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Do you know how many beans are in this jar?

Of course not.  It is an unknowable thing.  Unknowable until the jar is removed from its cardboard shrine and gutted for the official count this afternoon.  But until then, it remains a mundane mystery.

Holly took a slip of paper and studied the jar.  Isn’t this the same jar that held pickled eggs at the last company potluck?  And now it’s holding jelly beans.

Remember not to eat the jelly beans, she told herself.

If the jar is this many inches, and that many inches, and that many beans per inch, then mental math is still difficult.  Holly tried out numbers for their sound.  Three hundred, too little.  Five hundred, maybe closer.  One thousand, would HR really spend that much on jelly beans?

“Hey Holly,” a man’s voice crept up behind her, “Think you’re gonna win?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she apologized, suddenly feeling foolish for considering the challenge and its tepid grand prize gift certificate.  She didn’t even like Applebee’s.  And now she had a witness.

“I guessed seven-hundred-and-forty-three,” Jim said as he cracked open his 9 am liquid sugar rush, “Wanna know how I got that number?”

“Oh, you don’t have to–”

“First, I figured out the dimensions of an individual jelly bean.  It’s tricky because of the curvature, but I found that if I…,” Jim began to divulge his entire theorem.  Holly nodded along politely.  Did he really just say square root?

“…because the jar is rounded, so I couldn’t just take the number of square inches without also calculating…”

Bravo.  Bravo, Jim.  You are the clear mathematical superior.  Holly mm-hmmed as needed while his explanation ballooned.  Why are you telling me this?

“That’s really neat, Jim, but I have to be at…,” Holly started to inch away.

“Oh, I love these!” a higher voice squealed.  Amy-the-intern galloped over to the display as fast as her unpracticed stilettos would take her.

“Don’t you just love these?” she asked, bright eyes at Holly, totally ignoring Jim.  She cooed over the jar, betraying her inner woo-girl.  Holly saw her chance for escape.

“Wait!” Amy cried, “O.M.G., like, you totally have to help me pick a number!”

“I dunno, um…” Holly scrambled, “Why don’t you ask Jim?  Jim, you’re good with numbers.”

Jim had momentarily clammed up, no doubt distracted by the pixie princess body glitter with which Amy-the-intern bedazzled her eyelids.  But Holly was determined.  Three false starts later, Jim was relaying his equations to the effervescent Amy.  And slowly, cautiously, Holly backed away from the bean counters.

But just when she thought she was free, Jim noticed her attempted exit.

“You haven’t written anything on your slip,” he said.

Holly looked at the paper in her hand.  Blank on one side, obscure sections of last year’s reports on the other.  She scribbled down the first number that came to mind. Six-hundred-and-thirty.  Six-thirty.  At six-thirty she would be home with a glass of wine and a cat that didn’t ask too much.  Holly threw her guess into the dish.

For the rest of the morning, Holly was content to hide in her cube.  Work is good.  Email is good.  The awkward flutter of around the bean jar had started to fade.  And that’s why I never participate in those things.

At noon the potluck rolled out as usual.  Plates were loaded with casseroles and comfort food and seven sorts of so-called “salad”. Holly was relieved to find Jim and Amy engaged in other conversations.  She glanced over at the jar.  It’s a fine little game, but they take it way too seriously.

And then at last the moment came to reveal the final count.

Holly won.