(Editor’s Note: “Valentine’s Ghost” originally appeared in our August 2020 issue and is the winner of our 2019 fall contest, not our 2020 Fall Short Story Contest, which is still currently being judged).
George smelled. It wasn’t a sour, organic body odor; instead, it possessed a sort of staleness, as if his mother had left his clothes hanging too long on the line or stockpiled mothballs in his drawers. He was skinny, too. We were all skinny back then (except Ray Boudreau), but George was gaunt, hollow-eyed, like a skeleton with a skim of gray plaster. So, we made fun of George. Some of us were less brutal than others, but we all sang: “Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry…” Which didn’t make sense because George wasn’t pudgy and hadn’t tried to kiss any of us girls, although most would have bawled had he dared.
George should’ve been long buried in the recesses of my memory, tossed in with overlooked and nameless faces. Yet there he sits, at the edge of the class picture, his sunken eyes haunting me, his name chained forever to one cold February day.
George presented me with a valentine – not any little card, but a heart-shaped box of chocolates. We waited single-file, at the back of the slide, eager to blast down and bump off the kid stationed at the end, with any luck knocking them flat onto the icy patch below where they would land with a thud or a spin – depending on the sleekness of their snow pants. If you got a chance to be the stopper, you hung on tight to the edge and braced yourself for the next bullet, yearning to survive until the end of recess and claim the temporary title: King of the Ice Castle. The game was a recent invention, created after a snowstorm and the magical emergence of the long, glassy slick at the bottom of the otherwise forgotten slide.
Sandwiched between my best friend, Tammy, and her neighbour, Todd, I felt a tapping on my shoulder. I still don’t understand why George picked such a public time to stick out his hand and offer me his gift. “This is for you,” he said, one hand behind his back, the other holding a small heart wrapped with a silky red ribbon. The cold masked his usual scent, but he wielded a gaze that evoked Charlie’s Grandpa Joe from the book – starving yet hopeful.
I should’ve just grabbed it from him before anyone noticed, shoved it in my pocket and pretended like it never happened. But it was too late.
Tammy snickered behind me, “Todd! Todd! This guy’s actually giving Marjory a Valentine’s gift.”
Todd was just about to mount the slide but turned around to look, letting go of the railing. “What? Who?” Todd spotted the box and started laughing, “Well, look at Georgie Porgie!”
George’s hand remained stretched out, that stupid-looking heart drooping in the winter air. I couldn’t take it now; it would forever link me to smelly George, with new lines tacked onto the Georgie song. Everyone had already attached my name to Donald Parker’s: “Parkay – margarine, Parkay – margarine,” they’d chanted, just like in the commercial. Donald Parker annoyed me, but at least he didn’t smell.
“No,” I said. “I don’t want it.”
Sure, I look back now and feel a modest amount of tenderness for George. He’s suspended in my memory like a cartoon character, his thoughts inside balloons with three tiny bubbles tethering them to his head: please like me, please take my token, pretty-please. But at that time, I felt only horror. George was like a ghost, floating around the schoolyard – peering out at us. He didn’t even look like a 10-year-old, more like a 60-year-old man blown into a small glass vial. Everyone gazed right through George, like he wasn’t there. Except for the odor that drifted near when he approached, you could almost believe he didn’t exist.
I don’t even remember when George came to our school. Most of us had been together for years – since grade one: a class of 30 or so students moving through time as one unit. George wasn’t there for it all. He must have only materialized that year – grade five. And then he disappeared shortly afterward, or perhaps he remained, and I’ve blotted him out of any future memories.
Instead of looking sad or dejected George got angry. “But you have to take it. It’s a gift. You can’t refuse.” He shoved it at me, poking the point of the heart into my stomach so hard that I felt it, however faintly, through the layers of my winter clothing.
My emotions blew around like sheets anchored by tiny pegs in a wind storm, twisting and tangling into panic, disgust, and then outrage. “I never asked you for a gift. I’ve never even talked to you.” He was forcing me to reject him openly, to be that girl – Georgie Porgie’s girl – the one who’s violated by an innocent kiss and cries like a baby afterward.
“Marjory, I can’t believe Georgie Porgie likes you!” Tammy continued to laugh, holding her mitten to her mouth. We had moved out of line, forming a small huddle: Todd, Tammy, me, and George. I could smell him now, and my stomach felt queasy.
“More than likes, he spent money on you!” Todd didn’t have money for valentines, so he’d torn lined paper into little pieces and written his own notes, all with the same message: Roses are red, violets are blue, Valentines Day stinks, and so do you. Every girl in the class got one, folded three times so the teacher wouldn’t spy. Valentine’s was missing the apostrophe, but I didn’t say anything because Todd had already failed a grade and it would’ve been snooty to correct him. “If you don’t want em, we’ll take em.” Todd grabbed the box out of George’s hand. The bell rang, and George ran away. Tammy and Todd tore open the cardboard – six chocolates sat inside.
“Two each,” Tammy said.
“No. I don’t want any,” I said backing away.
Todd said, “We’ll split the other one then, Tam,” and stuffed two into his mouth at one time.
“No dummy – six divided by two is three each,” I heard her say as I turned toward the school.
George was talking to Dr. Kincade, our teacher and the one on yard duty that day. She wasn’t a real doctor, wasn’t able to patch us up if we got hurt (we still had to go to the school nurse for that), but because she had letters after her name, we had to call her Doctor. She was the oldest, meanest teacher we’d ever had. None of us had ratted to an adult before. OK, there was that time Jimmy Kontos’ mother showed up in her curlers, screaming at us: “Why you no play with my boy?” But even then, no teachers were involved. And we didn’t embarrass Jimmy by explaining to his mother that we would play with her precious boy if he just stopped picking his nose – cramming his fingers up each nostril, digging and digging, then wiping it on the first flat surface he found. I suppose we were mean, but that’s the way kids learned what not to do. It was a microcosm of the future: Where your family failed, the greater world obliged.
We never told. Even when the boys played kissing-tag, which they had stopped by grade four just as we actually started liking boys…some boys…boys like Robbie Robertson, who smelled like fabric softener and wore blue desert boots. Robbie was going steady with Catherine Maiden. All the boys liked Catherine. Her mother was Irish, and my mum repeatedly said, “Irish girls are pretty, but us Scottish girls have something better – tenacity.” Mum went on to explain that girls shouldn’t be mesmerized by male advances: They should simply shoot them down, like ducks, before they got a chance to take flight. I knew my rejection would have consequences when Dr. Kincade placed her hand on George’s down-filled coat.
The humidity of the cloakroom was stifling compared to the frigid outdoor air. After we took our winter gear off, Dr. Kincade told Tammy, Todd, and me to wait out in the hallway.
“You’ve got chocolate in the corner of your mouth,” I said to Todd. He wiped it away with his sleeve.
Dr. Kincade slammed the classroom door and started in on us, “You’ve all been so cruel to poor George!” Her glasses were fogged-up, adjusting too quickly to the warmth, and because of her Harris tweed skirt, an image of Mr. Toad flashed inside my brain. She removed the glasses and looked straight at me, “And you, young lady – these two I expect this from – but you!” I normally would have felt a pang of shame if any other teacher had said that to me, but I didn’t care what Dr. Kincade thought. She’d made it clear that her favourite student was Kelly Mills, who also happened to be her neighbour. Kelly got top marks that year – the only year I ever came second. So, I had given up trying to impress Dr. Kincade.
“I didn’t want a valentine from George,” I said.
Tammy’s shoulders jiggled as she stifled a giggle.
“Regardless, a young lady always politely accepts a gift from a suitor.”
It sounded like something from Little Women, and it sounded wrong. Why did I have to be polite? If I had taken his gift, he would have assumed I liked him, and then what? What else would I need to do – for the sake of politeness?
I stared down at her orthopaedic shoes until she said, “Who ate the chocolates?” She rubbed her glasses with the hem of her blouse and popped them back onto her face, the arms squishing against her cropped gray hair.
“I ate four,” Todd admitted. He was used to trouble and didn’t even try wiggling out of it.
Tammy protested, “No. He had three, and I had three.”
“How many did you eat, Marjory?” Spit flew out of Dr. Kincade’s mouth and landed on my arm. Tammy screwed up her face in disgust as I turned my forearm over, transferring the saliva off my skin and onto my jeans. I didn’t look down, knowing the visual of Dr. Kincade’s gob would make me puke. Everything inside my head converged into one worry – was spit acidic enough to eat through denim? My thoughts focused on the gazillion pinholes that I imagined, sensed, actually felt developing on my Gloria Vanderbilts. “Marjory?”
Todd said, “None. She didn’t want any, remember?”
“Enough out of you!” Dr. Kincade grabbed Todd’s ear and twisted. Todd shrieked. Tammy rolled her eyes. We both knew she couldn’t really be hurting him. We had seen his step-father give him much worse, and Todd never screamed.
For the rest of the afternoon, and in front of the whole class, Todd and Tammy had to write lines on the board: I will not take gifts intended for someone else. Dr. Kincade said that although I had been careless with George’s feelings, she would only punish the two rascals who gobbled the goodies.
Todd went slow and filled in his side of the board with large block letters. But Dr. Kincade was counting: “You’ll be here an eternity at that rate, Todd.” The chalk snapped in half, and Todd let out a huge huff, starting a new line with a jagged but stubby piece.
Tammy wrote fast, creating loopy letters that flowed into arteries of words and finished each sentence with a heart instead of a period. Once she reached the bottom of the board, she quickly erased the whole thing and started over. Her curvy words floated inside blurry chalk clouds, the heart replaced by a circle.
Watching them periodically shake their arms with fatigue made me feel guilty. I glanced sideways at George, once only. Instead of looking hurt or embarrassed, he had a smirk on his face, a smirk that said: You will never forget me.
—Marjory Faion was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. At the moment she is writing a memoir, reflecting, finding her voice, missing people, loving solitude. She lives in the countryside surrounded by ash, poplar, birch, and majestic maples.
Interview: Marjory Faion on “Valentine’s Ghost”
What was your writing process like for “Valentine’s Ghost?”
I enrolled in a writing workshop, which required three submissions. Pulling the word “tether” from a box of prompts, I thought about people, places, and events which evoke that feeling of restriction. “Valentine’s Ghost” was the second piece in the trilogy.
What was your revision process like?
After receiving positive feedback from my group, I revised the story by clarifying some issues they had raised (mentioning the slide right away, specifying the lines were written in front of the whole class, and being precise about the narrator’s interpretation of George’s smirk, etc.).
Savvy readers will note that the story’s protagonist shares the same name as the author. How much of this story is driven by memory, and how much is fiction?
The story is based on a personal memory that haunts me. I did change names and details, allowing myself to focus on the part of the memory I’m tethered to: “[George is] suspended in my memory like a cartoon character, his thoughts inside balloons with three tiny bubbles tethering them to his head: please like me, please take my token, pretty-please.”
Becoming a mother of sons has fostered my compassion for Georges everywhere. Yet society tethered me to the expectation that girls should always be polite and accepting. I wanted to recreate that feeling of the playground just before the rejection and the consequences.
What’s your best advice to fellow writers?
My best advice for those wishing to write: practice, practice, and find a small group of trusted first readers.