Smaller than expected

This is stupid. I wrote it in fits and starts, and I don’t like any of the characters. It was a slog.

The bar had the familiar stale smell of all drinking establishments: a mix of yeast and wood; decades of spilled fermentations absorbed into floors and counters. She’d found a booth toward the back, just outside the game room. The tech bros had descended on the pool table, their hoodies emblazoned with company names constructed from adverbs or curiously missing vowels. The billiard balls cracked against one another, and good shots were punctuated by guttural exclamations.

Polly sat quietly, nervously. She was nursing a vodka and soda and checking her phone. They’d planned to meet at 5:30 to beat the after-work crowd, but it seemed like there was no “after-work” crowd anymore. There were just people, everywhere, at all hours in this town. She was lucky to get the table at all, and she knew if she left it for a moment—even for a quick run to the restroom—she’d lose it. It was twilight at the watering hole, and all of the animals of the Silicon Serengeti were jockeying for position. Her phone informed her It was a little after 6:00; she hoped her friends would get there soon. She had to pee.

One of the bros popped his head around the corner from the game room. Eyeing Polly’s barren table, he slapped his hands on the back of one of the empty chairs and dragged it toward the room, simultaneously asking, “Using this?” Polly managed to seat tackle the seat before the chair disappeared from sight.

“Actually, yes, I am,” she said, scraping it across the sticky floor and back to her table. “I’m expecting people.”

He held up his hands. “Okay, my bad,” he said.

Polly thought that based on the sneer on his face, he didn’t really think the bad belonged to him. “Sorry for existing,” she thought. She thumbed her phone again. A floating blue bubble informed her they were almost there; they were circling the bar looking for parking. Polly had anticipated this scenario and had opted for a Lyft. She was a bit miffed they hadn’t done the same. What were they thinking trying to park in this neighborhood?

She was just finishing up her drink when she saw them scramble through the bar doors. They stopped a few feet in, making the people who had followed them through the door stop suddenly and walk around them, earning dark looks and eye-rolls. The three women scanned the bar, letting their eyes adjust, and Polly stood and waved her hands over her head. All three of them saw her at the same time, and they raised their hands in front of their bodies, “jazz hands” style as if it had been choreographed.

As then ran toward Polly’s table in abbreviated, choppy steps, she extracted herself from her chair so she could greet each of them with a hug. They collapsed on her in a heap of screeches and congratulations, giving her exaggerated, swaying hugs and audibly kissing her close to her cheeks.

Daphne grabbed Polly’s left hand. “Okay, let’s see it!” she said, waggling her own bedazzled hand at Polly. The other girls clambered around, leaning on the table and peering at her finger. Polly obliged, raising her hand as if she expected each one of her friends to kiss it. There was a hush around the table.

“Oh,” Jules said, arranging her face back into a smile. “That’s just… lovely. That’s really nice,” she said and moved closer to her hand. “Is that… Is that a diamond?”

“Yes,” Polly said. “It’s a diamond. I mean, the main stone is.”

Rachel leaned in even closer. “What are the other stones around it?” she said. Polly made a seesaw motion with her hand to make the ring catch what little light was available.

“Peridot,” Polly said. “It’s my birthstone.”

“Oh,” Rachel said, sitting back in her chair. “It’s pretty.”

Polly glanced at her friends’ faces, feeling the enthusiasm leave the room. “You don’t like it?” She steadied her own left hand with the fingers of her right. She stared at her ring. It was beautiful. A small diamond surrounded by several pale green stones; it was delicate and flower-like.

Daphne took both of Polly’s hands in hers. “Well,” she said, looking around the table as if she were making a proclamation. “I think it’s adorable. I guess it’s just a little smaller than we expected.”

“Yes,” Jules agreed. “but it’s very cute.”

Polly frowned at them. It wasn’t a toy or a puppy. It was a symbol; one her husband-to-be worked hard to acquire, and one she was thrilled with.

Rachel, seeing Polly frown, put her arm around her shoulders. “Don’t worry! You can make him get you a bigger one later. Maybe for your five-year anniversary!”

A random act of kindness

844 words

I had a germ of an idea here, but I blew the whole 750 words on character development and didn’t get to the germ. Oh well. Maybe in one of the next ones.

Ryan held the crayon thickly in his fist. He dragged the point across the page, leaving behind a waxy, stuttering trail of red. He lifted the stick from the page and studied his progress. He doubled his efforts, scrubbing a thick line into a plastic sheen.

“Random means, ‘by chance,'” Audra said. “Be careful, you’re going to tear the paper.” She removed the last mug from the dishwasher and, turning it over, verified it was clean. She wiped it with a dishtowel and set in the cupboard.

Ryan didn’t look up. “You mean like an accident?” The red covered a third of the page, obscuring the black ink outline of Lightning McQueen.

“Mmm, no, not quite,” Audra said, surveying they counters. She frowned at a spot of dried egg the cleaners had missed and picked at it with her fingernail. “Accidents are, well, things that happen that are mostly bad.”

Ryan looked up. “Like the polar bear ornament?”

Audra wiped her hands on her apron. “Yes, like that.” They’d decorated the tree three weeks ago, but he still brought up the polar bear almost daily. Sure, Audra had been angry; after all, it had been her mother’s. And she had warned him to be careful. So it was a valid, reasonable reaction to be angry and disappointed when he’d shattered the delicate figure on the dining room floor. But she shouldn’t have said the things she did. He was only six. She remembered the look on his face when she said—well. She told him Mama was very sorry. And he seemed to be okay.

“But ‘random,’” she continued, is something that happens without you planning it to happen. So, a ‘random act of kindness is…?’” she said, rotating her hand at the wrist and raising her eyebrows in encouragement.

He set down the crayon and scrunched up his mouth. “Is… an act of kindness you didn’t plan?” he said.

“Yes!” Audra said, clapping her hands together. She pulled out a chair and sat down next to him at the kitchen table. There were filmy swipes dulling the tabletop wood, and she pulled her finger through one of them. Sponge marks. She would have to talk to the cleaners.

Ryan picked up the crayon again and positioned its now-dulled tip on the paper. Instead of coloring, he twisted his features and gazed at the ceiling. This, Audra knew, meant he was working through something. She had learned to be patient; more explanations or questions would throw him off track. His faced relaxed and he found the words to match his thoughts. “But you said we are going to do a random act of kindness.”

“That’s right, Ry-Ry,” Audra said, looking over his arm to his coloring. She saw the red was rubbing onto Ryan’s sleeve, leaving a faint wax patina on the fabric. She opened her mouth, but then closed it again.

“But,” he said, “isn’t that… like making a plan?”

Audra smiled. She had a smart kid. “Yes, I guess planning a random act of kindness isn’t random. But,” she said, poking him lightly in his belly, making him smile briefly, “what we’ll do will be random,” she said. “We don’t know what the act will be, do we?”

Ryan considered for a moment then shook his head.

“No,” Audra said, “we don’t.”

Ryan nodded and went back his coloring. Audra, thinking the conversation was over, pushed out her chair and retrieved a clean dishcloth from the linen drawer. Ryan turned from his work and all the way around in his seat, resting his arms on the chair back.

“Mama? Why are we doing this again?”

Audra leaned over the table and wiped vigorously at the sponge marks. “Because the girls and I thought it would be a good thing to do at Christmas. Don’t you?”

“Mm hmm,” he said, and sleepily laid his cheek on his arms.

“We’re so lucky,” Audra said, pushing the hair from his forehead. “We have this nice house, and lots of good food to eat, and you have your new colors and so many toys.”

“Mm hmm,” he said again. He turned his face from her hand and pressed his forehead to his arms. He stared at the kitchen floor, swinging a blue-socked foot.

“And because we’re so lucky—and a lot of people aren’t—it’s our responsibility to do nice things. Especially at Christmas. So the girls and I thought that even though we’re doing things like helping at the food bank, we should do something extra.” She paused. Ryan’s foot continued to sway, a hypnotic pendulum, but he said nothing.

She made her voice light, like a children’s show host. “So Miss Lila thought it would be a good idea for each of us to do a random act of kindness this week. And I thought it would be great for you and me to do it together. Just us. As a team! Don’t you think that would be fun?”

“Yes Mama,” Ryan said to the kitchen floor. His foot slowed and then stopped.