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- A self-described "primitive artist," getting rich off religious canvases, is mistaken for a faith ...
- A self-described "primitive artist," getting rich off religious canvases, is mistaken for a faith healer.
- A lovelorn dad woos his third grader's teacher with very special show-and-tells, including long lost love letters to Shakespeare from Anne Hathaway, to Fred Astaire from Ginger Rogers, and to Henry VIII from all of his wives.
- A boy's reputation is ruined forever when he accepts the starring role in a documentary on diagnosing head lice.
Off-the-wall. But also utterly believable and written with tremendous affection for the people and their place-a place called Forty-Five, part of the contemporary South that's far removed from big city Atlanta or proper Charleston and, in fact, much like Singleton's own hometown of Dacusville, South Carolina. As he says of his characters, "They're regular people just trying to get by. Most of them aren't jaded by everyday life, though perhaps they should have been long ago. There are some with physical and mental limitations, but I hope all of them have heart."
They do indeed, just like their stories.
I wasn't old enough to know that my father couldn't have obtained a long-lost letter from famed lovers HTl¸ise and Peter Abelard, and since European history wasn't part of my third-grade curriculum, I really felt no remorse in bringing the handwritten document-on lined and hole-punched Blue Horse filler paper-announcing its value, and reading it to the class on Friday show-and-tell. My classmates-who would all later grow up to be idiots, in my opinion, since they feared anything outside of South Carolina in general and my hometown of Forty-Five in particular, 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 personally 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 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 got out a metronome.
I didn't know that my father-a "widower" is what he instructed me to call him, although everyone knew how Mom ran 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 spill over their allotted time, et cetera, et cetera, and then we'd go to recess, lunch, and then sit through one of the mandatory filmstrips each South Carolina elementary-school student underwent 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 held beauty, but at the time she was just another very 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 edge closer to the music stand she normally 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 later went on to get a doctorate in education and then become 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 wore 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 Billy Gilliland and told him to quit throwing his baseball in the air, a baseball supposedly signed by Shoeless Joe Jackson that none of us believed in, seeing as the signature was printed, at best. We never relented on Gilliland, and later on he plain used the ball in pickup games until the cover wore off.
I unfolded the letter and read, "'My dearest.'"
"These were 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 rhymed. 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 like she was going to cry, as if I'd written the letter to Ms. Suber myself.
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 that Ms. Suber got it, okay?" I put the letter in my front pants pocket. I said, "My father's a widower."
My father was waiting for me when I got home. Like everyone else, he started off in textiles, then gave it up. I never really knew what he did for a living, outside of driving around 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 my book bag, filled with math homework and an abacus. I said, "Hey, Dad."
He held his arms wide open, as if I were a returning P.O.W. "Did your teacher send back a note?"
I reached in my pocket and pulled out the letter from HTl¸ise 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 how I only got 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, the year before, when we camped out beside the Saluda River, far from any commode, waiting for him to gain a vision on which tract would be most saleable later.
"Goddamn it to hell. She didn't say anything else after you read the letter?"
My father wore a seersucker suit. He wore 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 wing tips. 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 played baseball for the Yankees in the summer, football for the Packers in the winter, and competed in the Olympics, ever revert to playing jokes on a nine-year-old son of his? "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 backwards, pulled a bottle of bourbon from the shelf, and drank from it straight. Twenty years later on 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 backwards. He took a glass from the cabinet, then cracked open 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 wondered if my mother stood before a group of men and women drinking house beer, if she sang "I Fall to Pieces" or "Crazy" or any of those other country songs. It wasn't but three-thirty in my father's house. There was a one-hour time change, at least, in Nashville.
"I've gotten ahold of a genuine Cherokee Indian bracelet and ring," my father said the next Thursday night. "I ain't shitting you any on this one. Your mother's father gave them to us a long time ago as a wedding present. He got them when he was traveling through Cherokee County up in the Cherokee country. Your grandfather used to sell cotton, you know. Sometimes those Indians needed cotton. They traded things for cotton. That's the way things go."
I said, "I was thinking about taking some pinecones I found." I had gathered up some pinecones 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, son. I don't mind. I don't care! Hotdamn I didn't even remember having the things, so it won't matter none if they get broken or stolen," he said. "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 Sunken Gardens Lounge. I thought, Maybe I can pretend to take my father's weird jewelry and stick it in my desktop. Maybe I can stick a pinecone 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'd fashioned in high school shop, and pulled out a thin silver bracelet, plus a one-pearl ring. I didn't know that these trinkets once adorned the left arm of my third-grade teacher, right before she broke up with my father in order to go to college, and long before she graduated, taught in some other school system for ten years, and then came back to her hometown.
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 being something 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 all had to say Native American-head penny.
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 prior to lawful 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."
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