February was warmer than normal in Mt. Pleasant. Less snow than rain fell, and the days were temperate enough that if you closed your eyes, you might think it was April, even May. So much so that Annie Folger’s forsythias bloomed. As they do each year, the mounds of white erupted and blocked the view of the house from one side, dusting the ground around the porch and covering Rex’s red Opel GT with shed blossoms, like a beautiful pox.
He had bought the Opel when he returned from Vietnam, weeks before marrying Annie, and it loyally followed them through three moves, three children, and forty years. He drove it to work on Fridays at the airport, when the weather was warm. It was a snap judgment, the sports car, a splurge. It reminded him of Ferraris he had seen when he was younger, and the wanton virility that he had felt in those days. The whine of its engine and the smooth lines of its body had been wild and reckless. The round taillights had alluded to speed.
Anymore though, they smacked of denial. The car felt rattletrap and cumbersome. Rex’s sons drove it to proms and away from weddings, and then it remained behind, staining the carport and collecting forsythia blooms in the spring, pollen in summer, leaves in autumn, ice in winter. Rex nursed it along all that time, through electrical repairs and broken gaskets, finicky carburetor work and non-responsive gauges. He washed it out of habit—like breathing or blinking. Annie insinuated that it might be time to get rid of it, to pass it along to someone else who had the time and patience to cater to its demands, but she never insisted. After all, she had recently bought a hybrid that sat primly in the garage—a quiet, unassuming vehicle. The Opel was loud, transient, and uncivilized, now with forsythia blooms littered across its cowl.
Those forsythias were a marvel. Locals always wondered at the kaleidoscope of color erupting from Annie’s beds, but each year, the forsythias were something to behold. Lenten Roses blushed shyly at the feet of the white tufts, shining in stark contrast to the drab brown of nearly everything else in sight. The blooms were a preamble to a myriad of leaf and blossom that would run well into the first frost. Some of the charter members of the Mt. Pleasant Garden Society looked in annual disdain at Annie’s gardens, publicly bemoaning their own noble attempts while secretly praying for a localized natural disaster to befall her beds of peony, columbine, and hosta.
Annie had tried to plant a verge by the river in town with iris last year, to liven up the hard-scrabble city works flower beds. They had always been an eyesore, as nothing ever grew there but scattered sorrel and clover, but Annie figured she could call forth something from that stubborn ground. Instead, Marge Stoneman usurped Annie’s plans in an act of defiance, beginning with a proposal in a council-meeting, and ending by installing some common roses and an ugly crepe myrtle. Annie took this in stride, and went as far as to compliment the arrangement when she ran into Marge in the supermarket. Marge offered a simpering thanks, nose in the air, and continued examining cuts of beef.
But here, across town, under Annie’s fine specimen forsythias, Rex was rinsing the Opel in the balmy weather. Having just washed her, an awareness struck him like a blow. Perhaps it was the bright red of the paint, the eagerly blooming shrubs, or the scent heavy in the air. He recalled at once that old nemesis of his, The Feast of Saint Valentine, just two days hence. For the duration of their marriage, Rex had struggled to remember this simple holiday, this staple of American kitsch, this Achilles heel of modern husbandry that was Valentine’s Day. Each year, he neglected to honor it for Annie, and each year she forgave with longsuffering, claiming that it was a silly concept anyway—designed for the greeting card and chocolate industries. She had become accustomed to his late cards and tardy, discount chocolates, and loved him nonetheless. Rex was now beholden, standing in the drive in February’s unseasonable warmth, stunned with the weight of his realization.
He decided to go right then. As a matter of fact, he decided to drive the sportster. After all, he thought, he had just washed and waxed it, and the warm air would feel wonderful through open windows. He could enjoy his long deferred triumph at speed. So, Annie thought nothing of it when he puttered out of the driveway and pointed the car toward town.
King’s Drug and Sundry sat atop a hill above the river, looking down at the new chain pharmacy that had been built last year on the plot Stoneman’s Diner used to occupy. The stately old storefront scoffed with disdain at the neon absurdity of its garish neighbor. Locals still used the old standby, though more and more business tended to fall down the hill. Anyone requiring custom compounding, though, still frequented King’s, as did anyone with even a scrap of loyalty to the town. At the bottom of the hill ran the river, edged by the road and verge, now full of Marge’s roses.
Rex found a quick spot and parked his car just above King’s. He gave himself a half-hour on the meter. After wiping a bead of water off the fender skirt and nodding absentmindedly, he jogged across the street to King’s front door.
Several things happened at once. As Rex pulled on the handle to open the door, he did not hear the faint bell alerting the clerk of his presence. He was distracted by a vague feeling of having forgotten something. Then he saw a flash of red reflected in the perfectly clean glass of King’s Drug and Sundry. He heard a rending shriek, and by the time he had turned to take in the scene, he saw exactly what caused the scrape, whoosh, and commotion that followed. Rex had left the parking brake free.
The Opel, freed from its engagement to first gear, rolled down the hill, missing every car on either side of the road. Then, as if guided by the hand of God, it hopped the curb and careened into the river—but not before eliminating the entire row of roses and the lone, haggard crepe myrtle. Rex watched, aghast, as those wonderful taillights and bumper disappeared beneath the water with a diminishing gurgle and hiss. He was wholly unaware that Alfred King, the druggist, had stepped out of the pharmacy behind him. Alfred asked, “Want me to call the truck?”
Rex sighed at the bubbles emanating from the river where the car had slipped in. “No, Alf,” he didn’t think he would. After all, sometimes it’s not about what you bring home, but what you don’t. Happy Valentine’s Day, Annie Folger.