BY MICHAEL B. TAGER
Welcome to Spec Script, where author Michael B. Tager delves into the unexplored from your (or his) favorite television shows.
Manuel woke to kicks and curses, up you monkey. He scrambled upright as swift as his old bones allowed, which wasn’t so fast anymore. His back groaned under the pressure of standing but Manuel couldn’t let himself slouch. He’d been reprimanded before.
He stood against the wall of his closet bedroom, mindful of cold concrete. Only the light from the hallway, blocked by Basil, illuminated his tiny dwelling. Manuel’s mouth hung open, a strand of saliva poking its way earthward. He’d been dreaming of Spain again.
He missed a question and blinked, ¿Que?
The slap shocked and degraded more than hurt. You poorly trained monkey. I could get a hundred like you. Another slap. Get dressed. Meet me downstairs. Slap. Move, monkey. The door slammed. Manuel waited for the darkness to quiet his heart. Why couldn’t he make Basil happy? What magic did he need to work?
He dressed in blackness, old habit. The starched white shirt, black pants, white coat, black bow tie. He had two pairs of each, all hung neatly behind his cot, on the wall, above two pairs of shined black shoes, between racks of toilet paper and disinfectant.
After forty years, he sometimes wished he could forego the coat in summer, but he daren’t ask. He shrugged it on, adjusted his bowtie by touch, opened the door and stepped onto faded carpeting. He was inside the hotel again, the Fawlty Towers, its layout tattooed on his bones, its creaks and sighs inscribed in his DNA.
He was downstairs perhaps two minutes after Basil cursed him. Soon enough? But no. Basil glowered from across the room, his eyes cold and hard beneath stark white eyebrows. He was behind the counter, encumbered by guests. The guests were a welcome barrier: for the moment, Manuel was safe.
Later, Basil mouthed before the customers gesticulated and he turned his false, brittle smile back upon them, the smile that never touched his eyes, a mechanical rising of lips, grimacing of teeth. The regulars responded without recognition of the subterfuge. They were old regulars, the man fat and bald, the woman fat and crowned with white. Manuel cried their names and hurried to gather their heavy leather luggage. There were six bags for the two of them, stuffed to bursting, just like them. They pretended not to see him, though the woman sniffed.
Manuel’s shoulders ached from holding the bags under his arms. They pulled him to the earth. Take these to the room, Basil said, his voice an angry hiss. Tomar ellos la casa. Veintiuno.
¿Que? Basil’s accent butchered the Spanish, the language of his homeland. And the syntax…¿Que?
Tomar. Ellos. La. Casa. Basil quivered, his fist crashing on the cheap wooden counter. The fat guests started. Behind Basil, an aged typewriter quivered, rusted keys quivered from where they hung on a pegboard. Basil displayed his hands, flashed ten digits, then seven. Veintiuno. Comprendes?
To room seventeen? Manuel asked. He hefted the bags. I will take them there. At the barest nod from Basil, he waddled to the narrow stairs. He navigated them with difficulty, rounded the corner and hurried to the faded door.
After he’d deposited to the bags and received half a pound tip from the fat couple, he returned. Why did Basil persist in his attempts to speak Spanish? He’d been in Britain for decades now. He understood English quite well, spoke it better.
He would never understand.
Basil was absent from the front desk. Manuel relaxed, reached to massage his aching neck. His neck was always aflame these days. Before cancer took her, Polly had given him some relief when their shifts crossed. She’d been kind to him over the decades they’d worked together, she as a waitress and a bartender. She’d been dead and buried for how long now? He’d been forbidden from attending the funeral. Monkeys aren’t allowed to funerals.
He groaned when his fingers touched a sensitive spot in his neck. If only he could see a doctor for the pain, but he couldn’t afford one. His family needed the meager paychecks he dutifully sent every month back to Barcelona, the paychecks he’d been sending since Thatcher was in office.
Manuel had not seen. Had it been so long? He couldn’t remember his mother’s face. He sighed and massaged, put his ever-present homesickness away in his heart’s drawer. Eventually the pain receded, Manuel straightened. He had much to do.
The bar was empty, save for a single man in a corner with a pitcher before him. Manuel asked him if he needed anything, but the man waved him off with red-rimmed eyes. I’m drinking until I can’t see anymore, the man said. Can you fill me up? He held the nearly-empty pitcher up and Manuel hopped behind the bar and complied. He understood that pain.
Cheers, the man said. Cheers, Manuel replied. He then wiped down the remaining tables and the bar itself. He was leaving as Basil entered. Basil jerked a thumb behind him, across the lobby at the restaurant. Take care of the buffet, monkey, he said. Tienes la comida, comprendes. Comprendes.
No, Manuel said. No comprende. You want me to clean the restaurant?
Basil’s face reddened and he drew close. His breath reeked of garlic and vodka. Do it now before I hurt you. Basil raised his fist, saw in the corner the man drinking quietly. His fist lowered and instead, he reached out and pinched the flesh of Manuel’s wrist. Manuel stifled a groan. Do it now, Basil said, releasing him.
In the dining area, three guests picked at toast and biscuits. The toast was stale, the butter frozen and formless. The guests hailed him and he cleared their plates. They asked him questions and he answered.
No, there was no other food.
No, he had not seen Yelp reviews.
Fleas? None he was aware of.
They left and there was quiet. Manuel seized the moment, stuffed bread into his mouth, shoved stale, crumbly biscuits into his pockets. His head darted, his body turned and twisted. For a moment, he moved as smoothly as he had in his youth. But no, he was safe and unobserved. Later, he would feast. His one-daily meal was often forfeited for slights.
Miss a speck while mopping: a slap and no food.
Drop a glass: no food.
Answer the phone: no food.
Speak when not spoken to by a guest: no food, a slap, a beating, more monkey, monkey, monkey. It was so hard for him to remember. So hard.
He cleaned the guest’s table and began to break down what Basil termed “the buffet” (a single folding card table with food on napkins), he heard a voice. He cleaned faster. Manuel? He cleaned. Manuel?
I am here, sir, he called.
Manuel? Basil loomed in the doorway, his shiny head grazing the doorjamb. Unlike Manuel, Basil had not shrunken with age. You monkey, what are you doing?
It is my time to clean.
No, you monkey. Limpiar invitados despues de lo muerte.
Manuel puzzled the syntax. Clean after the guests die? Did Basil mean they had departed? Should he correct Basil? His skin still remembered the cigar burn marks from the last time he dared correct him. But he couldn’t say nothing.
Basil advanced, a skillet in his blue-veined hand. He must be nearing 80, much like Manuel. But Manuel’s bones ached with malnutrition, with longing for the sun; Basil seemed no weaker than his youth.
God, he missed Spain.
Basil held the skillet held high, the smell of vodka more pronounced. Do you understand? Comprendes? Despues. De. La. Muerte.
Blood drained from Manuel’s face. His voice broke. ¿Que?
The skillet raised and Manuel remembered a moment long ago, shortly after he’d arrived. It had been his birthday, he’d been drunk and exuberant, had mistakenly expressed gratitude for employment. Then, he remembered pain, the sinking into darkness from Basil’s strike. He carried a scar to this day.
That was when his optimism died. Basil never relented in his unending anger, his forever pique. And Manuel had no recourse. He made slave wages, alone in a foreign land, undocumented, unloved. And he had responsibilities. His wages, the pittance they were, supported his kin. Oh, Barcelona. How he missed Spain.
The skillet descended. Manuel couldn’t move. But Basil flinched, the skillet’s fall halted. He turned. Manuel craned his neck around Basil’s lanky figure. The fat couple stood two abreast. They were asking for food. My servant tried to clear it. It is of course, yours. Please sit. Manuel heard the insincerity in Basil’s voice, the treacly subservience.
Manuel hustled away, his breath harsh in his chest. His heart refused to still until he turned in the lobby, waltzed out the entrance, to the bare lawn. The weak sun cast sad light through dense fog. Alight drizzle hit his wizened crown as he sat in dew and breathed, remembered his mother.
He wished he’d seen her one last time, one lone visit home. Manuel hadn’t made the funeral. He didn’t get vacation; he didn’t get sick leave. Basil didn’t allow him to leave, refused to help pay for plane fare.
Manuel reached into for a crumbled biscuit. It tasted like ash, but quieted his heart.
There you are.
He turned. There was Basil, frowning, his thin hair plastered to his skull by rain. A vein threatened to burst on his forehead.
There are toilets to be cleaned. He took a step. There is mail to be sorted. Step. I don’t pay you to sit. His eyes drifted toward Manuel’s hand, to the biscuit. I don’t pay you to steal from the guests. His nostrils flared and he closed the distance with a rush, brought the back of his hand across Manuel’s cheek. It burned. How dare you? Another backhand. Manuel tasted blood. Do you understand me? Another. Entiendes?
Manuel felt something burst within him. Si. Manuel threw his ancient body, somersaulted away from Basil’s anger. Si, I understand. Something tore in his chest, in his shoulder, in his breast. I always understand you. He staggered, pain blinding. He shouted until his throat cried. He screamed in Spanish, for the first time in years, for every beating, for every slight.
Hijo de perra, he yelled as he ran at Basil, leading with his shoulder. The impact of Basil’s bony body tore his neck. Chinga tu madre. His fists dove into Basil’s face, drew blood. He remembered the promises that Basil had made him so long ago.
Work hard, we’ll promote you to partner.
Someday, this might be yours. We already think of you as a son.
We’ll bring your family to England. Your brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. Abuelas. Tias. All of them.
The rain fell, mixed with his blood-soaked fists as drove into Basil’s endlessly screaming face, his mouth crying promises of change. He knew better than to relent, to trust. The rain kept more promises. The rain never promised the sun.
Screams reached him, penetrated his rage. He glanced behind him. The fat couple, the breakfast trio, the drunkard. They ran, but he already stood, his chest shattering, acid rushing to his brain. God, he missed Spain.
Basil moaned, rocked on the sodden ground. His mouth was but cracked teeth, his nose a bruised squash. But he breathed. He lived.
Manuel regarded his heavy black shoes. Breath short and becoming shorter, Manuel raised his foot, positioned it over Basil’s fragile, throat, skin flaccid waves. Manuel felt his heart burst. He brought his foot down. There was a crack and he finally smiled again.
There was blackness. Afterwards, might he see Spain?
Michael B Tager is a Baltimore-based writer and editor. More of his work can be found at michaelbtager.com. Likes include garden gnomes, cats, tacos and Prince.