November 13, 2013

Coin Laundry: A Short Story

A short fiction story inspired by the Italian laundromat I didn't actually see, by Emma:

I work at a laundromat, which does not mean I get to spin around in the washing machines and fall in love with a girl I met in the coin laundry. But every once in a while, something interesting happens. This is the most interesting thing of all--

She came to the laundromat every Tuesday for three years. She walked in without talking, placed her load in the washer, and sat down to read a paperback. Halfway through the book she moved her button downs and underwear to the dryer, sat down again, finished the book, and left with her laundry basket. She never read the same book twice, and it she always finished them by the time her laundry was done.

That was everything I knew about her until one day in '94, she walked in with her basket, started the first load, and walked out. Most people didn't sit around waiting like she did, so it wasn't too surprising. Except everyone else always came back in a couple of hours to reclaim their newly cleaned clothing, but Flora never did. I didn't notice until I was tidying up for the night and saw that the washer she always used was still full. I moved her clothing over to the dryer, assuming she would come back tomorrow. Her clothing sat in that dryer through five Tuesdays before I decided it was too late.

As I went to get her clothes out to throw them in lost and found, I realized she might have written some sort way to reach her on one of the tags. I started searching, and as I did I do admit I was interested. Interested in the sort of girl who spent hours reading dime novels while her tiny load of clothes washed, never saying a word to anyone. You can learn a lot about a person based on what they wear, and I found myself wanting to know as much as I could about her. So I learned what I could from her laundry, and made up what I was sure was fact.

All of her button downs were the kind that don't need to be ironed, she had five of them,one for each work day. She must have worked a job that required a slight dressing up, and she refused to wear one of her work shirts more than once between washes. Four of them were white, one of them was pale pink, for special days I assume.

Her one pair of jeans had small holes in both knees, and grass stains around the edges. She was a gardener. There was a crumpled, dried to-do list in the pocket of her light washed jeans. The only writing I could decipher said poppy seeds and lemonade. I decided she liked poppies best and never drank soda pop, only lemonade, which she preferred to buy from some kiddo's stand. Along with the list was some pocket change, so she was always prepared for just that.

There were gardening t-shirts mixed in with her party blouse, she only had one. Parties didn't come frequently enough for her to need more. The t-shirts had North Star Humane Society and Little League Baseball printed on them. She spent her sick days from work going on humanitarian trips to Ecuador every summer, and coached little league on the weekends. Summers were always her scene, and winter felt like a death sentence.

I found one high top sneaker tangled up in her floral patterned pajamas. Even when I had taken everything out and folded it, I couldn't find the shoe's partner. The one that was there was well worn and well loved, and someone had written I like you in black sharpie on the heel. She hadn't tried to wash the message off and had even tried to keep it there, maybe it was the only sentiment she had left over from a summer love of years passed, another evidence of August magic that never followed her into the fall.

By this time I had given her a name-- Flora. I found it fitting. She could go as a Flora, I thought, before remembering that I really knew nothing about her. Three years of paperback reading twenty feet away from me and I didn't even know the color of her eyes, let alone if she enjoyed gardening, or ever drank soda, or felt dead like her poppies in the winter. And suddenly I wished I did know those things, and I realized I could have, if I had ever started with a smile or opened my mouth to say hello.

I packed up her party shirt and single high top along with the rest of her one week worth's wardrobe in a box and wrote Flora's Things on the top. I didn't put them in lost and found but instead in the closet of things that never got thrown away. Every Tuesday I watched for her, hoping she would give me another chance to get to know her, to at least find out the color of her eyes, but she never came back. I kept the box as a reminder that I never really knew what people were like until I asked more, talked more.

I always smiled at my customers after that, and found out the names of the regulars. I found out Barry coaches Little League Baseball in order to be considered cool by his nine year old son and his buddies. Lucy loves flowers and has a greenhouse so that she can have her own personal summer, anytime of the year. Tom once reminisced about a summer romance and high top sneakers while I sat watching. So I guess in the end there was a little bit of Flora in each of my customers, and I was learning to find more of her in myself. The neighborhood kids always knew they could count on my to buy their ten cent lemonade after that.

Listen to Coin Laundry by Lisa Mitchell