Ryan Millbern


Ryan Millbern is a copywriter at Richard Harrison Bailey/The Agency, a marketing firm in Indianapolis, Indiana. His stories and essays have appeared in Notre Dame Magazine, Designer, Fogged Clarity, The Catalonian Review, Staccato Fiction and Thought Catalog. He lives in Brownsburg, Indiana, with his wife, their two children and their yellow lab. You can follow him on Twitter @ryanmillbern.

In a Room Made Up For Someone Else

Bill picks me up at the Riviera Motel in his blue Astro van and I climb into the front seat, nod to the four Mexican guys in the back—Miguel, Emilio, Rodrigo and Pat—and we take the interstate an hour into the city. We stop at the Shell gas station on our way out of Galvin and Bill buys six 20-ounce coffees and we drink the coffee and smoke our cigarettes with the windows down and the already humid air rushing in to fill the van. Bill and I are the only two on our crew who can speak English, but most mornings we don’t talk. We listen to classic rock on Q95 and watch the fields on either side of the interstate rush past us in a green-brown blur.

During the first few weeks of the job it felt good to be awake and moving 80 miles an hour toward a full day of work, beating the sun to the city. I had always lived on the other side of dawn, crawling into bed at the same gray hour that I wake in now, my head singing with a night’s worth of booze. A year ago this hour felt like dying. It’s starting to feel that way again. We’re halfway through a 60-day hotel job in downtown Indianapolis. We’ve been working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, furnishing the 1,650 rooms of the hotel one-by-one with beds, end tables, armoires, ironing boards, televisions and telephones, filling up the empty spaces where people much richer than us will one day spend the night.

Bill runs these cash jobs all the time. He brings me in whenever the work is too much for him and his Mexicans, and for that I am grateful. He pays me 12 dollars an hour in cash and he gives the Mexicans 10, which, according to Bill, is “still a lot for Mexicans.”

My first job with Bill was four years ago. We cleaned the machines at the Clayton Bottling plant in Galvin. We’d roll in during an off shift when the factory was dark and silent, lit only along the perimeter of the manufacturing floor by small yellow lights, and we’d crawl into the dead machines and blow them out with air hoses, wipe down the accumulated grime with thin rags. I’d get home just as the sun was coming up; cash in my pocket, my body covered in grease and stinking like cleaning chemicals.

And then one morning a lot like this morning, I walked out of the factory, bought a fifth of Canadian Mist at CVS, got drunk before noon and broke into an old woman’s house. She lived a couple of blocks away from the Riviera Motel. When I was out of work, I’d walk the surrounding blocks just to fill the hours and I’d see her, a petite older woman, trimming the hedges or sitting alone on the front porch drinking iced tea.

When I let myself in the front door she was in the backyard, bending over her dried out garden, picking cherry tomatoes and dropping them in a five-gallon bucket one at a time. As I sorted through her purse in the kitchen, I could hear the hollow plops of the tomatoes hitting the bottom of the bucket through her open window. Her license said her name was Judith; that she was 79 years old, 5 foot 1, 140 pounds. I pocketed her wallet and a turquoise bracelet and then found her bedroom on the first floor and scooped up a pair of pearl earrings.

I could have gone out through the front door unnoticed, but I stopped in the entryway. I wanted Judith to see me. I walked back through the kitchen and out the back door and stood on her back porch, watching her pick the tomatoes. I stood there silent and sweating in the sun for five minutes until she finally turned around. When she saw me she gasped, a terrible sound that was more terrible because she was old and lived alone, and probably rarely exercised her voice. My blood slammed against the inside of my skin, and even through my drunkenness I felt dangerously alive, living at the edge of my heartbeat. She dropped the tomatoes and raised a trembling hand to her face. Her whole body shook and she started to take a step backward into her garden. Her foot got tangled in the tomato plants and she collapsed backward, her sun hat tipping back off her head, then her short legs were up in the air and she was down, the dust and insects jumping out of the garden all around her. Then she was very still.

I ran, holding the pockets of my overalls, clutching everything I stole from her so it wouldn’t spill out onto the sidewalk, and I didn’t stop until I was safely inside my room at the Riviera Motel.

I tell Bill a lot about my life—the drinking and the sober stretches and the fistfights and how this job at the hotel could be the opportunity I ride into sobriety—but I’ve never told him about Judith.


We get to the hotel right before seven and pile out of the van and into the loading docks at the back of the building where a row of semi-truck trailers, separated from their rigs, wait to be unloaded. “They’re still here boys,” Bill says, nodding to the trailers. He says this every morning. He kills the engine and holds onto the belt of his jean shorts as he steps down out of the van.

We split into pairs, Miguel and myself, Bill and Rodrigo, Emilio and Pat. I find a metal cart against the back entrance to the hotel and drag it to the edge of the loading dock and step out into the trailer bed. We pack the carts with boxes of unassembled furniture and drag them to the freight elevator, and I use my key to unlock it. We pause to wrap our boots in plastic. “Put your boot condoms on, boys,” Bill says. We start the day on the South End of the 16th floor. There are 33 floors altogether, 50 rooms on each floor.

Every room in this tower shares the exact same layout, drawn up by interior designers on blueprints specifying to the inch the spaces between everything: the bed and the end table, the computer desk and the wall-mounted television, the end of the couch and the door. During the first week, Miguel and I had to refer to the blueprint for the exact measurements, but now we know the numbers by heart: 55 inches from the closet to the armoire, 36 inches to the bed, another 70 to the desk, 37 more to the window. We work quickly and rarely talk. The only sounds are the swishing of our plastic-wrapped boots on the plush carpet.

Until the rooms are furnished, I imagine that they are not so different than my room at the Riviera Motel in Galvin, which I rent for 75 dollars a week because my uncle knows the manager. With the 12-hour days and the two-hour round-trip commute, I’m only there to sleep and shower and sometimes watch the news. When I first moved in and was out of work I would sit on my bed with the television on mute and listen to the people on either side of me through the thin walls. Sometimes I was rewarded with the muffled sounds of two people meeting over their lunch break to fuck and I would masturbate to the sound of them, my head pressed back into the headboard, both straining to hear and also bracing myself for climax. Other times I would light a cigarette and smoke and listen to the people move around and try to imagine what they were like.

One couple, Janet and Ted, had stopped in Galvin to explore the handful of antique shops at the edge of town. “Fireside Antiques is supposed to have the best glass collection around,” he’d said, and I imagined him peering at a tri-fold brochure over the top of his glasses. Janet would have been standing in front of the mirror, drawing on her eyebrows. I wanted to whisper to them through the wall; to tell them that I knew Barry, the owner of Fireside. But I said nothing. They had each other and their love for antiques and I had them to listen to, for a night.


Bill brings a two-pound tub of peanut butter and a loaf of bread for our lunch. We each grab four slices of bread and a plastic knife from the box and make the sandwiches on our laps. We rinse our coffee cups out in the bathroom off the lobby and fill them with water from the faucet and eat our peanut butter sandwiches and drink our water in the shade of the awning along the front sidewalk. Miguel shows me a picture of a young girl, his daughter. She is chubby and shirtless, two fat braids framing her moon face.

I smile. “Very pretty,” I say.

He gestures toward the picture and points at me.

“I don’t have any kids,” I say, but he doesn’t understand. I point at the picture and then point to myself and shake my head.

I heard somewhere that Mexicans give their kids Coca Cola in their bottles. I want to ask Miguel if this is true but I don’t. It seems like too much work. I finish my sandwich and stand up, stretch and light a cigarette.

Two young women in suits walk past us. One talks excitedly, using her hands. The other walks with her head down, nodding. Both women are slender; they look like athletes. Their suits fit well. They carry expensive handbags. One wears over-sized white sunglasses.

We see women like them every day in the city, walking and talking, always moving quickly in expensive shoes, gazing up at the hotel’s blue glass façade. They don’t see us; we are part of the landscape. They’ll be the ones turning down the sheets on the beds we’re positioning in those rooms, climbing under the covers after a long day of meetings and client dinners and empty conversations. I want to be there with them, although I’m not sure what I’d say.

I used to talk a lot when I drank. I had so much to say and people who would listen. I told them about running from the cops through the woods of Sullivan County after a busted house party, hiding high up in the guts of the Yountsville Covered Bridge until the sun came up. I told them about the summer I spent roofing houses in Carrington Hills, the rich subdivision outside of Galvin, and how our crew could see down into Amanda Simmons’ backyard, where she sunbathed naked every afternoon. I told them about Bill and the jobs he runs and I would regret it most times, fearful that they might seek him out and rob me of work.

But more than the stories I remember the scene inside the Green Street Tavern: bottles backlit against a mirror, the white noise of the bar; the sound of other conversations I wanted to be a part of. I remember the feeling of sinking into myself, my brain inching down my spine, submerged with each drink until I was looking at the room through a hole in my chest.


After lunch we ride the elevator back to the 16th floor and open the door on to another empty room, and I realize that the days are all the same: the 20-ounce coffee, the first cigarette, the drive over, the rooms stretching out on either side of the narrow hallway before me, above me and below me, all of them empty and waiting to be filled. And the filling of those rooms becomes my morning and my terrible afternoon, and my afternoon becomes my evening eating fast food on the drive home. And then there is the same long night in another room made up for someone else.

Standing in Room 1648, staring at an unassembled nightstand, it becomes clear to me that I can’t live the way I should. There are too many hours in the day, too many days. I wait until Miguel breaks to use the bathroom and, with five hours left on my shift, I leave without saying goodbye. I take the freight elevator down and then out the front door, duck into a gap in the orange mesh construction fence. I stand in the street, hugging the mesh. Cars pass by a foot away to my left and I can feel the hot air of their wake, the sheer force of their movement. I wait for a break in the traffic, and then I walk toward the center of the city.


I feel small in the late-afternoon shadows from the bank towers and hotels. I want to stop in every building, in every room and office and restaurant, and see how the people live there. In Galvin I am too big for the town, for the room at the Riviera, for the van with the fucking Mexicans and Bill’s handful of tired phrases and sad stabs at conversation. I’m too big even for this day. I want it to become two and then three.

I enter a sports bar called Champions and sit at the bar and order a draft from a bartender wearing a referee’s shirt. I drink half of the beer in one series of hard swallows and sit breathing heavy, sweat standing out on my skin. I smell sour, and I can smell the sweat on my hands and feel it everywhere on my skin. The restaurant is fairly empty, the bar deserted. Two guys in polo shirts and khaki pants watch SportsCenter highlights at a table in the corner and drink cokes. It is cool in the air conditioning and I enjoy the cold beer. I finish the beer and tip the bartender.

My phone rings. It’s Bill. I hold the vibrating phone in my hand for a moment and then place it on the bar and walk out into the sunshine.


I stop and drink in each bar I come to until it’s after midnight and I’m drunk, sitting at a dirty plastic table on an outdoor patio by myself. I stare at the twisted black wick of a tiki torch and sip a Budweiser. A woman sits down, lowers her white purse off her shoulder and onto the table.

“Is anyone sitting here?” she asks, gesturing toward the table with what looks like gin and tonic in a small plastic cup.

I shake my head.

She’s short and pale with bleach-blonde, almost white hair. Fiftyish and rail thin, her shoulder bones test her skin beneath her pink tank top. Her teeth are crooked. She has a silver bracelet on one wrist. Her knuckles are arthritic knots.

“You need a fresh beer?” she asks.


“I’ll get you another.”

She motions for the waitress and orders a beer and a gin and tonic.

“It’s been forever since a woman bought me a drink,” I say.

“I don’t believe that.”

“It’s true.”

We sit in silence for a moment while she lights a cigarette. “I’m Beth,” she says, extending her hand.

“Jack. I want to warn you, I threw away six months of sobriety earlier this evening.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I don’t know if I’m sorry yet or not. Right now, not so much.”

“You probably will be in the morning,” she says.

“You’re right. There’s a good chance I’ll lose my job.”


“Walked off this afternoon.”

“Why did you do that?”

“I don’t know,” I say, except I do know. I know everything: the number of cells in my blood, the number of stars in the sky, the number of inches between the bed and the end table, the number of days in a life, the shape of Miguel’s daughter’s face, ways in and out of consciousness, how to jump ship, how to take someone’s breath, how to ruin a good thing, how to start something, how to seduce a woman. I know how to listen through thin walls and how hard a heart can beat. Most of all, I know that I don’t want to be alone.

“It looks like I found you in crisis,” she says.

“Isn’t that the best way to find a stranger in a bar?”

“It depends on what you want to happen.”

“I want everything to happen,” I say. “I’ve been waiting for a long time for something to happen.”

“You couldn’t have been waiting too long,” Beth says. “How old are you, 30?”


“You haven’t been waiting long enough,” she says. She takes a drink. “Aren’t you going to ask how old I am?”

“No,” I say. “I don’t really care.”

“I like you,” she says.

We finish our drinks and order another round and then another. She tells me that she was married once, that two miscarriages had been too much for them to handle. She works as an administrative assistant to the floor manager of a cell phone packaging plant. She might be able to get me a job. I tell her about the drinking and about living in a hotel, but I don’t tell her about breaking into the old woman’s house. After an hour we know as much about each other as we will ever need to know.

She is kind and getting drunk and suddenly everything seems possible. I imagine a new life with Beth in the city. I could work in the warehouse of the cell phone packaging plant on the south side, second shift. When I got off work we could go to the bars downtown together, follow the veins of the city directly into its heart every night. We could stand in crowds on weekend afternoons and listen to the sound of the living all around us.

The waitress signals last call and we order a final round, finish the drinks, exit the patio and walk into the deserted street. The city is dead.

“I have something I want to show you,” I say.

“OK,” she answers.

I take her by the hand. We pass a one-armed homeless man and his dirty beagle sitting on the sidewalk outside of a movie theater. We pass the doorways of other bars and the sound inside spills out into the street, but we don’t stop in any of them. We move toward the hotel.

We slip in through the rip in the orange mesh fence and circle back to the loading docks and stand there, breathing heavy and looking at each other. I jam a dirty thumb in her mouth because I’ve always wanted to do this to a woman and, after walking off the job and meeting Beth, I feel like I can do anything. She just closes her eyes and rolls her tongue over the thumb and we stand there on the loading dock platform, with her sucking my thumb in the dark.

I guide her to the freight elevator, unlock it and we take it up to Floor 16. In the elevator we kiss hard and it happens: My heart kicks blood into my brain, and the blood is moving everywhere: into my lips and my fingers and my crotch, everything an extension of my heart. I taste my own thumb in her mouth and a day’s worth of cigarettes and every word she ever said to her husband and her dad and her boyfriends, and all of it is passing between us, the history of our mouths, as we ride the elevator into the sky.

The elevator bell sounds and we stop kissing and I’m suddenly aware of the possibility that there could be someone else in the hotel. More than likely it will be Rhett, the security guard in the lobby, watching our ascent on a tiny television. I wonder how long will it take him to reach us.

We step off the elevator and I start to jog, and all the while Beth is strangely silent, following me blindly through the dark hallway. We open the door to room 1648. It is furnished and waiting for us. I shut the door behind us and lock it, flip on the light in the entryway. I tell her to undress. She does everything I say.

She moves toward the bed while she undresses and the numbers are running through my head: 55 inches from the closet to the armoire, 36 inches to the bed, another 70 to the desk, 37 more to the window.

Then we are naked, kissing and moving through the room. I turn her to face the window so we can look out on the lights of the city and then we are both lost in it, so much so that we’re not sure if there’s a pounding at the door, or if it’s our hearts in our ears or our bodies against one another or the sound two things make when they find each other in the dark.

During the last two years, on my morning commute into the city, I watched a construction crew build a 33-floor JW Marriott Hotel into the Indianapolis skyline. I’d read about the crews that hotels hire to help furnish their rooms, and I was interested in how the members of those crews might live. In addition, I was excited by the metaphorical possibilities of setting a story in an unoccupied hotel. So I created a character in his most fragile and dangerous hour and put him to work.