Early on the Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend, at approximately the same time that a Rockville mattress salesman named John Pattammady was telling himself that the decision not to hire the cheerleaders had been the correct judgment for this particular mattress event, another Rockville mattress salesman named Shaun Hiltner was blowing up a 35-foot-tall inflatable vinyl giant whose official name was Mattress Man.

“Nice,” he said, appraising the figure, which dominated the front of the Mattress Warehouse where he was store manager.

Already this morning he had darted into traffic to stake six dozen “sale” signs along the highway exit. (“The most deadly part of being a mattress salesman,” he said.) Already he had lofted a promotional weather balloon 40 stories above the shopping plaza. John, for his part, had spent the previous evening staking his own signs in front of his store, Mattress Fame, as well as acquiring many small American flags for appropriate festivity. (“You can get them down at the dollar store,” he said.)

It was one of the mattressiest weekends of the year on one of the mattressiest stretches of the region. A three-mile strip of Rockville Pike contained Shaun’s store, John’s store, a Sleepy’s, another Sleepy’s, a Mattress Discounters, another Mattress Discounters, a Savvy Rest and a Healthy Back, and every store was competing for the customers who trudged between them carrying holiday circulars or humming jingles.

For many Mattress Warehouse employees, the weekend had begun with a mandatory training session led by a company vice president. A “huge weekend,” the vice president told the store managers. A weekend full of life-changing events to which they may be called upon for assistance.

Susan Peralta tests out the comfort of a bed while talking with Mattress Warehouse store manager Shaun Hiltner on May 23 in Rockville. (Kate Patterson/The Washington Post)

Kids graduating from college? Mattresses.

Families moving into new houses? Mattresses.

Now, Shaun, 37, shielded his eyes against the blue morning sky and tried to read what the weather meant for business. “It could go either way,” he said.

John had made a similar pronouncement earlier. “If the weather’s too nice, everyone will go to the beach.”

To be a mattress salesman over Memorial Day was about being an educator and a therapist, Shaun believed. Peering behind what buyers said they wanted, into the depths and desires of the long-weekend suburban American psyche.

***

“Morning, Sunshine,” Shaun said to Brian Foley, his assistant manager, as he went inside the store.

Hiltner posts sale signs at the intersection of Montrose Parkway and Rockville Pike — “the most deadly part of being a mattress salesman.” (Kate Patterson/The Washington Post)

“I have a sore throat,” Brian said.

Shaun peered into Brian’s face. “Your eyes look a little watery.”

“It’s the worst day for it,” Brian said miserably.

“Do you want to go get yourself something?” asked Mike Eleyan, who rounded out this Mattress Warehouse’s Memorial Day team. “Tea?”

“I had some Tylenol this morning,” Brian said, as Shaun adjusted the Mylar balloons he’d tied at the same height on every bed frame. People occasionally told Shaun that he was over-the-top — obsessive, even — but he believed this effort had brought him to where he was, rising through Mattress Warehouse as a stock boy, delivery driver, sales associate and, finally, store manager at a smaller location, where he was working when he sold the Aireloom. The $13,000 Aireloom had been the most expensive mattress in the store, until the early January day when an elegant horse breeder came to buy it.

Shaun had once worked on a farm; the two chatted about equestrian matters while she browsed and eventually picked out a $6,000 mattress, too. A nearly $20,000 ticket, in one day, and Shaun’s hands shook as he took the woman’s credit card, which felt heavier than a normal one.

The Aireloom led to his promotion to this larger store. This was his first Memorial Day here, and he had a dream of selling more mattresses than every other location on the Pike.

At 10 a.m., the front bell tinkled and Mike leapt to his feet. “Are you all looking for a mattress today?” he asked the family of five who came in.

“We are looking for a mattress today,” said the father, as a young couple and an older woman also entered the store.

The parents in the family of five had been sleeping on a mattress that they inherited, used, from someone’s relative. The older woman wanted a bigger bed that her grandkids could pile in when they visited. The sales staff listened as the narrative of the country’s sleep needs unfurled, right on the sales floor: kicking husbands, tossing wives, dogs who weren’t supposed to sleep on the bed but did.

The young couple, Brian’s customers, were trying to make their first joint mattress purchase — a very firm one, please — but they tried several without success, and eventually Brian was stumped. “Shaun?” he called. “Do you have any suggestions?”

Shaun had a feeling, related to a salesman slogan he’d once heard: “Buyers are liars.” It didn’t mean people intentionally lied. It meant sometimes they didn’t know what they wanted until they were lying on it — so he tried the firm-mattress couple on a slightly softer bed.

“Oh, this is nice,” the boyfriend said.

“You want to feel something really nice?” Shaun said, and led them across a few aisles.

“Oh, wow,” said the girlfriend, lying down on the appointed mattress.

“I never expected this out of a bed,” said the boyfriend.

Instead of buying something very firm, they’d fallen in love with a $2,000 “luxetop plush microcoil,” one of the softest beds in the store.

Shaun rang up the couple. Mike rang up the family of five. Brian rang up the grandmother. Three customers, three victories. Sold, sold, sold.

***

Two miles away at Mattress Fame, John Pattammady, 43, decided it was time to formulate a plan. A slow morning had culminated in only one sale: a couple buying two mattresses and two box springs, then strapping all four items to their SUV while John encouraged them, “Just go slow, it’s no problem.”

So now, a brainstorming session with his employee, Gary. The lack of cheerleaders was still the right decision, he was sure of it; it had worked in Gaithersburg, the site of his previous store, but farther south on the Pike was different. Instead of cheerleaders, John produced an newspaper circular and jabbed at a competitor’s ad with his index finger. “See this one that they have for $1,099?” he asked Gary. “Tell people we can do it for eight.”

“Mmmhmm,” Gary said.

“So if customers say they need to shop around, you can say — ‘Boom, I just did the shopping around for you right there,’ ” John explained.

“Mmm.”

The mattress business, to John, had initially seemed like an easier venture than the convenience stores some of his fellow Indian friends had tried. But shortly after his Rockville location opened, a Mattress Discounters opened two doors down, separated only by a hookah shop.

Then he got a cease-and-desist letter from a larger company telling him that his previous store name, Discount Mattress Firm, was too similar to a national chain. He hated the idea of wasting money on a new neon sign, so he asked the sign makers to keep the “F” and the “M,” and it became Mattress Fame instead.

Still, there were ways to compete. Yes, his store looked a bit tired, but, as he liked to tell customers, Costco’s aesthetics were nothing to look at and Costco was one of the greatest retailers in the world. Did customers want a pretty store, or did they want a bargain mattresses? Yes, his sales tactics were aggressive — “I believe God brought you here today to buy this mattress,” he had told a customer recently — but so were lots of people’s.

John believed that when it came to mattresses, you never could guess with a customer. He had seen men driving Jaguars and wearing $300 shoes come in and demand to spend no more than $200 on a mattress.

“Do you think we should put the big-boy banner out?” John asked Gary.

“You have that nice flag out there,” Gary said.

“I think we need the big boy.”

***

Man down at the Mattress Warehouse.

Sales had been good — Shaun’s team had almost hit their halfway target for the whole weekend — but Brian faded all through the noon hour, closing his eyes and swaying in place when customers weren’t looking. Now, he leaned over to Mike and whispered, “I gotta go. I’m sorry.”

He couldn’t leave without telling Shaun, and Shaun was stuck on the phone with a man who had a simple warranty question that turned into a complex and ranging exploration of mattresses.

“Is which one cheaper?” Shaun asked the man on the phone. “That technology, Sir, they stopped making in 2001.”

“I gotta find a doctor,” Brian told Mike.

“Yes, the Beauty Rest, they call it a Recharge now,” Shaun told the man. “The Plush, they call it the Northside.”

“Some CVSes, they have those clinics,” Mike told Brian.

On the phone, the man asked where he could find the mattress Shaun had been describing.

“You can come in here, we’re here all day,” Shaun said triumphantly. Then, suddenly, his shoulders slumped. “Chesapeake?” he repeated. The customer had been calling from three hours away, in Virginia, where there were no Mattress Warehouses.

Disappointments were part of mattress life, though. Bumps in the road. One customer today, after spending nearly an hour shopping for an expensive mattress, balked just before signing the contract when she learned about a $19 pickup fee for an old bed. Shaun was only able to salvage the situation through a telepathic conversation with the stock boy in which they communicated that they would find a way to get rid of that old mattress.

A different time on Saturday, a woman came in accompanying another woman who was buying mattresses for her two teenage sons. While the mom and the sons looked around, the woman appeared to be getting upset about something.

Finally she burst out, “I can’t do this! I can’t do this — I’m having a panic attack!” the salesmen later recalled. “The last time I bought a mattress my mom died!” she said, and she left the store without explaining any more.

***

“Ah! What can I do for you today!” John asked the long-haired woman who ducked inside Mattress Fame.

The big sign had been placed outside, and it appeared to be doing its job. The first serious customer all afternoon, a sanitation worker who remembered John from his old Gaithersburg location, had seen it and come to shop.

“Bunk beds,” the worker explained. “Full and full.” Her two daughters were sharing a room, and she wondered if John sold the beds that could later be taken apart for when they had a bigger house.

“If I don’t have it, nobody has it,” he said, pulling out a furniture catalogue before turning to mattress selection for the woman’s own bed. “This one — it’s wool, organic. Do you ever get occasional breakouts?”

“No.”

“Of course. Well, if you did, it would be good for your skin. I recommend it. You work hard. You come home and you need energy to wake up and drive that truck. Let me get a chair for my special customer.”

The bell rang again. “Gary! Customer!” John called, and Gary emerged from the back to assist the young man who needed two beds, medium soft.

“No delivery?” the man asked.

“We can deliver,” said John, who finished checking out the bunk bed woman and directed the young man to an orthopedic mattress. “$700,” John said.

“So that’s $760 with tax,” Gary said.

“But we could do it maybe for $740,” John said.

A few minutes later: “I’m going to do it for $600,” Gary called back to John, who shook his head and pretended to be dismayed.

***

Near closing time, a minor miracle occurred in the Mattress Warehouse. The guy on the telephone from Chesapeake had hung up. And he had gone to Sears. And then while at Sears, he had decided that he’d liked Shaun, and so he had driven back home from Sears and placed a mattress order on the telephone.

“I am going to take a cigarette break,” Shaun announced. “And then I am going to come back in and do $4,000 more in sales.”

He did. He sold a $5,000 mattress and bed frame to a middle-aged couple who had politely dozed their way through the store while shopping. He sold a Monte Cristo Queen Perfect Night to a man who liked repeating the name. He sold a full-size bed to a woman whose lanky teenager was draping over his twin frame.

“Give us a good deal, and we’ll come back,” a wife encouraged Mike, a few feet away.

“Next time you come shopping, leave her home,” Mike told the husband.

“I can’t — that’s why I married her,” the husband said.

At 9 p.m., the store finally closed, like all of the other mattress stores on Rockville Pike. Shaun checked the computer. They had shattered last year’s numbers. They had perhaps beaten all of the other Mattress Warehouses, although he couldn’t tell yet for sure. And there were two days left of Memorial Day sales.

At 10:15, he finished taking down his six dozen signs, like all of the other mattress salesmen on the Pike, and he drove home, where he slept on a soft pillowtop mattress, although he was thinking of getting an upgrade.