What You Ask For (2006; 3,835 words)fall7a.jpg
   I watch as Cici pulls her yellow Miata into the funeral home parking spot next to mine, turns off the engine and puts her sunglasses into her purse. I stay in my sky-blue Ranger pickup with mismatched wheels and a body-length gouge on the driver’s side. She checks her face in her car mirror, doesn’t see me, but I see her. She pushes a button and the top begins to come forward, stopping in that place where the driver has to get out and finish strapping it down. Cici, Queen of Sales, stays inside, but I see that she’s laid her arms across the top of the steering wheel and put her head down. She’s crying. I wish she weren’t.
    Her head barely comes above the steering wheel but she has one cool body in a small package, a package I see every day when she passes my space at work. Because she doesn’t often slow down to ask me how the software development is coming, I’ve had to be quick to check her out. Cici is usually too busy planning her next sales pitch to ask me, like the other skirt women do, why I have five monitors––three Dells and two Macs, by the way. “Woman in skirt equals woman in sales,” is what they say on my acre of the cubicle farm. But she did stop one time, last year before I got in shape, and she was nothing but terrific, even if I was a slob sitting there while she talked. She was all excited about her promotion but she talked just to me, didn’t lean on my wall and show off so everyone could hear. She looked in my eyes. It was private. I wish I could look into her eyes now because she’s crying.
    Suddenly, she wipes her face and gets out.
    “Is that Arthur?” Cici says, looking across her roof at me. “Could you help me with my top?” I sit like a dumbass and stare at her like I’m twelve. Help you with your top? You have a very nice top, and bottom, too, for that matter. Shut up, she’ll hear you.
    “What should I do?” I say finally, opening the door and stepping out. I reach under my suit jacket and check the back of my shirt to make sure it’s in my pants. Though I’m wearing a new suit and my butt is covered, I can still hear my mom’s voice. “Tuck in that damned shirt!” Now that I’ve gotten back to a thirty-four waist, un-tucking isn’t as likely, but checking my shirttail on Mom’s behalf is the least I can do.
     “My car top?” she says. “I can do it myself, but––say, did you get a haircut? I mean by someone new or something? It looks really good. Maybe some highlights or something?” She pushes down on the top and I do the same on my side. Maybe she’s been checking me out.
    “No,” I say. “Same old barber. I can’t make myself pay a guy a hundred bucks to cut my hair. You just validated my logic.”
    That was pretty good. I only sound dumb in my own head.
    “Wow,” said Cici. “The sun must make your hair lighter.”
    “Yeah. I got a new suit for today, though. Had to.”
    “Looks nice,” she says. We close the doors and she clicks the remote key.
    I say, “Maybe I shouldn’t say so, but I thought you were crying a while ago. Were you?”
    She doesn’t look angry but she doesn’t look at me. “It’s a funeral. I’m supposed to cry.” She takes out her sunglasses again. I think she might be preparing to let out more tears. “Mr. C was a good guy who helped me get where I am, and I’ll miss him.” She sounds plain and warm to me. We walk across the asphalt, passing the deep purple hearse and two black limousines parked at the side of Filcher Brothers, Funeral Directors.
    “Were you good friends with Mr. C and his wife or something?” I say, even though I think I know the answer already.
    “I tried to be, I suppose, but the wife had no use for me. C treated me like his kid. The wife didn’t buy it. She told him she caught him looking at my backside.”
    Backside? I almost said don’t worry; we thought you were doing it with the old man, but we thought that’s fine. Cool even. And if I had been boss I’d have been doing you. I would have asked nicely, though. If we could have gone out for coffee a couple of times, then I would have waited till we were ready, till you had a chance to get to know me like I want to be, without the scratch on my truck but with my pants tucked in. Nice haircut, too.
    “Mr. C was always fair to us guys in development,” I say. “He thought we were geeks, geniuses, pains in the ass or revolutionaries, but he was good to us.”
    “You got it. That’s what he thought,” she says and stops walking. “I don’t want to go in there. I don’t think I can actually go in there––where he is.”
    “It’s not really him, of course,” I say. “He’s gone.”
    I know what she means. I don’t want to go in there to see the guy dead. Such an embarrassing way for a decent man to die. Another corporate retreat for “team-building,” and this time the whole thing is in a college basketball arena. Obstacle courses, paintball, wall climbing and phony campfires so you sit around and play “Customer Service Truth or Dare.” Mr. C, Calvin Castellano on his driver’s license, falls from the climbing wall onto a cushion designed to prevent serious bruises. It worked, sort of. The only little bruise C has is on the back of his neck where the EMTs could see that piece of ruptured spine sticking out.
    For Cici, I flip through my brain file for words of reassurance I learned from my mom, words that help you lean over the coffin, then look up to count the number of flower arrangements. Then you tell happy, made-up stories about a guy who dies at only fifty-two by falling off an artificial cliff. What did Mom used to say? Her old sayings are coming to my mind, one after another, but they’re the wrong ones. Be careful what you ask for, you may get it. Better one true friend than a hundred relatives. Dead men tell no tales. Dead men don’t bite.
    “ He has slipped this mortal coil,” I say finally. “He’s in a better place.”
    “I don’t know. Those eight bedrooms and a pool on the seventh fairway were pretty damn cool.”
     “Good point,” I say, staying on the topic. “But I think it does a person good to say goodbye.”
    “I can do that from out here. I’ll wave at the hearse.” Cici steps out of the shade and looks across the parking lot. “I don’t see Stephanie’s car,” she says. “She said she was coming early to be with me. I don’t want to be here. I just want to run for it.” She pulls off her sunglasses again. “But I guess I’m stuck.”
    I say, “It’s funny you’re Cici and he was ‘C’.”
    “Yeah. We used to say it was like talking to yourself. It was like talking to myself because he knew me so well. The only unselfish man I ever met. No offense.”
    “Of course not,” I say. “I respect unselfishness.”
    She walks a few steps toward the building and scans the entrance. “I still don’t see Stephanie.”
    From these few feet away, I get to appreciate how she’s made and not think about how she’s feeling. Cici’s legs are just right. This gray tailored suit coat accents her curves, and the maroon silk blouse, buttoned to the second button at her neck, pulls my eyes past a pearl necklace, on up her smooth, thin neck, up to her tanned face with simple, perfect makeup around almond-shaped eyes with dark brown irises. Black hair, no highlight or phony blonde. Mediterranean presence and a little body with bumps in all the right places. A foot shorter than me. I bet she weighs a hundred pounds.
    Several cars pull into the lot, each right behind the other, carrying some people I like, some that I don’t. Here comes Phil. I get a kick out of Phil in maintenance because he doesn’t give a damn. His suit is stretched to the max across that beat-up linebacker body. Go, Phil. He’s a riot. And Janice from the front desk who doesn’t like me and complains with her eyes even when I ask her to order some toner. She’s useless, and those legs are bowed.
    “Oh, God,” says Cici. “I can’t believe he came.”
    “Who?” I say, trying to look where she’s looking but finding only dozens of similar body types in different kinds of suits, shades of gray, charcoal and black. Then I see the guy.
    “Rasmussen?” I say to her.
    Cici turns her back to the approaching man. “He hated C and C hated him back, for good reason. Rasmussen would have made life hell for me and for you software guys. We’re lucky C squeezed him out.”
    “Oh, yeah. I never cared for him either.”
    “Well, that does it,” she says. “Stephanie’s absent and the only person in the world I still hate is here. I’m definitely going to lean on you this afternoon, Arthur.”
    Momentary euphoria. “Call me Art,” I say and put out my arm, even though nobody calls me Art, not in my whole life. My mother said it was a sissy name and raised her son to believe the same. But this invitation to be CiCi’s funeral escort calls for bringing in a new man. Someone she’s never met, someone other than Arthur-who-used-to-be-fat.
    She smiles and puts her arm into mine. “Okay, Art. Let’s see what the hell is going on in there. If I faint, pick me up.” She pulls me along, past the fountain of the woman pouring water from a pot on her shoulder, across the red-carpeted lobby with massive oil portraits of the founding Filcher Brothers and their chubby sons who now own the funeral home, past the door of a tiny chapel with only ten people sitting in the back three rows while a little white-haired woman says too loudly into a microphone, “You all knew her better than I did. But Jesus knows best.” Whatever that means. When we walk into the biggest room in the building––holds maybe three hundred––Cici pulls me to the left, into the fifth row from the rear. True to her word, she goes nowhere near the coffin, which is open––front and center––surrounded by sixty nice flower arrangements. Nice except for a giant, pink rose horseshoe with a banner shouting “Filcher Brothers.” If I don’t catch peoples’ eyes, Cici won’t think I’m showing her off. Then I look up and, oh, jeez, here comes Phil and he’s going to make me laugh.
    Phil slides down to the center of the pew where we are, then stops when he sees who’s next to me. “Sorry, pal. I’ll leave you alone.” Then he winks and slides back out. Thank God for that. He has more class than anybody and he’s a glorified janitor. Then here comes Janice, out of breath, puffing air while she squeezes herself between pews and plops her ass six inches from mine. By the time she and I  nod to each other, the pews are packed and the rear exits blocked by even more people. Janice talks softly to everyone and no one, but I don’t listen. I look to my left, down at Cici’s right hand, a hand with no jewelry, gripping tightly the rounded front of the pew seat below the red velvet cushion. I look up to sneak a glimpse at the side of her face, then turn forward again.
    I like a real nose. That little downward curve at the end of a good schnoz. That’s a real nose for a real woman, something to nuzzle you with. Bet she has a lusty sneeze to go with it. She’s only five years older than I am. She releases her grip on the wood and puts her right hand onto my left. She doesn’t move it. I feel her tremble, and I look down to see her crossed leg pumping like crazy. At first the words spoken from the podium don’t make it into my brain, and the sounds of the music and waves of sniffling don’t register either. I don’t try to identify the backs of heads between me and dead Mr. C. I look up for a while, then back down to the hand on mine, a hand that wiggles less as the service goes along. These slender fingers with only the beginnings of lines at the knuckles. Never washed diapers or scrubbed linoleum, no gardening and very little kitchen work, either. She’ll love my lasagna. Family recipe. I haven’t had any since I lost weight but we’ll celebrate, eat outside by the pool because my home décor is also a family recipe, handed down from relatives, laid out by my mother. Mom, get out of here. I’m about to put my hand on hers. Cici moves her right hand to her lap, clasps it with her left and rests them there. I keep my eyes on them. A woman begins to sing at the front of the chapel, out of sight, her high voice squeaking through the intercom speakers scattered over the sparkled plaster ceiling.
    I know that song about wind and wings.
    Cici puts her hand on mine again, right back on the same place, the place easy to find because I haven’t moved a muscle, hoping she might come back to my lap. That her hand might come back to my lap. Then everyone stands up, so we have to. A sudden benediction, the casket wheels by and all of us are filing out much quicker than we came in. Arm in arm, we make our way to the parking lot without having to speak. If someone tries to get Cici’s attention, she ignores them. She pulls me along faster and we pass the hearse and dodge the cars lining up for a spot in Mr. C’s funeral procession.
    “Take me for coffee,” she says, and takes her arm from mine as she stops beside the passenger door of my truck, the side without the scratch. I unlock and open the door, and the heat from inside tumbles out around us. She gets in anyway and closes the door herself. I get in on my side and start the engine, turn up the A/C fan as far as it’ll go and the hot air swirls for some minutes while we wait to leave the parking lot, stuck behind the Japanese and German-made cars full of mourners now cheering up, taking off the jackets of their gray and black suits. The air in my truck cab begins to cool.
    “I wanted to stand up in there and tell those people the kind of man he really is. I mean was, and what he did for people––for me. I wouldn’t have had to say that I loved him or that he loved me. He loved me, though. Really. It wasn’t a sex thing. I let you guys think that it was a real affair because––I don’t know why. Maybe because people might think he would choose me. But I was just in love and hoping his wife would leave, or die or something. Not very smart for a smart woman, huh?” She looks out the window but shows no movement toward crying again.
    I believe her. I liked him, too. I can see how it all happened, so I say, “I liked him, too. I understand. I believe you.”
    Coffee. I pull into Dunkin’ Donuts.
     “I’d rather have a drink,” she says.
    I laugh. “I know what you mean,” I say and pull into a diagonal space.
    “No. I mean really. Now,” she says. “It’s either that or I’ll start crying again, and I can’t cry anymore. I think I’m dehydrated form crying for a week.”
    Farther down the street I point to a Holiday Inn. “They have drinks,” I say and pull in. Cici leaves her purse on the seat and doesn’t wait for me to open her door. She walks around the front of the truck and grips my upper arm again, this time really leaning, using me for support. When we reach the lobby she keeps holding on, takes off her heels one at a time and clutches them to her side.
    “Bar opens in a half hour,” I say, indicating the sign beside a darkened lounge. “Want to sit there?” I point to a circle of soft furniture in a sunken area of the lobby that looks through windows onto a scrubby garden of cactus and palmetto.
    “Get me a room,” says Cici. “I mean, get us a room. I’ll pay for everything if you’ll just rub my feet. I’ll sit here while you get my purse.” I follow her instructions and then she gives her Amex card to the clerk and signs us in. I stand with my hands in my pockets, looking into the afternoon glare beyond the fingerprint-smeared lobby doors.
    After unlocking the room with the plastic key and holding the door for the lady, I walk straight to the armoire, open it and turn on the TV just as Cici slams the bathroom door behind her. I look down at the clicker in my hand, then toss it onto the nearby desk. Don’t need remotes at a time like this, but I remember there’s music, so I turn on the TV and pick a music channel: “The 80s.”
    Police. Every Breath You Take.
    I walk to the vanity beside the bathroom, stand still, and listen for any sign that she needs me. Can’t go in, though. Every move you make.
    “Art!” The toilet flushes.
    I jump away from the door and pretend I just arrived as I walk back, though there’s no one there one to see my fake-out.
    She talks through the door with sweet entreaty. “May I have that foot massage now, Artie?”
    She comes out in her underwear and runs past me, jumping onto the still made-up king-size bed. Bra and panties. Holy smokes. She tosses first a bottle of hotel hand lotion, then a bath towel at me. “There’s another bottle if you need it. Get busy,” she purrs, now lying on her back, head on pillow, peddling her toes down and up like a kid in a tickling game. “Maybe you should make yourself comfortable, too.”
    Every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you.
    I take off my jacket and shoes.
    “Take off your shirt,” she says. “I feel like I’m naked around here.”
    I yank at my tie, turn my back to her, un-tuck, unbutton my white dress shirt and toss it on the armchair by the window.
    “Take off that undershirt, Artie. You look good.” Cici turns onto her side and supports her head on her hand, smiling, waiting.
    Some guys would be out of control by now, a hard-on and everything. I may be slightly inexperienced next to other guys my age, but I won’t let my body get excited without my permission. I turn around and look past her eyes while I expose my new muscle definition. I got in shape last year after my mother died, when I began forgetting to eat, took long walks, then went to the gym. I was changed inside and out, but till now I was the only one to know.
    Oh, can’t you see, you belong to me.
    “Now about that drink,” Cici sings, and picks up the phone. “Go ahead. You can work on my feet now, slave.” She doesn’t know me but she will. I’m going to be the best to her. She’ll remember this day and we’ll laugh over a glass of wine about how we hooked up, how it was all her idea, as far as she knew. Her tan lines are showing around the edges of those black lace things on her top and bottom. I’m thinking I’ll take care of her now if she’ll give me those toes.
    “Give me those toes,” I say, and squeeze lotion onto one hand, rub it around on the other and grab her left foot in a slippery grip.
    “We’ll take the Chardonnay. You have the room number, right?” Cici stretches and hangs up the phone. I begin to push my thumbs into the bottom of her foot. “That’s almost pain,” she moans. “But then it turns to ecstasy.”
    Just relax and float away. I’ve got you now. Oh can’t you see? You belong to me.
The music changes every few minutes, but that Police song I heard first stays in my head while I work my magic hands over her ankle, her sole, her toes––one by one.
    “Is it okay if I call you ‘C’?” she says, out of nowhere.
    That’s a little weird. I stop massaging and look up at the woman in her underwear whose foot, whose naked, needy foot is in my hands. She’s crying again.
    “Are you all right?” I say.
    “No, I’m not all right. Can I? Can I call you C? Just for today?”
    “That’s a little weird.”
    “Please?” she says, and the bed begins to bounce slightly under her sobs, quiet but wrenching sobs that make her hold her stomach then cover her face. I use the towel to blot lotion from my hands, then I crawl up to lie next to her. Her little frame is hard from the muscles clenching her gut, near her heart. I wrap her up in my arms and feel like I could reach around her twice. Then I gently release her, pull back the covers and help her crawl under. Cici rolls onto her side and pulls her knees up to her chest, tucking the covers to her chin.
    A knock on the door and the wine comes. I get up and take it, sign the check, close the door and pour two glasses. I stand looking at her for some minutes while I finish my wine and hers. She quits shaking, and now her puffy eyelids droop. Then I walk to the bed, crawl behind her––outside the covers––and reach around to hold her, stopping to stroke the side of her face. Her body softens, relaxes and rests in my arms.
    How my poor heart aches.
    I cry with her a little. Before we fall asleep I say it out loud, “How my poor heart aches.”