Money-Back Guarantee

by Paul ELWORK

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 STOPsign.

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.

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