When the washing machine ate her last quarter, Tania wanted to squat down
and cry with her face on her knees. Cry till her nose ran everywhere. Till
her hair plastered to her face and her body went soft, heavy and warm. But
some prissy lady was sitting right there in the wobbly row of attached
chairs. They reminded her of the bus station in Hartford, which was littered
with crumpled styrofoam cups, lit up with ads for cigarettes and trips to
Tania hated to look stupid. She wanted to be the
respected one who her friends looked to for advice, the stunning one
who walked down the street and caused people to move to the side. At
the moment her quarter vanished, however, Taniaís three missing
teeth, the yellow-green purple around her eyes, and the peeling scab
along her forehead made her feel pathetic and gross. So as the last
quarter from the two bucks sheíd changed fell into the slot and
nothing started, Tania just stood still. The hum and swish of the
other washing machines and the clicking of buttons and zippers in
the dryers felt like someone tapping and tapping her shoulder. And
there sat that lady reading her book.
The last five dollar bill Tania had until she got paid on
Friday was crinkled deep into the linty pocket of her black pants. Managers
at the grocery store made all the baggers and stockers wear black pants, but
not the checkout clerks. They got to wear whatever pants they wanted. Her
shift began in two hours and Ronny had promised her a ride. Heíd be back
soon and expected his clothes to be done. He had even given her a couple
quarters from the plastic ashtray under the sink. Fucking shit, she thought.
"I donít need this right now, thatís for sure. This piece
of shit." Tania pounded on the clammy change-return button as she shouted. "It wonít give me my money back."
The lady didnít say anything. She sat there, brow
furrowed at her book. Her left ankle twisted to the left and down, to the
left and down so her foot bounced like the cap on a truckís exhaust chimney.
Tania turned away from the machine. She couldnít look at
the useless stealing hunk of junk. On the opposite wall, a sign draped with
dusty strings listed the prices for small and large washers. Spatters of
brown and yellow gunk speckled the surface. When Tania paced to the other
end of the room and back, her sneakers crunched grit, brushed a grayed piece
"These arenít even my clothes," she said. "I just told my friend Iíd do his laundry for a ride to work. Itís too fucking cold to
walk the two miles ya know. Now this."
The book lady glanced up and then back to her lap while
closing the book on her finger. "The machines in here are always broken, but
no one puts signs up or anything. Every time I come in here, someone loses
money." She opened her book and began reading again.
"Yeah, I was warned about this place, but the guy whoís
giving me a ride lives across the street in the motel, so I came over here." Tania faced the lady and pointed to her mouth. "He didnít do this to me
though. No. I wasnít with him. I was in New Haven and my friend told me she
was okay to drive home to Wallingford, but it was snowing and she didnít
look in her blind spot. You know how everyoneís got that blind spot and you
need someone to help you look over that shoulder especially in the snow but
she just went ahead and tried to pass on the right but it was a four-lane
highway so that should be okay but the cops said it was her fault."
Tania stopped and shrugged at the lady, who was looking
right at her.
"Thatís awful. Car accidents are so scary."
"Yeah, there were cops and ambulances and all that. Iím
suing her insurance company cuz Iím not living like this for the rest of my
life, missing teeth and shit." She confronted the washing machine again,
pounded the change-return button four more times. "Now I gotta use my last
five bucks damn it. I do not need this today, not at all."
The change machine always worked and turned out another
twenty quarters. Tania put two of them into the washer, punched the slot,
and kicked the round latched door. "God damn it!" Her eyes closed, then
glared at the ceiling. "I thought maybe Iíd counted wrong and it just needed
more money. Now I gotta take the bastardís clothes out and theyíre all set
in there with detergent and everything. This morning I cleaned up the mess
he made with the hotplate too. But he did cook the eggs and sausage."
A bookmark with a yellow tassel saved the ladyís spot as
she laid her book on the chair next to her and gestured around the room. "Before I put my clothes in, I look for the machines that still have water
on the sides of the tub. That way I know it works."
"I guess Iíll have to takeó" Tania said through her
clenched jaw as she opened the washer door, "his clothesó" and yanked out a
wad of tangled jeans and t-shirts and underwear with puckered waistbands,
"and put them into this one." She placed ten quarters on the machine. "Iím
counting my money this time. They donít fucking need any more of it. Look at
this dumbass complaint box here. How does that help me now, huh? I mean how
does that help me? They got nobody in here or anything."
The buzzer on dryer 12 screeched and the lady got up, folded her clothes, and piled them into a white plastic laundry basket. As
soon as she was done, she opened dryer 7, waited until it stopped, and felt
inside. She pushed her underwear into the bottom of the basket, paired her
socks into balls, and pressed each sheet corner to corner.
A car pulled through the parking lot and spit up gravel.
Watching it roll over the end of a snow bank peppered with black, Tania
imagined walking out the door and sticking out her thumb. She could get in
another car with another guy to some other place.
The lady went back to the three chairs and placed her
book on top of the laundry. There was a knot of hair caught on the sleeve of
her coat, the first flaw in her appearance. Tania smiled about it.
"I could give you a ride to work. If you want one, if you
want to save your quarters. I donít work until the dinner shift at Andyís so
I donít mind. Itís not out of my way or anything." She stared at her full
laundry basket before raising her eyes to peek at Tania. Tania saw the
opening, the hope.
"Oh no, but thanks."
The lady watched Tania then turned her head away, saying
into her shoulder, "I just wanted to offer, just in case."
"Yeah, thanks a lot but I donít have to work for another
hour and a half. I donít want to sit in the lounge for that long. And
anyway, hereís Ronny now, getting outta that green car there. Heís letting
me stay with him for a while too. A few nights. Hey Ronny, this place sucks
you know. That machine ate my quarters."
"Well hello to you too beautiful!" He stopped and spread
his empty hands out to the side. "Now let me take a look at the machine
honey. Which one is it?" Ronny hiked his faded jeans up over skinny hips as
he shuffled toward Tania. Something on him smelled bitter. "You know I need
this laundry done sweetheart. Right. I got no more skivvies." He pinched the
back of Taniaís arm as he spoke.
The lady picked up her basket and headed for the door. Tania called to her, "Listen, thanks for the offer. I appreciate that."
"Youíre right beautiful, this change return is jammed. How in the
Her car started up right away, on one try. She sat for a few minutes,
observing the womanís bruised face through the streaked laundromat window. Music from the AM radio lodged in the air around her as the car warmed up,
and the purple and lavender scarf scratched her chin when she reached for
the gear shift.