The following are descriptions of six books I read as a kid that still haunt my brain to this day, as interpreted by my child-aged self.


1. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein


Summary: Once there was a tree… and she loved a little boy. She gave him leaves to play with, and he climbed her and swung from her branches. He loved her and hugged her a lot.

And then he grew up and forgot about her until he needed something. He took her apples to sell, like a teenager stealing drug money from a purse, and then blew her off again for a few years.

He came back only to cut off her branches and build a house with her severed limbs. This made her happy, even though cutting off all the branches on a tree would nullify its ability to photosynthesize, killing it slowly. But the fact that she’d helped the boy build a house made the tree happy, because she was a kind and selfless tree. And yet he ignored her again for a long, long time.

The boy didn’t come back until he was an old man, and when the tree asked him to play, he said, no sorry, I’m too old and all I want is to get the hell away from you again, you stupid nice tree. So the masochistic tree told him to cut her down and make a boat with which to sail far, far away from her, because apparently giving chunks of herself to this greedy, selfish man would never be enough to make him love her. And the sonofabitch did it. He said, “Thanks for your body parts!” and sailed off into the sunset. But still, the tree was just happy to have helped.

The heartless bastard came back years later to see how else he might destroy the sweetest tree on the planet, which was now only an ugly stump. The codependent tree stump was so happy to see him that she actually asked him if she could do anything else for him. He told her he was too old and tired to torture her in new and exciting ways, so he sat on what was left of her.


The moral: Sometimes no matter how nice you are to people, you’re still going to end up with an ass on your face.

Hidden message: Mom was right. If you give your body to a man, he will leave you.

Bonus trauma: The photograph of Shel Silverstein on the back of the book.


***


2. Bunnicula by James Howe


Summary: This family finds a cute baby bunny in a theater during a Dracula movie and brings it home, where a dog and cat with the miraculous ability to read reside. The dog and cat soon realize the bunny can magically escape his cage at night to suck the juice out of household vegetables, turning them ghostly white. Despite naming the rabbit Bunnicula, the family is too dumb to realize what is going on, blaming the obviously bitten and drained vegetables on some sort of plant fungus.

The cat researches a book about vampires, becomes super paranoid, and tries to kill the baby bunny by trapping it in its cage via vampire-repelling garlic fencing. We watch the rabbit suffer as it slowly starves, until the dog finally gets all aggro with the cat and saves the poor dying bunny. The dimwitted humans never figure it out.


The moral: Sometimes your adorable pets will try to kill each other while you sleep.

Hidden message: Animals are smarter than people.

Bonus trauma: Sketches throughout the book of a bunny with fangs and a malevolent gleam in its eyes.


***


3. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson


Summary: An unpopular boy makes friends with an odd new girl at school. They hang out together in the forest and use their imaginations to create a world in which they aren’t losers. One day, the boy chooses to hang out with a teacher he has a crush on instead of hanging out with the girl in the woods. The girl goes into the woods alone, falls, hits her head on a rock and drowns in the stream. The boy must live with the guilt for the rest of his life.


The moral: Hey, kids. Guess what? Your friends can die.

Hidden message: Hey, kids. Guess what? That means you can die, too.

Bonus trauma: Awareness of your own mortality.


***


4. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck


Summary: Just in case your parents haven’t yet had the birds and bees talk with you, this book starts off with a cow alone in the woods, failing miserably at giving birth. A wandering boy helps the cow release the calf that is stuck in her vagina like some sort of slimy and bleating mammalian cork by fashioning a crude pulley out of his pants, using a tree as a fulcrum.

The cow rewards him for helping her live by nearly killing him. Her owner then rewards the boy for not suing by giving him a baby pig. He calls the pig Pinky, and she becomes a beloved pet, much like a family dog.

I should probably mention at this point that the boy’s father slaughters pigs for a living. I think you know where this is going now.

They discover that the pig is barren, and therefore worthless. In one of the most horrifying coming-of-age moments ever captured in print, the boy is then forced to help his father murder Pinky. Descriptions of skull-crunching noises and snow-turned-to-red-slush abound. This book holds the distinguished honor of: First Book to Ever Make Me Sob Uncontrollably.


The moral: Living on a farm will make you so lonely that sleeping in a shed with a pig will sound appealing.

Bonus trauma: Highly disturbing pig-on-pig rape scene involving lard.

Quote I still love and should apply to myself more often: “‘Never miss a chance,’ Papa had once said, ‘to keep your mouth shut.'”


***


5. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls


Summary: A young boy saves all the money he makes trapping animals for years to buy two hunting dogs. He names them Old Dan and Little Ann, and the three of them become an inseparable raccoon hunting trio.

Old Dan eventually goes up against a mountain lion and is mortally wounded. Little Ann dies of starvation and a broken heart after dragging her weak dog body to the grave of Old Dan, where the boy finds her stiffened corpse.

He buries her next to Old Dan, and a red fern grows up between their graves. For some reason this ghoulish plant makes the family less sad about the painful deaths of their dogs.


The moral: Your pets will die before you do, leaving you heartbroken and bereft.

Bonus trauma: Learning that there have always been bullies, even back in the peaceful olden days when people had dirt floors and pooped outside.


***


6. Old Yeller by Fred Gipson


Summary: There is a family of Texas settlers. The dad leaves the farmstead for a few months to travel to Kansas for a cattle drive. His son, a teenager, must temporarily become the man of the house.

A yellow dog comes along and adopts the family. After it saves the younger brother from a bear, they all love it. After it saves the entire family from a hydrophobic wolf, the boy immediately shoots the dog in the head because it may have possibly caught hydrophobia from the wolf bites. (It is never mentioned that hydrohobia is old-timey speak for rabies, because creatures with rabies refuse/avoid water. This knowledge might have helped young reader me understand why everyone was killing and burning animals willy-nilly.)

The book jacket explains it all in one sentence: “Travis learns just how much he has come to love that big ugly dog, and he learns something about the pain of life, too.”

Because life is pain, children. Life is pain.

Got it?

Now who wants cookies?


The moral: In order to become a man, you must violently kill something you love.

Bonus trauma: Dogs always die. Seriously. They’re just going to die, kid, no matter what. Why would you get a dog, ever?


***


Jesse had brought a rock-hard, stained futon mattress into the marriage. It took me two years to convince him to buy a new one. In what proved to be a last attempt to save our crumbling marriage, one Saturday morning we found ourselves at one of Bushwick’s few furniture stores. Next to the elevated railroad tracks on Myrtle Avenue, across the street from where the MTA once left 50 poisoned rats to decompose on the sidewalk, royal red polyester couches competed with golden vanity tables and rococo bed frames. As we curved our way past particleboard TV stands, a beer-bellied man with a comb over approached us. The salesman swiftly led us to a mattress adorned with a royal golden pattern against a shiny black background. He praised the mattress as if it were his first-born son. There’s no better quality for the price! It’ll last ten years at least! Maybe 15, he added, sensing my doubt. A special! A real special! Just as I wondered if he was paying for the mattress to go to college, I noticed that it had inner springs.

In Germany, innersprings went out with the Kaiser, or whenever it was that they invented foam. The last time I slept on an inner spring mattress was as a child at my grandmother’s house, and the bed still reeked of mustard gas from World War I. The springs poked my back and my chest was weighed down by a two-foot thick down blanket, so heavy with feathers that I felt like Leda gang-raped by a flock of swans. My Nazi grandmother put me up in her guestroom, a large, dark, wood-paneled space cold as a morgue. After tucking me in under the suffocating blankets, she sang Guten Abend, Gute Nacht, a lullaby based on a German folk poem. Provided with roses / Covered with flowers / Studded with nails / Slip under the blanket / In the morning, God willing / You will wake again.

Despite its funereal overtones, I requested the song frequently. I felt that if I considered the possibility of never waking back up, death might spare me. Catastrophes don’t happen if cautiously considered. If I only continued obsessing about the possibility of death—my own and the death of the people around me—I might be let off the hook.

Twenty years later at the furniture store in Bushwick, Jesse and I helplessly decided on the black innerspring mattress with the golden flower pattern, the one the salesman had called his best. I can’t claim that the mattress hastened the end of my marriage, but it certainly didn’t help.

After only three months the mattress began to sag, and for the two years that followed I slept on an incline with a continuously increasing slope. At first my left leg was wedged against the wall, only one inch higher than my right leg. But over the course of the next few years, the slope’s angle gradually increased to 20 degrees. With the advancing pitch, my marriage declined.

After Jesse finally moved out, I decided to buy a new mattress, opting for a larger one this time. If I got screwed again and the mattress sagged after only a few months, at least I would have enough space to disappear into it with my future boyfriend. But disappear where, exactly? Never again between innersprings. Coils and box springs are for losers. It’s the 21st century! When I think of coils and box springs, I think of straw and fluffy little baby chicks covered with potato sacks; I think of barns and alternating sleeping shifts.

Tempurpedic™ and its Swedish, (but puzzlingly) NASA-designed memory foam technology had caught my attention long before I considered buying a new mattress. Staying up late on my saggy incline while Jesse was out getting drunk, I felt oddly reassured by Tempurpedic’s infomercials. I still felt like hanging myself, but knew that one day in the future, I would be able to rest in peace.

According to Tempurpedic™, the mattress’s visco-elastic foam completely adapts to your body contours, releasing pressure from your spine and the heavier parts of your body. “This phenomenon,” Tempurpedic™ explains, “is similar to pushing your hand into the surface of a bowl of water and feeling the water flow to fill every contour and curve of your hand, then return to its original shape once your hand is removed.” Sounded like a dream to me. Never saggy, never sore! Completely resistant to permanent change! My heavy heart floating in a bowl of water—what could be better?

I knew I couldn’t afford a $2000 Tempurpedic™ mattress, so I tried to satisfy myself by taking the announcer’s advice and calling for an information kit. The package that arrived a few days later contained a video—which I never watched—and a memory foam sample the size of a teeny-tiny pillow, just big enough for my cat to rest her teeny-tiny head on. I briefly considered ordering enough 10 square inch foam samples to build my own mattress, but abandoned the idea after Tempurpedic™ kept bombarding me with intimidating brochures. The envelopes read like little death threats: “Open this envelope right now, Sabine Heinlein! This is your last chance!” What would’ve happened if I had ordered a few hundred samples! (Or if I wouldn’t have opened the envelope.) Covered with flowers, Studded with nails, Slip under the blanket… I wanted to burn those thick brochures, but instead started to use them to line my pet rabbit’s litter box.

Mr. Rabbit has certain preferences when it comes to his litter: It mustn’t be too soft, it has to be highly absorbent, and God forbid if I don’t arrange it neatly. My rabbit and I had both come to appreciate the thickness of the Sunday Times, but we were thankful for the little extra absorbance the generous mailings from the Tempurpedic™ folks provided. That is, until he began acting a little nervous. Was it the aggressive tone of their pitches? Or dreams of drowning in space-age foam? Whatever the case, I went back to using just the Times.

Rather than purchasing the Tempurpedic™ with funds I clearly don’t have, I decided to follow a more modest route and visit Sleepy’s. I entered my first Sleepy’s in Midtown Manhattan through an elevator that took me up to the show room on the second floor. Strangely, the worst thing about buying a new mattress isn’t the wealth of choices; it is the mattress salesmen.

Of all the salesmen I encountered on my mattress crusade, I liked this first one the very best. He did the store’s name some credit for he was actually asleep when I arrived. If he had been peacefully snoozing on one of the memory foam mattresses it would have clenched my choice. Unfortunately it was his office chair he was snoring on. Being a considerate shopper, I sneaked back out of the store on tippy toes. From there I went to another Sleepy’s just a few blocks down.

“Welcome to Sleepy’s! My name is Steve,” a wide-awake young professional greeted me. He asked what I was looking for and swiftly led me to one of his cheaper memory foam mattresses. He urged me to lie down. But naptime was over when I told him that I didn’t need a foundation because I already had one. “How high is your foundation?” he wanted to know. I pointed about three feet off the ground. His eyes widened with incredulity

“Noooo! That’s too high!”

“It’s worked for me so far,” I responded.

“But how you gonna get up there?” What did he mean by that? I’m not obese, I wasn’t using crutches. My feet and hands are beautifully shaped, if I may say so.

“I jump,” I said. He shook his head in disbelief and asked what I was keeping under my bed, a question I found a bit inappropriate. Who knows what some people keep underneath their mattresses? The space under one’s bed is nobody’s business. It is reserved for nightmarish creatures, undeclared earnings, useless crap and sometimes bunny rabbits. Before I could respond he added, “Drawers?”

“No drawers,” I said. “It is a hollow wooden structure. I store things underneath. Anything I don’t need on a daily basis. Suitcases, my ironing board, a surfboard.” I lied. I don’t have an ironing board or a surfboard, but I wanted to say something that made me sound neat and athletic. I also wanted to spare him the details about a rabbit who considers that space his own kingdom and turns into a monster if anyone reaches under the bed without knocking first. I proudly added: “I built it myself,” which clearly had the opposite effect I intended. I detected pity and deep sympathy in his eyes.

I quickly realized that it was hard to endure any mattress salesman for more than 10 minutes at a time. I decided to expand my research territory. After all, like 7-11’s in the rest of the country, Sleepy’s lurks on every corner in New York.

But before I moved on I noted down the first three conclusions as follows:

1. There are numerous companies producing memory foam mattresses for less than $2000, and they all have slightly incestuous names like Posturepedic, Therapedic, Posturetemp, etc. etc.

2. What the memory foam does is always the same; what varies is its thickness and the thickness of the supporting conventional foam layer underneath.

3. Mattress salesmen are curious people, sometimes asleep, sometimes awake.

The next Sleepy’s was located only a couple of blocks west. Again, a clean-cut gentleman rushed towards. “Welcome to Sleepy’s. My name is Jerry. How can I help you?” I briefly explained my situation, and he unexpectedly informed me that it was Father’s Day. “Really?” I said wondering what that had to do with my choice of mattress. He continued, “For our Father’s Day Sale everything is 30% off.” Father’s Day Sale! Noticing my skepticism, Jerry added, “And since you are my first customer today, you can get this mattress here for—” He punched the big keys of his old-fashioned calculator. “For $750, taxes and delivery included.” He looked up from his calculations with the eagerness of a child at Christmas. His excitement lessened when he saw that I was still not completely convinced. Where was I? On a souk in Marrakech? I was once forced to buy a carpet on a street market there. What started as a friendly negotiation ended with a knife on my ex-boyfriend’s neck. Ever since then, special, special offers make me very, very suspicious. But the mattress salesman had another trick up his sleeve: “If you leave a $25 deposit today, we will hold this offer for you for 60 days. Your $25 are fully refundable if you decide not to buy the mattress.”

Every day is Father’s Day for a measly $25! Or at least for the next 60 days. And of course after that there will be Easter, then Chanukah, then Labor Day, then Christmas, then Memorial Day, then Mother’s Day, then Kwanza and then, once again, Father’s Day (not necessarily in that order, though). What it boils down to is that you could be getting your fucking mattress any day for a reasonable price; and on those rare days that celebrate no special occasion you would be paying far too much.

After some fretting from me and some reassuring talk from Jerry, I laid down the deposit and decided to sleep on it. My old coils and the mattress salesmen had worn me out, and I simply didn’t have the patience left to make a choice. The next day I returned to Sleepy’s, where I encountered yet another mattress salesman. Where did Jerry go? “I laid down a deposit for a mattress, but I have one more question…” I started. “Yeah, what is it?” the new salesman growled as he pulled up my file. “Oh, nothing.” I gave up and handed my credit card over. The man, who never introduced himself, continued to sigh and moan.

I felt appropriately sleepy when I got back home.

There was a voicemail waiting for me from Sleepy’s. “Hi!” the salesman said cheerfully. “My name is Paul. I wanted to thank you for shopping with Sleepy’s, the mattress professionals. If you have a moment give me a call back and let me know how you experienced shopping at Sleepy’s.”

I apologize for not calling you back, Paul, but your mattress professionals exhausted me. But if you must know, Paul, I really like my new mattress. It is as comfy as a bowl of water, as a cloud, as… I’m sorry, but I’ve run out of metaphors for the moment. I need to lie down and rest.

Epilogue: Paul wasn’t the only one who made an effort to keep in touch. A few days into my new mattress experience I received more mail from Tempurpedic™. Hesitantly, I opened the envelope. “I hope you’ll understand why I’m so disappointed,” Dany began despairingly. (Dany made it sound like I had promised her love but then, with no warning, kicked her out of bed.) Evidently she is so disappointed because I have not yet bought my Tempurpedic™ mattress. She helpfully lists what might be jeopardizing our once promising relationship:

1. Inadequate description of the advantages of Tempurpedic™ mattresses.

2. Misunderstanding over the money-back-guaranty.

3. Insufficient communication about Tempurpedic™’s real affordability.

A fourth possibility never occurred to her: I had been cuckolding her with some mattress salesmen.

Mattress professionals are eloquent, utterly persistent, yet vulnerable people. Dany, Paul, Jerry and Steve, this is to all of you: Live your life on or under your own mattress, be it visco-elastic, box spring or latex. As for me, I have to go find the right pillow to rest my tired head on.