(Uncomfortably close to what happened, this was originally published in the 2012 Spring issue of Straightjacket)
I was almost out: out of the kitchen, out of the house, and out of trouble, at least for this. I turned the doorknob slowly, as the door to the garage squeaked sometimes. I didn’t want to explain my grocery bag to my wife, Mary.
“Dad, what on earth are you doing?” It was Julie, our only daughter and youngest child. She stood behind me, hands on her hips.
“Good Lord, kid. Not so loud.” I moved the bag behind me. “Are you trying to give me a coronary? When did you get into town?”
Julie, two years into her Masters in plant pathology, looked like a young Audrey Hepburn. “I drove over to help Mom with a home permanent, but why are you sneaking out of the house and what’s in that bag your hiding?”
I glanced over her shoulder to make sure Mary wasn’t in earshot. “Keep it down, will you. I didn’t know your mother baked cookies today, so I picked up a dozen double-chocolate-chunk on my way home from work. Your mother will think I’m insulting her cooking if she finds these, and I don’t need more trouble.”
“Yeah. She told me about the card you got her for Valentine’s Day. Geez, Dad, Talk about Lame! Couldn’t you at least read the card before you signed it.”
“Picky, picky, picky. It had hearts on it. I’ll be back in a minute.” I slipped out to the garage and tucked the cookies under the passenger seat of my car. Mary wouldn’t see them and I could snack on my way to work in the morning.
Julie was sitting at the dining room table, chin in hand and looking pensive, when I returned. I poured a cup of decaf tea in the kitchen, grabbed one of the fresh cookies, and took a seat across the table from her. “How’ve you been? How’s your research going?”
She stirred her tea, eyes on the table. “Slowly. The darn . . .” She looked at me, her eyes sparkling. “Things just fell into place. I saw Jeff blunder into trouble with Suzan every week last summer. He never saw it coming and spent two days a week apologizing. But you? Boy, you’re smooth. You came in, saw Mom’s cookies and dodged the bullet. I’m impressed.”
It was nice to know Julie appreciated caution, cowardice, and subterfuge; the manly domestic arts, as I call them. I leaned back in my chair. “Forty years of practice. And when I flub, I can count on Ed to make me look good.”
Julie glanced toward the bedroom where Mary was preparing for the permanent. The door was closed. Julie leaned toward me. “Who’s Ed?” she whispered.
“Ed and Carol. They’re friends of ours. No matter how badly I mess up on Valentine’s Day, I can depend on Ed to do worse. And Carol talks to your mother at least once a week, so I’ve managed to look good by default every Valentine’s Day.
“That reminds me, after yesterday’s card fiasco, I have to talk to Ed about his Valentine’s Day. He was as excited as a kid on his first date last week, said his present this year would erase all memories of his disasters.”
“But, wouldn’t that make your card look even worse?”
“Honey, every good idea is a Titanic in Ed’s hands. He’s a walking disaster when it comes to Valentine’s Day. He’ll be drowning his sorrows at Murphy’s by noon tomorrow, and I’ll be at his elbow, listening. Now, go help your mother.”
Ed was where I’d predicted he’d be when I dropped by Murphy’s Bar and Grill the next afternoon. I took a stool next to him at the bar and ordered a diet Coke. “How’s life?” I asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” He drained his glass and set it on the bar with a thump.
“Just thought I’d ask. You looked so—“
“I said, I don’t want to talk about it.” He turned to the bar maid, ordered another brandy Manhattan, and buried his face in his hands.
A basketball game was on TV. Ed groaned as the refs missed a foul, although he wasn’t watching the game. His head was still in his hands. “It was supposed to be a romantic surprise,” he moaned.
I waited for more, but he lapsed into silence. So I pried. “That’s what you said it would be. A surprise valentine.”
Ed had been desperate to make up for last year. He’d ended up on the couch every night for a week after giving Carol a box of candy in his own special way. Damned if I know how you can go wrong with candy, but I overheard Carol telling Mary, “There’s a difference between a nut cluster and cluster of nuts. That’s what Ed and his brothers are: a cluster of nuts. There isn’t an ounce of common sense in the lot of them.”
Ed sipped his Manhattan, sighed, and put his face back in his hands.
I watched the game for a quarter and tried again. “Not a surprise?”
“Jesus, was it a surprise.” He shook his head. “I tried to warn her.”
“It was too late.”
This would take patience. I tried again after the next beer ad. “What was too late?”
“My warning. They showed up before she could change.”
“Who showed up?”
“The quartet. The goddamned Barber Shop Quartet.”
“At your house?”
“Of course at my house, you nitwit. That’s what I paid them for. They were the surprise.”
I bought another round and waited for Ed to relax. I tried again after a short guy threw a Hail-Mary shot from mid-court and nailed it. Ed even pulled himself out of his misery to watch the re-play. That’s when I asked, “Why are you ticked-off if you paid them to show up?”
“I didn’t know Carol was going to put that gop on.”
“A greenish goo. Spread it all over her face. Defoliant, beauty cream–how the hell should I know what it was. She looked like a damned witch doctor.”
Ed ordered another Manhattan. I’d never seen him drink that much, but he’s big, six-two and 220 pounds. I figured he could hold it.
Ed was probably handling this better than Carol. She’s a lady who has every hair in place when she’s in public and is one of the few women I’ve seen, at least these days, wearing white gloves. I tried to imagine what she’d looked like, or how she’d felt.
“Must have been a colorful figure,” I offered.
“Worse. I’d taken the day off. We had nothing planned for the day, at least nothing Carol new about. God knows why, but out of the blue, she decided to clean the drier vent. I tried to stop her, but when she makes up her mind . . . “She changed into an old T-shirt and torn shorts and went to work. By the time the doorbell rang, she was soaked in sweat, and it was obvious she wasn’t wearing a bra. Lint stuck to her face, hair, clothes—looked like she’d lost a fight with a mangy sheep.”
I bit my lip. “When the quartet showed up?”
“Drop it. Just drop it.”
I waited until the first ad as we watched the Channel 9 evening news. “Did she like the Valentine?”
“She sat on the sofa, the quartet standing around her in a semi-circle. They were dressed to the hilt–matching sport coats, slacks: the whole nine yards. Halfway through “Tell Me Why”, she started to sniffle. She tried to cover herself with a crocheted throw she keeps on the couch and was bawling by the time they launched into ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart.’”
“Sounds like you hit a soft spot. You finally pulled one off.” My card was really looking bad.
“Hardly. When she stopped crying long enough to catch her breath, she turned to me and yelled, ‘You fucking bastard! How could you do this to me?’”
“Wow! I’ve . . .I’ve never heard Carol swear.”
“Neither had the quartet. They beat it out of the house–left the door wide open.”
“Fang, her toy poodle, shot out the door and down the block. It took us three hours to find him. Fool dog bounced up and down, happy as hell, when we got him in the car. He was plastered with mud and stunk like a rotten fish. The idiot rolled on the living room carpet and jumped on the new couch as soon as he got back in the house.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
I thought while I nursed a beer. Ed was like a gambler; every year he doubled down on the previous Valentine’s Day, hoping to recoup from the last one. The more elaborate his plans became, the bigger the disaster.
“Have you ever thought of giving Carol something simple and cheap; maybe a card and a hug. It’s hard to go wrong with that. Sometimes ‘less is more.’”
“Yeah, but I don’t like modern architecture.”
That shut me up. As I tried to figure out where that came from, Ed perked up and asked me how my Valentine’s Day went.
“It was less and more; the more was like yours. Who the hell gives Valentine’s Day cards to their sister, anyway?”
“I’ve never done it, but I don’t have a sister. Why?”
“I don’t know who gives ‘em, but I found a store that sells them. The greeting card aisle at the grocery store used to be a safe backstop for me. Lately, it’s a damned mine field.”
Ed smiled. “Mary’s mad?”
“Fuming. Do you think they might cool off if we took them out to dinner? They can compare stories and ignore us like they did last year.”
Ed rubbed his chin. “Let’s let them choose the time and place, and . . . and it might work better if Mary called Carol to suggest it. Carol isn’t in a mood to listen to me.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said. “And next year, you give something simpler, and I’ll read the damned card first.”
“Isn’t that what we said we’d do last year?”