Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Fiction: Washing, pub. in Webster Review, 1988


by Sarah Sarai
published in Webster Review, 1988

I saw this guy at the laundromat, an older guy, fifty or something, using up about ten washers. I watched how he worked them and I could tell someone had packed him off to do the week’s wash because there were little notes. ‘Blues together. Warm regular. Dry polyester.’ ‘Bleach. Whites. Hot.’ ‘Gentle cool. Dry five minutes only.’ And such. I didn’t know if it was his daughter or wife or if he was nuts and being taken care of by a stranger who used him to get the clothes clean.

He said something to me and I was polite but didn’t answer back. I never do right off. I saw a book in his back pocket. I figured this guy was kind of solid to bring a book to the laundromat. I was determined not to leave with any damp clothes this time and you know how it takes years for jeans to dry so I was socked in and I watched him deciding if he would snap or not if I talked to him. People are snapping left and right and probably not entirely in laundromats but they seem to feel more comfortable in laundromats after they snap. You know that if you don’t have your own washer.

“How do you like your book?” I asked. Let me tell you. This guy didn’t bat an eye. We could have been in bed, close, with me asking him to please move his arm a bit, he was that relaxed.

“Well, I like Mr. Thoreau,” he said, moving in front of my face. “I think we should all go to the woods, don’t you? I read this once a year. I read all the time, don’t you?”

I shrugged. I remembered Thoreau because my English teacher in high school was this ex-hippie who got wet-eyed when he read the stuff out loud. I don’t read that much. Magazines. And if a book looks like it’ll go quick, then I might pick it up.

“I’ve been reading about the effects of light,” he said. Then he went over my head with candle power, but I didn’t mind because I knew he wasn’t snapping, he was just probably smart.

“And space. I’m reading about space.”

I’m no expert here either but, “I’ve seen Saturn up at Griffith Park telescope,” I told him.

“That’s wonderful,” he said. “That’s marvelous.” He had a pleasant voice—and was my height, 5’-5”, with a paunch that was hard, strong arms and short hair. “I’ve been reading about personal space, you know.” He touched me, my arm, with a finger.
Normally I cringe into my shoes when people get near and I’m not ready but I didn’t feel my body jolt and I didn’t have to give him any kind of angry look. He wasn’t trying to move the conversation because most guys would dive in after a lead-in like that. I was leaning against a folding counter, my arms resting on my plastic basket full of clean sheets. They were warm and I wished I could rest there forever. I kept an eye on the dryers. One stopped. I dumped the damp clothes in with the other drying clothes. This guy had his notes to read and he worked the dryers and then was back. I shook out a few blouses with the underwear that had clung to them.
“And what do you do, my dear?” he asked.

I had some old cotton underwear that I kept even though they had holes, because you have to have underwear. I put them under the blouses real quickly. I had the black underwear my girlfriend told me to get, because it would do the trick, she said, and I folded these. I looked at him to see if he noticed and his eyes did and I tucked them into my basket. They were pretty.

“I work with my cousin,” I said. “She runs a day care center. I help with the kids.”

“Ah.” He nodded. “the children.”

My jeans were still whirling in the dryer. “Yup, the children. They’re sweet. It’s okay.”

“My wife teaches.” He mentioned a grammar school in Hollywood. “She loves it. Those children charm her. Do you have a few who charm you?”

I smiled because of course the kids were dolls. I’m not a maniac.

“I knew it,” he said and got red. “You’re good with them.” He got white again. He was pale and showed red easily I realized. He had a stubble and his eyes weren’t so clear, but then I have to tell you I was no gem. I’d had a few drinks the night before which I’m not supposed to do because they make my allergies worse. The Santa Anas made my allergies flare, so I was bleary-eyed and confused in my head. October’s a pisser in L.A.

“I’m okay with kids.” Work is never my favorite subject. I’ve lived alone since I kicked my boyfriend out and I have discovered that the more I live alone the more I get used to it. I’ll probably end up like some ghost lady in a movie who wears wispy dresses and roams, eyes staring like a punk dancer. I wouldn’t mind if I kept my apartment clean. Every day and night for two weeks I’ve filled my sink with water so the dishes wouldn’t draw roaches and the food on them wouldn’t get hard. There’s only about ten dishes. I don’t like to cook any more. The water seeps out and the dishes stay in. All ten or so with my forks and spoons and knives.

“This town was great when it was a company town,” he said.

“You in the industry?” I asked.

“Not now, no, not now. But when I was a boy, on my way home from school on Halloween, two friends and I tied up a girl and left her. It was at Yucca and Cherokee.”

Now here he had me. I mean I thought my radar was out-of-whack for years. I could almost hear the snap the mind must make when it goes under. Then he saved the day.

“And it was just a prank.” He sighed. “She told on us and the police talked to my mother and all of us ended up having to divert ourselves after school so we wouldn’t get in trouble. I had to take ballet. I was the only boy.” He was getting into it, moving his arms around, getting red again and I could see how his spirit was into ballet but I didn’t see his body at it. But really, who cares. I know he didn’t always have a paunch.

“I could do everything better than the girls - the jumps, the spins. And when I stopped resisting the girls, growing boy that I was, it was wonderful. They all wanted to dance with me.”

“So, what, you danced?”

“I did everything.”

“Were you in the movies?”

“I was under contract. The dancing led to that. It was nothing then, really. You just walked in and signed up.”

I’d seen old movies about that and I nodded.

I was pleased my clothes were getting good and dry. When they stopped whirling I knew it was time to fold, time to go. I said, “excuse me,” and pulled the last of the lot from the dryer. He brought his own armful in a metal cart. Probably the five-minute bunch. We smoothed and creased.

“You’re a classic,” I said.

“Yes,” he nodded. “Yes.”

I was considering sitting on my basket to make my clothes fit. I had a three-block walk home. That’s not all that bad, but who needs to lose clothes? He still had clothes drying and I couldn’t see prolonging the whole thing. Besides, he had a wife. I thought she’d be nice and I thought about seeing if there would be some invitation. Maybe I would get asked over for coffee and they would be this nice warm couple and I’d get that home feeling I always think would satisfy. But then I thought the whole thing could go real bad quickly and I thought if I went home right then I’d wash my dishes for sure.

“Well, I gotta go."

“Yes." He seemed surprised. “You take care of the children. That’s important.” He looked at me. “I think you know that.”

I said, “yes,” although I wasn’t so sure. Everyone says kids are important, but what do they do? They become adults and they leave their sinks full of dishes. What’s so important about that?
I walked along Franklin two blocks and then turned right and soon I was at my apartment, or at the walkway. I wished I had to keep walking up the hill where the people have money. It seems to me if you have money you can go to clubs and meet nice people. My old boyfriend wasn’t that great. I ended up going inside. Put down my basket. Things were quiet. Real still, like some of the air had been sucked out and what was left was pulled too thin. I left. I grabbed my keys and I walked down the walkway and to Franklin and to the laundromat. He was there, putting clothes on a hanger, doing a better job than me. I don’t bother. I’m not much for all that.
“Hello.” He said it brightly and I didn’t have to feel foolish. “Glad you chanced by,” he said. “Help me load all this up in my car.”

“Sure.” It sounded fine.
His car was old, a bug. We were careful with the clothes, laying them on the back seat.
“Well,” he said. “Where shall we drive to?”

“Why don’t you come over?” His eyes moved weird like I had pinched them. “I didn’t mean to insult you. I just thought we could have some coffee.”

He looked straight forward. Beats me what he was thinking. “Coffee would be wonderful. Let’s go.” I gave him directions and we were there in a minute and I apologized for my mess before I unlocked the door, and he said he didn’t mind which is what I had thought he would say.

I told him to sit when we were inside, but he wanted to help me in the kitchen. I just didn’t want him to see the sink. He wouldn’t know how long those dishes had been there, but still. He insisted he had a knack with coffee so to save myself, I said, “Let’s have a beer.” That sounded fine. I got cans from the refrigerator.

He sat on the couch. It had stubby wooden legs and came with the apartment. I sat on a wicker stool. “There were sixty of us on contract,” he said.

“What did you do? I don’t get it. Were you in the movies?”

“We did anything. It was a broad contract. We just did anything.”

I moved next to him on the couch. I surprised myself.

“I’m married,” he said.

“I know you’re married.” I’d seen his wife’s clothes. She wore a lot of jersey tops. “A lot of people are married.” It doesn’t mean much, you know. Single or married, it doesn’t mean much. And maybe his wife wouldn’t be nice after all.

He turned to me so we were shoulder to shoulder and he touched my arms. He still had a stubble and I remembered how I looked. I wouldn’t have blamed him for leaving.

“It’s true,” he said. “I could kiss you.” He didn’t move. He let go of my arms and sitting there, finished his beer. It went down fast. “You just wait. We have to discuss this.” And then he was in my kitchen getting another beer from the refrigerator.

Who needs this, I thought. Where he had sat was his book, Thoreau. I opened the book and I tried but I couldn’t understand a word. I drank some. I felt dumb and generally not so good. I had this book in my hand and nothing else. I heard noises in the kitchen. It was water and dishes. They were finally getting done. I took my index finger and put it on a word. “The.” That one I knew. I figured if I kept moving it along and reading, something would get through. I did for several pages and finished my beer and finally I saw sun: “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time.” I understood what was being said and I decided not to press my luck. I read that sentence a lot of times and then closed the book.

“I hope you don’t mind.” He was back, drying his fingers on his pants. His fingers were short.

“I’ve been reading Thoreau,” I said. “‘I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time.’”

“Splendid.” He pointed. “Now, let’s put your clothes away.”

We did that and made the bed up, with my clean sheets and hung towels in the bathroom.

“Do you like these?” I held up a pair of the black underpants.

“They’re splendid,” he said. “More than that and you know it.” He sat on my newly-made bed, grabbing my hands as he did so and drawing me close. “You’re young,” he said. “But we have met. Our souls have met and I like you. I know you.”

“You know me,” I said. “What do you know? Tell me.”

“I know you’re a woman who is,” he paused, “her work. Who is ... the children. Who craves companionship,” he paused again, “union with a man,” he finished.

I sighed. He was off the mark. In the shadows. I sighed once more and then I spoke.

“That’s neat,” I said. “But I have things to do now.”

“You and I and Thoreau,” he said. “We are bedmates.”

“Huh,” I said. “But I want to be alone.”

“Bedmates of the heart and soul.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “But would you please leave?” I stood, zipped out to the living room and opened the door. He followed.

“This isn’t what I expected.”

“Me neither,” I said. “But I don’t expect much.”

“You’re young. I’m married. All is foolishness.”

I thanked him.

He kissed my forehead and left. I went into the kitchen. It looked nice. He’d even scrubbed the sink. I took a beer out of the refrigerator and brought it to the living room and sat on the couch. I didn’t open the beer. I just held the can to my forehead where he’d kissed me. I pulled back the curtain so I could see a sliver of the way up the hill. I felt lonely, of course, but the hill was green and those houses were inspiring up there. I made it through that Sunday in better shape than I’d been in for a while.

"Washing" by Sarah Sarai was published in Webster Review, 1988, vol. 13, no. 2.

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