The Family Business by Celia Lisset Alvarez


How does one wind up opening a mattress store? For Jorge, it was the family business. Another store in his father’s ever-expanding franchise, perched to compete for the tired backs and achy feet of the Kendallites against the evil powers of the Rooms-to-Go just five blocks and millions of dollars away. But how ever did his father, back in the sepia-toned eighties, wake up one morning and think: mattresses?

“Champagne?” Jorge startled me from my reverie.

“Ooh. Fancy.” We clinked glasses. Real glasses. “So what now? You wanna show me which of these is . . . softest?” It was an idle threat. The store was wall-to-wall glass, fluorescent bulbs and neon everywhere. All of Kendall driving by could see us in our prim little suits clinking glasses by the shiny new register.

“Actually,” Jorge said, slitting his eyes mysteriously, “I’ve got a top-of-the-line Sealy set aside for us.”

I set my glass by the register untouched and groaned.

“Wait,” Jorge said as I flopped myself dramatically onto the nearest mattress. Not too bad, actually, one of those space-age foam things where you feel like you’re on quicksand. “I know what you’re thinking,” he continued, “but this time it would be completely different.”

Jorge and I had tried the moving-in together thing before, when we were still in grad school. Upshot: I had finished my thesis, found a job, and started paying back my student loans, and he had memorized all the special moves for every character in Soul Caliber, including the hidden ones.

“Papi gave me all the surplus inventory from all three of his stores completely gratis,” Jorge continued. “When those doors open up tomorrow, we’re looking at sheer profit,” he said, arcing his glass in the air as if to baptize his new empire. I saw a couple of drops of champagne fall on the mattress next to him. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said, and plopped himself on top of me.

“For heaven’s sake, Jorge,” I said, pushing him away. His breath was really strong. I wondered how much celebrating he’d been doing before I’d gotten there.

“Okay, okay, hang on,” he said, skipping over to the door and behind the register. In a few beeps’ time, the store was completely dark. The night was hot and humid, as all nights are in Miami. The headlights whizzing by outside melted together on the cold glass front into a long, bright stream. I settled myself on a daybed close to the highway; it was the kind of firm mattress my grandmother would have used to keep from bending. “I know what you’re thinking,” Jorge repeated, scooting up next to me.

“Well, I’m thinking this is like when you thought you’d parlay your gaming skills into a successful career with GameStop.” I felt Jorge deflate next to me, his shoulders slumping as he clasped his hands between his knees. It was a low blow; the GameStop fiasco had been his last attempt to save our relationship. Much like now, his father had put up the cash for the franchise, and he had run it into the red in just six months, letting all his gaming buddies work the store and grab the games at will until there wasn’t a single unopened package left to sell. My rage—thousands of dollars in hock for our apartment setup and thousands more in student loans—my rage had been nothing but a raindrop compared to the maelstrom of his father’s wrath, who vowed to have him killed by his goons (did he really have goons? I didn’t know) as if he were “un pendejo cualquiera.” I could only imagine what kind of serious witchcraft Jorge’s mother had concocted to make this store happen, since after the breakup Jorge and his family had become mostly just Facebook flotsam to me. Still, I could see how Big Jorge had hedged his bet; if Jorgito started handing out mattresses to his buddies, Big Jorge could just reabsorb the store into his chain with nothing but some surplus inventory lost.

“Shit, Monica, that was two years ago,” Jorge said. He stood in front of the window and shoved his hands in his pockets, a gesture I’d seen his father do about a million times. Like his father, he was getting fat—his belt buckle was a full two inches under his belly button. He was even beginning to sound like him, too. When he had called me at work to ask me to come to the store, I had seen the name and heard him say, “I’m opening a new store tomorrow, will you come see it?” and thought it was his father.

The headlights behind him silhouetted what was left of his hair, the copper curls I used to twirl around my fingers while he was driving. He actually had some gray, just a few strands right around his temples. “Aren’t you ever going to forgive me? Don’t I get to change?”

We had had this conversation before, of course. According to Jorge I had changed on him, become “some kind of money-hungry power bitch.” To be honest, this was true. We were twenty-seven years old. I felt shame when I had to go to my parents for money, shame when I had to pay one credit card with another. I felt pride, too, each time I had been promoted—twice in two years. Pride when I signed for my car. And ambition—I wanted my own house, a family. Normal things. I didn’t want to sit around playing video games and smoking weed deep into my thirties. Just because Jorge had gotten fat and was wearing a suit didn’t mean he had changed.

I reached for his right hand, ran my thumb over his index fingertip. “You still have that callus,” I said, the gaming callus I used to tease him about. Jorge chuckled softly, ran his fingers over mine. I could still slide right down his touch to senior year, when I had felt so amazed and lucky that he had asked me out. By the time we got to college, I was writing his papers so he could stay on the baseball team. “It’s so easy for you,” I remembered him saying. “You jump out of bed in the morning like some kind of cartoon character, with birds singing around your head and squirrels bringing you your slippers. Me, I just want to hit the snooze button.” The only reason he’d gotten as far as business school was Big Jorge, who made a donation here and there, sold some mattresses, and tried to get Jorgito yet another break.

I had dated a bunch of guys in the past two years. A few just like Jorge, all big plans for some tomorrow that for the moment required they live at home with their parents. And then the opposite—guys so slick they felt like they were following a script, showing up at the door with flowers in their hands and condoms in their wallets. Either way we always wound up at the Olive Garden. The only difference was who paid. The whole thing made me sleepy. Learned helplessness was the term. You see so many times that no matter what you do you still get fucked in the end that you stop fighting back. You just lie down and fall asleep, even in the middle of a crisis.

“Come see this mattress I was telling you about,” Jorge said, pulling me up. We angled our way around the mattresses in the dark, pausing by the door to turn on some of the lights. “This shit is amazing,” Jorge was saying. “It actually regulates temperature so you can have a cool side and a warm side.”

Dear Lord, was he selling me this mattress? I remembered the last one I had bought, post-breakup. Of course I had gone to the competition, some seedy Mattress One in a strip mall with a guy in a polyester suit who kept urging me to lie on my back. “Let me tell you, honey, they have these things called sleep studies? They’ve actually proven that the best way to try out a mattress is flat on your back.”

“Don’t call me honey,” I’d said, and walked out of the store.

When Jorge finished turning the lights back on, it took my eyes a moment to adjust. In front of me was a mattress monstrosity, a set so big it would take a step ladder to climb. In the middle, a blue velvet box.

I knew this box. The last time I had seen it was the night of the big breakup, the night he had called me a money-hungry power bitch. Right before that, he had been on his knees. “If you just give me a chance, honey, I can show you that I can change,” he’d said. In response, I had catalogued every conversation we had had, each the same, since we’d been seventeen: how next time he would study for the test, how next time he would save money over the summer to pay for his books, how next time he would pay the bills first. Over and over. He would be contrite, and I would rescue him. It was the same pattern he had with his parents, and even Big Jorge had caved, apparently, goons and all.

I hopped up on the mattress and held the velvet box in my left hand, running my finger over the smooth surface. Despite myself, I opened the snapping hinge and stared at the round diamond, let the neon light reflect its tiny rainbows. An overwhelming sleepiness came over me. I felt myself sinking in.

How does one wind up having a mattress store? It can’t be something you plan for. No little girl says she wants to be in the mattress business when she grows up. And yet, there they are, all around you, mattresses in your crib, in your childhood bedroom, in your college dorm. Your first apartment. The house you raise your kids in and the one you die in. There when you wake up, and there when you fall asleep. Somebody has to sell them.

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