The Mattress

Like most old folks of her generation, Grandma died without a will. As if on cue, all her broke and triflin kin descended, scraping and clawing at each other like they was fighting over a king's ransom. Project and trailer folk alike, they all attended the funeral. (The mens in my family misegenated like crazy soon as sleeping with the opposite race was legal in most states.)

I couldn't believe how so many of these so-called "loved ones" actually showed up, cause they never did manage to swing by when she was alive and kickin. The little storefront church Grandma attended most of her adult life, Running With Jesus Baptist Church, The Most High Reverend Honorable Pastor Apostle Dr. Horace O. Tittle III presiding, was packed wall to wall with the greasy and the sweating , the big bootied and the big bellied, the shifty eyed and the cross eyed.

Lying in state in a simple pinewood box, Grandma, dead as she was, was the only thing in the church with an ounce of dignity about her. Okay, it was a cheap casket, but Grandma wouldn't have had it any other way. A few months before her death (she must of known even then she was bout to go), she told me, "Cee Cee, I will come back and haunt you dead if you spend one gotdamn dime on my funeral. I'd be fine if you just hefted this old body on the back of a dump truck and called it a day. I ain't gone need it noway."

"Oh Grandma," I said, trying hard not to let a tear drop. "You ain't going nowhere. You gone outlive us all."

"That's some dogshit and you know it. Don't be a gotdamn fool." Whenever she'd say gotdamn she'd move her head from side to side--"got" (to the left), "damn" (to the right), "fool" (finger in your face).

Now, my grandmother was what you would call a cussin Christian. She could quote the Bible backwards and forwards, but somehow she missed the "don't cuss" part. Cross her or say something stupid and my grandma would cuss you out in a heartbeat. I've seen her cuss out the mail man, the garbage man, and especially The Most Reverend and his mama. She got a special evil joy out of that. But she was so old and scary, nobody would rebuke her.

My mother was afraid of Grandma, too. Truth is, Grandma probably child abused her when she was little. By the time she had me, Ma was so traumatized she'd let anybody beat up on her. Little as I was, I had to chase many a violent boyfriend out the house. Hell, I threatened one with a knife. He called me a crazy little bitch, but he ran his ass out the door quick and in a hurry! I wasn't scared of none of them cause I had my grandma's fight in me, and I was protective of my ma. Still is.

I guess a funeral makes you think about these things, makes you reflect about life and the people you done loved. Grandma weren't perfect, but I loved her, and it didn't matter to me that she left me nothing. She left me more than I can say. I know how to live cause of what she taught me. That woman could be harsh as hell, but she had more wisdom in her baby toenail than, well, The Most Reverend, that's for gotdamn sure. In fact, I once asked her why she insisted on going to that fool's church. She'd just laugh at me and say, "Cause it's close to the house, and I ain't got to take the gotdamn bus!"

The funeral began late. Typical. I could almost hear Grandma cussin up there with the heavenly host. Me and Ma sat in the front pew, and all Grandma's people filed in behind. The Most Reverend made his entrance, read a couple of words from scripture, and then began to talk about what a good woman my grandma was. Made me sick to my stomach. He said he loved Grandma (liar!), and that's when the clowning began for real. Some woman I ain't never even seen before jumped up, stretched her arms back, and started screaming, "Aw Lawd! Why'd you have to take her, Lawd?" The organist churned out a tune that might have been more appropriate at the ballpark than my granny's funeral, but it got everybody up on their feet, shouting hallelujah's and what not.

I turned to look at Ma. She was sitting totally motionless. Her back was straight, like the rod of Aaron, and her eyes stared straight ahead, unseeing, or maybe seeing too much. I couldn't even begin to guess what was going on in her head.

And so the service went. Grandma's people acted a fool from start to finish. They screamed and bucked and rolled down the aisles. The more they performed, the hotter it got. I lifted a fan, the one with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s face on it, and tried to cool off. No use. It was hot as hell in that church. The arm pits of my black dress were stained with sweat and loathing. I wanted so bad to get up out of there, but for Grandma's sake, stayed put, in misery for more than just her passing. I mean, it was all such dogshit.

When the service was finally over thank the Lawd, I heard one of Grandma's people grumble about how the crusty old bitch had been more broke than an elevator in the projects and coming to the funeral was a big waste of time.

I sighed and felt tears swell up in my throat. My ma had a faraway look in her eyes. No tears. I understood. "Let's go," I said. She nodded.

Me and my mother walked the block to Grandma's old apartment. This was the only thing Grandma asked of me: that I thoroughly clean her apartment and give all her junk to Goodwill if they would take it. Me and my ma got out the bucket, the cleanser, mop, and scrub brush, but there was no need. The place was as clean as clean could be. With our black dresses still on, we got on our hands and knees and started scrubbing the floor in the kitchen. We cleaned the sink and the old stove. There was hardly any food at all in the refrigerator. Grandma hadn't been eating in her last days. An unruly tear dropped to the linoleum floor.

I closed the refrigerator door to an important part of my life. It was just too much. "Let's go to the bedroom," I said. Ma nodded, quiet as usual and lost in her thoughts.

Before she died, Grandma said, "You better not forget to flip the mattress. Promise!" At the time I didn't think about it, but now I felt her ghost hovering.

"Ma, help me flip the mattress," I said. She took one side and I took the other. On the count of three, we lifted the mattress on its side and let it fall to the floor. We gasped.

Laying on top of the box spring was two envelopes--one was small, the other big. The front of the small envelope read "Claire." My ma picked it up and stared, and then she lifted her eyes helplessly to me.

My heart thudded in my chest. "Open it, Ma."

Now her tears fell. Her crying almost made me lose it. She shook her head.

"Ma, open it!" I choked. Again she forcefully shook her head. Gently, I tugged the envelope from her bony brown fingers, and as I did so, my mother crumbled to the floor, her slight frame wracked by a thunderstorm of sobs.

I ripped it open and drew out a small scrap of paper. It felt light, like air, like Grandma's flesh before she passed. In my grandma's shaky hand were two words. Two words that would undo the universe as we knew it.

"Ma, you have to read this. It's from Grandma." As if she didn't know. She shook her head and kept shaking. "Ma!"

"Darlin, you read it for me, okay?" Her pleading eyes made my heart ache for all her troubles, and for not the first time in my life I wanted to shake that old woman.

"Okay, I'll read it." I took a deep breath, and read. "Ma, it says 'I's sorry.'" I drew out the words real slow, like taffy. "Ma! She knew she did you wrong!"

"She did who wrong? Me? Huh?" Ma blinked and flinched.

"Ma, she was sorry! She knew she did you wrong. Can you accept her apology? Maybe it will help her cross over to the other side," I said.

"She was...sorry?"

"That's what it says, 'I's sorry,'" I said.

I saw my mother shudder, then, like the sun peaking through clouds after a really bad storm, the slightest hint of a smile. "Let me see that," she said with just a hint of feistiness that surprised me and made me grin. I gave her the note. "You right!" she said in wonder. " 'I's sorry!'"

"Ma, can you forgive her?"

My mother smiled. It weren't a big one, just a tiny curving up of the corners of her full lips. "All them years I thought my mother hated me. She used to beat me, you know." I nodded, keeping my eyes level with hers. "But not once in my entire life did I ever hear her apologize to nobody. Nobody, you hear me?" I nodded.

My mother's gaze drifted to the past, to a place where I couldn't go. "She musta felt really bad," she said in a whisper, clearly in awe at the miracles that can happen in life sometimes. "She musta thought about what she done over the years. She musta realized that I didn't deserve all that. I wasn't so bad that she had to beat me like that."

I nodded, and, for the first time maybe ever, I felt good for my mother. Like maybe there was hope for her. There was nothing like the feeling of sweet justification. The pieces of her that had been flung far and wide with every painful lick was traveling back to the place where they belonged. Her face lost that perpetual worried look it always wore, and she relaxed. She looked younger, too.

"How you feelin, Ma?" I asked.

"How do I feel? I feel like I want to accept her gotdamn apology!" she cried. I rushed to her, and we hugged a long time. I needed to feel her healing in my own bones. Maybe some of my own far-flung pieces would join the party. Pulling away from me she said, laughing shyly, "So what's in the other envelope?"

Oh right! I forgot about that. I reached over to the middle of the bed where it lay, oversized and thick and mysterious and pulsing with some secret waiting to be revealed. I ripped open the seal and gasped.

"What?" asked my mother breathlessly, eyes wide and full of happiness.

"Green," I said, choking. "It's full of green!" I showed her.

"Oh my Gawd, it's money!"

I emptied the contents out on the bed, and we spent the next half hour having the time of our lives, counting ten, twenty, and hundred dollar bills. All in all, we counted over five hundred thousand dollars. Like Grandma woulda said, "Lawd a mercy!"

I shook the envelope to make sure that nothing was left. One last piece of paper floated out. It was a note. "This is my last will and testament," it read, and I could hear the authoritative voice of my grandma like she was in the room. "$250,000 goes to my beloved daughter, Claire. $250,000 goes to my beloved granddaughter, Cee Cee. Give the rest to the food pantry. I shoulda did this a long time ago. I's sorry. Signed Mildred Sarah Brown (formerly McIntosh). Oh and PS: never trust a bank wit yo gotdamned money."