Fiction

VALENTINE FOR JACKIE

This story is a sort of Valentine itself, one of the sentimental kind, only the writer uses real hearts

JEAN HOWARTH February 1 1948
Fiction

VALENTINE FOR JACKIE

This story is a sort of Valentine itself, one of the sentimental kind, only the writer uses real hearts

JEAN HOWARTH February 1 1948

VALENTINE FOR JACKIE

JEAN HOWARTH

LOUISE WAS a good little girl. She had fat yellow curls that hung down neatly on a smooth white neck. And her hands were fat, too, and clean, and folded always so carefully on the desk in front of her. And she spelled her spelling right and was always first in arithmetic and never got blots on her compositions.

And all winter long she wore white felt boots with white fur around the tops, while the rest of us wore moccasins and two pairs of woollen stockings.

I did not care a great deal for Louise.

I did not care for her because she was good and the teacher liked her. And because her hands were clean and the teacher had sent me home, once, to wash mine. And because she had lived all her life in the prairie town of Pence and considered my sister and me, who were the minister’s children and just arrived in town, as interlopers. We were children to be whispered about in the schoolyard and run away from after four when it was time to go home.

But especially I did not care for Louise because she nlways managed to present the teacher with the nicest valentine.

Valentine’s was an important day in our little two-roomed school. In fact, next to the day before

Christmas, it was the most important day in the whole school year.

11 was a party day.

We would work until noon, and then in the afternoon we would set out the cakes and cookies we had brought from home, and the teacher would give each of us an orange that she had ordered from Brandon. Oranges were a rare delicacy in Pence in the winter.

We would put on a concert and each of us thirtyodd children would sing or dance or recite. Even Jackie would have a new' poem and we would permit him to stutter and stammer through perhaps a whole verse before we would start to clap and stamp and ruthlessly clap and stamp him down.

And then we would open the Valentine box.

MOST OF US couldn’t afford more than two or three store valentines—Jackie, of course, could afford none at all—and for weeks ahead all our spare time was spent with colored art paper, paste pots and our mothers’ discarded paper-lace doilies.

We gave our store valentines to our best friends, our homemade efforts to our acquaintances and nonenemies, and the finest work of our hands to the teacher. We would have given her store valentines, too, only none of us had ever been able to scrape together more than ten cents, and a ten-cent

valentine was not, by tradition, good enough for the teacher.

Our rivalry, Louise’s and mine, began in grade two, the winter after my father took over the United Church in Pence and its two country charges.

That first year I borrowed from my mother’s valentine lore and cut a huge black heart from heavy art paper. Across the heart, with white paint,

I drew a picket fence and on top of the fence I pasted silvery pussy willows. With silvery paint I drew tails on them. Underneath I wrote:

My love for you will never fail As long as pussy has a tail.

In a big black envelope that valentine had the importance of difference, even though some of the pussies did show a tendency to fall off the picket fence. I felt sure it would carry the field.

But Louise, that year, had discovered the third dimension. Working in secret, and drawing heavily for inspiration upon the $1.50 valentine which her big sister’s beau had given her big sister the year before, she had constructed a mammoth affair composed of cupids and hearts and arrows, the one folding back upon the other.

It even stood up by itself.

The teacher took Louise’s valentine home and showed it to all the neighbors. She set mine on her desk, next door to Jackie’s washed-out pink offering. I could have borne anything but that.

The next year, early in February, my father presented me with an old book of wallpaper samples and what we both thought was a very sound suggestion. Wallpaper back in those days, 1925, ’26, was, if you remember, a bit on the florid side. I cut the flowers from the border strips and made a flower book, each page a different flower and a more glowing sentiment than the one before, the whole shaped like a heart and encased in a silver cover. The silver paper had been recovered from mother’s tea packages and ironed smooth.

And for a while it looked as though I was coming out on top.

The teacher was thrilled with my valentine. She held it up in front of the class and turned the pages over and over. The pile of envelopes in the valentine box grew lower and lower and there wasn’t a thing to touch mine.

And then a knock came to the door. And Louise, who had been sitting there with a waiting look, leaped to answer it, and came back down the aisle carrying a basket fashioned of golden hearts. In it nestled four new-blooming petunias—with the snow two feet deep outside our schoolroom door and the temperature touching ten below.

As I say, I did not care a great deal for Louise.

BUT WE exchanged third-best valentines nevertheless. Etiquette demanded it. Our secondbest valentines we sent to boys we had crushes on. These were marked from —“Guess Who?”

But your popularity was measured by how many valentines you received. Our most favored student, as I remember, stacked thirty-eight envelopes on his desk one Valentine’s day.

I never attained that height; but I didn’t sink, either, to the depths of Jackie Coogan, who year after year received none.

Continued on page 44

This story is a sort of Valentine itself, one of the sentimental kind, only the writer uses real hearts

Continued from page 12

We called him Jackie Coogan becase the name conjured up in our minds someone ill-clad and ill-fed and wearing hoots too big and because it was another hurt we could put upon him.

Jackie was a big homely boy, older than the rest of us, with a thin body and big clumsy hands. His tongue was tied and it took him minutes to say a line of a poem or answer a quest ion. He had a roaring laugh that boomed out at the wrong times and once he cried over something or other and we all watched with stony curiosity.

He was like a great mongrel dog that trotted humbly and longingly at Otir heels and would have done anything to serve us. But he bored us; he was awkward and inept and his clothes were ugly. His stammering slowed our classes unbearably. So he was always chosen last for spelling bees and for softball at recess. And we wouldn’t let him add his sandwiches to our lunch pool because his mother made them of sour brown bread instead of white.

He lived with his family on the outskirts of one of my father’s country charges. There were seven of them in a tiny unpainted house and the father had gone to the city one day the year before and never came back and the mother was always sick.

Something savage inside of us gloated on St. Valentine’s Day when the piles of envelopes grew on our desks and none fell on his.

“He pretends he doesn’t care, but he does,” I assured my family as I ate lunch with them just before one Valentine’s party. “He makes a noise all the time and he trips people when they go up to get their valentines. But he does care.”

There was a funny silence at the table and I looked up from my macaroni and tomatoes to meet my father’s disturbed glance. But he didn’t say anything. Not then.

He listened while I talked about my valentine for the teacher. I was going to lay it beside the valentine box as soon as I went back to school. I couldn’t put it inside because it might break when the box was shaken. It was a picture, with glass and everything, a silhouette of a lady in hooped skirts, cut from black velveteen and stitched to bright red silk.

I was almost certain, this time, of

success.

And then my father started to tell the story.

My father often told us stories at lunch and dinner. Sometimes they were made up out of his head and sometimes they were true. When they were true he would start out by saying, “This is a true story.”

And that was what he said this day.

“This is a true story. It happened out at Silom.” That was one of his country charges. “It happened just two weeks ago, after we had held the morning service—you remember that very cold Sunday?

“And you know how it is when the service is finished at Silom. There is always some member of the congregation who comes up to me as I am shaking hands with the people at the door and says, ‘You’ll be coming home for dinner with us today, Mr. Rusk?’

“Well, this morning it was very cold and only a few people had made it to the church through the drifts. We couldn’t get the fire in the stove burning very well, and it was icy inside as well as out, and the congregation sat in their overcoats and I preached in my overcoat.

“But back in one of the last pews was a boy who didn’t have an overcoat, just a big old sweater and a pair of cotton mitts. Even from the pulpit I could see he was blue with cold. But he didn’t fidget or write on the hymnbooks or squeak his heels on the pew in front of him. He sat very still, as though he were listening to every word I said.

“I felt kind of sorry for that boy, sitting back there and looking so cold, so I made the sermon quite short and prayed just a little and called for a nice brisk hymn. Then the service was over and I was by the door to shake hands with the people on their way out.

The first person to go by me was .e boy. He didn’t say anything. He just miled and brought a note out of his weater pocket and put it in my hand.

“The note was from his mother and it invited me to come home with the boy for Sunday dinner. And I was just finishing reading it wdien a man came up to shake hands and he said to me, ‘You’ll be coming along with us for dinner, Mr. Rusk?’

“There was a reason why I should have said ‘Yes,’ but I could see the boy’s face and an odd look came into it. I thanked the man for his invitation and said that I couldn’t, today, but I’d like to next Sunday, if that was all right with him.

“So the boy and I went out of the church together and climbed into the cutter behind old Dan and tucked the buffalo robe around us. The boy lived two miles away and he had walked to church that morning through the drifts. His legs were still caked with the snow that had stuck and not melted in the cold church.

“His mother met us at the door. She was rather a homely woman, I guess you’d say, with a bent back and a tired sort of face.

“She brought us into her little weather-beaten house, with the snowdrifts around it almost touching the window sills; and she made me comfortable by the kitchen stove. And wherever I looked a child seemed to pop in, all younger than the boy.

“They were thin children, with big black eyes. They were a little shy, but after a minute they started to smile, and then they brought me the dolls their mother had made for them— just old rags, really, with a pebble knotted into one corner for a head and a face drawn with pencil

“And then all of a sudden one of them remembered something, and scurried out of the room, and came back carrying a big red object as carefully as if it were the crown jewels. It was the boy’s valentine for the teacher. The mother came over to look at it, too, and we all admired it.

IT was a big red heart—two hearts really, shaped like a book—and you could see that it had been cut from scribbler paper, because the lines still showed through the red paint. It had a nice little verse on the inside.

“ ‘Not likely it’ll be as good as your girl’s,’ the mother said. ‘The boy says your girl’s real smart at making valentines. He says this year she’ll likely make the best one of all for the teacher.’

“She smiled at me and in spite of the smile there was a kind of sadness in her eyes. She said, ‘Valentine’s an awful big day for the kids, isn’t it? Last year, there, the boy didn’t get any valentines. But I expect lots of the others didn’t either. I expect this year he’ll do better.’

“And she bustled off then, about the dinner. It was a good dinner. The smell of it cooking filled the whole kitchen and I could see the children’s noses working like rabbits’ as their eyes followed their mother back and forth.

“The boy had gone out to the barn. ‘He’s finishing up the chores,’ his mother told me. ‘He had to leave some of them going off to church. I hated to see him walking it, in this weather —old Blackie’s gone lame and he couldn’t ride. But he said there might not be anybody to see you had a hot dinner before you went on to this afternoon’s service.’

“It seemed as though that mother wanted to talk about her boy. ‘He’s an ugly boy, now isn’t he?’ she said. ‘But that good! I couldn’t get along no way without him. I just couldn’t

bear it. Up at the crack of dawn, he is, t and out at the chores so they’ll be done I before the school van calls.’

“She looked at me. ‘Some women,’ I she said, ‘is lucky in the fine houses they have and the fur coats they wear. But I’m lucky in that boy.’

“By and by the boy came in. He j still didn’t speak, but he smiled at me | across the kitchen, and he put some i warm water in the basin by the stove for me to wash. And when 1 had finished he took the little children and washed their hands and faces.

“The mother called us then and we all sat down round the kitchen table. And every eye was on the chicken pie in front of the mother. It was a very fine pie, baked brown and glossy, with the gravy bubbling up through the holes in the crust.

“But rather little.

“The mother dished up. She put half of the pie, anyway, on my plate and passed it along. She said to me, ‘We had breakfast late. We haven’t worked up a proper dinner appetite. Now, you eat hearty. Have some bread?’

“Well, you know, somehow I didn’t seem to have a proper appetite either. Not the kind you’d expect after a long cold drive and momir-g. service in a cold church. _/**rñy f

“That pie v"Hope.8 for It kept bumpihénafetheir ”wn ¿he ^ in my throat. Ana\? be so much of it left when 'Ls-thè cftfier plates were polished slick as a whistle.

“We talked about a lot of things while we ate. About the fine school that the boy attended and the children j he played with. ‘They’re real good to I him,’ she told me. ‘They’re letting him do a bit in the Valentine concert. He’s ¡ going to say a verse. We been practicing it together every night.’

“And then the chicken pie was i finished and the big moment of the 1 meal had arrived. You could tell that | by the look in the children’s faces. I They got as bright as a sunrise. ‘Pump! kin pie,’ squeaked one of them, letting the secret out of the bag.

“The mother brought it to the table and it was wonderful. Big, dark-gold and steaming hot. The mother smiled wide. ‘Mr. Rusk,’ she said, ‘this is the boy’s pie. He grew the pumpkin. There was just one that did any good and I thought he’d be wanting to take it to school on Hallowe’en, for to make a jack-o’-lantern. But he said no, we’ll keep it for when the minister comes to dinner.’

“The boy got red and smiled all over and we were so gay, eating that pie, that you’d think we were having a party.

“I had to leave, pretty soon after that, to get to the next church and the afternoon service. So I said good-by to the children and the mother and told her it was the best dinner that I’d ever eaten.

“While we were talking the boy had heated some oats in a milk pan on the stove and peured them into a gunny sack. When I got out to the cutter he was smoothing the warm bag of oats down on my seat.

“ ‘You’ll be a bit warmer, if you sit on that,’ he told me. At least, I think that’s what he said; but you know he j doesn’t talk very well.

“I got into the cutter and waved good-by and shook the reins on old Dan’s back and went crunching off through the snow.

“It was a bright day, but somehow or other there seemed to be a mist in front of my eyes. And I kept seeing that chicken pie and that pumpkin pie, and remembering what the neighbors on the next farm had told me about the mother and the boy and the six little children.

“ ‘They’ve been living on sour bread that she makes from crushed wheat and dried peas. That was all that did any good in their garden last summer,’ the farmer had said. ‘There’s hardly any stock on the place. A broken-down old horse, a dried-up cow and a dozen hens. But they won’t let anybody help. They pretend they don’t need help. They’ve got pride.’

“I thought, ‘There are only eleven hens now.’ And I wondered if I’d been wrong to turn down the man who had invited me home for Sunday dinner. But I knew I hadn’t. I could remember the look in the boy’s eyes.”

My father stopped talking and busily buttered a piece of bread. He didn’t look at me at all, but my big brother did.

“What was the boy’s name?” asked my big brother.

“Oh—” My father glanced up

casually. “Jackie—what do you call him? Jackie Coogan.”

Nobody said anything at all. My mother went out to the kitchen and brought in the caramel pudding. It was light golden-brown and the rich yellow cream from our cow, Flossie, curled around it.

I looked at it and my throat got fujmy and tight. I knew if I tried to swallow *take hiding it would bump against &one civil ''â«, and go down hard, likej an anecA^t-pie. I got up suddenly ¿to h^-liaway from the table.

Nobody oaid anything at all.

IRAN up to my room and went through my valentine supplies in a kind of frenzy. There was nothing left but some slivers of silver and gold and scarlet paper. Not anything big enough to make so much as a postage stamp. Not anything possibly big enough for a valentine.

I was half crying when I heard a sound at the door and I looked up and my father was standing there.

I said, “I was trying to make a valentine for Jackie.”

He looked through my supplies and shook his head thoughtfully. “Not much there, I’m afraid,” he said. He felt in his pockets and brought out some change and studied it. “I tell you,” he said at last, “I guess I could make you an advance on your allowance. Then maybe you could buy him a valentine?”

My allowance was five cents a week. “Oh, yes, yes,” I breathed. “I could buy him one.”

We rushed out of my room and grabbed our coats in the hall and hurried down the street to the general store. There wasn’t a minute to waste.

But there weren’t any valentines left. The five-cent valentines were all gone and the ten-cent valentines were all gone. There weren’t even any fifteencenters left.

And then my father found it, propped up in the middle of the bargain counter.

It was a huge red plush hearttwelve inches across and rather fat— with a lace frill around it and little messages tucked into the frill. It was a dollar, marked down to 50 cents because St. Valentine’s Day was almost over.

We gazed at it. We gazed at each other.

“We’ll go halvers,” said my father. The man put the fat heart in its own special box and tied it up with a special red ribbon. We went out together. I was touched with enough last-minute caution, though, to see the value of anonymity, and to have my father stop on the corner and write across it:

“To Jackie—From Guess Who?”

I ran all the way to school and propped the valentine against the

valentine box while the school was still empty. I dashed out and was returning nonchalantly by way of the ravine when the first students came up from the basement lunchroom.

Jackie, as I remember, was more anxious that day to prove that he didn’t care about valentines than he had ever been before. He scuffled with the hoy across the aisle. He tripped the little girl in front of him when she bounced up to get her valentines. He threw a chalk brush at a boy in the third seat from the front and drew a rebuke from the teacher.

And the piles of valentines grew on the desks around him.

I began to be scared that something, somewhere, had gone amiss, that Jackie’s valentine had fallen down behind the desk or been brushed into the wastepaper basket. That someone had seen it and hidden it.

I was so worried finally that I barely noticed when the teacher got my valentine and was thrilled by it and that she was twice as thrilled by the fat package that came to her from Louise.

And then I saw my box for Jackie being lifted by the class postman. I knew it at once. The postman looked surprised when he read the name on the package. I saw him look twice to be sure there wasn’t a mistake.

And then he was carrying it down the aisle, down the aisle, past all the upturned faces and half-expectant hands. Down the aisle to the last seat in the row.

To Jackie’s seat.

I could just see Jackie’s face, beyond the other boy’s shoulder. It was full of boundless surprise. And it was scared, too, as though this might just be another joke. And then slowly, very slowly, as his big clumsy hands untied the ribbon and opened the box, there was only delight that crept in a warm flood across his big homely face and for a minute untied his tongue.

“Gosh!” said Jackie.

I doubt if I shall ever feel so good inside again, or so full of virtue.

AND the sensation was only slightly . disturbed by a happy circumstance which developed later.

My plush heart for Jackie, it turned out, was a replica of the one for which Louise had saved her money and had paid a whole dollar—and had given to the teacher. This, together with the fact that my father’s hand, disguised as a nine-year-old’s, bore a reasonable resemblance to her fat, careful script, was taken as conclusive evidence by the entire class, Jackie included, that Louise had fallen in love.

Jackie, naturally, reciprocated immediately and took to haunting her footsteps on the playground, leaving bits of cough candy in her desk, and bringing her the first crocuses that bloomed that spring.

Louise at first was furious, and passionate in her denials, but her fat yellow curls and her pale little face had never attracted the plaudits of a boy before, and after the biggest kid in the room plunked those curls in his inkwell and Jackie blacked his eye for it in the best fight our schoolyard had ever witnessed, she relented a little.

And she had always liked cough candy.

So when the crocuses he brought her were the season’s very first, something for which we all strove jealously, she smiled upon him at last, and permitted him to whittle their initials together on the school fence.

She was, in fact, rather smug about it. You would have thought she’d worked it all out by herself.

As I say, I never cared an awful lot for Louise. ie