to another famous person," I said.
Ms. Suber held her mouth in a tiny O. Nowadays I realize that she was a beauty, but at the time she seemed just another seventy-year-old woman in front of an elementary school class, her corkboard filled with exclamation marks. She wasn't but thirty-five, really. Ms. Suber motioned for me to move closer to the music stand she also used on Recorder Day. "And what are these famous people's names, Mendal?"
Ricky Hutton, who'd already shown off a ship in a bottle that he didn't make but said he did, yelled out, "My father has a letter from President Johnson's wife thanking him for picking up litter."
"My grandma sent me a birthday card with a two-dollar bill inside," said Libby Belcher, the dumbest girl in the class, who went on to get a doctorate in education and then became superintendent of the school district.
I stood there with my folded document. Ms. Suber said, "Go on."
"I forget who wrote this letter. I mean, they were French people."
"Might it be Napoleon and Josephine?" Ms. Suber produced a smirk that I would see often in my life, from women who immediately recognized any untruth I chose to tell.
I said, "My father told me, but I forget. It's not signed or anything." Which was true.
Ms. Suber pointed at Bill Gilliland and told him to quit throwing his baseball in the air, a baseball supposedly signed by Shoeless Joe Jackson. None of us believed this, seeing as the signature was printed, at best. We never relented on Gilliland, and in due course he used the ball in pickup games until the cover wore off.
I unfolded the letter and read, "'My dearest.'"
"These are French people writing in English, I suppose," Ms. Suber said.
I nodded. I said, "They were smart, I believe. 'I want to tell you that if I live to be a hundred I won't meet another man like you. If I live to be a hundred there shall be no love to match ours.'"
The entire class began laughing, of course. My face reddened. I looked at Ms. Suber, but she concentrated on her shoe. "'That guy who wrote that "How Do I Love Thee" poem has nothing on us, my sugar-booger-baby.'"
"That's enough," Ms. Suber belted out. "You can sit down, Mendal."
I pointed at the letter. I had another dozen paragraphs to go, some of which contained rhymes. I hadn't gotten to the word "throbbing," which showed up fourteen times. "I'm not making any of this up," I said. I walked two steps toward my third-grade teacher, but she stood up and told everyone to go outside except me.
Glenn Flack walked by and said, "You're in trouble, Mendal Dawes." Carol Anderson, who was my third-grade girlfriend, looked as if she was going to cry.
Ms. Suber said, "You've done nothing wrong, Mendal. Please tell your daddy that I got it. When he asks what happened today, just say 'Ms. Suber got it.' Okay?"
I put the letter in my side pants pocket. I said, "My father's a widower."
My father was waiting for me when I got home. I never really knew what he did for a living, outside of driving within a hundred-mile radius of Forty-five, buying up land, and then reselling it when the time was right. He had a knack. That was his word. For a time I thought it was the make of his car. "I drive around all day and buy land," he said more than once, before and after my mother took off to replace Patsy Cline. "I have a Knack."
I came home wearing a canvas book bag on my back, filled with a math book and an abacus. I said, "Hey, Dad."
He held his arms wide open, as if I were a returning POW. "Did your teacher send back a note to me?"
I reached in my pocket and pulled out the letter from Héloise to Abelard. I handed it to him and said, "She made me quit reading."
"She made you quit reading? How far along did you get?"
I told him that I had only gotten to the part about "sugar-booger-baby." I said, "Is this one of those lessons in life you keep telling me about, like when we went camping?" My father taught me early on how to tell the difference between regular leaves and poison ivy, when we camped out beside the Saluda River, far from any commode, waiting for him to envision which tract would be most salable later.