The first incident happened at the liquor store.
I had a bottle of pinot noir in one hand and tub of Peppermint Bon Bon in the other. I had taken my time settling on the wine. The ice cream had melted down my palm and puddled on the floor. It seeped through my slipper and pooled between my toes. By the time I felt it I’d already slipped.
The bottle rolled down my hand and up my fingers in an arch. I dove to catch it. It clinked on the linoleum, but it didn’t crack. It would’ve been a great save had it not been for the shelf I’d knocked over in the process. Cans popped out of six packs, rolled down the aisle, and spouted leaks.
I crawled around in my pajama pants collecting craft beers into my hooded sweatshirt. I wobbled up to the front counter with arms overloaded with aluminum and pockets oozing with ice cream and beer foam.
The clerk’s name tag read Tammy. She was laughing with the security guard.
“Well, of course he’s into Feng Shui he’s a Cancer.”
I collapsed on the counter, spilling my dented cans everywhere.
Tammy’s frizzy blond hair fluttered as she turned. She greeted me with wide eyes, dimples, and teeth as white as Chiclets. She seemed indifferent to the mess I’d made.
Tammy asked, “How are you?” The upwards inflection of the word “You” trailed through the ceiling.
I gripped the countertop to catch my breath. “I’m all right.”
Tammy turned to the security guard then squinted back at me. “Just all right?”
I nodded. Considering the week I’d had “Just all right” was rounding up.
Tammy smirked at my random sampling of beers.
“So are we having a party?”
I nodded. “A party of one.”
Tammy ran the barcodes through her scanner, adding her own sound effect every time. “Ding, ding, ding.”
“It only works if I make the noise.”
She rolled each beer into a bag.
“All right, party boy can I see your ID?”
I lowered my shades, revealing eyes as red as cherries. I pointed to the crow’s feet that cut across my cheeks as deep as trenches.
Tammy flicked her eyes to the guard. “I’ll need an ID issued by the state.”
I slid my license across the counter. Tammy held it in both hands, peeking over it, squinting, and looking back. She handed it to the guard who shook his head.
Tammy flipped my ID around and slid it across the counter. There I was showered, clean shaven, with a shit-eating grin. Me in better days.
Tammy tapped my license. “This isn’t you.”
“How do you figure?”
“It says you’re six four but you’re shorter.”
“It says your eyes are blue, but they’re clearly red.”
Tammy pressed the picture. “That’s not your face.”
I pointed to my features. “I’ve got the same bushy eyebrows, the same bulb nose, and the same dangly earlobes.”
Tammy shared a knowing grin with the guard.
“But you’re not smiling.”
I sighed. “You’re right. I’m not.”
Tammy held my bag of defective drinks to her chest. “Well, I can’t give you this until I see you smile.”
I stood my ground hoping she’d tire herself out. Instead a line formed behind me. Tammy set my bag down behind the counter. I started to insert my credit card into the point of sales system but she blocked it. The guard stepped forward as if he were prepared to do something.
Tammy put her fingers in her mouth like hooks, and pulled her smile up. “Come on and give me a smile.”
The guard followed suit. I turned around to see if any of the onlookers were as bewildered by this brand of customer service as I was, but every one in line was doing the same thing: smiling with their fingers in their cheeks like children.
I turned back and smiled at Tammy. It was less of a smile as it was a showing of my teeth.
Tammy removed her fingers from her mouth, but her maddening Cheshire cat smile remained. “See, doesn’t that make you feel better?”
Tammy nodded to the guard. “Did you know that our emotions don’t just drive our facial expressions, our facial expressions drive our emotions too.”
She handed my bag across the counter, oblivious to the fact that my smile and my eyes had nothing in common.
Tammy dabbed the air as though she was reading a subtitle. “When you frown you take your emotions down, but when you smile you’ll feel happier in a little while.” She winked. “So, you’re welcome.”
When I left the store each of the patrons were still holding their smiles up with hooked hands.
A panhandler stepped into my path on the sidewalk. He rubbed his fingers like a restroom attendant signaling for a tip.
I made a show of feeling my pockets. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash.” Then I sped off.
The panhandler shouted, “A smile is free, you know!”
The next day I found myself walking home when a light shower turned into a flash flood. I took refuge in a bus shelter. By the time I got there my jeans weighed a few pounds more and my phone had already drowned.
A well dressed man, with a dapper haircut, sat on the bench smelling a bouquet of roses.
My bangs were stuck to my forehead, my shirt was dripping, and I had to hold my pants up to keep them from sagging.
The well dressed man chuckled. “Oh come on, smile. It’s a beautiful day.”
I panned from the black clouds to the man on the bench and gave him a look.
He cradled his flowers, revealing his square jaw and perfect teeth. “You know how many muscles it takes to frown?”
I shrugged. “Less than it takes to ask?”
Ignoring him, I concentrated on wringing my shirt out.
The well dressed man worked a rose stem between his fingers. “You know the prettiest thing you can wear is a smile.”
I was going to say, You know the most important thing to keep in mind is your own business, when I looked up to find the man with his fingers in his mouth, just like Tammy, the guard, and all the customers at the liquor store.
The well dressed man sat there frozen. The bouquet rolled down his thighs, over his knees, and onto his loafers.
I backed out of the bus stop right as it started hailing.
A teenage girl in a poodle skirt skipped down the sidewalk, unconcerned by the golfball sized chunks the sky was pelting us with. She turned to me, put her fingers in her mouth and tugged her smile wider.
“You know fortune smiles on those who are already smiling.”
An old man, who was nowhere near earshot, walked out on his balcony wearing nothing but a smile. He put his fingers in his mouth too, as did every driver and ever passenger on the road beside me.
Everywhere I went the smilers came out to say, “Hi!”
An old woman at the bank said, “You know, if you cry for yourself no one else cries for you, but if you smile the whole world smiles back.”
I bit my lip. “You know, free advice is worth what you paid for it.”
A police officer said, “You know, smiling is easier than having to explain why you’re sad.”
I nodded. “I’ll take that under advisement.”
A priest said, “God smiles on those who smile to themselves.”
I squinted. “Isn’t it ‘helps those who help themselves’?”
The priest shook his head. “No, it’s smiles.”
I was starting to understand how every woman who took a shortcut through a construction zone felt. Come on baby, give me a smile.
And I was running thin on excuses.
“I’m not frowning. It’s a Mona Lisa smile. It isn’t negative. It’s mysterious and intriguing.”
“Oh me. No, I’m not sad. I just have resting bitch face. It’s hereditary. I can’t help it.”
“I just had botox so I’m not able to smile just yet.”
I cut through the park on my way home after work. The sun was still high. Kids were playing hide and seek and puppies were sniffing each other’s adorable little butts.
I was starting to feel better about the thing that had me wearing sunglasses to the liquor store when a letter carrier grabbed me by the wrist.
“You ought to smile, sir. There are people in Russia who have it so much worse than you.”
I pointed to the air like I was poking at an equation on a chalkboard. “I’m pretty sure that argument is supposed to take place in Africa, but it doesn’t matter. Just because people have it bad somewhere doesn’t cancel all the suffering that happens everywhere else.”
The letter carrier tightened his grip. “But you don’t have it as bad as those Russian prisoners, sharing bunkbeds, suffering from drug resistant tuberculosis.”
I tugged my wrist back. “And they don’t have it as bad as those kids working diamond mines to pay for AIDS medication. But by that logic should those Russians be smiling?”
There was a twitch in the letter carrier’s eye as he processed my point. He shook it off, drove his fingers into his mouth, and pulled the flesh up as high as he could.
“I don’t know about them, but you should be smiling.”
I spun around to find everyone in the park had joined the letter carrier in shoving their fingers in their faces. All the children, the adults, and the senior citizens were showing me their gums.
I started to back away when someone yelled, “Let’s turn his frown upside down!”
They say smiles are infectious. The strain that was going around must’ve been powerful. My depression had given me an immunity, but that only made the infected target me.
I tried to run, but a man in a barbecue apron tackled me, stuck his fingers in my cheeks, and forced me to smile. I spat and tried to bite, but more and more smilers slid their greasy hands in.
Each and every park goer wedged their digits into my mouth. My tongue tasted like nicotine, gummy worms, and snot. I started gagging, but the smilers kept coming. Lines formed on my left and right, one for each cheek.
A family of four shoved their hands into my mouth at once. The mother wore an apron, while the father smoked a corncob pipe. He encouraged his son to pry harder. My jaw unhinged and I passed out from the pain.
I came to in a hospital bed. It must’ve been night, because the lights were dim.
Whatever was in the IV drip was doing a poor job dulling the pain. My cheeks throbbed in time with every heart beat. The neck brace they’d fitted me with dug into my tendons, pinching the nerves and spreading the pain down my chest.
I laid there drifting in an out of consciousness, watching the florescent lights blink, and waiting for a doctor to tell me what was supposed to happen next. When no one came I willed myself to stand, dragged the IV pole, and looked into the mirror.
My jaw was wired shut, and my mouth was wired into a grin.
I’m not sure what was more disturbing, the blood on the mirror or the phrase that was written in it:
Don’t forget to smile.
Drew Chial is an author, blogger, and contributor to CLASH Book’s Anthology Walk Hand in Hand Into Extinction: Stories Inspired by True Detective . His mom thinks he is cute.