Valentines in Valhalla

Charlie Dickinson

Trinity had waited for the two burly deliverymen who drove up--Roscoe's Appliances-Free Delivery!--late one Saturday afternoon in February. With a nine-year-old's patience, she would now wait for them to leave.

Her fast-talking dad, Steve, knowing the truck would eventually arrive, had gone downtown, looking up stuff at Central Library. His parting words, after lunch, were no more than: "You guys, be sure you read the instructions first."

All this because Wednesday at dinner, Steve said, "Guess what? This Saturday, a new dishwasher's coming. Bought it on my lunch hour."

Head down, Trinity had rolled her eyes and kept nibbling away at the mixed greens salad she'd helped her mom, JoBecca, make to go with pizza. Also at the table, Bailey, Trinity's younger and only sibling, skipped the salad and ate slices of stringy pizza.

"Why? What we got's perfectly fine, hon," JoBecca said.

"No, that racket," Steve said. "I want to relax when I'm home."

Remembering that disagreement between her parents kept Trinity cooped up in her room, her Saturday on hold: She didn't want to hear JoBecca speculating anymore whether they needed the new dishwasher. She truly didn't understand what made her dad go buy the thing and she didn't want to take sides. Not really.

The plan for the day was, if the men ever left, JoBecca would take her to Fabrika. They'd buy some cool appliqués for her new jeans, then pick up Bailey, who had spent the night at Alyssa's.

Trinity sighed. All she heard was grunts downstairs from the deliverymen struggling with the new dishwasher. She hated waiting. She flopped back on the bed and squinted at the first row of her Dolls Around the World on the dresser above. The East Indian ranee, the Japanese geisha, the Mexican senorita, the Argentinean gaucho girl, and the French mademoiselle. These costumed treasures and sixty more came with Trinity from Chattanooga last year, when Steve, back from a telecom convention in Reno, announced their lives could only improve a "whole bunch" because he was a new district sales manager at a "gold mine" company and they were moving to Portland, Oregon. So she and the dolls moved.

Just then, JoBecca came in, wearing an orange Vols sweatshirt and wheat jeans. Trinity sat up, so as not to look obviously bored. "Whew, that took a bit longer than I like," her mom said. "Now, 'fore I disremember it and long as we're makin' room for your father's sensitivities, did I tell you practicing after dinner's a no-no?"

"Mom, our concert's in two weeks."

"Trinity, practice first thing you get home. Do that one thing for me, okay?"

"But why is it always Steve this, Steve that? We get this new dishwasher 'cause the old one bothers him. Now I can't play my flute?"

"Honey, I don't understand it all myself, but Steve needs his peace and quiet once he's home. It's like he'll be a ball of energy most times and can sell to beat the band. Your father is a terrif salesman. But he comes home, his tires can go flat, believe you me. Say, why am I telling you all this? You're just a kid."

JoBecca waved Trinity out of the room. They had to hustle and get to Fabrika before closing. Her mom was grins and seemed relieved to tell someone about this private worry.

Trinity picked at a hangnail, waiting for JoBecca to unlock the car. And before they backed out the driveway, she said, "Mom, I'll practice like Steve wants, four to five, but I can't help you with dinner anymore."

"That's okay." JoBecca flicked on the wipers to clear the drizzled windshield. "It's a phase he's going through. Maybe there's some medication."

"But why is he like this?" Her dad's latest demand about flute playing had unsettled Trinity and she had no pleasant choice except to go along.

JoBecca maneuvered down narrow 22nd, pausing at Stanton, an intersection with no stop signs like most of Irvington. She checked both ways and only mid-block, before Knott, replied.

"See, your father has always been looking for something better. Like the move out here was gonna be his Valhalla or some such. Then we get here, time goes by, and he's thinking that Oregon is not the place. That's what he's looking up at the library: places to move.

"The dishwasher, same thing," JoBecca kept on. "It might bother him in six months if something else doesn't get him first. I don't know. Your father's a complicated man. We can leave it at that."

"Oh," Trinity said, pleased her mom was telling her more, but unsure what it meant. They sped up Broadway to Fabrika over in the Hollywood District not talking, wipers on intermittent, and JoBecca absentmindedly humming along with the easy-listening love songs of Radio Ten-Ten, as if everything, one day, would be a-okay.

* * *

The following Tuesday, in her room, where the bed was made and even the study desk organized, Trinity gave Bailey the big-sister scoop on valentines. They sorted through a heap of cards about them on the bed.

"This is nice," Bailey said, cradling a red heart-shaped card, white filigreed about its edges. "Who's this for?"

"Don't know yet. I need a list to see who deserves the best valentines."

"I like this one." Bailey held out an especially wide card with two hearts, siamesed side-by-side. "Who gets this one?"

Trinity clicked a ballpen, opening a Pee Chee folder with a tablet tucked under the right flap. "If Paige hadn't said that stuff about Tai's clothes, she said Tai's family bought at Goodwill, she would be near the top on my list, but that was bad, really bad. Don't you think so?"

Bailey's dark, Buster Brown locks framed a quizzical face. "What's Goodwill?"

"Oh, it's the place that sells what people give away. Everything kinda looks, you know, out of date."

"I wouldn't give Paige a valentine."

Trinity kept scribbling line after line and was, in fact, on a second page. From her assortment pack of fifty valentines, she might give out thirty, Bailey could choose from the other twenty, and they could save any leftovers for next year. Trinity clicked the ballpen. Who else? Who else?

"There, thirty names," she said, holding the two pages apart.

"Any boys?" Bailey said.

"Uh-uh, boys are icky."

Bailey leafed through the valentines, starting two piles.

"Now, I copy these over in the right order," Trinity said. "Then I pick the thirty best valentines and put them in order too. So Libby gets the best valentine and then Reed gets the next best. Isn't that easy? And you can have the leftovers, twenty of 'em."

"But those are the worst valentines. Can't I have some good ones."

"Bailey, they're free. You didn't buy them. I did."

Just then both sisters heard their mom quit the kitchen and go to the foyer. The doorbell had chimed.

"I'm home early," their dad said. "Come out here, see what I got."

"Oh, Steve, can't you bring it inside?"

"C'mon, c'mon, no hints, everybody gets surprised."

"Trinity, Bailey," JoBecca called upstairs. "Come down and see your father's surprise."

The sisters reluctantly abandoned the valentines semi-sorted in two piles and marched through hallway, down stairs, and out the open front door. Beyond the knee-high boxwood hedge, on the twin strips of driveway concrete, showroom polished, sat an SUV, a silver BMW one.

"Had to have this baby," Steve said.

JoBecca said nothing and studied Steve more than the car.

Trinity saw her dad stop smiling like he had expected people to be happier. "Can we go for a ride?" She guessed Steve was waiting to hear that. "Please."

"Steve, our vacation. Remember? We haven't even bought the tickets." JoBecca's voice sounded like she had more questions.

"Why worry," he said. "This baby, oh, she goes anywhere. Four-wheel drive. All the time. No road. No problem."

"Cozumel, you didn't forget?" JoBecca said.

"Cozumel? Easy. This baby's a BMW, nothing stops BMW." Steve laced the fingers of both hands, his ring finger sporting the new key ring, his hands clasping the key fob and car keys like the secret to happiness for once, at last, was his.

"Steve, we're not gonna be cooped up in a car two weeks. We only have two weeks. I want to fly there. En-ti-en-de u-sted?"

Trinity wanted to say again, What about riding in the new car? but she knew that her mom was too upset. She looked to Bailey, but her sister was by the car, too short to peek in the tinted windows and see anything, but content to daub her fingers over its chrome, as if she knew that she might leave the first human marks on the car's silvered edges.

Trinity caught her sister's eye and ignored the standoff between her parents. "Bailey, let's go finish up the valentines." Her sister, as ever, looked puzzled. Trinity gave her a hard squint. Bailey had to know when to leave their parents alone.

* * *

Friday the thirteenth, the day before Valentine's Day, came to Irving School and Trinity and others, almost all girls, were busy giving out valentines. Tucked in her JanSport book bag, Trinity, mid-afternoon, had heart-emblazoned cards by the dozens, possibly more than she had handed over to Kezia, to Reed, to Camela, to all the others straggling on the way to school, chatting by lockers in the hall, doodling in the classroom, running on the playground, or laughing in the lunchroom.

Then, impossibly, Clayton, the moon-eyed guy she had worked at ignoring since sometime before Christmas, came up to her with an envelope. She winced. He looked even wider in his baggy cargo pants.

"Here," he said. "This is for you." His words spilled together like he'd waited all day for the moment.

"Thank you, Clayton," she said, ready to hurry on. But he stood there, blocking her, the moon eyes filled with expectation. She felt uncomfortable. Did he want her to open the valentine right there? "I'll open all my cards," she said, "when I get home. This will be one of the first." Clayton didn't budge and seemed planted in the hallway when she sidestepped him and rushed away, as if determined to make up for some lost seconds.

Trinity's thumb bent the envelope. Boys were so icky! Clayton was not the worst, but all of them were rough and jumped about like puppy dogs. Girls, naturally, were cool and calm. Yes, girls were calm. Girls were simply more mature.

She'd show Clayton's card to Bailey at home. A valentine from a boy. It really was Friday the thirteenth.

* * *

After she got home, the two sisters sat on the bed in Trinity's room, a day's haul of valentines gathered on the slipcover.

"Here, this is the worst one. A valentine from a boy," Trinity said, unwilling to open the envelope from Moon Eyes.

"Ooooo--a boy!" Bailey took the card, almost tearing the envelope flap to uncover what might be an expansive declaration of love. Clayton had printed no more than "TRINITY," in all caps, above the message, "Valentine's comes once a year and I'll be yours all year long!" and beneath, also in all caps, his name.

"Gee, now you have a boyfriend," Bailey said.

Trinity busied herself tearing open another valentine.

Suddenly, the phone was ringing and Trinity dashed downstairs to pick up in the kitchen, but it stopped. Her mom was on the remote in the parlor. "Steve, what's wrong?" Trinity froze. Unseen, behind the kitchen wall, she wanted to hear more.

"Why don't you get yourself a physical? Could be that it's something else." Trinity kept still, moving nothing more than her eyes.

"You sound like you've been thinking about this too much. I didn't know." Her mom's words were hesitant and seemingly heavy with pain.

Trinity eyed with longing the wall phone by her side. She could only hear one side of the conversation. She leaned on the wall, her hands balled up, and breathing so softly she might as well have been one of the Dolls Around the World grown life-size. "I can talk with the girls. Or do you want me to wait?" Trinity gazed down at her fingernails curled into the heel of a palm. This was serious, really serious. Things were bothering Steve so much.

"Okay, I'll get all that together. You rest well, you hear? And don't worry 'bout the girls, I'll tell them you're away for a while."

Her eyes and nostrils widened; she pursed her lips. Her dad was staying away tonight. She unclinched her hands and pressed them flat against her legs and kept leaning on the wall.

Clunk. Her mom had put down the receiver. Trinity's legs were aquiver as if she should be sneaking out the kitchen. But she had to stay put; she had to be busy. She sprang to the humming fridge, opened the door, keeping an ear cocked toward the hallway.

No Diet Cokes. Nothing else she liked. That was okay for JoBecca rushing up the stairs meant Trinity could now safely tiptoe out.

In the second-floor hallway, muffled sobbing came from her parents' room. Then she surprised Bailey, who evidently had been reading every one of Trinity's valentines.

"Why are you sneaking around?" Bailey asked.

"I'm practicing. Practicing being quiet as a ghost," Trinity said, not wanting her sister to know what probably was the awful truth about their dad.

"Oh," Bailey replied, going back to the valentines.

* * *

That night the Bemis family dinner was subdued owing to fast-talking Steve's absence for something other than the usual business trip. JoBecca was open about what was happening and told the girls he wasn't feeling right and needed to be away from the family until he felt better.

JoBecca dished out some steaming ravioli and launched into how she understood manic depression, which was her best guess on what was with Steve.

"I get like that too," said Trinity. "My feelings go up and down. I never know what's next."

"Well, don't you start in buying a new car and then two days later the dealer's gotta take it back."

Trinity poked the ravioli with her fork tines. She was not hungry, certainly not spicy-tomato-sauce hungry. So her dad had lost control of money. Her mom's joke was wrong. "Are we going to be poor?" she asked, trying to be serious.

"No, dear, we're just going to economize all the way 'round. We'll be okay."

"But how long will Steve be like this?" Trinity asked.

"Don't know. At least a few months. That's how I'd guess it."

"I hope he gets all better real soon," Bailey said.

Then JoBecca asked how the school work was going.

After dinner, Trinity helped her mom with the dishes, cleaning plates of uneaten ravioli and lettuce and scrub rinsing them for the new dishwasher and, with those chores done, realized, yet again, Steve's fast-talking voice was gone.

"Mom, it's okay if I practice my flute now, huh?"

"Sure, go ahead," JoBecca said.

* * *

Trinity was about to tackle Sonata #2 by Bach for an uncounted time, when her mom stopped in the doorway. She laid the flute across her lap.

"Your birthday's almost here."

"The big one-O." Trinity chuckled.

"Well, I was thinking that we'd promised to buy you a flute."

"I picked one out at Piedmont Music."

Her mom, who seemed more tired than usual, slumped against the door frame. "That's the problem, part of it, anyway. I know what your heart's set on, a new flute. But it's gonna be difficult to budget anymore."

Suddenly, Trinity felt her birthday had lost its specialness. Then she remembered the money she'd been saving for college, part of it from her grandparents. "What about my savings? I have nearly enough for a flute."

"I don't know. You think Grandma and Grandpa Bemis would be okay with that?"

"If I had my own flute, I'd get really good and I might win a college scholarship worth a lot of money. They'd like that."

JoBecca stood away from the door frame and gave her daughter a look of wry consent.

* * *

Trinity kept at the Bach for an hour, until eight-thirty.

As always, she swabbed out the flute, swabbed it dry. She saw Bailey had left the unused valentines on her desk in one heap. The top one pictured a school girl, blonde, pigtails, not unlike herself, clutching a long-stemmed rose in one hand and said, "Roses are roses, blues are blues." Inside, "And there's only one of yous. Be my valentine, please!"

Trinity liked it: funny but sincere. She flipped through the rest and didn't find another she liked as well.

Tomorrow was really Valentine's Day and she still could give it to someone. JoBecca? Mom needed a valentine with the rough day she'd had.

Or Steve? Her brow furrowed at that idea of her father alone somewhere, beer in hand, maybe watching TV, something like Frasier, but definitely not happy.

She would give both JoBecca and Steve valentines. But the one for Steve came first.

She grabbed a ballpen from the desk drawer. The one that wrote in red. On the envelope front, she printed "DAD." Big well-formed letters. He would know at a glance it was from her, not Bailey. Then inside the card, she wrote "Dear Dad." Below "Be my valentine, please!" she added, "I miss you terribly, hope you come back real soon. Love, Trinity."

She shut the card, began slipping it back in the envelope and paused. The girl clutching the single yellow rose reminded her of enormous beds of roses in Riverpark back in Chattanooga and something with Steve that happened when she was only eight.

She was playing on a merry-go-round in Riverpark overlooking the Tennessee River where it runs through the city. A hot May afternoon, the busy cicadas in the tall cottonwoods could be heard everywhere.

On that merry-go-round, at one time, were at least six kids, all taking turns running beside it for more speed, jumping back on like Trinity had for the thrill: hanging on the outside vertical bars, her skinny frame leaning out, her blonde braids dangling, her eyes dancing in a world gone upside down with a stomach-turning centrifugal charge. When Trinity had enough, when she decided to jump off, she was so wobbly she couldn't walk straight.

The grass and all else spun. She didn't know where to find her mom and dad and Bailey. She lurched this way, then that.

Suddenly, partly hidden in the thick blades of springy St. Augustine grass--and she was about to step on it--a lifeless, huge crow, its ruffled wings spread funny.

She screamed.

A scream to anyone anywhere to help, please. The crow's eye socket was empty and small brown ants streamed in and out of its open, shiny beak. She choked trying to scream again.

Then suddenly, without a word, Steve was there, his big powerful hands pressed her ribs and lifted her straightway, so her head nestled safely against his. "That's nothing t'worry about," he said as calmly as if teaching her to throw a baseball.

Her heart ran wild. She was breathless. But the world no longer spun.

Across the springy grass, back to the wooden picnic table, he carried the rescued daughter. "Our Trinity, she was about to trip on a poor dead bird." She knew then Steve would help with the awful things in the world.

She looked again at the card she'd written and began to cry. Her dad was still strong for her. She would ask her mom about seeing Steve tomorrow, Valentine's Day, to give him the card. She missed him already.

Besides, he needed some cheering up. She couldn't think of what else to do. The rest of the unused cards she would show Bailey, who was in the family room with the TV on. See if she wanted to send a valentine too. But first, she had to give the tears time to stop.

She looked at the card again and saw a tear marked the valentine for Steve. The tear would dry but leave a stain. She choked back fresh tears: She would have to do a new valentine. But if Steve saw a tear from sadness on the card, he'd know she missed him. She could leave it. A smile flickered across her lips.

* * *

As Saturday turned out, Trinity did not personally deliver the tear-stained valentine. Something about Steve being away from Portland for the day. JoBecca let her mail it, though, which she did, unsure it would ever reach him.

The only sure thing in Trinity's life was that Irving Elementary School's orchestra would play Friday night. And then too quickly the hour of reckoning was upon Trinity, who sat onstage with the other orchestra kids, in their dressy best, bright spotlights haloing their heads. The Sonata #2 score she shared with the other flutist, Leigh, rested on a music stand tray between them. Trinity fussed about, realigned the flute sections, held it out sideways, silvery mouthpiece at her lips, and tapped tone holes and key levers to be sure her fingers, despite onstage jitters, still moved. In front, violin players picked and bowed strings, tuning up with a peg twist or two.

Beyond the stage, in the auditorium dimness, shadowy people kept filing in for seating. Trinity squinted and hoped she and the other kid musicians would not let so many people down.

Mr. Haflund, the orchestra teacher, who also played clarinet in the Oregon Symphony, walked out front-stage, talking softly, asking them to all check that their sheet music was at the beginning of the Bach sonata.

Still facing them, he touched his black bow tie, tightly knotted on the white shirt he wore with his professional tux, then smartly turned on his heel, faced the audience and bowed deeply.

Trinity sat erect, her flute at the ready.

Then before she could search the audience again for JoBecca and Bailey, the instrumental voices were chorusing forth, Mr. Haflund waving baton up and down, coaxing the violins in the quiet beginning of the piece.

Then came the flute duet. Trinity plunged in, playing as she had for months; she and Leigh playing as tight, as together as they had in practice that morning. Mr. Haflund beamed and directed baton sweeps toward them, as if adding the final grooming touches to the run of notes they had flawlessly delivered.

Trinity caught her breath. The flutes were incredible and they had only to do it once more, a reprise near the end.

Resting with flute in lap, military-pride posture, Trinity squinted past the stage lighting. She had yet to see JoBecca and Bailey and the light varied too much. Some faces she saw, others were indistinguishable.

Then her eyes grew wide. For a few rows back sat Steve, gazing her way, blankly, as if he hadn't noticed her. She stared hard because he had dyed his hair black, shoe-polish black. Was it that he didn't want anybody to recognize him, dying his blond hair this awful black? But his face, his eyes, his nose, his mouth--that was her father. She knew that. She leaned forward to see if, by moving, he might pick her out.

He didn't. He kept looking up at the orchestra as if he were also looking right through her. Trinity bit her lip.

Was he pretending not to see her? Why was he doing this? And, worst, his hair looked bad.

Trinity kept giving Steve a hard look, but nothing became clearer. Suddenly, Leigh was playing the reprise beside her and the flute was still in Trinity's lap.

She hurriedly brought the cold metal of the mouthpiece to her lips.

Omigod. She had messed up.

Only after the concert, did Trinity find JoBecca and Bailey. She asked her mom if she had seen Steve and she said, No, he wasn't there. Trinity wanted to tell her mom about Steve and the hair dyed black, but she had so many questions, she had to think about it more, it was so odd. Anyway, she was glad the concert was over.

* * *

For days to follow, Trinity could not let go the memory of Steve with black hair. What did his being there mean? That he missed her? That he got her valentine and wanted to see her? She didn't know. She decided Steve wanted to see her and Bailey and JoBecca again, but moving back in with them wouldn't work. The only way he could see them was to find them somewhere and wear his disguise, hair dyed black or sunglasses or a floppy hat or something. Then he wouldn't have to talk about his problems. Trinity's stomach was a knot of worry that Steve was gone for good and might not get well.

In her room, the halves of the flute case open flat on the bed, she took out the tubular sections and joined them, meditatively. All her practice had paid off in a way. She had seen Steve again. But she didn't know if that was the end, with his disguise and everything. She just didn't know.

Then JoBecca walked in. "Why are you sitting in the dark?" Above, the light fixture was dim.

"I was going to play my flute."

"With these lights out?"

"I don't know anything about putting in new ones."

"You're right. Changing light bulbs was a Steve specialty. On that ladder, I don't even know where he kept it."

"It's in the garage."

"No, no. Don't need it. Tomorrow I'll call us an electrician, have him come out, change the light bulbs. Oh, joy, not having a man around."

JoBecca, shoved her hands in her loose house dress and raised her shoulders, as if the future were up for grabs.

Trinity remembered exactly how the wooden ladder rested by the shelving deep in the garage. "Mom, let's ask Steve to come by and change the lights, can't we do that, please?"

"I dunno, probably he wouldn't mind a short while. I'll call and see."

Her mom left and Trinity held her flute out sideways, brought the mouthpiece to her lips, pursed in the practiced embouchure.

She would look at his hair closely. If he had not washed it all out, his roots would show. Her eyes fairly danced to the black trills inked in bunches across the pages of the score displayed on the music-stand and then, once again, Trinity was playing Bach.


© 2000 Charlie Dickensin

With corporate anonymity, Charlie Dickinson from Portland, Oregon, USA, wrote titles like "XXXYYYZZZ System Debug Monitor User's Guide" before deciding in 1994 to focus on his own writing projects. For a job, he now reshelves books at the North Portland Branch Library. "Valentines in Valhalla" is one of thirteen Irvington Stories he has written to date. Links to these stories and other writings published at such Web venues as "Blue Moon Review", "Mississippi Review", and "Savoy" are featured at his site www.efn.org/~charlesd
charlie.d@juno.com

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