Valentine’s Heartbreak

Heartbreak at Valentine’s could be painful

The text alarm woke Johnny on a Saturday morning when he was anticipating sleeping in.

Janet was in the shower. It was her damn phone. He could hear the muffled water splashing and her humming one of those oldies ear worms that can’t be easily eradicated by normal pest control measures. Janet liked music all the way back to Junior High before the days when the seventh grade was not politically corrected with terms such as middle school. Johnny thought for a moment how those songs were different. You could understand singers actually pronounce the words. Even if the lyrics were about heartbreak, the melody would draw out your affection for the song. This morning the tune sounded like that song about drinking Pina Coladas in the rain. He thought if it is true that art imitates life, he should probably read the text; the one on her phone. So, he peeked and saw, ‘Are you ready for next weekend?’

There was no indication of who the mysterious writer had been; just a phone number from the out of state area code, 904. The water running in the shower turned off. It would be just a matter of moments before Janet emerged with her smooth skin still moist from the steam. Johnny turned over quickly and acted the sleeping lump in their king size bed.

She, in her way of showing care and comfort, quietly departed the room insuring the sound of the door did not wake her husband; after all he deserved a rest. He noticed the emptiness of the room, felt the sheets she had left warm with her imprint, and when he turned, the small cell phone on the bed stand loomed large. He wondered about the caller with no name. “Where the hell was that area code?” he wondered. His mind did contortions. Memories of the time they were kids and she would leave for the summer vacation with her parents. Those long days in June when he had to watch their packed car head off to the mountains where Janet would ride horses, swim in natural lakes, see the moon come up over the edge of a jagged horizon, and do who knows what with who knows who. The days became longer in July as her letters became less frequent, and he wondered if she would still be his girl friend when school started again.

One such fall day, she did tell him about the nice boy that would ask her to dance on Saturday nights at the country club. It had been innocent according to her reports as both sets of parents were just barely out of sight at the dinner table they shared. Johnny always wondered about the guy, and the way Janet said he was just a good listener and more like a girl friend. After seven years of marriage such alibis failed to ring true. The story about one of her girl friends getting pregnant under that mountain moon didn’t help. What Johnny imagined as some half baked story smoldered trying to catch fire in his mind, but he failed miserably at any attempt to get Janet to fan any flames of some teenage romance. Now, an out of state area code flashed in his mind. The possibility this guy had tried to stay in touch. Maybe Janet had written him infrequent letters during the winter the way she penned Johnny back home in the summer. Thoughts of Janet and another guy then began to fly at Johnny faster and faster.

He kicked off the sheets and fumbled his way downstairs to the kitchen where Janet had awakened Alexis with an order to play Kelly Clarkson’s Stronger; What Doesn’t Kill You.

“Hey, good morning,” he greeted.

She responded with a dance move and said, “Remember that?”

“Should I?”

“That was number one seven years ago the week we got married.”

Johnny pondered the lyrics blabbing on about getting over some guy, breaking, up, and moving on, “Not what you would call a wedding song is it?”

“True,” she agrees.

“Seven years,” he opines, “Doesn’t seem that long.”

“Some call it the seven year itch,” she says; then asks, “Any regrets?”

Johnny thought how strange to see a conversation twist into something sinister before sipping the first cup of coffee. If he did not fall under the seven year superstition, however, maybe Janet was suffering from the malady made famous in the 1955 movie when Marilyn Monroe let the wind blow up her white dress while Tom Ewell stood with hands in his pockets smiling with his Fedora cocked back. Some old man gawking at a hot young blonde seemed normal in the abnormal happiness of the fifties. Johnny thought that casting goofy looking men with beautiful women really is an example of art imitating life since most every couple seen in malls, on the street, in the car next to you, endless family pics on Facebook, and even in the movies makes the image ring true. The thought was reassuring, not only to Johnny, but also to men everywhere that most pot bellied good old boys do not have to be James Bond to get the girl.

“I have no regrets,” he answered and caught his reflection in the sliding glass doors to the patio that made him wonder again about that text and who had become his competition. Who wanted to know about her upcoming weekend? As he watched the clouds of lactose free melt into his coffee he could not resist asking, “What about you? You have any new itches that need scratching? Maybe some old boyfriend?”

“What old boyfriend? Have you lost your mind?”

“Statistics are on my side.”

“What stats?”

“I Googled it,” he said. “Divorce rates show couples, on average, divorce around seven years.”

Janet stops everything she had been doing. The look in her widened eyes showed her shock, “Divorce? Why would you bring that up? Is that what you want?”

“No way, it’s just the statistic I was using about the seven year itch.”

“Are you aware about what date it is?’

“Yeah it’s February … something.”

“Today is the eleventh. You remember what the fourteenth is?”

“Oh, yeah. Valentines.”

“Bigger than that, Johhny. Our anniversary is coming up this weekend.”

He stares blank back at his bride.

“I have been planning a special weekend for some time for us. My friend Jessica told me about the Casa Monica Hotel and Spa in Saint Augustine. So, I have been working on reservations. The desk is supposed to text me back with more info.”

“Text?” asked Johnny, “What area code?”

She looked perplexed by such a question, but answered, “904.”

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A Reunion at Christmas Time?

He looked familiar in some way when he tapped on the microphone on the band stage, “Testing, testing…” the general buzz of conversations dissolved to hear the guy, “If you are wondering why you are in a room full of old people, you’re in the right place. Welcome to the 1965 class reunion of John Marshall High School… Christmas edition”

“Wouldn’t you know it,” an old lady chuckled in the crowd, “He’s still the class clown.”

Bill, the guy that looked like the cover of Mad Magazine back in the sixties was now a skinny old man. What was a goofy kind of face now just blended in the herd of unrecognizable faces distinguished by Magic Marker name tags. He stepped off the stage and a three piece light jazz group with a bass guitar, drummer, and lead piano started tinkling some white wine and brie music.

One of the few men with a full head of hair, let’s call him Joe, escorted an attractive fit lady a full six inched shorter through the crowd, “Damn, I don’t see anyone I remember. I remember the kids the way they were fifty years ago clear as day.”

A bald man with thick black eyeglass frames nearly runs up, “Joe! Can’t believe you made it.”

“Of course I made it. I ain’t that damn old.”

“I mean you made it here. Never have seen you at any other reunions.”

“It’s hard to leave Florida for all this cold weather,” Joe answered. “Why on earth plan a reunion so close to Christmas?”

“They figured old people refuse to travel without a good reason, and visiting family around holiday time would be a draw. And, damn, look here, it worked. You’re here.”

The cinderblock cavernous gymnasium had been so large back in the sixties when the architectural style was modern. Just as with so many places in our memory, they aren’t so large anymore as buildings and dreams shrink with time. Now the experts call this style of building mid-century on one of those tear down a house and build it over shows on cable TV. The shiny maple hardwood floor still had the thick polished glaze of the basketball court turned dance floor for feet in socks at the high school senior prom. Along the walls the retractable bleachers were tucked away in long rows of polished pine coffins.

Joe moved through the crowd narrating events and people to his wife, “That fat guy over there you see laughing, he hasn’t changed. He was such a wannabe ass kisser to the popular kids.”

“Was he a friend?”

“No. I wasn’t a cool kid that drew followers.”

As they browsed through couples who chatted as if they were once again teens trying to solve world problems like protesting Vietnam and deciding which acne cream works best, Joe and his bride amused themselves eavesdropping conversation to conversation.

“You went to VCU right?”

“It was RPI, Richmond Professional Institute back then.”

“That guy you dated, I hear he became a lawyer up in DC.”

“Damn, you look almost the same,” as one lie led to another.

“So,” Joe’s wife asked, “Which one of these girls did you date?”

“I asked a lot of them out, and they all turned me down, so I dated a few from other schools. However, there were maybe two girls I took out maybe once.”

“No crushes?”

“Oh, plenty of those.”

She poked his side and teased, “Any familiar faces?”

“Who can tell? They’re so damn old.”

“There was one in particular favorite crush I knew since elementary school. Prettiest and most popular girl in school. She was my first rejection.”

“What happened?”

“We were in something like the fifth or sixth grade and I got up the nerve to go to her door. They lived around the corner.”

“Did she break your heart?”

“No her mother did when she refused to let her go to a movie with me. Too young to date.”

“Is she here now?”

“That would be something, go back in time.”

Just saying that line snapped some time warp as if he had uttered a secret word to call the Gods to attention and grant do-overs. The Jazz trio morphed into the high school Beatles sound like band. Kids with hair too long to be football players strained their adolescent voices to hit notes only the nasal tweaking Brits could pull off. The old became new and young again. Gus, the school superintendant stood guard at the door checking pocketbooks for alcohol. The laughing fat kid with fat feet stuffed into shinny Weejuns penny loafers could not wipe the smile or his sweat from his face as he brought two cups of punch for the quarterback and the prom queen to sip in front of him. The class clown made faces and did some stupid dance move. Future lawyers, bankers, hopeful politicians, and young hopefuls that would more than likely end up in sales jobs played important as if the prom was their proving ground. Joe stood on the sidelines off court on the other side of the lines drawn in the wood floor for basketball players to obey the rules. The gym had been transformed at the hands of the art department that hung long streamers of crepe paper from the rafters back and forth across the ceiling. Hundreds of feet of the crinkled ribbons had been strung over untold hours of giggling girls coaxing boys up tall step ladders to dare the heights. Suspended above the bodies swaying to the music, the web mimicked a large net hanging above a swarm of teenagers whose main mission was not to dance but to get a first kiss, feel up someone, or get felt up. The lights dimed for the slow songs, the girls teased during the fast ones, movers to look up to, and hangers on to hope for the best. All the while our young Joe stared and listened. He could hear their comments culled from the band and noise and laugher and clatter from across the room, “What’s he doing?”

“Just sitting there,” but Joe thought that strange since he was clearly standing.

“Maybe he’ll get to his Christmas presents.”

“All he does is stare.”

“Joe,” someone addressed. “Joe.”

He thought maybe it was the girl with brown hair and dark eyes; the one from elementary school. The one who stared at him in her compact mirror from her desk in the front row as he day dreamed from his desk in the back row. She had not aged.

“Joe,” he heard again.

He smiled. Then, felt someone tug at something he held in his lap. “It’s okay, Joe. I’m just taking your book so you can open a present.”

Joe opened his eyes and the scene was no longer a gymnasium decorated for dancers. A bald man in a buttoned down Ivy League pink shirt came into view as he pushed an aluminum walker toward him, “Hey, Joe. You awake?”

The nurse helping him smiled with dark brown eyes as her brown hair caught some reflection of late afternoon sun from the tall windows that stood as a backdrop to a circle of wingback chairs stuffed with old people wearing outlandish Christmas sweaters.

“The group is all here, Joe.”

He took in the view like a tired old man waking from a long nap.

“Let me take that,” he heard and the nurse tugged his book.

“What’s that?” The man with the walker asked.

“That,” the nurse answered, “is his high school year book. He looks at it everyday.”

“That must get old.”

“That’s where his memory is. He can’t remember breakfast or that this is our Christmas party. But, he seems to remember 1965 just fine.”

As the nurse closed the yearbook, Joe held on to the last page he was looking at, the last page in the book with the headline, And Thus, All Good Things Must Come to an End.  And a photo of Gus, the school super, pulling down the metal gate to close off the hall that led to the gym.

Copemish Deer Lovers Club

Snow piled along both shoulders of Cadillac Highway and turned the road into a valley again. Locals in the UP are used to it. For visitors, FIP tourists as they are called, the UP means Upper Peninsula. (FIP colloquialism to disparage people from Illinois) The gray sky that cooked clouds like dumplings in hot gravy was another usual that day at the Bear Claw Cafe in Copemish, Michigan.

The cute server sporting long braided Swiss Miss pigtails always smiles. Especially on mornings when the holidays edge closer on cold winter calendar days. Her red dress, candy striped socks, and apron with a large Santa face with black dots for eyes and a large red nose just about lower abdomen made all the old guys smile and twinkle more so than most mornings.

She greets the regulars at the table they take over in the window everyday, “Hey Yuh guys.”

The skinny one in the John Deere cap said, “Looks like Santa’s nose is just about to make you a happy woman.”

“Liam, I’m gonna’ tell Olivia about you. Be the last time your nose ever gets anything.”

The other four men laugh and elbow Liam the way old harmless men tease and spend the breakfast hour each morning. They all order coffee and Liam can’t stop himself, “Just stir your finger in it to sweeten it up for me, Darling.”

She shakes her head and turns, “Figure out what you want, and I’ll be back for the order.”

These guys have been meeting here long enough to watch each other grow old and every once in a while a seat becomes vacant when time runs out. In addition to Liam, there’s the red headed one with a full red beard, and the old guy with a bald head. It’s been some time since a vacancy at the table opened up, so it seems concerning that one chair is empty, “Wonder where Bill is,” the older Bald head said.

“Don’t worry about Bill. He’ll stumble in here before you know it bragging about where he spent the night.”

“If that man lived in life what goes on in his head, it would sure be something.”

“Well,” Bald head continued. “His truck ain’t across the street at the hardware store. He never opens up late.”

The sever makes it back balancing cups and a coffee pot on her tray, “You want to wait for Bill or get started?”

Liam answers, “Let me have the biscuits and gravy.”

As she scribbles on her pad she asked, “How come you never order from the expensive column on that menu?”

“Do I look like a crème brulee French toast kind? That ain’t no real man food.”

One of the men said, “Yeah Liam, you look like you could go for that egg florentine.”

They sure liked teasing, but truth be told, none of them graduated much past scrambled eggs and toast.

She said, “I’ll be glad when the season comes back to make some real money.”

“Hell with that,” said another. Then he added, “You see that bumper sticker from over in Traverse?”

“How’s that?”

“Guess they figured like deer hunting season. Bumper sticker said, ‘If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot ‘em.”

They all laughed and said condolences for how tough the locals have it in the bigger cities on that side of the Mitt. About as soon said, some young guy from one of those hybrid cars pulled up, “Well look at that.”

“He must be lost.”

The kid huddled up in a Michael Kors nylon down jacket that made him look like the Michelin Tire mascot in a black coat came in and took the table next in hearing distance to the men. Before looking at the menus, his tablet was out. He was pounding away some useless drivel like he was the only person in the place. The Santa apron server greeted, and he just ordered coffee without looking away from his screen.  The men at the table paid little notice to the kid’s long girly curls as the conversation turned, “You see that story on TV about being energy independent?”

“You really believe anything don’t you?”

“No, it’s a fact,” the guy snapped back. “We sell more oil and gas than we take in now. Who would have ever thought that?”

Bald guy said and was interrupted, “Shoot. I remember back in the seventies…”

“Damn you are old.”

He continued, “As I said, in the seventies we had to wait over an hour in line due to gas rationing thanks to that dumb ass peanut farmer in the White House.”

“Yeah, that is true,” said Red beard. “I remember people saying if we could just get free from OPEC, we could tell the Middle East to kiss our ass.”

“Never thought the day would come.”

“Yet, here we are.”

The kid, for some reason overheard the conversation and showed some discomfort at the idea of gas. After all, he had arrived in a new hybrid. That didn’t stop the men from jabbering on about this and that of world circumstance; as if they could do anything about it. About that time, a large Range Rover pulled into the front parking space by the door and in plain sight of the men. “Damn, look at that.”

The front grill was pushed in and the bumper folded up under the front end. Bill got out of the truck wearing only his lumber jack plaid flannel and overalls.

“About time you show up. What story you gonna’ brag about today?”

“Damn deer.”

“So, that’s what happened to your truck. How many this year?”

“That’s number four.”

The kid next table perks up at hearing that.

“You have any insurance left?”

“Probably have to switch again. That last time really got to me.”

“How’s that?”

“Remember during the last rut. Big old buck run out on me soon as I pulled out of a two tracker on to pavement. So, to miss him, I swerved and ran across the ditch and took down old man Williams’ fence. You know what the insurance woman told me?”

Bill pushed his cap back to scratch his forehead and continued, “You should have hit the deer.”

The statement sounding unusual caught the attention of the kid on the tablet. He actually looked up from the screen to eavesdrop on the men, as Bill continued, “They informed me that I was covered in the event of an animal involved accident, but if I hit a fence, or a tree, there are exclusions that require a different coverage.”

“That’s damn crazy,” Bald head jumped in.

Red beard agreed. “You can’t trust them big companies. Screw you every which way they can.”

Liam felt the need to steal some of the center stage and share a story, “Well, we all have had our share of hitting those damn deers. It’s a wonder we ain’t been laid up in the hospital or dead with so many wrecks.”

“That’s right,” from Red beard.

“Amen to that,” from Bald head.

Bill nodded up and down as Liam continued, “Remember that time back a few years?”

Of course the group had heard the story, but polite protocol at such gatherings kept everyone quiet to let Liam narrate, “I was coming out of that same two tracker…”

“That one they named Lake Road?”

“That’s it.”

“Stoplight should be put up there,” added Red beard.

Liam explained, “Hell ain’t nothing there except old man Williams’ place. He’s never done half a job to keep up that fence. Anyway, it was late afternoon, sun just about set; good time for deer to be moving about, so I was paying attention. Wouldn’t you know it, soon as I made my left and hit the gas there stood a beautiful doe and her two fawn kids.”

“Hate it when a family gets up in your face like that,” Bald head said.

“That is a shame,” added Red beard.

“Well,” Liam gets to the point, “When I saw them, I swerved out of the way and gunned it around them just barely missing the doe. That’s when my truck fished tailed back and forth leaving rubber, but it straightened out. I looked back over my shoulder and that doe high tailed it with the two kids right at her hind quarters.”

“You saved the day,” said Bill.

“Woo hoo! I was smiling with pride at that,” said Liam. “Then I turned back to the road and wouldn’t you know it. One of old man Williams’ cows was standing there straddled across the double yellows shooting her big brown eyes at me.”

“Did you swerve?”

“You kidding, you ever see a ton of beef about eight feet long across a road as narrow as Cadillac? Ain’t no swerving around that.”

“You hit her?”

“Boom!” animated Liam, “Stopped me like a brick wall. All she did was fall over. Damn truck didn’t move her an inch but was completely totaled. ”

“You just got that truck, right?”

“Last year. Loved that Ford one fifty. Real pretty metallic blue that matched my baby blues.”

Bald head chuckled, “You think you have pretty eyes?”

Liam just gave him the eye and told more, “That big three point five six cylinder powerhouse had been snapped clean off the frame and damn near pushed all the way into the cab.”

“Your insurance pay?”

“I did not hit a tree.”

The sever now sporting a new set of velvet antlers with bells hanging and jingling walks up to the out of place millennial, “Can I get you something besides coffee?”

“What’s the password for your Wi-Fi?”

She wrote it on a sheet from her order pad, “So, coffee is it, huh?”

The bells jingled making a sound more of anger than happy holidays as she stomped off. The guy just punched keys as he leaned over to listen to the men.

Liam had another story to share, “My wife took out one last week and it could have been a lot worse.”

“How’s that?” Red beard scratched his whiskers and listened. Bill leaned in. Bald head sat up. Liam continued, “She was taking the kid to school, and the little feller saw she had not buckled up. Now, he likes to scold his mama anytime the opportunity presents itself, so he sternly asked her if she had not heard the dangers of not strapping in.”

“That is a danger,” Red opined. “Better be safe than sorry,” added Bald head.

“So,” the guy started again, “She slowed down and fumbled around for the belt.
Red sounded shocked, “She did not pull over and stop?”

The bald scalp of Bald head just shook back and forth.

Bill nodded.

“No, she did not. Soon as she snapped in and turned back to the road, there he was, a big ten pointer starring right at her.”

“Oh my,” from Bill, “I can relate.”

“Then, boom she took him out and he totaled the new car.”

“Anybody hurt?”

“Just her feelings when Junior said how he told her so.”

About as soon as the statement was made, the curly haired kid jumped in, “Excuse me, but that sounds awful.”

The four seniors starred down the intruder, “What’s it to you?”

“You old farts just laugh about killing an innocent animal.”

Liam leaned back and up in his seat, “Well junior, a man’s got to eat.”

Red beard added, “Yeah, son, why don’t you just hop back in your electric weenie car and run over to PETA to alert them.”

Bald man says, “Damn right junior.”

Bill added, “Won’t my fault. Damn deer did it.”

The young guy then began a quick lecture, “In one year, death totals of deer just here in Michigan nearly eclipsed the number of those lost in the entire Vietnam War.”

All four men laughed, and Bill said, “Yeah, like you know something about fighting a war in your safe zone.”

Red beard adds, “Did your mommy tell you that?”

Bald head stood to speak, “You know nothing about war much less about the number of deer running havoc all over the place.”

There was a pause. The kid couldn’t help himself, “Furthermore, I know this because I just Googled it. Close to fifty thousand deer died here in your neck of the woods in one year, and if you project that number out over the entire United States, the number climbed to over a million innocent deer lives were lost!”

All were quiet.

Bill said, “Ain’t that something?”

Red beard agreed, the bald man folded his arms and starred at the kid, and Liam said, “Sounds to me like a whole lot of people won’t go hungry.”

There was quiet.

Then, the faint jingle of bells from the cap of the server grew closer.

She handed each one their checks and said, “Yuh guys drive safe now.”

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