The partner and I went to buy a mattress. We both like a firm bed, so went into the store armed with cocky certainty about the kind of item we were looking for. It took a while to convince the salesman we were serious when we said hard. He showed us to one disgusting cloud of mush after another, and each time we flounced on the bed and immediately flounced right off again (some of these new pillow-topped numbers effectively function as trampolines), our lips curled in barely concealed disdain. Finally, an understanding seemed to pass between us. He began to take us to the real mattresses: the ones designed for Buddhist monks and ex-Navy SEALs who feel that life is not punishing them enough. Each mattress he showed us was firmer than the last, and yet we continued to cry “More! More!” after rolling painfully off each display model. Eventually we reached what he said was the firmest mattress he has ever sold. We looked at each other with satisfaction, and clambered on top. We lay there for a few moments, our ligaments gently twanging, and then said, “Yes, good. This is close. But it’s not quite…” The salesman looked deeply into our eyes as if assessing us. “Are you sure this is not firm enough? It’s the firmest one we’ve ever sold.” “Well, it’s close…” “All right then. There is one more model beyond this that I can show you, if you’re sure.” “Yes! Yes! Let’s try it out.” He led us reluctantly to the back of the store, where there was an alcove separated from the rest of the showroom by a drawn curtain. He pulled back the curtain to reveal what looked like just another display model: an ordinary-enough looking mattress and box spring on a metal frame. “Here it is,” he breathed. We jumped eagerly on to the bed and stretched ourselves out side by side, in that stiffly sexless way that couples arrange themselves when trying out mattresses in a public store. Every bone in my body began immediately to cry out in confused pain. Somehow this mattress felt harder than the floor, or even the rocky ground under a camping tent. It managed to have positive hardness: it seemed not only to resist the weight of one’s body with perfect obduracy, but also gave the illusion of further pushing you down into itself with insistent, relentless pressure. Lying on this mattress, we felt we were being crushed into the earth by the gentle paw of a friendly giant. We both sprang up in horror after less than 5 seconds, whimpering that we would take the one we had tried just before. I couldn’t meet the eye of the salesman, but I could definitely hear the note of smugness in his voice as he sighed, “Yes, well…. No one has ever taken that mattress.” He paused. “We call it THE ROCK.” I couldn’t meet his eye again the entire time we paid for, and arranged for delivery of, the second-hardest mattress in the store. The mattress of failures, of wimps, of pathetic aging losers whose frames are too weak for THE ROCK. Every night when I clamber up onto our really, extraordinarily firm mattress and settle my creaking bones onto its unforgiving surface, I think about THE ROCK in its isolated alcove, and wonder if anyone has since bought it. So many questions remain. Why the curtain? Is the owner afraid that an unsupervised shopper might accidentally wander back there and try it out, leaving the store open to liability for any subsequent injuries? Why did it take the salesman so long to show it to us, even after we insisted that we wanted the firmest mattress in the store? Is there a formal protocol all the store’s staff must follow, testing the strength and resolve of shoppers on successively firmer mattresses before judging them worthy of this trial by fire—a trial that they all know, in advance, that we would surely fail as all others have failed before us?