A Valentine Tale
Things change as time goes on. That's something I've noticed. Some things don't change as much as others. At my twenty-fifth |high school reunion a while back I won the prize for the least changed in appearance. Or I would have won the prize, except I wasn't there. When they gave the award, I had left because the whole event was boring. Like 1 said, some things never change.
Anyhow, I wasn't sure I won because I was a youthful-looking forty-four year-old or I was an old-looking seventeen-year-old. 1 haven't changed that much (except for adding thirty pounds and losing hair) since I was twelve, when I was the six-feet two that I am now and weighed one-hundred-thirty-five pounds soaking wet. Wrestling and basketball coaches’ eyes lit up when they saw me (I was basketball center material in those long-ago days) but the glow quickly extinguished itself when they saw me try to wrestle or shoot a basket. I just didn’t have it.
Lacking in athletic ability, I cultured a quick tongue, especially around my mother, who always had something to say. We would be arguing about something like her failure to buy me copious quantities of expensive toys and she would refuse, sayings ''You don't know how hard it can be. In the Depression, we played with sticks and rags.”
Gee, mom, I bet you had fun.”
''Now don't you get smart with me…”
“Yeah, just What 1 would want to play with. A stick and a rag. Lessee: bet I'd have to be awfully careful not to confuse that rag with my brain…''
“I’m warning you...”
“As a matter of fact, I’d have to be careful not to confuse my brain with—“ I hesitated a second here, knowing I was about to use one of my finest insults. ''Not to confuse my brain with DOG POOP!
My mother had one of the fastest slapping hands in existence. She had plenty of practice, after all. I also got to spend plenty of time alone in my room, sent there unjustly for expressing my opinion. I used the opportunity to make up other insults, but “dog poop” was about as good as it got.
I didn't limit my wit to my mother, but shared it with my schoolmates. This was all right when I had my full growth and looked like I could wrestle, but unfortunately I shot off my mouth a lot when I was four feet tall, which I was during most of elementary school. My wit was matched only by a sense of judgment approximating dog poop.
Our school owned exactly one basketball, which naturally was taken by the resident gang of juvenile delinquents to play basketball with during recess. These guys carried switchblades, wore black leather jackets and probably would have driven their hot rods to school if the school had allowed it. I suppose they let them have the ball to try to make up for being sixteen years old in the sixth grade.
One day I decided I just had to play basketball. I stationed myself near the court, intently watching for my chance to steal the ball. Teeth, blood, and bits of bone were flying out of the tangled mass of black leather on the court. My friend Mike wandered up. “Hey,” he asked me, “Wanna go hang on the monkey bars?”
“Nah,” I sneered. “I wanna play basketball.”
Mike sucked his breath in. He knew about my schemes, having been present when I tried to fly a homemade airplane off our garage roof and when I made a realistic volcano using common chemicals I had found in the school science kit and the recipe for nitroglycerine I had come across in the encyclopedia. “Uh,’ he stammered, “Let’s go stand under the swings and try to look up the girls’ dresses…”
Now that was tempting. “Nah,” I said. “Nah, I wanna play basketball!” Just then the ball bounced my way. I grabbed it and dribbled madly for the basket. “C’mon, Mike, “ I screamed. “Layup! Layup! Layup!”
“I’m going to jump rope.” I heard his departing voice. At the same time I felt myself raised magically in the air. Roger LeBoeuf, the biggest, meanest, ugliest and strongest hood in the three-state area, had the ball grasped in one hand and raised it in the air with me still holding onto it. I had a wonderful idea about how to keep the ball.
“It’s mine,” I said, “I had it first.” Roget gave the ball a hard shake and I fell to the asphalt. He laughed a wicked hood’s laugh. “Mwhahahahahahahaha!”
Lying flat on my back, I struggled to think of something hurtful and spiteful to say. It come to me in a flash of brilliance: “Roger, you’re nothing but a pile of dog poop!”
That caught his attention. He thrust his face close to mine. He smelled of bloody switchblades and burned clutches.” “And you’re a little dead weenie,” he snarled.
I closed my eyes, prepared to end my life with bits of asphalt stuck in my back, seven years old in the second grade. And then I heard the voice of Mrs. Pound, an aptly named sixth grade teacher who had all the juvenile delinquents in her class. She kept them in line though a simple expedient: she outweighed all of them put together by about two to one. Once my class had witnessed her use her favorite method of punishment on an errant student who had talked in the cafeteria line. She squeezed him against the wall with her considerable bulk. The poor kid looked like a flounder for a month.
“Roger,” she said, “You leave that child alone.” She reached down and practically threw me back onto my feet in one powerful motion. Tiny rocks fell from my back. “Now you—“she gave me a push in such a way that I intuitively understood the laws of force and inertia for the rest of my life—“you go over to the swings.”
“Yes, ma’m,” I muttered, glad that I would live to use my smart mouth another day. As I walked past Roger with as much swagger as I could must with pound of asphalt fragments embedded din in my back, he said quietly with an evil tone of menace, “I’ll get you, weenie boy!”
I now had a definite problem. I was a walker, which meant, strangely enough, that I walked home from school, a distance of about half a mile which took me on my two-foot legs about forty-five minutes. Of course, I had to entertain my friends with witty comments along the way and try to violate as many safety patrol rules as possible without being caught. It was a tough life. Now I also had to avoid Roger and his evil cronies ho numbered, I don’t know, maybe in the thousands. Maybe the six in the sixth grade were only a visible remnant of a vast evil empire of black leather-clad figures who would await me at every turn. The possibilities of my life began to diminish. I would have to stay at home with my mother and brother…and our neighbor, Stevie. Oh, no. I loved school. I loved being in the Blue Bird reading group. I loved the science kit. I loved standing under the stairwell when the girls came down them. I loved being a little pervert. I had to be in school. What would my mother say when I told her I couldn’t go to school because I had called someone dog poop? She’d probably have me sent to reform school where Roger would be waiting for me. He probably knew the warden there personally.
My lightning-fast mind came up with two courses of action by the time recess was over: first, I would take a different way home every day. I would rely on my quick reflexes and speedy (if short) legs to carry me out of danger. I was faster than Roger and his cronies, if only because they all smoked and I didn’t-yet. If they failed, I would call upon my legions of friends that I had cultivated with my wit and charm. They would help me. Besides, Valentine’s Day was coming up and I had to be at school for that.
I loved Valentine’s Day. Even now I remember the thrill of slaving over my Valentine mailbox, carefully cutting and gluing the read construction paper doled out to us from the supply closet in the classroom, making out the Valentines I had conned my mother into buying, waiting with breathless anticipation my adoring classmates would shower on me. Yes, it was special but ever more so this year because I was in love. I would never admit this even to Mike, since we had sworn to be bush pilots when we finished elementary school, but I was smitten with Leigh Stone, a brown-haired vision who could hit a softball further than any second grader in the school. In truth, she was the only girl who could hit the ball at all. She wore little blue plaid skirts and when she happened to talk to me, my witty tongue faltered and tied itself into a knot. She was so lovely and so kind. A week before Valentine’s Day, she engaged me in polite conversation from her place in the girls’ lunch line. What a woman, I thought, risking sure annihilation should Mrs. Pound happen by.
“So, do you have all your Valentines ready, Dan?”
Angels never sounded like this, I thought, so I said, “Uh, uh, uh.”
A small frown furrowed her perfect alabaster brow. “Are you all right?”
No, I thought. I’m going to be sick with all this attention. Now I have to find the line monitor so I can ask permission to go throw up. I put one hand over my mouth and waved the other frantically. Leigh looked around. “Who do you see? Who are you waving at?” She looked at Roger, who was lurking in the hall, cleaning his nails with a switchblade. “Oh” she sniffed. “I didn’t know you liked him.” She turned back to her friend.
Now I felt myself doubly doomed. Doomed to death at an early age, ignored by the angel of the school. I would die in a ditch on the way home while the safety patrols looked the other way, as they did for everything. In the event of a nuclear attack, I knew the patrols would be gazing off in the opposite direction, saying, “Nope, I didn’t see nothing’, nope, nothing happened while I was on patrol, no sirree,” as bright mushroom clouds blossomed over what used to be Washington, D.C.
I passed the week in a frenzy of preparation, hoping Leigh would forgive my lunch room gaffe. She gave special Valentines, handmade, with piece of candy glued to the center, and a special message written on each one. I tried to envision what she would write on mine—perhaps something like “To Dan, the bravest, wittiest, fastest, handsomest, if not the tallest boy I know. All my love. Hugs and kisses, Leigh.” She would hand it to me personally and we would hold hands and walk across the playground to the woods behind the school, there to do whatever it was that boys and girls went into the woods to do. I wasn’t sure what that was, exactly, but we would look cool strolling across the softball field. Everyone would watch us in awe, even the bullies, who were afraid to go near the words since Mrs. Pound would smash them up against a tree if they tried.
The big day, Valentine’s Day, arrived. I must have been a ball of hyperactivity—Mrs. Wise, our teacher, made me messenger for life that day. I carried messages to the office, to the clinic, to the library, to the cafeteria, to the janitor’s closet, and when the magic hour of valentine distribution approached, I was designated Valentine Mailman, a singular honor but also a useful one since I go to see who the losers were who didn’t get many valentines.
As Valentine Mailman, I also got to choose the method of distribution and I got to choose my assistant. I chose Mike, since we had a deal that if either of us had a job that allowed us to get out of class and choose an assistant, we would choose each other. I think we spent about a total of ninety days out of 180 in class and never missed a day of school. As a teacher, I knew that there were ways to get kids out of class that you didn’t want around for whatever reason.
Anyhow, I selected Mike as my assistant and we took the valentines out of the big red box that served as the class’s valentine mailbox. Then we sorted them. I assured Mrs. Wise that this was so we would disrupt class less when we gave them out. In reality, it was so I could see how many valentines each person received. As we counted them out, it became clear that everyone had received the same number: there were twenty-five people in the class and everyone got twenty-six valentines (one extra from Mrs. Wise). I was shocked. I was sure there would be some losers who didn’t get any—Dave, who spent every recess hanging upside down from the money bars, and Nancy, who never said anything to anyone and who slid from corner to corner along the walls when the class went anywhere. I mean, c’mon, these kids got as many as I did? It couldn’t be—unless every other kid’s mother was a soft touch for kid other than their own. My mother made me fill out a valentine for every kid in the class, standing over me at the kitchen table to make sure I didn’t write something like “You’re lucky to get this, you loser,” and gave me a sealed envelope with the valentines in them for Mrs. Wise. That was to guarantee that all the valentines got there unaltered.
I was interrupted in my thoughts as Mike placed a beautiful handmade valentine on my pile. It was cut from the thick, luxurious construction paper found in stores, not the nearly transparent stuff from the supply closet. And it was glued to a heart shaped paper lace doily, with a Hershey’s kiss glued squarely in the center. I knew in an instant it was from Leigh.
Mike and I raced around depositing the piles of valentines in our classmates’ individual mailboxes, throwing them at our classmates. I shouldered him aside as he reached for Leigh’s mailbox and took it to her. I thought about getting down on one knee to give them to her, but decided to float it down on her desk where she sat working math problems. She looked up and smiled. “Thank you,” she whispered. I felt my knees go weak.
“Uh, uh, uh, uh,” I said. I retired to my desk and waited for the signal to open our boxes. Why did I put a top on mine? I tried looking in the slot. All I could see was red darkness. Finally Mrs. Wise gave the signal—she had held out until the last ten minutes of school. Teachers were made of iron in those days.
I carefully eased the top off my mailbox and edged the top valentine out. Yes, there it was—hand-made and on it, in a flowing feminine script—this wonderful creature could write cursive in the second grade—“to Dan: a really nice guy. Sincerely, Leigh.” Was that it? Was that all? Visions of our hand-in-hand walk to the woods shrank to an errant glance at the water fountain. Surely there was some mistake. I pored over the valentine again—and—there, right above the “Sincerely” were tiny marks. I held the valentine up to the light, but I couldn’t tell what the marks were. The magnifying glass in the science kit! I tore over to the shelf where it was kept, grabbed the glass and ran back to my desk. There, under the power lens that we used to fry ants on the playground, were three tiny x’s. XXX. That meant kisses—love—maybe being picked third or fourth for Leigh’s softball team at recess instead of last. It wasn’t my vision, but it would have to do. I looked over at Leigh, who was carefully sorting her valentines. Half of hers seemed to be hand-made. Probably from other girls, I thought. She didn’t look my way. That was OK, I thought. Secret love is the best kind.
I sat impatiently while all the bus riders were called. The school let the walkers go last so the dumb kids in the first grade wouldn’t run under a bus. Finally we were allowed to go, and I sailed blithely home, thinking how wonderful life was, how nothing could ever go wrong again. Leigh was mine. My mind filled with fantasies of our future together and, weighed down by these dreams, I stopped about a block from our house and sat down on the side of the ditch by the road to look over my prize once again. My mother would insist on inspecting them all when I got home, so this was my last moment alone with Leigh’s wonderful message.
I pulled the top off the box and sat in the thin February sunlight, letting the light play across the words on Leigh’s valentine. She must have used a real fountain pen—the ink had bled slightly into the rich fabric of the paper.
A large shadow fell across the words and I smelled leather and burned clutches. I had forgotten to keep an eye out for bullies, and Roger now towered over me. I was a deer transfixed by headlights, my legs paralyzed by contrary emotions of wonderment and abject terror. I knew I could outrun Roger. A couple of weeks earlier, I had persuaded several of my friends to walk with me the main way home. Roger stepped in front of us.
“Hello, weenie boy,” he growled.
Confident that I had superior numbers at my disposal, I said, “What do you want, dog poop?”
“You!” he snarled, and came at me.
“Oh, really,” I said, inspecting my fingernails. “Guys.: I made a tiny gesture back to where my friends stood waiting and then glanced back when nothing happened. I was waiting for their assault on Roger, but instead I saw them about a block away, running for their lives. That’s when I decided to run for mine.
I got away from Roger that day, but I wouldn’t this one. I was seated and I couldn’t run fast and carry my valentine box. And I couldn’t run fast and carry my valentine box. And I wouldn’t leave it to him. He jerked me to my feet. I cradled the valentine box in both arms. “Well, if it isn’t the weenie boy,” he hissed.
I thought of a clever retort involving dog poop but Roger drew back his fist and hit me squarely in the nose. In doing so, he inadvertently save my life because he invoked my secret weapon—my nose.
I had been troubled by frequent nose bleeds before I went to school—something to do with the topography of the inside of my nose. When I got to school, I found I could make my nose bleed simply by snorting. This talent came in handy when I wanted a little time alone in the clinic or an opportunity to think about the six times multiplication table during a test. I used this ability—sparingly, mind you—until I was in high school and an algebra teacher asked me if I had a problem with emphysema as I sat there snorting during a test on polynomials. Apparently my blood vessels thickened up as I got older.
But they weren’t thick when I was in second grade. Roger popped me in the nose, valentines flew everywhere, blood sprayed into the air and I fell over into the ditch. When I recovered my senses enough to stand up, still bleeding all over the valentines, Roger was a block away, running as fast as he could go. I believe he was certain he had killed me. Instead, it was jst a routine nose bleed—not even a two on the Verner Nosebleed Scale.
But my valentines were ruined, and as the cold February wind came p and sent them along the street and plastered them to the fence, I decided that they would just have to be a wonderful memory. I had had enough excitement for one day.
I trudged the rest of the way to my house. My mother was in the kitchen, making a fair catch of my brother who had climbed atop the refrigerator (the kid loved to climb—maybe someday he would climb to the top of the house, I thought. Now, there was an idea…) “Hi, Danny,” my mom said. “Where are your valentines?”
“Didn’t get any, “I mumbled.
She stopped. “Didn’t get any?”
“No,” I said. “I told you I was in class with bunch of losers. Some of them can’t even read newspapers. Can I go to an expensive private school?”
“Watch your brother while I get in the laundry.”
“OK,” said, trying not to show the sudden surge of enthusiasm I felt. Now I could find out how long a child could sit on a floor furnace before his clothes ignited. Fortunately for him they hadn’t even started to smoulder when she came back with the water-soaked and blood-spattered remains of my valentines.
“I found your valentines,” she said. “You must have dropped them.”
“Yeah. I must have.
“Well,” she said, “we’ll just straighten them out and—what’s this on them? Red paint?
“Yeah,” I said. “There was a little accident with the finger paints this afternoon. That’s why I didn’t want to show them to you.”
“Oh, look,” she cooed, pulling Leigh’s valentine from the pile. “What a lovely card. It’s from that Stone girl, isn’t it? Her mother is just the nicest person. And look what a nice rich red color this is. I wonder how she did that?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. “Can I go to bed?” I had never asked to do this before.
My mother looked at me as if trying to figure out what I was up to.
“I’m tired,” I said.
“OK,” she returned.
She displayed all the valentines for several days until I managed to take them one by one and throw them away. She kept Leigh’s in the kitchen window where she could see it while she washed dishes. After a couple of days she brought it to me. “Have you had this valentine? There’s something brown on it.”
I looked at it carefully. “No, not me, Mom. Tell you what that looks like, though—it looks like dog poop.”