Delray disembowels the velveteen pillow with sewing shears. Faint screams drift up from the stuffing, rolling like tumbleweeds across the hardwood floor. He dumps the synthetic lumps and shredded fabric into a carryout bag then takes it to Monroe at the A&P. Ancient willows creak their greetings as Delray strides down the dirt-packed road, his eyes hooked into the sun-bleached building ahead. He rubs the back of his fade with a calloused hand when he sees Monroe sitting astride a chair in the shade out front, watching him.
“I ain’t into this,” Delray says, holding the bag out for the gas station attendant. The wrinkled smiley face printed on the plastic bridges the gap between the two men. Offers a false promise of kindness. Have a nice day! Delray jostles the bag toward Monroe again and a dull shout shakes loose from inside. “Oh god…”
The gas station attendant snatches the bag and snorts as he eyeballs its contents. “It’s not what you think,” Monroe says. “I promise it ain’t snuff.”
His lips peel back to expose rows of gleaming yellow—an offering of sunny, open-armed benevolence. But Monroe’s downward gaze is the unseen hand clutching a knife. He drops the bag inside the battered cardboard box beside him marked ALTON ROAD PILLOW CLUB. Whimpers and laughter float into the air as Monroe rustles through the box before settling on the proper acquisition. He hands Delray a flattened paisley scatter cushion.
“Tear this one up and I’ll have to kick ya ass out the club, ya hear me?” His cracked lips are still peeled back, the knife still poised at its target. Delray nods and turns to go home. He pretends he doesn’t hear Monroe’s last comment striking his back: “When ya bringin’ one of your own to share? It’s time to pay your dues.”
At home, Delray tosses the paisley cushion on the couch. He wipes the sweat trickling down his forehead and pours a glass of ice water, warily staring at the new pillow while he drinks. Each gulp pushes his resolve deeper into his gut. He never has a choice in the pillows he receives. The Alton Road Pillow Club members are subjected to Monroe’s masochistic whims, silently hoping he accidentally gets it right.
Delray hadn’t cared for the velveteen pillow that screamed and moaned, but other club members did. Monroe had to pry the pillow out of one member’s hands when, after three weeks, the guy hadn’t returned it to circulation. The first time Delray had placed his head on the velveteen, he’d nearly vomited. He once tried a neckroll, but the incessant chanting—and the greasy tassels—unnerved him. The overstuffed body pillow was filled with a hot rage that surged through its down feathers. So far, Delray’s favorite was the nursing pillow, a blue crescent moon with pastel shapes on its cover. One night, when the moon hung low, Delray had heard a voice singing “Twinkle twinkle little star….” He had curled into a ball and sucked his thumb then.
When his water glass is empty, Delray finally grabs the paisley pillow. The mix of purples and burnt oranges reminds him of cool autumns tucked in bed. The yellowish browns conjure a bare arm and a swelling stomach he hasn’t touched in some time. He reclines on the couch, tucking the cushion under his head, and waits. A garbage truck doing its rounds roars down the road. When the screeching brakes fade, weeping like a hiccupping ghost takes their place. Then sharp inhales and shuttering breaths gather around Delray’s head. “Why…why…,” a shaking voices asks before fading away.
Delray rolls to his side and presses his ear deeper into the cushion, letting the whimpers writhe directly into him. His gaze falls across the room and lands on the sliding glass door and his backyard beyond. The grass has grown too high. He should’ve mown it months ago but hasn’t since Melinda died. He nestles into the soft crying and wonders if this was how Melinda felt in the days when she stopped talking and planting gentle kisses on his cheeks. When she laid in the dark for hours, plates of uneaten food scattered around their locked bedroom. When she wouldn’t let Delray in, no matter how long he waited outside the door. When she would finally emerge, thinner and sallow, with a pink crib pillow clutched to her stomach as she shuffled to the backyard. When Delray would tiptoe into the bedroom to change the sweat-damp sheets and—only after the coroner said Melinda had died of broken heart syndrome—he later considered that the sheets had been wet with his wife’s tears.
Delray leaves the paisley cushion and steps out into the backyard, dim from the setting sun. Gnats flit by as he parts the tall grass. He finds the crib pillow nestled in a dandelion patch. Getting down on all fours, Delray buries his face in the soft fabric. Melinda’s rich lavender scent fills him with pleasure as he rubs his cheek against the pillow. Straining past the chirping crickets and the tired croaks of bullfrogs, beneath the leaves whispering in the trees and the crinkling of grass beneath his body, Delray finally hears the truth. Melinda is never coming back. Neither is their unborn child. It’s just him now.
Delray cracks open like a flood spilling from its confines. His tears soak the pillow, down to its fibers, sorrow mingling with the sound of gnats buzzing, of bullfrogs keening, and the wet earth humming with inevitable loss. The pillow will hold it all. And tomorrow, Delray will pick up the crib pillow and share it with the rest of the club. He will pay his dues so that another man will delight in a symphony of grief.
DW McKinney is a writer and editor based in Nevada. A 2023 Periplus Fellow, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Los Angeles Review of Books, Ecotone, The Normal School, hex literary, and wigleaf, among others. Her fiction was a finalist in Gigantic Sequins’ 11th Annual Flash Fiction Contest. She is a nonfiction editor for Shenandoah and editor-at-large for Raising Mothers. Say hey at dwmckinney.com.