Continuing on with Valentine’s Day celebration is a stark little story called Dark Hearts. It is amazing how much pathos exists in life and in stories when the subject is economic disparity. More than heartache, the despair of falling short and not being able to take part lives long and cuts deep.
It was Valentine’s night and Vicky only had fifteen dollars. When Jim her husband passed out, she told her daughters she had an errand to do and they were to go to their rooms without disturbing their father.
It was a freezing New Hampshire night, the temperature hovering somewhere around zero. The drive was icy and the Corolla was almost cowering it seemed, begging her to be left alone under its blanket of snow. But she scraped the hood and windows clean and ran the engine. She took off down the drive. She arrived at the grocery a few minutes before the 9:00 close.
She swept through the doors of the brightly lit market, the place as strangely cold as the outside but in a different way. She wheeled the cart to the front of the store where the boxes of candy hearts and stuffed bears had been that morning. They weren’t there. They were tucked off to the side, out of the way, by the wine. A big sign over the table said “40% off our everyday low prices.” Still, it wasn’t enough of a discount. She couldn’t buy each of her girls her own heart of chocolates and her own bear.
There were a couple of boys standing nearby gawking at the table of extravagant after-thoughts.
This, Vicky said to herself, was an opportunity. The only one, short of shoplifting.
“Yeah, my girlfriend would kill me if she knew I was buying her Valentine’s stuff on sale,” one of them was saying, the tall one with a protruding Adam’s apple and light fuzz on his lip.
And at that point, Vicky enacted her plan.
“But what would your girlfriend think if you brought her sparkling wine?” she said brightly. She knew of some cheap stuff she could let on that she was going to buy for them, wine they could not buy for themselves, being so obviously under age. She could let on she was going to buy it for them and they would think they owed her.
“I’ve always had a fantasy,” she said, getting between the boys, threading her arms through theirs. “I want a double valentine. Do you know what it is I’m saying?”
The boys nodded and laughed with their newly minted voices.
“I think I would like that,” she said, “very much.” She gazed steadily into the eyes of the one with the fuzzy lip. He looked older, like he could be the leader of the two of them though not the leader of many more.
“Why don’t we all meet in the bathroom?” she said. “I’ll bring something to drink. How about that?”
They started quaking and laughing nervously.
“But first, you have to do something for me.” She pressed herself up against the leader. “I want both of you to ask me to be your valentine. I want a bear and a heart and a balloon from each of you. Do you think your girlfriends would mind?”
“I think we’re not going to tell ‘em, lady,” said the fuzzy peach lip and they both laughed some more, with a skittery, tremulous quality to their voices.
“Leave my valentines with the cashier. I’ll get wine and I’ll see you in the bathroom.” She kissed the one to seal it.
As soon as the boys made the purchases and disappeared into the men’s room, she grabbed the hearts, animals, and balloons from the cashier and took off in the Corolla.
At home, the smell of spaghetti sauce still sweet and cloying in the air, she found Jim sitting at the table.
“You were out,” he said.
“The store was having a sale on valentines.” She didn’t care what he knew or how he felt. She had hoped he would be asleep and that the girls could have an evening with their gifts but she had left the purchases in the car just in case.
“How come you have money for something like that?” he said. He slammed his whiskey glass down. “Let me see this bullshit.”
He went out to the car and tore open the door. He pulled out the balloons, candy, and bears. He ripped at them, flinging them about the yard, the chocolates flying, one of the bears falling into a ditch, the balloons drifting down in tatters.
“Why do you always like to make me feel like a monster?” he said. “But you know, you’ve never been nothing but a whore since the day I met you.”
She would leave in the morning when he was still getting over what he’d done to himself. And when her girls saw the chocolates, the punctured balloons, and bears drowning in the snow, they would go and not make a fuss.