Spanish? Could be.
Beckman sighed. He was bored of this game.
It was red – that was the important thing. Except it wasn’t important, not in the slightest. He’d never even seen red – it was merely a word, a concept. It was a light, and it was a flickering light. That was the important thing – because it was pissing him off. Keeping him awake. Riling him. Mocking him. He rolled over. His portable alarm clock on the nightstand read 22:11.
The motel was full; no point in trudging down to the grunting oaf on the check-in desk to request a change of room. There’d only be an argument, he’d wind up even more awake, and still end up back in Room 12.
At least there was a quantum of solace – he’d wangled 12.
Yet at the moment, it didn’t feel like such a good peg to hang anything on. Tight as he pulled the curtains to the window edges, the material was much too thin to fully block out the light. A static wash of red – of any shade – he could cope with. This damn irregular flickering though? Torture.
He debated the merit of asking Grunting Oaf for the neon frontage sign to be switched off, but knew he’d come across like a petty jerk.
Instead, he reluctantly threw back the covers, flicked on the ineffectual beside lamp, padded across the thin carpet and rootled through his open suitcase. Tucked into a side pocket was an eye mask, a freebie relic from a TWA flight back aways.
Rarely had he found it necessary to sink so low.
The last time was, what, two years ago?
He’d run out of gas in the middle of nowhere and spent a night in the back seat of the car. The moonlit hours and incessant crickets turned out to be a minor inconvenience compared to the litany of aches he woke with. At least this was a bed.
He tried hard not to think about what adventures it might have endured. The long years had almost inured him to such seeping imaginations and revulsions. Instead, he slid under the covers, adjusted the eye mask until his view was blissful darkness, and buried his head as best as he could in the unhelpfully spongey pillow.
The air conditioning unit hummed and, now the visual distraction had gone, his ears became more attuned to the surroundings. Was the flickering light now making an intermittent buzzing?
‘Oh, snap,’ he breathed despairingly in the darkness. Could this night suck even more? He pulled the edges of the pillow up around his ears and hoped sleep would arrive before cramp set into his arms.
Oh for the ability to count sheep, he mused. He’d have to count his blessings instead. He got as far as three and stopped.
He lolled his head over. How much time had passed? Would the unpredictable gods of night and slumber grant him morning?
He found a fourth blessing; nobody was playing music or TV at an unsocial volume in the adjoining rooms. No yelling. No grunting.
Nevertheless on such nights dormant thoughts resurfaced about trading his Buick for a station wagon or an RV. At least that way he could make room for a sleeping bag, and be certain that the courtesy light didn’t have a mind of its own or harbour dreams of a career in a nightclub.
Maybe a different vehicle would give him a new lease of life. Something needed to change.
Or did it? Blessing One: steady job.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Not every stop-over on the road was like this. Tonight was an annoyance, a mosquito. Matter of fact, it was as likely to keep him awake as hearing such a tiny buzzing in the room, even if he couldn’t see the insect. Difference being, he’d not wake up tomorrow with a red welt on his arm.
So, another blessing, surely. By that logic, he could come up with a million more.
Maybe he could count them:
(1) Steady job.
(2) Travel. Lots of travel.
(3) Meet interesting people. Sometimes.
(5) Loving family. Well, semblance of.
(6) No noisy neighbours.
(7) No mosquito.
(8) A place to call home.
(9) Only four more stamps to go on the loyalty card before the next free coffee.
See, things could be worse. Now, go to sleep Beckman.
Miraculously, the fog began to descend. The world outside slipped into redundancy. His breathing shallowed. Sunday crept towards its end.
His cellphone rang. It could have been an air raid siren.
He mentally hauled himself back up the ladder to reality as quickly as he could muster, pushed up the eye mask, stumbled out of bed with an ‘Oh, snap’, and scooped up the chirruping device from the desk. The off-brand charging cable halted his movement, so he rudely yanked it out and hit the Answer key.
Amidst the bleary chaos he’d managed to note that the caller was “Office” and his mood began to nosedive.
On a Sunday? Had he woken in a parallel universe?
‘Spiers,’ he mumbled.
‘Is that you, Beckman?’
He recognised the terse voice, otherwise, given the time of night and his general humour, he’d have taken pains to point out that (1) this was his personal cellphone, so who did the caller think would answer, and (2) the caller had addressed him by name, thereby proving that he already understood point (1).
However, knowing the caller was not someone who took kindly to such logic or admonishments, Beckman kept it zipped. ‘Yes sir, this is me.’
‘Malvolio here.’ Beckman took a calming breath; the words were hardly a revelation.
A Sunday? What fresh hell was this?
A flourish of downdraft from the meshed duct in the stained false ceiling wafted cool air down his back and raised goosebumps. The room flickered intermittently scarlet or imperial. Or possibly crimson.
‘Yes, Mr Malvolio,’ he said dutifully.
‘I’ve some good news for you.’
Good? Good?! Suddenly, Sunday could go hang.
Beckman waited to hear. And waited. And realised Mr Malvolio was waiting for him to indicate that he was waiting, because what else could possibly be more exciting than to be woken (kind of) in the middle (barely) of the night by a random phone call from your godawful boss, bearing news which doubtless could wait until the first coffee, or ideally second, of the following day had passed your lips.
‘I’m all ears, sir.’ He scratched his balls.
‘Belcher is dead.’
Beckman waited to hear more detail. And waited. And realised Mr Malvolio was waiting for him to say something to indicate a reaction to the apparently the Good News of someone’s death. Because what could be more sensible than prolonging a phone call in not the middle of the night when you’re standing with itchy balls in a cool breeze in a godawful motel room in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday?
When of course what he wanted to say was, “Get bent and call me in the morning you atrocious slave-driving freak”.
‘He got struck by lightning this afternoon.’ Malvolio said it with the same level of intrigue or sadness as one might do when ordering pizza toppings.
‘Wow,’ Beckman managed, even more stupefied than he had been, ‘That’s a bad break.’
‘Not for you, Spiers. That moves you up to number two now.’ Malvolio had evidently had enough of this heartfelt wallowing in the untimely demise of one of his workforce, and was, unexpectedly, getting down to brass tacks. Or, more likely in his case, gold tacks.
‘Sheesh. I guess it does. Poor Belcher.’
‘Sad to see anyone die while they’re still in the race.’
‘Or any time,’ Beckman suggested. His mind was barely half on the call now.
Belcher’s sales volumes were deemed irrelevant. One of the riders had dropped out.
‘I suppose so. So, get your hiney moving, Spiers. Number Two position – pretty good going for a man like you.’
Beckman gave the illuminated screen a hard stare. Not that Malvolio was wrong – but to verbally concede such a fact would have been weakness.
Now he wasn’t explicitly waiting, yet didn’t have anything better than silence to offer in reply. Would Malvolio take the opportunity to further crack the whip? Beckman mentally wagered his worldly possessions on it.
‘Only five days left,’ the harsh old voice dutifully continued. ‘It’s not impossible. Shoulder to the wheel, Spiers, nose to the grindstone, you can make Number One.’
‘Absolutely, sir,’ he lied. ‘I’ll get started tomorrow morning, first light.’
‘That’s what I like to hear.’
Then the phone boop-booped to indicate the line had been hung up. Beckman stared at the screen, in a casserole of a stupor made up of tiredness, disbelief, revulsion, hope and itchiness.
Esmond Belcher is dead. I just got promoted to Number Two on the Salesman of the Year chart. One week to go. Could I? Could I really make Number One? Finally?
In a pig’s eye.
He gave his balls a good long scratch and went to bed.