Johnny America


Mon­ey-Back Guarantee


The af­ter­noon light flat­tened out. Soon the store would close and the few cars in the lot would be gone. Mitch took his three-year-old son James by the hand and led him to the front steps, com­ing to­ward the store at an an­gle so that the broad win­dow panes caught the ceil­ing of clouds above and re­peat­ed the rainy de­tails in re­flect­ed echoes, col­laps­ing in­ward un­til a per­son stood on the steps and looked straight on to see that the win­dows were full of chairs, couch­es, and end ta­bles, not clouds. The fur­nish­ings hulked off in­to the store, pil­ing up in shad­ows as they moved away from the fad­ing light out­side, framed un­der dis­play arch­es for the il­lu­sion of pri­vate cor­ners in a ware­house full of stock.

James bound­ed up the steps, knees and el­bows pumping.

“Get the door for the old man, bud­dy,” Mitch called af­ter him.

The boy dragged at the door, dig­ging his heels against the concrete.

Mitch took the han­dle and pulled. “Thanks, pal,” he said. “Loos­ened it for me.”

In­side, a cir­cle of gold­en light framed the en­try­way. A sign stood sev­er­al feet from the door and read, Hard to Choose Your Fa­vorite? Talk to Our Sales Staff About Our Mon­ey-Back Guarantee.

The sales staff wait­ed be­yond the cir­cle of light in the door, arranged on the oth­er sides of couch­es and dressers, watch­ing the door with hands fold­ed. All look­ing about to smile in taste­ful jack­ets and pol­ished shoes. They wait­ed in a soft white light that shone in the deep-stained wood and leather up­hol­stery. More signs on the ta­bles and ar­moires said No Risk and Nev­er Fear — Sat­is­fac­tion Guar­an­teed.

A sales­woman stepped to­ward the en­trance, smil­ing as if she ex­pect­ed them and was glad they’d fi­nal­ly made it. “Hi there,” she said to James. Her eyes piv­ot­ed up to­ward Mitch and said Hi there. She wore a form-fit­ting dark skirt and match­ing blaz­er. Her blouse was soft and peach col­ored; her hair hung in dark waves.

“Couch­es!” James called out, scram­bling to­ward one with puffy green cushions.

“No jump­ing on the fur­ni­ture, bud,” Mitch said. “James… wait…” He liked gen­tly guid­ing his son while a woman watched. “He’s re­al­ly hap­py to be here,” he told the saleswoman.

“So I see. How can I help you to­day?” she said, hands fold­ed be­hind her, chest out, chin high. Her name pin read Adele.

“I’m here to buy a mattress.”

“Ah… those are in back. Right this way.” Adele turned, state­ly in her high heels as she strode away from the en­trance. Her gen­er­ous hips and bot­tom rolled un­der her skirt: left, right, left.

James jumped straight up on the green couch and squeaked with delight.

“James! No…”

The boy threw him­self from the couch to the match­ing loveseat, bury­ing his face in the big cush­ions, his laugh­ter muffled.

Adele threw a look over her shoul­der for them. The look said that kids were such fun — lit­tle bun­dles of energy.

Mitch’s voice dropped to a low note. “I need you here, James. Now. What did I tell you? You’re go­ing to hurt your­self or break some­thing. You can’t just fling your­self around in here.”

James came to his side, eyes down­cast. His feet dragged on the carpet.

“We need to buy a new mat­tress for Mom­my, right?” Mitch said.

“Yeah!” James jumped again, re­mind­ed of his pur­pose. His moth­er had kissed him and told him to make sure Dad­dy came home with a mat­tress. Firm, nice and firm.

Mitch urged the boy along to catch up with Adele, who was step­ping un­der one of the arch­es hang­ing over the rows of mat­tress­es. There were no fake cor­ners full of light in this sec­tion. If you want­ed to stand in the make-be­lieve in­ti­ma­cy of a bed­room com­plete with cur­tains, you had to go look at the bed sets. The bare mat­tress­es were lined up like beds in an in­fir­mary, pale un­der banks of over­head lights.

On the way to the mat­tress sec­tion, James ran a quick arc through Din­ing Ac­cents, brush­ing against a long ma­hogany ta­ble sur­round­ed by high-backed chairs. It was a ta­ble where peo­ple would eat gra­cious­ly, a place to share ex­pe­ri­ence in com­fort and style. The tall, thin chi­na vase stand­ing in the mid­dle of the ta­ble rocked just slight­ly at the im­pact — not vis­i­bly, but audibly.

“James! No…”

Mitch coraled the boy in with more talk of their re­spon­si­bil­i­ty to Mom­my and the two of them met Adele at one end of the dou­ble rows of mat­tress­es. She wore an in­dul­gent ex­pres­sion and held her body poised. Her del­i­cate feet looked about to curt­sy. “What kind of mat­tress do you need?”

“Firm!” an­swered James.

Mitch pat­ted his son’s head. Adele smiled down on the boy for a mo­ment be­fore her eyes sought out Mitch’s again. She would be mak­ing more of a fuss over James if his moth­er were here in­stead of me, he thought. She would have bent down and poked him in his stom­ach; she would have ruf­fled his hair.

“Queen,” Mitch said. “And firm, yes.”

Adele stepped to a near­by mat­tress and tent­ed her fin­ger­tips on it. Her nails were pol­ished in pearly swirls. “This is a very pop­u­lar one. Not as firm as they get, but some­where in be­tween.” She turned and sat on the bed, spread­ing her hands to ei­ther side of her hips and cross­ing her an­kles. She did not lay back on the bed, but Mitch saw her spread out on it and stretch her arms over her head, be­fore turn­ing over on her side and curl­ing her legs up, her up­per body cocked on one arm. Her dark hair, falling and falling across the firm stitched surface.

James ducked in­to a dis­play set up as a child’s bed­room. The blan­kets on the bunk bed danced in base­balls and bats. A yel­low toy ex­ca­va­tor that had nev­er known dirt stood parked on a dark-stained dress­er. Its emp­ty scoop hung out over the edge in­to space, teeth up­ward. James threw him­self on the lad­der to the top bunk, blocked by a red plas­tic STOP sign.

Mitch scooped the boy off the lad­der and set him on his feet. “What does that sign say?” He could feel Adele’s im­pa­tience com­ing around the par­ti­tion, draw­ing him back. When he walked back in­to the row of mat­tress­es, hand on James’s shoul­der, Adele was still sit­ting on the bed and ob­serv­ing them with smil­ing eyes. James broke from Mitch’s hand and scram­bled up on­to the mat­tress with Adele, who bounced and laughed, her eyes bright at the boy’s ea­ger­ness. James’s moth­er would have tak­en both of the boy’s hands and bounced with him on the mat­tress, and Mitch would have watched as he did now.

“Lots of en­er­gy, you have,” Adele said to James.

James grinned at her. “Is this one firm enough, Daddy?”

Adele stood up and Mitch pressed his fin­gers in­to the warm spot where she had been sit­ting. “Yeah, that one’s pret­ty good, bud. That one just might do it.”

“We do have firmer ones,” she said, cross­ing the aisle in three brisk strides. She pat­ted an­oth­er mat­tress. “And if you don’t like this one, I think I have a stone slab I can show you.”

James was off the mat­tress and up on­to the next in the row, took one tri­umphant jump up, hopped down, clam­bered up on­to the next mat­tress, jumped, hopped, and up again — each one fought for, cel­e­brat­ed, and put be­hind him.


The boy made it to the sec­ond-to-last mat­tress at the end of the row. The fact that he would soon be out of land­ings did not slow him down — it seemed to give him speed.

“Some fun, huh?” Mitch said, walk­ing to in­ter­cept his son. He caught the boy in his arm and crouched be­side him. He dropped his voice. “You keep that up and you’ll on­ly make trou­ble for yourself.”

The boy smiled over Mitch’s shoul­der back at Adele.

“I’m al­most there, okay, kid?” Mitch said in James’s ear. “I’ve al­most got it. Can you just give the old man a minute? Don’t make me hold your hand.”

James walked be­side Mitch back to Adele. The boy shot her quick looks to see how much she no­ticed. She re­turned just enough to let him know she did.

“So?” Adele said. “What do we like?”

“Every­thing, so far,” Mitch said. “Do you have one more you can show me? I think I’m right there, ready to make a choice.”

“If you’re right there, then you’ve al­ready made the choice. But let’s look at one more.”

And be­fore Adele had ful­ly turned to lead him down the row, Mitch stood again in the ho­tel room and lis­tened to the woman talk about choic­es, the woman with dark hair like Adele’s but not so long and wavy, the woman whose voice had be­come soft­er as she un­dressed, whose skin had be­come an­i­mat­ed with shad­ows in the dim light from the sin­gle lamp, who had stood up when he en­tered the lob­by, smil­ing and hold­ing her purse like a ner­vous girl, as if like him she had dri­ven there breath­less and gripped the wheel at the red lights, feel­ing the spin­ning still­ness of the stopped car, her mind bound­ing in des­per­ate pur­suit and ter­ror through sen­sa­tions and vi­tal­i­ty and doubt —

“James!” Mitch stopped.

Adele turned and raised her eyebrows.

“Where is James?”

In the next sec­tion over, in a sky­line of glass cab­i­nets and porce­lain stat­ues, un­der a sign read­ing Del­i­cate Liv­ing, some­thing shat­tered — a boom and a gos­samer tin­kle. James screamed, more in sur­prise than any pain from the sound of it. Mitch lunged and Adele jogged on her heels, and in the aisles of glass and chi­na the boy be­gan to cry. A de­layed sound, slow in gath­er­ing. And Mitch hadn’t even picked out the mat­tress yet.

Filed under Fiction on December 27th, 2006

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