It was just a harmless prank, that's all it was.
And it wasn't as if Old Lady Hayes didn't deserve it. The way she used to scream at us for "borrowing" a few of her precious raspberries each summer, like we were stealing gold out of Fort Knox... well, she had it coming.
At least, that's the way we saw it as George finished tying the string to the red, heart-shaped box. We giggled as Ron added the final touch: two plastic red roses, glued to the lid. "I wonder what will surprise her most," I asked as George practiced jerking the box out of reach by yanking on the string. "Seeing a box of candy on her step, or watching it fly away when she tries to pick it up?"
We laughed as we watched George make Albert chase the box around the garage. For a chubby 10-year-old, Albert did a good imitation of Mrs. Hayes's hunched hobble and her seemingly permanent scowl. And we howled when he picked up a broom and pretended to ride it through the midwinter air while shouting, "I'm Old Lady Hayes, the driedest-up old prune in the West!"
Ron was first to notice my dad in the doorway. Within seconds, Ron's anxiety was shared by all but Albert, who continued to swoop around the garage until he came face-to-belt-buckle with our silent observer. For a moment the only movement in the room came from the little puffs of steam escaping our mouths. Dad broke the stillness by walking slowly to the empty candy box lying on the floor. He picked it up and dangled it by the string, watching it swing back and forth. Then he looked into the eyes of the frightened boys. And, as was his custom, he looked into their hearts as well.
"It doesn't seem so long ago that I was pulling Valentine's Day pranks," he said as he laid the box on a workbench. "One year my cousins and I decided to pull one on our Grandma Walker even though we loved her -- she was the sweetest grandma a boy could have. We were just feeling devilish and decided to have some fun at her expense.
"Early in the evening we snuck up to her doorstep with a can of red paint. Grandma was hard of hearing, so we didn't have to worry about being very quiet. Which was a good thing, because every time we thought about how funny it was going to be to see Grandma try to pick up a valentine that was just painted on her doorstep, we couldn't keep from laughing.
"It didn't take long, and it wasn't very artistic. But for an old woman with bad eyes, it would do. We kicked the door and hid behind bushes. When Grandma finally appeared she stood in the doorway, her gray hair pulled back tightly into her usual bun, wiping her hands on her usual apron. She must have heard the commotion in the bushes because she looked in our direction and spoke loudly enough for us to hear: 'Who could be knocking at my door?' Then she looked down. Even from 15 feet away we could see the joy in her eyes when she spotted a splash of red at her feet.
"'A valentine for Grandma!' she exclaimed. 'And I thought I'd be forgotten again this year!'
"She tried to retrieve her prize. This was the moment we had been waiting for, but somehow it wasn't as much fun as we expected. Grandma groped at the fresh paint for a moment. Slowly, she figured out our prank. She tried to smile. Then, with as much dignity as she could muster, she turned and walked back into her house, absently wiping red paint on her clean, white apron."
Dad paused, and for the first time I noticed that his eyes were moist. He took a deep breath. "Grandma died later that year," he said. "I never had another chance to give her a real valentine."
He took the box from the bench and handed it to me. Then he turned and left the garage.
Later that night a red, heart-shaped box with two plastic roses on it was placed on Mrs. Hayes's front doorstep by six giggling boys. We hid behind snow-covered bushes to see how she would react to receiving a full pound of candy and nuts.
With no strings attached.