Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be implementing several changes to this blog, and among them is the return of the Friday Short Story. Longtime readers know I’ve done this periodically in the past, and with a little encouragement from them, I’ve decided to make it a regular feature again, starting this week. Today’s story is called “The Store.”
“I don’t understand how this is not prostitution,” April said, handing Beth a mug and sitting down across from her.
“Prostitution implies sex,” Beth answered.
“But you said I can rent a man,” April said. “To do whatever I want him to do. That doesn’t include sex?”
“No. And besides, you’re missing the point.”
April stirred her coffee silently.
“Look, what did you say to me before? That started this whole conversation?”
“I said my bathroom sink is clogged.”
“And you said you wished you had a man to fix it.”
“That makes me sound helpless,” April protested. “I know how to unclog a sink.”
“You’re missing the point,” Beth repeated. “The point is that you wish you had a man around the house to help out with stuff when you need it.”
“It was a throwaway comment,” April said. “Because I hate unclogging sinks. And if I want to rent a man to do it for me, it’s called hiring a plumber.”
“You don’t understand,” Beth said.
“What do you miss, since Jason left?”
“I didn’t ask for your belligerent feminist answer. I want a real answer.”
April rubbed her eyes and sighed.
“I miss… hearing him moving around in the next room. I miss saying something stupid out loud and having him say ‘What?’ and me being embarrassed because I didn’t realize I’d said something stupid out loud. I miss being able to unload on him after a lousy day. I miss having him kill bugs and open jars. I miss smelling his cologne, I miss hearing his laugh.” She was near to tears now. “Satisfied?”
“Now what don’t you miss?”
“Come on, Beth, this is stupid.”
“You asked me to explain The Store so I’m trying.”
“I don’t miss fighting, the anger, the jealousy, the snoring, having to answer to someone else, his stubbornness, and those nasty bristly little black hairs he always left in the sink after he shaved. Which is probably why it’s clogged in the first place, incidentally.”
“And that’s where The Store comes in,” Beth said. “You meet the men, you pick one out, you pay for him and you bring him home. Then you tell him what to do, and he does it. No hassles.”
“It sounds creepy. They sound like robots.”
“They’re not robots. They’re men. They’re real actual flesh and blood men.”
“And you’ve done this?”
“Yes,” Beth said. “Several times. It’s probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Why do they do this? The men, I mean.”
“I asked the same question,” Beth said. “The owner told me they sign up for it. They want to. It’s not indentured servitude. It’s not slavery. They chose to do this.”
“So it’s like an agency. Like a housekeeping agency.”
“Well, not exactly. More like a library. Rent one for as long as you want, return him when you’re done.”
“No rent to own option?”
“Now you’re getting into the fine print,” Beth said. “Let’s go see it and you’ll understand.”
“I still think it sounds creepy, but I am a little intrigued.”
Ten minutes later, they were in Beth’s car. April watched the cars passing them, the people walking along the sidewalk, couples holding hands, laughing friends, mothers pushing strollers. Everyone is going about their normal lives, and I’m sure if anyone looks at us, they’ll think the same thing, she thought. Except this isn’t normal. What we’re doing is not normal. This is some kind of effed up Orwellian fantasy gone wrong. And yet here I am, of my own volition.
Beth turned the car down an alleyway so narrow April half expected them to get stuck.
“Whoa, where are we? What is this? Is this even a street?”
“Yes, kind of. The Store is just a bit further down, at the end.”
Just before the alleyway opened back onto the regular street, Beth pulled the car into a little alcove where two other cars were parked. She shut off the motor and smiled at April.
“No,” April said. “I’m a little freaked out here.”
“Don’t be,” Beth said, patting her hand reassuringly. “You don’t have to rent anyone or sign up for anything if you don’t want to. No pressure at all, from me or from them. I’m not getting anyone today – I still have one at home putting up a wallpaper border in my dining room. He’s smoking hot, too. I’m thinking of renewing him and taking him to my cousin’s wedding next weekend.”
The door was heavy, metal, and painted black, all signs that April was sure didn’t bode well for what they were about to encounter, but as they stepped inside, she caught her breath. It was beautiful – clean, spacious, well-lit, and decorated like a modernized Victorian mansion. A man wearing an Italian silk suit and tasseled loafers approached them.
“Ah, Ms. Anderson, how nice to see you again,” he said, taking Beth’s hand in both of his.
“Hello, Geoffrey. This is my friend, April Jensen. I was telling her about The Store and I thought she’d like to see it for herself.”
“Ms. Jensen, a pleasure to meet you. Please, come this way.”
He led them into a small room where everything was thicker and plusher than everything else. He sat down in an elegant, wingback chair and gestured for them to sit as well. Sinking back into some kind of chaise lounge that April was sure cost more than her car, she wondered again what she had gotten herself into.
“The Store, Ms. Jensen, as I’m sure your friend has told you, is an establishment in which men rent out their services to women.” He held up his hand as though to silence April, although she hadn’t spoken. “I know how that sounds at first blush, but I can assure you this is a respectable, legal, and entirely legitimate operation. We are exclusive, we are well-regarded, and we are not cheap. Think of us as an amalgamation of a handyman service, a maid service, and a home companion provider. Then think a few steps higher. That’s The Store.”
“Higher?” April found her voice.
Geoffrey gave her a shiny, perfect smile.
“We’re a high-end organization,” he explained. “Handyman implies a man with dirty boots and a belt that doesn’t ever seem to function correctly. Maid implies a woman in a uniform who has many other homes to visit before her work day is done. What The Store provides is nothing like that. You tell us what you are looking for, and we will show you a variety of men who offer that service. You talk with them, select the one you want, and rent him. He comes home with you, he does whatever you need him to do, for as long as you need him, and when you’re finished, you return him.”
April laughed, a shrill, humorless sound even to her own ears.
“Yeah, okay, I’m sorry but I have to ask. We’re not talking about sex?”
“No,” Geoffrey said. “That’s an inflexible, unbreakable part of the contract. There can be absolutely no sexual contact of any kind between the rented male and the female client.”
There was a moment of silence. Beth and Geoffrey were both watching April.
“Okay,” she said finally. “Okay, I’m sold.”
“Excellent,” Geoffrey said, rising. “Let me take you into the showroom.”