dice1by Joan Hill

Brenda McAllister pretended to check her face in the rearview mirror and glanced at the car behind theirs in the fast-food drive-through line. She puckered her apricot-glossed lips and ran the tip of her tongue across her perfect teeth. She wasn’t going to do it if it was some guy in a Mercedes, or a couple of landscapers in a truck. It had to be someone who looked as if they deserved some kindness.

As luck would have it, a Ford Escort sputtered behind them, its green paint dull and eroded. The clicking sound of the tired engine sped up when the line of cars moved forward and slowed when they idled. Pink fuzzy dice swayed gently behind the windshield.

Brenda pulled her Gucci bag from the passenger-side floor, but one of its straps snagged on her twelve-year-old’s enormous high-top sneaker. Without taking his eyes or thumbs from his phone, Ethan lifted his foot. Brenda dug her mascara from the bag, returned to the mirror, and coated her eyelashes as she eyed the Escort’s driver.

It was a young woman with stringy shoulder-length hair parted straight down the center, and from the higher vantage point of her Volvo SUV, Brenda could see a little girl in the backseat, swinging a rag doll by its arm. Brenda figured they were doing the same thing she and her son were doing, getting breakfast before the drop-off at school. The situation was ideal.

“Are you going to try your random act of kindness?” Ethan asked, still keying his phone.

“I’ve been dying to,” Brenda giggled. She dropped the mascara in her bag and retrieved her wallet. She’d felt her life shifting now that Ethan was getting older—now that he could barely tolerate being in the same room as his mother. Brenda could use the boost of helping someone outside her small family circle.

The day before, there had been a haggard old man behind them. Brenda almost paid for his meal, but she caught him picking his nose at the last minute and changed her mind. The day before the old man it was a young couple, their faces close together, their mouths open with laughter. Brenda didn’t want to pay for another couple’s breakfast date.

“You got your idea from a movie, in case you didn’t know,” Ethan said. Lately, he had become as much of a know-it-all as his father.

She edged the Volvo close to the ordering speaker and requested the usual: a latte for her and a cheese and bacon muffin with chocolate milk for Ethan. “What movie?” she asked him when she was finished. She checked the rearview mirror again and watched the other driver place her order. Brenda noticed the young mother’s high cheekbones and the thin silver bracelets that slid down her petite forearms when she grasped the top of the steering wheel to stretch her shoulders.

“The movie where the guy thinks he’s God, and he has to make all those decisions.” Ethan chuckled at something on his phone’s screen.

The woman’s ordering was over quickly, and Brenda took it as a good sign—that the poor mother wasn’t a glutton, or buying food for a whole football team. Brenda predicted that she was going to be happy to pay for the cute little hippie behind them, and suddenly she felt like the conductor on her own short train of kindness. She grinned and wiggled a dance in her bucket seat. Ethan rolled his eyes.

They arrived at the drive-through window. “I want to pay for the car behind us.” Brenda’s voice was breathy with anticipation. Tawny freckles dominated the otherwise creamy face of the cashier, who stared at Brenda for a moment, dull as an ostrich, before she turned back to her computer screen. She pressed a few keys and said, “That’s $13.46.” It was almost twice what Brenda usually paid, but that was fine. She was going through with it. It was doable. Ethan turned in his seat to get a closer look at the people behind them.

“Don’t look back at them,” Brenda said. She didn’t want her recipient to get suspicious. She selected a twenty from the stack of bills in her wallet and held it out for the cashier. Ethan shook his head as his mother handed him the breakfast sandwich and milk. He tore the paper from his straw and sucked on the milk. Once Brenda had her latte and change, she placed both into the center-console cup holders and quickly pulled away. She wanted to get around the corner of the restaurant before the woman could look at her. Random meant not knowing.

“Who cares where I got the idea from?” she asked Ethan as she backed the SUV into a shaded spot along the property fence. “Haven’t you seen that commercial where one person does something nice for someone, and someone else witnesses it, and then they do something nice, and then another witness does something nice?”

“Yeah, I get it,” Ethan said, a piece of bacon sticking out of his mouth. “But that’s an insurance commercial, selling insurance. Hey, why are you parking?”

“I have to see the reaction on her face,” Brenda said. She engaged the parking brake and turned off the engine.

“That’s not random,” Ethan said.

“It’s the thought that counts. Don’t you think you can affect other people?”

“Sure. People can be inspired to do good or evil.”

“True…” Brenda was surprised at the “evil” part of her son’s comment, and it silenced her for a moment. She listened to Ethan’s chewing and to the crumple of the sandwich wrapper between his slender fingers. His hands had grown larger than hers. The homey smell of bacon filled the car. Brenda cracked the windows.

“I want to try it,” her son suddenly said.

This made Brenda nervous. Perhaps Ethan would pick the wrong person. Perhaps he couldn’t keep it random, and he would befriend a pedophile. She didn’t answer.

“Does it have to be money?”

“No, of course not. You could write a secret-admirer note to someone.”

“That’s gay.”

“You could compliment someone.” Brenda kept her eyes on the restaurant.

“That’s gay,” he said. “Pretty much, it has to be money.”

“It isn’t gay. And there’s nothing wrong with being gay.”

“You haven’t been to school in a while.”

“You could clean up Mrs. Wade’s yard, or take her trash cans to the curb. Or back from the curb.”

“That wouldn’t really be random. And that’s work. What you did, and in that insurance commercial, the kindness was easy. Only took a second.”

The green Escort shot around the corner of the restaurant, dice swinging. The driver’s eyes were wide and scanning the lot, her knuckles white on the steering wheel. The car gunned past Brenda and Ethan, its engine clicking wildly. In the next moment, they heard the squeal and screech of a sudden, hard stop. Brenda watched the woman reverse her car until it came to a rest in front of the Volvo, blocking them in.

“What is she doing, Mom?”

The woman who emerged from the Escort was lean and wiry, and about as tall as Ethan. A breeze billowed her thin blouse and whipped honey-brown hair across her face as she rapped on Brenda’s window. The bracelets jangled on her forearm. “I just want to ask you something,” she said, gesturing with her hands for Brenda to roll down her window farther. She smiled. “Please?”

“Don’t do it.” Ethan hissed the words through his teeth. Brenda shook her head at the woman.

“I really appreciate what you did.” The woman locked eyes with Brenda. Some of her hair was stuck in the corner of her mouth. She took a moment to tuck the long strands behind both ears, just before she reached for the door handle, quick as a snake.

Whenever Brenda relived this moment—the moment when the sanctuary of her vehicle was breached and the breeze came in—she equated it with being surprised by a stranger who opens the bathroom door and finds you on the toilet, pants around your ankles. She thought of it that way because it helped her forget the determination in that woman’s black eyes.

The woman stood between Brenda and the door. Brenda leaned away from her, hands up, the gear selector digging into her side. The woman pointed at Brenda’s face and curved the corners of her thin lips into a mean smile. “I figure if you can afford to buy me breakfast, you could do better than that.”

“Go away!” Ethan shouted at the woman. His loud, cracking voice startled Brenda. She shifted away from him slightly, revealing the change in the cup holder.

“You’ve got money right there.” The woman’s arm bolted across Brenda’s lap, and she grabbed the bills in her fist. A second later she threw her entire upper body into the SUV, stretching toward Ethan’s feet to capture the handles of the Gucci bag. These were the seconds of the confrontation that made Brenda cringe whenever the memory came flying back at her: the young woman across her lap, writhing as if dodging an imminent spanking, her cheap perfume cutting through the bacon aroma. Except for her darting eyes, Brenda sat immobilized in her terror until the surprise sensation of hot, wet pants caused her to lurch against her seat belt. She always had to pee when she was nervous. She found out later it was the coffee.

Ethan told his father—told anyone who would listen—that his mother just sat there while they were being robbed.

The woman slipped out of the SUV nearly as quickly as she had yanked open the door. She stuffed the cash in her pocket and turned Brenda’s Gucci upside down. Its contents clattered onto the asphalt, tissues tumbled across the parking lot, and Brenda’s wallet hit the ground with a thud. The woman discarded the pocketbook, scooped up the matching leather wallet, and opened it. She plucked out the bills, losing some of them to the wind in her haste. They skittered away, as if to catch up with the tissues.

And then the woman, her dozing daughter, and the chugging green car were gone.

Brenda didn’t know how long she sat there, unable to breathe, before Ethan pushed on her shoulder, shaking her. “Mom? Mom! We have to get your stuff.”

Brenda stumbled out of the Volvo and looked at the clutter at her feet. She felt a searing pain in her crotch whenever she bent to gather her belongings. Ethan helped corral the contents of her bag, and he looked underneath the cars to make sure they’d gotten everything. There would be so many everyday objects to remind Brenda of this scene: car, purse, money, coffee, bacon, urine.

The police officer wrote descriptions on his clipboard. He thought there was a good chance of catching the woman. Brenda had to tell him everything, starting with her random act of kindness. The officer remained stone-faced.

Days later, Brenda wished that everyone didn’t have to hear the story, and that Ethan wasn’t so eager to tell it. She was able to lie to her gynecologist, explaining that she had spilled the coffee—that she had scalded herself. But even in that telling, Brenda had to force a chuckle and call herself the klutz. Most everyone who heard the real story said, “I guess you’ll never do that again.” It wouldn’t be so bad if that weren’t the truth.

The police apprehended the woman a week after she robbed Brenda, and Child Protective Services took her daughter. She had to admit to her crack addiction. She wore a gray linen pantsuit to the preliminary trial, with an evenly spaced garden of tiny blue flowers on her blouse.

The prosecuting attorney narrated Brenda’s story again. She started with kindness, spun the tale through the callousness and paralyzing terror of the attack, then finished with second-degree burns and a vivid female-anatomy lesson. Brenda would have stricken her injury from the record.

Pleading for a lesser charge, the public defender expressed his client’s deep remorse, and as he did, the blunt edges of the woman’s new chin-length bob jerked along with her full-body sobs. It could have been someone else entirely, Brenda thought.

* * *

As the officer finished taking his report at the scene of the crime, he got another call on his police radio. He handed his business card to Brenda, tossed his clipboard into his patrol car, and sped off, siren wailing.

Ethan and Brenda climbed back into the SUV, too late for school. Brenda started the engine and inched out of the parking spot. It was the only time she could remember her son being silent about the ordeal.

Back in the restaurant parking lot, a young girl and her mother returned to their car. The girl pulled her hand from her mother’s grasp and bent toward the ground. When she stood upright, she squealed with joy and waved a green rectangle above her head like a flag. The girl skipped toward her mother, still waving, and the woman grabbed her daughter in a hug. She lifted the girl and twirled her around in a circle. It was the unmistakable celebration of found money.

Category: Short Story