Laundromat Encounters


I staggered to the swinging glass door with my mountain of laundry baskets. Only two, but it felt like more with the teetering contents. A bespeckled woman on the way out raised a cup of coffee in greeting. My protruding elbow grazed the door edge as it began to close. I’d have sworn except I was already halfway in and considered this a triumph. One less hassle in an already complicated day.

It was barely seven-thirty in the morning. Except for one old whiskery gentleman who sat with his chin propped on top of hands that folded around his cane, it looked empty. He was watching the dryer. That seemed to agree with him if his small smile was any indicator. I surveyed the washing machines, coral chairs and canary folding tables. There were hanging plants and other decorative touches, all to encourage relaxation and good will while cleaning dirty laundry. I had it on good authority–Dawn, our Resource Diva at my company–that this place had very few flies bombing customers, and it included a coffee bar with scones and donuts in a case. Mentioned as an afterthought was that it seemed a good place to meet men. The sly look on my co-worker’s usually composed face told me she thought I might need to know.

It had been years since I had done laundry at a laundromat, way back in college. People could get combative over available machines, the timing of wash and dry cycles. Lugging laundry down the block on Saturday mornings when hangovers disabled all speech and reason had constituted a rite of passage. It had its own culture at school. But after that, I didn’t expect to forego the luxury of home laundering.

Four days ago my machine threw a fit of shivering and clanking. The repairman was coming next Monday but an emergency was declared when I could only find a pair of faded red undies with shredded elastic. I yawned. Three tubs filled with water as I added detergent. They were big enough to hold heavy sweatshirts and tall man pants, a passel of smeary rubber duckies and a few pair of tennis shoes. None of which I had loaded. The men’s clothing had left with the man some weeks ago. I had my pair of blue sneakers on my feet. The duckies were lined up in the garage waiting for my dog, Spark, to play. He would be banned from free runs until we apologized to the neighbor for his dawn tear through her garden. He’d been pursuing birds.

The old man shifted, then stood up a quarter-inch at a time. I watched, shirts in hand, waiting for his painstaking ascent to be completed. When he made it, he turned to me and blinked–at least, I don’t think it was a wink, though you never know–then shuffled down the aisle to the coffee bar. I wondered if he was alone, and how he’d get his laundry carried out. My eyes prickled with a tear or two at the thought. Poor old, broken down guy. I envisioned him at home, alone with a tiny television and a frozen dinner, his living room wall taken up by an ancient aquarium filled with exotic fish that swam around and around in a dim haze.

Life seemed murky in general to me lately, and it was a momentary comfort to think I had some company. Self-serving sadness, I admitted, since empathy was something I had lost track of during the fiasco of my rotten, overdue break up with my ex. I got  busy. Separating and dumping in three week’s worth of crumpled items, they began to sink and drown in bubbling cold water.

It wasn’t just my machine that broke down, I guess. Oh, I go to work as biography section manager in one of the country’s largest independent bookstores. Tutor kids in language skills once a week at a summer program. I pay my bills on time and make sure Spark has enough food plus a good run every night. For all outward appearances I look like a well-groomed, good-intentioned, industrious thirty-eight year old woman who is on the road to better things. But I’ve been feeling like I’m on permanent detour.

The fact is, I should never have agreed he was a great painter when very shortly I began to loathe his oil portraits of fussy pets and occasional, vain people. His renderings of hothouse flowers were irksome; he took such liberties that they seemed less floral, more half-impressionistic clumps of colors. Orchids and lilies melting into a rhapsodic twilight background. And they sold at least half the time. I couldn’t bear it yet smiled and kissed him when he showed me his work, waved another check. I felt he was wasting time and space in my house, the small studio that should have been my study. Now even with the windows open the walls released waves of turpentine and linseed oil. I shook my head and took a long, uneasy breath.

Three little boys pranced ahead of their mother as, back to the door, she dragged in a garbage bag of laundry. They ran around the laundromat as if it was a playground, leaping like springs were on their feet, shooting imaginary guns at the dryers’ glass doors. One boy of perhaps five, brown hair sticking up in tufts, browner eyes glistening, stopped to aim his cocked index finger at my basket. A stray duckie had come along, likely when Spark was done mauling and squeaking it so dropped it in.

“Okay, shoot,” I said. “See if it keels over. But Spark, my dog, will be sad and mad.” I smiled to show I was kidding, sort of.

He backed away, then lowered his hand.

“Come over here, boys,” the mother gestured at them. She reached back to her ponytail and pulled its ends, making it neater. “Leave the lady alone. Or else no snacks!” She gave me a sideways once-over, then pulled her sweater tight against the air-conditioned chill.

I sat closer to the coffee bar and eyed the berry scones. Soon more people arrived. This was what I’d hoped to avoid, all these people with their private lives on display, mismatched socks and faded rock ‘n roll t-shirts, lacy purple bras and gym wear reeking of work outs. It should all be done at home. Did the stubborn 70% dark chocolate stain on my favorite white shirt need to be shared? What about the Prussian blue and cadmium yellow that refused to let go of my favorite pink hoodie? I suspected he had done that on purpose after I burned his birthday dinner. Halibut and asparagus extremely well cooked, partly out of spite, the other part because we’d been arguing about whether we even loved each other and I forgot I was cooking. He then packed a few things and moved in with his colleague and associate. That’s what he called her. I offered another viewpoint.

“Why don’t you ask that nice lady to move over a couple?”

A perky young woman whispered loudly to her compainion, an older lady with a shawl around her shoulders. Her body shape was reminsicent of a giant top. Her skin radiated ill health but her shawl was made of gorgeous colors and designs straight out of Mexico. I wondered if it was her favorite, like my hoodie. But she didn’t budge or look my way. The speaker studied the empty chairs between us, then the windows, then me. Apparently I was soaking up too much of the sunlight. I got up and wandered over to the coffee and treats area. The women moved over without a word, the shawl marking their territory.

The old man had found a spot at a table. His face was close to a magazine, one hand pressed on the page, the other gripping a mug.

“A sixteen ounce mocha on the rocks,” I said, then blushed when the barista giggled. “I mean, an iced mocha, hold the whip.”

I lingered over a bueberry scone.

“Granddad, there you are!”

Sans scone–it looked like yesterday’s–I leaned against a wall. A trim man loped across the floor, palm in the air, sunglasses riding the brim of his baseball cap. A few curls escaped from the sides.

Granddad glanced up and grinned, pushed out the chair beside him. “Tony,” he said, gesturing to the seat.

“Got your package mailed. Thought I’d lost you, couldn’t see back here. Pretty different, huh, from when we lived down the block. Cleaners are gone, too. So it goes, Granddad.”

They examined an open page, heads together.

“I like the other clock more, but I can see why you’d spend more on that.” Tony pointed at the page. “When is that garage sale you wanted to go to?”

“Estate sale,” the old man grumbled. He blew across the coffee surface.

“Iced mocha for, umm…one iced mocha!”

I came forward and grabbed my plastic glass and straw, then sat at a table near the two men. Tony looked up and smiled, a bright incisor flashing. He pushed the cap back from his forehead, looked at the magazine, then back at me. His eyes flickered. I thought he and Granddad shared the blinky habit.

I moved off a bit, thinking of the hours ahead. Saturdays felt wasted on Spark and me. After laundry today, the park, errands and back home. I usually watched old movies in between a few chores, and Spark rested his head on my thigh while I rubbed his ears. Not the same as playing catch or taking country rides in the back his ex-master’s truck. But Spark was mine, first, so we’d made do just fine.

“I love those old Grandfather clocks the best, son.” Granddad’s voice was loud and raspy. “You can spend twenty thousand on a Howard Miller chiming grandfather clock. But I’d take that Miller mantel chimer for five hundred.”

“That’s a ton of cash, too rich for me.”

“I can do ‘er, Tony, just need you to haul me around.”

“Well, my day is yours, Granddad.”

I stepped closer. “Excuse me? Tony?”

He jerked his head up, surprised I knew his name.

“Your grandfather said your name…Anyway, I have a Miller at home. It sits above my fireplace, gathering dust. Came from my great-great aunt.”

Tony repeated what I said a little louder to Granddad. He perked up, and his white eyebrows raised an apparently obligatory quarter-inch. “That so?”

“Yes. Key wound. Still chimes clearly.”

Tony tapped his keys on the table. “Are you selling?”

“I hadn’t thought of it. Maybe not. I just overheard you talking. Sorry for intruding. I do like my clock a lot, as it happens.”

“I’d like to see that,” Granddad said.

“I’m going to check my washers.” I was getting cold feet.

“Me, too–for my grandfather.”

We stood and walked toward the rows of machines, fast but not as if we wanted to get away from each other. I liked how he smelled. No paint, just the outdoors, peppermint gum.

“Tony Langley,” he said, offering his hand.

I extended mine and he gave it a let’s-be-friends shake. “Marissa Bly.”

“Man, clocks are his obsession! He was a watchmaker once. Now he loves to troll estate sales, antique shops and flea markets or pour over catalogs. I don’t mind. Gives him happiness, focus, you know?”

I nodded. I did know. I was missing some of that, myself. We arrived at my washers. On closer look, Tony was shorter than I thought. We saw nearly eye-to-eye. Blue, like mine.

“Seems like an interesting thing to collect. You into that, too?”

“Not really, but for him I’ll go along, check out other stuff. Old records, some glass. Hey, if you ever want to sell your mantel clock, I can give you our number.” He inclined his head toward his relative. “Yeah, he lives with me in my downtown apartment.”

“Nice, that’s different. I’ll meet you back at your table when I’ve put my stuff in the dryers.”

Were those my words? I felt like they must be in a bubble over my head, put there by someone else. But no, it felt pleasant talking to people I’d never met before. Laundromats and clocks, I mused as I dumped in a wet load and fed the machine change. Suds and coffee, a little good, harmless chat to pass the time. Maybe I’d even call Tony. That Dawn was an excellent know-it-all.

Walking back to Granddad and Tony, I considered how excited Spark would be if we took to the woods for a hike instead of watching Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.