"A Smile": A Character Study

Thursday, I talked about building character by sketching out the Four Truths. Here is my attempt to flesh out a character from a short story, told in third-person I'm currently working on. 

"A Smile" is told in first-person and takes place after the short story begins. It really gave me an opportunity to better understand Jana, her community and her relationship with live-in boyfriend Bryan. Any and all feedback is welcome. Enjoy!  

A Smile
By Laura M. Campbell

            The temperature began climbing earlier this week, and, now, sweat is trickling down the side of everyone’s face. Good thing Pastor Bill put the tent up over the picnic tables. Wouldn’t want sunburn while you eat.
Luckily, the additional classrooms off the chapel kept the children suspended in air conditioning. Although, fifteen minutes before the end of Sunday school, their anxious energy defrosted their muscles, making it difficult for them to stay in the little plastic seats. Mayhem ensued when I asked them to clean-up, struggling to get the chairs up on the tables with the smell of sweet, fresh-cut grass swirling around them as volunteers carried the food and paper products outside for the picnic. The sound of the doors at the end of the hallway created frenzy, causing them to push and shove each other out the door, reaching for the warm sunshine.
I followed their yells and laughter out, and took my place behind the buffet table with Jackie Miller. Originally, I planned to grab a quick bite with my family and head home, but Pastor Bill’s dazzling smile caught me off guard when I arrived this morning to set up the classroom. Next thing I know I volunteered to serve food. Granted, Sue Quinn quarantined herself and her family, who came down with a highly contagious cold, and Pastor Bill needed someone to fill in for her. Unfortunately, the buffet table sat under the tent, making parishioners more apt to linger, asking questions about the state of my relationship with Bryan.  
“Why didn’t Bryan come to church today?”
“I heard Pete gave Missy a beautiful ring. I’m sure Bryan will pop the question soon.”
“What’s Bryan waiting for? You two have been dating for forever.”
Someone shoot me. It’s bad enough to wonder when he’s planning to make our relationship official, but to have people poking their nose in your personal business, pointing out your failures is enough to make a girl crazy. Of course, I smile and politely giggle, telling them Bryan must of caught the cold the Quinn family had. Really, he and I fought yesterday. And hitting the bar with his buddies is his usual way of dealing with things. When I left this morning, he was snoring on the couch. I hate showing up to social gatherings without him. He’s my barrier against all the judgmental looks and whispering. I’m just glad the children are playing behind me. Their loud voices drown out the spreading gossip and pitiful glances.
            “Hi, Ms. Macon.”
            A small, breathy voice brought me back to reality. “Oh, hi there Chris. You enjoying yourself?”
            Sweat poured down his face. “Yup.” The third grader’s mother nudged him in the shoulder. “I mean, Yes, ma’am.”
            “Looks like you worked up an appetite. Grab yourself a plate.” He reached across the table, showing off his grass stained elbows, little badges of courage. “What would you like?”
            He took a moment to scan all the silver chaffing dishes. “Can I…” His mother nudged him again. “May I have a hot dog?”
            “You sure can.” I grabbed one with the tongs and placed it on his plate. “Did you want to try some macaroni salad?”
            He shook his head.
            “You do need some greens,” his mother said. She pointed to a big white bowl. “Bring your plate over here.”
            “Allllrrriiiight.” His shoulders drooped as she piled the lettuce, cucumber, carrot and tomato mixture on his plate. He grabbed the bottle of Ranch. “Let me put the dressing on.” He bit his lower lip, willing his little hands to turn it upside down, causing a huge glob of it to smother the salad.
            “Chris!” She grabbed the bottle away from him, shaking her head. “Not so much, honey.” He smiled.
            “I heard Bryan’s sick. I hope it’s not too bad,” Cathy, Chris’s mother, said as she gently pushed him down the buffet table.
Apparently, the heat helped word spread faster. I waved my hand at her, “He’ll be fine. Just needs some rest.” My chest tightened.
            Chris turned his attention back to me. “Do you have ketchup and mustard?”
            “We sure do. If you walk to the end of the table, I’m sure Mrs. Miller would gladly help you out.”
            “Thanks, Ms. Macon. See you tomorrow at school.”
            I smiled and nodded at him and his mother. “Bye, Chris. See, ya ‘round, Cathy.”
            I left the apartment this morning without eating to avoid waking Bryan, and standing around all this food made my stomach growl. Finally, the line slowed down to gluttonous parishioners heading up for seconds and thirds, a great chance to grab a plate and sit down for a few minutes. I turned and almost ran smack into Jackie. 
            “Oh, Jana. Would you mind the table for a bit while I check on my kids?”
            “Sure, Jackie.” A few more minutes wouldn’t kill me, right?
            “Thank you so much.” She cringed while she looked behind me. “Andrew Michael Miller! Get off your brother!” She placed her hand on my shoulder, bracing herself to deal with the insanity that is her children. “You should eat something, Mouse. Lookin’ too skinny.” Then, she ran off to break up the dandelion-crushing brawl. Little white, feathery wisps floated around the group of miniature on-lookers cheering the fight on.
Jackie and her husband, Ken, were the often embarrassed, but deep down proud parents of four little boys all under the age of six. Andrew, the oldest, already earned himself a reputation at James Garfield Elementary.
            Other parents took cue from the Miller brawl to grab their sweaty children and head towards their cars. The wound-up children tried to escape, coming close to dislocating their parents’ arms while they said their goodbyes. I took my cue as well, and started to clean up the buffet table.
            “Need some help?”
            Kind blue eyes stared back at me when I looked up to see Mark Cooper. “Hey, Mark. How are you?” I continued to collect all the plastic serving utensils and pile them on a paper plate.
            “I’m a bit hot with this collared shirt and tie, but doing well,” he said, flashing his big white smile. “Where’s Bryan?”
            “You didn’t hear? He’s sick at home.”
            “That’s too bad.” He walked down to the end of the table, closing all the condiment containers and placing them in the cardboard box under the table.
            “You don’t have to do that, Mark.” He hadn’t changed since high school. Still sweat as pie.
            “No big deal. It’s either this or listen to my parents go on and on about setting me up with a nice girl.” He thumbed over his shoulder to a group of older people. 
            “Tell me about it. If I hear one more comment about Missy getting engaged before me, or the fact that I live with Bryan out of wedlock, I’m going to head straight to the wharf and drown myself in the river.” 
            His laughter lifted the weight on my shoulders a bit, and a real smile spread across my face.
“I didn’t see you in the choir today.” He started to collect all the paper products.
            “Oh, yeah. Missy needed me to teach Sunday school for her. She’s busy organizing end of the year activities for her seniors, and came to early mass.”
            “That must have been fun.” Sarcasm dripped from his words.
            “Actually, I love working with the younger ones. They aren’t jaded and as stubborn as the teenagers.”
            “Oh, yea. You’re teaching at Garfield, right?”
            “I’m a teacher’s aide, and substitute whenever they need me. Fingers crossed, I’ll get the job teaching third grade next year. I interview Wednesday.”
            “I’m sure you have the job. They probably just need to go through the motions. Who in the world wouldn’t give a Macon a teaching job?” He helped me stack the chaffing dishes on a cart.
            “You never know. I wouldn’t want to jinx it.”
            We spent the next twenty minutes carrying the food into the church basement-kitchen and placing the linens into a laundry bag. Once we cleaned everything up, we headed back out to the parking lot as everyone slowly got into their cars. My anxiety started to build again knowing I would see Bryan soon. I wanted to make things ok between us. And it never fails, I get lost in my thoughts and my feet stop working. I tripped and Mark caught me before I fell on my face.
            “Thanks for the save. That would have been embarrassing.” I held on to his arms as he hoisted me up.
            “No problem.” He smiled at me while I fixed my dress. “Your eyes change color in the sunlight. They almost look like honey.”
            “Bryan says they’re my best feature. Speaking of Bryan, I need to get home to check on him, and I’m sure my parents are ready to leave. Thanks for you help, Mark.”
            “It was my pleasure.”
            “See ya around.” I waved to him as I hurried to catch up with my parents before they left me. It didn’t take more than a few seconds after climbing into my father’s SUV before my mother bombarded me with questions about Mark. I just counted the row houses though the tinted window, ignoring her. Bryan was at home and I couldn’t wait to see him.   


Misha said…
I like the voice in the piece as well as the subtle tension that seems to be growing in Jana as the piece progresses.

Michael Offutt said…
At first I thought this story was going to be written in second person and I was like...uhhh...I hate second person (based off of the line in the first paragraph).

I agree with Misha...great use of voice and subtle tension.

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