I hadn’t been to a laundromat in a while. I knew where one was, though, about a mile from our house. It was right near Church Street where it crossed Niles Center Road, in a grim-looking strip mall alongside a Thai restaurant, a nail salon, and a medical supply store. We had a bedspread that wouldn’t fit in our washer or our dryer, so off I went on a Saturday morning. Laundromats were usually dismal and depressing, but I had met girls there. Sometimes I had even looked forward to doing laundry for that reason. That was long past. Now I wanted to get this chore done ASAP.
The Thai restaurant was already cooking up some spicy stuff, and the aroma wafted out onto Church Street. I felt sorry for anyone desperate enough to eat here, seeking exotic food in our corner of this Chicago suburb. I pulled open the laundromat door, dragged in our bedspread and had a look around. Washers lined one wall, dryers the other. I wondered what they cost. An attendant was in back at a table where she sorted clothes. Overhead a sign read ‘CHANGE, DETERGENT.’ She was Polish-looking, with a knot of blonde hair that looked like a haystack. She was my age, when others still looked to be firm to the touch. Nobody else was there. I got a roll of quarters and some Tide. When I handed her my money, she grunted.
It turned out that the big washers cost five dollars. I remember them costing twenty- five cents. But I needed the super large washer for the bedspread. The smaller ones?
“How much for one of these?” I asked the zaftig attendant.
She held up two fingers and mouthed the word ‘two.’ I assume she meant two dollars. I smiled. Then I settled in to wait for my wash. I should have brought something to read. I fumbled in my pocket and found that roll of quarters and started looking at them. Sometimes I like to look at the dates on coins and remember what I was doing that year. The roll had a lot of the newer quarters with inscriptions of the fifty states or the national parks. I wanted the ones before that, when life had more fun in it. I found several that made me smile when the door opened. In walked a girl with a hamper of laundry, her eyes scanning the place like mine did. Our eyes touched briefly. She immediately averted them to avoid any possible connection with this man old enough to be her father, this man fumbling with a roll of quarters and giving her the once over. It seemed to me like she was new here, had not done her laundry here before. She was looking around to ‘see how the place worked.’ That knowledge was in my approach once upon a time. Her eyes went to the washers.
“Two dollars,” I said to her. Her eyebrows went up. She nearly smiled. I looked away. She plunked some quarters in a machine with a sign above it that read ‘No sitting on the washers.’ She sat down in one of the few chairs near the entrance as I went back to my quarters.
I’d met a really nice girl at a laundromat out of town. Her name was the same as the Hungarian name for their country – Hungary. Then I blew it, dating her and getting caught with another girl. Quarters with that year were hard to find. I met another girl in the basement of our apartment building by the coin- operated machines. Technically, it wasn’t really a laundromat because we already had something in common – living in the same building. Her name was Marcia. I dated her until I married my present wife. There was yet another girl I sort of met at a laundromat at Wrightwood and Halsted. Her name was Judy Bowler. She had a nice smile and, in retrospect, I can remember the entire make-up of her persona was to shun creatures like me without being too snotty. She listened to whatever nonsense I said and artfully deflected my advances. I remember leaving the place with a clean sack of laundry and the feeling that I’d played a chess game to a tie. Now that my washing was done here on Church Street, I surreptitiously walked back to the attendant’s table where some shirts were getting sorted.
I had already started checking out the dryers. There were two kinds – Huebsch dryers and Speed Queens. Both sets looked old. I asked the lady which was better.
“Huebsch,” she said, holding up one finger. I think that meant they were Number One in her book. She smiled, though. It was the kind of smile I’d seen before on Milwaukee Avenue, serving up a pierogi, driving a van around our neighborhood with a ‘Kula Maids’ banner on it. We had spoken twice now. We were like old friends. I went back to the washers and my quarters. When the spin cycle ended I took my clothes out and put them in one of the Huebsch dryers, set it on ‘high’ and turned to look at the young lady sitting near the entrance. She was doing what Judy Bowler had done, only in neutral. She didn’t have to say anything, so she made a point of reading the signs on the pale blue walls ‘No sitting on the washers,’ ‘No rugs in the front load washers,’ ‘Not responsible for damage and lost coins.’ I got it. She could have been my daughter. I pretended to distract myself by looking at the serial numbers on the Huebsch dryers to see if they were all in sequence. They weren’t. I saw 165488, then 165489, then 165495. That made me wonder the same way I wondered about the dates on the quarters. Every year or so I’d done something really stupid, something that set me back financially or in matters involving women, and yet, over the years, I never seemed to learn. After Janice Magyar, I still blundered. It was the same way with the Huebsch dryers. They should have stayed in sequence, but didn’t. Something, maybe fate, or someone, maybe some sloppy equipment installer had gotten them mixed up and now they would never be in sequence. The young lady looked up once more. Our eyes touched. She wanted to know which dryer was better – the Huebsch or the Speed Queen.
“Huebsch,” I said, looking her in the eye.
She nearly smiled again. Then her eyes went to the floor. She cleaned out the front load washer and put the whole mess into her hamper and walked out the door. She had a cute walk. She loaded her bag into a SUV and drove off. The sun had come out. It was a nice Saturday morning. The aroma of those Thai Dragon Peppers next door slipped into the laundromat and tantalized my nostrils. I heard the sound of my Huebsch dryer drop down to nothing and went to check the bedspread.
There is something about leaving a place and person with whom you have had a small amount of interaction. Everybody handles it differently. Say you are at a basketball game and at half-time you ask the guy behind you to look at his program to see the height of the team’s center. When the game is over with, it’s not necessary to say ‘so long’ or ‘nice talking to you’ or ‘have a good one.’ But in the larger scheme of things, even in something as miniscule as this, it is imperative to say something to anoint, to hallow this social contract with the decency of a ‘good-bye’ because both of you are human and deserve the respect of acknowledging each other in addition to your backsides sharing an hour on the same wooden bleachers. In honor of this, in the celebration of the fact that the laundromat attendant and I had partaken some of this Saturday morning together, and also the aroma of whatever those Thai folks were cooking, I lifted my hand up as I made my way out and said, “Good-bye!”
She looked up from the piles of clothes she was sorting. A full smile came to her face, a radiant ray of sunshine straight from Warsaw with a cheerful, “Bye!”
And she held up two fingers in the symbol of a ‘V.’
Paul Smith is a civil engineer who has worked in the construction racket for many years. He has traveled all over the place and met lots of people. Some have enriched his life. Others made him wish he or they were all dead. He likes writing poetry and fiction. He also likes Newcastle Brown Ale. If you see him, buy him one. His poetry and fiction have been published in Convergence, Missouri Review, Literary Orphans and other lit mags.