Hal’s Sleep Showroom by Nancy Ludmerer

Hal’s Sleep Showroom

We took the subway to Hal’s Sleep Showroom after work. I nudged Cliff to notice the advertisements for Casper Mattresses above the seats. In one, a golden retriever reclined on a queen bed, right ear flopped over. In another, a thumb-sucking child in footed pj’s snuggled between her parents, the mattress a king. Room enough for three, read the caption.

We had no dog and no child. Although married fifteen years, our mattress needs were modest. We started life together on a waterbed; then upgraded to a Tempur-Pedic knockoff. By the time that wore out, the mattress world had changed.

“We can’t go on this way.” Cliff stared at the ads. “Buying mattresses without trying them first.”

“That’s why we’re going to Hal’s.”

“Pointless, I’m sure.”

Hal’s glass-fronted Sleep Showroom was in a white-brick building on the Bowery, wedged between a community center and a lighting store.

“Wait,” I said. “Let’s not mention our history.” Three mattresses, one after another, in a year: Casper, Purple, Layla. Emails sent the last day of the trial period.

Agreed. It’s private.” Our nearly-perfect timing. Rejects picked up in the a.m.; newbies delivered the same night. We were preparing to shed our fourth: Bear.

At 7:38, we were Hal’s only customers.

“Glad you made it. You’ve got 22 minutes to find your perfect night.” Hal explained he didn’t sell mattresses, but displayed all the online offerings. You could lie down on them before ordering. If you used Hal’s secret code, the manufacturer provided a discount — plus the risk-free 100-day trial period applied. No questions asked.

“Sounds good,” we said in unison.

Our emails initiating the returns always began alas

Despite website promises, the mattress companies invariably asked: why?

It’s a hard question, why.

We wanted to be truthful.

Was there an online mattress company exchange where they compared notes, figured out who the repeaters were, the ones who were never satisfied?

In fact, no one checked, no one stopped us.

At some point we had concluded that the plushest, firmest, coolest, best-in-class, pressure-relieving mattress would help. At least we would choose something.

Hal gave us paper towels to place under our heads and paper booties. He suggested Bear, Plushbed, Leesa. Twenty minutes later he announced closing time. We could return the next day. No pressure. “It’s a big decision.”

That’s what our adoption counselor said too, refusing to judge us, though finally she didn’t call us back. Three girls, one after another, in three years: Olga, 5; Chen, 7; Angeline, 9. After initial missteps (we weren’t religious enough, or of the wrong religion; we were too old; our apartment wasn’t large enough; our finances in question), we finally consulted the counselor. Hours had been spent (mostly by me) staring at books of photographs. One of us had fallen in love. The time had come to tell her, then go meet her (for we always asked for a girl). And Cliff would say, I can’t. I know you can but I’m not ready. Or it’s been too long, I can’t anymore. To our knowledge, the agencies stopped short of telling any of the children, raising her hopes. At least we asked them not to. That is the only kind thing we did. The only expectations raised were my own and theirs: the social workers, the interviewers, the other families we met, the ones who had adopted and were grateful, joyful, filled with good advice and encouragement.

Inevitably as we were on the cusp of saying yes, when we had purchased the airline tickets and had the home inspections, the articles about adoptions that went awry would show up in my inbox. The child was violent or didn’t get along with others or had a hidden disease, or in one terrible case killed himself a few years after adoption, believing (wrongly) he had failed to meet his adoptive family’s unspoken expectations.

I had continued to hope.

Now I headed for the bathroom, which was in the basement, reached by steep metal stairs.

Just outside the bathroom, a giant poster leaned against a wall, like a door off its hinge. WHEN IS IT TIME TO GET A NEW MATTRESS? Some fool, some miscreant with a neon- blue Sharpie, had xx’d out mattress, substituting mistress throughout:

1) The mistress shows signs of wear.

2) The mistress is sagging or in tears.

3) You are sleeping better with other mistresses, like in a hotel.

4) The mistress offers little comfort or support.

I knew Cliff wasn’t sleeping with secret mistresses in hotels. For one thing, he didn’t travel much. He had cashed in our tickets to Poland and to China, the ones to Tennessee.

I ascended the stairs, heavy-footed, even in paper booties.

Upstairs, Hal was explaining that he couldn’t possibly let us stay the night (an idea Cliff never discussed with me); insurance wouldn’t allow it. Cliff argued that an overnight would help us choose. They jousted; I remained silent. Finally, Hal agreed we could stay an extra hour (locked in) while he ran an errand. When he returned at 9 p.m., we would leave; he would close up shop.

After Hal left, I looked at Cliff. What was he thinking? He said, what about this one? An organic mattress called Avocado. Firm but pliant. I shrugged a why not? We began on our backs, our arms touching. It felt good.

After Cliff fell asleep. I gently extricated myself from his arms. A clear plastic pocket containing a brochure dangled from the Avocado mattress. It depicted a lamb with bedroom eyes.

Cliff lay on his side. I knelt down to look at the brochure.

I read aloud, to no one: “The sheep enjoy getting sheared; otherwise, their coats weigh them down.”

I kept speaking softly: a story about a sheep and the benefactor who traveled across the years and across the miles in search of her, who went through many trials before arriving at the right place, who finally found her, who chose her after all.

Nancy Ludmerer’s short stories and flash fiction appear in Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, Cimarron Review, Best Small Fictions 2016 (a River Styx prizewinner), Mid-American Review, New Orleans Review, Vestal Review, Litro, and The Phare. In 2020 her stories won prizes from Carve, Masters Review, Pulp Literature, and Streetlight. In summer 2021, she was a Peter Taylor Fellow with the Kenyon Review Workshops. She practiced law in NYC for many years and continues to live there with her husband Malcolm and their recently adopted senior cat, Joseph. 

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Image (cropped): ALT Photo of Tracy Emin’s My Bed at the Tate Britain; Karen Bryan, Europe a la carte, Tracy Emin CC2.0

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