Money Under Mattresses

There were boys’ rooms and girls’ rooms and communal areas. Maybe they were too old to be called boys and girls, thought Bobby. It would be better to call them desperate, middle-aged men and women.

How had he ended up at this halfway house? Was it halfway to employment and stability, or halfway to unemployment and the trash can? Most people lived in hope, but there was no telling which direction they were moving in; recycling or landfill.

The employment situation in Lucerne was dire. The number of sick and struggling people was rising, and doctors’, lawyers’, and accountants’ services were much in demand. These professional people were doing well, but everybody else, lumped together loosely as unprofessional, was suffering. Some turned to crime, robbing the professional people, who they said were taking much more than their share.

This led to discussions about the meaning of money. Clever people said it had no intrinsic value as a physical commodity; it was just fiat money, from the Latin word meaning “it shall be”; a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and a standard of deferred payment only because The Authority said it was money.

The middle-aged men and women in the boys’ and girls’ rooms accepted all of this. They had no issue with money’s definition; the issue was that they had none. They had however not sunk to criminal actions, instead created an informal community, helping each other to survive.

Shama approached Bobby, looking angry, and asked. “Did you borrow some money?”

Bobby said, “I did last month. It was a twenty dollar bill. When I got some work at the Botanical Gardens I returned it.”

“Well, there’s still twenty dollars missing. Are you sure you returned it?”

“Yes, I did. I remember putting it under your mattress. There was about two hundred dollars there altogether. You had blue sheets.”

Shama became angrier. “I always have blue sheets. I don’t have another set. Are you being honest with me?  If you still have the money, that’s okay, but just say so.”

Other boys and girls in the lounge went quiet. Someone may have turned down the TV. It suddenly seemed quieter, and their voices, louder.

How could Shama say that in public, thought Bobby, accuse him like that? It wasn’t on. He said, “I’m not lying. I told you I took it, and I told you I put it back. Why would I lie?”

Shama shook his head and walked away. They grunted to each other after that, but didn’t engage in real conversations. Tension built in the house. What they called their economy of trust became strained.

Most people had lost the use of their bank accounts when they had entered into voluntary liquidation agreements, paying off their overdrafts as loans. Banking facilities for fiat money were thereafter withheld from them.

What money they had, they threw under their mattresses. Shama had always thought this was appropriate, as mattress comes from matrah, the Arabic word meaning “to throw down.”

The first mattresses had been leaves, straw or grass, covered by animal skins, which had evolved into cotton, foam rubber, and metal spring frameworks, even water and air beds. The money beneath people’s mattresses was as insubstantial as this latter filling. The boys and girls knew this, and helped each other; there was give and take.

“Money come, money go, money nothing,” Shama’s grandfather used to say.

Shama remembered a night at the Lucerne Valley Hotel bar where he had spent $20 on drinks, and then come home, dropped onto his mattress, and dreamt of better times. Maybe Bobby hadn’t taken it after all. Maybe Shama had spent it on forgetting.

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