The mattress salesman sat at his desk and watched the girl come in from the rain.
She closed her umbrella and looked around absently, as if she’d just happened upon the mattress store and wanted to see what mattresses were going for these days.
Two diamond chips glittered in her earlobes, and she wore the kind of plain clothing the salesman knew to be expensive. But her movements struck him as forced—as if she were trying very hard to appear normal. Perhaps she’d been left or had to leave someone; it was common enough in a mattress store.
He waited at his desk as she made her way from the crisp white kings festooned with black velvet sashes towards the sale section, where the mattresses were thin and blue.
“Can I help you find anything?” he asked, folding his paper.
“No, I’m just looking.”
Her tank-top was soaked with rain, and for a moment he thought he could see the shape of her breasts, but it was only a bra contoured to look like breasts, and the salesman felt cheated. He remembered when bras were so flimsy women had to cross their arms when the air conditioner came on.
“Looks like you got some sun this weekend.”
“Yeah, it’s gross,” she said, brushing her peeling shoulder. “I was out on Nantucket.”
“Vacation or business?” It was a stupid question, and his toes curled deep within his sport loafers.
“My parents are there,” she turned a price tag over in her hand, “if I were to buy a mattress today could you have it delivered tonight?”
“I’d need to get the order in by noon,” he said looking at his watch, though he knew it was a quarter to twelve. “You know, I keep meaning to go Nantucket.”
The girl did not look up.
“Don’t pay any attention to those prices.”
“Why?” She asked, the tag falling from her hand, “Why are these prices never real?”
The salesman’s stance softened; his heels sank confidently into the white cushions that lined his shoes. Half his business came from the parting of couples, and he’d grown tolerant of these outbursts. These people came to him at their weakest, and saw treachery in everything.
“Give me your price range and I’ll help you find something.” The girl looked at him for the first time. Her eyes circled his cognac-colored hair, and lingered on the piece of nose that hung pendulously between his nostrils. Could she not instead consider his strong chin, or perhaps his excessive height, which required him to shop at big-and-tall stores? He was not yet old; he was not an altogether unattractive man.
Her gaze rested on a poster beyond his ear.
“Is the Labor Day sale still on?”
“On some models.”
“I can only spend 300 dollars.”
“I only have twins for that much.”
“I can’t go higher than 400. The box spring too, and the frame,” she said, her speech without accent, like most people from places he couldn’t afford to live.
He walked a few yards down and pointed to a blue mattress, his finger long and slender, like the microphone of a game show host. “This one’s our most popular model. It’s 375 in a full.”
The girl considered the mattress like a plate of potato salad left out in the sun. She poked its surface, “Is it comfy?”
“Try it out.”
She placed her purse on the floor and sat down, her knees clenched.
“I can back out the price of the box spring for you, but it’ll be mismatched.”
“They’ll be different colors. It won’t be part of a set.”
“That’s OK, I have a bed skirt.”
“The queen’s only 25 more, you might as well get that.”
“My apartment’s a studio. There’s an alcove—it won’t fit a queen.”
“Then go for the full. May I ask: do you have many overnight guests?”
The girl began looking for something in her purse.
“I’m sorry, but I have to know if you want to find the right mattress.”
“I’m moving out of someone’s apartment today, so, no, not right this second.”
“A full is fine for occasional guests.”
She dismounted the bed and turned her back to him. “This one was OK. What’s the next model up?”
“Over here.” He led her to the center of the showroom, where a thick mattress glowed blue-white under a spotlight, like a stack of bread with the crusts cut off. “Climb aboard.”
She perched on the edge and laid her upper body down, leaving her feet on the floor. He expected this reticence; the mattress was a magnificent thing, and she did not yet know the price. “You need to lie on it the right way.”
“But my shoes are dirty.”
He threw a clear plastic mat over the foot of the bed. “Now try.”
The girl swung her feet up and fell back into the pillow-top. She did not bounce; nothing on her bounced. The salesman wished she had thrown herself on a cheaper mattress.
“How much is it?”
He leaned over his desk and looked at the computer screen. “I’m backing out the delivery fee for you, but it looks like the least I can do is 599, even with the mismatched box.”
“The other one was fine,” she said, making no effort to get up. “I can’t pay this much for a full. Only one person can sleep comfortably.”
“It’s fine for occasional gues—“
“Yes, I know, you’ve told me.” She was becoming imperious. He brought this out in women.
“I have the first one you tried at home. It gets body impression after three years.” He pictured his mattress, with its twin concavities, though his wife had been gone for years. He tried to stay on his side, but often fell into hers during the night. “You don’t want that, do you?”
“Working here, I’d think you’d get a deal.” She gestured toward the deluxe models by the window.
“I tried one a few years back, but I’m too used to the thin ones. If you wait too long you can’t change. This mattress’ll last you ten years.”
The girl sat swiftly upright, her lips parted. He wondered what he’d said.
“What do you mean: three years, ten years? Ten years from now things will be completely different. How can I buy something when I don’t know?”
“You can only get the mattress that’s best for you right now.”
“I don’t know what’s best.” She leaned forward on the bed, squinting at a button on his lapel. “Ask me about partner disturbance,” she read. “What’s that?”
“When two people are on the mattress, and one of them moves, and it jostles the other person and wakes them up.”
“I hate being jostled.”
“Then you want a model like this, with self-contained coils. It reduces partner disturbance by two-thirds.”
“Does it work?”
“Of course it works.”
She looked at him without expression. There were no cars on the street at this hour. The rain had stopped for a moment and the showroom was thunderously quiet.
“Lie down and let me see.”
He fell upon the bed, wishing he were a younger, slicker mattress salesman, who still believed these things would happen all the time.
The mattress shook for a moment, then stabilized into a doughy mass. He faced away from the girl, he would not be presumptuous.
“Roll over,” she said, “violently—as if I’ve said something without thinking it through.”
“See,” he said, “the bed hardly moved.”
She turned her body to face his, and spoke softly now because they were quite close to each other, “I know this mattress is better. But which one should I get?”
The girl did not want to find the right mattress, and the salesman grew weary. He allowed his cheek to slacken against the pillow-top, and no longer wished he were younger.
“Get the blue one, the cheap one. It’s not as good of a mattress, but you won’t need it long.” And then he looked at her, not in an entirely lecherous way, but in a way that let her know she did not need to ask these questions—that it didn’t matter what mattress she bought, because this was only temporary. A man would come along—like him, but better—and buy her one of the kings in front with a black velvet quality sash. She’d put the full she’d buy today in the guestroom. It would be fine for an Au Pair, or a drunken guest at their Christmas party, and she’d never give it another thought.
Then she looked at the salesman with a relief that was so audible and bright, the miles of padding and ticking inside all the mattresses in the showroom couldn’t silence it. And for one moment it was there—so clear in the air he could smell it, and if they hadn’t been in a goddamned mattress store with lighting that made everything ugly except her, he would have tried something. But this made him ashamed, and she must have sensed this for she turned away, and then he knew it had become impossible. She would only become horrified at his furniture, his parents, his alimony payments, his failure to know where her favorite island was—and all she wanted was a new mattress.
She rose off the bed lighter; as if she’d left behind a sack of rocks, already forgetting the moment that passed between them. He’d seen everything in front of her and he’d shown it to her, and now it was all she could think about.
He felt foolish lying beneath her and stood, smoothing his slacks with long salesman fingers.
“Do you have a brochure, a card—something I could take with me?” she asked.
“Somewhere in here.” He pulled out a flyer out of his desk and wrote the prices down next to the two models she’d tried. She’d take it down the street and get it for less, but he no longer cared.
“You’ve been so helpful,” she said, unsnapping her umbrella. “Now I know what I want.” Then she gave him a devastating smile of thanks that hinted at nothing and promised nothing and walked back out into the rain.
The salesman was glad to be alone. From the door he watched her head recede down the street toward his competitors. Beyond her hair, her cheek, he imagined she saw the street; littered with possibility, and he had put it there for her to see.
About the author:
Erinne Dobson is a writer living in Manhattan. She is a second-year MFA student at the New School, and is currently working on her first novel.