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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

A Better Deal
by John Tompkins

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Roger glanced at the BMW M-3 convertible on the showroom floor. It was a bright fall day and the sun's rays slanting through the dealership's windows made the aquamarine car shine. It looked like some sort of exotic beetle. He moved closer to where Heather stood talking to Brad, the salesman. Brad had taken his time coming over to them when they had first entered the dealership. Unlike the sales people at 114 Dodge. Of course back then they had been dressed in jeans and t-shirts. Now he wore a tie and jacket, and Heather looked beautiful in her dark blue business suit with a slit skirt.

"So, Brad, how fast is she?" asked Heather.

"She'll go from zero to one hundred miles an hour in 5.5 seconds, the power plant is a 3.2 liter six cylinder that peaks at 8,000 RPMs."

"How does she handle?" asked Heather. She sounded so professional, that Roger felt a quiver snake through his pants. He smiled at the fantasy of impulsively buying the Bimmer and driving it out to Reno or some place.

"The handling is unmistakably BMW."

"Really," said Heather; she turned and winked at Roger. "We are so bored with our old car's performance, the thing positively puts me to sleep."

"What kind of car is it?" asked Brad.

"She's a Ford Aerostar," said Roger. Heather glared at him.

"He's kidding of course, it's a Corvette, an 01. Say, Brad, how about a test drive?" Brad nodded and walked off towards his desk. Roger waited a second, to be sure Brad wouldn't turn around, and then stole a quick peek at the sticker: $57,000. He refrained from whistling.

"What the hell is the matter with you?" hissed Heather. She glared at him, her eyes smoldering.

"What?" he asked. He looked over her shoulder to where Brad stood. He was talking to an older gentleman and motioning in their direction.

"You know what I'm talking about, please don't blow this, ok?" Before he could say anything she wrapped her arms around his neck and drew him close. She bit his ear hard enough to make him wince. Brad came over and cleared his throat. They turned. He smiled and held up a set of keys; he gave them a jingle. "Ready for the ultimate driving experience?"

Heather drove. They left the dealership and headed north on 128 towards Gloucester. She swung around a cement truck, its drum turning ponderously, and hit the accelerator. The car surged forward. They blew past a brown Honda Accord; its driver, cell held to ear, gave them a surprised look. With the top down the wind whipped over the windshield. Roger glanced at the speedometer: 95 mph. He glanced over to the back seat at Brad. His tie was flapping out behind him. He had a worried look in his face. Heather gave it more gas. Roger felt a thrill in spite of his growing fear, and loved that fact that she was behind the wheel. He looked over at her. She was smiling wildly. She inched the car up to 100 miles an hour. Now Roger could clearly hear the engine. She reached over and squeezed his thigh.

"Both hands on the wheel," yelled Brad from the back seat, and then meekly he added: "Can we slow it down a bit?"

"What's he like?" asked Roger. He lay on his back next to Heather. They were in Room 57 at the Catch Penny Inn in Danvers. The M-3 convertible was safely back at the dealership. Roger was certain that the engine was still warm and ticking after the workout Heather had given it.

"So you want to know what he's like." She sighed heavily and reached for a cigarette on the nightstand. She had started smoking soon after they had separated. Now she lit up and exhaled the smoke in a tight stream. Was she mad at him or trying to think of an appropriate response? "What if I don't want to tell you?" He wondered if she were being playful or evasive again. She had this spot she retreated to whenever people got too close. He had seen it before. It was times like this with her on the verge of being mad at him that he loved her most.

"I'm just curious, that's all," he added quickly.

"I hate it when you minimize things by saying 'that's all', please stop."

She grew silent for a moment. Her little slices of silence always carried such meaning. "Can't we just do something for once and not analyze it?" He held his tongue and wondered if this new guy had the same affliction. Maybe somehow she was attracted to men who shared the need to determine just where they stood in her life. At times she could become so remote, so distant that he would wonder if he mattered to her at all. Now he felt uncomfortable. But should he say something?

"It's not like you are all that different, it's just that he is offering me a better deal." She turned to him and placed a hand on his scrotum. "Remember that?"

"Better deal?" asked Richard Dembroski. He leaned back in his chair just enough to be able to peek around the office divider. Dembroski was a large man and the fact that he could balance in his chair, leaning backwards just to the point of falling, had always amused Roger. He had been working alongside Dembroski for the past two years and had grown to like the man. Both men were claim adjusters for Square Insurance. They went out to "post-accident" cars to take pictures and ask questions. Dembroski had worked there first and had given him some sage advice. "Look for rust," he advised, "People will sometimes claim that their car got damaged more than it really did. They will try to pass off last year's dent as this year's fender bender. The deciding factor is how much rust is present."

Dembroski had always inquired as to his health after sick days, or long weekends. When he found out that Roger was married he would greet Roger with statements like: "How's the wife and my kids?" But when things started to get bad, Dembroski was always there to listen. Roger could tell that the large man had that knack of truly listening and not just waiting to talk. So, when Roger had started to have trouble in the "old love department", as Dembroski had referred to it, he had confided in him. Roger had outlined the slow unraveling of his marriage as if he had been describing the decline of an old, beloved dog that he could not bring himself to have put down.

"She once told you that she was looking not for a good man, but a good deal?" asked Dembroski. He took one hand off the divider and rubbed his chin. "Good deal, what the hell does that mean?"

"I'm not sure, kind of what's in it for her." This had been a long-standing feature of their marriage: what she wanted and how was she going to get it. Heather had been fond of film noir; her favorite movie was the original Cape Fear. If he ever asked something of her she would lapse into a truly awful impression of Edward G. Robinson: "Yeah, what's in it for me, see?"

Over the next week he moved more of his stuff out of the condo: the extra TV from the hall closet, half of the pots and pans, the furniture from their spare room. He rented a small one-bedroom efficiency in Beverly, near the water. It cost more than one inland but he figured he was worth it.

"Oh, you will regret this," said Heather when she saw it. "Think of all the traffic when the summer comes and everyone and his brother is schlepping to the beach." She helped him unpack. She opened a box labeled living room and found a cobalt blue dauphin he spontaneously bought for her one summer. She held it up and he thought for an instant that she was going to break down and cry. But instead she put the dauphin in her purse. She left shortly afterwards.

She started calling him on the weekends. "I need to get out of here," she would whisper into the mouthpiece. He would then receive instructions as to where to meet her and when. He would go and wait in some coffee shop or outside of a store and she would appear, smiling and dressed up as if she were going to an important interview. He wondered what she was telling the other guy. Then he tried to recall if she had had any unexplained absences or any lame excuses to leave him for a few hours. Had he missed something? But whenever he tried to audit his relationship, he grew very depressed and blamed himself for their downfall, so he stopped.

Their rendezvous assumed a certain pattern: they would meet, make some small talk and then test drive cars so expensive that it would take both of their weekly checks to just make one payment. She would have him drive down the Auto Mile in Peabody until she decided on a dealership. Over the course of two weekends, they test drove a Lexus (leather heated seats, six-speaker surround sound), and a Chrysler Newport (cloth interior, GPS). Then they took out a black Mercedes Benz sedan. At every dealership, she would drop hints about how rich they were. At the Lexus place, she passed him off as a famous writer. At the Chrysler showroom she told the salesman that they had inherited a fortune from a great Aunt. While maneuvering a cream colored Cadillac Seville out of a dealer's lot she let it slip that he was the inventor of some new gadget that the government wanted. They would follow up the test drives with sex.

"The sex? Better than it ever was," he told Dembroski a few days later. They were in the Red Lobster that had replaced the Ponderous Steak House next to the Bentley dealership where he had been passed off as a minor English Noble just the day before. "How is it that I am not surprised?" said Dembroski; he looked very serious despite the bib.

"What does that mean?"

"What it means is that post marital intercourse between freshly separated couple is always better than when couple share same roof," he bowed slightly, "wise man say." He took a sip of his gin martini. "And like everything novel, its appeal is fleeting." He smiled. Roger wondered how anyone who saw things so clearly had ended up alone and fat.

Later, at his new apartment, Roger flipped through an old photo album he had taken from the condo the night he had left. There were pictures of the wedding: a shot of his father in a tuxedo, an overexposed shot of his younger sister dancing by herself at the reception. Finally a picture of the happy couple cutting the cake. He wondered how all those guests would respond if they knew how his marriage had evolved. He thought of Dembroski and how he was right. Any love or passion that he felt with Heather was fleeting. He turned back to the album lying across his knees. There were several shots of them being seen off at Logan International. He had wanted to go London, but she had insisted on L.A. so they had flown out to California. He had suggested that they drive a rental car out to Hollywood.

"Everybody does that," she had complained, "don't be predictable, I hate predictable." The next several photos featured palm trees and shots of expensive cars parked along Rodeo Drive. There was a close-up of Heather in a bikini top on the balcony of their hotel. Over her shoulder he could just make out the Ferris wheel on Santa Monica pier. There was another shot of her in front of some palms trees. He flipped another page, and saw the blurry photo he had taken of her in the Whiskey a-go-go. She had insisted that they go there. When he has asked why, she had sighed.

"It's where The Doors first got their start." He recalled that night, five years ago, as if it had just happened. Inside the bar was dark, save for the dance floor that was lit by multi-colored track lights. She had moved out to the edge of the dance floor. He had called her name and when she had turned around he snapped her picture. In the white flash he caught her stern look.

Later at their hotel room, she changed into a T-shirt and shorts and sat with her arms crossed on the bed, ignoring him.

"All I did was take your picture," he had told her. She stared forward.

"We are out here to be cool, so don't be a tourist, ok?"

When he had landed the job at Square Insurance, where you're guaranteed to get a square deal, she had quit her job at Boot's Books and Cards to take up watercolors.

"What are you doing?" he had asked one night.

"I've chosen to explore my artistic side." Their condo was soon filled with bad watercolors. There was a lighthouse overlooking a yellow sea in the living room, and a red and black lion in the kitchen.

"It's a dog. Rufus, I had him when I was a kid," she had told him. She let loose one of her sighs. He remembered feeling terrible over that and he had made her favorite meal: T-bone steak with potato au gratin.

Was there now another set of eyes misinterpreting that painting? Would that person recognize the dog? Was that it then? If you see a dog and not a lion I will love you? He slammed the photo album shut and threw it a box of old shoes. Later he taped the box up and shoved it in the back of the downstairs closet. He went to bed early.

He used his next paycheck from Square insurance to pay off the Aerostat. Then he purchased a red Honda civic, Deco radio, no air conditioner.

"Nice rig," said Dembroski, when he saw it. Roger had not mentioned the fact that Heather had not called him. Nor the fact that he had agonized nightly over whether or not to call her. He felt an urge to at last tell her off, to tell her that Mr. So and So could have her, et cetera. Things that he would have never said to her while they were together now seemed appropriate. He was certain that if Dembroski saw this new trend that he would say something, so he avoided him at lunch. He took to driving around Danvers and Beverly on his lunch hour. Once he drove out to his old condo. There was a red pickup truck in the driveway. It must have been the other guy's. He sat there for a few minutes and watched the door. How many times had he left through that very same door? Even the last night he had spent there. He had come home early from work to find her crying on the sofa. He had thought at the time that something had occurred at work, or she had seen a dog get hit by a car. He had thought of a thousand things in the few seconds between the time he had asked what was wrong and the moment when she had pulled it together enough to say that she wanted a divorce.

He spotted them once. He was again on his lunch hour and had just driven through the McDonald's on 114 when he saw the red truck glide past him. Without thinking he pulled out and followed. He could just make out the outline of his replacement. He could see the guy gesticulating wildly. Then he saw her hand go up.

"Whatever," he mouthed, even though he knew that she would've thought up something more sophisticated to shut him up. At the next light he allowed them to slip away by taking a right.

"Yes. Just like that," he said in answer to her question. He had her on the phone. It had been twenty-four hours since he had seen her in the truck with the other man. He still had a clear image of her raising her hand in that dismissive wave. He thought of that now as he talked to her. The air in his apartment seemed charged with promise.

"Hello?" she said, "what do you think? There is this place where they let you test drive hummers on this course; I'll have to wear something extra for this…"

He found himself looking out the living room window. He could just see the grill of his Civic; he hadn't even taken it for a test drive.

"Hello? Look, if you don't respond, I'm going to hang up. Roger?" Her voice became almost pleading. His smile widened.

He continued to look at his new car and regretted the fact that he had purchased one without an air conditioner the moment she hung up.

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