“No quarters,” she said, watching him fumble in his pockets for change.
He couldn’t ignore her. They were the only two people in the place. If she was talking, she was talking to him. Most likely. She might spend a lot of time talking to herself.
She was right. The machine had no slots for quarters. He’d have to buy a card for this one load of wash. Two dollars wasn’t a lot to spend. Too bad he didn’t have it on him.
He patted the front pocket of his shirt willing a wallet or a folded bill to materialize there, not turning toward her so she wouldn’t see the frustration on his face.
“Use mine,” she said, when she saw his shoulders slacken inside his old brown plaid shirt. She held out a plastic card with a computer chip embedded in its face. “Come on. It’s all right.”
He turned to face her.
“Newcomers’ discount,” she said. “First round’s on me.”
Her hair was red at the ends, white at the roots, and brown in between. Was that intentional or a sign of neglect? All of her could have gone either way. She wore what his mother would have called a house dress, a shapeless cotton thing in a pinky, yellowy floral pattern with a zipper up the front. He hadn’t seen one like that for years yet this one looked new with no sign of fraying or fading. Her red-orange toenails peeked out from beaded slippers; the kind his mother called scuffs.
He took the card without speaking and fitted it clumsily into the payment slot.
“Hang on, hon.” Her puffy pink hand threatened to touch his arm, but didn’t quite make it there; just hovered above his forearm where his rolled-up shirtsleeve ended. His skin was gray with grime. He took his hand away from the card, left it not in-not out of the slot. Their eyes met. Hers were brown and watery.
“You need soap,” she told him.
Of course he did. Stupid. Showing up at the Laundromat without money, without detergent, dirty clothes shoved in a plastic grocery bag.
She walked to the white plastic bench where she’d been sitting when he came in. He hadn’t paid attention then, but now he noticed the objects arranged there like holy relics. A sacred rainbow of plastic and sparkly things—little kids’ toys and ladies’ hair clips—and those tall candles in glass jars decorated with pictures of saints.
He’d see those candles in the supermarket on the bottom shelf near the Goya beans. Saint Martin of Tours was his favorite because he rode a horse and was kind. Saint Martin shared his cloak with a beggar. He might like a Saint Martin candle, but he wouldn’t set fire to him.
The lady held out an orange plastic bottle. A plastic baby that looked like Jesus snatched from a Christmas crèche was tied to the handle with purple yarn wrapped around his middle. Above the product name, the letters M-A-Y were written in black Sharpie pen.
He wasn’t sure what month this was.
“Use this.” She spoke to him slowly, like she knew how loud the blood pounded in his ears, how he watched the words leave her mouth then waited for them to reach his brain. Like she was talking to him from the moon.
Before he could stop her, the lady tugged open the washing machine door and peered inside. “What are you washing, hon? The machine’s empty.”
Impulse made him tighten his grip on the plastic grocery bag in his hand. When she made a move toward it, he tucked it under his arm.
She raised her hands in surrender. He noticed a gold ring on her left ring finger. “Everyone’s entitled to their privacy,” she said. “I sure wouldn’t want anyone looking at my unmentionables.” She smiled a benevolent smile; lips and eyes. “You put your stuff in the machine and close the door. I won’t peek. Go on.”
He stuffed the plastic bag inside the drum of the washing machine and shook it until he felt all the clothes come out. Pants, shirt, socks, underwear. Belt? Was there a belt still attached to those pants? He couldn’t remember. It had been so long since he’d worn those clothes. A belt would make a hell of a racket inside the washer and make him look like a darned fool.
He felt for the waistband of the pants he was wearing. His belt was there. Stupid. His fingers slipped into his right front pocket. The knife was there. Some days it wasn’t easy keeping track, but he made a special effort about the knife. It would be a hell of thing to wash that.