Blessed be the tie that binds.
February 19, 2015
ON VALENTINE’S DAY, Max Perkins rose early and made his way to a nearby cemetery. By the time the sun came up, he knelt at his wife’s grave, eight months old now, the mound of red clay covered in new growth of winter grass. He placed a dozen long-stemmed red roses in a porcelain vase, arranged them just so, said a prayer.
About seven-thirty, on his way out of the graveyard, he picked up his cell phone and speed-dialed a number to a house half-way across the country, listened to it ring three times. When his only child, his thirty-eight-year-old daughter, answered, he told her happy Valentine’s Day.
“Thanks for calling, daddy,” she said, out of breath from her morning duties corralling her kids, making preparations for another day at work.
He ended the call.
By eleven, he pulled into the parking lot of the nursing home where the social worker had organized a luncheon for the residents. He donned a pink party cap, adjusted the elastic chinstrap, sat down next to his mother. He fed her a piece of pink cake, held a pink paper cup next to her lips so she could take a sip. She didn’t resist, though no glimmer of recognition crept from her eyes. He joined in the sing-along.
“Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you.”
After the party, he couldn’t make himself go home to his empty house, so Max drove to the mall, put on his walking shoes and made some laps.
He started to go home, but decided to take one sashay through Target. In the electronics department, he fiddled with a Kindle Fire, put it back on the display stand.
About four o’clock, he found himself in the aisle where the few remaining, picked-over Valentine’s cards waited in vain for a purchaser.
That was when Max saw him. Near the end of the aisle, a twenty-ish young man stood by himself, taking cards from the rack, re-placing them. He wore a camo shirt, boots smeared with mud from a drilling rig, a Texas Rangers baseball cap.
“Cutting it pretty close, aren’t you, son?” Max said, making a joke.
When the boy turned to face him, Max could tell he had been crying.
For the first time, Max recognized him, a boy he had known all his life, a boy whose father Max taught in middle school, whose almost in-laws Max had sat next to in church for thirty years.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was you, Billy.”
Billy’s story flashed through Max’s mind. As young men do, Billy had fallen in love with a girl, a girl whose parents thought Billy was not good enough for their daughter. Those parents had done everything in their power to keep their daughter away from him, monitoring her calls and her Facebook page, grounding her.
But love had found a way. Billy gave her an engagement ring from a box of Cracker Jacks, pledged his love to her.
Still her parents fought them, fought against Billy until their daughter could take no more.
In an act of defiance, she ran off one night, not into Billy’s arms, but into Uncle Sam’s. If she couldn’t have Billy, she reasoned, her parents couldn’t have her.
Then came her deployment to Afghanistan, then a flag-draped coffin on the tarmac.
At her funeral, her parents refused to allow Billy to sit with the family, relegating him to the back row, the sinner’s pew.
“It’s okay, Mr. Perkins,” Billy said.
Max took a dog-eared card from the rack, removed a pen from his shirt pocket and scribbled a note in it.
“Would you be my Valentine, Billy?” he said as he handed him the card.
Billy leaned against Max and wept, for the first time openly without shame.
“I would consider it a great honor, Mr. Perkins,” he said when he re-gained his composure.
“Why don’t we go grab us a big ol’ steak?” Max said.
“I got paid yesterday. This one’s on me,” Billy said.
“Deal,” Max said as they walked out of Target into what remained of their lives.