God's Green Earth

We were gathered in the conference room, waiting the arrival of a client who was already forty minutes late. It was a no-lose situation: the firm was billing the client $285/hour each for the four of us. Memorial Day was two weeks away and a serious case of spring fever had taken hold of our office. Gordon Williams and I leaned back on the brass studded chairs, kicked our heels up on the mahogany table and listened to Sharyn, the nineteen year old clerical we shared, tell us how she planned to spend a long weekend at Dewey Beach. She had no degree to speak of--high school or college--but she favored a perfume that smelled vaguely like strawberries. We admired her penmanship and the fact that she didn't take advantage of the firm's generous sick leave policy.

"I'm going to be re-doing the flower beds," Clara Martin said. Until she took to wearing lilac pantsuits and blouses that buttoned all the way to her slender neck in the last few years, I periodically entertained the notion that we might slip into an affair. We joined the firm in the same month twenty-one years ago. Our boys were in the same cub scout troop and there was always a seat for me at her husband's Thursday night poker game; it would have been so easy to arrange some excuse or another to spend extra time with her. "I'll be knee-deep in mulch and primrose seedlings."

"So what kind of sunscreen do you use?" Gordo asked.

Clara flicked her hand into the air. "I'm afraid I'm not very good at remembering to use the stuff."

"I wasn't asking you," Gordo said, loosening the knot of his necktie. He blushed. "I meant Sharyn."

Clara's eyes narrowed. The rosewood pen that had been in her hand fell to the table, making a sound louder than seemed possible. "Oh."

Gordo was starting to gray around the temples and it suddenly occurred to me that, with his gold Rolex and the healthy tan from his recent Acapulco vacation, he was settling into middle age gracefully. Though a few years older than me, we probably grew up watching the same smart-ass Chevy Chase movies, reciting lines from Caddyshack while, giggling, passing doobies with day school buddies behind country club swimming pools after-hours. Now we played squash two mornings a week, whapping rubber balls against the court walls, and complained about the cost of renovating summer homes on the Chesapeake and the price of a good bottle of Brunello.

Sharyn launched into a measured consideration about the relative merits of coconut oil v. palm oil. I hadn't been aware of the difference but there were apparently a number of factors to consider. Her tongue ran over the length of her upper lip, moistening it. Here was a young woman spinning stories about which lotions chafed most under bikini straps. Gordo and I peppered her with questions.

"You have to rub the lotions all over yourself," she said in a hushed voice as if imparting secret wisdom. She let out a girlish giggle, causing a slight jiggle of her breasts. "Even in the places that'll be covered by your bathing suit."

Clara cleared her throat. It might have been the fourth time she had done so since Sharyn started talking about sunscreens. "Shouldn't we be taking about the Palmetto case?"

Gordo raised his arm to look at his wristwatch. "Hell, they're an hour late already. They probably aren't going to show."

After some moments, Sharyn mentioned that she really had to lose some weight. She pinched at the waist of her morning-glory blue sheath dress that she seemed to wear every third day. She shook her head. "Maybe ten pounds. Quick."

"You look fine. You look perfect." Gordon stood and spoke with a vehemence that turned his cheeks pink. "You have nothing to worry about."

"That's so sweet of you," Sharyn said, reaching over to give Gordo a little pat on the arm. "But unless I look just right, guys on the beach won't look twice at me."

Gordo walked around the table and put his hand on her shoulder. "There isn't a man on god's green earth that wouldn't give you a second look."

Sharyn stiffened.

Clara cleared her throat again. "Gentlemen, the Palmetto case?"

"Why do you want to attract the type of man who would only be interested in your looks?" I asked. The glint in Gordo's eyes had me worried. From where he stood, he was probably already looking down Sharyn's dress. If I didn't keep talking and trying to re-direct his attention, our firm might soon be staring at a sexual harassment case. "One needs to think that others aren't looking just skin-deep at you. You're subconsciously sabotaging future relationships by not trusting your potential suitors' motives. And you need to establish that trust in order not to distill each relationship to its crudest instincts."

Gordo slipped back into his chair. He opened a manila folder.

The initial consternation that fell across Clara's brow lifted. I must have held the floor for five minutes and, for much of the time, Clara rested her chin on an outstretched palm and looked at me with something approaching adoration. Crows' feet had etched their way at the corner of her eyes. She was no longer the happy-go-lucky woman apt to show up at our house with her husband and a good bottle of Chianti whenever we convinced a jury to return a "not guilty" verdict for one of our clients. There was a night when we gently rocked on the sun porch swing while our spouses finished out a game of Monopoly in the living room. Her earrings, a pair of golden crescents, brushed against the side of her neck. Our knees were touching. Her face seemed to glow in the moonlight. For some reason, I remember the scent of gardenias--whether from cut flowers or a perfume that she dabbed earlier at her pulse points. We must have sat like that, not talking, for the longest time.

"That was beautiful," Clara said.

Gordon lifted his head out of the folder and grunted.

It was one of those rare moments when I was overcome with my own argument. It appalled me to think that Sharyn felt the need to lose weight to attract men. Gordo was right: there wasn't a man on god's green earth who wouldn't want to be with her.

About the author:

Nicholas J. Kocz's short stories have appeared in The Portland Review and Red Rock Review. He will be enterering Viriginia Tech's MFA program this fall.