MATTRESS COUNTRY by Travis Dahlke

MATTRESS COUNTRY by Travis Dahlke

1.

Brandon is staying home tonight with his NutriBullet blade replacement scam despite promising he’d drive us to the rich neighborhood with the king-sized candy. Despite it being the final Halloween before the world ends as the Mayan prophecy comes to fruition in December. 

The sidewalk to Gia’s is summer rotting across cement. The air is filled with trampled and browning weeds, men roasting meat in crockpots, the smell of beetle shells. The leaves still have a little green in their veins. Each vinyl-sided person from each vinyl-sided ranch says, “Aren’t you guys a little old to be out here?”

Maris ducks into Rite-Aid where her ex-boyfriend works and emerges with two knock-off masks beneath her hoodie. She says he’s still totally in love with her, except now Maris is Space Satan (Darth Maul). 

“You’re Nightmare Man,” she says (Freddy Krueger). 

Both men are technically hundreds of years old. 

Gia’s grandfather tells a ghost story while we wait for her to become Used Car Salesman, wrapping her dead tooth’s replacement denture in foil from a Dove chocolate. I watch through Nightmare Man’s slitted nostrils as her grandfather reheats chowder, whisking congealed skin with a knife. 

“It was November of 1941,” Gia’s grandfather says. “Barnum came to Manchester and I swear the whole town turned inside out to see that circus. Me and some other boys, corner boys they called us, especially Patrick Muldoon’s mother—she still lives around here somewhere—each made five cents to help dig holes for the tent.” 

Gia’s grandfather aims his knife at the window. Coughs backward. Gathers his voice. 

“That night, aunt winter paid herself a visit.”

Kids make turkey calls outside. In his search for candy, Gia’s grandfather’s entire body creaks away from the room.

I say, “Everyone knows that stupid story about the circus tiger freezing to death and getting buried.” 

“I know, my sister said the tiger’s like right under the Shell Station across the street from Little Thinkers Montessori,” Space Satan says.

“You’re wrong. It’s in Riverfront Park. My grandfather helped dig the hole to bury the tiger himself. He’s just delicate about it,” Used Car Salesman says. 

“In a couple months, that tiger and your grandpa and everything anyone ever tried to hide will be dust,” I say.

 

2.

We walk to Brandon’s house to hiss tiger sounds and scratch at his window. His computer screen makes his shut blinds glow. A window over, his mom wears a New Year’s Eve fedora while having sex with Brandon’s dad on the couch. We empty their entire bowl of 3 Musketeers into monogrammed L.L. Beans. We draw tiger claws in the condensation of Brandon’s car’s windshield, then weave back through little Hulks, ladybugs, and babies dressed as Steve Irwin. 

In the park, we watch the sun fall apart into an unnamed river. Space Satan uses her thumb and forefinger to unscrew a NO DUMPING sign that guards the bed of rust-eaten washing machines. Some mattresses. One perfectly intact office chair.

“It’s for my sister’s dorm,” she says, tucking the sign under her arm. “She promised me twenty-bucks.” 

We loiter in the Shell’s yellow to try and warm up. Leftover air conditioning pulls at my arm hair. I reposition my mask in the security mirror.

“Can I just, like, have this?” Used Car Salesman asks the Shell cashier, holding up a bag of Twizzlers.

I ask if he ever hears the tiger clawing at his floor. Then this lady at the ATM dressed as nothing says it was somewhere, but definitely not this lot, and it wasn’t a tiger; it was a clown. After a few minutes of her trying to remember, Used Car Salesmen unwraps her dead tooth to read the fortune on the Dove wrapper. 

You guys, you’re not gonna believe this,” she says. 

 

3.

I walk home alone. For some reason the street is totally wet. I peel Nightmare Man’s face off, which is also wet, and stake him onto the spike that held the NO DUMPING sign. A threat to all other Nightmare Men who dare trespass. And instead of turning to dust, the pharmacy rubber endures through Thanksgiving, the sleet of Christmas, and it’s still there come springtime, when horseflies mistake the gross synthetic red for real meat. People are too scared to dump anything in the river now. A newspaper reporter is writing an article about the head on the stick. How it mysteriously appeared one day. How it’s a talisman. A sign from above. How the daffodils are returning to the riverbed and in a few years it’ll be safe enough to swim in again. 


Travis Dahlke is the author of Milkshake (Long Day Press) and Mount Summer (Out to Lunch Records). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland, HAD, Juked, and The Longleaf Review, among other journals and collections.

Art by Steve Anwyll @oneloveasshole

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