Extract from the short-story «The Mattress». In Olaziregi, M.J. (compiler): An Anthology of Basque Short Stories, University of Nevada - Center for Basque Studies, Reno, 2004. Translated from Basque by Elizabeth Macklin and Linda White.Originally published as «Koltxoia», in Telefono kaiolatua, Alberdania, 1997
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.
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 colors 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 neighborhood, at the tail end of a poor neighborhood, 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?"
"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 color 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 neighborhood with a painted wall around it. True, it looked shabby, but not as much as the neighborhood's other houses. At first glance it was one of the best-looking and most dignified in the neighborhood, 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, Sol figured, 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."
"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 check 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's 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 neighborhood. 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 neighborhood, and even fewer that were regulation.
Reggae music floated from neighborhood 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, and 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.
© Telefono kaiolatua: Alberdania
© An Anthology of Basque Short Stories: Center for Basque Studies