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Everybody Needs a Place to Land
A CARING SOUL OFFERED ME A MATTRESS not two weeks ago and I said yes. Up in heaven, angels cheered while devils lost their bets. What makes us do the right damn things? I wasn’t looking for a mattress although I’d said I wanted a new bed. Like knowing how I’ll have to move eventually and needed new clothes yesterday. The might-as-well-be-brand-new Puffy memory foam was said to be in perfect shape. I knew they cost a fortune and I’d never tried one. All I had to do was haul the old one to the dump all by myself and drive 133 miles to Albuquerque for the other. In 23 years I’d never visited the Taos County landfill and had only moved another mattress once upon a time to a rental in Pomona south of Chestertown where the general store sold “mushrat” meat in season. That one flew out of the back of Mickey Dulin’s pickup on the curve beside the pond in front of the country club and landed partly in the water. It was probably high tide and everyone was drunk.
It’s been two years now. Almost every day since Kathy died I cried at least a little when I made the bed.1 The tears came when I tucked the sheet in on her side, looking down on where she slept. We’d used the same old mattress—a premium model made by Sealy, sold by Sears—for more than 30 years. There were unseen indentations where our bodies rested but I could feel them if I brushed my hand across the surface. I cried because I missed her and because I felt I’d let her down. What kind of cheap self-sabotaging jerk would let a beautiful, accomplished woman live this way, I thought. And yet she never wavered. “I’m so happy you’re my wife,” I’d say to her. “And I have the most wonderful husband,” she’d say right back, putting down her book to smile and look me in the eye.
Taking the mattress cover off that last time wasn’t easy. I tried to count how many times we’d made love on that bed and couldn’t guess. So many memories centered on a single piece of furniture. Looking out from the second floor in Still Pond to watch the hummingbirds among the maple leaves. Nights in Ranchos barely hearing the coyotes through the thick adobe walls. How warm I was at 7,000 feet because I always crawled in after. The terror of the last night she ever spent beside me when she had her stroke. The flashing lights I followed in the cold to Holy Cross. Oh Lord.
Apparently I had to cover the load to visit the dump. This led to the discovery that “tarp” is now a verb. It took four phone calls before I found someone in the Solid Waste Department who said I was free to bring a single mattress in strapped down. I had a tarp that I keep handy in case the next gale sends an elm limb through the skylight. Before I got permission to ignore it, I’d wasted hours trying to fit it over the bed in my 2001 Dakota, so I was grateful. The high point of my preparation was visiting Ace Hardware to buy the ratchet straps. New tools, you know. So “manly.”
Getting the mattress off the platform bed, through three rooms, and out the front door to my lowered tailgate took half an hour working slowly. Moving a heavy object a little at a time, making sure that nothing breaks, and living to tell the tale, all of that was something to be proud of and the ratchet straps were fun. (The joy of domination, the clacking of the gears.) My emotions staggered back and forth like little Johnny in the 40 mph wind and snow but primal fierceness kept me going. I wanted to follow through and “bust out” so damn badly though from what was hard to pin down in a word. Unkept promises perhaps, guilt, old narratives, piles of wreckage in the house. This was much more than a mattress and I knew it. I needed to be happy in the Now.
The dump run was successful. I know where it is now and there’s no excuse for not returning with a full load once I find a tarp that fits. The hardest thing I had to do was pry the old mattress out of my truck, where it hung on like a limpet. Make of that fact what you will. I managed to stand it vertical in the blasting wind and tip it over into “Bin A” (me so clever), but I also slipped and fell down backwards in the pickup bed. The episode was so damn strange. Physically there but also watching like a movie in my mind, I couldn’t tell if I’d survived an exorcism or robbed a bank and no one cared. That evening I tried to spend a whole night on the sofa but I was scared of falling off and only got a couple hours in before the phone went off. At that point I realized I’d been dreaming and felt altered in a way I wasn’t ready to articulate. This boiled down to “Kathy kissed me in a dream” and I hoped I might remember.
It was bitter cold although the sun was out and there had been a little snow. Naturally the first thing I did as soon as I was barely out of town was nearly kill myself. There was ice along the highway with what looked like clear tracks from the tires, here and there a little road salt or whatever the hell that red stuff is. I had the cruise on 65 in a 60 mph zone, rolled up behind a raggedy old truck doing 10 miles under that, swung hard left, and gunned it: Look out! The rear end fishtailed wildly three times and stabilized somehow… I was hanging in the other lane behind the slow guy with traffic coming up behind and either had to ease slowly back in line or risk passing straight ahead. There was no one else in sight but maybe more damn ice. I always gamble on a clear shot (?) so I did. The V-8 bellowed, I aimed the wheels at what I hoped was nice dry asphalt, and blasted up the road. Everyone else had seen what happened to me and just stayed put behind the beater truck. I slowed way down like a little old man until I dropped into the canyon and the ice was gone. Coffee time and turn the radio up. Beautiful New Mexico all the way to Albuquerque. Life is but a dream and look at where I was.
My benefactress stood outside the house and waved. I’d driven past so I could turn around and back up in the driveway from the other lane. I rolled the window down to see a little better and never hit a thing. “Nice job backing up without a back-up camera,” she said when I was almost done, glancing at the screen-free dashboard of my truck. “I’m a pro!” I said. “Well, pro yourself a little farther,” she replied and signaled when I had. Her own new mattress had just arrived. We went inside, I met her husband, the three of us wrapped the old one (new to me) in the oversized plastic “mattress bag” I’d bought the day before, and dragged it to my truck. Once again the Miracle of the Ratchet Straps. I couldn’t remember how to lock them but she reached over and slapped the handle down. After thanking her profusely, I said goodbye and headed for the freeway. It was warm enough to leave my window down.
A few miles east on I-40 looking for the Turquoise Trail exit, I almost killed myself again in heavy traffic. The road was crazy curvy going up the mountain. All the semis slowed but still pretended they could pass. There was only one lane open on the left to get around the jam and I was on it. So was the city slicker charging through my blind spot. He honked, I swerved, everybody lived, and I decided crawling along behind a pack of howling diesels with the mattress cover flapping in the breeze was dandy. A little later farther north on Route 14 and I was cruising up an empty highway through open country past Sandia Crest where I could stop to pee behind a tree or in Cerrillos. New Mexico is easy sometimes.
After all of this however, and remember there were two whole days of mattress moving, I nearly left this world a third time. Driving back to Taos through the canyon, my sleep-deprived exhausted body put me through the worst oh-my-God-I-just-dozed-off disaster I’ve survived unscathed. (Someday I will tell the story of the one I didn’t.) Slapping myself in the face, running the window up and down, head jerk, head jerk, almost running off the road—if my wheels crossed the center line in front of you, I apologize. It was inexcusable. Who knows how many I might have massacred? Not surprisingly, when I finally climbed out onto the plateau and saw the mountains gleaming in the sun, the drowsiness blew clean away. I even had the strength to unload and wrestle the mattress onto the bed with no assistance, glory hallelujah.
For the record, the memory foam is just extraordinary. I’ve never slept on anything like it. This may be the single most dramatic physical and psychological improvement of my life. I didn’t toss or turn at all that night. Waking up without the usual minor aches and stiffness was a joy. Making the bed is easier because the sheets aren’t wadded up and pulled asunder from flopping like a stranded fish all night. There’s a deep somatic kindness working here. It resonates and puts me in a better place. There isn’t any hurry, everything’s all right.
In the context of the last few days I thought about the dream again and get it now. After all I’ve thought and done and gone through, maybe now it’s time:
Kathy and I were sitting together in a beautiful spot outdoors like on a porch or picnic. I was showing her a photo of a river view in Iowa or Maryland with a long dark bluff that reminded me of the Rio Grande Gorge. The association between Iowa where she was born, Maryland where we’d met, and New Mexico where she died was there without a trace of sadness. I could see her face like it was yesterday. She turned to me all smiles and beaming, raised her head, and kissed me slowly like she did the first time we were alone together 45 years ago, sitting on my lap in her ‘65 VW at the edge of the woods above the river on a glorious spring day...2
The message is our circle is complete. She’s telling me to celebrate and live.
I remember the day we bought the platform bed the mattress rested on. There was nothing like it on the Eastern Shore. We found an advertisement in the Washington Post and took our new red ‘84 Jetta to the western shore to find the trendy UK retailer on a hillside in Alexandria. You could look down from the parking lot out back and see white government buildings across the Potomac in D.C. The bed breaks down into boards and panels. I drove us 90 miles back home with one end of the long ones poking out the rear window and the other jammed between our seats.