He always thought the smell of fresh cut grass was something sad; as if loss and hope were not feelings, but corporeal things that you could touch. His aversion came from the fact that he grew up walled-in by a world of concrete and steel, with nary a shade of green to be found. It was also the incongruity of life in the inner-city that suggested to him that the smell of grass on a 150-year old country club was an altogether different beast. To him, it had no life or joy. It was a perfect creature sprawling for acres on end, ringed by wildness on all sides but never truly existing. It was just… there.
He felt much the same way – just there – on that summery morning, stuffing 100 goodie bags for the golfers’ about to enter his nonprofit’s latest fundraising event. It was a task that should have been completed days earlier by volunteers, but his boss – who was nowhere to be found with the shotgun start just minutes away – didn’t procure the various accoutrement until the day before, leaving him with a late night marathon of pick-ups. He had gotten used to the last minute heroics, and of course, her histrionics, and assumed that she would swoop in – as she usually did — just as the manual labor was being completed, wearing a dress too short and perfume much too strong for someone her age. He reasoned that he didn’t need her for this task anyway, just as he didn’t need her to secure the sponsors, or the raffle items, or the journal ads. He also reasoned that no one would care about her lack of attentiveness, as his nonprofit, long suffering under ineffectual leadership and board governance, was just weeks away from announcing their merger with a much larger, and much more efficient organization. But mostly, he reasoned that because of that merger, he wouldn’t have a job much longer anyway.
That’s why he started interviewing as soon as he heard the rumors. And that’s why he was just… there.
True to form, his boss Helen arrived with minutes to spare in a whirlwind of Chanel No. 5. She made quick work of saying hello to the gathered VIPs before the air horn signaled the start of the outing. With the diaspora of golf carts underway, she walked towards the flotsam and jetsam of goodie bags and gifts, and offered, “You got this, right?” And just like that, she was gone again.
The checklist ran through his head. He knew he had five hours until lunch. Clean up registration. Unload prizes from the truck. Load up registration leftovers into the truck. Set up the Raffle display. Oversee the set-up for lunch. Oh, and find Sal, the event chair, who no doubt was teeing off on the first hole with his foursome at that very moment. He didn’t need Helen for any of it.
Sal owned several companies including a carting business and a construction firm, but the appellation he used to describe himself most frequently was Board of Trustee at the local community bank. His outward affinity for the role, and the enthusiasm with which he shared it with new friends, suggested a furtive overcompensation for a myriad of past sins. But no one dared pry because Sal brokered no questions and suffered no fools. He was a singular force of nature and the momentum behind the golf outing. With the exception of a handful of long-time donors, every foursome and every sponsor were Sal’s business contacts, and all of them enthusiastically signed up at the mere mention of his name on the phone.
As the hours ticked by, he removed each and every item from his to-do list, with nary a sign of his boss. Just as he tweaked the placement of the last table with the help of the club’s staff, the first golfer came in from the course. He was followed, within minutes, by Sal, who came right over and asked for the raffle tickets.
Sal argued, weeks earlier, that since most of the golfers were his friends, who better than him to walk around the room and sell raffle tickets and ultimately announce who the winners were when he gave his welcome speech to the gathered guests. Helen agreed without hesitation because any other alternative meant work for her. So she instructed him to find Sal before the lunch started and hand off the raffle tickets, as well as the starter cash necessary to give change and a small tote to carry everything in.
As the rest of the golfers gathered in the banquet room, Sal snaked his way through the crowd like an evangelist offering absolution. He was a sight to behold. There was no frivolity. No ebullience. Just the task… Walk up to friend, ask for money, pocket cash, give raffle ticket, walk up to next friend. Within half an hour, and timed perfectly with the opening of the buffet, Sal had completed his task and walked up to him and handed over the tote of cash. “There’s close to Twenty thousand in there… not a bad haul… we did good kid.” Indeed. With the foursomes and sponsorships, this easily put them over the $100,000 mark for the event… something the outing had never achieved before.
He saw Helen, martini in hand, swoop into the room and was about to signal her to come over to share in the success when Sal said, “Count out ten thousand will ya.” Confused, but complicit, he started to count the bills as Sal reached into his back pocket and produced a check and a pen. When he finished the tally, Sal handed him the check, neatly made out to his nonprofit in the amount of $10,000, and said, “Now give me the ten grand.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“You heard me. Give me the cash. You’re making change for me. What’s the problem?”
“None. I, uh, just didn’t hear what you said. Here you go, Sal.”
“Good. Now kid. Remember to send me a receipt for the check I just gave you. Oh, and just so you know, I’m gonna’ announce my friend Jimmy as the winner of the Corvette for a weekend. It don’t matter whose name you pull out of the raffle bowl and hand to me. Got it?” And with that, Sal turned and walked away. But his exodus was short-lived, as he quickly spun around and said with a gaze meant to imply so much more than just the words about to be echoed, “Oh, and don’t tell anyone about this.”
The words just hung there, like a career criminal on the gallows pole… an image that suddenly, and violently came to his mind.
When Sal was out of easy view, he motioned for Helen to come over and with a fearlessness that only comes from not caring, explained everything that just happened.
“Okay,” Helen said.
“That’s it? Okay? How can you say that? We have to do something about it?”
“I am. I’m going to send him a receipt for his check, and look the other way when he announces the raffle winners.”
“Helen, what? You can’t…”
“Sal has single-handedly raised more than $100,000 for our charity. I don’t care what he does with a raffle prize or with his taxes. And you shouldn’t either. Understand me?”
And with that order, she flitted back to the room, to refresh her martini and say hello to anyone she missed earlier.
Rebuked thoroughly, and with his job completed for the moment, he stepped outside to look at the Country Club grass once more. His perspective changed. It was no longer just there. It suddenly came alive for him. It wasn’t ringed by wilderness, but actively working against it. And its perfection belied its constant efforts, both furtive and overt, to keep it in check… to keep it firmly ensconced in its place.
He took a few steps further down the patio and away from the banquet room and the “no cell phone” signs that were posted everywhere, and found an alcove of sorts out of sight of the guests. He reached for his phone and played the voicemail message he received early in the day from the headhunter… And he was relieved that he no longer had to be… there.