Washing Day

Moira MacCallum heaves the heavy basket of clothes and soiled bedsheets through the laundromat door and thumps it onto the nearest table, while her hair and raincoat drip onto the yellowed linoleum. The room smells of lemon soap powder and cigarettes.

Like the town of Tremolite itself, the laundromat is almost deserted. In the ten years since the asbestos mine closed and her father was laid off, vacancy rates in the apartment buildings have crept upward, and plywood is slowly replacing glass on the storefronts. The only other customer is a woman of unfathomable age. Her face is gaunt and lined, but her hair, hanging almost to her waist, is jet black.  Her feet are bare, beneath an ankle-length white dress that’s got no shape or decoration, as plain as a shroud. Maybe everything else is in the wash.

The woman shows no sign of noticing Moira’s drowned-rat entry. She stands over her machine, singing to herself in some foreign language as it rattles and churns. The top of the machine is piled high with dusty denim coveralls, like Moira’s dad used to wear in the mine. Behind the thick glass door, more coveralls are sloshing back and forth in grey soapy water.

Moira looks down at the foul sheets in her basket and sighs. Sickness isn’t pretty. Last month the doctor had tried to get her father to check into the hospital. “I asked him flat out whether them hospital guys was gonna be able to fix me up,” he’d told her later, during her weekly phone call “And the doc wouldn’t gimme a straight answer, so I told him to go to hell, I was staying in my own place.”

So, after a sleepless night, Moira quit her minimum-wage job and rode the Greyhound across three states, to look after him for as long as it took. When she got to his cheap apartment and saw him, skeleton-thin, with a cough that seemed as if it must shake him to pieces at any moment, she knew she’d done the right thing. But she wonders several times a day how much longer it’s going to be, and feels like some kind of monster for wondering.

Over the weekend, his cough was so bad she didn't dare leave the apartment: when he needed clean sheets, she just took them off her cot in the living room. Today, the oxygen mask and the codeine seem to be helping more; so she made him comfortable, picked up the cracked plastic laundry basket, and hauled it here through the rain.

There’s nobody at the counter, just a scrawl in blunt pencil on a splayed cigarette package: Back in 10 min Out of smokes. But Moira’s brought her own soap powder in a Ziploc bag, from the battered box in her father’s apartment, so she won’t have to wait.

On the wall above each machine somebody’s stuck a glossy publicity photo of a country singer, all different, so folks won’t get their loads mixed up. Moira divides the washing between “Tammy Wynette” and “Dolly Parton,” adds soap powder, and latches the doors. Then she puts quarters into each of the sixteen slots, and clunks the slides home. When the faint rush of water starts, she relaxes and looks around the room.

The other woman’s song is getting louder, a wordless keening. She turns toward Moira, her dark eyes wild. Crazy as an outhouse rat. The hairs on the back of Moira’s neck prickle. Maybe it would be safer to wait outside, rain and all. The woman slowly raises her hands, her fingers curling like talons, and her voice rises to a scream.

Moira makes up her mind, pulls her raincoat around her and strides to the door. She yanks it open; the bell taped to the door jingles.  As the first drops are wetting her hand, the shrieking stops. She turns and looks back into the laundromat. “Tammy Wynette” and “Dolly Parton” are still churning. The other machines stand silent in an empty room.

There is no other door. Nowhere to hide. A sign on the wall directs customers needing the washroom to the convenience store next door.  

Moira’s head swims, her knees are rubber. Somehow she staggers back into the laundromat, collapses onto an orange plastic chair, and sprawls there, eyes closed, listening to the quiet slosh of the washing machines.

A few minutes later, there’s the grate and jingle of the door opening. She opens her eyes and pulls herself upright. A plump grey-haired woman bustles in out of the splattering rain, carrying a plastic shopping bag. Moira points wordlessly at the machine where the woman and the coveralls had been.

“You’ve seen her, then,” the older woman says.

Moira nods.

"One of them old miners must have passed away."

"Huh?"

"She always comes here when that happens, honey.” She reaches into the shopping bag and takes out a pack of Virginia Slims; she opens it, taps it so that a cigarette slips partway out, and offers it to Moira.

Moira hasn’t smoked for three years, but she takes the cigarette in silence and leans forward to accept the offered light. She inhales the mentholated smoke, breathes it out slowly.  

For the first time in days, she wonders what she will do next.

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