In the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, all the females I know in the alley and the surrounding neighborhood had been reminding me of the impending event. “You will bring me chocolates, yes?” As with Tet lucky money, they are not shy of asking for it. “But I’m not your boyfriend,” I’d say. “But I am woman,” they’d counter. “You have to bring me chocolates.” I tried to make them understand that V Day is not like Tet. “If I bring you chocolates it means you have to be my Valentine,” I told them one and all. “So you will bring me chocolates?” I tried to explain that only their boyfriends should bring them chocolates. But it was like trying to teach them the difference between a Panama hat and a cowboy hat. “You bring me chocolates!”
I resolved to make a day trip to somewhere else on Valentine’s Day. Besides, I’ve come to know a lot of females in the last three months. There are the night shifts at General HQ and Regional HQ, there are the day and night shifts at the Lucky Café Bar, the girl who brings me the morning paper, Madam at the tea terrace and her daughter, a couple of pool sharks in the 24/7 bar on the corner, plus every female you’ve read about up to now including Miss Bluejacket! They all want chocolates!
So I slept in, then sneaked away. But the whole city had Valentine fever. And it was infectious. Women and girls were all giggling over their chocolates and flowers. Men and boys were beaming. I wanted to participate. So I betook myself to the candy sellers in the Ben Thanh market, about five minute’s walk from the alley. There was a bewildering display of candies, many of which I’d never seen and couldn’t even guess what flavors. But the only chocolates I saw were big heart-shaped boxes full. I’d bust my budget for a week if I bought enough to go around. Then I saw my solution. On the floor behind a bin full of what smelled like durian candy was a basket of M&Ms. All plain, no peanut. I scooped up what I thought would be enough packets and then added a few more for good measure. I figured I could give any excess to street urchins.
The day shift at the Lucky was still on duty, so in I walked with my sack of treats. I gave each girl a bag and they positively gushed. And they squealed. It was as though I’d given them each a diamond ring. They tore open each bag and compared their contents to see if they all had the same colors and quantities. And then they ate them on the spot. Two of them traded colors. I was amazed at the power of such a small gesture.
So I made my rounds. Madam hugged me. The girls at General HQ went in together to buy me a drink. One of the pool sharks let me win. Crawling Lady had never received a Valentine before. She pulled off her flip-flops and put her hands together prayerfully and did that Buddhist thingy. Heidi looked at me with her special dareful smirk and gestured for a second bag. I pulled her ponytail instead. Miss Chatter, well, you know how Miss Chatter responds to anything. I think she’s still yammering on about it. I thought about giving one to Miss Jack, but that would have required standing in line, so I tossed one over a pair of tables at the Phoenix to Miss Argument and ran. I dropped one into the begging bowl of a barefoot mendicant nun. At first she looked confused, but then broke into a grin. Even Bluejacket smiled at me, and punched me on the arm playfully. I think it was playfully; the mark disappeared in a matter of hours.
At length I had three bags left and two girls to go. I headed for Regional HQ. I whipped out the hand phone and told Suzi Q “Daddy’s on the way, Baby. Draw me a cold one.” When I arrived the place was empty but for Suzi and Sally. I took my seat at the bar and set my near empty bag on the stool next to me. The girls stood shoulder to shoulder facing me across the bar. They were ever so slightly standoffish, with a cautious look of expectation. I was coy at first. “Did you get lots of candy today?” I asked. “Mmm, some,” they answered in unison. After a minute of teasing they knew I had something for them. So I turned to my bag, fished out the last three packs of M&Ms figuring I’d eat one with them. Then I turned back to face my two favorite Valentines, and Alfalfa.
I froze. “Where in the Sam Hill did he come from?” I thought. The girls faces were lighting up just like all the others I’d valentined. And so was Alfalfa’s! He could plainly see I had three packs of happiness. And there were three of them. Then he saw my hesitation. Now you know the kinds of things that went through my mind. No need to elaborate. But it came down to one thing. If I gave the girls a Valentine and none to him he was going to be crushed. Especially if it happened in front of the girls. Even gay guys don’t like to be humiliated in front of girls. If he were to misconstrue my meaning in giving him a Valentine, dealing with that would be preferable to hurting somebody so callously. As I handed each of them, all three, their M&Ms I said, “For my Valentine.” The girls went giddy, as the others had. Alfalfa pressed his Valentine to his heart and beamed immense gratitude, and relief.
The girls tore open theirs and gobbled them as the others had done. Alfalfa slowly opened his as though he were unwrapping a gift. He tore it down the seam as some people do with a bag of chips. He laid it down on the bar and spread the bag open to reveal the jewel like candies. The blue ones really stood out. I’d noticed that throughout the day and night. They were the first ones to catch your eye. It was the same for Alfalfa. He delicately picked up a blue M&M, lifted it to his mouth and slowly chewed, looking at me with such twinkling, smiling eyes that I was taken aback, and even moved. It was as though he had never tasted anything in his life so sweet as a blue M&M.
In the “Diula” language in Mali, the term « dugutigui » (chief of the village), literally translated, means: «owner of the village»; «dugu» means village and «tigui», owner. Probably the term is the result of the contraction of «dugu kuntigui» (literally: chief of the village).