By The Hour
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Espresso"
Originally featured on 05-11-2010
As part of our series "All From These Magic Beans"

Kyle told her what he wanted, and what he wanted was within the bounds of the services she offered. Nonetheless, she wrinkled her face when he specified his request. "What?” was spoken with attitude — Kyle wished he could reel it back. She smiled with the portion of her face west of her nose and gave him a shove on the chin. The rest of her was in a different conversation. The touch induced a tingle that traveled slowly down his throat like salt, made a trickling descent through his spine, stopping at each vertebra, and sizzled in his groin, its final destination. She said, “You’re an odd duck.” “Kyle.” He put out his hand. She did not shake his hand, but paused for the amount of time a handshake would have taken, and said, “The name’s Cheri.” She did not look like he expected. She wore no makeup, and her hair was pulled back in an elastic band. She wore faded jeans and a striped windbreaker. She looked like she had come from a jog on the beach. Kyle looked down at his clothes. He was wearing gray slacks and a sports coat. “So…” She chuckled in a way that made Kyle forget for a moment that he was the one hiring her to perform a service, and not the other way around. Cheri possessed an inscrutable capacity to make a man feel embarrassed. Kyle told himself to remember that about her. “So that’s what you want?” She wrinkled her forehead. Kyle’s stomach boiled with arousal. “I mean…you did say in the, um, ad, that you, um, accommodate…fantasies…um, correct?” "Thank you for shopping at Perv’s-R-Us.” She laughed and lightly punched his chin. Her knuckles were softer to the touch than her expressions were to the eyes. "I used to say within reason, but after six years in the biz, I don’t say that anymore, because you know and I know that I do things reasonable people haven’t even heard of. So what I say is, there are five things I won’t do.” Kyle held up four fingers, then reluctantly uncurled his pinky. “You mean, like, biting, pissing, ritual bloodletting-” "Come on, now, I’m not a prude.” Kyle looked at her and fidgeted his hand in his belt loop. He was not sure whether to laugh. "You don’t have much imagination, do you?” Cheri yanked his hand away from his belt loop and walked with him hand in hand down the pier. The waves were receding from the toasted sand, lapping at grainy matrices of footprints like a stomach digesting too much food. The sun dipped behind a wooded island, and Kyle looked at Cheri, letting the brightness burn his eyes. This was going to be a pleasurable evening. Sitting on the edge of the pier, Cheri said, “Not that I didn’t hear you clearly the first time, but please repeat to me what it is you want to do, to be sure I understand.” "I want you to be my best friend.”

Cheri’s eyes bobbed with fatigue. She chewed on her saliva.

“I mean it. From now until Nine PM.”

Cheri looked at her watch. It was an old circular one with actual hands, scratched, faded and plain, but functional. It looked classy on her, somehow.

“Cuz I pay by the hour, right? I mean, right.” He waited for Cheri to say something.

“You want me to be your best friend?” She said it in the way that one might say you want to eat that? while holding up a moldy piece of fruit.

“We won’t have sex until the end of our time. Or maybe we won’t have sex, I don’t know. We’ll throw sand at each other, laugh, maybe play some Frisbee, get an ice cream cone, make jokes about shaking sand out of weird places, talk, whatever.”

“Stop.” She adjusted her hair band. “I can take a guess what you need. It’s not me.”

“What are you saying?”

“What do I look like to you? You think I get paid to give a shit?” She brought her legs under her and started to stand.

Kyle pushed her back down by her shoulders. “There’s more.”

She folded her arms. Her tongue circled the inside of her lips. “Gee, I wonder what.”

“I already said, no sex. After the ice cream and the joking part, we’ll get in an argument. You’ll say something…you won’t mean it for an insult, you’ll mean it just regular, like it ain’t a thing. I’ll make other meanings of it and I’ll take it to heart, I’ll come at you with a string of invective, probably make inferences to your, um, profession in a disrespectful way, you’ll cry, you’ll throw more sand at me, but this time it won’t be for fun, and it will hurt, and I really will have sand lodged in bodily crevices I wish I didn’t, you’ll take the money and leave, then I’ll chase after you and apologize for the nasty things I said, we’ll…we’ll make it okay, and then, I don’t know. You know? I mean, I don’t know, I mean I- I already said that, said that I don’t know. Right. Right?” She looked at the ocean, her gaze flat and her lips horizontal. “It’s your ride, cowboy."

“You change your mind? You’ll do it?”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t. I said there are five things-”

“But you said what I, um, need- that…you don’t give a…”

“It’s your choice. You called me.” "So you…got no problem? You don’t think it’s…weird?” She put her face unnaturally close to his. Her breath had more salt in it than the air. “Trust me, babycakes, I've boned weirder."

“But I just told you twice, we aren’t gonna-”

“I know. Lighten up.” "So how did you become a…"

The muscles around her eyes choked as if they had swallowed something. “You got to be kidding me.”

“I just like to know how people…never mind. Forget it.” “Why would you want to know that in particular?"

“It’s not important, forget I asked.”

“You’re a shy guy. I’ve been with shy guys, and they get over it. I help them to get over it, because I don’t like to waste people’s time, and I especially don’t like to waste my time. Sometimes it takes a shot of rum, but usually I just give them a little peep show and they get comfortable real fast. If you want to know something honest, I’ll tell you my pet peeve: shy guys.” She poked her finger into the soft spot above his stomach and twisted it like a screwdriver. “There are three kinds of people in my philosophy: those who have balls, those who don’t, and those who don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me which of the three you are; I get along with them all equally, as long as I know which one you are. If you’re a nervous driver, that’s fine, I’ll drive. But if you rent a car, you sure as hell better drive it. If you ask me a question, don’t tell me to forget you asked.”

“That’s fair.”

Her finger was still pressed to his chest. “You got something on your shirt.”

Kyle looked down. She ran her finger across his face. He laughed.

“There’s that smile.” Cheri was not smiling. “I’m not all business. I can actually be quite goofy when you get to know me, which I don’t imagine you will.” Kyle pulled the handful of sand out of his pocket and dumped it on her lap. “I guess you didn’t understand me. We’re a…” He clasped his fingers together crookedly. “The clock has started. We’re going to tell each other things about ourselves, secret things, things you only tell friends. Me and you. Maybe I threw you off when I said fantasy; this isn’t pretend. This is us. You, me. Get it?” "Ask away.” "I already did, and I might as well belabor it; how did you become…” "If you can’t say it, I won’t answer it. Don’t be bashful around your hourly-contract girlfriend.” "Whore.” Her mouth widened. "Hooker.” Her eyebrows lowered to meet her cheeks. "Prosti-” She coughed. "Well, what do you write on your tax returns?” "Self employed.” Cheri stood up, cart-wheeled down the pier and jumped down onto the sand. Kyle followed her. She crouched down to study a seashell and said, “Can you pick up that shell for me?” Kyle bent over to pick it up and Cheri pushed him. He tumbled on his back. She sprinkled sand on his face. He spat it out. She helped him up. They sat under the pier shivering. The sand under the wood’s shadow looked like wood. The water rushing against the reinforcement poles sounded like human yelling with the volume turned down.

Cheri said, “I've got sand in my G-string."

"Me too."

Cheri said, “You’re wearing a G-string? I didn’t take you for the type."

“You don’t joke around much, do you?"

Cheri said, “No, I don’t."

“You’re not good at it. That’s okay, I’m not either. We don’t have to be funny."

Cheri said, “Goofy and funny are different things. Funny is for people with spare time. Goofy is for mental survival.”

“So, back to my question.”

Cheri said, “You really want to know how I became a-” Yes, he did. “I mean, only if you want to tell me.”

“I’m telling you my fucked-up personal stuff because you’re paying me to, and to make sure you get your money’s worth, I’ll start from the beginning.”

“It’s not just for me. I’m sure it feels good to talk about the stuff nobody wants to hear about.”

“To be candid — since honesty is part of this service package — customer satisfaction is not the reason I’m starting from the beginning. I really don’t know any other way to tell it but from the beginning, so the complete fucked-up fuckoscopic fuckastic fuckyssey is what you get.”

“What if after you tell me I don’t like you anymore? Then can I get a refund?”

She unzipped his fly, jammed a fist’s worth of sand inside and zipped it back up. Kyle smiled and kissed her on the cheek.

“That was unnecessary.”

Kyle shifted his position. Every time he contracted a muscle, sand lodged itself further up his rectum and he didn’t mind. “I’m really glad I met you.”

“Hold my hand.”

Her palm felt like a slab of frozen meat that had thawed but knew no other consistency than frozen. He was listening to the water and thinking about the sand in his butt, and did not hear her begin speaking. He pieced together that it began with her mother’s exit when she was young, and being raised by her father, and attending children’s theater.

“…I was sensitive, I’d scream when the princess got chased by a wolf, and it pissed me off if the story didn’t end right. Even if it was a happy ending, I'd be upset if it didn’t end how I thought it should. So one time, after the curtain, when everyone was cheering and clapping, my daddy noticed that I wasn’t clapping. He asked me why. I didn’t say. He made me look him in the eye. When he asked me why I was crying, I told him I didn’t think the fairy should have galloped off from the palace with the flute maker.”

“How did you want it to end?”

“That’s what he asked me. I told him exactly how I’d have rewritten the play.”

“That’s an odd beginning to a story that ends with you becoming a-”

“Shut up.”

Kyle squeezed her hand tighter. The rush of blood to his lower arm siphoned more sand into his anal region. He exhaled and tried to relax his abdominal muscles. “Sorry.”

“Then daddy looked at me in a non-joking manner and said, You remember the time daddy showed you his gun? I nodded my head. He said, You know I keep it in the inside pocket of my jacket, like I told yout, right? I nodded again. He said, Would it make you feel scared if I took out my gun?” Kyle wanted to hold her hand tightly enough to stop the story from happening as she told it. Hearing that the story was unstoppable, his throat quivered and his chest became a rock enclosing hot coals. Cheri turned her head away from Kyle. “I looked away from daddy. Daddy said, I promise I won’t shoot it. Would it make you uncomfortable if I, how should I say this, if I show people what it looks like?

Kyle said, “I don’t think I want to hear any more.”

She laughed. “Grow up, this isn’t going where you think. Jesus, I can’t mention a gun without people leaping to innuendo. Get that thought out of your head; this isn’t that kind of daddy story. This is a daddy went to jail kind of story, because daddy carried a gun. Gun, as in, bang bang.” She made a gun out of her fingers. “May I continue?”

Kyle shook sand out of his pant leg.

“Daddy and I went to the hallway, and then through a door that wasn’t the exit. I got to see the greenroom, where the actors were undressing and cussing and being like regular people. They saw me and then they saw my daddy and they started screaming. My father talked to them a little, and then somehow we’re walking outside with four of the cast members, we find a dark alley and my father instructs me to tell these petrified adults how I thought the story should end, which I happily did. They looked ridiculous, half in their costumes, makeup on and wigs off, and, well, more because I’d just never seen grown men and women that scared before.”

Kyle shook his head. “That didn’t happen. I call bullshit.”

“Would you give me a bigger tip if you believed me?”

“A children’s theater acted out your fantasy at gunpoint, huh?”

“My dad tipped the actors well. He handed me twenty dollars to give them each.”

“And now you make men’s fantasies come true to turn a profit.”

Kyle reminded himself that this woman wielded a power to make men feel embarrassed. Her eyes, looking down at the shadowy sand between her crossed legs, failed to sculpt the sand, and Kyle realized, with a sour feeling in his stomach, that she was not powerful. “Gosh, I’m sorry. That wasn’t nice. I’m a lousy friend.”

“Are we still at the stage of our friendship where we have to be nice to each other?”

“First I demand you tell me traumatic stories, then I accuse you of lying, then I-”

“Trust me, hon, I haven’t told you my traumatic stories. Far from it.”

“Now I’m curious how all that led to you becoming- to, um, us being here right now.”

She nuzzled her chin in his chest. “You can stroke my hair if you want to. Included in the price.” He wanted to. “I was just about to get to the punch-line, but now the story’s ruined. I’ll have to rebuild momentum- hey, what’s the matter? Aren’t you going to stroke my hair?” He tried to conceal his erection as he pealed back her hair band, handling it like he had handled the thrashing, wiggling trout he had caught on his first fishing trip. “That’s better. Do you still want to hear how I became a-”

“Of course I do.”

“Then I take no responsibility for a punch-line that’s drained of its juice.”

“So your dad tipped the actors, and then what, the police came?”

“No. He told them that was the best encore he’d ever seen. I asked him what an encore was. He told me to look it up, so I did, and late at night I asked him if mommy was coming back. He looked surprised that I asked. I said maybe if we clap loud enough, mommy will do an encore.”

Kyle stopped stroking her hair.

“Yeah, Hallmark moment, bite me. Daddy bought seasons passes to the theater, and after a while he didn’t have to flash his gun anymore, it became tradition, like we were extended family. The actors loved the challenge. Loved us. Well, me. When I got older, daddy took me to Shakespeare plays. Ophelia and Laertes objected to being herded into a sewer corridor in their Elizabethan clothes so they could rewrite Hamlet for my pleasure, but it wasn’t until we coerced Willy Loman to get back into character and assert for us his intention to visit a therapist that daddy got caught.”

“What did they do, plant an undercover cop in the audience?”

“He went to jail. I dropped out of high school.”

Kyle did not think he wanted to hear any more.

They sat silently until Cheri got up and walked, stretching her arms to the sky and behind her back. Kyle walked beside her, several yards away from her, occasionally picking up seashells, trying not to look as though he were trying to think of something to say to her. They remained silent as the trees on the distant island lost their distinct shapes to a contour of solid shadow. The wind picked up. Kyle buttoned his coat and huddled his elbows for warmth. The ice cream stands were closing. Distant music from sports cars wafted like fumes. Kyle thought about how well this date had been going earlier.

Cheri was lying naked on the sand, one arm and one leg — every part of her west of her naked breasts — in the surf. Kyle had not noticed her taking off her clothes. He sat in the sand several feet from her and watched her breathe. He scooted slowly closer.

Kyle said, “Did I upset you?”

She did not hear him. With a sweeping motion of her arms and legs, her naked body slid into the water until only her face and the summits of her breasts showed above the surface. If she wanted to float out to sea, he was not sure if he would or could stop her.

“Cheri?” Kyle walked briskly toward her.

She was looking up.

“Cheri, what are you doing?”

With a thrust of her heel in the sand, she propelled herself seaward. Kyle stripped out of his pants and waddled in up to his thighs, standing at arm’s length from where she floated. She sat up and tossed her hair in annoyance. Her skin was a cacophony of goose bumps. Her arms shook. “Can you think of anything that might warm me up?”

Kyle did not move. His throat burned with a lack of knowing what to say.

Cheri whipped her eyes away from him, walked with harsh splashes back to the sand and wrapped herself in Kyle’s towel. “Let me ask you a personal question, if you don’t mind.” The word ‘mind’ was spoken with enough sarcasm to clear his sinuses for a week, if sarcasm was to words as spice was to food. “How did you first become a socially bankrupt piece of shit, bereft of graces, who’s not man enough to put his dick where his money is? Why don’t you tell me about your parental role models?”

Kyle remained standing in the water with his coat buttoned and his pants off. “You, um, want to fuck?”

Cheri laughed. Her laughter beat exhaustedly against her diaphragm like a dish towel whipped against a wall and went on for several seconds without diminishing. “Why would I want to do that? I just chose this line of work so that cowards could pay me to walk with them on the beach and tell them my life story. Is this going like you hoped?”

She walked briskly in the direction of their cars. Kyle grabbed her pile of clothes along with his pants and shoes and hastened behind her. “Why are you mad at me?” He sprinted in front of her, spun a hundred and eighty degrees and walked briskly backwards, maintaining eye contact. “Did I lead you wrong or something?”

Cheri looked at her watch. “Did you? Let’s recap. We had an argument, you apologized, I told you some crap, we threw sand, made jokes about sand in our underwear — guess it went just like your fantasy. All we didn’t do was eat ice-cream.”

“We didn’t toss a Frisbee.”

“You want to be sensitive to my feelings? Is that what gets you off? Does it give you a warm fuzzy one, knowing you could have screwed me any time and never will?”

“I thought I explained myself in the beginning. You really don’t understand.”

Cheri snatched her clothes from Kyle and started dressing. “Funny thing is, I almost feel sorry for you who will be losing a friend in approximately thirty minutes.”

“We don’t have to- I mean…if you want, we can…”

Cheri crossed her arms. “Put your pants on.” Her voice had a quality that threatened to repeat itself at injurious volumes if not obeyed. Kyle put his pants on. “You think I appreciate what you’re doing?”

“What?”

“Talking to me like a person and not a piece of meat. When you hire a kid to mow your lawn, do you say, don’t bother with mowing the grass, I’ll have someone else do it, just have a seat on the couch and chat for a couple hours and I’ll pay you? If it was my kid, I’d tell him to stay the hell away from that old creep.”

“You have a kid?”

“You don’t know much about your friends, do you?”

“What does mowing a lawn have to do with…”

Cheri shook her head. Salt water swishing in her ears dripped thickly down her neck. “You just said it: mowing a lawn is a dignified job, therefore you wouldn’t think of doing that to a kid, but here you think you’re doing me a favor. If you had any respect, the least you could have done was ravaged me on the beach.”

“But I told you-”

“It doesn’t matter. Are you satisfied with the service provided?”

“Our time isn’t up yet.”

“There something else you want to do? Got a Frisbee in your back pocket?”

Kyle pulled at his belt loops with alternating fingers. “You didn’t finish your story.”

“Oh?”

“Daddy in jail, you dropped out of high school, then what?”

Cheri sat down on a log. “You really are an odd duck.”

Kyle sat next to her. “I’m just curious.”

“Buy me a coffee.”

“What?”

“I’m tired. You want to continue the conversation, buy me a coffee.”

“Where? There’s no time.”

“Then you make up your own story.”

“No, I’m buying you a coffee.”

“You can tell me my story as you make it up in your head, while I drink coffee. Post transaction. You can drink coffee too, if you like coffee. I don’t know if you do.”

“Really, though, is there more to the story?”

Her hands were on her hips. “What do you think?”

Kyle thought about it. They got in their cars and he thought of all the possible continuations to her story. He wondered if any of her story was true. He decided that it was true, except for the beginning, because there was no beginning. Life did not lead linearly toward conclusions. She had told a story she felt like telling. There was no true answer to how one became what one became. Her daddy’s gun had as much to do with her occupation as did a puddle on the sidewalk.

They drank coffee. He squinted his eyes and she floated out to sea and the sand felt crisp under his feet. The coffee burned his tongue. She talked in a tired voice and he did not hear the connection between words or places. It was what he wanted.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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