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.

Moving back in

806 words

This is a continuation of this piece. It just fit so nicely, and I got to write words for Aunty, so win-win for me. (It came pretty easily; Aunty has a lot to say.)

They said nothing for a while and listened to an osprey call for a mate. The light was fading, the landscape dissolving into oranges and reds. Aunty poked a long finger into her glass, the ice remnants glowing with the remains of the day. A look of disappointment came over her face as she saw there was no more beverage—even a diluted one. She abandoned the glass on the rusty metal side table next to her.

“You want another drink?” Albert asked, pointing to her glass.

“Why? You want to get me drunk?” she said.

“Maybe,” Albert said. “If it would mellow you out a bit.” Aunty eased her whole body toward Albert, leaning against the right armrest and raising an eyebrow. She sighed as if with her last breath.

“Go on,” she said.

“What?” he said, lifting his palms to the darkening sky and opening his eyes wide, but she didn’t miss he wasn’t looking into her own eyes.

“You’ve got more to tell me,” she said. “Best get it over with.”

Albert absent-mindedly scratched the back of his head, then brushed away an imaginary mosquito. “She’s moving back in,” he said. “In the next couple of weeks or so. We’ve talked about it, and we think we can make it work. We’ve been seeing a counselor, and it’s been a really positive experience. We’ve been open and honest; we’ve told each other things we never had before. I think we have an opportunity to make this relationship stronger than it ever was before.” He paused, glancing at his aunt. He couldn’t read her expression. But then she did something he wasn’t expecting: she threw back her head and laughed. It was a real, full-throated laugh that came from deep inside her belly. He could see the pink of her tongue and the gold of her fillings.

“Listen to you,” she said, wiping her eyes. “You’re full of the Dr. Oz shit they’ve been force-feeding us from the television.” She lowered her voice in an exaggerated baritone and furrowed her brow. “We have the opportunity to make this relationship stronger dee doo deedee duh duhhhh,” she mocked.

“Aunty.” Albert wasn’t laughing.

“Lord, what a pile of horseshit. When did you start talking like you had a broom handle stuck up your ass? Are you finding your ‘inner child’ too? Exploring your feminine side?”

“Aunty, Lucy’s pregnant.”

Her humor evaporated in time with the daylight. Aunty’s face sagged into sobriety, shadows carving her face. There was an exhale.

“Oh,” she said, “of course she is.”

“It’s going to be okay,” Albert said. “We—“

“You poor, poor boy,” Aunty said, almost inaudibly. “She’s got you and good. And you don’t even know it.” She leaned back in her chair, sinking into the sunbleached cushions. She seemed to shrink; her neck collapsing into her shoulders. “You don’t even know it,” she repeated.

“We’ll make it work,” Albert said, resting a hand on hers. She didn’t react to his touch. “For the baby.”

“The baby,” she said, drawing the word out as if it were a wonderous new concept. “Do you even know it’s yours?”

“Of course it’s mine,” he pressed her hand. She remained still.

“You don’t know that. Not for sure. And if I know you, you won’t get any kind of tests done after the child is born. You’ll dote on it and be a good father, and never really know if it’s your blood.”

“No,” he said. “You’re right. I wouldn’t do that.”

“And with her carrying on like she has been—“

“It was a kiss,” he said. “One kiss.”

“That’s what she told you? That’s her story?” He could see her eyes snapping even in the dim light. “I don’t believe that. Not for a second. That’s what she told you because that’s what you saw. I want you to use that big brain of yours. What are the odds of you catching your girlfriend the one and only time she was kissing on another man?” She looked ruefully at her empty glass and wished she’d made it last longer.

“And I bet when you caught her, she looked you full in the face—cool as cotton—and told you what you needed to hear. You would have believed anything that woman told you. Because you’re a fool, Albert. And I want you to remember tonight. I want you to remember this old face on this old body sitting on this broken-down porch. I want you to remember what the light looked like as I said these words. I want you to remember what day of the week it was and what the weather was like and what I was wearing.”

Aunty heaved up from her chair and slid her feet into a pair of ratty slippers. She shuffled a step past Albert, then turned and put her hand lightly, kindly, on his shoulder.

“Because today is important, doll. Today is the day you fuck up your life.”

The stuffed head on the wall

777 words

Hoo boy, I didn’t want to do this today. I started one version in which a stuffed head  looked down at a bunch of people at a cocktail party and made comments. It would have been funny had I been in a funny-writing mood. (Narrator: “She was not in a funny-writing mood.”) So I came up with this. Again, don’t know where it came from; just had the idea of a stuffed head being the only thing available to listen to a lonely woman.

“Hello! Anybody in there?”

He was dimly aware she’d been talking for a while. He’d been looking at his phone;  Grant had sent over a slew of messages about the account and expected an immediate response. The phrase, “work-life balance” didn’t mean much to Grant. Actually, he didn’t separate work from life. It was all one big blob to him. But even with this pressure, he managed to pull his eyes away from the screen.

“What?”

Her eyes went sharp and narrow, then relaxed into disappointment. “Did you hear anything I said?” she asked, pulling her hand from his knee and dropping it in her lap. Her other hand played in their sleeping daughter’s fine hair; she lightly pulled the silky strands straight up from her small head then let them float back into place.

“Sure. Sure I did,” he said. He was frantically trying to piece together words he think he might have heard, because he knew what the next question was going to be.

“What did I say?” she said.

“You said the garbage disposal is on the fritz,” he said with some confidence. He knew “garbage” and “fritz” were in there somewhere. “I’ll get it taken care of.”

“No,” she shook her head, “that’s not what I said. But I have to give you credit. You were kind of close. I said I’m sorry I didn’t take care of the garbage cans and that the fridge was on the fritz.” Her hand stopped fidgeting with the girl’s locks. The toddler didn’t stir.

He looked into Brenda’s face. She looked tired, older. But staying at home with a three-year-old all day—every day— would do that to you; he imagined it would make you exhausted in your body, mind, and soul. The limited interactions he had with Evie in the evenings and the weekends were enough for him. Sure, she loved her; he didn’t think he’d ever loved anything more in his whole life. But he was secretly glad that Brenda was the one who had decided to pause a career. Then again, he suspected it wasn’t much of a secret.

Brenda gently moved Evie off of her leg. Evie gave a long, powdery sigh and settled against the stuffed arm of the couch. Brenda leaned forward, cupping her calves and sliding her hands to her feet until her chest rested on her thighs. She let her head hang down; her caramel-colored hair obscured her face.

“Colin,” she said from beneath her hair. “I—“ she stopped.

Colin put his palm on her back, but stole a glance at his phone. Three more emails from Grant had come through. Brenda sat up quickly, and ran both hands through her hair, smoothing it. Colin turned his phone screen-down on the sofa. The gesture didn’t go unnoticed. He rubbed her back.

“What?” he asked. “What’s going on?” Her eyes became glassy and her mouth pressed and worked.

“I can’t,” she said finally.

Colin frowned. “Can’t what?”

She shook her head from side to side. “I can’t. I can’t. I just can’t.” She spread her arms wide to indicate the entirety of her world. “This. It’s not… It’s too…” she trailed off. Colin started to say something, but she continued.

“I know I agreed. I mean, I volunteered. It made sense. But Co, I’m so lonely. I feel like whatever I was before is gone, completely gone. And I know you have to put in the extra time at work,” she nodded at the phone, its body haloed with the glow of incoming messages, “but you’re gone too. And when you’re here, you’re there,” she pointed at the device. “And I have no one to talk to except… except…” she looked around the room until her eyes landed on the ironic buck head mounted over the fireplace. “Except that stuffed head on the wall. That stupid, ridiculous deer head.”

 

Recognizing the perfume

819 words

I don’t know where this came from. I read the prompt and was cooking dinner, and this popped into my head. Oh, how I love writing dialogue.

She took another sip of her Jack and Coke. The doctor told her she shouldn’t be drinking alcohol or soda, but her motto lately had been, “I’m 82 years old. Fuck it.” She nursed her drink; she was a “cheap drunk” as she liked to say, her weight refusing to budge the scale needle over 92 pounds. But she was a practiced drinker, and expertly kept herself “merrily tipsy.”

“I don’t know what you think I’m going to say to you,” she said, giving Albert the side-eye. “Or rather, you know what I have to say. Do I actually have to get the words out of my lungs?”

“She’s trying, aunty,” Albert said, but couldn’t look into his aunt’s eyes. He’d told the rest of the family but had left his great-aunt until last. Even tipsy, she had a tongue that told the truth and did not work hard to make it pretty. He had a good idea what she thought of his girlfriend.

“Trying.” She rattled her glass, warming up the ice cubes to melt them. It diluted the drink but it made it last longer. “That woman hasn’t tried in her life. Trying means effort. Trying means work. She doesn’t work.”

“Of course she works,” Albert says. “She—“

“I don’t mean job-working. I know she does that. That’s easy. You get up. You go to a building and you type on your computers and you sit in meetings and read emails. Then you drive home on your leather seats and have take-out dinners and talk about oh how tired you are and how hard your day was.” She turned to face Albert. He didn’t look up, but she gave him the full force of her eye-roll anyway. “That’s not work. I’m talking about the things that make you a better person. The things that make you uncomfortable or even cause pain. It means sacrificing something that’s bad or even okay so you can get to something real. Something better. I’ve known that woman for over a year. She takes the easy route. Every time.”

Albert looked at his aunt. Her gray head had turned to look out over the lake, and she opened her thin, shaking lips to wet them with the Jack and Coke.

“Aunty,” he said. “I don’t think you’re being fair. Lucy’s always been so nice to you and to the brothers.”

“Nice doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “Nice is learned manners. Nice is what you say when you know people are looking at you or when you want something. You don’t want nice. You want good. You want kind.”

“Lucy is kind,” he said, putting his hand on the arm of her chair. She looked at him and shook her head. “No,” she said. “She’s not.”

Albert retreated, pulling his hand off the chair. “Look. I know she’s done some things that aren’t—well, she’s done some things. But she’s going to be in my life for a long time. I know you don’t want to hear this, but this is the woman I love.”

She snorted into her glass. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, he says he’s in love. Let me tell you about something—no, you sit there, you came to talk to me, and now you’re going to listen. Love isn’t a feeling. It isn’t that warm tickle you get in your regions,” she said, waving a bony hand at his crotch. Albert crossed his legs.

“You think love is walking down the street and catching a whiff of something and being reminded of her. You’re thinking, ‘That’s her perfume. I’m recognizing her perfume, so it must be love!’ But it’s not it at all. That’s just your parietal lobe putting two and two together so when you sniff something that smells like a tiger, you don’t think. You just get your buns out of there. That’s not love.”

She fell quiet, and Albert waited. When she didn’t continue, he started. “Aunty,” he said. She shook her head.

“Love is something you do, doll,” she said, more into her glass than to her great-nephew. “It’s something you choose. You chose her. Did she choose you?”

“Yeah, aunty. She did.”

“Naw,” she said. “She didn’t. She doesn’t choose anything. Things fall into her lap, and she either accepts them or shoos them away, like a stray dog. People are pets to her. She dotes on them when they please her. Treats when they’re good boys. But oh, lord, when they’re not? It’s a rolled-up newspaper and a trip to the pound.”

Albert chuckled and shook his head. “Aw, come on, aunty. You’re being overly dramatic.”

“Am I?” she asked. “I’m an old woman, Al. I’ve known a lot of people and seen a lot of things. Am I being dramatic, or am I telling it how it is and you just don’t want to hear it?” She drained her glass.

I haven’t noticed that building before

783 words

Okay, so, weekends are harder. Still trying to figure out what kind of schedule is reasonable yet challenging. I don’t know. Today’s entry was also hard. Why are these so hard?

She stood facing the river, her gloved hands stuffed deep into her pockets, her arms pressed tightly against her sides. Her coat would normally be adequate—she hadn’t forgotten what Chicago winters were like—but it seemed as if her heavy down coat was made of paper. She reluctantly untucked her hands to pull her scarf tighter around her neck and stuff the tasseled ends down the front of her coat. Her hat was pulled low, but the loose crochet pattern allowed the sharp, bitter wind to stab her inner ears. Her hat choice was a mistake; she felt her skull was turning to ice.

Her Lyft driver was warning her about the weather, and he wondered aloud why she’d want to visit this town at such an awful time. She thought about correcting him: she wasn’t visiting, she was moving back for good, and the timing was beyond his control. But he was on a roll, and she didn’t have the heart to interrupt. Chicago weather seemed to be a favorite subject of his; he’d found at least 15 different ways to say “cold.” She assumed his next passenger would hear a similar monologue, but maybe without such colorful adjectives as “ball-clanking.”

She should be sequestered in her hotel room, making calls to the moving company. Everything she owned was in that van, stuck somewhere outside Springfield. She was left with a choice: take her carry-on to an empty apartment, or check in to a hotel room. She chose the latter, and was determined to make the moving company pay for it—a battle she was relishing and rehearsing in her head. But she needed to get out.

The river was gray and sheeted with crackled ice. The surrounding landscape offered no respite of color to focus on. The steel buildings shot up from the ground, their spires and towers jutting into the clouds, their windows echoing the sky, its barrenness reflected into infinity. There was little movement on the streets, most people were inside guarding against the frost with Snuggies and glasses of scotch.

She stood as long as she was able, until her ears began to ache. She walked next to the river, watching as the floating ice bobbed and bumped against itself. She came to a corner she used to go to in her teens—it had a bodega where she bought her Mountain Dews and Twizzlers, two things she hadn’t touched in years. She crossed the street, finding the best route to avoid deep drifts or hidden ice. The bodega was still there, though the offerings had changed. Mountain Dew and Twizzlers were perennial, but Coke Zero was a new addition and Surge had disappeared. The woman at the counter was new too, but since the man who used to run the little market was probably in his 70s back when she slapped change on that counter to pay for her sugary snacks, it was unlikely he’d still be around.

She left the bodega empty-handed, earning a brief, suspicious look from the cashier. As she turned to head back to the hotel, she paused. There was a building right next to the bodega, one she was sure she hadn’t seen before. Was she on the wrong corner? She walked backward a few steps. No, it was the same place. There were the tiles that spelled out “Martin’s” embedded deep in the sidewalk, a holdover from a bar that had occupied the bodega’s space in the ‘50s and ‘60s. But the building next to it must be new, because there’s no way she wouldn’t have noticed that building before.

It was a gothic style, with gargoyles guarding the concrete steps leading to the front door. Ornate stone spiralled and twisted up the side of the building. It was a style usually reserved for churches or self-important civic buildings, but this one was neither of those. It was the same size as the buildings around it—shops, boutiques, salons. She looked for any indication of what it was and what purpose it served, but there was none. She was just about to assume that it was the work of an overzealous Anne Rice fan, when she saw the plaque carved into a column: “Founded 1838.”

Of course, it could have been added later, maybe at the same time as the gargoyles, but she didn’t think so. The stone was the same type and patina as the rest of the facade. She was tracing a finger into the carved letters when the door at the top of the stairs opened. A single, slippered foot stepped into the cold, followed by a dark head. “Hello, Raye.”

The name on the bench

777 words

This is awful. But with a hundred floor of frights, they can’t all be winners.

He tapped his pen rapidly against the Formica tabletop. Taptaptaptaptaptaptaptap. He usually did this when he was deep in thought or reading. He was doing the latter at the moment. He squinted at his laptop screen. It was an Acer, at least seven years old, and on its last legs. Glancing around the coffee shop, everyone else seemed to be displaying silver laptops featuring glowing fruit. But those laptops, he knew, were too pricey for him.

Taptaptap. Taptap. Tap.

His lips moved unconsciously as he read. He nodded vaguely, then retrieved his phone from his worn leather briefcase. He noticed messenger bags were all the rage right now, but he preferred what he had. He’d been using his once-glossy leather suitcase for almost 30 years and didn’t see a reason why he should wrinkle his carefully pressed shirts by flinging a canvas strap across his chest. He also thought those bags looked, well, sloppy. Untrustworthy. A man with a briefcase is a man you can trust.

He held his phone next to the laptop screen, his eyes darting between them, comparing the two. Unlike the laptop, the phone had been purchased recently. It was a smartphone, technology now required of all employees of the Betterfield Realtor Team. It had to do with the app. All employees must have the Betterfield app installed on their phones to give each client “the complete attention you deserve when finding your home sweet home.” He’d had to give up his beloved Blackberry, which was a shame. He liked the tactile buttons and the satisfying click they made. This new phone had a strange, smooth screen, and though the phone makers had programmed a clicking sound plus some sort of mechanical thunk—he could feel it in his hand—fake buttons just weren’t the same. But he had to admit he really liked that Candy Crush game.

But now the company needed him to install an additional app. It was a several-step ordeal, and they’d sent out an email with instructions. The directions were lengthy, and began with, “It’s easy. Simply…” He didn’t think this was easy. And the process was not, to his mind, simple. He could have gone into the office and have Steve, the IT person help him. And Steve would have been more than happy to do so, without or condescension. He was a good guy. But having someone else do this would be admitting he needed help, and needing help with technology was yet another sign that he was getting older. “Not ‘older,’ he thought, peering at his phone, ‘old.’”

He sat back in his booth and uncapped his pen. It was one of the good ones he liked—a Uniball. He reached into his briefcase again without looking; his hand felt around and pulled out a yellow legal pad. Another blast from the past he couldn’t give up. Everyone else seemed to take notes on their phones or laptops; he preferred pen and paper. He flipped up the top page, folded it behind the cardboard backing, and set it on the table. He wasn’t sure why he needed the pad right then. He supposed he felt comforted by it in the face of technology.

He was doodling when the woman walked by. His doodle depicted a smartphone with a speech bubble floating next to its little screen. The phone was declaring, “I HATE PEOPLE!”, but the screen itself had a little smiley face. He glanced up at the woman, made eye contact, then returned to his legal pad.

“Oh hey, it’s you,” the woman said, stopping next to his chair. She had a look of amusement playing in her eyes.

“Pardon?” he said, startled. He looked around. “Me?”

“You’re the bench guy,” she said, motioning toward the shop’s front doors. “The real estate agent? I see your ads on the bus benches all of the time.”

“Realtor,” he said. “It’s… a trademarked thing. Most people don’t know that.” He shrank inwardly. It was a pedantic thing to say. But he continued anyway, unable to stop. “You have to take a test and everything. Get a license.”

She smiled. “What’s your slogan again? Something like… ‘Welcome home’?”

He laughed. “You’re close. It’s, ‘Your home. You’re home.’ The two different ‘yours,’” he felt himself babbling again. She was an attractive woman. “Um, it’s a play on words. It’s better when you see it,” he said.

“No, no. I get it,” she said. “It’s clever. Really.” She waited. He wasn’t sure what she was expecting.

“Oh! I’m sorry. I’m Kevin. Kevin Lancaster,” he extended his hand.

“Maddie Markel,” she took it.