On the seventh day, Trudy considered her work and rested. She sat down gently on her flower-patterned antique couch, beautifully enshrined in plastic to preserve its perfection. One sat gently because to plop would be un-ladylike and incorrect, but also because it would make a noise that imitated flatulence. She had spent the prior six days painting the canvas sign, with the large calligraphy of the simple two-word command, “Be kind.” Trudy considered Mel, dead two years and one week. Mel plopped. One never knew if it was an imitation until the invisible cloud touched the olfactory nerve. Mel hated the plastic covers. He also hated being on a diet, exercise, and had died of a massive heart attack. She was still angry with him. He had lived incorrectly. He had died by slow-motion suicide, depriving her of someone to eat with at Denny’s blue plate special. The plastic on the furniture was especially necessary if the grandkids visited, which they did once a year—but they had missed the last couple of years. Trudy’s flower printed house dress was perfectly coordinated with her shoes and the headband in her platinum blonde beehive wig.
Each letter of the sign was a color of the rainbow, against a dark background that upon inspection showed people helping others, women kissing men, women kissing cats, and dogs kissing everyone. Of all the signs in all the signs planted in yards in the history of subdivisions, Trudy knew this was one of the best signs ever. Trudy knew she was a person who excelled at humility, and it did not matter to her that it was the best sign ever. It only mattered that it was bigger and better than Miss Smarty-pants next door, that Agatha. It was planted like a gauntlet in her front yard, so everyone would know who was kinder. As if Agatha knew what the word kind even meant! Agatha’s kids, always leaving their crap out on the street, lived like a bunch of red neck hillbillies. It was like they were all raised by wolves. Why couldn’t that little dog of hers shit in its own yard? It was just common decency. What right does she have to tell me to be kind? Who does she think she is? Her kids were always knocking on Trudy’s door bothering her with little notes she couldn’t read, giving her ugly misshapen cartoon drawings of monsters. She would give them stale jellybeans from Mel’s jar, just to get rid of them. It would be kind if Trudy didn’t have to make anonymous calls to the police to get you to stop the noise on Saturday nights, she thought.
Agatha’s brightly colored yoga pants would be too revealing if the oversized sweatshirt didn’t go down past her buttocks. She finished afternoon story time and put the kids down for a nap. 4 under 3 had been a blessing, she told herself. She had hit life’s lottery, with twin boys then twin girls two years later. It might have been easier with 4 at once. You at one point have two that are mobile and two you carry, all of them in diapers. Agatha was looking forward to nap time more than the kids. That sweet old lady across the street had put up a “Be Kind,” so inspiring. The kids just loved her, and they were always trying to keep her from being lonely since her husband died. They drew beautiful pictures of her and left them on her porch or knocked on the door and gave them to her. She would give them candy. Their little dog Winston just loved her, and dogs are supposed to be such a great judge of character. The desperate plea to be kind was spreading, like a divine conspiracy, like a multi-level marketing campaign. It was so hard to get kindness to spread. There was a movie about a boxer who beat people on its tenth movie, but the classic movie about kindness called “Pay it Forward” was twenty years old. Trudy had made a sign and was changing the world. Come to think of it, Agatha thought, we had a sign too. She laughed out loud. Her’s said “Be Kind Roofing Company” and it was worth a ten percent discount to have the sign in her yard for a week. What a sweet old lady she was, that Trudy.
Burt walked along the street, mentally exhausted. He was in his fifties, but most of him felt like he was still thirty. His knees were gone, and felt like they were about 70, so he was trying to transition to fast walking instead of running. He was about 20 pounds heavier than he wanted to be, his hair was graying from the sons and falling out from the daughters. Burt had spent all day in meetings and on the phone, solving everyone’s problems. He volunteered at the community center tutoring kids who couldn’t afford it. He had come home and done the same for his wife and his kids. The neighborhood walk was his only alone time lately, his time to be a human vegetable, listen to a novel on his phone, and just peace out. ‘I need to cut back on volunteering, and work less,’ he told himself. It filled the hours before the family got here, but now it was too much. He felt so guilty to leave those who needed him. He came up to the two signs, one big one small. Both signs said, “Be Kind.” Burt felt accused. What a loser he was. He had no sign.
“Hey, Burt!” There was some woman shouting at him, a neighbor. “Hey, pretty lady,” he said, not because she was especially pretty, but because he couldn’t remember her name and she remembered his. She had on a big sweatshirt and brightly colored tight pajama pants, in the afternoon. These young people wore pajamas everywhere.
“You remember me, I’m Agatha, we met at the block party?” Damn. He was an open book to people, he fooled no one. She introduced herself so the pretty lady but didn’t work. “Yeah.”
“Can you take picture of me in front of the ‘Be Kind’ sign for social media? Isn’t it awesome?”
“Can you get me in front of my sign,” said the old biddy lady next door. She said it in a tone that sounded like she wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Shit, shit, shit shit! I hate people, thought Burt. I don’t really hate people. I have been kind and nice to people all day, this is my time to be alone. I don’t even know these people. “Sure,” said Burt pleasantly, with all the fake enthusiasm he could muster. He really wanted to run. Perhaps he could fake an incoming phone call and getaway.
“Trudy, your sign is so beautiful. I wanted a picture in front of your sign. It's like, like –art.” Agatha gushed, impressed.
“Well of course it’s art- “said Trudy, dumbfounded at the insult, that it was only like art, of course it was art, she had spent six days on it, and she was good, very good. Trudy decided not to give that Cretan the satisfaction.
“Thank-Thank you!” said Trudy, finally.
“You do such a good job with all those kids, considering,” said Trudy.
The two women exchanged apparent kindnesses over Trudy’s “Be Kind” sign. Burt stood there a hostage, a captive of social convention, watching as his heart rate fell to resting destroying his fast walk workout. He had to pause his book. As luck would have it, it expired on the library app before he knew how it ended. Burt pretended to listen to the nonsensical repartee as he watched with a fake smile on his face, holding Agatha’s iPhone with the camera app open. The two ladies wanted a be kind picture together, arm and arm, BFF’s, in front of Trudy’s artful sign.
His first picture wasn’t acceptable. His second picture was worse.
“You need to back up more,” said Agatha.
“Have you ever done this before,” asked Trudy.
Burt backed up. He put the interests of others over his own and was committed with a laser focus to be a good neighbor and get the best picture possible for his neighbors.
Mitch the school bus driver was having a heck of a time making the left hand turn across the two-way traffic on the busy street. Finally, a good Samaritan stopped and waved him on. The good Samaritan had not checked the traffic coming from the right. Mitch punched it to complete his turn and not get rear-ended. He felt a thud.
Trudy and Agatha both wore black dresses spoke at Burt’s funeral not too many days later. They were in the same dress, which aggravated both ladies. They said he was such a good man, a nice fellow, a kind man. Burt had backed up in the street for the best picture possible and had a great picture that had managed to get both signs in it. The kids at the boy’s and girl’s club were missing a mentor, the people at his job were missing a boss, and his kids were missing a Dad. No one saw until it was too late. Mitch was cleared of wrongdoing on the police accident investigation. Mitch was shook up. He wondered what he could have done differently. He wanted to quote driving buses, but he needed the money. Burt had been backing up into the street, right in front of him. He didn’t know Burt, but he went to the funeral. Mitch bawled like a baby and got so drunk that night, he had to call in sick the next day.
The traffic jam and accident investigation drew attention to Trudy’s “Be Kind sign. There was an article in the paper and a human-interest story in the local news. Trudy’s sign was now on every city bus. Agatha said tearfully to Trudy when the bus went by with the replica of the sign, “If I know Burt, he would have wanted it that way.”