Counting Smiles by Tim Frank

A fleeting smile, whether from an arthritic octogenarian stumbling off a bus, or from a neighbour glancing at you over a picket fence as you dig for weeds, can really raise your spirits.

They’re not always easy to come by, however, and there was a time when I was perpetually surrounded by weary faces and paranoid scowls. I worked as a bin man alongside monosyllabic migrants, living in a squat full of stoners ensconced in their own gloomy dream worlds. I felt close to ending it all.

But I found hope one bright morning when a frail teenage girl standing in a second-floor window beamed at me as I emptied a trash can on my daily route—she even graced me with a regal wave.

Feeling particularly moved by the moment, I had a revelation. It occurred to me that if I could collect smiles, as it were, I could ward off the blues that hung heavy in my heart. So, I went searching far and wide, fiending like a junky for my next hit—on trains into the countryside at rush hour, even rambling along beachfronts at daybreak—but I could hardly earn a measly smirk.

I went into town one day to mingle with tourists— to see if strangers from across the globe could lift my mood. But they were too baffled by Google maps and their broken English to lavish any attention on me.

I slumped on a roadside bench, drained and dejected. I thought about dragging myself to a loony bin—I might find some solace there, maybe even a psychotic sneer.

Then a young disabled man in an electric wheelchair wearing a yellow scarf and bell bottom jeans rolled up beside me. Without a word he unveiled a toothy grin that slowly collapsed into a frown, then he spat on my foot. He rolled back into a dense crowd, cackling to himself as he vanished from sight.

It was around that time something strange happened, that I still can’t explain to this day—steadily but surely smiles entered my life like never before. Smoking mothers on storefront balconies, buskers wailing into their harmonicas, and even balding businessmen driving open top sports cars all blessed me with magical grins.

The smiles kept coming, and I felt like I was winning at roulette, doubling down and winning again. And yet I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to know what had sparked the transformation—why was I suddenly so lucky? So, I embarked on a new search.

First of all, I quizzed a middle-aged jogger who had brushed past me, gasping for breath.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, standing up to him face to face, “But why did you just smile at me?”

“What are you talking about?” the man said.

“You just smiled at me. I want to know why.”

“I didn’t smile at you at all, I’m not a weirdo.”

“You did, you really did. Tell me why.”

“Listen, I’m going to walk away now. I’m a blue belt in judo and I warn you not to follow me.”

I sighed and let him sprint across the road until he disappeared round the corner, but my resolve wasn’t dented.

Next, I confronted the barista in my local coffeeshop who had showered me with smiles over a sustained period of time, and surely I would get results with him. But after I peppered him with questions about his motives, he ordered me to move out of the queue with a fearsome glare.

The smiles continued but I had no faith in their integrity— what if they were tricks being played on me for god knows why? I was more troubled than ever and I had no idea how to escape my predicament.

One day, I found myself gazing into a shop window, feeling the need for some retail therapy. Looking at mannequins wearing all sorts of skinny jeans and duffel coats, I noticed my miserable countenance reflected in the glass—my bottle top eyes and oval chin. As I set my pearly whites into a tentative smile, I felt waves of relief flow through my body.

When I placed my hand on my face and manipulated my cheeks into all sorts of deranged grins, I knew I was in control and had finally found smiles I could depend on.

I took smiles I’d snapped on my phone and developed them into prints and pinned them onto my wall. I carried pictures in my wallet and even some in the back pocket of my jeans. I wanted to bathe myself in smiles, smiles that I had faith in, and when I wasn’t working or sleeping, I was capturing more smiles with all sorts of backdrops—beside historic monuments, museums, busy highways or country lanes—just to keep things interesting.

My life was an inexhaustible supply of wonderful grins, and unless all my teeth fell out or my mouth shrivelled up like a withered old man, my contentment was guaranteed. I no longer needed to rely on the whims of the general public and their problematic expressions. All I needed was myself.

Tim Frank’s short stories have been published in Wrongdoing Magazine, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Maudlin House, Rejection Letters and elsewhere. He was runner-up in The Forge Literary Flash Fiction competition ‘22. He has been nominated for Best Small Fictions ’23. 

He is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal and lives with his wife in North London, England. 

Twitter: @TimFrankquill