by Gary Fincke

We scattered our chairs in the picnic pavilion. Six feet apart, mostly more, even with our masks. Twelve of us brought nominations, fewer this summer with the troubles lasting and lasting.

Here is how we elect the books we read and discuss: We each get twenty beans (already counted out in bags). We scatter them among, this year, eighteen book titles, hoping they find enough company to earn our favorites a place in the second round where ten will be left.

A married couple came in late, no problem. We’d busied ourselves with muffled stories about the careless and the selfish and, in two cases, the seriously sick. We’d poured ourselves some wine to sip with discreetly lifted masks. The husband carried his mask until he sat down, but the wife didn’t wear one. Not after she sat, not when she moved her chair closer to Arlene, our election leader, her bare face bridging the six feet like a sneeze.

Yes, you can use all twenty of your beans for one book, but everyone spreads them out to give more of their favorites a chance. For the final round, only ten beans. We don’t want to be here all night. Think of heats at a track meet—pre-lims, then finals. As fair as fair can be. Always, the numbers decide the six we read.

The husband with the tardy mask joined in, but that maskless woman didn’t spread her beans. She clutched her bag like a fairy-tale miser. Her naked face looked just flushed enough to make me recollect that Poe story that’s been passed around since the lockdown began. You know the one.

Last year was that couple’s first. The man didn’t come until March, when the Zoom started. Neither said much, like they hadn’t read all the way through the books we’d elected in July when the woman had shown up for her first meeting, (eighteen of us then, thirty-two nominations), with one book right there in her hand—“Infantry Woman.” She announced it was a memoir written by her cousin with the same name (not the middle one, but who puts that on the cover like some retired schoolmarm?) who looked, in the photo on the back cover, just like Miss Maskless.. “Self-published,” she said. Just like that, in a sharp nasal tone that sounded like a mother-in-law nobody can stand. Even though it finished top fifteen, enough for the finals, Arlene pulled the book. “Your ten beans will never be enough,” Arlene said. “Nobody else has given the book a bean.”

Tonight, when the counting began, what Arlene does alone, we gabbed and sipped wine, but made sure we were covered when we talked.  Arlene had recorded totals for almost half the titles when the woman without a mask started in at the other end, touching every bean as she counted out loud, numbers that Arlene gave no sign of jotting down. Eight titles later, when they were about to meet, Arlene moved aside, a generous space, then stepped back to silently finish counting. The woman stared, then sat, but we have our ways. What makes us comfortable. What’s fair. Arlene knew enough to be wearing gloves. The husband, I noticed, didn’t touch the wine and cheese.

Arlene finished the numbers. Both of my books were moved to the second round. When Arlene lifted her mask to take a sip of wine and eat a bite of the cheese she’d been neglecting, the bare-faced woman rose as if she was about to leave, then took a step, bent down, and leaned in close to Arlene as if she had a secret she had to whisper. From only two chairs away, I could see she really was flushed, sweating despite the night turning cool. She was almost kissing Arlene.

When Arlene screamed, that woman backed away, clearing her throat with a series of staccato, ragged coughs. “Oh my,” she said, a hand on her chest, but none of us approached her, not even her husband with his mask off now, already outside the circle and near their car where he waited for her to settle herself and catch her breath.

She gave her husband a hug before climbing inside the car, which made me reconsider what I and maybe everybody else was thinking. That cousin of the self-published author, her untouched bag of beans left beside her chair, just vanished without a word. And then all of us began to comfort Arlene as best we could, keeping our distance, every face covered.

Gary Fincke’s latest collection is The Sorrows (Stephen F. Austin, 2020). A story, “The Corridors of Longing,” will appear in Best Small Fictions 2020. An essay, “After the Three-Moon Era,” will be reprinted in Best American Essays 2020. He is co-editor of the anthology series Best Microfiction.