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A Valentine's Day Gift For You

If, like me, you have complicated feelings surrounding Valentine's Day, take heart. A quick look at the downright creepy evolution of Valentine's Day cards will show you that you are not alone. Satanic suitors? A Hidenburg-like blimp as a metaphor for love? Guns? Creepy clowns? Bondage? No matter. This year, I am embracing love in all of its forms (with the exception of the aforementioned forms, of course), especially the many kinds of love that have gotten me through the last ten months: old friends who have sustained me, new friends who have made room for me in their lives, all friends who have understood the pull of isolation and not held it against me when I failed to return a text or email on time, the joy of a new generation in my family growing up surrounded by love and wonder, former co-workers who take the time to stay in touch, and many complete strangers who have given me the gift of reading one of my books (while sometimes even reading more than one). I feel honored to have all of you in my life.

I'd also like to give a little something back, so please enjoy this Valentine's Day Casey Jones short story, originally written for Noir at the Bar last year. It goes out to you with special thanks to Lana Pierce and Eryk Pruitt, owners of Yonder Bar in Hillsborough, NC, for caring enough to bring writers and readers together, be it in-person or digitally, so we can celebrate storytelling and its power to help us understand life. Check out Yonder whenever you're near and be sure to follow them on Facebook for future Noir at the Bar invitations. In the meantime: I hope you enjoy this story!

Love Stinks, But Real Life is Worse

A Casey Jones Short Story

Is it ironic or inevitable that I hate Valentine's Day with what can only be described as a burning passion? It's the greatest con in American history. Well, almost. You just can't win. Either you're disappointed at what your loved one did or you end up feeling like a jerk because you didn't do enough. The truth is that Valentine’s Day is like a coat of cheap paint slapped on a crumbling wall. In my opinion, the only thing you should do if you feel a burning passion is visit a doctor. That’s what I do.

"I fucking hate Valentine's Day," Lamar at the Bar said from two seats down. I had to admit, he had reason to. His last wife had dumped him to run off with her gynecologist.

“It’s a bunch of bullshit,” someone else said from further down the bar. A chorus of low-pitched grumblings agreed.

That was when I realized that I was the only woman in the entire joint. What did that say about me?

"How do you feel about younger men, Casey?" the bartender asked as he put another shot of Jack down in front of me.

“I didn't realize you cared," I told him.

"I don't care," he said cheerfully, "but it looks like you have a fan."

I spun around on my barstool, but the only person I saw was Eddie the Human Eeyore, slumped against the jukebox playing a Celine Dion song for the umpteenth time. I was getting ready to shove his beer up his ass if I had to hear how his heart would go on one more time. But Eddie in no way qualified as a younger man. I was mystified. Where was my fan?

"Hey lady! The fat man said you'd be here."

I looked down. A kid no more than eight or nine years old had planted himself firmly in front of me. He was hopping up and down on tennis shoes that made a suction-like sound every time the soles hit the sticky beer-soaked tile.

“You're looking for me?" I asked as I rummaged through my past. I did not remember giving anyone up for adoption, but I had lost entire years of my life to a haze of alcohol and drugs before I wised up.

"I said the fat man told me you'd be here," the little squirt repeated, holding out a grimy fist full of dollar bills.

"You're going to need more than that to get her attention," Lamar at the Bar told him.

"Shut up, Lamar," I said automatically. "I'm pretty sure the terms of your probation mean you need to back off another 1,990 feet from this kid."

Lamar returned to his beer with a smile.

I didn't have to ask the kid who the fat man was. When your boss is pushing 400 pounds, it's pretty obvious. The real question was why the hell Bobby D. had let a little kid with straw-colored spikes of hair, ears the size of bats, a pinched face, and more freckles than a speckled pup’s belly, march alone across four blocks of Raleigh's downtown on a February afternoon dressed in nothing more than a striped cotton T-shirt and a pair of cargo shorts. Even I knew this kid had no business walking around by himself—and I have the maternal instincts of a hamster.

“What exactly did the fat man say?” I asked.

“He said to come here and look for a chubby lady with fake blonde hair and a low-cut blouse.” He was staring at said lowcut blouse with undisguised appreciation. “He made it sound like you were a hot mess. That’s what my momma used to say. But I think you’re pretty.”

Aaaah. Valentine’s Day was looking up. Which tells you how desperate I was.

"Why exactly did the fat man send you to me?” I asked.

"I told him I needed your help and could pay," the kid explained. “That was when he told me you’d be here.”

By now, the entire bar was staring at the country song unfolding before them. I knew I should have stopped the drama right then and there, but the words were out before I could help it.

"Need your help with what?" I asked.

Eddie the Human Eeyore had started to take a keen interest in the exchange. "Maybe he wants you to buy him them red shoes because his momma is going to meet Jesus tonight," he called out from the jukebox.

"My mom is already daid," the little boy shouted across the room. The bar fell instantly silent at this at this pronouncement. Eddie looked like someone had just Tasered him up the ass.

"What do you mean your mom is already dead?" I asked. If this was some sort of “my daddy killed my momma and I need you to make him pay” kind of case, this was not going to help my cynicism about Valentine's Day.

"I mean she's daid. The drugs killed her. Mrs. Young said she just should've said no."

"Who is Mrs. Young?"

"Mrs. Young is the old lady that takes care of me. She's got like five of us crammed in her house and I have to share a bunk bed with this kid named Andy who wets his bed, so I said he had to sleep on the bottom bunk because I didn’t want no piss dripping on me in the middle of the night. We got in a fight and Mrs. Young hit us both with a switch even though I weren’t the one ruining her mattress."

Okay, then. I was the adult. It was up to me to get him to focus.

"What exactly is it you want to hire me for?" I asked as I signaled the bartender for another drink, this being an emergency and all.

"I need to find my daddy. I can't ask my mom because she’s daid and Mrs. Young who takes care of me, well, she don't give a shit."

"You can't curse in here," I told him with the kind of annoying authority that complete strangers assume with small children. "It's a cop bar."

The kid was growing impatient. "Are you going to help me or not? Usually when I say my momma is daid, people pay a little more attention to what I want."

"Where did your dad go?"

Now he was really losing patience with me. "If I knew where he went, why would I need you to find him?"

"What's his name? What does he look like?"

"I don't know his name and I don't know what he looks like. That's the point.” He stared at the dollar bills in his hand. "If I'd known you were so gall darn stupid, I wouldn’t have saved up so much."

Sheesh. Everyone's a critic. "You don't know who your daddy is, but you want me to find him for you?"

"Finally you get it," the boy said. "Are you going to help me or not?”

"For god sakes, Casey. Help the young man," Lamar at the Bar said with disgust. "You’ve helped out enough lowlifes to fill the county jail and you can’t help a kid?"

The low-pitched grumblings of agreement that filled the bar suggested that Lamar was not the only one who felt this way. My advantage as the only woman in the bar was fading fast.

"Let's go outside," I suggested to the boy. The door shut behind us with a bang, leaving me and the kid alone on a grimy sidewalk.

"Let's start over," I said. "What's your name?"

"My name is Vonny Lewis Hicks, Jr," he said. "But I will let you call me Vonny."

“Well, if your name is Vonny Lewis Hicks, Jr." I suggested, "Doesn't that mean your dad's name must be Vonny Lewis Hicks, Sr?"

"I don't know," the boy said. "That's why I'm hiring you."

"When's the last time you saw him?"

"I ain't never seen him. He told my mama he never wanted to see her again and so she told him she was going to take him up on that offer."

I don't want to speak ill of the dead, but Vonny Hicks Jr’s mother had probably not been a candidate for Mother of the Year.

"Were you born around here?" I asked.

"Here?” He looked around him at the cracked sidewalk and curbside garbage with disgust. “Course not. I was born in a hospital like everyone else."

"But you never lived anywhere but here in Raleigh?"

"I don't live in Raleigh," he answered, as if I was growing more stupid by the minute. "I live in Garner. I'm just here because Mrs. Young had to go to court so she brought us all with her. She didn't notice when I sneaked away. And when I got out the front door of the courthouse, I saw that store where you work. I recognized it from a photo in the paper. This girl I live with had read me the story. She said that a lady detective worked in that building and one day she was going to be one, too. So I ran across the street and found a fat man inside and told him I was looking for the lady detective and that’s when he told me where I could find you."

To be honest, the main thing I gleaned from this story was that somewhere out there in the world, there was a young lady who actually looked at me as a role model. That absolutely terrified me.

"I might be able to help you," I said. I was a sucker for a wide smile with a couple of missing teeth. Plus, the freckles sprinkled across his face seemed so damn wholesome it was hard to turn him down. Saying no to him would be like Andy Griffith grabbing the fishing pole out of Opie’s hands and beating him with it.

"In that case, take this." The boy thrust the grimy wad of cash at me and I took it reluctantly. There were a few hot coins embedded among greasy currency, but altogether there was maybe enough to buy me another shot of Jack. But what the hell? I’d worked for less.

"Where is Mrs. Young now?" It was a prophetic question. As I looked around me, I saw a woman dressed in pink polyester bearing down on me like a tugboat. A parade of ragamuffin kids of all colors trailed behind her like ducklings paddling to keep up with their mother. "Is she by any chance a big woman with weird-colored hair who likes to wear sweat pants and has a purple pocketbook?"

The kid's eyes widened. "You're good," he admitted. "How did you detect that already?"

"I didn't," I said. "She's right behind you. Better buckle your seatbelt, partner."

He turned around just as Mrs. Young grabbed him by the arm and raised a hand as if to strike him.

"Don't do it," I said calmly. "There’s an entire bar full of cops right behind me. If you hit that child, I will make sure that you're in jail faster than you can fart. You got it, lady?"

Mrs. Young froze and we locked eyes. She had a bovine face to mask her shrewdness. I knew her type all too well from my childhood. She was the kind of woman who pretended to like kids but mostly warehoused them for the money she got each month from social services.

She saw I meant business. She dropped her arm and grabbed Vonnie by the wrist instead.

"Are you gonna help me, lady?" Vonnie called over his shoulder as Mrs. Young dragged him away.

"Sure, kid," I said. "I'll help you."

"How are you going to find me?" He yelled, looking panicked.

"I’ll find you," I promised. "I'm a detective, remember?"

"I knew you’d help that kid," Lamar said when I went back into the bar to grab my knapsack.

"Shut up, Lamar," I said automatically. "Don't think I don't know you shamed me into it. You owe me one."

He was laughing as I turned to go, but I decided not to deck him. I would have helped the kid anyway.

"What in God's name is the matter with you?" I asked Bobby D. He was sitting at his desk holding up a piece of lingerie large enough to fit a small horse. That's the great thing about Bobby D. He loves the lingerie the most. What the body inside looks like is less important than the silk and the lace. I strongly suspected that was probably the root of his otherwise inexplicable success with the ladies.

Bobby D. held up a red lace teddy with black trim. "What do you think of this one?"

"If you're going for the ‘Miss Kitty turns into one of her own whores’ look, it's perfect," I decided. “I am sure not even Marshall Dillon could resist.”

Bobby nodded with satisfaction.

"You should be ashamed of yourself," I told him.

"For what?"

"For sending some little kid out into the street all alone without a coat to go in search of me."

Bobby D. stared at me blankly before comprehension finally made it through all the excess cholesterol in his brain. "That was a little kid?” he said. “For real? I thought it must be a midget or something. He was just so belligerent. I offered to help him, but he wanted you. What does he want?"

“He wants me to find his daddy because his mother is dead. Pardon me, because his mother is daid.”

“I assume you said yes?”

"I said yes. And you're going to help me."

I’ve worked with Bobby for a long time. We each knew where the other drew a line in the sand. He knew there was no room for negotiation in this case. He sighed and shoved the bags of lingerie to one side.

I wrote the essentials down on a piece of paper and handed it to him. "This might be his daddy's name, and I think his dad’s from around here, but I have no idea how old he is or what happened to him."

"I’ve started with less," Bobby declared. "I'll take public records while you poke around social services."

"Agreed," I said.

In the end, it only took us half an hour to find the kid’s father. He was indeed alive. Whether he was well was another matter, since he was in Central Prison for a nickel stretch on a robbery charge. Further investigation revealed he'd been arrested for shoplifting a car battery out of an AutoZone. Not exactly the kind of thing you can stuff into your pants. Unless you're Bobby D, of course. That stunt, combined with a long record of priors, had ended with him in the slammer.

"There’s 135 Hicks in jail in North Carolina right now. Are you sure that's him?" Bobby asked. We were staring at a photo of inmate number 0360495, known to law enforcement as one Lavonne Lewis Hicks, a.k.a. Meatball, Red, Pick-Up Sticks Hicks, and Scooter.

Christ, the dumb names that criminals called each other. Did they think a colorful nickname was going to make them less of a skell?

"Yup," I decided. "That's him. Look at that face." Vonnie Hicks Sr. had pale hair that failed to conceal a pointy dome, ears the size of tennis shoes— and pretty much the same shape—plus a constellation of freckles as thick as the Milky Way sprinkled across his pinched face. "His son looks just like him.”

Bobby nodded his agreement. "You sure you want to tell this guy that he has a kid? The kid might be better off without him."

I thought about Mrs. Young and her hammy forearms. "I'm sure."

"So what's the plan? You going to go marching into Central Prison and tell this loser he's got a son so he can take him under his wing and teach him breaking and entering for his 10th birthday? Maybe show him the manslaughter ropes for his 16th?"

Bobby D. had a point. What could this man do to make Vonnie Junior's life better? I sat down and thought about it hard. I was no stranger to the world of motherless children and fatherless families. And I also understood why people stole and why they were driven to. I knew what it was like to have nothing and to look around at a world that seemed to have everything you did not have. I knew what it was like to have just enough smarts to understand when other people were judging you.

Not many people broke out of that world. It was a heartless quicksand trap of layoffs and lost dreams. And if Vonnie’s dad had racked up that rap sheet of his in a mere 32 years in that world, God knows what lay ahead for him.

I thought back over all the kids from broken homes I had known, all the social services runaways I had befriended on the street, then I thought back to my own childhood. How my grandfather had raised me after my parents died, and how doing so had saved both of us.

That was when it hit me.

"I need to take a look at Vonnie Sr.’s family tree," I told Bobby. "Maybe there's someone decent dangling from a branch."

"Maybe," Bobby D said, sounding dubious at best. His hands flew over the keyboard. “Here you go." He turned his laptop around and showed me the screen.

According to the Google gods, Lavonne Lewis Hicks was associated with three addresses prior to his current address at 1300 Western Blvd. in Raleigh, and one of the addresses was also associated with a Debbie Hicks, age 57. I took down the information.

"You’re going for the grandmother, aren't you?" Bobby D guessed.

"Yup. Who the hell else do you think is mopping up the mess out there?" I headed out the door toward my car. It was February 12th and, suddenly, I was of the mind to show some love, particularly when it came to my pint-size client with oversized ears and a still untarnished faith in the abilities of a lady detective.

Debbie Hicks had no idea she had a grandson. That much was obvious when she burst into tears. It took seven paper napkins to get her emotions under control.

We were sitting in a tiny living room in a mill house right on the Johnson County line. If the furniture hadn’t been rescued from the curb, it would be heading that way soon. Duct tape decor, I call it. It the aesthetic choice of people who had just enough money for food and utilities but not much left for anything else.

“I guess you didn't know about Vonnie Junior?" I finally said.

She shook her head. She had the weathered look of a woman who had waited tables all her life, or maybe worked on the line at the chicken factory. But the streaks of gray running through her dark hair lent her a dignity that transcended the cheap furniture and the disappointment in her eyes.

"Did you know the mother?" I asked. "It would've been about 10 years ago, I guess. He said that she died. I don't know how long ago, though."

She thought as she sniffled into a fresh paper napkin. "I'm guessing it was Ashley Mooney. She and Vonnie went together for about a year back then, but Ashley had a meth problem and Vonnie had to cut her out of his life. She stole everything he had to sell to buy her drugs and she even cleaned me out once or twice. It's not like we had a choice. It was her or us. I heard she got some kind of infection and died but I never knew she'd had a kid. She never came around asking for child support."

I thought of a young woman, grappling with her demons, saddled with the care of a child, still clinging to some sort of pride in her ability to go it alone. I guess she had needed the meager dignity of walking away from the people who had rejected her.

"He's in foster care," I told his grandmother. "And I don't like the lady he’s staying with. I don't think she takes care of him out of the goodness of her heart."

Debbie Hicks looked up in alarm. "What are you asking me to do?" she said. "I should think it's obvious I did not do such a good job with my son."

"I'm sure you did the best you could," I reassured her. "I don't see a man around the house or any signs of one. How long have you been going it alone?"

This set her off again. I waited patiently until her sobs subsided. "I've been paying my own way my whole life. My husband left me when Vonnie was born and I did do the best I could."

"Well," I said. "You're older now, you learned from your mistakes, and it does seem to me there’s room here for one more. Maybe Vonnie Junior could be your second chance?"

She stared at me. "You seem like you know about second chances," she finally said.

"Third, fourth, and fifth chances, too," I admitted.

"I don’t earn a whole lot," she said. "And the government denied me disability for my back."

"You can file for money as a foster parent," I told her. "I know someone who can show you how. It would give you enough to take care of Vonnie."

I could see something change in her eyes, a shift in how she saw her life, a tiny flicker of hope that maybe she was looking at it wrong, that perhaps she should consider seeing her life the way I saw it, with more possibilities than she thought.

"You really think I could do that?" she asked.

I nodded. "But you have to be the one to make the decision about whether or not to tell him he has a daddy. That’s above my pay grade."

"Oh, I will tell him," she said firmly. "My son grew up without a father, and I am not doing that to another child. I think even a bad father might be better than no father at all."

"I'll connect you with the lawyer,” I promised her. “I'm sure the two of you can work it out." I looked around the room and noticed that, shabby as it was, there were hand-knitted afghans folded over the cracked leather furniture and cheap prints disguising the dented drywall. There were way worse places to grow up in this world, and I suspected Mrs. Young's house might be one of them.

"I think Vonnie Junior will love it here," I told her.

"Thank you," she said in a small voice. "You've been very kind to my grandson."

"He’s my client," I told her. "And I take the interests of my clients very seriously."

Two days later, I was sitting on my usual stool at the Hole in the Wall, ignoring Lamar at the Bar, trying to block out Love Can Make You Happy on the jukebox, thanks to Eddie the Human Eeyore, when the bartender flicked his towel at me, stinging my arm right above the elbow.

"Ouch," I complained. "What the hell was that for?"

The bartender nodded toward the front door. "If you continue to use this place for your office, Casey, you will have to start leaving bigger tips."

To my astonishment, Vonnie Jr. stood in the doorway. Behind him stood the immense Mrs. Young, swathed once again in pink polyester. When she spotted me, her eyes bored into me like miniature heat-seeking missiles. I had no idea what I was in for. She ushered Vonnie Jr. inside and told him to wait by the front door, then headed straight for me.

"I got your back," Lamar whispered. "I've got a burner on my ankle and I'm not afraid to use it."

"Stand down, Rambo," I muttered back. "Let's see what the lady wants first."

Mrs. Young planted herself right in front of me and crossed her arms. She looked determined, resolute, and, perhaps, just a little bit ashamed. Her voice was soft when she finally spoke. "I’m not the person you think I am," she said to me. "I don't beat the kids under my care. But Vonnie just disappeared on me and I thought he'd been kidnapped. It scared me. It was fear that made me raise a hand to him."

"I'm sorry if you thought I was judging you," I told her. "I've just been on the receiving end of one too many open palms like that."

"They're going to take him away from me," she told me. "I got a call about it today. And I know you think I'm upset about it because I'll lose the money from the state. But I’m not. They already have plans to put another child in with me. There's never a shortage of kids who need a home."

"No, I imagine there’s not." Beside me, Lamar had inched a little closer, leaning over with a subtlety lost on Mrs. Young.

"I'm happy for him," Mrs. Young informed me. "Turns out he has family and they stepped forward."

"I'm glad," I said.

"Vonnie insists that you found them and he wants to thank you," she said.

"And you came all the way downtown to tell me that?"

"Like I said, I’m not the person you think I am."

She gestured for Vonnie to join us. The crowd parted way to make room for the little fellow as if he was a miniature Moses marching across the Dead Sea. Vonnie had his hands behind his back. When he reached me, he looked down shyly.

"Go on Vonnie," Mrs. Young told him. "Can't you see she's busy? Give it to her and then we'll go home."

Vonnie produced a white envelope he had been hiding behind his back. "Happy Valentine's Day," he muttered as he handed it to me, his pale face flushing red.

Next to me, Lamar at the Bar had begun to cry, of all things. I glanced at a tear snaking down his cheek. How much had he had to drink, anyway?

I took the envelope and opened it carefully. Inside was a valentine of a little boy who looked remarkably like Vonnie. He had a pointed head topped with spikes of blond hair and freckles sprinkled across his face. He was wearing red shorts with suspenders and carrying an ice cream soda as big as he was. “I'm sweet on you,” was printed in big red letters across the top. The ice cream soda had been decorated with glitter and twinkled in the lights of the bar. I stared at it, not sure what to do.

"I saved the only glitter one for you," Vonnie explained.

I admit it. My heart melted. "I'm honored," I told him. I knelt down and gave him a hug. He hugged me back stiffly.

"I guess you know that I found your grandma?" I said gently.

He nodded.

"Maybe she can help you find your daddy," I said. "You never know. You’ve just got to have faith."

“I ain’t never had a grandma before,” he said. “I guess I’ll take what I can git.”

As Mrs. Young took his hand and marched him back out the door, the Hole in the Wall returned to its Valentine's Day madness. Billiard balls clicked in a corner, the jukebox roared back to life with Muskrat Love, and an entire room full of jaded, beer-soaked cops called for another round. I sat back down at the bar and tried not to think about Valentine's Day and what it was supposed to mean.

"You're just an old softy inside," Lamar at the Bar said to me. He was staring at me, a new expression on his face. For the first time, I realized how handsome Lamar was. He had skin the color of toffee, huge chocolate eyes with these beautiful black eyebrows arched over them, and lush eyelashes any woman would kill for. What a waste that such a man sat at the bar night after night, crying over what had been.

"Looks like you're an old softy, too," I told him. "Don't think I didn't see that tear trickle down your face."

"I'm tired of being cynical," Lamar said. "I'm tired of sitting in the bar thinking about her. She wasn’t worth it then and she sure as hell isn’t worth it now. Hell, if she doesn't appreciate me, then why am I so upset she’s gone?"

"Because love is telling someone to go to hell and then worrying about whether they get there safely," I explained. "You can’t choose who you love and you can’t control how they make you feel. You can just choose not to let it control you."

“I just want to have a little fun again," Lamar admitted. "Isn’t love supposed to be fun?"

I thought about it for a moment. "I suppose. At least in the beginning. But I can think of a lot of things that are just as much fun."

I looked at him and he looked at me. Something shifted between us. I could feel a heat take hold as the music stopped and, in the moment of silence that lay between us, he learned toward me and asked, “Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

“I am. Let's get out of here before we change our minds."

Without a word, we grabbed our coats and headed for the door. The last thing I heard was the bartender talking to the man who had been sitting on the other side of me.

"Finally," he was saying with satisfaction. "It took those two long enough to figure it out. I don't know why people try to fight it."

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