Telephone Companions

Mimi Albert

Jane's voice has always been the most beautiful thing about her. It's a jewel of a voice, framed by the unpretentious setting of her stooping figure, her lined face. When she was younger and people still fell in love with her, it was her voice rather than her body that they praised. Even her friends agreed that there was something special about her voice, something mesmerizing.

Not that there are many friends left, any more. At 76, she's outlived most of them, managing to survive only through the mercy of Social Security, a graceless and unsympathetic mentor. Which is why she often pores over the classifieds in the free papers at her local coffee shop. But never, until this morning, has she allowed herself the luxury of expectation.

Can you project your personality over the phone? the ad reads. Under this tantalizing question is the title of the company, TELEPHONE COMPANIONS, followed by the line that captures Jane's attention: Liberal benefits, flexible part-time hours, excellent pay.

"What's this about benefits?" she asks the woman who takes her call. "Full benefits for a part-time job?"

"Right," the woman grates; her voice is like the footsteps of someone crunching gravel. "I'm the director here, and we try to treat our people okay. It's worth it." She pauses. "The ones that work out good with us, I mean."

"Does it matter what I look like?" Jane asks, keeping her voice steady, thick as cream.

"It only matters how you sound. If you can go for different accents, different ages, all like that."

"I used to act," Jane says. "On the radio, mostly. They tell me I was good."

No response.

"Of course," Jane adds, feeling a little silly, "that was years ago."

She doesn't want to say how many years ago, but the woman makes an appointment with her anyway, sounding unimpressed.

She expected - what? A kind of electronic brothel, satin couches, women in leather and chains? She finds an ordinary office in an ordinary building, three women and a man talking into headsets at small metal desks.

"So," the director snaps, regarding Jane skeptically. "How good are you? Can you play a dominatrix?"

"If I knew what one was." Jane looks down at her shabby purse, which nestles in her lap like a cat.

"Like this." The director spanks one palm with the other. "Or this." She grinds into the floor with the stiletto heel of her shoe.

"Oh," says Jane. She sits very still for a minute. "Yes," she answers faintly. "I think I can do that."

"So let's hear it." The woman's eyes flick across Jane's face. "Go."

Suddenly Jane's voice is as hard and gleaming as the fender of a new car. "Shut up. Lie down. Turn over. Do you like that?" She raps her fist against the desk, hard enough to hurt. "No. Not enough! You don't like it enough. If you don't begin to like it more, I'll stop."

"How about a kid?" the woman says. "Can you sound like a kid?"

Jane pats the purse reassuringly. "Please don't hurt me," she whimpers, after a pause. "Please, please don't hurt me any more." Blood pounds in her ears. "Oh. You're much too big, too big for me. Don't do it. No! I'm scared."

Then, for reasons she doesn't fully understand, she bursts into tears.

It's been years since Jane has pressed herself against a man's body, felt his hardness; heard, beneath the touch of his hands and mouth, the powerful cries of her own excitement. Years since she has even offered any pleasure to herself, rubbing her fingers deep between her legs, nipples hardening gradually as if before a lover's eyes. Now she gives herself up to the memories, which are, miraculously, still alive, as ready as any good actor's bag of tricks. She reaches into this bag as each caller demands, asking for some new scenario, some new set of emotions; reading, as she takes each call, the penciled inscriptions in the receptionist's handwriting: You're ten years old and lost. Or, You're a blonde, you sound like Marilyn Monroe. He'll want to know what kind of underwear you're wearing. He'll want you to take it off.

She thinks of her small apartment, of the nights when she can't sleep. Of the flickering television set, the usually silent phone. Of the city outside her window, a ghostly presence, filled with millions of people who don't know her, who don't care that she's tired and sad, although she used to be one of the people they looked up to, an actress with a chic tall shape and elegant clothes. On those nights she'd felt as if hers was the worst kind of loneliness. She knows now that she was wrong.

By the second hour of the first day at Telephone Companions, Jane has decided to quit. But that same night, a filling falls out of one of her teeth. I'll stay a few more weeks, she thinks. Just enough to earn the first month's paycheck. A few more weeks, that's all.

She turns out to be popular. Customers begin to ask for Violet, her telephone name, almost right away. One man in particular asks for her two or three times a week.

"He wants to give you a job," the receptionist says, the first time he calls.

The "job" he gives her is as an artist's model.

"We need to get you a costume," he wheezes. "What size do you wear?" He's probably asthmatic, Jane thinks, sipping a cup of lukewarm tea.

Then he keeps her on the phone for half an hour, much too long, choosing the costume, fitting it to her body.

"Let's see, do I want to pose you as a belly dancer?" he puffs. "No. A circus performer. An animal trainer. Yeah. Tigers."

He discusses her attire in detail - corset, tights, whip - until Jane is exhausted and the man can barely gasp. He keeps her on the phone for half an hour, much too long. And each time he tries to stay on a little longer, which isn't good for business, she's been told.

"I want to see you," he announces one day. She can almost feel his hands on her body. She can almost smell his breath. "Can we meet?"

"Sure," she murmurs. Because of his labored breathing, she's named him Fat Boy. And the voice she uses with him is the voice of a big woman too, a woman with proud, wide hips and a huge bush between them, heavy breasts with brown aureoles. By now, not an inch of that body hasn't been described, verbally caressed, and penetrated, either by Fat Boy or by Jane herself, using a voice like dark plush, soft and hard at once.

"So tell me where you are," he gasps. But she realizes suddenly that he isn't talking about the telephone. He actually wants to see her.

"I'm here," she evades.

"No," he says, impatient. "Where can I meet you?"

"On the phone. On the phone with you, because it gives me unimaginable pleasure -"

He hangs up.

The next day he calls again.

"I want to see you," he repeats.

"Sure," she says.

Again, he wants to know where.

"Only on the phone. Trust me, lover. It's the best."

"No," he says.

"You're a bad boy," she whispers, as if hiding their conversation, although no one else can hear. "You know I can't meet you anywhere else. I could get in trouble just talking about it."

"That's a lie," he groans. "Other girls do it all the time."

"I can't," she says. "It's too risky."

But it's her own voice in which she speaks. Jane's voice, not Violet's. She realizes she's given him something she didn't want to give: her real voice, her real "number."

She removes her headset and switches it off.

After she's been with the company for five months, Jane's teeth are fixed and shining and the tide of bills has receded. She walks with a new lilt in her step, partly because she's been able to buy herself some good boots and a warm coat for winter, but also for other reasons. New feelings have begun to haunt her.

One day, running for a bus, she notices a billboard with the image of a young man in tight jeans frowning out at passersby. His lips puff out, as if he's about to kiss, or suck, or lick.

And Jane, staring up at him instead of watching where she's going, falls off the curb.

Later, as she washes the black and blue bruises on her legs, she smiles.

"I'll handle it," the director says, when Jane finally tells her about Fat Boy. "Don't let it bother you. When he calls again we'll just send him on to one of the others. He'll get over you in a hurry."

Jane nods.

"That it?" the director says.

Jane walks back to her desk, her headset. One of the others? she wonders. But he wanted me. It was me he asked for.

Leaving work the following week, she notices a man waiting outside the front door of the building. Although young, he's bald and stooping, with a sallow face. Each time a woman comes through the door, he runs up and accosts her, causing her to hurry away as if pursued.

"Violet?" Jane hears him asking one of them as she passes by. His voice is a breathless groan. "Is that you? I've got to see you, I don't care..."

It's Fat Boy, except he isn't fat at all. Jane recognizes him by his wheezy voice, by the excitement beneath his words.

Suddenly she wants to answer, wants to call out to him, "I'm here, my darling. I'm right here." But when she approaches, he hardly looks at her; he's too involved in pursuing one of the other young women, repeating his demand.

The next day she calls in sick. "I've got flu," she croaks, her voice muffled and hoarse. I'm never going back, she thinks, hanging up the phone. I've got enough of what I need. I don't have to degrade myself anymore. For a moment, she feels jubilant.

But when she gets into bed that night, something else happens. Her mind fills up with images of women, women in rubber dresses, women in red velvet gowns open to the waist, floating against white pillows like streams of blood, women with curls spreading over naked shoulders, women with breasts so pale that the nipples are barely distinguishable, women, women, women, and all of them Violet, all of them Jane herself, but beautiful and seductive. And all of them lonely, all of them crying out in loneliness.

On the first day of the second week of not working, Jane puts on her clothes. She slips into the new coat and boots. She ventures out to the streets.

Just for a walk, she tells herself. The day is warm, for winter. Just for a walk around the block.

She remembers some things she left in the office, a potted plant, a book of stamps, some gloves. She boards the bus that takes her down to the office building. All the way up in the elevator she worries about the plant, but when she gets to her desk she doesn't even notice whether or not it's still alive.

"Hey, it's Violet," says one of the other women. The director steps out of her office, sending a tight smile in Jane's direction.

"Why dincha call?" she asks in her awful voice. "You should've let us know you were feeling better."

"I'm fine now," Jane says. "I'd like to get back to work."

The others smile and back away, leaving her alone at her desk, fastening her headset over her thinning hair. She feels the odd, electrical firing of her heart, and then the receptionist's voice comes over the set and she's given instructions for the next call. Heat rises up her spine like a flash of life. She leans forward into the booth and begins to speak.

© Mimi Albert

Mimi Albert's novels, The Second Story Man and Skirts, are about women coming of age in difficult times. Her fiction has won various honors including a PEN/NEA short fiction award and a Bay Area Book Reviewers' citation. She teaches writing at UC Berkeley Extension and is at work on a new novel, People of the Air.

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