The Mattress by Harkaitz Cano

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Translated by Elizabeth Macklin and Linda White

The roof of the trailer was patched with green asbestos shingles and the dingy interior was filled nearly wall to wall by a large mattress, making it impossible to walk without tripping over it. Sol sat on the edge of the mattress, smoking a cigarette. In addition to serving as a jerry-rigged bed, the mattress was also an office. It had the look of serving in many capacities. The edges were stained with nicotine and coffee, and the mattress was piled with bills, empty beer cans, and instant soup containers. A telephone sat on one corner of the mattress, the dirty mattress. The cord stretched through the window to a telephone pole on the sidewalk where the copper wire was connected to the Telefónica network by a clandestine sailor’s knot. The mattress was torn in a thousand places, as if it had been dragged countless times from room to room through doors too small for it. It had been ineptly mended in a dozen places with thread and fishing line of various colors.

[private]A beautiful beach graced the labels of the soup containers scattered on the mattress and the floor. “We’re raffling off a trip to the Cayman Islands.” The Caymans are Paradise on earth, so they say. Maybe the mattress itself was a map of the world, with its own Cayman Island, one of those stains, perhaps. Everything that happened in the trailer happened around the mattress. Each blotch had its own meaning, told its own story, just as the names and colours of countries on a map tell us something about the dictator who rules there.

A father and son lived in that trailer of contracting metal, and despite the green asbestos there were leaks here and there in the roof. The door creaked unbearably with the sound of rusty scissors being forced. They lived in a poor neighbourhood, at the tail end of a poor neighbourhood, and six months ago they had tied the trailer to a tree. And surprisingly, as we saw, they had a clandestine phone. Sol sat on the mattress, smoking his cigarette, and the phone rang.

“Is this Sol?”
“That’s me.”

“Sol what?”
“Sol, that’s all.”

“Is that your first name or your last?”
“Both. My father worked in a lighting store. Sol. Sun. Get it?”

“I know I’m asking too many questions. This is Mrs. Garcia. Well, Matusa’s my name. Maybe you know me as Lula from number thirteen. Look, it’s not easy to say this… I’m sorry to call out of the blue like this and intrude on your family’s privacy, but… your son Gabi gave me your number. He’s here right now. At our place, I mean. It seems that… well, it’s a problem with the kids. Your son stole our son’s leather ball, and…”
Leather always meant trouble, thought Sol. The horizon was the colour of coffee and cream. The sun was setting. Sol exhaled with a long sigh, blowing an oblong smoke ring.

“I’ll be right over.”

Number thirteen was the only house in the neighbourhood with a painted wall around it. True, it looked shabby, but not as much as the neighbourhood’s other houses. At first glance it was one of the best-looking and most dignified in the neighbourhood, in spite of its smallness. The grass had just been mowed, too. It was dusk, but Sol could still make out three figures at the door of the house. There was Mrs. Garcia, Lula, Matusa, Methuselah, or whatever her name was, a thirty-eight-year-old hysterical female still worth looking at. And there was his son Gabi, head bowed. And the third had to be the boy whose ball Gabi had supposedly stolen, standing there by his mother. He was older than Gabi, thirteen or so, Sol figured. Three years older than his son.

“Do you have anything to say for yourself, Gabi?” His son was silent, staring at the ground as if searching for worms. “You’ve really embarrassed me in front of people, boy. And it’s not the first time. But I swear on my father’s ashes, this will be the last. We’ll straighten this mess out in a hurry. Now, give the ball back to your friend right now.”

“But… I don’t have any ball, Dad.”

“Liar!” The father yelled, taking his son by the shoulder and shaking him back and forth. “You’d better give the ball back right now, you damn brat, or I’ll wring your neck. Forgive me, Mrs. Garcia.” He turned to the woman, lowering his voice and softening his manner. “If that ball doesn’t turn up, I promise you I’ll pay for it myself, and then I’ll make the damn brat pay, one way or another. What kind of ball was it?”

“Leather.” the other boy spoke for the first time, meekly. With his eyes downcast, his long lashes looked like they could sweep leaves. Sol thought he looked wretched. After a painful silence, he spoke again, hesitantly. “Regulation. It was regulation. New. And leather. It was a special leather ball.”

Again, Sol thought, leather brings trouble. He looked at Lula and now saw the hint of a smile in her eyes.
“Okay, ma’am, how much do you think the ball was worth, more or less?”

“We paid over thirty euros for it.”
“That much?”

“It was leather, a regulation ball. What’s more, it was new.”
“Damn. I don’t have that kind of money right now, ma’am, but as soon as I get my cheque on Monday, I’ll come right over, I promise. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’d like to have a talk with my son. He’s going to regret lying to me!” Sol was furious. He looked as if he really would ring the boy’s neck.

He smacked his son on the ear and dragged him out of Mrs. Garcia’s yard. Mother and son stood silhouetted against the light, watching them go. Mrs. Garcia put an arm around her son’s shoulders. There was no hardness in their eyes now. They looked worried and sympathetic. Maybe Mrs. Garcia regretted her phone call. Those street peddlers had a poor reputation in the neighbourhood. She didn’t even want to think about the beating that Gabi would get. Matusa lit a cigarette and offered one to her son with trembling fingers. He looked at her in surprise and put the unlit cigarette between his lips. In the end, they’d only done what they had to do. It wasn’t just any ball. There weren’t many leather balls in the neighbourhood, and even fewer that were regulation.

Reggae music floated from neighbourhood windows. The music eased the tension. All the way back to the trailer, Sol and Gabi walked in silence, watching the frail sun sink on the wide horizon. They looked away only once, a few houses from the trailer, to watch seven-year-old called Turtle fooling around with a shiny orange bicycle. Gabi may have been thinking of his missing childhood. He was raised on the street, with no toys, always wandering from place to place, his only homeland the mattress in the trailer.

When they reached the front door, Sol’s ten-year-old son picked up a rust- and oil-stained cardboard carton from the junk in the bushes. His father opened the creaking door and they went in, heads bowed. Sol turned on the light, a wobbling solitary bulb, then lit a couple of candles, which matched the bitter flame in Sol’s eyes.

“Give it here,” snapped Sol, holding out his hand.

The father was sitting on the mattress. He moved instant soup cartons and beer cans to make a place for his son. Lying next to the phone were half a dozen hits of speed, a handful of nails, shreds of green asbestos, dust that looked like green pollen and a screwdriver. God only knew what kind of flea market this was. Gabi held out the cardboard carton and Sol removed the leather ball to examine it under the light.

“It’s got a hole in it, but it’s not bad. With a patch, it’ll be fine. We’ll get twenty for sure, maybe thirty with luck.”
His son turned listless eyes on him and smiled wanly when his father ran a hand through his tar-black hair.

“Okay, now you know where to go next.” With a shrug, Sol indicated where.

The corners of the trailer were grimy with candle soot and the faint light made shadow pictures on the nicotine-stained walls. When Gabi left the unpleasant soupy atmosphere of the trailer and headed for the cold air of the street, it was already pitch dark. When he looked back, he saw a long-legged woman in a short skirt climbing the steps of the trailer. His father ran a finger under the elastic of her panties. Then he squeezed her body against his own and pulled on the elastic until her panties were a thin ribbon, exposing the cheeks of her bottom. It was Friday and, despite what Sol had told Matusa, he hadn’t worked that day. It wasn’t the first time. Gabi knew that before Monday, maybe Saturday, they would hook up the trailer and leave.

“Okay, now you know where to go next.” No more words were needed. Gabi knew his father very well, and he knew what it meant when he saw the sparkle in his father’s eyes. He didn’t want to leave the neighbourhood without taking Turtle’s shiny orange bike with them. Chances like this were few and far between. It would be a shame to let this opportunity slip away.

Gabi wondered if Turtle was asleep yet. Hands in his pockets, he headed for Turtle’s house. He kicked an instant soup can, and it clattered along for two or three yards. It was one of the cans with the Cayman Islands on the label that said they were raffling a trip to the Caymans, paradise on earth. Luck was on his side. Turtle had left his bicycle in the yard. It was shiny and new and the colour of oranges. He leaped over the wall, grabbed the bike, and hurried back toward the trailer. On the way, he stumbled over a beer can on the sidewalk, lost his balance and fell to the ground, bike and all. The silent calm of the night continued around him, though, and he lay on the sidewalk for a long moment, staring at the can. It was the same brand of beer his father drank. Part of the can was as orange as Turtle’s bike, the colour of flame, and he asked himself if maybe there wasn’t also a hell on earth. He realized he was thinking like a grown man and he didn’t much care for it, or for his father, either. Gabi loved him a lot but didn’t like him at all. “Dumb-ass digressions” his father would say. And he was digressing, too, although he didn’t know what the word meant. It might be trying to catch butterflies in a net with big holes in it or something. Gabi also knew that his father wouldn’t let him sleep on the mattress that night, but he longed to be inside the trailer anyway. There, he could peep through one of the holes in the wall and see the hot breath of bare naked flesh as panties fell off a thigh, and he would see the girl’s hairy spider eager for his father’s tongue, and the fevered movement of naked breasts, and their yowling open mouths, all filtered through green asbestos. He would hunt the images down as if with a net.

He wiped his hands on his torn trousers and lifted the bike to his shoulder. The bike wasn’t dented. He had a bleeding left knee, but it didn’t hurt too much if he thought about something else. He had to “digress” to keep from feeling the pain.
He wondered if his father had already disconnected the phone line. The last time, he got to untie the sailor’s knot himself. Untethering that clandestine phone wire was like leaving port. Gabi thought about the mattress again, the blue mattress that was a map of the world. He had heard somewhere that there were mattresses filled with feathers. But he couldn’t even imagine that kind of luxury. The thought of the feathers made him imagine dead birds and crooked beaks inside the mattress, a terrifying nightmare he had once and could never forget. He dreamed he opened the mattress and found the dead birds. As he ran toward the trailer, he hated the city and prayed with all his might that everyone in it would have the same nightmare he’d had.

He hurried along now, careful where he put his feet, and lost himself in the night. He wouldn’t sleep much on the floor. The stones beneath his feet seemed soft, as soft as the mattress. He imagined the noise of the springs and the frog sweat of their naked bodies. The last lights on the street went out and he heard the slam of a door.

Then the night closed upon itself, like the edges of a wound.[/private]

Harkaitz Cano studied law but never worked as a lawyer. His preferred genre is the short story. He says, “Tell a novelist to pack a suitcase and he’ll organise an entire move. Not the short story writer. He’ll only put in the bare essentials. When a short story unfolds, it fits on the kitchen floor like a map of the city.” His most recent book was Norbait dabil sute-eskaileran (‘Someone’s on the fire escape’; 2001).
Linda White is Emeritus Professor at the Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada. She has translated many academic and literary works.
Elizabeth Macklin is a poet and translator based in New York. She has published much poetry and translates from Basque and Spanish.“The Mattress” was originally published in An Anthology of Basque Short Stories edited by Mari Jose Olaziregi (Center for Basque Studies-University of Nevada, Reno, 2004).

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