Martin in line for last minute valentine paraphernalia, sister, girlfriend, etcetera. He knew better than to get in a discussion with Gayle about commercialism, how there's a crafty manipulation involving computerized calander projections by major advertisers to arrange the holidays for the attention span (and pocket) of the consumer. Not after what happened last year.

Midnight at the all night supermarket where there's only one clerk in the whole store, a middleaged white lady who expects you to bag your own. In line ahead of him were two black boys, young men, also on last-second valentine duty--stuffed animals with attached cards and balloons and a 700% markup.

Neither of them were threateningly dressed, nothing gangsta. One was notably larger than the other. They looked enough alike to be brothers, but somehow Martin knew they weren't. What he saw over on the aisles was the way their bodies were swinging with every move, a motion inexactly between spontaneous and calculated. Further, there was something effeminate about them, but fake-effeminate, complexly affrontive.

As they came into line just ahead of him he felt discomfort, but nonspecific. Strange. The checkout cashier, maybe 50 or 55, looked like she could handle trouble, but had her face cocked in a way that showed you never can tell if this is the one that will go bad.

What they were doing was trying to pay with a credit card on a slide-it-yourself scanner on the customer side. Martin had never used one of those. Beeps and baffled looks clued everyone in line that something was not going smoothly.

"Wha? This thang mess up, your machine."

The larger one giggled soundlessly, hand to mouth, eyes nowhere in particular, flitting. An awkward waiting, running the card through again. Tsk, tsk, fingers splayed across huge white teeth, grinning.

A look of bafflement on the cardholder's face. "'Moan, man, don't shit with me, ain't no laughing thing."

He tried it again. What was only a few seconds measured hours for the other customers. The machine beeped once again, a tiny desolate sound. They watched the cardholder reading the screen message, invisible to them. It was as if he contemplated a financial rosetta stone.

The clerk moved around the counter, startling Martin, and deftly took the card from the holder's hand and scanned it herself.

No dice.

"Hoooo!" The partner rolled his eyes cartoonlike and put hand over mouth the way a second grader humiliates another for a potty infraction.

The clerk held the card sort of halfway out to return it.

"I paid up on it."

The clerk tilted the card and squinted; M could see the scars and wear on the eagle-hologram image. For a scary moment he thought she might seize it, precipitating an overreaction.

"It's my card, don't worry."

The clerk nodded slowly, evenly.

He abruptly yanked the card back. The clerk shrugged mildly, not unkindly.

"Man! Uh! How. . ? . . ! I know I paid up on it. Somethin wrong with your machine." A challenge.

The clerk continued to gaze peacefully at him.

"Your machine be breaking down lately? Can you call?" As if to say: go ahead and charge it, or give it to me free.

"Uh-uh." A slow shake of the head.

The partner, cocked his head in mock hilarity and solidarity both, teeth shining. Come on, these people aint gone give you nothin. Same ol shit.

"I know I paid up on it." He gave a shake of his head as at a toy that has quit working.

The sound from his partner, a strangled chortle.

"Have you got some cash on you?" Clerk speaking.

The look: Wha? Why would I have cash if I got this card?

"Come on, man, you ain' gone get no balloons. Your card ain' got no juice anymore." The partner shoved the creditholder. The smaller flung his arm back as if to throw one.

The moment.

That funny hand clasp thing over the mouth pretending to hide the grinning but didn't. As though conjoining with the white folks regarding the vagaries of his crazy partner, but of course he wasn't, it was a faux-conjoining which concealed the true loyalty beneath, the centuries-deep bond.

Then a reach for the valentines--was he going to run out with them? But that wasn't it. As quickly as he reached, he had thrown them further up the belt, toward the cashier, a sharp but just-short-of-violent movement that startled Martin, concerned for the lady.

The laughing partner still laughing, but right there in step with the other in the haughty walk out the automatic glass doors. The cashier took up Martin's items.

Leaving the line of white people somewhere between grateful, shaky relief and the unspoken they have a harder life than we do style commiserations among themselves.

It was something he did, especially at night alone trying to sleep; imagined doing something that was inevitably embarrassing, fatally embarrassing, but of course not doing it, and then being in pain over the imagined act as if he had done it, feeling the pathos, wincing at the pain, struggling to breathe, even though he didn't do it--in this case running his own card through the scanner, doing it for the black guys, a solidarity that would amount to deadly sentimentality. Martin wallowed in self-flagellation.