A Valentine’s Day story that’s neither romantic nor bitter — but a little weird

Valentine’s Day reminded me of someone I hadn’t thought about in years, someone entirely peripheral and unromantic, but significant in a strange way. I was 10 years old, and he was a middle-aged wanderer.

Dave was also a published author and the first writer I ever knew, or rather the first person I knew who wrote and didn’t have another job. I’ll just stick with his first name here, in case he has some undisclosed children out there (and, from what I remember of Dave, that’s a distinct possibility). 

Dave lived one block over from my family. He wore a tan baseball cap most days and spoke dismissively about a wife we never saw. He waited for my dad and me every morning over the sand dune on the beach where we walked our Great Dane, Lucy. Dave and my dad would talk the entire stroll, while I half-listened and looked for shells, and Lucy snuck off to eat a few clumps of sand that later would turn into what my dad called “dog cement.” Dave saw us each dawn and yet, when my dad checked the mail every afternoon, he would find stuffed among the bills and solicitations a postcard from Dave. The messages were sometimes joking, often political and always witty. 

Because I was too young to understand, I remember the presentation more than the content. Dave wrote in all capital letters in a black ink pen, the kind that would smear easily. But his words never blurred.

Even as a fifth-grader, I wondered why a writer would waste time penning witticisms to his neighbor instead of something that mattered. Now I wonder, while my own writing projects remain unfinished, if the time I waste tweeting hundreds of cynical observations is really all that different.

Because my dad was a musician, I knew what barrooms smelled like early on, and I recognized that stale sweet smell on Dave, sometimes in the morning. I remember him walking in late to my fifth-grade Christmas play, stumbling to his seat and then catcalling the other elementary school kids as they suffered through puberty-riddled vocals and awkward dance routines involving 4-foot-long candy canes.

Dave drove an aqua-colored Honda del Sol and kept a handmade sign in his left rear window that read, “Speed on, brother. Hell ain’t half full yet.” My school bus passed by Dave’s first-floor apartment every morning and, one day, I noticed a white sandwich board perched on the hatchback of his car. 

“HI, AL.”

I knew the silent message was for me. This was my postcard. But I worried that some of the other sleepy kids seated around me would notice. Should I be embarrassed? Had this happened today, I’d be practicing my target skills at the gun range. But I knew, in my 10-year-old wisdom, that this was a unique situation, and I carefully considered the circumstances before deciding not to worry. That was a good thing, because the sandwich board reappeared on the back of the del Sol every morning that school year – except Valentine’s Day.

I’m pretty sure I wore a red sweater that day. I’m pretty sure my mom put a box of conversation hearts in my camouflage book bag. But on one detail of that day I’m absolutely sure: Dave’s sign. Instead of the recycled sandwich board message, he had something new.

“HAPPY VAL, AL.”

Social acceptance be damned. I couldn’t help but smile and look around proudly to see if anyone noticed. They didn’t, of course. And the next day, the usual sandwich board reappeared.

I went to middle school the following year and started a new bus route that didn’t pass Dave’s house. Dave eventually moved away, and his postcards seemed to correlate to his physical proximity; They came less and less frequently. I wrote a god-awful novella in 10th grade and, not knowing any other writers, my dad suggested I send it to Dave for a quick edit.

Dave wrote back dutifully, “For a sophomore, your vocabulary is anything but sophomoric.” He gave me scant suggestions and overlooked the glaring problems. Namely, I’d chosen to write a love story set during the bubonic plague. Not only did the fleas detract from the romance, but the heroine’s name, Luallis, was simply a mash-up of my name and the family dog’s name. Dave didn’t acknowledge any of that. He just told me to keep writing.

A few years later my parents heard, probably at the post office, that Dave had shot himself in the head. I hadn’t thought much about him, his postcards or the sandwich boards atop the del Sol until today. The first writer I ever knew taught me very little about writing but a good deal about moderation, time management and kind gestures.  

And so in memory of Dave, the first writer I ever knew, happy Val to you all.