IT WAS JUST AFTER ONE ON A TUESDAY morning when the phone rang. Ben was jolted awake from a dream and picked up the receiver from the phone on the nightstand by his bed. "Hello," he said.
"Come and pick me up," said the voice on the phone. It was Greta's voice.
Ben was not surprised that the voice on the phone belonged to Greta. "Greta," he said, "I'm sleeping."
"Get your ass over here. And hurry before the liquor stores close."
"Greta, really. I'm pretty beat."
"Yeah, whatever. I'll be waiting outside. How long are you gonna take?"
Ben sighed and said, "20 minutes."
"15," Greta said, and hung up the phone.
Ben lay in bed for another few minutes staring at his ceiling in the dim light. Then he got up and put on his clothes. He walked to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, found a beer and drank it. It wasn't particularly unusual for Greta to call Ben at random hours and demand things. It was, in fact, rather standard. It was just something she did, and she got away with it because she was Greta. And, Ben supposed, because he was Ben. Greta was one of those people accustomed to getting what they wanted much more often than not. What it all boiled down to was that Ben didn’t really care. He wasn’t doing anything in the morning and he liked being with Greta more than he liked most things.
Ben finished his beer, checked himself in the mirror and headed over to Greta’s place. Greta lived in an apartment with her grandmother and younger sister just a few minutes away from the house where Ben lived with his parents. Greta’s grandmother didn’t seem to like Ben much. Greta told him it was because she thought him to be a bad influence on her. Ben had always figured it to be the other way around.
Ben was 24 and Greta was 17. They had been friends, or whatever exactly it was they were, for about a year. They had met at a party. Greta had unceremoniously sat down on a couch next to Ben and proceeded to help him drink his six pack of Michelob Dark. Greta smoked and talked as she drank Ben’s beer, and Ben just drank and looked at Greta. Greta was very beautiful. She looked like Jean Harlow. Pale skin, platinum hair and amazing blue eyes. She had a cruel and pretty mouth, her lips always painted a fierce, deep red. As they sat together on the couch they discovered common interests. They liked much of the same music, they both liked to drink, and they both thought Greta was beautiful. Mostly they liked to drink.
They exchanged phone numbers and started seeing each other on a fairly regular basis, usually whenever Greta called Ben demanding that he meet her, wherever she happened to be. Often they just sat in Ben’s car drinking, smoking and listening to the Smiths. It was okay with Ben.
Ben pulled his car into the parking lot of the apartment complex and Greta was there, waiting. She was smoking and looking impatient. It seemed he was always smoking and looking impatient. She wore a fake leopard skin jacket over black legging and a black t-shirt. She stood and waited as Ben got out of the car and opened the passenger side door.
"What took you so long?" Greta asked once they were both in the car.
"It was only 10 minutes," said Ben.
"Whatever. Let's go to the store."
Ben drove to a 7-11. He got out of the car and opened the passenger side door for Greta. Greta headed into the store, Ben following behind, watching Greta's ass and listening to the click clack of her heels upon the pavement.
Ben bought a six pack of beer and a bottle of wine while Greta managed to pocket two packs of cigarettes, a disposable lighter and a pack of gum. Back in the car Greta pulled the stolen objects one by one from the pockets of her coat.
"I could've bought that stuff," Ben said. Greta looked at him as if he were a fool.
"Where are we going?" Ben asked.
"Wherever," said Greta. 'Wherever' meant finding a place to park the car where the cops wouldn't bother them; usually a park or a quiet neighborhood. Once they found a suitable destination they would talk and drink and smoke and listen to cassette tapes on Ben's portable cassette player. They usually talked about Greta. Or, Greta talked about Greta and Ben listened, more or less. Family dramas and sexual encounters. Greta liked to tell Ben about the sex she had with other people, providing detailed accounts of every encounter. A married man she met in a grocery store, a cop that picked her up wandering the streets at 4 a.m., etc. Whenever she finished a particular tale she always asked Ben what he thought. Ben usually told her that he didn't know. Greta asked if the things she told him made Ben jealous. "Sometimes," Ben said, because sometimes they did. Ben and Greta had sex every once in a while, usually when they were very drunk, and when Ben had money for a room.
On this particular night they drove to a little park in a neighborhood not far from Greta's place. Greta seemed preoccupied, and didn't talk as much as usual. It happened from time to time. She smoked and drank wine and told Ben what songs to play on the tape player. Ben drank his beer and played the songs that Greta told him to play. It was okay with him.
"Do you have any money?" Greta asked after about 45 minutes of sitting in the car.
"Some," Ben said.
"Enough for a room?"
"I guess so."
"I know a place. Let's go."
Greta directed Ben to an area he was not greatly familiar with, the industrial outskirts of the city. Old factories and abandoned warehouses. Run down and sinister looking neighborhoods. People standing on street corners looking like they were up to no good. It was all very dark. There was a freeway off ramp with a Denny's and a little motel. It looked like something out of a movie. Greta instructed Ben to park in a dark corner of the motel lot, far from the office. She seemed anxious. Ben sensed something was going on that he didn't know about, but decided not to ask any questions, at least for the moment. It was often better that way.
"Get us a room," Greta said, "I'll wait here."
Ben obediently got out of the car and walked across the parking lot towards the little office. The parking lot was dark and all but deserted. Ben noted only two other cars besides his own. He opened the door to the office and stepped inside. A man who looked to be about Ben's age sat behind the desk reading a paperback book. He flinched a bit when he heard the little bell that signaled the opening of the door. He looked up from his book at Ben and Ben looked back at him. He was a fairly attractive fellow with short black hair and fashionable glasses. He looked bookish, in a hip kind of way. Somewhat out of place behind the desk of a seedy old motel. They looked at each other in silence for what seemed to Ben to be an exceptional amount of time. Ben had the feeling that he had maybe met the man before. He recognized him, somehow, but had no idea from where or when. Eventually they conducted the transaction with few words. Ben paid for the room and the man behind the desk gave him the keys.
When Ben returned to the car Greta was two thirds done with her bottle of wine. She was listening to a Depeche Mode song, still looking anxious. "Didja get a room?" she asked.
"Yup," Ben said.
"What did he say?"
"What did who say?"
"The guy at the desk."
"He didn't say anything. What was he supposed to say?"
"Nothing. Shut up. Let's go drink."
Ben moved the car nearer to their room. Number 8. The room looked just a Ben imagined it would. Small and boxlike. There was a double bed and a small TV. There were small ugly little tables on either side of the bed. A tiny bathroom that faintly smelled of mold. The room itself smelled of stale beer and cigarettes. Everything was yellow and stained. The walls, the curtains, everything. Once they were inside and had closed the door the rest of the world seemed very far away.
They had a bottle of wine and the better part of a six pack left between them. Greta went into the bathroom and Ben opened the bottle of wine and poured some into two plastic cups he found on one of the bedside tables. Greta came out of the bathroom, sat down on the corner of the bed and lit a cigarette. Ben handed her one of the plastic wine cups. Greta took it and told Ben to play some music. Ben pressed play on the tape player and Depeche Mode came on. "Not that, Greta said immediately, this!" She took a Smiths tape from her purse and tossed it at Ben. He took out Depeche Mode and put in the Smiths. Greta sat on the bed drinking, smoking and mouthing the words to Smiths songs. She seemed to be looking at something Ben couldn't see. Ben sat in a chair by the tape player. He drank wine and looked at Greta looking at whatever invisible thing she was looking at.
Time passed in this way for some time. Or no time passed at all. It was hard to tell. Time ceased to exist in the sad little room, and Ben liked it that way. There was just him and Greta and wine and music and cigarette smoke drifting about. It was a dingy magic, perfect in its own way. Greta looked sad and lonely and beautiful, oblivious to everything other than whatever it was going on inside her head. She certainly wasn't paying any attention to Ben, but he didn't mind too much. Things were fine the way they were.
Greta eventually glanced over at Ben as if suddenly becoming aware of his presence for the first time. "What are you doing?" she asked, sounding somehow annoyed.
"What? Nothing, Ben said.
"Go get some ice," Greta said.
"Ice? What for?"
"Just go get some fucking ice!"
Ben knew better than to argue. He finished the wine in his cup and got up from his chair. He took the room key and a can of beer. He looked for an ice bucket but didn't see one. "I'll be back," he said. Greta looked at him as if he were a hostile stranger speaking another language. He went outside to look for ice.
Ben walked around the entire building a few times but didn't see an ice machine. He found a soda machine and a candy machine but no ice machine. He walked around the building a third time with no better luck. He headed towards the office to see if maybe the ice machine was in there, or if the guy behind the desk could tell him where to find one. When he approached the office he saw that the man behind the desk was talking on the phone. The man had a strange look on his face as he talked into the phone, as if he were in some kind of pain. He didn't look happy. Ben decided not to bother him. He stood in the parking lot drinking his can of beer, wondering where he might find some ice.
Ben remembered seeing a convenience store not too far away from the motel. He walked in that direction. When he got there they were still open and they had ice. He bought some ice and a pack of cigarettes for Greta. Seeing that it was coming up on 2 a.m., he bought another six pack of beer as well. The thought of running out of beer made Ben nervous.
On the way back to the room Ben passed the office and saw that the man was still on the phone. He still didn't look very happy and seemed to be arguing with whoever was on the other end of the phone. When Ben stepped back into the little room he saw that Greta was on the phone was well. She didn't look any happier than the guy behind the desk. She didn't acknowledge Ben's return. Ben put the bag of ice in the bathroom sink and sat back down in the chair by the tape player. He drank beer and listened to Greta's half of the phone conversation. He didn't have a choice; it was a small room and Greta was screaming more than she was talking. Ben assumed it was a guy on the other end of the phone. It seemed that Ben was always listening to Greta argue with guys on the phone. She kept calling whoever it was on the phone an asshole.
"You're an asshole," Greta screamed into the phone. "A fucking, fucking asshole!" Then she was quiet a moment as she listened to whatever the person on the other end of the phone had to say. Greta looked as if she had been crying, or was about to. "Shut up," she said, "my god, just shut up!" Greta glanced over at Ben, perhaps only then realizing he had returned. "I have to go," she said to the person on the phone, "he's back."
Ben had actually been back for a good 15 minutes. "What?" Greta said into the phone, "Am I going to fuck him? Of course I'm going to fuck him! I'm gonna suck his fucking dick, asshole, what do you think I'm gonna do? What? I'm a what? At least I'm not a fucking asshole!"
Greta threw the phone receiver across the room. It bounced against the yellow wall and fell upon the stained and faded carpet. Greta sat on the bed sobbing and cursing to herself. For a minute or so Ben looked at the receiver where it lay on the carpet, then got up and put it back in its place. As he did so, something clicked in his mind. He understood that the guy on the other end of the phone was the man behind the desk in the motel office. And he realized that the man had seemed familiar because Greta had described him just a few nights before. His name was Dan, maybe. He's really smart, Greta had told Ben, he reads a lot, just like you. She mentioned that he was a substitute high school teacher and worked a few nights a week at a little motel for extra money. He had a wife, and maybe a baby. Sometimes Greta would visit him during his shifts at the motel and they would have sex. What did Ben think of that, she had asked him. He seems like an okay, guy, Ben had replied.
Greta was still on the bed sobbing quietly. She lit a cigarette. She held out her empty plastic cup in Ben's direction. He filled it with wine. "I got some ice," he said.
Greta looked at him as if he were insane. "I'm gonna take a shower," she said. She took her wine and cigarettes into the bathroom and shut the door.
Ben sat in his chair and listened to Greta taking a shower, trying to figure out how he felt. A part of him felt insulted, maybe even slightly hurt, understanding that once again he was just a pawn in whatever game Greta was currently playing. Part of him wanted to take his tape player and what was left of the beer and leave her there. But most of him really didn't feel that bad. He still liked being in the sad little room with the beer and the wine and the music. He liked the idea of Greta in the bathroom taking a shower. He felt like he was living inside an old movie and watching it at the same time.
Then the phone started ringing. Greta was still in the shower. Ben sat and looked at the phone as it rang. Ben counted eight rings and it kept on ringing. After the tenth ring Ben picked up the receiver. "Hello," he said. The phone was silent for a moment and then the voice of the man behind the desk asked if Greta was there. "She's in the shower," Ben said.
"Oh," said the man's voice, "okay." And then some more silence.
"Hey," Ben said, "I'm sorry. I really have no idea what's going on."
"It's okay," said the voice of the man behind the desk. And Ben found himself feeling sorry for the voice, for the man behind the desk. He really did seem like an okay guy. Ben felt sorrier for the man behind the desk than he did for himself.
Greta stepped out of the tiny bathroom naked and dripping wet. She held her empty plastic cup in her hand. She still looked like she had been crying, or was about to. Ben looked at her, thinking she was beautiful. Greta looked at Ben and the phone in his hand. "It's for you," he said, holding the receiver out to her.
Greta grabbed the phone. "What?" she said, "Fuck you. Fuck you." She dropped the phone receiver on the carpet and started to cry. "I hate him," she said softly, more to herself than to Ben, "I hate him." Ben mumbled something in reply, it didn't really matter what, and Greta looked at him as if she hated him even more than she did the man behind the desk. She sat down naked on the bed and took a cigarette from the pack Ben had bought along with the ice that was now melting in the little bathroom sink. She once more held out her empty plastic cup. Ben filled it with beer, as there was no more wine.
Greta finished the cup in two gulps, and said, "Let's fuck."
Ben made no immediate reply. He sat in his chair looking at her, feeling suddenly sad.
"Fuck me, asshole," Greta said.
If he were a different man, a better man, perhaps, things might have gone differently. But, Ben was Ben, and he thought Greta looked good sitting naked on the sad motel bed, telling him to fuck her. So he did.
A few minutes later Ben was back in his chair, putting a new tape into the player. Greta was sitting naked on the bed, smoking and sobbing. She still looked tragic and beautiful and Ben liked the fact that he had just fucked her. Ben watched the smoke drift about the room in slow motion. There was nothing else he wanted to happen.
by William Taylor Jr
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