Fall 2021, Volume 31

Fiction by Daniel Webre

The Yellow Lemon

As soon as Clem walked inside the men’s room at the coffee shop, let the door close behind him, he knew he’d made a mistake.  He’d been so happy that the door had been unlocked and everything appeared clean, that it took a moment to register the sharp, antiseptic smell that was already upon him.  He knew that smell.  It brought back Christmas as a kid when he had no facial hair, but his uncles gave him shaving kits loaded with dime-store cologne anyway.

Whoever was in here before him had fogged up the place.  He couldn’t decide if it had been a misguided act of modesty—an attempt to cover one’s trail, so to speak—or a gesture of extreme vanity—this was the trail.  For Clem, it didn’t really matter.  It was too late.  Even though he left without tending to business, his clothes had already absorbed the odor.  Why couldn’t he have waited to use the bathroom until he got to work?  Would it have hurt him just this once to drink the swill in the break room that passed for coffee?

Clem couldn’t believe his bad luck.  Today of all days.  He could picture the tiny droplets of aerosol adhering to the fibers of his sport coat.  Although he could remove the coat, he was stuck wearing the shirt and slacks the rest of the day.  And today he was meeting Natalie at lunchtime.

Even if he left now, he’d never make it home and back in time to change before his date.  He wasn’t sure if it even was a date, officially, but he enjoyed thinking of it that way, much more so than an appointment.  He’d been working up the nerve to ask her out since she’d started at the lab two months ago, and now they were going to The Yellow Lemon together.  Natalie and Clem had been on cordial but professional terms.  And now that she seemed to be warming up to him finally, he smelled like a cheap barber shop.  Maybe the restaurant would be so fragrant with cooking smells that she wouldn’t even notice him.

Natalie… Ah, Natalie….  Ever since she’d said yes, he’d found it difficult to concentrate.  Natalie was from California.  Natalie was blond.  What else did he know about Natalie?  She was pretty, that’s what.  Yes, that much was undeniable.  The trouble was, the other single men at the lab—and even some of the married ones—had noticed this, too.  But those other guys were scoundrels.  Clem hoped she’d figure that out for herself before it was too late.

Even with his office door open, Clem felt nauseous sitting at his desk.  He had reports to validate before lunch.  Still, he couldn’t help obsessing over that odor.  It was almost like hair spray, but not quite.  Like hair spray… released into an ocean breeze… hovering over a patch of weeds in flower.  Or something like that.  It certainly didn’t smell like some precious thing you’d buy at a department store.  No lady in a white cosmetics-counter coat ever dabbed this scent on a man’s wrist.  It was more like shellac.  He could picture it escaping from an aerosol can like Lysol or insect repellent.  He wondered if Natalie might like to go hiking sometime.

He tried reading another line of the report on his desk.

Any man toting a can of that stuff around would have to carry it in a briefcase or a gym bag or maybe even a guitar case for no one else to notice.  Clem took another involuntary sniff.  The guy who doused himself with this scent every morning would no doubt let it do all of his talking for him.  Now, through some unkind twist of fate, he was that guy.  And that guy would be going on his date.  This cologne would be doing all of his talking for him… to Natalie.

Rudolph came into his office holding a clipboard and some kind of brochure printed on glossy paper.  “Hi, Clem.  Jasmine’s selling Girl Scout cookies again.  Can I put you down for a box or two?”

Clem waited to see what else Rudolph might say.  Rudolph worked in Project Management.  His office was right across the hall.  He was probably the hairiest person Clem had ever known, and even wearing a long-sleeved button-down Oxford, the tufts of hair on his hands were showing.  “Sure, Rudolph.  I’ll take some Samoas.  Give me two of them.  Wait.  Let me take a look at that brochure.”

Clem started feeling relieved when Rudolph stepped closer with the order forms and still hadn’t commented about the smell.  They were on good enough terms that he surely would have felt comfortable saying something.  Clem pretended to study the available flavors and let Rudolph deliver a pitch about a couple of new ones.

“These have reduced fat.  They’re pretty good from what I hear.”

Clem listened for a while, until he felt sure Rudolph couldn’t smell anything.  “Hmm…,” he said.  “Samoas are good.  Give me two boxes of those.”

Rudolph wrote some notations on the paper fastened to the clipboard.  “I’ll let you know when they come in.”  Before he’d made it halfway to the door, he stopped abruptly, turning partway toward Clem.  His face contorted and his eyes were suddenly straining, the skin around his nostrils contracted then began to flare into a sneeze.

“Bless you.”

“Thank you.”

Clem wondered if the cologne had found its mark, but asked sheepishly instead, “You’re not getting sick, are you?”

“No, no… I’m on the mend.  The kids brought home some kind of head cold.  Rita and I had it pretty bad.”  He straightened the stack of things he was carrying and smiled.  “Thanks for asking.  Jasmine thanks you, too.”  He held up the clipboard like a trophy.

“No problem,” Clem said.  “I like Samoas.”


Clem realized his brush with Rudolph had been inconclusive at best.  He was recovering from a head cold, after all, and couldn’t smell a thing.  But that didn’t mean the cologne hadn’t irritated his nasal passages when he’d gotten close.  Clem himself had become desensitized to the smell.  He only hoped there had been enough time for him to air out.  It was almost twelve—the time he’d told Natalie he’d meet her.  He was thinking about Natalie again when he realized Janie was standing in his doorway.

“Deep in thought, I see.”

“Oh, you know.  Reports.”

“Oh, I know.”

Janie looked up at the ceiling, feigning exasperation.  Sometimes when she showed up like this, Clem knew she was wondering when he’d finish validating, so she could get the report and package it to send to a priority client.  But she seemed too relaxed for that today.

“A group of us is going to the Lemon for lunch.  You want to come with?”

“Oh, yeah?”  Clem did his best to smile politely, despite feeling faint.  “Let me see…”  He didn’t think anyone knew of his interest in Natalie, at least no one knew for certain, even if they did suspect.  “Who all’s going?” he said, trying to buy himself some time to think.

“Well, there’s Greg, and Kendra, and Ryan, and me!”

Clem’s teeth clenched.  Greg!  He was the worst.  He was always up at the front hounding Natalie.  It was a miracle Clem had ever even gotten a moment alone with her to ask her out on their date.  “Sounds like a good group,” Clem said.  He wondered if Natalie would be willing to eat somewhere else.

“So you’re coming?”

“Can’t today.”

“That’s too bad.  Why not?  You’ve got a date or something?”

Clem wondered if he’d gone pale.  “Why would you think that?”

Janie smiled.  “You’re wearing cologne.”  She winked at him.

Clem wanted to speak, but nothing came out when he opened his mouth.

Janie helped him.  “Some other time, then, okay?”

Clem nodded.  He watched Janie smile over her shoulder at him as she was leaving.  He put his head down on a column of numbers—results from tests the technicians had been running.  When he sat up again, his nose had left an oily print on the paper.  It was now ten till.

He should have asked Janie what time they were going.  He had assumed around noon, too, but with a group that size it might take a while for everyone to get to a stopping point and assemble in the parking lot.  If he got to the front desk right at twelve, maybe Natalie and he could slip out before the others.  Sure, Cara would see them leaving together when she came on to relieve her, but Cara was quite a bit older and discreet.  She didn’t feed on gossip the way everyone else did.  Once they were safely out of the building, he could persuade Natalie that The Yellow Lemon wasn’t such a good choice after all.  As for the smell, there didn’t seem to be much he could do about that.  At least Janie hadn’t said he reeked.  Maybe it had weakened since this morning.

Clem walked down the main hallway, relieved not to run into anyone else.  There was a heavy door that separated the “Employees Only” section of the lab, with its associated offices, from a small reception area.  He exited the doorway and approached the front desk, where Natalie looked happy to see him.  “Ready to go?” he said.

“Not quite,” she said.  “Janie said we’re meeting at twelve-fifteen.”


“She stopped by a little while ago, said they were all going to The Yellow Lemon.  That’s where you wanted to go, right?”

“Uh, yeah.”  Clem turned away from the desk and stooped to check the laces on his shoes.  He didn’t want her to see his disappointment.  When he straightened up again, he felt more relaxed.  This wasn’t going at all as he had planned; but he still was getting to have lunch with Natalie, wasn’t he?  And at least this way, he wouldn’t have to dodge the others.  He had never been good at that kind of thing.

Natalie’s nose twitched.  She might have sniffed something, but if she smelled anything peculiar, she wasn’t letting on.  He eased up and even thought she looked a little like a young Samantha from Bewitched just then.

Clem heard a sound behind the desk.  It was another door opening—the one that led from the hallway to where Natalie was sitting.  Greg was now standing beside her.

“Natalie!” Greg said, making his entrance official.

“Hi, Greg.”

Clem was relieved to see she looked uncomfortable with Greg in her space.

“Clementine, you joining us?”

Clem’s real name was Clement, but sometimes he got this from people, thinking they’d stumbled upon something original.  What he hated the most was when they started singing that song.  “Sure am,” Clem said.

Greg’s eyes narrowed.  “Smells like they must have just waxed the floors or something.”

“I don’t smell anything,” Clem said.

“Janie and the others are out back,” Greg said.  “Kendra’s driving, but I’m afraid we only thought five of us were going.  We’ll have to take two cars.”

“That’s okay, I can take my car,” Clem said.

“You don’t mind?”

“I’ll ride with Clem,” Natalie said.

The door behind the desk opened again and Cara was now standing next to Greg, waiting for Natalie to let her have the chair.

“Are you sure?” Greg said.  “We’ll miss you.”  He made a mock pouting gesture.

“You’ll be okay,” Natalie said.  “Where are you parked, Clem?”

“Over on the side.”


Clem’s car was nothing much, but he tried to keep it clean.  It didn’t even have an electronic key fob.  He had to walk over to the passenger side and open the door for Natalie.

“Oh, are we going to the prom?” she said.

Clem felt his cheeks flush, but he closed the door behind her, the way his mother had taught him.  She reached over to unlock his door before he could put the key in.

“I’m still getting used to you Southern gentlemen—with all of your manners and ma’ams, and fancy perfumes.”

Clem definitely felt embarrassed now, but Natalie had chosen to ride with him and now she was teasing him.  It was a lot better than being ignored.  “So, what’s it like in California?” he asked.

“It’s like heaven,” she said.

Clem didn’t want to ask the next question, but it seemed inevitable.  “Then why would you leave?”

“My boyfriend’s from here.  He talked me into it.  Sounded like a good idea at the time.”  She laughed, but it was detached laughter.  As if to say nothing really meant anything anyway.

Clem wanted to turn the car around.  “I didn’t realize you had a boyfriend.”

“Oh, yeah, we’ve been together five years.”

“But you just moved here, didn’t you?”

“Uh-huh.  He works in the oil fields.  We met there.  Then he got transferred here.”

Clem tried to let this soak in.  He could stare at things outside the window, and then there was the driving to attend to.  But it would still be another few minutes before they reached the Lemon.  He needed to conserve his words.

“And how about you?” she said.  “How long have you lived here?”

Clem was thinking how foolish he’d been to worry about that awful cologne, or any of it for that matter.  “All my life,” he said.

“And you like it?”

“It’s where I’m from.  There’s good and bad.  Like everywhere, I suppose.”  He was trying to feel more philosophical about their appointment.  After all, it was nice just having a pretty lady sitting beside him, regardless of the circumstances.  But it was hard getting past the disappointment.  

“Hmm.  Yeah.  I tell you, though,” Natalie continued.  “First chance he gets, I told Alan, it’s goodbye Momma…You Southern boys…I told him I’m taking him back to California.”


By the time they arrived, the others were already sitting inside the Lemon, at a table for six.  Clem could tell Janie was unhappy with him, but she was trying not to show it.  Kendra spoke first.  “Hello, you two.  Glad you could make it, Clem.  We thought you had other plans.”

Clem thought he could feel Janie looking at him.  He purposely avoided glancing in her direction.  “No, it worked out.”

Greg had left the seat beside his open for Natalie and patted it for her to sit down.  Clem thought he must not have known about Alan either, but then again, Greg wasn’t easily discouraged.  As for Ryan, he and Kendra sometimes dated.  Only Janie and Clem were unambiguously single and that was only because Greg flirted so much with everyone that it seemed like he was always dating five or six people at once.

“Watch out for Rudolph,” Kendra said.  “He’s selling cookies again.”

“But I like the cookies,” Ryan said.

“But he’s missing the point of the Girl Scouts,” Kendra said.  “Right, Janie?”

Janie nodded and sipped from her glass of red wine.

“I had to hustle every frickin’ box of those cookies myself,” Kendra continued.

Natalie laughed.  “I’m picturing Rudolph in a Girl Scout uniform.  Hair sticking out everywhere.”

“Eeeeww!” Kendra said, covering her face with her hands.

Janie almost spit out her wine, laughing, despite herself.

“He’s a good family man,” Ryan said.  “Leave him alone.”

Clem was barely listening.  He’d been right about the restaurant.  The smell of garlic was overpowering; his cloud of cologne must be nothing now, and neither he nor it was adding much to the conversation.  He was angry with himself for sulking.  He had no idea why a shift in how he’d perceived his relationship with this woman could have altered his mood so dramatically.  His earlier happiness, he realized, had been just as irrational and illusory as his current despair, and he hated that he could feel that way.

“You’re being quiet,” Natalie said.  Clem realized she was talking to him.

“Didn’t get much sleep last night.  Too many reports to read.  I’ll get over it.”

“So you had a change of plans, Clem?”  It was Janie speaking.  The wine was loosening her up.

“Sometimes you got to get out of the lab.”

“Oh, how I know that,” she said, raising her glass.

Greg was monopolizing Natalie, but Clem didn’t care anymore.  He wondered what he did care about.  He understood vaguely that he was being childish, pulling away from everyone, but he no longer cared about that anymore, either.

Their food took a lot longer than it should have, which was not unusual at all for The Yellow Lemon, and it seemed like it had been so long ago since that morning.


Natalie rode back to the lab in Clem’s car again.  This time she let him open the door for her without a word.

They were driving past a cluster of deteriorating apartment complexes when Clem turned down the street where the lab was.  This stretch was green and open.  There were baseball diamonds and undeveloped parcels of land most of the way between here and there.

“Lunch was good,” Natalie said.  “Is that place one of your favorites?”

“I like it,” Clem said.  “It’s a place I like taking people.”

“Thanks for telling me about it.”

“No problem.  I guess it wasn’t such an original idea, after all.”

“Every idea doesn’t have to be original.  I mean, as long as it’s a good one.”  Natalie laughed.

She laughed a lot, and Clem was growing accustomed to its sound.  He felt as though she were teasing him again, and this lightened his mood.  He was better now that he’d had a chance to adjust to the realities of the situation, and it really was nice simply being in her company.  Now that they were pulling up to the lab, he felt slightly sad but happy also.  He didn’t know why he felt the ways that he did, only that he felt them.  Then they were inside and Cara was scowling because they had taken such a long lunch.

The reports were still waiting right where he’d left them on his desk.  The one he’d been working on had turned back pages while he was gone, so he had to flip his way forward again until he found the chart with the nose print.  He’d started focusing again and was making real headway when he noticed Rudolph watching him from the doorway.  This time he had a box of Kleenex in his hand.

“Hey, Clem, I know I already hit you up for cookies today, but Rita was telling me on the phone just now that Brian’s got a fundraiser too.  You like chocolate?”  He blew his nose into one of the tissues.

Clem could tell Rudolph knew he was pushing it, but he didn’t want his friend to feel any worse than he already did.  “Sure, Rudolph.  Is that The World’s Finest?”

Rudolph perked up.  “Why yes.  You know about it then?”

“Of course, I do.  Doesn’t everybody?”

“How many bars do you want?”

“Let’s see.  I guess I bought two boxes of cookies from Jasmine.  Figure up how much chocolate I can get for that same amount of money.”

“You’re the best, Clem.”

Clem was happy to see Rudolph feeling better again, but he could tell he was going to have to watch his weight until Rudolph’s kids were out of school.


The next time he felt someone watching, it was Janie.

“I’ve come on business,” she said.

“Oh, yeah?”

“That’s right.  We’ve got reports to send out.  But they all seem to be sitting on your desk.”

“Is that a fact?”  This was their usual routine.  “And your point is?”

“You need to be doing your job.”

This took Clem aback.  Usually Janie was playful when they bantered.  She seemed different this time, like she wasn’t joking.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Whatever you think it should mean.  The bottom line is, you’re going much too slow.”

Janie wasn’t his boss by any means, but it still disturbed him that she was talking like this.  He didn’t think she’d drunk enough wine for that to be a legitimate reason.  “All I can tell you is you’ll get them when you get them,” he said.  “You will get them when they’re done.”

“You stink, Clem.  You know that?”

Her voice faltered in a way he hadn’t heard from her before.

“And that stuff you’re wearing smells awful, too.  Why don’t you go home and take a bath.”

She was almost shouting at him now in an effort to keep her voice from breaking, and he thought her eyes might have been tearing up as she said this; but he couldn’t tell, exactly, what was happening before she left the room.  He had no idea what to make of any of this.  He’d never seen this side of Janie.  She seemed to be talking about more than just reports.  And he wondered if his interest in Natalie, his behavior at lunchtime had upset her more than he could have imagined.  They were more than just coworkers, after all, but he had never believed Janie could see him as something other than a friend. 

He got up and followed her into the hallway, but she’d already disappeared into the women’s restroom.  Greg startled him, walking up behind him, singing in exaggerated dialect:  “Oh, my darlin’…  Oh, my darlin’… Oh, my daaar-lin’, Clementine…”  Clem could see the smirk on his face as he passed.

He wasn’t sure if he should knock on the door or get Kendra or someone else to go in and check on her or what.  It was another one of those moments in his life that no one had prepared him for.  He knew how to open doors, but never the one leading to the women’s restroom.

He decided to knock, and then he knocked again louder, and soon he was growing alarmed when she didn’t respond.  He was standing in the hallway calling out to her.  “Janie!  It’s Clem,” he said.  And then, before he understood what he was doing, he said, “Janie, I’m coming in.”




BIO: Daniel Webre lives in Louisiana where he teaches first-year writing and literature. His short fiction has appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Xavier Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.