Button Men

by Tess Almendarez Lojacono
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“You got what you wanted. Now leave me a-lone.” I fired the words through clenched teeth, banged the phone into its cradle. It was a childish game, especially at the office. I smiled grimly. What I really needed was a button man.

It was all Catherine’s fault-happy hour at a Holiday Inn. She wheedled me into going. “Two for one and a free buffet! Shrimp, barbecued ribs–.”

I had no other plans. “Sure.”

“I mean it!” she insisted, “For five bucks you get like, two screwdrivers and dinner!” Catherine had just left her husband. She was used to eating regularly.

I had never been married. I shrugged. “I said OK.”

“Great! That what you’re wearing?”

I looked down at my best gray suit and fiddled with the top button. “I could always loosen–.”

“Never mind. We’ll go right after work.”

Catherine’s change in marital status had promoted lucky me from casual co-worker to new best friend. She was an Executive Assistant, always strutting around the office like she was the CEO instead of just his secretary. I was the Benefits Administrator, which technically placed me above the secretaries but since Catherine was prettier (sexier?), she was paper and I was definitely the rock. I didn’t care. I was smarter. Or at least, I thought I was.

The Holiday Inn bar had another name. It was something like Escapades or Adventure Grill or a name equally pathetic, but I figured there was no point pretending you were on a safari when all you were really hunting was a mate, so I never called it anything but the Holiday Inn bar. It was packed that night with the usual Johnny Quest types: men in toupee’s, fat successful women and skinny loser types, all vying for each other’s attention.

Catherine immediately disappeared so I squeezed up to the bar and ordered myself a drink. A man in a leisure suit was watching me from the corner, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, belly extended, like it was a prize. He kept running his hand through his hair. I lit a cigarette, tried not to laugh. After all, I was there too.

“You know, those things’ll kill you.” Chubbs was suddenly at my elbow; close enough for me to smell his expensive cologne and short enough for me to make sure that wasn’t a rug he was sporting.

“Well, something’s gonna, right?”

“Ha! Right.” He shook the ice in his glass and licked his lips. “You’re not that young, are you?”

“Now there’s a great line.”

“No, I mean you’ve got it over these idiots. What are you? Doctor? Lawyer?”

“No.” I looked at him over my glass. “You?”

He rocked back and forth on his heels. “I’m a teacher.”

Really?” I coughed. “My father was a teacher.”

“Ah! So, I remind you of your father.” He stroked his moustache.

“Hardly!”

“But you didn’t say what you do.”

I smiled sweetly. “Have you tried the food?”

“No and neither should you.”

“The shrimp looks good…”

“If that shrimp’s any good I’m Santa Claus! Let’s go out.”

“We are out Santa, and I don’t even know your name.”

“‘Santa’ works. C’mon.” He took my elbow and steered me toward the door.

“Hey, wait a minute. What if I’m here with somebody?”

“You were alone,” he glanced around the room, “Until I came along.”

I decided to leave the big game to the other hunters and see where Santa in the leisure suit would take me. “Let me just say goodbye to my girlfriend.”

“Catherine?” He gave her a little wave. “She won’t mind. You’re with me.”

I smelled a setup, but still I let Santa escort me through the parking lot to a bright yellow Cadillac. “Are you kidding me?”

He opened the door. It had that new car sound of an eggshell cracking open. “No. This is my car. What should I be driving?”

I poked my head inside. The interior was every bit as yellow as the exterior. “Oh, this. Definitely this!”

Santa whisked me downtown to a little brick building I’d never noticed before, sandwiched between two rival banks. When we entered the dark foyer, a youngish looking woman with a long black braid, glided over and threw her arms around his neck. “Oh Carlo! Where have you been hiding, darling? It’s been so long!”

He hugged her. With his arms still circling her waist, he said, “Now Sylvie, is Angela in the kitchen? I’m only staying if Angela’s cooking tonight.”

“And what’s wrong with Tony’s cooking?” Sylvie stamped her high-heeled foot.

“Your husband has hairy arms!” Carlo (Carlo?) finally removed his own.

“So does Angela!”

Carlo laughed. “True, true.”

“She’s back there,” Sylvia admitted. “Table for two?” She raised an eyebrow at me.

“Ah, yes. Corner table. And bring us two Dewar’s and waters.”

The lovely Sylvie swayed to a darkened corner. Men were eating at various tables, old, overweight, napkins tucked under their chins. Some looked at us, some leered. It reminded me of the clubs Somerset Maugham wrote about, chock full of uncles that looked just like yours, only with more secrets.

Carlo ushered me into our booth with a flourish. I had to clear my throat to keep from laughing. He pushed back his hair and slid in next to me. “Now, my dear,” he began, “Since you like shrimp, you should know that Angela makes an enormous shrimp stuffed with crab.” He kissed his fingers in appreciation. Our drinks arrived and he instructed the waiter to bring us an oyster appetizer, veal cutlets and the shrimp.

“Carlo, do you always order for your dates?”

“Dates? I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just figured you were hungry.” He tapped my hand lying on the table. His hand was chubby, the skin pale beneath coarse hair. “May I know your name?”

It had to be a test. Surely Catherine had already told him my name. Pulling a cigarette from my purse, I said without looking at him, “Bell.”

“Your real name?”

I laughed. “It’s Lily.”

“Lily,” he repeated. “It suits you.”

After dinner, I gave Carlo directions to my sister’s. He stopped the car across the street and I didn’t bother to point out the house. Instinct warned me not to.

He laid his arm across the back of the seat and switched off the car. “Lily, I have to see you again.”

“Really?” I was in a hurry now. That bright yellow caddie was going to be hard to explain if anyone saw me get out.

“I’ll give you a call, OK?”

“Sure. OK.” I flashed a smile. “Thanks for dinner.” I grabbed my Styrofoam container with most of the stuffed shrimp (turned out I wasn’t as hungry as he thought) and hopped out before he could lean in for a kiss. To my great relief my sister’s house remained dark. I waited till Carlo drove off, before turning around and walking home.

The next day he phoned me at work. Of course if Carlo knew Catherine, (how did he know Catherine?) he knew we worked together.

“How’s Mr. Lombardi?” Catherine asked me later, by the office coffee pot.

“Who?”

“You know-your new boyfriend? Carlo! You did know his last name was Lombardi, didn’t you?” Catherine lowered her voice. “He’s in the mafia. Did he tell you?”

“Ah, now I see.”

“See what?”

“Why you’d set me up with a fat old Italian! He’s got ties to bloodthirsty criminals! Any of course you knew that’s just what I’d-”

“No, no. He’s really nice,” she busied herself with the artificial sweetener, the fake cream. “And he really wanted to meet someone and I couldn’t date him so-”

So the lightbulb went on. “Oh, my God. He was your teacher, wasn’t he?”

Catherine just laughed.

Two days later, Carlo and I met after work at Froggy’s, a yuppie hangout where accountants and businessmen liked to get drunk. Carlo was already at the bar, sipping a scotch, smoking a cigar, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Every once in a while he’d give a little nod to someone in the crowd. “Oh, Lily. There you are,” he said, looking over my head.

“Hello Carlo. Something wrong? You seem distracted.”

“Not at all. Scotch?” I nodded, noticing he never asked me what I actually wanted, just whether or not I wanted what he was having. I took out a cigarette. As he lit it, he muttered, “These things are gonna kill you.”

“Speaking of killing,” I answered, with a pointed look at his cigar, “Catherine told me the craziest thing. Are you in the mafia or something?”

He started. “That’s not funny. And keep your voice down. You can’t just blurt out stuff like that.” Now he gave an exaggerated smile to someone across the room and said through his teeth, “Wanna get out of here?”

“I just got here!” I stubbed out my cigarette anyway. “Don’t you like Froggy’s? Let’s go upstairs to the rooftop bar.”

“Outside? What are you, nuts? Yeah, Froggy’s is great. C’mon.” He grabbed my hand and the softness of his made me cringe, but I went along.

Carlo spoke to someone as we passed through the door. “Jimmy, man, next month. I know.” He pressed some money into this Jimmy’s fist as we left.

“What was that all about?”

“Just get in the car.” I balked. “Please.” The giant yellow caddie was parked by the door. It hadn’t been there when I walked in, five minutes ago.

“Carlo, what’s going on?” We were driving on the parkway now, headed out of the city.

He pushed back his hair. “Look, Froggy’s isn’t a good place for me. Some places are good and some, not so good. The good ones are fun; the not so good ones aren’t. Understand?”

“No. You mean the mafia cares where you drink?”

“Honey, they care where I take a crap.”

“How can you live like that? It’s like you don’t have any privacy. Any freedom.”

“Well, there’s freedom and there’s freedom. You ever been to Hawaii?”

“No.”

“Bahamas?

“No.”

“Paris? Riviera?”

“Of course not.”

“Ever walk into a dealership and say, ‘Give me the big one, in canary yellow?’”

“I don’t drive.”

“Don’t be argumentative. You’re not so free either.”

We pulled up to Christopher’s on Mount Washington. Carlo’s regular haunts all seemed to be expensive-sugar-daddy expensive. “Besides, freedom’s just a word.”

“Really?” We were crossing the parking lot. I had to take Carlo’s arm to steady my heels on the gravel. “I bet there’re a lot of dead soldiers who would beg to differ.”

Carlo stopped, stared at me. “Yeah, I’m sure,” he chuckled, “But I’m not dead, get it? Let’s eat.”

We were shown to the best table, with the best view. Carlo ordered more drinks and I saw him looking hard at a man in a dark suit, standing by the kitchen door. “Know that guy?”

“Yes and no.” Carlo smiled at me. “Let’s just say I know what he does.”

“Oh? And what’s that? Busboy? Bouncer? Indian Chief?”

“No. He’s a button man.”

“A what?”

“Someone who can be counted on to pull the trigger. A button man.”

I gulped. Of course he was showing off, but suddenly everything looked different. The couple seated by the door could be thieves and the old ladies in the corner? Probably packed pistols in their handbags, clean and shiny so as not to soil their hankies and rolls of Tums. The young men at the bar who kept glancing at us over their drinks might just be wondering what I was doing out with my uncle, but you never know.

That night when we finished dinner, I let Carlo drive me all the way home. He stopped in front of my building, looked up at the sagging porch, the peeling paint and grinned.

“It’s a kind of freedom to me,” I declared. “I’m not rich, but I can come and go as I please. I don’t have to answer to anybody.”

He didn’t argue. I could hear him thinking, sure you do, but I let it go, like he did. “Give me your number.”

I hesitated.

“So I can call you here at the palace instead of at work. I’ll still call you at the office if you want me to,” he rushed on, teasing, making it seem like I was more into him than I really was.

“OK, OK.” I pulled a pen from my purse and grabbed his hand. “Here you go.” I finished tracing the last number across his chubby pal

He stared at his hand. “Now that’s sexy!”

We had three more dates and then Carlo took me to a house in Forest Hills. I laughed to myself-I must have passed muster-but I was curious so out loud, I went along.

“What’s this?” I asked as we pulled into the driveway. It was a square brick two-story, on a nice enough street; middle class, solid, with an above ground pool covered over in the back yard. There were bramble bushes and spindly trees all around giving it an unloved, unkempt air. “That reminds me, Carlo, you need a haircut.”

“Very funny. C’mon in. This is my palace.”

My hand automatically went to my nose as we entered the back door. It reeked of cigars and old newspapers. And it was cold. “You don’t spend a lot of time here, do you?”

“Not so much. Just sleeping, and I keep that to four or five hours a night,” he boasted. “Look around. You wanted to get to know me.”

How did he know that? Or was he thinking of someone else?

There were two photographs of a young girl on his mantel. One showed her in an evening gown and the other in a bathing suit. Nondescript, they could have come with the frames. “Hey, who’s this, a relative? Don’t tell me-your niece?”

Carlo was in the kitchen. He came in with two glasses of orange juice. “Sorry. This is all I have. That’s just Angie.”

“From the restaurant? She looks kind of young.”

“No.” He stroked his mustache. “Another Angie. This one’s my ex. Girlfriend. You know I’ve never been married either.”

Either? I nodded like I knew. This Angie wasn’t so nondescript anymore. “When did you two break up?”

“Oh, a while ago. She got pregnant and I wanted her to have the baby but she got an abortion and dumped me instead.”

“You mean you got her pregnant?”

“Don’t rub it in.” He looked thoughtful for a moment and then suddenly grabbed my hand. This time I remembered not to flinch. “C’mon. You haven’t seen the upstairs yet.”

It was bleak up there too. A room with an unmade bed. Two other rooms, both empty, except for an ironing board set up in one. I peeked in the bathroom. Hair and fuzz all over-nothing in the shower but a razor. I shivered. “OK, you actually live here?” I was afraid to touch anything.

“Been living here ten years, the last two with Angie.”

“But it’s so–so–. Where’s your shaving cream?”

“Don’t use it. I shave with water.” He rubbed his face. “Gotta be a man. Don’t want to get all soft and girly.”

I shook my head. “But you let your house go all to hell just because some bimbo broke your heart?”

“Hey, that’s not nice. She’s, was, a good girl. Just mixed up. Didn’t know what she wanted.” The phone rang. “You can get that if you want to.”

I knew he was playing me but I couldn’t help myself. I perched on the edge of his bed. “Hello, Lombardi residence.”

“Oh.” It was a girl’s voice. “You must be Lily. May I talk to Carlo?” The voice was soft, a little raspy. Sexy.

I sighed. “Who shall I say is calling?”

The voice giggled. “Angie.”

I hung up. “Wrong number.”

“Was it Angie?”

“Like I said.”

Carlo stood in front of me with his hands on his hips. “You know, you have a mean streak.”

“Well, I could hardly be nice to her, could I? She dumped you. How can she be cruel to you and then expect me to be all nice and friendly?”

He chuckled. “All right already. But I just told you she had an abortion. It really messed her up and I figured–”

“You figured what? Don’t expect me to forgive her for that too! She had someone who wanted her and her baby and she still got rid of it?”

“Was that it? With you I mean.”

“Kind of.” I turned my back to him. How did he know about the abortion? Had I told Catherine? I rubbed my forehead. What the hell was I doing here, anyway? It’s not like I wanted Carlo for myself. “So, did she know I was gonna be here today or does she just phone you at this time every day?”

Carlo walked over to a window and peeked through the vertical blinds. “She didn’t know you were gonna be here today. She knew you’d be here some day, but not particularly today.”

I went downstairs and looked at Angie’s picture again. Now, of course I did want him. Because it turned he still wanted Angie. I smiled. Pretty smart for an old man.

You’d think that would be enough to shake me loose, but I never walk away from a challenge. Carlo was funny, impulsive; he tested my wits and his link to the mob lent an air of romance to what otherwise would have been nothing more than a lonely old man chasing his youth.

Just before Easter he took me to Buck’s County, to a bed and breakfast. He had union business there. We drove to a restored Victorian house where a horse and buggy would have looked more natural than a shiny yellow Cadillac. The owner showed us our room. There was a rose in a vase and champagne chilling in a bucket, next to a large canopied bed. I gave Carlo a sly look. “But where will you sleep, Uncle Carlo?” He grabbed me and kissed me, right in front of the owner-a passionate kiss, not a peck.

That afternoon at the union meeting, I had a chance to see Carlo in action. Corduroy shirt, black jeans, he sat on a wooden table, swinging his legs. The shirt hid his paunch and if I cared about such a thing as a man’s ass, I would have liked the way his jeans fit. A thick-limbed teacher glanced at me over his glasses. “Nice girlfriend,” he muttered.

Carlo hopped off the table. “Thanks, Joe,” he barked. Joe jumped. “Don’t know ’bout you folks way out here in Bucks County, but I like girls. Like this one in particular.” He winked at me, stroked his mustache.

I crossed my legs, pleased that I’d worn Italian pumps with my very tight jeans. “What do you teach, Joe?” I lingered over his name.

Joe swallowed. “Math. Mostly, ah, Algebra.”

“I always loved math,” I said. “Especially,” leaning forward and whispering like it was a dirty word, “Calculus.”

“All right, all right. Enough small talk,” Carlo broke in. “Now, we’re here to discuss benefit packages and pensions, pension packages including benefits, how long how much-you get the picture…”

Later Carlo presented me with a bottle of very expensive perfume. I didn’t like the way it smelled, but I wore it to please him and of course it did. Then I let him make love to me for the first time. Not because of the present or the romantic trip (it was a working weekend after all) but because for a moment I let myself believe…

Carlo was grateful. The next step would be devotion. I was a real catch for a guy like him. Maybe he would get me pregnant and I wouldn’t say no. We would have sons–boys, I was sure he’d make boys. I got all carried way, fantasizing about our life together as I dressed for dinner. When I joined him in the bar, I was swimming in love. Several men at the bar turned to look at me. Carlo stood.

“What did you do?” He breathed. His eyes were wide. “I’ve never seen you so, so–. You’re glowing!”

“I’ve been thinking,” I murmured, blushing, “How

everything happens for a reason.” Then of course I did something really stupid. I went and told him about my little fantasy. “Maybe that’s why we met.” My hand touched his. Carlo had tears in his eyes. He declared there was nothing he’d like better.

But he lied. There was.

When we returned to the city, I unpacked at his house. I was making us dinner to celebrate. Carlo wanted to help so I showed him how to chop escarole for the soup and he had just suggested that we try cooking ‘a-natural’ when the phone rang.

“Slow down, slow down. Now, catch your breath.” He sank onto the arm of the sofa. His eyes got big and his mouth went into an O. Finally he said, “I’ll be right there.”

He came back four hours later. The soup was cold. My clothes were already packed.

Carlo stood in the foyer, shifting from one foot to another. I raised my eyebrows. “She wasn’t even pregnant.” He said it like he was trying not to smile.

“Ah.” I tried to look like I didn’t care. “So the abortion–?”

He had the good grace to look embarrassed. He shook his head.

“Take me home.”

Now, finally, finally I got it. If a nut job like Angie could tempt Carlo away from a woman like me then–well, then I didn’t know what to think except that Angie had needed a reason to leave Carlo, so he made me give her a reason to come back.

It was a slap in the face, but that’s what I get for underestimating an old man. I only wished that I hadn’t told him about my fantasy, because I knew he would use it against me. And sure enough, Carlo concocted a Shakespearian scenario, casting me as the mean, spiteful old woman bested by somebody younger. He had to call me at work to play it out. I wouldn’t answer my phone at home.

The last time I saw Carlo, I made my feelings plain enough. I was on my lunch hour, crossing the PPG Plaza. He must have been watching for me, because he stepped out from behind the central monument, leaving me no choice but to stumble into him.

He grabbed my arm to steady me, his eyes searching my face. I pictured him telling Angie later, “Poor thing, she was a wreck. No wonder she can’t handle you.” And Angie would rub up against him and giggle.

But I wasn’t playing. To his great surprise I threw my arms around his neck like I was glad to see him and whispered in his ear, “Give it up, Uncle Carlo! I’m not your button man anymore.”

2 Responses to “Button Men”

  1. Nice, free-flowing dialogue; great descriptions

  2. Dr. Katharine Pope says:

    I love this story. It’s well-written and the topic is one close to my heart. Thanks for sharing.

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