Bonnie maneuvered through the cramped hallway as quickly as she could to answer the frantic knocking at the front door. The towers of bins, bags, and boxes on either side made for slow going. At the narrowest point, just where the dingy carpet met the worn tile of the foyer, she sucked in her stomach to squeeze through. When she passed through this chokepoint without toppling any of her possessions, she smiled, pleased at the small victory.
She opened the door just as the knocking turned to pounding. Her smile dropped to a frown instantly when she saw her next-door neighbor, Ryan, standing there with the mattress.
“Why the hell was this leaning against the side of my house this morning?” His tone was just shy of a yell.
Bonnie glanced quickly behind her. “Keep it down. Please, just leave it there for now. I’ll come get it later.”
“I’m not keeping your ratty mattress in my yard. Why do you even have this? It’s got a giant hole in it.”
She frowned deeper at this assessment of the twin mattress she wanted so desperately to keep. Footsteps shuffled through the stacks behind her. She rushed to shut the door, but Ryan stuck his foot against the doorjamb. “Ryan, please!” she hissed.
Too late. Bonnie’s husband, Sam, came up behind her and yanked the door back open.
“Is that the goddamn mattress?” he shouted.
“No…” Bonnie said weakly.
“It is! You didn’t throw it out like you said. You kept it.”
“I couldn’t throw it out, Sam. Jimmy might come back and need to sleep on it.”
Sam rubbed his gray beard furiously.
“I’m just going to leave this here,” Ryan cut in. “Don’t put any of your nasty trash in my yard again, please.”
“Right, sorry. Just leave it there for now,” Sam said.
Ryan shook his head and walked away muttering to himself.
Sam shut the door firmly against the mattress still lying sadly on the concrete walk. “This is the last straw.”
“I’ve thrown out so much stuff lately. I’ve been doing good. But the mattress from Jimmy’s room is too much to ask.”
“Our son hasn’t been here to see us in nearly ten years. He barely even calls. He’s not coming back. And if he does, no one wants to sleep on that old thing. It’s got a hole in it, for Christ’s sake!” “But it’s his mattress. It’s always been in his room—”
“This has got to stop.”
“You’ve said that before.”
“I know.” His hands returned to rubbing his cheeks. After a minute, he laughed, casually at first, then more and more boisterously until he wiped a tear from the corner of his right eye.
“What on earth is so funny?” Bonnie asked, starting to laugh in spite of herself.
“Ryan,” he said. “That poor guy carrying that mattress over here.”
Bonnie blushed but continued laughing out of obligation.
“He must think we’re crazy.” This thought seemed to sober him, and his laughter wound to a close. “Poor guy,” he said more quietly. Bonnie wasn’t sure if he was referring to Ryan now or to himself.
“I really am trying,” she said.
“I know,” he said, more gently. “But you can’t go back to hiding junk from me. That’s what they call regression, I think.”
“Not junk. Just that one mattress.”
He held her gaze steadily. “It’s junk, Bon.”
She chewed her lower lip but couldn’t bring herself to respond. Tears pricked her eyes at the thought that her son’s mattress—the one her only child slept on growing up—was junk, only fit for the trash.
Sam broke into her thoughts. “Imagine if we could tell him the whole house had been cleaned out. That might make him want to come see it, come see us.”
He had dangled that carrot in front of her before, but rather than make her want to work harder to clean up, the implication that she was the only reason Jimmy stayed away angered her. As if Sam had never done anything that Jimmy would want distance from, that it was only her desire to keep a few too many things that alienated their son.
She peered at Sam out of the corner of her eye. They both knew the thread of the conversation had been lost beneath piles of baggage neither of them dared look under. She glanced at the front door.
Sam caught onto the glance immediately. “Don’t even think about bringing that thing back in here.”
Bonnie sighed. She had lost this battle. Now that her trick had been revealed once, she couldn’t use it again. He would be looking for the mattress to reappear with an eagle eye, and it would not go well for her if he found it. She rubbed the circumference of her left wrist as if massaging an old soreness out of it.
Sam stepped around a stack of plastic bins to get his keys from the kitchen. “In fact,” he said when he returned, “I’m going to take it to the dump right now.”
Bonnie watched helplessly from the doorway as he threw the mattress unceremoniously into the bed of his pickup parked on the street. She didn’t go back inside until he had turned the corner and disappeared.
She went down the hall to Jimmy’s room. The mess in here was more organized, books and toys stacked in neat boxes against the wall, nothing scattered on the floor. Two posters of basketball stars who had retired twenty years before still graced the wall. The bed, devoid of its mattress, looked sad and deflated. She perched on the edge of the wooden bedframe and tapped her hands anxiously against her thighs. After a minute, she pulled her phone out of her pocket and called Jimmy. Of course, he didn’t answer. He rarely did, preferring to respond on his own time. She didn’t bother to leave a voicemail.
She stayed perched on the bed for several minutes until her phone buzzed in her hand.
“How are you?” she asked brightly.
“Busy,” Jimmy said, his standard response. “Did you need something?”
“We’re cleaning out your room. Do you want anything out of it?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“You don’t even want to come look?” She was begging, but what other option did she have?
There was a long pause. Finally, he said, “I think you should toss it all, Mom. And I don’t mean that flippantly. Like, I really think you should throw it all away.” He enunciated the words carefully, as if wanting to make sure she noticed each inflection and point of emphasis.
“Right. Well, don’t let me keep you.”
He hung up without saying goodbye.
When Sam returned, she was still sitting on the bed. She looked up at him vaguely when his frame filled the doorway, not quite able to focus on what was in front of her.
“You should do it,” she said once her attention had snapped back.
“What you’ve always wanted to do.” She stood and motioned around the room. “Throw it all away.”
“All of it?”
“Yes. Don’t ask me questions about any of it.”
She pushed past him and turned down the hall to the tiny spare room at the end. This was the place where, years ago, she had begun piling boxes of things she had bought or refused to throw away because they might be useful someday, in some utopian future where her propensity to save and savor would be appreciated. The room was still packed tight, leaving only a small square of space in front of the door to allow access to the stacks.
She shut the door and curled up on the floor. The walls of boxes cradled her like a womb. She imagined everything crashing down on top of her, first one box, then another, until she was covered and lost. It didn’t seem like a bad way to go, actually.
She took in one long, shuddering breath before her emotions burst forth. She cried until the carpet beneath her cheek was wet with tears.
Outside the haven she had claimed for herself, she heard Sam drag something down the hall. The front door opened, then closed. The process repeated for the remainder of the afternoon, punctuated occasionally by a thud and a curse from Sam. The room darkened as evening skulked in.
But she didn’t move or turn on a light.
Light meant illuminating the encroaching emptiness. And that she didn’t want to see.
Beth Ford lives in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Her short fiction, poetry, and a novel excerpt have appeared in Embark Literary Journal, The Scores, Sangam Literary Journal, fresh.ink, The Bluebird Word, and The Journal of Undiscovered Poets. For more information, visit bethfordauthor.com or on Twitter @bethfordauthor.