Funny Valentine


By Michelle Mairesse


They were both out of place, and they knew it. Randall had spent eight years designing computer graphics before he was laid off and came to work at the mail-order catalogue company. Georgia, fresh from graduate school, with an uncommercial degree in the classics, had started writing catalogue copy two years ago.

After their first encounter at Starbucks, Randall and Georgia took every opportunity to flee their small-minded, unimaginative co-workers, to avoid their witless exchanges of off-color jokes, recycled sporting events and television plots. Randall and Georgia also detested their editor-in-chief, Lowell J. Broome. They tried and failed to find a word that comprehended Broome's air of detachment, his deliberate silences, his remoteness, his seeming disconnection from human emotions, so they code-named him Robot-Man and concluded that Robot-Man could function in a human environment because he had a ticker tape constantly running back of his eyes, sometimes with indices, sometimes with paper stock prices, sometimes with style sheets, sometimes with type faces and symbols. Their co-workers, at least, had feelings.

Randall and Georgia named their private sessions "reality checks," a way to blot from memory the chunks of commercial seduction they had written or sketched in the morning. If any co-worker wandered into Starbucks and demanded to know the topic of discourse, they had agreed to say that they were taking their positions in the cosmic dance of high-minded living-at-large among the swarming galaxies of a spacious universe, but no one ever asked.

It didn't really matter because they were the Gang of Two, upholding civilization in a hostile climate.

Eros sometimes blundered into their long conversations, and they tolerated him as foreign visitor from the cloudy uplands who was allowed to loll about and listen. Randall was gay, Georgia was married, and neither of them was on the prowl, as most of their colleagues seemed to be.

Each time they carried their uplifted lattes to a table, they felt they were part of the renewed coffee-house culture, exchanging ideas from the far corners of the known universe, ushering in the Enlightenment. Riding on a caffeine high, they dazzled themselves with all the extravagant ideas that they dangled and let drop during two coffees.

Occasionally, one of them would bring a book and read aloud from marked passages. One afternoon Randall brought in a birthday card his lover had sent him. He showed it to Georgia and asked her opinion.

She examined the cover, a cartoon of an Apollonian body-builder, and read the caption aloud: "Birthday? Don't despair. You can still have the body of a twenty-year-old."

Randall flexed a hesitant, expectant smile.

Georgia opened the card and read, "But you'll have to buy him a couple of drinks first."

Georgia studied her hands. She preceded her question with a closed-lip smile and bob of the head. "How did you react to that?"

"Shock. The punch line knocked the wind out of me. I was sad for a few seconds, angry for a few more, and then I burst out laughing. It was unexpected and illusion-shattering, the elements of comedy."

"Mmm. And also of tragedy."

"What would you do if your husband gave you a card like that?"

"Don't know. I'd wonder about his motive, for one thing.. You said you went through three different emotions yourself."

"True. All right. Let's assume your husband was making a comment on the human condition, on aging. But what if he sent you a valentine with a similar message? What would you say?"

"I would say I'd been knee-capped."

"Why? There's comedy and there's tragedy, and there are sentimental valentines and funny valentines."

"Mmm." Georgia turned the card over and over, squinting at the graphics and ruminating over the text.

She held her fist over her head, their symbol for a cartoon light-bulb suddenly igniting. "Randall, I have a fiendish idea. It's Valentine's Day next week. Let's send one to Robot-Man."

"Custom-made?"

"Of course."

"I like it." He clapped his forehead and chuckled.

" A valentine for the blue-faced, cold-blooded Robot-Man."

"Anonymously?"

"Of course."

Georgia would write the text and Randall would design and produce the card.

After two days of consultations, they agreed that Randall's drawing of a dreamy Victorian maiden would accompany Georgia's verse. The following day, Randall brought the completed card to the table.

"Dreamy enough? Victorian enough?"

"She's perfect," Georgia said. "Alone and palely loitering."

Randall opened the card and read Georgia's text in a quavering, high-pitched voice.

In vain would Cupid fling his dart.

In vain would Venus ply her art.

My passion is doomed--

It was from the start--.

For Lowell J. Broome

Is lacking a heart.

Still playing Victorian maiden, Randall crossed his hands on his breast and sank back in his chair with a long sigh.

Georgia applauded. "Bravo. I'll put it on his desk tomorrow. He'll probably go crazy wondering who sent it."

"I'll bet he does."

They were wrong about that.

On Valentine's Day afternoon, much abashed, Georgia dropped a folded sheet of paper on the table. "Read it."

Randall recognized Lowell's tiny handwriting immediately.

    The reason I lack a viable ticker

    Is partly soft women and partly hard liquor.

Oh, the hell with it. Don't you think I'd know you if you wore black fishnet stockings, a mini-skirt, and magenta lipstick? Sure I would.

      Sans a heart, what to give her--

      Stomach, spleen, lights, or liver?

How about a brain?

Meet me at Starbucks tomorrow at 10:30.

Lowell

Randall refolded the sheet and returned it to Georgia. "What do you think he means?"

"Probably I'm fired."

"Look, I'll tell him I wrote it."

"No, no, no. You don't have to come into it at all. It was my dumb idea."

The next morning, Georgia anticipated orders to clear out her desk, but nothing happened. Though she expected Lowell to be late, she arrived five minutes early at Starbucks and nearly dropped her cup when she saw the editor seated next to Randall. They were laughing.

Lowell said, "I just got invited to join the Gang of Two. What do you think?"

She stammered, "Y-y-ess."

"You should have asked me sooner."

"We didn't think you liked . . . people."

"People consume my energy, and I don't have any to spare."

"Oh."

"I was explaining to Randall--whose Blakean curved lines I recognized immediately, by the way--I told him that I'm waiting for a heart transplant--for real--and I try to do my work without getting mired in trivia."

For two months, the Gang of Two was the Gang of Three, and the founders had to admit that Lowell's mere presence considerably raised the level of discourse.

When Lowell's organ transplant came through, they were not permitted to visit him in the hospital, but they sent messages and flowers. Then he was gone, and they were the Gang of Two again.

"He was really a sweet guy," Randall said. "Was he coming on to you or to me? I could never figure it out."

"Neither of us. Both of us. He was practicing for his new heart."