To Mark’s surprise, the thing went without a hitch, although O’Hara’s name might have had something to do with it. This was especially true without a rent receipt from Olivetti. The other thing was that if they caught him in a lie, he’d be in a heap of shit. That’s the one thing he was getting out of this. They gave you a cheque and that somehow gave them the right to judge every little move you made. The very least they would do was to dock him until any overpayment was caught up. The social liason worker at Bellevue had helped him get the first cheque, or he’d still be up there in Rochester—living on the streets, no doubt.
“Are you looking for work?”
“Yes, of course—”
Hell, it might even be true.
“And you say your landlord’s dead?”
“Ah, yes, ma’am. It’s in the papers—Roy Olivetti—”
The bored look on her face convinced him to stop there.
“Okay, sir, if your other cheque turns up, don’t cash it please. Tear it up, or return it to your nearest welfare office...”
It was like they could care less what the story was. They were covering their own asses, nothing more. He was out and about again in an hour and a quarter, which didn’t seem so bad looking back.
Even the bus ride was different when you had a little money coming to you.
My second check in less than a week.
An acquired skill, and why not?
A huge weight had been lifted, and why not? All around, you could see the street-walkers, the wandering children, loitering about at high noon on a weekday. He found himself looking for the more obvious homeless types, shuffling along, same clothes every day, going nowhere.
The city had its share of the lost.
The time would drag heavy.
Bad as it was, he at least could sit on the floor in his own living room.
He broke down and cashed his cheque at the liquor store, at hardly any percentage at all.
Duke might appreciate someone else buying once in a while, and the truth was that Mark owed him.
He owed Duke something more than just ten dollars and a few cold ones, and that bill would have to be paid at some point.
It would be the right thing to do, and the sooner the better.
The pavements were hot and wet in the sun as he stepped out onto the street again. The traffic never abated except for a couple of hours before dawn. Even then it only became sparse, never going away entirely. Cops, ambulance workers, firemen, garbagemen and taxi-drivers took it in shifts. If a sewer-line broke, the city boys would be out there at three a.m. to fix it.
He dashed across the street in the middle of a block during a break. It was amazing how bad his lungs had become—either in the last four years or the last four days. One or the other. It was kind of hard to say.
His present life couldn’t be compared to his previous one—it was too radical a change.
There was no one around when he got home. There was a note from Amy. Amy had gone off to school for a while, where there were certain resources as she put it. Duke did not put in an appearance, and Mark considered going up there but rejected it. He’d had more joints in a week than he’d had in his entire previous lifetime and it was all too quickly becoming a habit.
Maybe even an easy out, and maybe the so-called experts knew something about it after all.
To depend too much upon any kind of dope was to enslave yourself, and maybe that was it.
More than anything Mark wanted, needed, his freedom.
He wanted to wash himself clear of dependence. Any sort of bondage, really.
They might not be able to imprison the mind, but they could sure as hell imprison the body.
He was getting really good at second-guessing things.
Duke had given him a couple of old shirts. They hung a bit loose on him, but if he wasn’t working, what difference did it make? The only problem was the shirts smelled an awful lot like Duke. Duke, who admittedly hadn’t been showering much lately, in a rather forlorn atttempt to deter Maude. Maude, as it turned out, was bound, bent and determined. It was surprising how much, and how quickly Duke had opened up to a perfect stranger...why, no one could really say.
That was the hell of it. Sooner or later you were going to talk to someone.
Amy had brought along a bag of pillow-cases, tea-towels that she said she and her room-mate, a girl named Sandy, didn’t need anymore. For two bucks, he had curtains for the front window.
Upon closer examination at home, they seemed cheap and threadbare and the smell of tobacco was strong. That seemed a bit steep, actually. He might have ripped himself off at the Sally-Ann thrift shop. He’d picked up some old surplus dungaree pants, Navy-issue, not quite jeans but they would at least let him wash the ones he had on. It was either that or wander the building in his underwear or his suit, whichever he preferred. From what he’d seen in the building so far, the underpants would arouse less comment.
How much would a laundry basket cost? You had to follow that chain of logic, new versus used, (but could you even find a used laundry basket, and how much time would that take?)
A new one was really only a dollar-forty-four at K-Mart. All you had to do was watch for the promotion.
This wasn’t exactly new stuff. His mother had made a science of such things. She’d turned it into a full-time job. She didn’t earn money, she saved it. That was almost as good. An important contribution to the family. That and cooking tasty, nutritious meals, and keeping a spotless house.
It was all about labour and time, versus keeping a little cash money in your pocket, for those unpredictable little emergencies.
Like needing a laundry basket.
The thoughts went around and around sometimes.
Theoretically he had all the time in the world. The problem with that was that it meant having all the time in the world to suffer. Or maybe just to think. Or maybe just to shop for bargains.
He had all the time in the world to think about how to save a fucking dime.
Maybe thinking was suffering, and maybe that explained why so many people couldn’t bring themselves to do it. To think was to confront oneself and one’s life.
The trip down through the building was another little slice of life.
He carried his laundry down in one of his new if slightly-fuzzy pillowcases. The smell, the humidity and the sound of humming machines met him at the top of the basement stairs.
“Hey, man.” A bored man of about twenty-five, unshaven and wearing a white undershirt and gym shorts, looked up from a back-issue of Playboy that was falling apart at the seams.
Mark wondered about wandering the building in slippers, but more power to him.
“Hey.” Mark had seen the guy with a wife and kid. “How’s it going.”
He’d seen the guy going out first thing in the morning and standing on the opposite sidewalk with a lunch bucket and work boots, the obligatory insulated vest and wearing an orange hard hat even at that early hour.
“Hey.” That was some answer.
Imagine wearing something like that on the bus. Every day, for the rest of your life...lanky blond hair and the bloodshot eyes. There was a clear difference between uncombed and never combed.
Each to his own, eh.
There were three washing machines and six dryers, all lined up along against the crumbling side wall of the building. There was an unbalanced load going around and around in one washer. One of the dryers was going.
Pink and frilly things, bloomers perhaps, tumbled and fell past the glass-fronted door. A brassiere stuck to the glass for a moment, swirling majestically, weightless in reflective black space. As they watched, there was a click and a thunk and then the rotation slowed and stopped.
The bra went for one final tumble and then it plummeted back into anonymity.
A moment of anti-climax.
“Shit. That’s the most action I seen in a long time, Mister.”
Mark grinned, although he’d heard that one before.
The guy tossed aside the magazine. Mark wasn’t quite sure if he was talking about the magazine or the load in the dryer.
“Ah. Married then?”
The guy laughed.
“Yeah. I guess you could say that.”
Maybe they were just shacked up. Mark had read all about it, without having much of an opinion. Why should he care? But of course there were people who would, and care very deeply indeed.
The neighbours for example. The church-ladies of St. Louis would care very deeply indeed.
“Yeah. So. I’m Mark, three-oh-one.”
The guy nodded.
“Okay.” That was it.
It occurred to the guy that he ought to say something more.
“Fred. Two-oh-four.” He cleared his throat.
Nothing more came out.
He’d been accepted, perhaps even validated.
The guy’s eyes slid over and he gave Mark another look. It was a compliment.
“You’re one of the quiet ones.”
The guy nodded.
Mark had just been approved-of.
The dryer came to a stop and the guy took an empty laundry basket over and began unloading it.
Mark found an empty machine and began loading it, in a process that would probably never end.
Somewhere in the world, someone was always doing laundry.
“Hey, man. I hate to bother you—” Mark had totally forgotten that you needed soap to do laundry. “I’ll give you fifty cents for a little soap.”
His hand was in his pocket, fishing around. Coins jingled suggestively.
“Aw, shit, don’t worry about it, man.” The guy handed over a box of Tide.
The guy let him sprinkle a generous amount of powder over his load, now all set to go.
It was probably a good thing, as Mark only had so much small change and the machines were coin-operated. That was an interesting observation, what with Olivetti dead. Sooner or later, someone had to show up to service the machines. He knew that from watching the concessionaires at the Institute, where there was a line-up of vending machines in the long main hallway, down in the basement service areas of the hospital. The really interesting thing about the vending machines, was that you could snag a pop or even a free sandwich if you really knew what you were doing and had the place to yourself for a moment. It took a long arm and some manual dexterity. There were metal boxes in there and they were only going to hold so much money. Those, you couldn’t get to.
“Okay, man, see you around.”
“I owe you a cup of soap.”
With a tired smile, the guy shook his head, raised his eyebrows and headed for the door, laundry basket under his arm. Too many other things to contend with, a familiar attitude.
Mark nodded his thanks and the guy left him alone with his thoughts and the machines.
Without a watch, Mark had no idea of how long it took to do a wash. He would have to do the time. Otherwise, he might have wandered back upstairs, where there was nothing else to do in any case. In more prosperous days, he’d worn suits and ties, always having more than one change of costume when out on the road. They used Chinese laundries and dry cleaners when they had a longer gig or a layoff between gigs. The rest of the time, jeans and a leather jacket, a couple of half-decent shirts, would usually suffice. In more prosperous days, things were different. That was usually the way of things. He’d had it pretty good, looking back. He’d always had good shoes, for example. It was funny how the way you dressed affected the way you felt.
The ball cap wasn’t exactly his style either, but it did help to blend in sometimes. He’d taken so many things for granted. All of that was gone now. Things were different now.
Over the years—a wonderful song title.
It was only now that he had learned to appreciate things. It was about time. If you could do it. It had taken something like twenty years. With the load slightly unbalanced, the roar of the washer drowned out all external noises. He had been learning a lot and looking forward to a pretty bright future when they grabbed him. They’d taken four years of his life away from him, and for what?
He was taking it one day at a time. One hour at a time. One minute at a time. His face was all stiff with negative thoughts.
This was no good.
Getting up and having a look, he determined that the washing machine was on spin-dry, getting close to the end of the cycle. People with kids and families must spend days in here, whole Saturdays doing nothing but laundry. He could only imagine trying to keep squalling kids under control and out of trouble. Keeping them occupied and out from underfoot.
So Amy was conducting a study of life-long bachelors. It was an interesting thought, that was for sure, but as to who the hell would actually care was a very good question. Life was a series of tough questions, flying in close formation. Most of the time, there were no easy answers, not any more. As a single man, he was always going to have a different perspective.
He’d never have kids or grandkids, for one thing. That sort of thing seemed to tame a man.
There really was something different about him.
He wondered if anyone had ever said that before.
The deep, thumping rythm changed to something lighter and faster and it seemed as if they were onto the rinse cycle.
Once again, quiet reigned as Mark put money, one nickel at a time, into the massive dryer unit.
Olivetti must have had dreams of operating a laundromat. Maybe he had bought a few units at a bankruptcy auction, and he might have gotten a pretty good price, but the washers and dryers were all heavy-duty. It was straight commercial stuff, not like his mother’s machine back home.
With three washers on the left, six dryers on the right, a concrete floor, overhead fluorescents, there wasn’t much to look at. He was a bit bored with reading the cardboard signs taped to the back wall.
Unattended laundry may be removed.
Not responsible for theft or damage.
Do not put oily materials in the machines.
Report a violation at this number...
The wooden bench just inside the door was getting hard on the backside. Maybe next time he’d bring a book. There was a used bookstore just around the corner and they were going pretty cheap.
Not knowing how long a load would take to dry, he supposed it was possible to leave and come back, but when? A nickel bought ten minutes of drying time, and if he didn’t have enough time on the clock, his laundry would be sitting there wet when it could have been drying. The trouble was, even with his replacement welfare money, those nickels and dimes were precious if not exactly priceless. He didn’t want to put too many in the machine, either.
If Amy or Duke or anyone showed up, they’d never think of looking for him down here. He felt curiously cut-off, like he had disappeared off the face of the Earth, however briefly. His ankles and his hips had some residual sensation, from all the unaccustomed walking he’d been doing. He just couldn’t get comfortable.
Mark wandered around the room, wondering when he would see Amy again. He had her number, and if he didn’t find the guts pretty soon, somebody else undoubtedly would.
You couldn’t rely on on the unspoken. If only he knew what to say.
A blowsy woman of indeterminate age smashed the door open, using her laundry basket as a battering-ram of sorts. She stopped dead on seeing him. The shapeless sack of a dress, the immense bosom and tired, greying hair pretty much said it all. Five-foot five or so, she must have weighed two hundred and fifty pounds. She was also wearing slippers, shabby, shapeless ones that dictated an odd shuffle, otherwise they would simply fall off. That must have been dangerous on the stairs.
“Hello. I’m Mark. I’m in three-oh-one.”
She bit her lip, nodding. She set her heavy basket down on the end of the central table and began pulling out heaps and heaps of what was obviously children’s clothing.
Mark wandered down the aisle, noting the last dryer in line still had a load in it. The little red lights on the clock showed that there was still time on it but the dryer was stopped for some reason.
On some impulse, seeing what he thought was a red plaid work shirt and faded grey work pants amidst the pile in there, he hit the button and was sort of gratified when it started up.
Sooner or later they would be back for it.
The lady at the other end, busy stuffing whites into the first washer, looked up in annoyance as a hell of a thump came from the machine and Mark, part way back down the other side of the room, turned to fix it or see what the problem was. It wasn’t his load, and that was one heck of a racket.
He shouldn’t have gotten involved. He sighed, reaching for the latch.
Someone was going to walk in at that exact moment and accuse him of theft.
With his record, that was probably good for about five years in the federal penitentiary.
Pulling the door open, reaching in and grabbing onto something heavy and meaty, this time it was Mark’s turn to scream. That dead face, those accusing eyes were attached to somebody.
That someone appeared to be very dead.
The lady took a few steps, as Mark stood there gasping, and then she was screaming too. By this time Mark was silent, sort of contemplating his luck.
Here we go again.
There was a dead guy in the dryer and that was just the truth.
(End of Part Thirteen.)
Thanks for reading.
Louis has all kinds of books and stories in several different formats up for free on All Romance Ebooks/OmniLit.