This story first appeared in The Threepenny Review
Margie unlocked the door to the Clothes Depot every Saturday morning at six o’clock. She had her keys, her Stanley Thermos full of black coffee, her back pillow, and her egg salad sandwich. Some of the Laundromats were open twenty-four hours these days, but the absentee owner of the Clothes Depot had told Margie that trend would come and go. His Laundromat was staffed by experienced individuals, such as herself, and what kind of riffraff did laundry at two o’clock in the morning anyway?
She flipped the switch and waited as the florescent lights high above her warmed-up, flickered, and then buzzed completely on. The one farthest to the back flickered, just a little, all day long. Regular customers avoided those machines because you couldn’t always tell your whites from your lights, and you might end-up with dingy tube socks when you were done for the day. Margie always seemed to forget to tell the owner about the problem during their weekly telephone conversations; he spoke too quickly, and Margie mostly tried to remember to breathe.
The older customers came before eight o’clock to get the best machines. They knew her by name and she knew them by their laundry soap, their machines, and their secrets.
“Morning Margie,” said the man with one arm. Margie imagined he was a war hero, and treated him with respect.
“Morning yourself,” she said. “Need change today, then?”
He never did, and with his mesh bag draped across his good arm, he shuffled to the soap dispenser, which leaned against the pale-green plaster walls that surrounded them. He braced his bag of clothes against his hip and retrieved a miniature box of Tide from the machine. After starting his first load, he reached for the blue and yellow parakeet in his front coat pocket, and placed it carefully on the shoulder above his missing arm.
“Nice birdie,” he told the parakeet, “Nice, nice birdie.”
Margie breathed in the beginning of the tart, damp scent that would soon fill the place; by mid-afternoon it would numb her taste buds completely. She noticed that the evening attendant hadn’t bothered to clean up after his shift. She did not remember this new kid’s name. The turnover is terrible, the owner told her. Thank God he could count on reliable people, such as herself. Margie had missed just one week in the past seven years, and that was for her bunions.
She worked clockwise around the floor and gathered a half-empty bottle of pop, a candy wrapper, two crushed packets of cigarettes and a ribbed condom – which she quickly folded into the candy wrapper, glancing sideways at the man with one arm. He was talking to his parakeet, and saw nothing.
Next came the woman in galoshes. It was quarter-after-eight, and she was late. Margie clenched her teeth as she saw the woman approach, but forgave her when she placed a chocolate doughnut on Margie’s table.
“I brought you some breakfast, Margie,” she said. “That coffee’s ruining your teeth and
your stomach lining. You have got to eat. Our bones aren’t what they used to be when we were young, you know.”
“Thanks,” Margie answered, running her index finger along her upper front teeth, and reaching for the doughnut with the other hand.
The woman in galoshes looked pleased to find her section still available, despite her tardiness, and claimed her space by spreading her dirty clothes across two machines and one dryer. She went outside to her car and returned with another basket. She always came with her own bottle of All.
When the morning sun reached the middle of Margie’s table, she twisted the lid off her thermos until it sounded a familiar hollow pop, and she filled her cup slowly, willing her right hand to stop shaking. At ten-minutes past nine o’clock, a wrinkled looking girl held the door open with her foot and dragged in a basket filled with pajamas, blue jeans, pastel brassieres, and a boy who appeared to be about two-years old. He held a turkey baster in his hand.
“Hey there,” the girl said to Margie.
She was new and breezy, so Margie just nodded toward her, but looked at the boy. He was using the turkey baster to lift his mother’s brassieres on to the gritty floor. Good thing they aren’t washed yet, Margie thought.
“Cut that out,” warned the girl, “or I’ll take away your baster.”
The boy looked up at her, and held tight to the kitchen utensil. The girl lifted him onto a washer, and before sorting by color or delicacy, dumped half her basket into a machine. Margie was intrigued, and so was the man with one arm, whose machines were across from the ones the girl had claimed. She seemed unaware of the fact that her laundering techniques were being watched and judged, and that should she return, she might thereafter be known as the girl with the boy with the baster, who doesn’t use soap.
She looked about seventeen in the face, and Margie felt something sudden and strange toward the girl. (Jesus, Margie thought, she looks just like Clara. Clara, Margie’s oldest sister. Clara, easy to laugh. Clara, who took the bus to San Diego one September day and never came home again.) Margie decided she had better count the change again, and began making her piles of paper and coins.
The girl found, at the bottom of her basket, a small box of Dreft wrapped in plastic. Margie recognized it as one of those free samples that occasionally comes with a Sunday paper, or rarely, in the mail like a gift. Margie decided that the girl was resourceful, but unlearned, as she watched her sprinkle dry powder over
“They’ll spot if you do it that a way, Miss,” cautioned the man with one arm.
The girl looked puzzled, and Margie felt herself want to grin. Rookie.
“You got to let the water fill-up first. The soap’ll just clump all up in there, see?” he explained.
“Oh, sure,” the girl said. “It doesn’t much matter, but thanks anyway. For the help, I mean.”
She set the boy and his baster down, and reached for one of the magazines provided courtesy of the Clothes Depot. Margie had read every one. It was a Ladies’ Home Journal from 1988, and had a young Valerie Bertinelli on the cover. The woman in galoshes said she had subscribed to the Ladies’ Home Journal for the past nine years, and distinctly remembered her first issue.
The boy stood in front of the man with one arm and stared at the parakeet seated on his shoulder. He pointed at the bird and said, “Da!”
“You like Birdie, do you?” the man said as the bird stepped lightly onto his finger, and he presented it to the boy, who took a large step back.
He had noticed the man’s missing arm, again pointed and said “Da?”
Margie watched the man’s face; he did not seem offended, but almost grateful. Who else but a child could ask about the arm? It had never occurred to her, and she had always tried to avoid looking at the stump or into the man’s eyes, so as not to be discovered wondering. The parakeet safe on his shoulder-perch, the man folded his sleeve back to show the boy where his stump ended.
“I lost my arm, see? It got caught in the motor of a boat. It don’t hurt me none, no more,” he told the boy.
I’ll be damned, thought Margie. She felt betrayed. He’s no war hero, she thought. He’s just got poor balance.
The boy pointed at the parakeet.
“More,” he said.
“That issue’s got a good remedy for headaches,” the woman in galoshes told the girl.
The girl flipped to the front cover, and read “Home Headache Help. I’ll check that out,” then continued to slowly page through each glossy advertisement and article.
“Personally,” the woman told her, “personally, I haven’t had a headache in thirty years.”
The girl looked at the woman blankly, seemed to do some mental calculations, and then nodded at her with the admiration granted only to those who have earned it – through the simple endurance of more years than we can imagine. A young bank teller had looked at Margie that way once, after they had discussed her long battle with the bunions.
“Hey,” the girl said abruptly, “quit bothering that man.”
“He’s no bother, Miss,” said the man with one arm. “We’re just talking to Birdie here, right?”
“Birdie here. Birdie here,” the boy repeated, touching her back gently with one finger, exactly as the man had shown him.
The girl turned her attention back to her magazine, and the woman in galoshes sat down next to her.
“Is that your boy? I mean, you’re his mother, not a baby-sitter or something?” she asked.
Margie checked the time. The girl exhaled a laugh.
“Baby-sitter? No. I’m his mother, and we never had a baby-sitter, Lady.”
The woman in galoshes had two of her own children, three grandchildren, and a dead husband, God rest his soul. Margie often heard the woman complain that her daughter called every day, breathless with her troubles. Her son, though, was worse yet. He was a “little on the wild side,” lived in Los Angeles and wrote rare, confusing letters on yellow legal paper. Sometimes, he even forgot to sign them. Every other Mother’s Day or birthday she’d receive a dramatic flower arrangement, three or four days late, with a card signed by the florist – in a legible hand, at least, which was more than she could say for her son. Margie wondered which child she would choose for herself, the daughter, a hole she would never stop trying to fill, or the son, a gift that might never come.
The woman in galoshes said, “I could watch the boy for a bit. I’d enjoy it, really. And you could do an errand or two.” The girl looked at Margie now, as if for permission, studied the woman for a moment, and slipped her hand into her front jeans pocket. She found three dollars and some change.
“Oh no, don’t pay me a thing. My grandchildren are worlds away. Truly now,” the woman insisted.
“Well, thanks a lot. It’s real good of you,” the girl waved her boy over. “Hey, you listen to this nice lady. Help her with her clothes and things. I’ll be back in a while,” she rubbed the top of his head. “Half hour?” she asked the woman in galoshes.
“Sure. Take an hour. I’ve got a full load left,” she told the girl.
The boy had wandered back to the man with one arm and the parakeet, and the woman in
galoshes spoke in confidence to Margie as she transferred her clothes and began her last load.
“Poor thing,” she said. “Alone, raising a boy, and so young.”
“There’s worse things,” Margie answered.
“Well, yes, there are,” the woman in galoshes said, and then began a list of many worse things, borrowing troubles from her neighbor, her husband, God rest his soul, and her daughter.
At eleven o’clock, it was time for Margie to eat her sandwich. She folded the plastic wrap into a small square and placed it back into the brown bag. The man with one arm waved as he left. Margie waved back, finished her sandwich, and began to read a recent issue of Show Dog World.
A dryer buzzer sounded as the girl returned, carrying a small gourmet coffee from a shop at the end of the street.
“Man, was that ever nice,” she told the woman in galoshes. “Thanks again, Lady.”
The woman in galoshes smiled at the girl, told her, “It was nothing. He sure got on with our friend, here.” Then she turned to the empty chair where the man with one arm was supposed to be.
“He left ten minutes ago,” Margie told them.
The girl looked over the center row of machines for her boy. She walked to the other side of the Clothes Depot and looked under an old table.
“He likes to hide sometimes,” she explained.
The woman in galoshes followed her, saying helpless things like: “He was just here,” and “Oh dear. Oh dear.”
Margie thought about the man with one arm, gently holding his bird. She imagined the woman in galoshes answering her phone later that afternoon, her anger and relief at the sound of her daughter’s voice. Margie did not want to remember, this thing a person feels for another, if they are both lucky and brave; this complicated thing they only know to call love, closest to knowing and being known.
“He could have gone outside to the parking lot,” Margie said, and went out to look.
It was the only the second time she had ever left the building during her shift. Once, there had been a dryer fire. She checked the alley. The bus stop. The hair salon next door. When she returned, the two looked at her, but she only shook her head.
“You don’t think someone could have come and, well, I mean—” said the woman in galoshes. Margie willed her to keep those thoughts to herself.
The girl was awake now, fueled by coffee and fear. She ignored the women’s comments, and called the boy’s name: “Jamie? Jamie! Are you in here? Are you hiding? Come here. Right now. I mean it!” Nothing.
Margie remembered the squirrels in winter, and began opening every dryer door.
“Oh, my, Lord,” whispered the woman in galoshes. “I’ll never forgive myself.”
Every slam of a door sounded a definitive no.
Then, curled inside the farthest over-sized dryer, Margie found him, and she breathed.
“Here’s your boy,” she called to the girl.
She saw the girl take him in her arms and squeeze.
“Birdie, Birdie,” he told his mother
The boy reached up to touch her cheek with his finger. The girl gathered him in again, and rocked him, and held his body against her own, like a beloved kitchen utensil.