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Arlene Sanders

The Companion

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 right?"

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 want."

"Can you run an ad for that?" he asked.

On Charlie’s porch, clutching his newspaper ad in her hand, the woman appeared incredibly small. She didn’t even come up to his shoulder. He invited her in.

"What is your name?" he asked.

"Thank you," she said.

"Excuse me?"

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 is...your name?"

He pointed to himself and said, "Charlie." He pointed to her and said, "What’s yours?"


"That’s a pretty name."

"Thank you."

"Sophia, do you speak any English?"

"Thank you," she said.

"Sophia, you are beautiful."

"Thank you."

"Sophia, I love you."

"Thank 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 living room.

On Sunday afternoon, Berthe walked in and covered her mouth with her hand. "What in God’s name?" she began. "Never have I seen this house so clean. Never."

"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 smile.

"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."

"Thank you."

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 be upset.

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 disbelief.

"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 Sophia’s finger.

"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 the window.

"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 month!"

"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 sunlight.

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 him approach. 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

Arlene Sanders is an Appalachian Mountain writer, with stories published or forthcoming in Iconoclast, Mindprints, Sanskrit, and Tertulia, among others. She has had Honorable Mentions in the Hemingway Short Story Competition and the E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Awards. She has written two short story collections, and is completing her first novel. "The Companion" first appeared in The Edgar Literary Magazine. See more of her work at her Web site.

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