Charlie would have to do something, and soon. His wife had died two
months ago, and now his house was a shambles, he was eating out of cans,
and his daughters were looking at him askance. What if Jane and Berthe
decided he’d be better off in a retirement home?
He imagined a small retirement apartment done in shades of harvest
gold, scum pink, and beige. Avocado green appliances in the kitchen, a
wilting fern, ficus plants shedding leaves like
smokers flicking ashes on a rug. His desk would face an
air-conditioning duct and function as a
divider between the dining area and the kitchen, beside which would be
an entertainment center
with high-definition TV.
He disliked television, but Jane and Berthe would insist that
he have one. How had he managed to raise two human beings who were
incapable of seeing things from any point of view except their own? The
apartment would feature a print, selected by Jane, of a desert scene that
bore no relationship to anything that had ever touched his life in the
Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The print would depict a scattering
of embarrassed, solitary cacti standing thirty yards apart, like
gawking adolescents at a Sadie Hawkins dance. This dreaded apartment would be
his waiting room outside death’s door. So absolutely, he must clean up.
Yesterday in Woolworth’s, he had bought a feather duster with a
pink plastic handle and
stiff chicken feathers dyed fuchsia and periwinkle blue. Now he picked
it up, cursed it silently, and scuffed the feathers across the kitchen
floor—but the dirt there remained as it was. He opened door of the
freezer and saw that the ice trays were still empty. He had struggled with
the fundamentals of ice cubes—that you had to carry the trays to the
faucet, fill them with water, return them to the freezer, and wait. Never
in his life had he done this; always, the ice cubes had been there. The
bottom of the refrigerator was dirty; the feathers only smeared around
the grime. What was the point of a feather duster? It didn’t clean
anything. He poured Chivas Regal into a paper cup (all the glasses were
piled in the sink), added tap water, turned the feather duster upside
down, and stirred the drink with its pink plastic handle. Then he poured
the whole thing down the drain. He was not going to drink warm Scotch in
the morning, and he couldn’t pour it back into the bottle, because now
it was diluted. Anyway, where was the funnel?
Martha, it now seemed, had died out of spite. She was probably up
there, looking down, delighted by his helplessness now that he was sitting
on the toilet and there was no toilet paper. He would have to choose
between the Richmond Times Dispatch and—a towel? Then the towel would
need to be laundered immediately, and he didn’t know how to work the
washing machine. He felt like an infant in soiled diapers. He picked up the
telephone, but there was no dial tone. The bills piled on the coffee
table included a telephone bill. My God, he thought. He had not paid a
bill since the day he married Martha. How did one pay a phone bill? Did
one make a sort of monthly pilgrimage to some sacred municipal place?
Mail a check? Where were the checkbooks?
The lady in the classifieds department at the Richmond Times
Dispatch stared at Charlie. "You want a what?"
"A woman," he said.
"Sir, I’m not sure we can help you with this. There are escort
services, I believe."
"No, not that."
"What do you want the woman to do?"
He considered this. "Ice cubes, toilet paper..."
"Do you want a maid? A personal shopper?"
What he wanted was sex. But sex was out of the question. He
hadn’t bathed in three weeks, because there was no soap. No clean towels,
no clean clothes. He wondered if any woman would ever want to have sex
with him. Certainly Martha had never wanted it, even though on every
Sunday morning for thirty years, he had said, "Martha? Would it be all
It was understood that on Sunday mornings it would be all right, that
she would not refuse him. But even then, Martha would not permit
foreplay. Her breasts were sensitive, and she didn’t want them "handled," a
fact she had made clear on their wedding night. Not once, in thirty
years, had she touched his private parts. And, in anticipation of her Sunday
wifely duty, she would close her eyes. She would also grit her teeth,
but he believed she didn’t realize he knew that. He thought his manhood
was respectable in size, and it had proved adequate for the procreation
of Jane and Berthe. But it had never been loved or admired -- Martha had
never actually seen it -- and when it was inside her, she would not caress
him or respond. It never took
long, and afterward he would say, "Thank you," and she would get up
immediately and step into the shower. He wondered what it would be like to
have sex with a woman who enjoyed it.
"A secretary?" The ad lady was still skimming through
categories, an intelligent frown on her face. "A companion! That’s what you
"Can you run an ad for that?" he asked.
On Charlie’s porch, clutching his newspaper ad in her hand, the woman
incredibly small. She didn’t even come up to his shoulder. He invited
"What is your name?" he asked.
"Thank you," she said.
She looked beyond him. "Oh!" she exclaimed, and she walked past him,
entered the kitchen, and stared at the filthy floor. She opened the
cabinet under the sink, pulled out a sponge, turned on the hot water, and
shooed him out.
Within thirty minutes, she had washed, dried, and put away the
dishes. The kitchen floor was gleaming white. She cleaned the
refrigerator and summoned Charlie to the kitchen doorway, but wouldn’t let him
step on the linoleum. She pointed to the refrigerator and the stove.
Then she picked up her pocketbook, opened her wallet, and pointed to the
empty place where bills would go, and he gave her a twenty.
An hour later, she returned with an armful of groceries, and
soon wonderful smells wafted from the kitchen, and he could hear the
washing machine filling with water. His dinner was hot and magnificent:
spaghetti, meatballs, a salad of crisp greens—including savory arugula,
which he had never tasted before—and a sparkling red rosé, as well as
homemade apple pie. It was the first time he’d ever had wine with dinner.
That night, she slept in Berthe’s old bedroom. When he woke up the
next morning, fresh clothes filled his closet and bureau drawers. In the
bathroom, the scent of bleached towels spun childhood memories: his mama
hanging out new wash as he handed her the wooden clothespins, purple
lilacs bending in a morning breeze, sunlight. Better still, there was a
roll of toilet paper,
and his companion had filled a wicker hamper with two dozen rolls, by
his estimation, and set it beside the commode.
Breakfast was dripping crumpets, flaky scones, a fine drizzle of
honey, freshly perked coffee. He watched his companion slice oranges in
half, squeeze them by hand (his involuntary response to this a clenching
deep within his own body), and pour his juice into a clean glass tumbler.
She had laid his morning paper beside his plate.
She scooped up bills and pointed to the phone. He pulled out the phone
bill and handed it to her. Then she pointed to a light bulb, and he
handed her the electric bill. She spread the bills on the kitchen table
and found a pen.
On Thursday he jumped at the sound of the phone. She must have paid
the bill, he
thought, and he answered the phone. It was Berthe.
"Daddy, can I come over?"
"Not now, Berthe, I’m busy."
"We need to talk."
"Then come over on Sunday."
"What? Daddy, what are you doing?"
Now that his companion had been with him three days, she asked, "What
He pointed to himself and said, "Charlie." He pointed to her
and said, "What’s yours?"
"That’s a pretty name."
"Sophia, do you speak any English?"
"Thank you," she said.
"Sophia, you are beautiful."
"Sophia, I love you."
He took her to the calendar on the kitchen wall, pointed to Saturday
and Sunday, then
led her to the front door, opened it, motioned for her to go. Tears
welled up in her eyes.
"No!" he said, and he placed his hands on her shoulders, nearly
took her in his arms. He led her back to the kitchen, took the calendar
from the wall, set it on the table, and managed the
right gestures to explain that he wanted her to work Monday through
Friday and take weekends off.
"Charlie, I love you," she said.
He really would have to help her with English. But so far, language
was not creating a problem for him. He showed her how to mix two parts
Scotch to one part water, poured over ice cubes.
"I have one of these every night around eight o’clock." He
pointed to the drink. "This is called a ‘blow job.’"
"Blow job," she repeated.
But on the following evening, she didn’t ask if he wanted a blow job,
which he’d hoped was what she’d say. He would have gotten such a big
kick out of that. She just mixed his drink and brought it to him in the
On Sunday afternoon, Berthe walked in and covered her mouth with her
"What in God’s name?" she began. "Never have I seen this house so
"Well, honey, I’m learning," Charlie said.
"Daddy, this place looks like a million dollars."
"Thank you, honey. Just a little elbow grease. That’s all."
"Sophia," Charlie said on Sunday night.
"I’m pleased with your work."
"Thank you." He noticed for the first time the elfin quality of her
"Did you understand what I said?" he asked.
"Thank you." Her eyes were amber, eager.
"Sophia, you need to learn English."
"Thank you." He guessed she was thirty, if that.
"Sophia, I want you to sleep with me."
He wondered if she would. Curled up in bed, she would fit
between his armpit and his knee.
"Charlie, I love you," she said slowly, and she smiled at him.
"I love you, too, Sophia."
He gave her Saturday and Sunday off. That way, maybe Jane and Berthe
wouldn’t find out about her. It was too soon. He didn’t think he could
hide his feelings about her from his daughters, and if they knew, they’d
On Monday evening, he invited Sophia to watch TV with him. She
smiled and brought his Scotch and water.
"I want..." She wrung her hands.
He looked down at her. "You want what, Sophia?"
"A blow job," she said.
"Yes," he grinned. "Certainly you may have a blow job."
She went to the kitchen and mixed herself a Scotch and water
while he considered that his days had taken on a dimension of delight
he’d never known before. When she returned, they watched I Love Lucy.
That night, Sophia came to Charlie’s room. She wore a peach silk robe
that was so filmy he could see, in the lamplight, the darkness of her
lush pubic mound. She let the robe fall from her flawless skin.
He could not speak. He pulled himself up, sat on the edge of the bed.
She knelt before him, slipped his penis between her breasts, squeezed
them around him. He could have screamed with joy.
His hands trembled when he placed them on her breasts. Her nipples
were firm, like the centers of daisies that had remained when, as a small
boy, he had plucked their white petals and pressed his little finger
tip against the spongy gold. She took him in her mouth, her tongue
thrumming. When he entered her, she cried out, "Charlie, I love you!"
He enjoyed how she felt inside, and she seemed to enjoy him, watching
his eyes until they finished. Then he lay sweating, spent, reborn, as if
the past three decades had swirled away in great floods, his meager
history gone, forgotten. He was in a new world, with this woman, her scent
like fields of lilies washed by rain.
A thought he’d never had before came to mind: if he died right
now, it would be okay, because finally, he had lived.
On Sunday afternoon, Jane and Berthe knocked at his door. He let them
in, and they surveyed the immaculate interior of his home.
"Daddy, we just can’t get over this!" Berthe said, and then all of them
chatted as they watched Gunsmoke.
At quarter to eight, when Sophia returned, Jane stared at her in
"Dad, who is this?"
"Berthe, Jane, I’d like you to meet Sophia."
"Bambinos!" Sophia exclaimed.
"Yes, Sophia, these are my daughters, Berthe and Jane."
Sophia went to the kitchen, mixed three Scotch and waters, and
brought them to the living room on a silver tray. She served Charlie
first, then carried the tray to Berthe.
"Where did you get that?" Berthe said quietly. She was staring
at the antique
engagement ring on Sophia’s left hand. The stones -- a bright emerald-cut
diamond surrounded by tiny emeralds -- flashed almost blindingly. Jane
rose slowly from her seat. She, too, stared at the ring.
Sophia smiled sweetly, offered the tray to Berthe, and asked,
"You want...a blow job?"
Jane screamed. Berthe moved her lips, but no words came out. Jane
grabbed Sophia’s wrist and, after a struggle, managed to pull the ring off
"That’s our mother’s ring!" she cried.
The sisters moved as one to shove and force Sophia out the front door.
"Don’t you ever show your face in our father’s house again!" Berthe
said, and Sophia’s seemingly shrunken eyes met Charlie’s as Jane closed
the door and locked it.
Charlie said, "Berthe, Jane. Sophia has been helping me." But then he
was lost, unsure how to explain himself.
"Daddy, that woman is a gold digger!" cried Berthe. "She moved into
this house because she wants to take it away from you!"
"Berthe, no," Charlie said, but then he felt dumbstruck. It was as if
he were standing naked and doomed before a firing squad of two. He sank
back into his chair, bowed his head, and waited for words of some kind.
"Daddy, where is this woman...sleeping?"
Jane reddened. "Berthe, don’t—"
"I mean, is she using the guest room?" Berthe asked.
"She’s using your old bedroom," Charlie said.
"Daddy!" Berthe cried.
"It’s his house," Jane said. "It’s not your room anymore, Berthe."
Berthe ran across the dining room. Then Charlie could hear her
bounding up the stairs two at a time.
"Dad," we’re just concerned that this woman is taking advantage of
you," Jane said.
"I understand," Charlie said.
"She took Mother’s ring."
"No, she didn’t."
"What do you mean? All of us just saw it on her."
"I gave her that ring." Charlie shifted in his chair and gazed out of
"You did?" Jane said. "Why?"
Berthe stormed back into the living room, waving a bank check in her
hand. "This check is made out to her!"
"Berthe, Sophia is working for me -- as a housekeeper and a cook. This is
her job. I have to pay her, of course."
"Well, how long is she going to work to earn this...astronomical
sum of money?"
Berthe walked the check toward Charlie and held it in front of his
eyes. Charlie read the check and blinked. "Two weeks," he said.
"This is more than I would pay my shrink if I saw him every day for a
"An unfair comparison, Berthe, and you know it," Charlie said. "Would
your psychiatrist prefer to come here and cook and clean for me?"
"Daddy! This is ten times more than a housekeeper makes."
"It’s also partly a loan," Charlie lied.
"I bet you never gave Mother this much money."
Berthe, he thought, can be so cruel. She kept on talking and
lecturing, but he tuned her out the way he’d turned down the volume of Martha’s
talk radio. Finally she was silent.
"Give me the ring," he said evenly.
"What?" she said.
"You heard me."
Berthe handed over the ring. Charlie slipped it into his
pocket, stood, walked across
the living room, then unlocked the front door and stepped into the hot
Sophia sat where he figured she’d be, alone and huddled at an
end of the bench at the
bus stop down the block from his house. Crying quietly, she didn’t see
Charlie stood still. He felt awkward and alone, like a cactus in that
landscape he was now sure would hang in an apartment the girls would
rent for him. Was Sophia really a gold digger? Possibly so. Was he lucky
to have her in his life? Not yet.
And what of happiness? In thirty years, he’d had none. And then
it had happened. Her warm companionship. His finger shaking, pressed
against a nipple. A balm of lilies. The luscious taste of possibility.
Sudden, delirious maelstroms of joy.
He remembered the taste of arugula, a pungent, unexpected, yet
tasty spike in an
ordinary spill of lettuces. He could have it again. But would he
actually go to the grocery alone to find it?
Charlie sat beside Sophia and took her hand. He winked at her.
She smiled, winked back.
It was settled that quickly between them.
©2006 by Arlene Sanders