The following story was originally published earlier this year in The Logan Square Literary Review
Jack and Dani are sisters. It is 1995 and they are 12 and 9 respectively and they are dragging, between the two of them, four total laundry baskets down a broken-glass Des Moines August sidewalk. Jack carries a white basket with a sidehandle full of dirty towels, wash cloths and dishrags, and a taller teal basket, round, with a melted spot on one edge from where it got too close to the stove on the previous laundry day. Dani is pulling two horizontal laundry baskets, both full, one on top of the other, in a red Radio Flyer wagon. It creaks and wobbles over the rocks and cracks in the sidewalk. And when the girls get to the edge of the sidewalk, they find it is a sidewalk of height, one not paved downward in the sloping manner as to allow bicycles or wheelchairs access to easy transition from road to walk. The aggravating drop-offs of the 1980’s. The laundry does not fall.
Sweating, they push open the doors to the Blue Kangaroo laundromat, air conditioned and loud with Spanish language television. They are panting. They drag the baskets over to four side-by-side washers, $1.00 each. Jack, the oldest girl, opens one lid, looks in, smells it, closes it, moves to the next one. She does this for each washing machine. “You have to make sure no one went to the bathroom before you start.”
Dani is completely sober. “Do people do that?”
Jack starts with her taller basket. She pulls out the underwear and bras and socks by the fistful, balled up, throws them into the first washer. Before she opens the next washer to do the jeans, she hands Dani the ten dollar bill her mother gave her for the day. “Go get change.” Realistically, laundry day is about two weeks past due and under normal circumstances Jack and Dani’s mother would be doing the laundry. In fact she normally does laundry at home, but the washer broke and the guy keeps missing them. Even though Mom is sick. Mom doesn’t know when she’s going to get better. Jack and Dani have had to do a lot of the things their mother normally does since she got sick. It’s been a scary summer.
Dani stands at the change machine and it doesn’t say it takes ten dollar bills and one of the lights is blinking and there is no explanation why. She puts it in anyway and a flood of quarters drops out, loudly. She looks around to see if the other people in The Blue Kangaroo notice. They do not.
There is an old man, white, smoking. The frames of his glasses are thick and black, like his eyebrows, and the spots on his arms. His pants are light blue. He has armpit stains and his nipples are visibly hard. He is folding his clothes. There is a Mexican woman, younger than their mother, pulling clothes out of a washer on the opposite side of the olive green room. She has two tiny sons that are speaking Spanish to each other. The woman’s nipples are also visibly hard.
Dani has goosebumps on her arms and legs. She takes the quarters back to Jack who has readied all of the laundry.
“Did you put in the soap already?”
“Yes. Give me sixteen quarters.”
Dani counts out sixteen quarters and hands them to her sister. When four quarters have been placed in the four machines, Jack puts her two hands on two of the buttons and nods to Dani to do the same. Dani moves the wagon so she can get a better reach. When she is also stretched over the two machines, hands on buttons, Jack says “Now” and they push all four buttons at once. The wagon gives out under Dani who falls on her butt with a bang.
“Oh my god, Dani, are you OK?”
She smiles sheepishly with her one front tooth. “Yeahhh…”
This is when the waiting starts. They are less bored and more exhausted, sitting on the plastic mint green seats. Their mouths hang open, their minds are elsewhere. On the TV flashes images of the OJ Simpson trial. The coverage is playing nonstop in the living room for their sick and sleeping mother. But here at the Blue Kangaroo, the narration and the closed captions are in Spanish. OJ looks dejected and weathered. Dani exhales through her nose.
The two boys have gotten a hold of a bouncy ball, the kind that are about the size of a wasp egg and can hurt when whipped hard. They are whipping the ball against one wall and letting it bounce to the other wall. It echoes and the boys squeal with laughter and repeat Spanish phrases that Jack and Dani do not know.
There is a movie of Jack and Dani at around this same age, pretty close, that their Dad took before his car accident. They are wearing Dad’s shirts and ties and standing on chairs to be tall. And when you watch it you can hear his voice, saying, “Danielle, are you going to be the boss of a company?” And Dani is laughing in this high pitched squeal and covering her face with Dad’s shirt’s sleeves. And Dad is saying, “Jackie, are you going to be the boss or is Danielle?” And Jack nods and their dad asks again, “Who, you are Danielle?” And she doesn’t answer just laughs and covers her face. The movie was shot on video tape and is blurry and discolored in bad lighting the way movies from the late 1980s always are, automatically going into and out of focus on a kind of rotating timer. And the pixels add weight to their faces making their babyfat look thicker than it was.
They do not think of this movie now, here, in 1995, in this laundromat, on these plastic seats, watching these Mexican boys have a childhood. But they do think of it in relation to these boys later in life, after their mother succumbs. In fact they always associate these two things in the future; the two boys and the movie of them dressed as men. “My two sons!” their father called them, to much laughter and acclaim.
Because there is the sound of rubber ball hitting human skin amidst the loud mechanical chug of rotating washers and driers and Jack and Dani are looking over. One son has been hit in the face with the ball. The other son is hugging him and consoling him in Spanish. Dani cries.
To their right is a vending machine with bags of cotton candy. Jack knows they have no food in the house. And they haven’t eaten today. And they have six dollars left. Six dollars could buy six bags of cotton candy. But they still need to dry the clothes. Conceivably they could afford one bag of cotton candy, and still finish the laundry, Jack thinks. She hands Dani four quarters and says “Go get some cotton candy.” Dani stops crying. They share it. They both know this will be supper. It is sweet and hurts Jack’s mouth.
When the rinse cycle is finished they divide the clothes between two driers on the north wall, put in the rest of their money and start them up. However only one starts. The other one will not. And it will not return their money. In good health, their mother would likely yell at them and tell them how disappointed she was if they returned home with a basket of wet clothes. She would also be disappointed and probably angry if one girl ran home to get more money without the other. Dani is crying again.
But their mother is not well. And the girls have run out of options.
Jack makes the executive decision to load 100% of the family’s clothes into the one giant drier and restart it. At the very least, she thinks, most of their clothes will be mostly dry. And the rest will probably dry on the walk home. This heat. It is a heat they will remember for all time. The looks from the folks who drive by. The apparent dirt on their faces and arms.
They sit for the hour it takes to dry, watching the rumbling and the spinning. The sun goes down and they are leaning against one another in nascent bright fluorescent light.