southtownstar
STEAMY 
Weather Updates

McGrath: The harsh reality of Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day treats included decorated cupcakes.  |  File photo

Valentine’s Day treats included decorated cupcakes. | File photo

storyidforme: 44579700
tmspicid: 2211013
fileheaderid: 1397101

Updated: March 15, 2013 1:18PM



I was never crazy about Valentine’s Day. My buddies had dates and bought them chocolate hearts, but I was too shy to talk to girls.

For a while, I thought music might be a solution. Elvis Presley and Paul McCartney had women flocking to them.

I taught myself guitar, purchasing a secondhand instrument and a Beatles songbook, one of those that indicated with bold black dots which of the six strings you pressed down for each guitar chord. After three weeks, I was playing and singing “A Hard Day’s Night” and “If I Needed Someone (To Love).”

Practicing in the basement, I thought I sounded pretty good. But my only audience was Joe and the boys, and the only song they wanted to hear was a vulgar Christmas carol that I learned to play off of Joe’s old man’s dirty records.

Later, I discovered a dating shortcut that seemed to have potential, though was not yet legal for me — liquor. It gave me warm, glowing camouflage for incursion into enemy territory. A novice imbiber at age 17, I didn’t need much.

One time near Valentine’s Day, when no one was in the kitchen, I unscrewed the cap from a bottle of Early Times bourbon my parents kept under the sink and took a swig — like kerosene in my mouth.

After a moment’s recovery, I took a bigger gulp, one that went down easier, but whose dizzying wallop I could feel, even as I screwed the cap on and set the bottle back in place.

I went to the downstairs bathroom, where I combed my hair, splashed some of my older brother’s Hai Karate after shave behind my ears and gargled with his Lavoris. Primed chemically and cosmetically, I headed outdoors.

Evergreen Park usually is an icebox in February. But an aberrant warm front had melted the snow, and spring-like breezes blew across town from Lake Michigan. I had an early case of spring fever, an “early times” brand of radiance.

A policeman’s daughter lived six houses down from ours. She must have had spring fever, too, because she sat out on her front-porch steps with a bottle of Tab and Seventeen magazine. She was 15 with short brown hair, a devious grin and a gossip’s loquaciousness.

Usually, 10 minutes after she appeared on her top step, Janice from the other side of the street would glide across 96th Place and join her. Glide is the operative word because Janice had balance-a-book-on-her-head posture — owing, I was certain, to her perfect hourglass figure, crowned with long blonde hair. Marilyn Monroe at age 16. Marilyn Monroe in black jeans and a white ski jacket.

I would not have been able to approach the porch if it were just the policeman’s daughter. Or just Janice. Either one alone would have required a presumption and an intimacy far beyond the power of an entire fifth of Early Times.

But three people on the porch implied no pairing, no social obligation and neither a consortium nor conflict of genders. Just three teens passing an evening in conversation. Strictly speaking, one teen conducting a monologue, two listening.

Okay, more honestly, one female talking, the other listening and both ignoring the lone boy who was feeling a warm buzz in place of his usual self-consciousness, which today had been temporarily “anesthetized” — allowing him to sit on the bottom step and near enough to Janice to detect the Calamine-lotion-like scent of Clearasil smeared over the blemishes on her otherwise perfect countenance.

“Can you believe this new dress code?” said the policeman’s daughter.

I nodded. I had no idea what she was referring to, but I could see Janice nod in the approaching darkness so I did, too.

“Everybody’s going to boycott it, such a joke. We had this discussion in class, and our history teacher, Mr. “Dumbo” ears — everybody calls him that, but I think he’s nice, not like Mrs. Strang, such a ... I won’t say it, rhymes with witch!” the cops’ daughter said.

And here she stamped both feet on the concrete step and squealed, which gave me a reason to turn all the way around as though caught up in her hysterical glee, but really to take in the full, close specter of Janice’s silhouette against the pale light coming through the opaque curtains of the policeman’s picture window.

Janice in repose, leaning way back against the stair tread, her right hand raking slowly through her blond hair, her right knee tourniquet-ed by her tight jeans, suddenly bumping up against my ribs as I twisted around.

I froze. I waited for what she’d say: Sorry. Oops. My name?

And then, through layers of dark, I saw a flash of her teeth. An indisputable hint of a partial smile!

My angel. My one and only.

And if I closed my eyes to pretend, my Valentine.

Though the author never took the next “step” with Janice, he was rescued two years later from loneliness, from future Valentine’s Days and from all other torments by Marianne (Dunne) McGrath.

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.