28 February 2008 | Vol. 7, No. 4
At the Laundromat, she stuffs all her clothes into one dryer and optimistically puts in enough quarters for forty-five minutes. Before popping the door closed, she pulls several dryer-sheets from their box and places them among the soggy clothes. She is hoping they will help with this sensation she can't shake lately, the sensation that her clothes are all wrong. She always feels itchy, and she can't help thinking it might be more than her wardrobe that makes her want to shed her skin.
Aisha is thirty-one years old and seventeen weeks along. She has brought a copy of Crime and Punishment to the Laundromat with her, but she cannot concentrate on the story, keeps getting lost in the long, unfamiliar names. She sits, watching her clothes spin, the silk arm of her favorite, fading blouse cascading down over a tangle of jeans and underwear. She has just this week had to retire most of her regular pants, which she had long been tugging down to her pelvic bone, for maternity wear. And watching her old clothes in the dryer gives her an overwhelming sense of futility. She thinks she would like to go into labor now. She would like to push the little pink thing out of her body and into the world, even if it were to be born a helpless pound and a half. Moments like these, she thinks it is more likely that the baby could survive in a fluorescent NICU than in her agonized and frustrated body. She feels as if the baby has stretched her, made her skin literally too thin. The difference between hunger and nausea is minute, pleasure and pain almost nonexistent.
Watching the clothes, Aisha is about to articulate to herself a litany of anger that makes her tired. Why is she at the Laundromat? Because her husband is away. Why is her husband away? Because he joined the fucking Marines, and there is something wrong with the country. Why does that mean she has to do her own laundry and prepare her own food and watch movies alone? She cannot fathom. She is thirty-one years old, and she never wanted anything so much as to be married to the man she loves and to have a child with him. And she had thought, all those years when they tried to conceive, that she knew and loved her husband better than anyone she could even imagine. But what kind of man joins the Marines when there is a war going on? She could never have imagined herself in this Laundromat across the street from a strip designed for the eighteen-year-old children who are most of the Marines, her husband's new colleagues. Her husband had decided an incredibly brief eight and a half months ago, that it was time to do something different with his life. Even the KFC/Taco Bell, the pay advance storefront, the tattoo parlor, and nudie-bar lined up like men at attention across from the laundry and one block from their on-base house had not changed his mind. Or if it had, he had stoically decided not to discuss with his wife what it was too late to change. And then he was gone. Now he has been gone for two months.
The dryer stops. A whole new outrage quickens inside her. "Fuck," she says out loud. "Fuck," she says it again because, she figures, once you start talking to yourself in public there's no point going back. She remembers putting her penultimate quarter into the machine. She fingers the last from the depleted stack where it lies like a betrayal in her pocket. If the dryer is broken, the prospect of hauling her clothes home wet seems as impossible as finding more quarters. Aisha lays her hand on the glass door of the dryer, wishing it warm, wishing herself into an alternate reality where she is wearing a bikini and rolling off the edge of an in-ground pool into the cool, chlorinated abyss. The dryer is cold and motionless. Her clothes intractably wet and silent.
"Fuck." There are tears dripping down onto her belly and her breasts. She remembers when bodies were funny or forbidden instead of purely utilitarian in the service of others: men, children, nations.
Aisha can't even make herself turn around. This man's voice makes her squeamish.
"Is there something I can do to help?" It is McNally, standing behind her. She doesn't know his first name, and has never before known him to speak. Everyone on base calls him Egg. The tone of his voice is flattened. Egg McNally. His mother or someone runs the laundry, and Egg is the retarded sentinel, guarding the place day and night from overloaded washers or dye and latex in the dryers. He is so named because he never talks, and never reads or watches TV, just sits in his chair averting his eyes from the customers and sometimes, slowly peeling the hardboiled eggs everyone assumes his mother cooks for him. Now, Aisha is more afraid than surprised to hear him talk. She is afraid that Egg McNally will touch her shoulder or belly, will try to make some gesture of comfort with his yolk-smelling hands.
"No," she says. "I'm fine. Your dryer's broken." She suddenly feels like those women she has read about in Reader's Digest. They lift school buses off their grade-schoolers or un-flip tractors their teenagers are pinned beneath. Aisha has the superhuman strength to pile her wet clothes into the basket and hump them a mile home on her back if she has to to protect her fetus from this man with a pate like the shell of a soft-boiled. She grabs the laundry basket from the folding table and pulls open the door to the dryer.
"Wait," says Egg.
"No, no. It's fine."
"Wait," he says again, and puts his hand on the door to the dryer, pushing it closed.
Aisha hears jingling, and closes her eyes. Egg slides five more quarters into the slot and gently presses the buttons for "medium heat" and "start" in a cryptic pattern. The dryer whirs back into the motion and warmth of life. Aisha is defeated. She turns around to face this man, embarrassed. "Thank you." She is staring at his skin. He is so pale and stiff he looks calcified.
Egg bobs his head, like a poached going under in a pot of water, and retreats to his seat on the orange plastic chair by the door. Aisha is deeply ashamed. And then she notices Egg McNally's ear. The sun from the plate-glass window is shining through the membrane, and Aisha thinks she has never seen anything so beautiful. His ear is perfectly shaped and she can see a fine web of pink veins through his pale skin. She licks her lips, thinking suddenly of tonguing the rim of this ear.
She looks again at Egg, starts imagining a life for him. She can see a small apartment above the Laundromat, where he lives quietly with his mother. His room is a perfect museum. Sculptures made by this solid, retarded genius, all out of quarters. He has quarter telephones, quarter fruits, intricate quarter birds—cranes like metallic origami, silver shining hummingbirds caught in still flutter. She imagines lying down with Egg on a bed made entirely of coins, his fat fingers tracing the midline of her burgeoning belly down to the hem of her old underwear. She can see in her mind his hands turning to quarters themselves, making a ringing sound as his knuckles flex against her. She can taste the sweat of the many hands that have touched the coins making up his ear, as she runs her tongue into it. She sees his eyes, looking newly-minted. Aisha surreptitiously touches her right nipple, hard beneath her maternity blouse. "Mr. McNally," she says, her voice echoing in the empty storefront. "Do you think—could you—"
"What?" he says.
Aisha isn't sure what she wants. She wants and is repelled by this man. She can see herself moving her right hand down the front of his pants. She can almost feel the rough material of his work pants, the swelling softness beneath. She cannot possibly ask him to touch her. "Come here," she says. He obeys, and she takes his hand and presses it to her breast. Egg jumps back as if she has burned him. Aisha feels more shame than she has ever felt, but she also feels safe. Egg does not understand what has happened, and so will not tell. She fumbles in her pocket for the wrapped half of the sandwich she couldn't finish at lunch. "Would you like this?" She asks dumbly, holding out the squished tuna fish.
Egg moves slowly back toward her. He reaches out to her, but then withdraws his hand. "No," he says. "My mother says not to take from strangers." He hesitates, puts one foot atop the other in a childish gesture that is all wrong for his large frame. "No," he says again, finally.
"It's okay," Aisha says. Egg goes back to his seat, and Aisha is left with her laundry, still spinning beautifully and undeniably in the fixed dryer.
About the author:
Amy is Assistant Professor of College Composition at Pine Manor College. She has had fiction published in literary journals, including Juked, Quick Fiction, and Fringe, and her work appears in the anthology Brevity and Echo. Her collection Wanting will be published by Rose Metal Press as part of the book A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women in March of 2008. Her online home is overtimewriting.com. Amy has always secretly wanted to be an astronaut.