02 July, 2009

Once Upon a Time in a Laundromat

Sunday mornings at the Laundromat were generally quiet. When I scraped the quarters together to wash my clothes rather than ring them out in the sink, I tried to get my ass up early and go when all the good folks were at church and all the rest were sleeping off their Saturday nights. It wasn’t like I had a lot of clothes – but sometimes that works against you. With just a couple of shirts, two pairs of pants, some t-shirts, underwear; if I did laundry when everything was dirty I’d be living in a washing machine. You learn to get by.

But my shirts were starting to stand up on their own, and there’s only so much grime you can hand wash out. When I got to the Laundromat, the only person there was the attendant; he looked at me over the top of his news paper, squinting through layers of fat, nodded, and went back to reading the sports section.

It was nearing the end of July. Pre-season football would be starting up soon, and all the fanatics would come out of their summer hiding places decked out in football jerseys, team hats, sun visors, earrings. Most of the jerseys were from some other team because most everybody was from someplace else. Lots of Cowboys fans, Browns fans, Eagles fans. One bar was known for strictly being a Vikings bar. That was just the way it was. The southwest is still the depository for all the people who didn’t seem to fit in anywhere else. But when they come, rather than shake off the memory of the place that didn’t want them, they hold onto parts that become part of their identity. Sometimes they add the city to their name, so they won’t be confused with some one else. St. Louis Steve. Indianapolis Pete. I once watched a guy get into a yelling match over Cincinnati Chili.

Luckily the place I went was running a summer special; that meant I might actually have enough money to toss them in the dryer for a little bit, too. I put my clothes in and sat down. I found a couple of magazines. One of them was an outdated US News and World Reports. The other was a Watchtower Magazine – one of those rags the Jehovah’s Witnesses leave around. Seeing that magazine reminded me of this girl I dated in high school. Lily. She was a sweet girl and had the most beautiful singing voice. She used to take singing lessons after school from the choir director and I’d hang around just to listen. I’d sit in the hall, close my eyes, and focus on her voice. Her family was Jehovah’s Witness – which meant, of course, that they didn’t want her dating me. We weren’t allowed to go anywhere. I couldn’t pick her up. I couldn’t take her home. Whatever time we spent together was in school. And that was ultimately how it all ended. Summer came and we made all those promises that kids make when they think they’re in love. But it ended nonetheless.

I picked up the US News and World Reports.

The cover story was a retrospective of the Bush Administration. Successes, failures. Concerns. Impacts, as always, on business. The recession. The war. In one picture, there was a crowd of protesters (in another country, of course) burning an effigy of Bush. Pictures of New Orleans after Katrina. People wading through torso deep water trying to keep twelve packs of Pepsi dry. People stranded on roof tops and waving signs. rows of cots filling the Superdome as the roof started to collapse.

I put the magazine down. I thought I should’ve brought a book.

The doors opened and a woman with three little kids stormed in along with an arm of the early morning heat. The youngest was crying and the other two were squabbling. The mother was ignoring them carrying a bag of clothes on each arm as well as a basket full of dirty clothes. She looked exhausted and it wasn’t even eight in the morning. She made her way to an empty row of double washers and set to work.

“Shut up!”


“You’re stupid!”

“Give it back!”

“Make me.”


“Baby. Cry to mom like a baby, baby.”


But she would have none of it. I never understood how parents tuned out their kids – especially when their voices hit that ear drum shattering, spine breaking pitch.


The baby was still crying when she was finished stuffing the washing machines, so she picked the baby up and sat down near the door. Then she shot the kids a dirty look and the settled down immediately and sat around in the chair next to her.

I looked over at the attendant. He was eyeing the woman and kids, but had settled back into the scores after she quieted them down. For a few minutes the only sounds were washing machine sounds. It was almost soothing. I looked over at the woman. Looks familiar. After watching her a little more closely, I realized where I’d seen her before. She lived at the Lost Dutchman, along with the kids and a guy who I suppose was her husband. They had moved in not all that long ago. According to Loyce (who seemed to know everything about everybody) their house had been foreclosed on and the guy had lost his job. So instead of living out in Queen Creek in a two thousand square foot three bedroom two and half bath dream house, all of them were crammed into room seven at the Lost Dutchman. At least it was one of the rooms with a kitchenette. They weren’t the only family living at the motel; there was a family of Mexicans in number three; they were before the sun, didn’t come home until after dark, and they never spoke to anybody but themselves. Loyce thought they were illegal; but I had noticed that she thought anybody who looked Mexican was illegal. I never bothered to find out what she said about me. That was probably a good thing.

When the washer was finished, I put my clothes in an available dryer. One time around was all I’d need. The woman had kept the kids quiet, and now they were playing quietly on the floor. The attendant was back hiding behind his newspaper. What does that fat bastard do all day? I thought. What does he do when he finishes with the sports page? Home and garden? Lifestyle?

A few minutes later, the guy walked in. More like he staggered in. He looked around, saw his family. She saw him immediately, and the look on her face went from exhaust to panic.


“I’m just doing laundry Jake.”


She looked over at me briefly; but clearly she had been taught the consequence of not answering quickly. “I just wanted to get it done, that’s all.”


“Because,” her tone took on an edge of bitterness, “you were passed out drunk.”

“BITCH! I CAN WATCH M’OWN GODDAMN KIDS.” He staggered a little. For a second, I hoped he would fall down and crack his head.

“No,” she stood and looked at him with a defiant eye. “You can’t. You’re a drunk and you’re embarrassing your children.”


The kids were huddled around her legs, looking up him all wide eyed and scared. I looked over at the attendant, who was keeping an eye on everything from behind the sports page. I looked at my dryer. My clothes were done. But in order to get to my clothes, I had to walk closer to the unfolding family drama. I didn’t particularly want to get closer because I knew what was coming next.

“Look at what you’re doing to them!” she said. “Will you look at your children? They’re scared to death of you, Jake! You didn’t used to be like this. We didn’t used to be like this! You…”

And that was when it happened. He reached out and smacked her. The sound of his open hand hitting her cheek echoed. The kids scrambled to a corner and put their heads down. Clearly this was a drill they’d learned before. I saw it happen from the dryer. Clearly the guy was drunk. But that was no excuse. Drunks don’t have any business hurting anybody but themselves.

My clothes were still a little damp, but they would dry quickly once I got back to my room. I stuffed them in the cheap laundry bag I’d brought them in and was preparing to leave.


“You told me it was okay,” she cried. “You said…”

He slapped her again. A little harder this time. I looked up at the fat attendant. He had put down the sports page and picked up the phone. That meant the cops would be there soon and break it up – assuming it didn’t break itself up.

I’d watched the kids play in the parking lot sometimes, and every once in a while the mother would be outside, smoking a cigarette and walking around, or coming back with grocery bags. The husband wasn’t out so much, and I’d never seen him it at the MTP. That meant he was probably sitting in the room all day drinking, yelling like a dumbass and smacking his family around.

Once upon a time I liked to imagine I was one of those heroic guys, like the movies I watched when I was a kid. Superman. Batman. They always seemed to show up in time and the bad guys were always beat down. I thought about the cowboy movies my mom loved to watch. John Wayne. She was also really into the old black and white cowboys. Audie Murphy. Hopalong Cassidy. Roy Rogers. Gene Autry. Lash LaRue. They always did the right thing and shot the black hats in the gun hand so they could stand trial. That was a nice way to picture yourself; everybody wants to think they’re one of the good guys. But mostly, they’re like the fat ass attendant… hiding behind a badly written newspaper, waiting for the evil to pass.

He smacked her again. She started crying. Whatever it was she was trying to say was drowned out in her crying, his yelling, and the rhythmic sound of his hand hitting her face. I looked over at the kids. They were still huddled in the corner, watching. Scared. I looked over at the attendant. He was off the phone, but he nodded at me as if to say “I took care of it.”

I tossed the bag over my shoulder and headed for the door. The most direct path to the door was to pass right by them.


He paused briefly when I walked past. “An’ what’re YOU lookin’ at numb nuts? Huh? Got somethin’ ya want ta say?”

I didn’t answer. I kept my eyes on the fat attendant, who looked like he was looking for good fight to watch. As I walked past Jake, Wanda started crying even more. Out of the side of my eye I saw him raising his hand again. Instead of turning around, I kicked my leg back and hit him in the back of his right knee. This caused him to lose balance and he fell sideways and backwards. He hit his head on the large window, bounced off, and landed flat on his ass. I looked over at the attendant. He was eyeing me. I nodded at him and walked out the door.

Just then the cops pulled up, and I hurried back to my room.