She laughed with genuine amusement. "You think I'm under age. That's great!" The waitress, a tough-looking woman about sixty, was there. Terry rummaged in her purse. She squinted delicately at the waitress's chest, pulled a man's wallet from the pit of her suitcase, and announced that she wanted Jack Daniel's, neat. "And, Sheila, so we both feel at ease, check this out. How old am I?"
Startled, the waitress glanced at the driver's license. "Old enough for me, darlin'," she said.
"No, read it. Out loud. How many?"
"What is this, Candid Camera?" She looked again. "Twenty-four. OK?"
"Thanks. It was a bet."
"Well, you don't look it."
As Sheila marched away on her spikes, I smiled at Teresa. "Nicely done. And she's right. You don't look it. Call me Andrew."
"Not Ishmael." Then I laughed, loudly enough that people looked at us. "Oh hell. My name's Thomas, Terry. Let's order dinner and get down to business."
"OK. Tit for tat. Teresa. Terry sucks." She ordered a small, expensive steak and requested wine with dinner, taking the waitress' suggestion for a Chardonnay. We talked over drinks, sparring a little. It seemed too like miraculous, that I should find the right woman in the first three weeks. But I was sure, after ten minutes. She was bright, attractive, and interesting. She could surprise me; I knew what that was worth. Friday evening with the fifth woman, I found myself thinking of Teresa rather than this new one. The next morning, I called her.
"Teresa. This is Thomas Aquino. I would like to have you over for a second interview, if you are interested."
"I couldn't ask you face-to-face. 'Semi-connubial' means screwing, right?"
"We should talk about that in person. All the terms of the contract will be explicit."
"Where should I meet you?"
I gave her my address, and then directions.
"I'm going to give all this to my roommate, OK? Just a precaution."
"Yeah. Should I come right out?" I could hear some wariness in her voice. I must seem like an absolute lunatic, I thought suddenly.
"Do you have a car?"
I gave her my phone number. "If there's a problem, call me," I said.
"I'm leaving now. It's about a half-hour drive?"
When I heard her car, I made a point of taking Sam with me to the porch. Sam wore that sappy canine grin that makes friends instantly. Teresa grabbed the dog' s head immediately, scratching the floppy ears and babbling baby talk into the dumb grin.
"Don't be afraid of Sam," I said; "she won't hurt you." Teresa laughed. After a minute of this attention, I proposed to Sam that she go eat a cow, and she obligingly rushed off toward the barn, perhaps in hopes that I had procured one without her knowledge. "Shall we sit out here?" I asked, indicating the porch chairs with a gesture of my head.
"OK." She sat, removing her sunglasses and putting them on a low table between us.
I sat in the other chair.
"Let me begin at the beginning. I am forty-four, nicely employed, and twice divorced. I am not gay, nor desperately lonely. I have had affairs, including one that supposedly destroyed my first marriage. I have no family except my two children, both adults. My son is at the University of Washington, and my daughter lives with her husband near Portland, Oregon. I am estranged from all of my siblings and my mother, and I have no contact with anybody up the family tree." I was deliberately a little pompous.
"I am a reasonably tidy person and not, any honorable housemate would concede, lazy. I have had two wives, and neither of them accused me of exploiting them, whatever else they hated about me. In fact, I have hired a housekeeper, Adele, who comes in once a week and tends to the major cleaning. In addition to her help, there is a new dishwasher, a washer and dryer, and a fully outfitted kitchen."
"Wait a minute. None of this matters until I know what you want."
"I am telling you what I want. Be patient, and I'll repeat whatever needs repeating. I don't believe in love. I think people who do are self-deceived, and most people who say they do are lying, wishfully or not. Oh, I love my children. I suppose I loved my wives in turn. I probably loved my father, before we became estranged. But I'm not sure even about that. I'm not a cruel person. I suspect my friendsthat is, people who think they are my friendsthink me generous and kind. But my friends are merely people I tolerate; I don't love anyone. There is no one, except my children, for whom I would lay down my life. There is hardly anyone to whom I would loan a thousand dollars, no one whose death I would mourn, exceptyou know."
"your kids," she said. "What does this have to do with"
"This is the whole point. I'm sick of the game of seduction and conquest. I'm sick of creating relationships that pretend eternity and can barely last beyond the first realization that you don't use the same toothpaste. I've had sexual and emotional relationships roughly two dozen women as wives, sweethearts, lovers, and bedmates: a range from whores to wives, Ph.D.s to high-school dropouts, one-night stands to a ten-year marriage. I need companionship, a person to attend parties with, to converse with over dinner, to wake up beside. A marriage mate is bound beyond the reasonable constraints of intention"
"I don't know what that means," her tone a little exasperated.
"I'm sorry. I get pretentious when I'm being philosophical. I mean that spouses feel contractually bound to try to make a marriage eternal. But people change. Their character changes, and their desires change. The man you were passionate about last month is last month's news. The hobbies you discovered and shared with your wife interest you even less than she does. The charming eccentricities of a budding relationship become the tired clichés of the second, third, or fourth year of wedded bliss. But our culture demands that we live together past the passion of our engagement. I want to escape from that. I think I have a way: a personal contract, different from a marriage in that the government has no say in how it begins or ends."
"You want to hire a wife."
"Precisely. My father and mother lived together with no love for forty-five years. He said he loved her. She said she despised him. In this one case I believed her, not him. Neither one of them listened to what the other was saying, and one day, when he was about sixty-five, his heart stopped."
"What about your mother?"
"I don't know. I've considered myself an orphan since I was twenty. We had a fight about politics, and I severed my relationship with the family. We didn't speak until my sister Carla called to tell me Dad had died fifteen years later. 'Orphan' was an exaggeration; I had taken my father's death badly. But I hardly think about my mother. She supposedly had the weak heart. Maybe she's dead."
"That's pretty ugly."
"I know. I don't expect anyone to understand it. So, yes, I want to hire a wife. On a one-year contract. She would live here with me. We would share the cooking on a strict scheduleI provide four dinners a week, by cooking or taking us out, and she provides three. Non-provider does the day's accumulated dishes, except when Adele comes in on Wednesday. We each share the general household pickup, with major responsibility for our own things. She has her own room, but we sleep together. We own nothing in common, but she has access to my household goodslike living in a furnished apartment."
"And you get all the screwing you want."
"Well, it would be reciprocal, for what that's worth. I mean, she would get all she wants as well. I should say, all she asks for, and only from me. I would require monogamy, of both of us. I would confine my own sex life to our relationship." I stopped, trying to read her bland face. It was not the expression, I thought, of a person in the presence of a madman. "The woman I hire will sign a contract describing all this in detail. In addition, I will arrange for her to attend the University, paying for her books and tuition and assisting her in her studies. I will not dictate her major or course of study; I don't want to play Henry Higgins, but I don't believe a woman without educational ambitions could hold my attention for long."
She did not react. I continued. "The contract stipulates a salary of $18,000 a year, plus a $6,000 bonus at the end of the year. And room and board. There are stipulations for breaking the contract. Infidelity is cause for immediate dismissal. That, by the way, is primarily for health reasons, and to avoid complications. Should you honor the spirit and letter of the contract, and yet I decided to dismiss you, I would provide you with the appropriate portion of the bonus, at a rate of $500 per full month, as a severance fee."
"It sounds pretty cold."
"That, Teresa, is because it is so alien to the stupid way Americans mate. What kind of a culture makes marriage easy and divorce hard? It is not unusual in other cultures to purchase a wife. In some Plains Indian cultures, a man pays a bride price to the girl's parents, and both the man and the woman can divorce by merely declaring the marriage void. If the woman does this without cause, her parents must return the bride price; if the man, nothing. In many polygamous cultures there are household arrangements in which a favored wife holds a special place in the group, first among equals. If she loses that status, she returns to the ranks. This, it seems to me, is 'cold.' Not for her, necessarily, but for her nominal equals who are in fact her servants. I imagine that a vain and foolish woman has a rough time when she eventually returns to the seraglio. It will be clear from the beginning that Adele works for both of us."
"Say I was interested. You want me to live here like some kind of sex-nun for a year? I can't have friends, for instance?"
"No. There is a problem there, unfortunately, and I can't think of any way to resolve it. There is a suite of private rooms with a bathroom and kitchenette in the back of the house, and it will be off limits to me, except at your invitation. You can study and entertain there. And you can come and go as you please. I cannot think of any way to enforce celibacy outside our relationship, except to rely on the honor and integrity of the woman. It is crucial, of course, that the woman not have an existing serious relationship, a sweetheart or boyfriend."
It was easier than I thought to explain it all. It sounded, as I said the words, exotic but not all that bizarre.
"Can I take the contract home and read it? Show it to a lawyer?"
"I haven't offered you the job yet. Should I?"
"What do you want to know?"
"Tell me about yourself for a few minutes."
She frowned. I watched her face carefully as she framed her answer.
"I'm twenty-four, and I got married in high school. We're divorced. Are you comparing to what I told you Thursday?" I didn't reply. "I have a year toward a degree at Sacramento, in anthropology. No kids, and I don't want any." She glanced into my face. "That would have to be in the contract. Precautions."
"It is. No children."
"I'm on the pill."
"I'm willing to use condoms, if you want. But pregnancy voids the contract. I want that in stone. No paternity suits. Grades?"
"B's mostly," she replied dismissively. She thought for a moment. "I don't have a main squeeze, and right now I don't want one. I got shit on by my boyfriend a few months ago, and I admit it, I'm interested because what you want sounds honest compared to that prick." She stopped abruptly to read my face again. "Would I have to clean up my mouth?"
"You would have to learn levels of diction, if you don't know already."
"That's adjusting your vocabulary and grammar to the circumstances. Like not calling your boss a real friendly son of a bitch to his face."
"OK. What about personal habits? Smoking, shaving my pits, cleaning up my room?"
"I take it you are interested. I smoke, and drink in moderation. I would expect you to bathe and maintain reasonable hygiene; but shaving, tanning, all that, are your business. You could tan nude in the back yard; I'd like that. But that's your business. I foresee some rough spots as we attempt to sort out my requests from my demands. In matters of sex, I will expect you to acquiesce in any wish that is not dangerous." I almost added, or degrading. But I thought, keep it simple.
She was thinking. I wondered what. It sounded, I thought, crazy. I was trying to impress her with my candor, I realized. What was her agenda?
"No SM," she said.
"No voyeur shit."
"No group sex. I don't do double parties."
I glanced at her curiously. "Teresa, I'm serious about health concerns. I will expect both signatories to get medical certificates of venereal health. I'm not looking for an outlet for perverted hobbies. I want a companion who doesn't balk at sexual companionship."
We stared at each other.
"You really have thought this through, huh?" she said.
"I would say that I'm excited about it, except that sounds kinky. I think it is a thought-provoking experiment, and I am very curious to see what I have not anticipated. It lacks something marriages often lack." She interrupted with an amused snort, but didn't say anything. I went on. "You don't know me well enough to assess my sincerity or honesty, nor I you. It may be that we will develop an intense dislike for, or boredom with each other. It happens. If it does, I'll be reasonable about breaking the contract." I looked out at the mountains. "The contract is for your security, since you will have to make some compromises, and for mine since I will have to make some irrecoverable investments. If you are dishonest and manipulative, there is no way I can prevent you from taking advantage of me; if I am, there is no way you can avoid being exploited."
"Well, that's truthful." She was regarding me with an unreadable expression. "I got off telling you about myself. I do have family, two brothers and sisters. My father is dead. Cancer. My family is over to Rangely, in Colorado. I guess they would be shocked if they thought I was living with a manMama especially. But I've done worse; they could handle it. I guess that's what the public story would be?"
"I think so. What worse?"
She did not hesitate. "I was a hooker in Ely for about six months. Fucks for bucks. I don't suppose that shocks you," she said.
"It doesn't matter per se. I assumed something like that. Tell me about it. Not the sex. Why you did it, how you felt about it, why you quit."
"I don't have any hang-ups about sex. I broke up with this jerk I was living with. He came home drunk and tried to get me to fuck one of his buddies. He said he'd lost me in a poker game! He wanted to watch. He slapped me, and I slapped back. I spent a week pretty bad off. This was in Cedar City. In Utah. He said I couldn't fuck worth shit anyway." She stopped. "I guess I shouldn't've told you that," she said.
"He doesn't sound like an authority," I said.
"I was really down. I was waitressing in this truck stop in St. George. I quit my job and rolled out to Ely with this black trucker." She examined my expression, then added, "Yeah. I screwed him." She watched my face for a moment, then went on. "Why not? He dropped me off at this cathouse in Ely. After a while, my mom found out what I was doing, and she got my aunt to come and get me."
"Just like that?"
"She talked me out of it. My aunt. She got me a job in Tahoe dealing blackjack for an old boyfriend of hers."
"You were there for six months."
"I lied. Two. Do I get to lie?"
"Don't get caught in a big one. How did you feel about it?"
She was silent for a long time. Sam charged out of the other side of the barn and raced off to the south. I hoped she would respect the fence. Or if not, then Don Albers' bull.
"Did you know a lot of hookers are lesbians?" Teresa said. "They really hate men. You can't blame them. I heard about some bad shit. What you can buy...." Sam appeared in the trees; Teresa watched her move her head quickly back and forth, like she had spotted a mouse, and then disappear again into the undergrowth. "I slept with one of them." She paused again. "We got to dancing one night, and she started feeling me up. Not with guys watching. For a show, I mean? Just because we both wanted to." She had, yet again, that 'what you think about that?' look on her face. I did not say anything. After a long silence, she sighed.
"I'm not gay. I like guys. I just wish they weren't such shits."
I got up and walked to the edge of the porch. Sam was out of sight. I put two fingers in my mouth and whistled loudly as I could. Eventually she appeared in the fringe of the aspens, her look alert and expectant. I had just wanted to know where she was. She watched for a sign that I wanted her, saw none, and disappeared back into the aspens. I turned to Teresa and sat against the porch rail.
"I'm writing a book about a prostitute. I know a woman who runs a brothel. I know something about what the trade is like."
She said, in an odd non sequitur, "I don't like kids, and the world has become so shitty that having them seems pretty irresponsible. How will your kids react to you having a paid mistress?"
"The public appearance will be that you are a live-in girlfriend. I'd expect you to have sense enough not to tell people you're an employee. That would be awkward for both of us."
"Your son's what, twenty. How's he going to like your having a girlfriend practically his age?"
"He'll think I've finally demonstrated the dottiness he's always suspected me of. Another aging male fumbling around to recapture his lost youth."
She smiled. "I don't guess it'll bother your daughter. What's her name?"
"Martha. No. She goes her own way. She doesn't like me much, and she hates her mother."
"There's a lot of anger in you 'Aquinos.'"
I didn't speak.
"What else do you want to know?" she said then.
"What do you think could go wrong with a relationship like this?"
"Music. I like to play country and western music. Loud."
"I have pretty eclectic tastes. I prefer classical music, rock, and lots of ethnic thingsJapanese, Peruvian, Greek, Breton pipes."
She grinned. "I lied about the country and western. I c'n take it or leave it. What period of classical?"
"Everybody but minimalists. I'd rather listen to the washing machine."
"I like Mahler and Bruckner. And Copland. New Age?"
"If you must. At least it's quiet."
"I hate the stuff. Muzak for intellectuals."
"How do you cook your eggs?"
"I don't know how to baste eggs."
"I'm not hiring a cook. I'll make my own breakfast, and you'll make yours."
"Deal! Favorite movie?"
"Oh well. Straw Dogs."
"Straw Dogs. What's that?"
"Never mind. It's a Sam Peckinpah movie dear to my heart. How about Kagemusha?"
"What do you mean 'how about'? Is it your favorite movie or not?"
"The fact of the matter, Teresa, is that I make my living by judging works of art. It's hard to have favorites except in the most trivial sense."
"You work at the U, don't you? Psych? No. Judging art. Not the Art Department. English professor."
"All right." She leaned back in her chair, crossing her ankles on the porch rail and stretching her arms, crossing them at the wrists above her head. It was hot, and crescents of sweat darkened her shirt, radiating from her armpits. She was wearing jeans and roughouts, her black hair tied back in a piece of red yarn. Disarming. We talked for another hour. As we talked, I made up my mind, and it seemed to me as if she had too. I did not offer her the job yet. Sam returned and collapsed on the porch, surely unsuccessful in her quest to eat a cow. Teresa played fetch with her, throwing a stick until Sam was nearly staggering with delight. While they got acquainted, I went inside to get the contract. When I returned, she was sitting on the steps, Sam lounging against her leg.
"Here's the contract."
She was looking west, toward the Truckees. "It's really pretty out here. Peaceful. Do you have horses?"
"No. I ride, but I don't know anything about keeping them."
"If I got a horse, I could board it here?"
"You take care of it and pay its expenses? Sure. The barn's empty. Assuming we agree to the contract and I hire you."
She turned and stood up. A step down from me, she barely reached my shoulder. "So are you offering me the job?"
"No, I'm offering you the contract. You have to read it, for our mutual protection. Here." I handed it to her. She folded it and stuck it in a back pocket without looking at it. She turned away again, surveying the rolling hills between my porch and the road.
"There's one other thing before I offer you the job."
She turned back to face me. "An audition?" she said coolly.
"That wouldn't be a bad idea, but no. I want you to meet a woman I know. It means driving up to Winnemucca. Tell me when you're going, and I'll let her know you're coming. I value her judgment."
Her eyes widened a little; she seemed offended. "Does she have a veto?"
"I value her judgment. If I had to name a friend, she'd be it."
"I can go up tomorrow. I'm off."
"If she likes you, and you have no objection to the contract, then let's talk again. How about Wednesday morning, so you can have the contract looked at? So you have a job?"
"Nights. In Tahoe. Dealing blackjack? I'm off tomorrow. Out here on Wednesday?"
"Fine. Before noon. I have classes in the afternoon." I pulled a photograph of Ellen from my shirt pocket and handed it to Teresa, explaining how to reach her. The photograph was in case Ellen changed shifts; I didn't want to give Teresa her true name. She stuck the picture in her pocket with a just a quick glance. Then she offered a hand. I took it and gave it a squeeze and shake, businesslike but warm. Her hand was callused but delicate-boned. She squeezed back.
When I was sure Ellen would be off work, I called her to warn her that Teresa was coming.
"Tell me what you think. If you say she's the wrong one, I'll trust your judgment. She seems promising. You know, that thing you told me, about Eddie and the poker game?"
"She says the same thing happened to her."
"Her boyfriend bet her favors in a poker game. Is this some sort of Nevada thing?"
"It happens," she said. She sounded offended.
"I don't mean I think you made it up. It just seems strange."
"Well, maybe if you'd grown up with the wrong sort of guys, it wouldn't seem so strange."
"It isn't, I guess. Actually, I was thinking about it this evening. There's a poem where it happens."
"I don't know about poems. I knew guys would sell their daughter's ass for a bottle of Wild Turkey. You want to know how many pimps are married to it?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean you were dramatizing"
"I didn't mean you were lying. I'm sorry."
"Thomas, I don't want to do this."
"I thought we agreed you would." I was taken aback; this was the first sign she had given of any reluctance. We had talked about having her interview as well. "Ellen, I'm sorry if I insulted you. It seemed strange to me."
"It's all right. I just think me talking to her isn't such a great idea. Maybe she lied."
"She didn't have any reason to. Maybe."
"You want me to find out?"
"Sure, if you can."
"I'll try. What if I don't like her?"
"I'm a big boy, Ellen. Just because I ask your advice, that doesn't mean I'll take it, or that I'll hold you responsible if I take it."
She thought about it; I waited. "All right. I'll call you after."
Alone, I went to the little apartment. I sat on the couch, trying to anticipate Teresa's reaction to the decor. It was plain but not unattractive. Shiera's color sense, I thought, would be acceptable to most women. As I sat there, watching a dust devil through what would be her window, I thought of Ferdinand and Caliban. But I was Prospero. And if Teresa was Miranda? Miranda with a sense of drama, I observed wrily. The conceit failed. I returned to my own rooms, put on Der Rosenkavalier, the Reiner reissue, and settled onto the couch with my literature anthology. I read the four Shakespeare sonnets included in the collection. My favorite was there, but I went to my office and got the entire sequence, which I read around in till dark. I played my MahlerAbravanel and Koussevitsky. I hate Bruckner; but nobody's perfect. Sam reminded me of food and television. We had a quiet evening.
Sunday night, as she had promised, Ellen called. After one, really Monday morning.
"What do you want to know?"
"Any doubts? Any warnings?"
"She seems to know what she's getting into. I offered her a job here, suggesting she'd make more money; she turned me down without seeming insulted."
"Didn't she tell you she turned tricks in Ely?" I said. "Why did you do that?"
"Honey, I don't have contracts. If she didn't work out, she'd be out in the time it takes to pack. She's pretty, and appealing in a prickly sort of way. I like her."
"So are you going to try to steal everyone I send you to evaluate?" I was a little angry.
"That's not funny, Ellen."
"Think a minute, Professor. If she was the type who would have taken my offer, how long do you think she'd have lasted with you? You want someone who's not just doing it for the money, someone who's interested. Somebody who's not willing to fuck anybody who flashes a hundred-dollar bill. Right?"
I could see the merits of her argument. After all, in a sense, Teresa had passed the test. Ellen had a point; Teresa was interested in what I was offering, but not interested in going back to prostitution. And we seemed, I thought, to like each other.
"OK. Anything else?"
"Was your poem about a horse?"
"That poem where the guy bet his wife and lost."
My mind went blank for a moment. "Jeffers. Yes."
"She read it in some college English class."
"So she made that up."
"Yeah, but I think she's OK. It was, like you said, 'dramatizing.' Her boyfriend pulled something, and she liked the idea of the poker game."
"What do you mean, pulled something?"
"Like I said, Professor, it's more common than you university folks would like to think. He offered her to somebody and she didn't go along with it. You want more than that, ask her."
"It isn't important. You like her?"
"Yes. Good luck." She hung up, and I got out of bed, anticipating the morning. I wrote till four. Then I let Sam out for a few minutes. When she came in, I slept for two hours. I considered calling Teresa and suggesting that she come sooner, but that was silly, and she needed time to have the contract looked at.
Teresa arrived at ten-thirty Wednesday morning, her little Datsun signaling its approach in a dust cloud a mile away. Sam ran to greet her when it rattled to a stop. She stepped out of the car with the contract in one hand and her sunglasses in the other. She marched up to the porch as I came through the door. Her smile was jaunty. She stopped below the first step and stretched the paper up to me; I stooped to take it.
"So, did I pass?" she said, with the air of a student who knows she aced the test.
"You passed," I said, turning the pages of the contract, looking for amendments. There were none. On the last page was her signature, Teresa D. Chacon, in a sharp, spiked script. Notarized.
"Dolores. Now what?" She was leaning with one hand on the rail, a foot on the first step.
"Who'd you have look at this? A lawyer?"
"I can read," she said.
"So you want the job? You understand that it's a kind of high-class prostitution?" You don't care about love, I almost said.
"I'm pretty sure I want the job. I want to see the apartment."
"OK." We walked around to the outside entrance and I opened the door. She walked in, walked through the rooms like a prospective tenant. I waited just inside the door. I heard her flush the toilet. She emerged from the bathroom smiling slightly.
"There's no bathtub."
"There's one inside. In the other bathroom. You can use it," I added.
She seemed to be considering. "There's one last thing. What time's your first class today?"
"Two," I said.
She glanced at her watch. "I have to be in Tahoe at two," she said. "About that audition?" There was, refreshingly, nothing coy in her tone or expression. She had a hand in one pocket. She glanced toward the door that let into the rest of the house, then immediately back at me. "Insurance."
I unlocked the interior door; we went inside.
We satisfied each other. That's all I wanted. Had it not been for Annie's girls, I might have been disappointed by the lack of foolish endearments. We made love with a kind of athletic mutual respect. It was not businesslike; but it was not passionate. It was an audition. It did not give me second thoughts, and she seemed, at least, satisfied that it would work.
She wanted to move her stuff on Saturday. She said she'd give a week's notice at the casino, but she'd stay nights at my place starting right away.
"Is that all right? I work two to ten."
"That's OK. I work late too; writing, I mean. That's why I have my classes in the afternoon and evening. I have a night class tomorrow, in fact, so I'll be home late too."
I gave her a key to the apartment, and she left. I thought briefly of coming home in a few hours to find the house stripped. A cautious man would have said I had done something very foolish. All I knew for sure was a few details of her biography. Soon after she left, I called the guy she worked for in Tahoe, explaining that she had applied for a scholarship, and he gave her a good report. I had my instincts and Ellen's to go on. I drove into town, met my classes. She was not at the house when I got back, but there were boxes in her bathroom and clothes strewn on her couch. She had left a note on her desk.
"Leave a candle in the window. I'll be back at midnight, boss."