The Mattress Boy of Cameroon
Kate Jackson is somewhat of a nomad, growing up as a “valley girl” in Los Angeles and in her adult life traveling frequently and living in a myriad of cities including Washington, St. Louis and New Haven. She will continue to use her parents’ address as “permanent,” despite not having lived there for years, as she takes on her newest adventure of moving to New York City to be an inner-city high school teacher in Harlem. Kate earned her MA in Religious Ethics from Yale Divinity School.
Do you hear him? They call him the Mattress Boy of Cameroon. Sometimes, at sunrise, if there is dead air on the radio after the French late-night music and before the morning news, you can hear him infiltrate the airwaves, the Mattress Boy of Cameroon. You can hear the small voice of a five-year-old boy: “Please help,” says the Mattress Boy of Cameroon.
Ananda says she has seen him, the Mattress Boy of Cameroon. She tells me this as I bring her a fresh cup of mint tea from the pot her mother just made. “This will sooth Ananda’s stomachache,” her mother tells me as she pours the tea with mint leaves floating on top and asks me to bring it to her daughter. The porcelain china tea cup with gold trim starts to shake as I hear Ananda’s news. Her eyes glisten as she relays the events of last night. Ananda knows that I am jealous, and she enjoys it.
She was supposed to sleepover last night after Bikutsi practice for our age group—the eleven-year-olds—but in the middle of the night she called her father to pick her up because her stomach ached. I thought she looked fine in her pastel pajamas as her father arrived late last night. I think she just wanted an excuse to drive on Simekoa Road at sunrise.
She says that when they drove to her home, there was no one on the streets except their truck. Because of the government road blocks and extra security at night, the only open street from my house to hers at that time is Simekoa Road. Ananda tells me that it was just as the sun came up that her father’s blue truck passed the house where the Mattress Boy lived, two blocks from the radio station. She says that as they were passing, the radio pause between the French music and the news was extra long. It was then, with the long pause and the early sunrise, while as the only car on Simekoa Road, that she looked over at his old house. She saw him, she says. She saw him standing in the window, holding his mattress, about to secure the windows for an attack. “How did he look?” I ask, trying not to act as interested as I am, trying to steady my hand so she doesn’t see the tea shaking in the cup I am passing to her. “Very small next to the big mattress,” she says.
Almost no one believes Ananda. They say that the Mattress Boy hasn’t lived there for years, that he left some time after the uprisings of 1983, when he fled back to America with his mother. They say that the Ndi family lives there now, not the Mattress Boy. But Mykelti—he lives in the Mattress Boy’s room—he also believes Ananda, like me. He says that sometimes, at night, his radio goes dead and he feels a tug at his mattress. This happened the night his house was attacked, Mykeliti says. He says the Mattress Boy woke him, telling him to secure the windows. That is when Mykeliti heard the men at the door and woke his parents, and this is what saved his family. But most other times Mykeliti says he tells the Mattress Boy not to worry, that they are safe now, that they don’t need to protect the windows or the room. “He doesn’t scare you?” I ask. “No, he is so small and scared, the Mattress Boy. I want to help him,” says Mykeliti. “What does he look like?” I ask. “His jaw sticks out,” says Mykeliti. “Oh, yes, that is what I noticed, as well,” interjects Ananda. I find it hard to believe that Ananda noticed this detail during that quick car ride, but I do not tell her this.
“Tell us the story about the Mattress Boy, again,” we beg Mykeliti’s uncle. Mykeliti’s uncle is tired of retelling the story of the day the Mattress Boy’s mother invited him over for tea, but we ask again, certain that we will glean new insights given Ananda’s recent sighting. He tells us, again, that the Mattress Boy’s mother came to Cameroon to work for the US government. This is how Mykeliti’s uncle met her, but this not why he was invited over for tea, well, not the only reason, anyway. Mykeliti’s uncle tells us that everyone knew Joy—she had a very loud laugh and always walked as if she was in a rush, even if she wasn’t. One Saturday morning, he knew Joy was at the local market before he saw her because he heard her laugh as she haggled with the butcher over the price for the juiciest piece of steak. Uncle tells us that Joy was incredibly charming and could always get whatever she wanted, like the juiciest piece of steak in the market. He says Joy was so pleased to see him by the meat section of the market that she invited him over for tea.
When he got to her house she rushed around preparing the tea, even though there was no need to rush. As she rushed around, Uncle sat at the table with the Mattress Boy. “What was he doing?” we ask. “He was reading a book and listening to the radio,” Uncle tells us. He was reading a book so quietly that Joy forgot to introduce him. Joy laughed her big laugh when Uncle asked about the little boy at the table. At that moment, the Mattress Boy looked over at Uncle as he couldn’t ignore him anymore. Very quietly, but very grown-up like, the Mattress Boy reached across the table to Uncle, shook his hand and said, “Nice to meet you.” Uncle says that the Mattress Boy was very shy and did not speak another word until “Goodbye,” at the end of the evening. Joy told Uncle that although the Mattress Boy was small, he was actually five years old and a very advanced reader.
Uncle says that when the kettle boiled, Joy rushed to the other room, flailing her arms and shouting to a man that tea was ready. Uncle says that while it was unclear exactly who the man was or where he came from, it was very obvious that he was in love with Joy and that he was fond of the Mattress Boy. The unknown man, with a name that Uncle cannot remember, sat next to the Mattress Boy, very close next to him, and affectionately put his hands on the Mattress Boy’s back and whispered something in his ear that Uncle couldn’t hear. Whatever it was, it elicited the only smile that the Mattress Boy showed that afternoon. Uncle says the Mattress Boy sat next to the man with the forgettable name like he was a father, even though Uncle could tell it was not his father. And while he cannot remember what they talked about, Uncle says that the Mattress Boy sat with the adults for the whole afternoon, looking down at the table as he drank his tea and occasionally glancing up to make sure the man with the forgettable name was still there.
“What did the Mattress Boy look like?” we ask Uncle. And although Uncle has told us so many times, it is reassuring to hear him say the predictable description once again. “He was brown,” Uncle tell us. “Not dark like us, not light like his mother, but his own shade of brown which didn’t quite belong.” Uncle tells us that the Mattress Boy had a jaw like his mother’s that came out and that he wore glasses with a thick black rim, had short black hair, and wore a black shirt and jeans which were too big.
And although we know the answer, we always ask, “Did you see him again, Uncle?” “Yes, the next time I saw him he was playing outside the radio station on Simekoa Road.” “And what did you do, Uncle, when you saw him?” we ask. Sometimes Uncle does not like to tell us this part. My mother says that we must not pester Uncle about this story, especially this part, she says. But we ask because we love the Mattress Boy as much as Uncle did and so we want to know.
Uncle tells us that the Mattress Boy was playing alone, a game with sticks and rocks, and he went over there to talk to him. “Where is your book?” Uncle asked the Mattress Boy. The Mattress Boy looked up and looked around. He seemed uncertain that he was the object of Uncle’s question. “Me?” the Mattress Boy asked. “Yes, of course you. You are the only person around,” said Uncle. “Oh, I suppose, yes,” said the Mattress Boy. “My book is not here. I am playing a game that I invented. With rocks and sticks.” “Can you teach me?” Uncle asked. Uncle says that the Mattress Boy looked surprised that Uncle wanted to learn the new game. “Your mother tells me that you are a smart boy, and so now I want to see the games of a smart boy. Show me, please.” And so the Mattress Boy taught Uncle a game which he made up with sticks and rocks. When Uncle asked why the boy played near the radio station, the Mattress Boy told him that it is because he likes to hear the voices because it feels like he has friends. “You don’t have friends in school?” asked Uncle. “They are nice,” said the Mattress Boy. “But we will leave; my mother will have us leave soon and so sometimes I do not want to teach them my new games since I know we will leave.” “In that case, why did you teach me?” asked Uncle. The Mattress Boy raised his eyebrows and looked as if he didn’t know why, but we know why and Uncle knows why too. “Well, I will play with you from now on,” Uncle told the Mattress Boy. And from that day on, Uncle played the game of sticks and rocks with the Mattress Boy, but the Mattress Boy made him promise that they would always play besides the radio station so that way, if Uncle stopped coming to play, it wouldn’t feel lonely for the Mattress Boy because the voices would be there to keep him company.
When Uncle took the Mattress Boy home that day, Joy asked him to come over for dinner. During dinner, the Mattress Boy mainly looked as his rice while Joy laughed loudly and told Uncle about her adventures in India and in the US. Uncle noticed that the man with the forgettable name was not around, for which he was pleased. Before the Mattress Boy went to sleep that night, he came over to Uncle and said, “Thank you.” Uncle always cries when he tells that part, the part about the thank you. After the Mattress Boy went to sleep, Uncle stayed up that night and helped Joy to clean. Uncle says she was rushing around, even though there was nothing to rush for, and she was laughing her big laughs at all his jokes. Before Uncle left that night, he kissed Joy.
From then on, until the Mattress Boy and Joy left, Uncle would play the games of sticks and rocks with the Mattress Boy near the radio station and then he would eat dinner with the Mattress Boy and Joy. Every night after the Mattress Boy went to sleep, Joy would rush around unnecessarily and then kiss Uncle.
Uncle says that those were the best days of his life. My mother says that those days are the reason why Uncle never got married. Some people think Uncle is still in love with Joy, but I think Uncle loves the Mattress Boy too much to ever have a son to take his place. I know this because of the way Uncle cries at the part about the “Thank you.”
Last year, Uncle took me, Mykeliti, and Ananda to get ice cream. Mykeliti and Ananda ran off to play with a boy from school that I do not like very much, and so I sat on a bench next to Uncle.
“What happened to your friends?” asks Uncle, as he sits on the bench, making some marks in the sand with his toes and rearranging some rocks and sticks. “They are in a rush to see a friend,” I tell him, “but sometimes I just like to sit quietly.” “You remind me of him, you know,” says Uncle. My heart beats quickly, “I do?” I ask, knowing exactly who he means and wanting him to tell me again that I remind him of the Mattress Boy. “Yes, his quiet intensity, his calm demeanor.” There is a long pause. “I stopped rushing, after Joy, you know. I mean to say that Joy rushed in and out of Cameroon and barely had time to love us, and so after she rushed away I promised myself that I would never go anywhere in a hurry. The only time she ever paused was when she laughed that big, loud laugh and smiled that smile. I have never known anyone with such a beautiful smile who was so sad.” We sit in silence, while Uncle makes markings in the sand with his toes and rearranges rocks and sticks.
I have never known if Uncle told me this because he knows that I love the Mattress Boy more than anyone, or if he was simply feeling nostalgic as we sat near the radio station. Sometimes I wonder if Uncle has forgotten that he told me any of this. Anyway, now I know why Uncle doesn’t rush around. Every time Mykeliti and Ananda run to a spot where they think they have seen the Mattress Boy, I am confident that they will not find him by running, because I know that will scare him away since the Mattress Boy does not like to rush.
Anyway, it is because of playing the games of sticks and rocks and kissing Joy at night that it is how it came to be that Uncle was at the house on Simekoa Road, the house which Mykeliti now lives in, on the day of the fighting, the day of the mattresses which was the day that made Joy leave Cameroon.
Uncle says that they were awakened early in the morning by the fighting. A rogue military group was attempting to take over the government, and their first stop was to drive down Simekoa Road to take over the radio station. The loud tanks and yelling woke them. Uncle turned on the radio while Joy frantically called the US embassy over the CB radio, but the US government was hesitant to get involved and certain that Joy was over-reacting. Uncle knew the group had successfully overthrown the radio station when their leader came onto the airwaves and gave a speech trying to elicit support and sympathizers. Uncle said that they could barely hear the speech through the speakers as the envoy of Cameroonian troops drove and marched past their house on the way to the radio station.
Joy was hysterical, and the Mattress Boy looked scared, says Uncle. Uncle suggested that they prepare for warfare and try to protect themselves. Uncle took everyone into the main bedroom and asked the Mattress Boy to help him to secure the mattresses onto the windows for protection. Then they went into the Mattress Boy’s room since it also faced the street. Unlike her typical self, Joy was not in a rush to help, but stayed away as Uncle and the Mattress Boy attached the mattresses to the windows.
All of a sudden a flash light and a loud sound overwhelmed them. Uncle was blown out of the room. He was knocked out, and when he came to, he was sitting in his own blood. But he needed to find the Mattress Boy. Uncle saw the Mattress Boy crying, stroking his frightened mother who was yelling at the embassy to get them out of danger and out of Cameroon. Uncle rushed over, limping, but Joy wouldn’t let him near them. “Are you okay?” Uncle asked, but Joy only wanted to talk to the embassy. The Mattress Boy nodded a sad, “Yes.” As fast as it all began, a helicopter appeared outside to take Joy and the Mattress Boy away to safety. Uncle wasn’t as fast as them and tried to follow them out the door as fast as he could. “I love you,” Uncle yelled as they were running into the helicopter, but the helicopter was so loud he didn’t think that Joy or the Mattress Boy heard. Joy slammed the door to the helicopter and away they went.
My friends make fun of me—“You are in love with a ghost,” they say. I tell them they are wrong, but I sometimes I do not know. I think about the Mattress Boy often, I worry about him and I wonder why he is still here. I want to tell him it is okay, that he is safe and he does not need to put up the mattresses anymore.
Mykeliti’s family is going away for the weekend, and he says I can sleep in his room in hopes of seeing the Mattress Boy. At first Ananda thinks that she will sleep in the room with me, but I do not want this. I want to be alone with him. I tell her that he probably will not come if she is there because she already saw him. She seems to find this reasonable, and so I go alone.
. . .
I am nervous as I lie in Mykeliti’s bed in the Mattress Boy’s old room. I turn on the radio. I have barely fallen asleep when I feel a tug at my feet. It is him. He tells me that we must put the mattresses on the windows. We must protect ourselves. “Please help,” he says to me. I don’t say anything right away. I am nervous. He is smaller than I was expecting. More fragile. His jaw sticks out, like they said it did, and his color is brown, but not dark like us and not white. He does not belong, I think. He wears thick-rimmed glasses. I am trying to take in the picture, to remember how he looks, remember how this moment sounds and tastes. I want to soak it all in so I can take it with me and jump into all the details at a later time when I am alone. So there is a long pause after he asks me to help because I have so much on my mind. But finally I say yes.
We stand over the bed and take off the sheets. The Mattress Boy leads in silence, guiding with his eyes and movements. We don’t talk. I feel as if I have encroached on a sacred ritual. We each take an end of the mattress and walk it over to the window. I think about how heavy the mattress would be for him to carry alone. He must need help to do this, I think. Then he directs my attention to the ends of the mattress, “Like this,” he says as breaks the silence. He shows me how to fasten the mattress to the window. “Now you try,” he says. I imagine that this is how Uncle did it with him, even when they were in a panic. Uncle showed him first and then expected the Mattress Boy to learn so that they could have continued to protect the rest of the house if they were not attacked so soon. Once the mattress is fastened, the Mattress Boy steps back to admire his work. He seems pleased.
We go back to the bed and sit on the naked bed frame. We are silent. We are waiting. But we feel safe. Nothing happens. But I know this. I know that we do not need to be protected. Cameroon is no longer under attack. I think I must tell this to the Mattress Boy. “We are safe,” I whisper. “Yes,” he replies, “because I have put up the mattresses.” His comment surprises me. “Perhaps,” I respond, “but we are mostly safe because Cameroon is no longer under attack. We don’t need to protect ourselves anymore.” I think this news will free the Mattress Boy. I am almost scared to tell him because I am so certain that this will bring him peace and so he will leave Cameroon, which makes me feel sad. If there is no need for the mattresses and no unfinished business then there is no role for a ghost, I think. He is silent. “And Uncle loves you,” I add. The Mattress Boy is still silent. I look at him, he looks at me, and he looks at the mattresses fastened to the windows. I remind him again that we are safe and that we do not need the mattresses.
He slowly gets up and walks out the room. I am confused. Perhaps he is leaving Cameroon, I think, now that his job is done. As I am thinking about how much Uncle loves him and how much I love him, I see a small shadow come from the front yard. All of a sudden I hear a loud crash, glass breaks, and then there is another crash and a bang and glass flies and I am screaming, “Stop Mattress Boy! Why are you breaking the glass? Stop, please stop!” Glass strikes my arm, and there is blood. I am sobbing hysterically. I fall to the ground and cry. The Mattress Boy runs over and sits on the floor with me. He puts his arms around me as I hold my injured forearm and sob. “Why are you crying?” asks the Mattress Boy, “My mattresses protected you.”
I run away.
I run out of the house, onto Simekoa road, past the radio station, and past the bench. I run away, far away, I cannot stop running. I feel sick.
When Ananda and Mykelti ask about that night, I tell them that the Mattress Boy never came. Sometimes they ask me why I never talk about him anymore, and I say that I am a big girl now and I no longer believe in ghosts. I am not sure why I do not tell anyone about that night. Maybe I want Ananada and Mykeliti to save our innocent and incorrect ideas of the Mattress Boy. They knew only the ghost of him—the superficial parts that they wanted to know, the romantic ideal of a boy who protects us. I, on the other hand, am haunted by the true identity of the Mattress Boy of Cameroon.