A short story
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.
"Goddamn it to hell. She didn't say anything else after you read the letter?"
My father wore a seersucker suit and a string tie. I said, "She called recess pretty much in the middle of me reading the thing. This is some kind of practical joke, isn't it?"
My father looked at me as if I'd peed on his wingtips. He said, "Now, why would I do something like that to the only human being I love in this world?"
I couldn't imagine why. Why would a man who—as he liked to tell me often—before my birth had played baseball for the Yankees in the summer and football for the Packers in the winter, and had competed in the Olympics, ever revert to playing jokes on his nine-year-old son? "Ms. Suber seemed kind of mad."
"Did she cry? Did she start crying? Did she turn her head away from y'all and blow her nose into a handkerchief? Don't hold back, Mendal. Don't think that you're embarrassing your teacher or anything for telling the truth. Ms. Suber would want you to tell the truth, wouldn't she?"
I said, "Uh-huh. Probably."
"Uh-huh probably she cried, or uh-huh probably she'd want you to tell the truth?" My father walked to the kitchen backward, pulled a bottle of bourbon from a shelf, and drank from it straight. Twenty years later I would do the same thing, but over a dog that needed to be put to sleep.
I said, "Uh-huh. I told her you were a widower and everything. We got to go to recess early."
My father kept walking backward. He took a glass from the cabinet and cracked an ice tray. He put cubes in the glass, poured bourbon into it, and stood staring at me as if I had told secrets to the enemy. "Did she say that she's thinking about getting married?"
I said, "She didn't say anything."
I've gotten ahold of a genuine Cherokee Indian bracelet and ring," my father said the next Thursday night. "No BS here on this one. Your mother's father—that would be your grandfather—gave them to us a long time ago as a wedding present. He got them when he was traveling through Cherokee country. Your grandfather used to sell cotton, you know. Sometimes the Cherokees needed cotton. Sometimes they didn't have money, and he traded things for cotton. That's the way things go."
I said, "I was thinking about taking some pine cones." I had found some pine cones that were so perfect it wasn't funny. They looked like Christmas trees built to scale. "I was going to take a rock and say it was a meteorite."
"No, no. Take some of my Cherokee Indian jewelry, Mendal. I don't mind. I don't care! Hot damn, I didn't even remember having the things, so it won't matter none if they get broken or stolen. This is the real thing, Bubba."
What could I do? I wasn't but nine years old, and early on I'd been taught to do whatever my elders said, outside of drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes when they got drunk and made the offer, usually at the Sunken Gardens Lounge. I thought, Maybe I can take my father's weird jewelry and stick it in my desktop. Maybe I can stick a pine cone inside my lunch box. "Yessir."
"I won't have it any other way," he said. "Wait here."
My father went back to what used to be my mother's and his bedroom. He opened up a wooden box he had fashioned in high school shop and pulled out a thin silver bracelet plus a one-pearl ring. I didn't know that these trinkets had once adorned the left arm of my third-grade teacher, right before she broke up with my father and went off to college, and long before she graduated, taught in some other school system for ten years, and then came back to her home town.
I took the trinkets in a small cotton sack. My father told me that he'd come get me for lunch if I wanted him to, that I didn't need to pack a bologna sandwich and banana as always. I went to the refrigerator and made my own and then left through the back door.
Glenn Flack started off show-and-tell with an x-ray of his mother's ankle. She'd fallen off the front porch trying to run from bees—something the rest of us knew not to do, seeing as we'd learned how to act in one of the weekly filmstrips. I got called next and said, "I have some priceless Cherokee Indian artifacts to show y'all. The Cherokee Indians had a way with hammering and chiseling." My father had made me memorize this speech.
I showed my classmates what ended up having been bought at Rey's Jewelers. Ms. Suber said, "Let me take a look at that" and got up to take the bracelet from my hand. She peered at it and then held it at arm's length and said, "This looks like it says 'sterling' on the inside, Mendal. I believe you might've picked up the wrong Indian jewelry to bring to school."
"Indian giver, Indian giver, Indian giver!" Melissa Beasley yelled out. It wasn't a taboo term back then. This was a time, understand, before we knew to use terms like "Native American-head penny" instead of "Indian-head penny," like I said before.
I said, "I just know what my dad told me. That's all I know." I took the bracelet from Ms. Suber, pulled out the ring, and stood there as if offering a Milk-Bone to a stray and skittish dog.
Ms. Suber said, "I've had enough of this" and told me to return to my desk. I put the pearl ring on my thumb and stuck the bracelet around the toe of my tennis shoe. Ms. Suber said, "Has your father gone insane lately, Mendal?"
It embarrassed me, certainly, and if she had said it twenty or thirty years later, I could've sued her for harassment, slander, and making me potentially agoraphobic. My desk was in the last row. Every student turned toward me except Shirley Ebo, the only black girl in the entire school, four years after integration. She looked forward, as always, ready to approach the music stand and explain her show-and-tell object, a face jug made by an old, old relative of hers named Dave the Slave.
I said, "My father has a Knack." Maybe I said nothing, really, but I thought about my father's Knack. I waited.
Ms. Suber sat back down. She looked at the ceiling and said, "I'm sorry, Mendal. I didn't mean to yell at you. Everyone go on to recess."
And so it continued for six weeks. I finally told my father that I couldn't undergo any more humiliation, that I would play hooky, that I would show up at school and say I had forgotten to bring my show-and-tell. I said, "I'm only going to take these stupid things you keep telling me stories about if it brings in some money, Dad."
Not that I was ever a capitalist or anything, but I figured early on that show-and-tell would end up somehow hurting my penmanship or spelling grade, and that maybe I needed to start saving money in order to get a head start in life should I not get into college. My father said, "That sounds fair enough. How much will you charge me to take this old, dried Mayan wrist corsage and matching boutonniere?"
I said, "Five bucks each."
My father handed them over. If the goddamn school system had ever shown a worthwhile Friday filmstrip concerning inductive logic, I would've figured out back then that when Ms. Suber and my father had had their horrific and execrable high school breakup, my father had gone over to her house and gathered up everything he'd ever bestowed on her, from birthday to Valentine's Day to special three-month anniversary and so on. He had gifts she'd given him too, I supposed much later, though I doubted they were worthy of monogamy.
But I didn't know logic. I thought only that my father hated the school system, had no trust whatsoever in public education, and wanted to drive my teacher to a nervous breakdown in order to get her to quit. Or, I thought, it was his way of flirting—that since my mother had "died," he wanted to show a prospective second wife some of the more spectacular possessions he could offer a needful woman.
He said, "I can handle ten dollars a show-and-tell session, for two items. Remind me not to give you an hourglass. I don't want you charging me per grain of sand."
This was all by the first of October. By Christmas break I'd brought in cuff links worn by Louis Quatorze, a fountain pen used by the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence (my father tutored me on stressing "Independence" when I announced my cherished object to the class), a locket once owned by Elmer the glue inventor, thus explaining why the thing couldn't be opened, a pack of stale Viceroys that once belonged to the men who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima. I brought in more famous love letters, all on lined Blue Horse paper: from Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire, from Anne Hathaway to Shakespeare, from all of Henry VIII's wives to him. One letter, according to my dad, was from Plato to Socrates, though he said it wasn't the original, and that he'd gone to the trouble of learning Greek in order to translate the thing.
Ms. Suber became exasperated with each new disclosure. She moved from picking names at random or in alphabetical order to always choosing me last. My classmates voted me Most Popular, Most Likely to Succeed, and Third Grade President, essentially because I got us ten more minutes of recess every Friday.
I walked down to the County Bank every Friday after school and deposited the money my father had forked over in a regular savings account. This was a time before IRAs. It was a time before stock portfolios, mutual funds, and the like. They gave me a toaster for starting the account and a dinner plate every time I walked in with ten dollars or more. After a few months I could've hosted a dinner party for twelve.
On Saturday mornings, more often than not, I drove with my father from place to place, looking over land he had bought or planned to buy. He had acquired a few acres of woodland before my birth, and soon thereafter the Army Corps of Engineers came in, flooded the Savannah River, and made my father's property near lakefront. He sold that parcel, took that money, and bought more land in an area that bordered what would become I-95. He couldn't go wrong. My father was not unlike the fool who threw darts at a map and went with his gut instinct. He would buy useless swampland, and someone else would soon insist on buying that land at twice to ten times his cost in order to build a golf course, a subdivision, or a nuclear-power facility. I had no idea what he did between these ventures, outside of reading and wondering. How else would he know about Abelard and Héloise, or even Socrates and Plato? He hadn't gone to college. He hadn't taken some kind of correspondence course.
We drove, and I stuck my head out the window like the dog I had owned before my mother took him to Nashville. We'd get to some land, pull down a dirt road usually, and my father would stare hard for ten or fifteen minutes. He barely turned his head from side to side, and he never turned off the engine. Sometimes he'd say at the end, "I think I got a fouled spark plug," or "You can tell that that gas additive's working properly."
He never mentioned people from history, or the jewelry of the dead. I took along Hardy Boys mysteries but never opened the covers. Finally, one afternoon, I said, "Ms. Suber wants to know if you're planning on coming to the PTA meeting. I forgot to tell you."
My father turned off the ignition. He reached beneath his seat and pulled out a can of beer and a church key. We sat parked between two gullies, somewhere in Greenwood County. "Hot damn, boy, you need to tell me these things. When is it?"
I said, "I forgot. I got in so much trouble Friday that I forgot." I'd taken a tortoise to show-and-tell and said his name was John the Baptist. At first Ms. Suber seemed delighted. When she asked why I had named him John the Baptist, I said, "Watch this." I screamed, "John the Baptist!" When he retreated into his shell and lost his head, I nodded. She had me sit back down. None of my classmates got the joke.
"The PTA meeting's on Tuesday. It's on Tuesday." I wore a pair of cut-off blue jeans with the bottoms cut into one-inch strips. My mother used to make them for me when I'd grown taller but hadn't gained weight around the middle. I had on my light-blue Little League T-shirt, with SUNKEN GARDENS on the front and 69 for my number on the back. My father had insisted that I get that number, and that I would thank him one day.
"Hell, yes. Do I need to bring anything? I mean, is this one of those meetings where parents need to bring food? I know how to make potato salad. I can make potato salad and cole slaw, you know."
"She just asked me to ask if you'd show up. That's all she said, I swear."
My father looked out at what I understood to be another wasteland. Empty beer cans were scattered in front of us, and the remains of a haphazard bonfire someone had made right in the middle of a path. "Maybe I should call her up and ask if she needs anything."
Although I didn't understand the depth of my father's obsession, I said, "Ms. Suber won't be in town until that night. We have a substitute on Monday, 'cause she has to go to a funeral somewhere."
My father drank from his beer. He handed the can over and told me to take little sips at first. I said, "Mom wouldn't want you to give me beer."
He nodded. "Mom wouldn't want you to do a lot of things, just like she didn't want me to do a lot of things. But she's not here, is she? Your momma's spending all her time praying that she never gets laryngitis, while the rest of us hope she does."
I didn't know that my father had been taking Fridays off in order to see the school secretary, feign needing to leave me a bag lunch, and then stand looking through the vertical window of my classroom door while I expounded the rarity of a letter sweater once worn by General Custer, or whatever. When the PTA meeting came around, I went with my father, though no other students attended. Pretty much it was only parents, teachers, and a couple of the lunch ladies, who had volunteered to serve a punch of ginger ale and grape juice. My father entered Ms. Suber's classroom and approached her as if she were a newspaper boy he'd forgotten to pay. He said, "I thought you'd eventually send a letter home asking for a conference. I thought you'd finally buckle under." He said, "Go look at the goldfish, Mendal," and pointed toward our aquarium.
I looked at the corner of the room. My classmates' parents were sitting at tiny desks, their knees bobbing like the shells of surfaced turtles. My third-grade teacher said, "I know you think this is cute, but it's not. I don't know why you think you can re-court me however many years later after what you did to me back then."
My father pushed me in the direction of the aquarium. Ms. Suber waved and smiled at Glenn Flack's parents, who were walking in. I said, "Can I go sit in the car?"
Ms. Suber said, "You stay right here, Mendal."
"I might not have been able to go to college like you did, Lola, but I've done good for myself," my father said. I thought one thing only: Lola?
"I know you have, Lee. I know you've done well. And let me be the first to say how proud I am of you, and how I'm sorry if I hurt you, and that I've seen you looking in the window when Mendal does his bogus show-and-tells." She pointed at the window in the door. Mr. and Mrs. Anderson walked in. "I need to start this thing up."
My father said to me, "If you want to go sit in the car, go ahead." He handed me the keys, leaned down, and said, "There's a beer in the glove compartment, son."
Let me say that this was South Carolina in 1968. Although my memory's not perfect, I think that at the time, neither drinking nor driving was against the law for minors, nor was smoking cigarettes before the age of twelve. Five years later I would drive my mini-bike to the Sunken Gardens, meet one of the black boys twirling trays out in the parking lot, order my eight-pack of Miller ponies, and have it delivered to me without conscience or threat of law.
I pretended to go into the parking lot but circled around to the outside of Ms. Suber's classroom. I stood beneath one of the six jalousies, crouched, and listened. Ms. Suber welcomed the parents and said that it was an exciting year. She said something about how all of us would have to take a national test later on to see how we compared with the rest of the nation. She said something about a school play.
Ms. Suber warned parents of a looming head-lice epidemic. She paced back and forth and asked everyone to introduce himself or herself. Someone asked if the school would ever sponsor another cake-and-pie sale in order to buy new recorders. My father said he'd be glad to have a potato-salad-and-cole-slaw sale. I didn't hear the teacher's answer. From where I crouched I could only look up at the sky and notice how some stars twinkled madly while others shone hard and fast like mica afire.
B the time I reached high school, my mother had moved from Nashville to New Orleans and then from New Orleans to Las Vegas. She never made it as a country singer or a blues singer, but she seemed to thrive as a hostess of sorts. As I crouched there beneath a window jutting out above boxwoods, I thought of my mother and imagined what she might be doing at the moment my father experienced his first PTA meeting. Was she crooning to conventioneers? Was she sitting in a back room worrying over pantyhose? That's what I thought, I swear to God. Everyone in Ms. Suber's classroom seemed to be talking with cookies in their mouths. I heard my father laugh hard twice—once when Ms. Suber said she knew that her students saw her as a witch, and another time when she said she knew that her students went home complaining that she didn't spank exactly the way their parents spanked.
Again, this was in the middle of the Vietnam War. Spanking made good soldiers.
My third-grade teacher said that she didn't have anything else to say, and told her students' parents to feel free to call her up should they have questions concerning grades, expectations, or field trips. She said she appreciated anyone who wanted to help chaperone kids or to work after school in a tutoring capacity. I stood up and watched my friends' parents leave single file, my father last in line.
Fifteen minutes after sitting in the car, five minutes after everyone else had driven out of the parking lot, I climbed out the passenger side and crept back to Ms. Suber's window. I expected my father to have Lola Suber in a headlock, or backed up against the Famous Christians of the World corkboard display. I didn't foresee their having moved desks against the walls in order to make a better dance floor.
My father held my third-grade teacher in a way I'd seen him hold a woman only once before: one Fourth of July he had danced with my mother in the back yard while the neighbors shot bottle rockets straight up. My mother had placed her head on his shoulder and smiled, her eyes raised to the sky. Lola Suber didn't look upward. She didn't smile either. My father seemed to be humming, or talking low. I couldn't hear exactly what went on, but years later he confessed that he had set forth everything he meant to say and do, everything he hoped she taught the other students and me when it came to matters of passion.
I did hear Lola Suber remind him that they had broken up because she had decided to have a serious and exclusive relationship with Jesus Christ.
There amid the boxwoods I hunkered down and thought only about the troubles I might have during future show-and-tells, I swear to God. I stood back up, saw them dancing, and returned to the car. I would let my father open the glove compartment later.