BY NINI BERNDT
For six months my sister and I have run a phone-sex hotline for urban professionals. We are open only during business hours, 9-5, Monday through Friday. At 8:55 we put on boots and blazers, only panties underneath. We call this look business sexual. “Come suck my heel,” I say, stretching out my booted leg onto one of our kitchen chairs. What I’ve found is that some men like boots more than legs. They want to believe that what is beneath the boot is only more boot.
We set these hours because we are busy on the weekends. We have things to do. We drive down to St. Pete and visit our father at the Tahitian Resort in Treasure Island. The Tahitian is a $65 a night motel he’s been renting for two and a half years, since Rex his husband died. Fag Dads, we called them. Now it’s just the one fag. Just Dad.
Down there at the beach we like to take the kite out. This kite is huge, it’s bigger than any kite I’ve ever seen, shaped like a squid, and it takes all three of us to drag it out onto the sand. “Come on,” I say, when Dad says he’s too tired. “It’s a group effort.” You could never fly that kite alone.
Down at the beach I call my sister Katie and she calls me Jillian and we call our father Dad, never Daddy. Monday through Friday, 9 to 5, I am Gretchen or Tina or Aimee and Katie is Candice or April or Boo Boo. Sometimes I am Mikey, but the guy that wanted Mikey hasn’t come around in a while. I don’t think I was a convincing Mikey, even though he’s the one I most wanted to be.
“Hold these, Jilly,” our father says, handing me the kite strings, and he hollows himself out a well in the sand where he won’t burn as easily. He asks Katie to cover him up with towels while he smokes whole packs of menthols. The kite whirls towards the Tahitian, covering the pool in shadow. I hear some kids cursing the giant squid ruining their swim. “There’s nothing I can do about it,” I shout across an acre of beach. “It’s a big kite.”
“Here,” our father says, handing me a menthol, swaddled in towels. I am not a smoker, but I take it, knowing how he hates to smoke alone, thinking also that some husk in my voice might be good for business.
At home my sister hands me the phone, covering laughter with her hand. “It’s Uncle Albert again,” she says. “He’s drunk.”
Albert is an uncle, not a real uncle, but he likes to think of himself as an uncle. “Okay,” we say. “Whatever you want.” But my sister has begun to think he is our real uncle, that he is truthfully revising his will to include us. That when he says, “Say hello to your father from me,” we should really do it. My sister is five years younger than I am. This makes her sixteen and newly menstruating. She was a late bloomer in regards to that. I was not. I was nine when it happened and our mother was still around.
“Hello, Uncle Albert,” I say, taking the receiver. Uncle Albert is laughing the same way my sister is laughing. Covered, tightlipped laughter that filters through his nose and ears. “What’s so funny?” I ask. Uncle Albert tells me he is dying of AIDS. My sister draws big red dollar signs on our whiteboard. She hops in place. “Just now?” I ask Uncle Albert. “More quickly than I thought,” he says. My sister is now lying on the floor, making a snow angel in her imaginary inheritance.
We take turns with the calls. We have different skill sets, Katie and I. She likes men clogged up with lust, burly and restless. She likes men anxious to get to her, men falling over themselves. When she is on the phone, she is thinking about what they want. When they ask her to yell at them in German, she says “No! You don’t deserve it, schweine,” because she knows what they really want is to be put in their place. They want to be told they are the disgusting creatures they know themselves to be. This is all in a pamphlet we keep on the table at home. gina: it says, you have red hair and green eyes. you are twenty and wear tortoise shell glasses. you overapply sunscreen, keeping your thighs thick and creamy. you like don delillo and anal.
At night, over spaghetti, we study the prompts and their psychology, which I took once in college. Then Rex died and I took Katie and we started this business. I never took a business course in college.
I take the calls that sound like they would rather be somewhere else. Like maybe Matt from HR put them up to this. “Go ahead,” Matt probably said, grinning with coffee on his teeth. “Call em.” And then there is Vincent on the other end, wishing he was home in his biking shorts, checking the tire pressure on his new handcrafted African bamboo road bike while his daughter shouts, “Daddy Daddy, look at me jump rope, Daddy, look at me!”
But Vincent is on the seventh floor stacking last year’s client expense reports for the audit while I ask him to hit me harder, keep hitting me, I tell him while he’s on speaker phone and Matt is sitting on a swivel chair near the door, blushing, checking his email with a hard-on.
Katie knows when to hang up and when not to. I never get it right. I get bored when they’re heating up and interested when they’re cooling down. Because of this she has more repeat clients than I do. If they’ve called before, chances are they’ll ask for her. They know our voices. “Is your sister there?” they ask, and I can hear them open their desks for some lube, or type clumsily with one hand. “Is this Casey?” I ask. “Or Lou? Jerome? Tupper MacDowell?” They hate it when I do that. They want me to know immediately, they want to imagine that I have been waiting all day for them to call. “Give me to your sister,” they say, and I hand it over, and she knows immediately who it is, before the phone is even in her hand fully they no longer regret the call. She is like one big cushy tit to suck on, my sister. Which is funny, because she isn’t much to hold on to up top.
I do have one repeat client. He is younger than most of our clients, polite, and even over the phone he has the sort of voice you know gets girls. He knows your number, this guy, he knows the kind of girl you are, overly aggressive and unambitious. He knows you hate yourself but would hate being someone else even more.
“He wants us to come over,” Katie says, covering the receiver with her hand, squeezing her legs together because she has to pee. “Who?” I ask. “Uncle Albert,” she says. It is almost five now. At five we say, “The rate is now $6.00 a minute and going up from there.” “Tell him no,” I say.
I am making a lasagna to bring down to the Tahitian. I am worried our father eats nothing but Cocoa Puffs and egg rolls. Rex did most of the cooking, after my mother moved out. It’s hard for me to believe that at one point we had two dads and a mom and very bright futures. Bright Futures is the scholarship they give in Florida. They give it to everyone, so they gave it to me also. Katie won’t get it, since she isn’t in formal school anymore. That’s on me, I guess, taking her out of school. We haven’t told our father this. We don’t want to worry him over what we do. I work a 9 to 5, I tell him. Monday through Friday.
Uncle Albert hangs up but calls back. We have never visited a client before. We are not hookers. We do sex work, not sex. “Please?” he pleads. Katie looks at me doe-eyed. She points to the checkbook, mimes the writing of a check. “He’s not our real uncle,” I mouth back. “Does it matter?” she says. Does it?
We take the lasagna with us. The last time we saw my mother was the night before Rex died. She brought over a pumpkin pie and a rotisserie chicken and steamed green beans. Katie had told her over the phone that the four of us had been eating nothing but Pigs in a Blanket from the freezer section for a week. I told Katie not to say anything like this to our mother. Pigs in a Blanket were not Rex’s favorite food but they were his favorite food that I could heat up. Our father was crying too hard all the time to work an oven. Our mother didn’t need to know these things.
“Pull over,” Katie says, tapping the window glass with her nail.
It’s a big place, Uncle Albert’s, right on the water, a duplex, only a few miles from the Tahitian, with an oversized solid mahogany front door. “See,” Katie says, motioning with her eyebrows to the palms and the white curtains gusting out an upstairs window. She winks at me, using an entire cheek to close one eye. I am also a bad winker, so I don’t ever attempt it.
The lasagna is still warm and I pick a piece of crunchy cheese off one corner and feed it to Katie. “Do you think he knows what we look like?” Katie asks. I try to remember what prompts Albert asks for. He wants sisters, I know that much. He likes when we work together. I grab Katie’s hand and hold it, fingers entwined, lasagna wedged between my forearm and hip, and she rings the doorbell.
We wait a full minute before he answers the door. Uncle Albert is really dying. The skin on his neck folds like crepe paper and he’s wearing a white terrycloth bathrobe. “Come on in, Girlies,” he says, and uses the force of his whole body to hold open the door.
His house smells like sandalwood and hot asphalt. It’s probably just the newly repaved street, but the smell seems to come from him, like he has recently been driven over.
It is a better smell than our house before Rex died. That smell was soap and maple-tinged vomit. Our father washed his hands a million times a day after Rex got sick and made us do the same. “That isn’t how it works,” my mother would tell him when she visited. “I’m not keeping you healthy, Krista,” he’d tell her, pumping soap into her palm, reminding her to get into the nail beds. “I’m doing it to keep him healthy.”
Katie and I were to shower when we came in from being anywhere at all. Sometimes now I go days without showering. Sometimes I tell my clients, “Lick me clean, get your tongue in there,” and they think I mean a different place than I actually mean. I just mean behind my knees and under my arms. I just want to smell like mouth instead of soap.
We’re taken from the foyer into the living room. He asks us to take off our shoes. He gives us slippers to put on. “Aren’t you a funny little guy,” Katie says, playing with the lobes of Uncle Albert’s ears. He has tremendous, fleshy ears. Otherwise he is diminutive, bald and thinly eyebrowed. He is not a serial killer, probably, at least not in the traditional sense. “What is it you want?” I ask him, sitting down at a white baby grand, playing an F sharp. Katie looks at me and rolls her eyes, like I have no idea what I’m doing. How is she so good at men, for such a late bloomer? I want her to have learned everything she knows from me, but I think she’s probably learned it from the Fag Dads.
“Aren’t you gay?” I ask. Uncle Albert comes in from the kitchen with three glasses of milk. “Here, Girlies,” he says, and hands me a knife to cut the lasagna.
We sit on the floor, Indian style. We don’t really talk, but Uncle Albert, sweating out asphalt, pulling the sides of robe together modestly, sings “Don’t Worry Baby,” tapping the side of his foot on the floor as he goes. No one really eats anything.
On the east-facing wall there is an enormous mirror, something like you’d use for ballet. The sun is coming in through the windows that line the south-facing wall. I watch the three of us sitting on the floor. Albert is drawing a rose in ballpoint pen on Katie’s bare thigh. Her mouth, when she laughs, is full of braces.
“Let’s play a game,” Albert says, standing, and we follow him to the bathroom. It looks like the bathroom of a Four Seasons I’ll never stay in. He takes the robe off, hangs it on the back of the bathroom door. He asks us to shave him, one leg then the other, in the sink, his foot resting in the basin. He keeps his briefs on. I don’t let Katie work the razor, just watch, put on the shaving cream. “Careful,” Albert says. “We learned from our dad,” Katie tells him, and snaps the band on his briefs.
After the legs he asks Katie to go upstairs to the master bedroom and get the hair dryer. “You’re bald,” I say. “So I am,” he says, and puts my chin between his thumb and pointer. I tell Katie to go wait in the car.
I clean the sink of hair, return the slippers, put my shoes back on. “Anything else?” I ask. “Can’t think of anything,” he says. He writes a real check. Three hundred and fifty dollars. “The house,” he says, “is my sister’s. I have to go back to Pensacola in a week.” “Is it really AIDS?” I ask, folding the check into thirds. “Probably,” says Uncle Albert.
On the terrace of the Bilmar hotel Katie sings along to an ‘80s rock ballad being played by a diamond-studded Bud Light-clad man. “Oh girl, you stand by me, I’m forever yours, faithfully,” he sings, she sings. We call this type of music played by this type of man Daddy Soul. I feel a kinship to the surrender of Daddy Soul. It breaks my heart, but not the way it should.
Down on the sand our father sits wrapped in a pastel pashmina. There are three empty packs of menthols next to him. Three empty packs of menthols and a half eaten corn dog. “Faithfully yooooours,” Katie sings, dancing with our seated father’s arms. “Have you ever?” I start to ask, thinking about Albert and the way he tapped his foot along with The Beach Boys, perfectly, like he’d written the song. About his wet eyes when he said, “Ciao, Girlies,” through a crack of door.
“Stay for one more,” our father says, when we stand to leave. The lasagna remains uneaten. New menthols have been bought and smoked. We have survived another Journey, two Buffetts, a surprise James Taylor, Beast of Burden in F instead of E. “Can’t, Dad,” Katie says, standing, her mouth poised to yawn. “It’s after business hours.” She looks to me, her face atrophying under the weight of her wink.
When I left Albert’s she wasn’t in the car like I’d asked her to be. She was sitting on the front steps. She smiled up at him when he opened the door to let me out. Albert stood behind me, rubbing one hand up and down my arm. Down the street I could hear spring break go on forever. Katie thanked him for having us, pressed her cheek to his. She’d kissed me, on the corner of my mouth, before we drove away. I let her.
“One more,” I say, standing, and take Katie into my arms, two-step in the sand.
Beside the pool the Soul Daddy takes a long drink and shifts keys, retunes. From the pool, in the solid dark, there is cannon ball after cannon ball. I hold tight to my sister’s waist, long after the last song fails to start.
Nini Berndt is completing her MFA at the University of Florida where she teaches and is finishing her first novel. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Passages North, Blackbird, matchbook, PANK, Alice Blue Review, Word Riot and elsewhere. She splits her time between Denver and Gainesville, while writing and raising her young son. You can find her at niniberndt.com.
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