Frank, the store manager, squinted from the glare of the Saturday afternoon sun shining through the glass panes at the front of the Sleep On It showroom. It was the first weekend after Thanksgiving and business was brisk. He nodded to the front of the sales floor where a middle-aged couple stood, turning their heads to the left, then the right, unable to comprehend the calculated pattern of beds arrayed before them. “Yours,” he told Julie.
Julie could always identify a military officer, even a retired one. The man at the front of the store seemed to fit the profile: ramrod straight posture; slender and fit; gray hair parted smartly on the left side. He reminded her of the colonels with whom she and her late husband Mike had made conversation at dinners held at Fort Myer, men who could influence Mike’s future. Back when he had a future, before that night a little over one year ago, thousands of miles away, when his armored personnel carrier drove into a ditch and overturned. The roads where he’d been deployed were poorly marked. According to the investigation, the GPS on his vehicle had failed, leaving him moving forward in the dark, and leaving Julie a widow at twenty-three, selling mattresses in a strip mall off of Leesburg Pike.
“How can I help you folks today?” Julie’s smile caught the eye of the man, the colonel, as she decided to think of him. Her teeth were flawlessly white and straight and she let her gaze linger on his. His eyes lay partly hidden behind the tint of his glasses, but she found them, just as she always found the officers’ eyes at those Fort Myer dinners. She knew that these men appreciated attention from a pretty young woman, and she had been happy to grant that attention to them back when Mike was alive. She would listen to their stories with exaggerated interest, asking them questions, hoping that this would charm them into thinking favorably about her husband when they made decisions about him.
The colonel returned her smile. “My wife and I are looking for a king-size mattress,” he said. “One that might help her back.” The woman next to him had a round, gentle face. The colonel put his hand around her waist.
The colonel’s wife explained that for the last several months, she had been plagued by upper back and neck pains upon awakening in the morning. She also woke frequently during the night and had trouble falling back asleep. Their mattress, she added, was over fifteen years old.
“More than likely that’s the problem,” Julie said. “Your mattress has reached end-of-life.” She nodded, affirming her own words. “Fifteen years isn’t a bad run,” she added.
The colonel’s wife looked at the mattress in front of her and was about to ask a question, but Julie spoke first. “Before we consider any particular mattress,” she said, “why don’t we do a sleep system diagnostic for you?” The colonel and his wife each raised a quizzical eyebrow and the colonel laughed.
“That sounds like one of the tests a fighter aircraft is put through,” he said. Air Force, Julie decided. Possibly Navy Air Corps, but he seemed only moderately cocky, not quite as extreme as the Top Gun type.
Julie laughed politely at the colonel’s remark. “The diagnostic we do here,” she said, “takes only about ten seconds. But you’d be surprised how much it tells us.” She explained how studies showed that mismatches between an individual and his mattress accounted for most sleeping problems.
“Take me, for example,” she continued. “We’ve got about eighty mattresses on display here but there are only two that I can sleep on.” In fact, she had never had trouble sleeping anywhere – not in the front seat of Mike’s Ford pickup, not on the Craig’s List bed in the little apartment they had rented, and not on the air mattress they had shared on the floor of a cabin in the Shenandoah mountains during a week of camping.
The colonel and his wife followed Julie to the side of the store, near the wall, where she pointed them to a piece of furniture resembling a black vinyl lounge. Gray rubber cords trailed from underneath the lounge to a boxy machine installed on a pillar. The machine featured a small video screen near the top and an open space at the bottom where paper came out.
“Who wants to go first?”
“Emily, you go ahead,” said the colonel.
“Are you a side sleeper or a back sleeper?” Julie asked.
“A back sleeper,” said Emily. She lay down stiffly and Julie picked up a remote control. “That’s good,” she said soothingly. “Just relax a little more.” She pointed the remote at the lounge, which vibrated mildly after she pressed a button. “What I’m doing now,” she explained, “is measuring the pressure the different parts of your spine and neck are exerting on the surface while you’re lying down.”
A few seconds later, the machine’s video terminal displayed a graph with a series of vertical lines grouped into different colors, orange and yellow and green. A color printout emerged from the bottom of the machine depicting the same graph.
“Would you say,” Julie asked Emily, now standing again, “that your current mattress is on the soft side?”
“Why yes,” Emily said, reacting as if someone had just read her palm and revealed something surprising and true about her.
“What this is showing me,” said Julie, brandishing the printout, “is that you need a firm mattress. One that gives you uniform support from head to toe.” Emily and the colonel nodded emphatically.
“All right,” the colonel said. “Let’s pick out one of those.”
“Before we do,” Julie said, “would you like me to perform a diagnostic on you?” She flashed him a smile again. “That way we can choose a sleep system you and your wife are both comfortable with.”
The colonel chuckled. “That won’t be necessary. Whatever works for Emily will work for me. I can sleep anywhere.”
“It’s true,” said Emily. “Like a log.”
“On a cot,” said the colonel. “In a sleeping bag. You should see some of the places I’ve slept.”
Julie led Emily and the colonel up three steps to a platform. She had Emily lay down on a king mattress marked “Royalty Sleep” and priced at $4499, reduced from $5999, according to the label. It was displayed with a dark cherry wood headboard and was the only bed on the platform, which was topped with rich brown parquet flooring.
“This feels wonderful,” Emily said. She patted the space next to her. “Cliff,” she said, “lie down here and feel this.”
“No thanks, honey.” Creases appeared on Cliff’s forehead. He was probably in his early fifties, Julie calculated, and doing well with an Air Force pension and a generous salary from one of the local defense contractors. But $4499 was, as she’d estimated, a stretch for him and Emily. “Can you show us something a bit less extravagant?”
Julie’s shoes clicked against the showroom floor as she led them to another mattress, this one a Stearns & Foster priced at $2599 for a king, supposedly reduced by five hundred dollars. It was surrounded by similarly priced beds, each shown with brass headboards. Emily lay down again, the soles of her flat shoes resting against the mattress’s edge. “This one feels nice, too,” she said. “Though not as nice as the other.” She let out a sigh.
For the next twenty minutes they tried several other mattresses as customers filled the store. Two young girls, sisters, laughed as they played with a six thousand dollar adjustable bed, pressing the buttons on its side, making the mattress bend forward so as to place them in a seated position. Sam, the store’s most experienced salesman, eyed them warily while discussing a low-end Serta with their parents. After Emily tried a few more beds, Julie, Cliff, and she returned to the Stearns & Foster mattress. Julie saw tight lines form around Cliff’s mouth.
“I’ll tell you what,” Julie said in a comforting tone. “I know the one you really like is the Royalty.”
Emily nodded. Cliff’s lines stretched tighter, like rubber bands straining to hold a mask in place.
“It’s already marked down, but I might be able to do something for you. Let me talk to my manager. It won’t be but a minute.”
She knew Frank had gone out to buy lunch. But Sam would be able to act the part. He stood, arms folded, next to the desk where they rung up the sales.
“Looks like you’ve got a nice prospect.”
“You bet. I’m going to sell them the Royalty.”
“For how much?”
“Delivery and haul-away included?” Sam scowled, feigning concern.
After a few more minutes – longer than what she had led Cliff and Emily to believe – Julie was back.
“We’re in luck,” she said. “It turns out the manufacturer is discontinuing that model and they need to clear them out.” She told them about the new price, raising an eyebrow and looking at Emily, then Cliff. “It’s a really good deal,” she added.
Cliff assented to the price, forcing a smile. Julie rang him up in less than three minutes, during which she explained the warranty and arranged delivery for Monday. “Now,” she said, after Cliff signed the credit card receipt. “If you need anything else, a bed for the kids –”
Emily laughed nervously. “Our son and daughter are both grown,” she said. “He lives in Chicago and his sister is in her last semester at Virginia Tech.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Julie. “You must be very proud.” Cliff and Emily both said that they were.
“In that case, if you need a new bed for one of the guest rooms” – she paused and gave Cliff one last smile – “just come back and see me.” She handed him her card.
“Will do,” he said.
The following Thursday, Cliff reappeared at the store at around eleven-thirty, dressed in a suit and tie. The store wasn’t busy and Julie greeted him warmly.
“So,” she asked, “how is that new bed working out for you and your wife?”
“It’s great,” Cliff said. “She sleeps like a rock now. And her back and neck feel better.”
“That’s right. Not all better, you know, but better. Improved.”
“That’s wonderful. Helping someone get a good night’s sleep is the nicest thing about this job.”
“I thought you might feel that way. That’s why I dropped in to tell you.” Cliff nodded and smiled and Julie detected, through the tinted eyeglasses, a more daring gaze than the one she’d encountered on Saturday, one that lingered on hers this time.
She looked both ways. Frank wasn’t in yet and Sam was busy changing price tags near the back of the store. “I think I’ll sit down for a bit,” she said. “I’m on my feet practically all day.” She sat on the edge of a nearby Sealy Posturpedic. Cliff sat next to her.
“You must get a chance to sit down for lunch,” he said. “As a matter of fact, there’s a terrific Japanese restaurant just down the road. I’m on my way there. Would you like to join me?” He radiated confidence. His red necktie and navy suit looked brand new. “It would be my way of thanking you for being so helpful and patient Saturday.”
Julie patted him on the arm. “That’s so sweet!” she said. “But I always work through lunch. During the week, that’s the busiest part of the day.” She squeezed his arm and released her grip. She waited and watched, letting a few moments pass to see if he had a contingency plan. His jaw tightened and his eyes broke contact with hers. She waited a few more moments and watched his posture slacken. She paused again, considering whether she really wanted to go through with what she was tempted to do.
“I finish work around a quarter after five,” she said finally. “Would an early dinner work out for you? Say, next Monday? I love Japanese.”
“That’s a great idea,” said Cliff. He regained his posture, clapped his hands on his thighs and stood. “Five-fifteen on Monday is perfect. We’ll avoid the crowds.”
The next day Frank removed a few mattresses from a corner near the front door and installed, in their place, a large plastic tree with a star on the top and empty, ribboned boxes on the floor surrounding it. Although mattresses were rarely on anyone’s holiday shopping list, the spillover from the mall brought noisy crowds to the store, which was holding a “Christmas blow-out” event. A change in the weather helped as well: a mild front carrying temperatures in the sixties had eased its way in, confounding the forecasters. Julie chatted with customers about the incongruity between the long dark winter nights and the spring-like days.
She sold and sold. Frank told her he would talk to corporate next week and recommend a generous Christmas bonus for her, as much as if she’d been at Sleep On It all year. He said that he’d lobby for a raise, too. Julie thanked him. More money, she knew, would let her move out of her parents’ home, to fulfill their wish that she pick herself up and move on from the loss of Mike. She’d be able to rent one of those apartments near the pike, her own place, where she would live normally, independently, alone.
On Sunday evening as she exited the store, she found the pike more jammed than ever, a garish landscape of headlights, taillights, exhaust fumes and frustrated motorists barely creeping forward. While she walked along the shoulder of the road, the driver of a Honda Odyssey bailed out of the traffic and drove straight toward her. The angry honk of the minivan’s horn came just in time; she scrambled down the inclined grassy ridge just off the shoulder into the parking lot of the giant Chevy dealership. The lot’s towering halogen lights let her glimpse inside the Odyssey’s cabin, revealing a harried mother ferrying at least two children. The vehicle disappeared by making a right at the upcoming intersection onto the cross-street, the same one Julie would be walking along when she reached it, though she would be traveling the opposite way, crossing the road. She walked through the dealership lot for as long as possible, postponing her return to the shoulder. She passed a seemingly endless row of immaculate new Corvettes. The factory-fresh paint of the low-slung convertibles and hard-tops created a dizzying spectacle of red, black, blue, white, and yellow. When she neared the intersection, she gingerly regained the shoulder and crossed against the signal, calculating, correctly, that the gridlocked vehicles posed no threat.
On Monday morning, the traffic wasn’t as heavy or anxious. The normal early rush hour flow pulsed ahead: clusters of vehicles tentatively moved along the pavement, followed by moments of open road, moments that always provoked at least one short-sighted driver to gun his engine through a yellow light, his reward a protracted stay behind the last car in line at the next intersection. Julie was running early. She stood at the intersection and studied the drivers’ stops and starts for several minutes.
Recently, as a kind of game, she’d begun crossing against the signal when she spotted a car approaching from a certain distance at a certain speed. She’d make it to the grassy island in the middle of the road just before the vehicle sped by. She had been playing this game more often lately, including at night. She challenged her timing more each time, cutting things closer and closer.
Now, with her light still red and the westbound lanes to her left empty, she waited for her chance: a small dark car approached at around forty miles per hour. She let him get a little closer and ran for it.
Tires squealed as the driver slammed his brakes. His car skidded to a complete stop. Julie ran onto the median. She heard, but did not turn to look, when the driver shouted at her through his open window: “Lady! What the hell’s the matter with you? You got a death wish or something?”
When she arrived at Sleep On It’s front door shortly before eight o’clock, Sam let her in. “Happy Monday,” he said. “You do anything special this weekend?” He helped her off with her light jacket.
She shrugged. “I was here for the most part. I sold eighteen mattresses. And not one of them for less than two thousand. You?”
Sam shook his head. “Did a few things around the house. Got the last of the leaves out of the yard. Took the wife and kids out to Applebee’s.” He handed her jacket back to her. “Did you say eighteen mattresses?”
“Damn, but you are good.”
“You know it.” She sat on a bed, took off her Nikes, and changed into the black pumps she carried in every morning in a black canvas shoulder bag. She stood and punched Sam playfully on the arm. “Let’s go!” she said. “I love Mondays!”
By the end of the day she sold another seven mattresses. Frank’s eyes widened as he, Julie, and Sam gathered around the computer terminal at the desk where she rang up her sales. “Goddamn,” he said as he scrolled down the screen. “You’re going to get rich selling mattresses if you keep this up.”
“That would be a first,” Sam said.
“The customers just trust me,” said Julie.
“With that sweet face,” said Frank. “Of course they do.” He smiled avariciously.
“You’ve got big revenue numbers dancing in your head,” Sam said to him.
“Naturally. It’s Christmastime.”
Julie heard a faint, persistent tapping from the front of the store. She looked up and saw Cliff on the opposite side of one of the locked doors, rapping his knuckles gently against the glass.
“Got to go,” she said. She picked up her shoulder bag. Frank and Sam looked at each other, puzzled. They both shrugged and turned their eyes back to the computer monitor.
“Hi there,” Cliff said when she met him outside the door. He wore a black bomber jacket zipped halfway open, revealing a blue shirt and a red striped tie. “Feeling hungry?”
“Starving,” said Julie.
The restaurant was quiet and uncrowded except for the sushi bar, which was lined with several somber-looking Japanese men and two couples. At Cliff’s request, the hostess seated Julie and him in an empty room off the main dining area, where a waitress handed them large, awkward menus. It had been four months since she had been out to dinner; her parents, worried at the amount of weight she had lost, had taken her to an Olive Garden hoping to stuff her with pasta and bread. Cliff ordered a large warm sake for the two of them.
“This place is authentically Japanese,” he said. “Did you know that most of the Japanese restaurants in the area are run by Koreans?”
“No,” Julie said. “I didn’t.” She leaned forward, and, as if balancing curiosity with discretion, whispered: “How do you know this place is the real deal?”
Cliff smiled. “It’s just a word of mouth thing.”
“You know someone who knows someone who knows?”
“Kind of like that.” The waitress arrived with the pot of sake and poured them each a cup. “Cheers,” Cliff said. They clinked their cups together and they each took a sip.
“So you’re Air Force,” said Julie. She held the sake cup between her palms, taking in the warmth.
“Very good,” Cliff said. “Retired a few years ago.”
“That’s the nice thing about the services. They let you retire so young.”
“True. That they do. You stay in long enough, the benefits are pretty nice.”
“But you must have gone through a lot of hardship early on.” She tilted her head and looked at him expectantly.
“Sure,” said Cliff. “All the moving around. The kids changing schools. Making new friends, then having to start all over again somewhere else.”
“It sounds like it may have been tougher on them than on you.”
“Probably,” he said. “But you know, they’ve been exposed to a lot of things they never would have experienced otherwise.” As they shared a tempura appetizer, he told her about the places where he had been stationed: the Philippines, Germany, the U.K. “And of course,” he said, “Nebraska.”
They both laughed.
“I’ve never been to Nebraska,” she said. “Was that your favorite?”
“It wasn’t bad,” he said.
“Really? I always imagine it as such a desolate place. You know, Nebraska. Like the Bruce Springsteen album.”
Cliff laughed. “I remember that record.” The waitress reappeared with their main dishes: Beef teriyaki for him, a sashimi platter for her.
“I suppose,” Cliff said, “that Nebraska can be that way. Desolate, lonesome. I suppose any place can be.”
Julie nodded, her expression blank and open, as if asking him to tell her more.
“But it really wasn’t like that for us,” he said. “In the Air Force, everywhere we lived, families stuck together. You could pick up and move across the world, to Nebraska or anywhere else, and there would be Air Force families waiting to meet you. They’d make you feel right at home.”
They both ate quietly for a few minutes. The cold sashimi gave Julie a chill which she stifled with a sip of the warm sake.
“No meanness, then?” Julie asked.
Cliff looked up from his plate. “Meanness?”
“You know, like in the title cut from Nebraska. At the end, where the guy who’s killed ten people is asked why he did it. He says ‘I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.’”
“You know that album better than me,” Cliff said. “I don’t remember those lyrics.” He cleared his throat.
“Do you think that it’s true?”
“That what’s true?”
Julie took a bigger sip of her sake and leaned forward. “That there’s a meanness in this world,” she said, her voice a husky whisper.
Cliff looked at her silently. His lips were creased and dry and he licked them. He took a sip of his water. Then he smiled at her. She sensed that he was breaking free of the hesitancy her words had instilled in him. He leaned forward as she had and took a deep breath.
“There are so many nice things in the world,” he said. “I’d rather focus on those.” He refilled her sake cup and ordered himself a Kirin. She smiled at him and they returned to their meals.
For a long time, they ate without speaking. He was in a state of numb pleasure, she thought. The tops of his ears changed color, to a bright pink at first, then red. She imagined they must be tingling. All the authority about his presence, the authority of a colonel, seemed melted away, yielded up to a power she had over him. Only on the sales floor had she felt anything resembling a sense of power –– and that was simply the power to persuade someone to buy an expensive mattress. What she felt now was altogether different. She plucked her last piece of sashimi with her chopsticks and finished it. Then she looked at him, smiling only with her eyes.
“Did you enjoy the sashimi?” He put down his fork and knife and rested his right hand on the table. He still had a fair amount of beef teriyaki on his plate.
“It was delicious. Aren’t you going to finish yours?” She placed her left hand gently over his right. The tops of his ears turned redder.
“I’m getting full,” he said. “Would you like to try some of it?”
“Let’s split it,” she said. She drew her hand away. With his fork, he pushed a few bites of the teriyaki onto her plate.
After Cliff paid the check, they made their way out the front door to the parking lot. A chilly breeze greeted them, strong enough to lift the giant American flag from its pole over the Chevy dealership down the road but too weak to extend it to its full length. Julie put her hand against her shoulder bag and pressed it to her side, bracing against another gust. The mild weather felt as if it were turning. Green, red, and white Christmas lights dotted the roadside stores and seemed to blink with greater insistence, as if welcoming the impending change to more seasonable temperatures. The sake warmed Julie inside. She had only a slight buzz and her walk to Cliff’s car was steady. They stood close together by the driver’s door and he turned to face her. He had taken off his glasses.
“Thank you for dinner,” she said. His smile and dreamy eyes told her he still was in her power. With his glasses off and in the dim light of the parking lot, he looked younger, and his dark eyes reminded her of Mike’s. He might have been a fine officer, she thought. A fine colonel. She was sure about the rank. Too shrewd to be a major, not shrewd enough to be a general, flawed enough to be either, or neither. He leaned forward to kiss her and she imagined Mike in the uniform of a colonel and wondered what flaws he would have developed.
His mouth and tongue tasted of beer. She squeezed his arms and found them taut, like a younger man’s.
The kiss lasted a few seconds. After he broke it off he took her hand and began walking around the front of the car to the passenger side. She followed for a few steps, then stopped, letting his hand go.
“I’m going to head home now,” she said. She wiped her mouth with her sleeve.
“Of course,” he said. “Just hop in and tell me where to take you.”
She shook her head. “I always walk home.” She imagined herself already there, in the hallway bathroom, brushing her teeth, the sound of the television from her parents’ bedroom in the background.
“Really?” He extended a hand toward the pike. It was 7:15 and rush hour had faded away. The traffic was still heavy but not heavy enough to slow cars to a bumper-to-bumper crawl. Vehicles of all manner whizzed by in ribbons of white and red light, flaunting their horsepower, seeking their thirty yards of freedom.
“Seven nights a week.” She sat on a ledge in front of the restaurant’s landscaping and took off her shiny black pumps. She dropped them into her shoulder bag and put on her Nikes.
He sat next to her as she worked the Nike’s laces. “But it’s a bit later than usual for you now,” he said. “It would be safer for me to drive you home. To see you to your front door. I’m old school, you know.” He put a hand over hers, covering it completely. Out on the road a motorcycle flew by, roaring defiantly. “If it’s walkable, I’m sure it won’t be but a few minutes for me to give you a lift.”
“I appreciate the offer,” she said. “But I like to walk. It’s good exercise.”
“Tell you what then,” he said, standing. “I’ll go with you. There’s nothing like an after-dinner walk in the cool air.”
“Don’t be silly. You’d have to walk all the way back to your car.” She stood and took several steps into the parking lot, heading toward the traffic signal. She felt him watching her and she stumbled.
He followed her, saying nothing. She glanced back twice but otherwise did not acknowledge him. She again pictured herself home. After brushing her teeth, she decided, she would put on an old pair of pajamas, the pink one she’d worn as a teenager, even before she and Mike had started dating in high school and her world had changed so drastically, a change she hadn’t imagined could ever be equaled, let alone reversed entirely.
She reached the traffic signal as it turned yellow. She stopped at the intersection. A long second after her light turned red, the moment’s random collection of cars, vans, trucks, and crossovers in the eastbound lanes took off smartly. One after the other they passed her, each propelling its own gust of wind and burst of noise into her face and ears. She waited until the lines of vehicles backed up at the light had played themselves out. Then, while the light was still red and more eastbound traffic approached, she dashed across the road toward the traffic island.
“Julie!” Cliff shouted at her. They had never actually introduced themselves to each other but he knew her name from the tag she’d worn at the store and she knew his because his wife had called him by it. She ran faster, hoping he wouldn’t chase after her.
She made it across three of the four eastbound lanes and then the squeals of braking tires and the shrill, angry sound of horns filled the air, suddenly, the way a fire alarm comes to life the moment someone pulls the lever. She barely cleared an oncoming black Mercedes; its front bumper caught hold of her shoulder bag, sending her black pumps flying onto the road as the driver belatedly honked. As her front foot reached the grassy median, the sounds of smashing metal and shattering glass drowned out the horns.
She turned around and saw the aftermath: a red Corvette and a Ford F-150 had swerved into one another. She sat down on the island and drew her knees up to her chest, looking first inside the front window of the Corvette and then into the cab of the pickup truck, which had overturned. She saw movement but couldn’t make out the details. Other drivers began pulling over on the shoulder near the Japanese restaurant, near where she had last seen Cliff. She could see him again now, his hands in his jacket pockets, his shoulders hunched, and his figure receding from her as he walked quickly through the parking lot toward his car. She trembled, feeling both a chill and a measure of relief as she realized he had stopped pursuing her.
Soon a police car arrived with an ambulance. Eastbound traffic halted. Police and rescue workers swarmed around the Corvette and the Ford, prying open doors and shouting out questions. One paramedic in a yellow jacket spoke into the static of his radio, saying that no one seemed seriously hurt. “Don’t worry,” the paramedic shouted at the person inside the pickup truck’s cab. His radio scraped against the asphalt as he knelt on the road and pointed a flashlight through the driver’s broken window. “You’ll be all right,” Julie heard him say.
She could have gotten up and walked across the westbound half of the pike, could have kept going until she made it home. But she stayed still on the island, waiting for help, for someone to say something assuring to her, or even to ask her what had happened. She sat there, knees held tightly against her chest, teeth chattering in the December cold, waiting for someone to whom she could explain everything.