The Mattress King
My father, the Mattress King, came with offers of beds, bonds, company shares, blank checks, his Mercedes. In the ads that would soon be history, he sat on a mattress throne, wore a crown with painted gold and fake jewels. He fell asleep in mid-sentence as proof of the comfort offered by his kingship. He promised quality, craftsmanship, and the best inner springs, like an explorer sold on the promise of everlasting youth.
His decision to give away the business to my two sisters and their husbands — the Mattress Princes and Princesses — felt part of his otherness to me, one I guessed subjects must feel under kings. He knew I wouldn’t accept his offer, so instead he would live with me: his only son, unmarried and unmattressed. He gave me the one thing I didn’t have the heart to refuse.
“All my life,” he said. “you rejected it all. Why?” It was mid-June. I didn’t have to return to teach until late August. It must’ve been four, five in the morning. He sat on the edge of the futon, folding the sheet corners — a hunk of a man, every bit as weighty as I was slight. I left barely a dimple in the bed; he created canyons.
“What is it?” I asked. “Really?”
When I’d been eight, my mother had choked on steak fondue. We’d been asleep, my father elsewhere, in a warehouse or maybe out shooting ads or on a sales floor surrounded by an endless aisle of empty beds.
I asked him again what he wanted, what he was really doing here sitting on the edge of things. He told me he was dying. The Commercial King. Business King. Health King. King of the City’s Rejuvenation. And now? The King of Endings. Empty ones.
I thought of my mother, how I’d been given the moment she had been waiting for: his return to himself, that gawky kid in that faraway mountain resort. He couldn’t hit the shuttlecock into her drink to get her attention, and instead, ended up getting the key to her room thrown to him. He missed it, of course. I’d always imagined he dreamed up The Mattress King on those stairs, holding that key. I thought of his trembling for the very last time.
“Hey, Dad,” I said. “Let’s go somewhere.”
Thus, I shanghaied the king to the hard wood of our forgotten cabin surrounded by evergreens in Susquehannock State Park in Potter’s County, God’s Country — where elks roamed in large herds, bears scratched against walls, birds tangled their songs.
We were bored, had little to say, took small walks, ate cereal and sandwiches, thought about fishing, mostly sat about and wondered who would be first to say aloud the wish to return. A month passed. Then, in a brief midday nap, I remembered a path my mother would take us down, once upon a time, in search of blackberries. One Sunday we took it, lost it among brambles, found ourselves in an uncertain place.
The sky darkened like a blink, then peals of hail and wind, as if thrown with an evil intent and fury, descended upon us. We scrambled for the safety of trees grown too-close together.
“So this is how it ends,” the King said. He’d grown already weak, lost breath quickly and without warning.
I pointed to the left of us, past tree trunks and dark undergrowth. “There.”
A large doe nibbled at the blackberries, unaware of us or the storm.
“Helen,” the King said, a name that had not been uttered in the kingdom forever.
No one in the Mattress Kingdom had called upon him; no phone had vibrated in his chest pocket. They had taken all that he offered, and maybe my father didn’t mind, for he’d known what they’d wanted for their everlasting comfort.
The sky had cracked; the pellets stung. I grabbed hold of my father, pushed him against me, covered him with my arms and back and head. Their impact left stings and red wheals. The sight of the doe — the memory of my mother and blackberries — must have dazed him, for he’d never have let me handle him so.
And, just as suddenly, sunshine. He pushed up against me softly, without a threat. “You smell like her,” he said. “Feel like her. Even your eyelashes are hers.”
“I know,” I told him.
He stood up, brushed himself off, had to lean against a tree, or he’d have toppled. His gait, as he made his way to the bushes, had a tiny hitch every step or so. He paused, as if for life, then began again. On the way back, he looked at the sky, the ancient trees, the tiny brook that gurgled from the storm — all that lasted in this world.
My father, a month before he died, brought me a handful of blackberries. We ate them sitting together on the ground that squished under us. Our knees touched, a tiny circle. We thought of my mother, remembered those days before he’d become King, when a handful felt like something.