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Foam Mattress 

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It is the day after the Detroit Pistons won some championship or other. My friend Charlie calls me from Detroit to say he wants to come visit me. Is that basketball, baseball? I still don't know. All I know is that following the triumph of the team, the celebrating in the streets left eight people dead. Ecstatic fans brandished bats and bricks and looted stores, and hundreds of people were stabbed, shot, or beaten. Hundreds of people rush out into the streets of Detroit and stab, beat, and shoot each other because they're happy?

"I didn't hear about that," Charlie tells me calmly. "But listen, I'll be in Chicago on Wednesday. My father is angry, I gotta go."

"But I don't..." He hangs up.

"But I don't really have any place for you to sleep," I say to the dead receiver. I have three chairs in my apartment. I'm pretty proud of that, but none of them are good for sleeping beyond the accidental nap. My bed is not big enough for Charlie and me. It wouldn't be even if it filled up my whole apartment, my whole block. I don't know what I'll find at the thrift stores for Charlie to sleep on, but I go anyway, to get the Pistons off my mind.

I walk down Damen and the heat makes waves on the blacktop. As I reach the intersection of Damen, North, and Milwaukee, I watch the cars slide up to the stoplight from three directions, big American cars, maybe manufactured in Detroit. The boom, boomboom, boom of their radios moves into me like the heat from the blacktop. Boom, boomboom, boom, it might be my pulse, everybody's pulse. The noise and the heat of the street drift in through open doors and follow me to the back of the Salvation Army store on Milwaukee, where I see a brand-new foam mattress resting on an old metal frame. It's priced $30, with or without the frame. I only have $15, and no way to carry the frame the five blocks to my apartment. I feel pretty cheap trying to haggle with the Salvation Army, but they could probably use the frame for a heavier mattress anyway.

The Salvation Army woman is sweating in her pastel blue housedress. She is looking at me the way you look at the bottom of your shoe when you step in dog shit when she asks, "Why can't you take the frame?" She thinks I have 30 bucks just lying around. She thinks I am from one of the Euro-cafes that opened on Damen this summer. I want to tell her that the gentrification will drive me out too, but she has her hands on her wide hips, and I am bending down to crawl under the mattress, to hide from her curling, sweating lip, and to hide from the heat and the boom, boomboom, boom of the passing car radios that sounds like a pulse that is ticking off like a time bomb.

"It's a rip-off," a matter-of-fact voice says, but I don't know who these words are meant for until a short old man puts his hand on my shoulder. He offers me a gentle, gummy grin that makes me think he is my grandfather, who used to parade around with his dentures out to amuse me and to mortify my grandmother. The Salvation Army woman becomes my grandmother as she turns haughtily away from us and marches to the front of the store.

The old man follows her, bringing me along with his hand still on my shoulder. The woman is steadily tagging shoes and does not look up as we walk back out onto Milwaukee Avenue, where the old man whispers, "I know where there's a new foam mattress, better than that one, for $3."

His flashing black pupils, his green work pants, are my dead grandfather's, and I want to ask him how he has acquired them, but I decide to ask him if the Pistons play baseball or basketball. He seems like he would know. But I can't hear him whispering because an ice cream truck is parking beside us on the street. It is playing a tinny, happy tune that is so happy I'm sure it's trying to tell me, tell everyone, that something is wrong.

"The corner of Milwaukee and Armitage, the corner of Milwaukee and Armitage," he is whispering and nodding and waving.

I am nodding and waving back.

On the second floor of the Village Thrift store on the corner of Milwaukee and Armitage there's a new foam mattress. There is no price on it so I find a clerk to help me, and as we are walking over to it a different woman puts down a lamp and a bundle of clothes so she can examine the mattress.

"It's $3," the clerk says.

The woman rolls up the mattress. "Can you tie it up for me so I can carry it?" she asks. The clerk grabs some thin rope off a yellow La-Z-Boy recliner and ties the mattress into a roll. I cannot move. I am waiting for the toothless old man to walk up and explain things to this woman like he had to the other. When he doesn't, I go down the stairs and walk out onto Milwaukee Avenue again. Boom, boomboom, boom. I sit on the curb and I do not know why a mattress makes me want to leave this city.

The woman emerges from the store, mattress under one arm, bundle of clothes under another. She is smiling at me.

"Where's your lamp?" I ask.

Smile vanishes, "Oh the lamp. I just can't buy it on account of my rent going up."

I don't want her rent to go up. I don't want my rent to go up. I dont want Charlie to sleep in my bed. "I'll give you $10 for the mattress," I tell her meekly--maybe she thinks I'm from the Eurocafes.

She tells me sweetly, "There'll be another piece of foam in here by next week. I come here every day." She wants to give it to me for $3.

"I only have a ten," I say.

Smile returns, "I'm going to get me that lamp."

On Wednesday Charlie brings me a large, green plaster lizard he got in Mexico. An orange-and-black plaster snake wrapped around its belly contorts the lizard's mouth into a scream. It is sitting on the floor next to the foam mattress. Charlie does not want to talk about Detroit because his father is there and he does not like his father. So I don't ask him if the Pistons play baseball or basketball. It does not matter. Charlie is talking about the village just outside Mexico City where he has lived for the last two years. He takes the blankets off the foam mattress and begins fashioning a bed on the wood floor as he explains how he has grown accustomed to sleeping on a board on top of some crates. "Hey you what's wrong?" he interrupts himself as he sees he has lost my attention.

I am looking at the lizard's screaming mouth, it has jagged white teeth, but I see the toothless grinning mouth of the old man, the sweating, curling lips of the Salvation Army woman, the smiling ones of the woman with the lamp. Boom, boomboom, boom, a big American car drives by. I put the lizard on the mattress and walk into my bedroom to get it a pillow.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Merideth.

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