|"Rose Red" by C. Michelle Olson; http://cmichelleolson.com/|
Valentine's Non-fiction Feature:
The King of Hearts
by Anita Solick Oswald
February was the time of year when we all had almost recovered from the hangover of Christmas and New Year's. We needed another holiday. The Presidents’ Birthdays were not festive enough, and I hated cherries. Thankfully, Valentine’s Day was on its way. Daddy never failed to bring Mom her favorite Fannie May Pixies, flowers, and jewelry. And, there were always small satin hearts filled with Fannie May and a card for each of his daughters.
Fifth grader Matthew Rossi was a lover, too. The pale-skinned, freckle-faced, red-haired, overweight boy believed he was Casanova reincarnated. Unfortunately, the neighborhood girls thought he looked more like a great speckled egg. Nothing could stop Matthew, who made it his quest to kiss every girl in the class whether they liked it or not—he would not be deterred. He always had large amounts of cash on him; maybe this gave him unwarranted confidence with the ladies.
It didn’t take long for his reputation as a serial smoocher to spread among the fourth grade girls.
“Watch out for Rossi—he’ll try to grab you and kiss you.”
I made sure to keep my distance.
I should have thrown away his birthday party invitation when the young Lothario handed it to me, but I was never a devious kid. I showed the brightly colored “You’re Invited” to Mom, and explained I had a previous engagement.
“Mom, please, I can’t go—I promised Barb I’d take her to see Rodan at the Marbro.”
Mom, whose sense of fairness only seemed to extend to other kids, dismissed my entreaty.
“You will hurt his feelings—you’re going.”
I knew I’d lost the argument before it started.
So, feet dragging, I reported for the birthday party at the Rossi flat on West End.
Mrs. Rossi presided over the festivities. A tall, heavy-set woman, she followed the European fashion in grooming habits; in other words, she didn’t shave her legs or armpits. There was no furniture in the apartment living room or dining room; rolls of linoleum bordered the room. As guests arrived, she directed them to drop their gifts in the pile in the corner.
“Sit on the linoleum. We’re redecorating.”
Now when my Mom threw a party, she went all out, with party favors, cake, ice cream and treats for the guests. But these niceties were lost on Mrs. Rossi. The kids played a few games and then she brought out the cake. We quickly sang a few bars of “Happy Birthday to you," Matthew blew out the candles, and the cake was whisked back to the kitchen to be cut and served.
Matthew’s little brother, Zachary, skulked in the corner, occasionally trying to grab a girl and pull her hair. We despised Zachary. He was two years younger and in the same class as my sister, Barbara. We thought he was nasty, a budding sex maniac. While Matthew was a masher, Zachary was more interested in the seamier side of love—he wrote obscenities on the blackboard when the nun could not see, her habit blocking her peripheral vision.
Outraged, Barb snitched on him, and Zachary had to serve detention, while Matthew, the young romantic, remained free to roam.
During the hysteria that preceded the cake and ice cream, Matthew approached me as I perched, trying to keep my balance, on the linoleum roll. True to his reputation, he whispered, “I want to show you something in the back. It’s really amazing.”
But I was wise to Rossi and rebuffed him.
“Oh no, Matthew, I’ve heard all about you.”
Matthew protested that I had him all wrong, and he was really trying to show me a toy, then a game, then kittens; nothing worked. He quickly lost interest when Mrs. Rossi returned with the plates of cake and ice cream.
“Birthday boy, get over here. You’re first.”
I silently prayed that Mom would show up soon to pick me up, and she finally did, but we could not escape yet. Mrs. Rossi, who towered over my mother, cornered Mom in the doorway, to tell her about her redecorating plans. Trapped under Mrs. R's armpit, Mom tried to squirm her way out but she was trapped. Her face grew redder and redder.
I chuckled when we finally walked out on the stoop and Mom exhaled.
Finally, I got my point across. “Ha, serves you right, Mom. You made me go. And Matthew tried to kiss ME!”
“Kiss you? What? Oh no—you’re never going there again.”
But love was all around us. In the 1950s and early 1960s, St. Mel Holy-Ghost School sponsored an endless onslaught of charitable giving campaigns from September when we walked through the doors of the venerable institution until June when we ran frantically from the hallowed halls to our summer months of freedom.
There was never a dull moment at St. Mel-Holy Ghost School. Every date in the liturgical calendar was a golden opportunity to raise money for the “poor starving children in other countries.” I had to hand it to the nuns—they were pretty clever. Every holy day and holiday, they had a gimmick to appeal to our consciences, our concern for our fellow man, and our charity. And, despite all evidence to the contrary, those nuns were successful in making us believe there was someone less fortunate than ourselves. Quite a feat, considering we were living in a slum, a neighborhood to which urban renewal would never come.
Valentine’s Day was yet another occasion for this magic act. St. Mel Church itself was monumental, built by the community in 1910 and designed after the Romanesque style of architecture; it boasted the best Carrera marble of Italy and the finest acoustical design. It accommodated 1250 people and they always packed the house.
Every year, on the Sunday before St. Valentine’s Day, just after the Gospel was read, the parish priest would cede his time in the pulpit, time usually devoted to very important exhortations to repent or be cast into hellfire, to the Maryknoll missionary priest.
I liked this part of the Mass—we got to get off the kneelers and sit down, so I’d listen to anything just to get a break. The missionary courted us with tales of exotic places, of deepest Africa, of lions, rhinos, giraffes, elephants and the Serengeti—and the little children who had no shoes, no food, no schools, no medical care, and who would never know God and be stuck in Limbo unless we helped. He told us we could change the lives of these poor little children.
So wooed by a pitch delivered at the 9 a.m. Sunday Children’s Mass by the missionary priest, we were suddenly transformed from the urchins who hung out every day at the Off the Street Club to benefactors of children in foreign lands—donors whose largesse and beneficence would bring the little children to God.
And so it was this St. Valentine’s Day. Another contest was announced, another chance for Catholic school kids to mitigate their guilt for having it so good. Sister Veronica Ann made the announcement over the P.A. This year, the school would crown a King and Queen of Hearts. Children would be permitted to purchase hearts made of construction paper for 10 cents a pop and make crowns with the hearts and materials provided in the classroom. The girl and boy who donated the most money and had the largest crowns would be anointed the King and Queen of Hearts.
I had to admit—this contest seemed like a stretch to me. I wished them luck but I was skeptical of its success, especially when our Principal emphasized that the hearts should be purchased with money that we earned all by ourselves. How was I going to do that—I was just ten! I only had $1 that I got from Gramps every week and there was no way I was skipping my customary Saturday at the movies to buy some crummy hearts. I decided to hit Mom up for the extra cash, but Mom was not buying it either.
“You want money for what? Hearts made out of construction paper? What are they going to come up with next? Last week, it was a greasy donut drive. I’ve still got seven boxes of those donuts sitting here—no one will touch them. You know I only buy Burny Brothers baked goods. And the week before that it was the subscription drive for the New World.”
Now Mom was feeling the pinch after the Christmas bills rolled in and was not feeling the love. But I pressed her to dig deep.
“Mom, I will be humiliated if I don’t buy some. I will be the only kid in class without a crown. Come on, please.”
Just then, Daddy walked in on this exchange.
“Does Sister Mary Holy Water want more money from us?” Dad called all the nuns "Sister Mary Holy Water."
I patiently explained the latest promotion to Daddy, whose expression grew more and more skeptical with each word I spoke.
“That sounds stupid.”
“Dad, please, we’ll be EMBARRASSED.”
That clinched it. Dad would not let us be shamed in front of the class. He reached in his pocket and pulled out his money clip, peeling off two dollars.
“All right, here, a buck a piece—but that’s it! What a racket.”
The next day Barb and I returned to school, weighed down, at Mom’s insistence, with Valentines for every kid in the class. Clutching the dollars Dad gave us, we were feeling secure. We could buy some hearts and no teacher would bug us about it. When we walked through the door, a frenzy of kids in hat crowns, hopped up on sugar hearts, ran and skipped down the hall.
Then a wondrous sight greeted me. Parading the halls with a crown that looked like a Native American war bonnet was Cupid himself, the Chairman of Love, Matthew Rossi. The crown he wore trailed several feet behind his round little body and kids laughed and followed him like he was the Pied Piper, trying their best to step on the ends.
I poked Barb.
“He must have spent 20 bucks on that thing.”
Ever the style maven, Barb dismissed Matthew with a sniff.
Matthew did not care what we thought. He was in his glory that Valentine’s Day when he was crowned the King of Hearts of St. Mel’s School in recognition of his generous contribution to the missions.
Unfortunately, the title did not change his luck with the girls—they still ran away, squealing, when he tried to grab them and kiss them.
Ever the Romeo, Matthew continued to seek love in vain. That is, until one day when I saw him walking Theresa, our blind classmate, home from school, carrying the large binders that held her Braille books.
The next day the girls pulled her aside to fill her in.
“Theresa, we saw you walking with Matthew yesterday. He is icky. He tries to kiss all the girls.”
“Oh, I know, he is just trying to be nice.”
“But Theresa, he is fat and he has red hair and freckles.”
Theresa stopped us dead.
“I’m blind. I don’t care what he looks like. He is nice to me.”
She had us there. Matthew would no longer go looking for love in all the wrong places. I realized that Theresa had the ability to discover something deeper in him than we had been willing or able to. Cupid had struck true with someone who saw straight into the heart of the King of Hearts.
Bio- Anita Solick Oswald is a Chicago native. She’s written a collection of essays, West Side Girl (working title), that are written from the point of view of her younger self and chronicle the colorful, diverse and oftentimes unpredictably eccentric characters and events that populated Chicago’s West Side neighborhood during the 50s & 60s.
Her essays have appeared in The Write Place At the Write Time, The Faircloth Literary Review, Fullosia Press, The Fat City Review and Avalon Literary Review.
She studied journalism at Marquette University, earned her B.A. in Economics from the University of California at Los Angeles and her M.S. in Management and Organization from the University of Colorado.
She is a founding member of Boulder Writing Studio, where she has been generating and editing essays over the past 2 years.