Word House

CHANGE MACHINE | December 31, 2007

That it crossed her mind to be embarrassed about being seen in a public Laundromat made her heart sink.  All that therapy and still.   Maybe it was too late to change.

Charlotte had been down the street a million times but had never noticed the Family Laundry wedged between the Mexican grocery and Subway sandwich shop.   Even the rugs and bedspreads went to the dry cleaner.  The last time she’d been in a Laundromat was college.  It was the year of the apartment, after the dorm and before the sorority.  Once a week she would lug her Santa sack of jeans and t-shirts to the university’s Suds ‘n Duds.  While the other more studious types used the time between loads to study, she passed the time taking in the people.  There was the food stamp family with the giant box of powdered detergent, the homeless man with his plastic grocery bags and empty toilet paper rolls, the dreadlocked Rasta with his backpack of balled up t-shirts — and the flip-collared co-eds like her forced to slum at the Suds. 

Now, some 20 years later, she was back, a broken washing machine, a cleaning lady off to Poland, and her own final pair of clean underwear at stake.     

Charlotte quickly made her way past the woman at the front counter to a table at the back where she emptied two garbage bags of dirty laundry into a cart.  As she sorted the darks from the whites, she heard what sounded like a slot machine unloading a win.  She turned to see the woman at the table next to hers shaking change out of a plastic peanut butter jar.

The woman’s hair.  Charlotte noticed it immediately.  Thin, like seaweed, with occasional patches of no hair at all.   What there was of it she tied in a high, tight stub of a ponytail, its’ girth no thicker than a pencil’s.  Maybe she lived in a trailer park, Charlotte thought, or her mother’s house, or with a boyfriend who abused her.  Wherever it was, Charlotte was sure the place was worn and outdated, maybe even dilapidated.  Maybe she raised pigs.  Just then one of the woman’s quarters dropped on the floor between them.  

I feel like I’m in Vegas, Charlotte said, offering a rare smile to a stranger.  She made the Vegas comment because she wanted the woman to know that despite what she saw, they were two women on equal playing fields, only this time, in this life, the roll of the dice had landed in Charlotte’s favor.  She was the lucky one only it wasn’t her fault.  The therapist had said it wasn’t her fault.    The woman picked up the quarter.        

Charlotte was almost certain the woman saw her hide her purse beneath one of the garbage bags in her cart.  And her shoes.  Charlotte couldn’t decide if the woman would recognize the label but either way, she hoped she would think they were the knock-offs.  The blond highlights, salon nails, the embroidered horse on her shirt – all of it would need explaining.  She wanted the woman to know she was not who she had dressed herself up to be.  Not anymore.

This is so much work, the woman said, pulling a sheet from the dryer.

Yeah, it takes a lot of time. 

Just then the woman’s cell phone rang.  Charlotte heard her telling the person on the other end that she needed more quarters.  I need the quarters now, she urged.  Charlotte heard her say that they should go to the car and look for the quarters and bring them to her as soon as possible.  When she hung up, Charlotte reached into her purse and pulled a $10 bill out of her wallet.  The bill was worn and rumpled and Charlotte was glad. 

Here, she said, holding out the bill.  I heard you say you need quarters.  Here, take this.

Oh, no, I can’t take that. 

Please.  Take it.  I work, Charlotte said.  She added the work part because she didn’t want the woman to think she was the kind of person who handed money to strangers just because she had it handed to her.  She wanted her to think she worked for her money, maybe in a factory or warehouse or waiting tables.

I work too, the woman said, looking a little puzzled.

Please take it.  I want you to.  At this point, Charlotte’s Good Samaritan was making her sick.  She couldn’t decide if offering the money was more about making her feel good than it was about helping the woman.  Charlotte thought the same thing every time she looked at one of those celebrities on the cover of a magazine at the checkout counter, their white picket teeth smiling as they blathered on about saving orphans and AIDS victims and girls from circumcision.  Why not do the rescuing quietly, without fanfare and photographs?  Charlotte envisioned re-telling her Laundromat story to a friend, recounting how she had given the poor trailer park woman $10 and how the woman had lit up like the birthday girl.  Charlotte promised herself she would not repeat the story.      

You’re going to make me cry, the woman said

I’m the one who’s going to cry, Charlotte said.  Take it, please.

I don’t know what to say.  This is so nice of you.  Thank you very much. 

It’s kind of beat up, Charlotte said about the bill.  I don’t know if it will work in the change machine. 

It’s okay, I just live back here. The woman motioned out the Laundromat’s open back door.  Just beyond the garbage dumpster and privacy fence Charlotte could see the apartment building.  Plastic toys and resin chairs and empty flower pots crowded its small wooden balconies.  Charlotte imagined the woman’s was the one with the purple petunias. 

My mother is coming this week, the woman said.   I’m picking her up halfway in Missouri.

Ah.  The white glove. 

Actually, she’s not like that.  She told me not to go to any trouble.  She knows I’ve been working 60 hour weeks.

Charlotte wanted to ask where she worked but she was afraid the woman would ask back and Charlotte would tell her she didn’t have the kind of job that gave you blisters and backaches and just enough money to get by.  Then, just as Charlotte would make judgments about the woman based on her job, the woman would make judgments about Charlotte based on her lack of one.   Charlotte would decide that while the woman was clearly poor and struggling, she was also a tireless worker who had never been given a break; that growing up her mother worked two jobs just to make ends meet; that her father left when she was just a baby.  Charlotte would decide the woman had been pregnant three times and the third time she had given the baby up for adoption.  She would decide the woman kept her worn and outdated apartment immaculately clean because despite her circumstances, the woman had honor and dignity and self-respect.  She never took a quarter for granted, not like Charlotte.  The woman would be glad she was not Charlotte.  Charlotte would envy her.  

Charlotte fed a quarter into the dryer.  I work in a hot warehouse, she lied.           

How do you stand it, the woman sympathized.  I couldn’t take the heat.  It’s hot enough in here, that’s for sure.

I duck into the air-conditioned offices whenever I can, she lied again.   The idea was not completely out of the realm of her experience.   Charlotte remembered her father telling her how he had escaped the heat of the factory where he packaged auto parts by claiming minor cuts and scrapes that sent him to the receptionist’s desk for the first-aid kit.   He said eventually they got so used to seeing him in the front office they put him there permanently.

Just then a boy on a skateboard rolled up to the Laundromat’s back door.  Mom, he called.  The woman shot him a narrow glance.  He looked to be about 10, the same age as Charlotte’s son.  He wore the long skater shorts popular with the boys his age and a t-shirt that read “my sister did it.”  With his hair flipped up over his ears and his frayed, dirty shoelaces, yes, he could have been Charlotte’s son.  The boy reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of quarters.  Finally, the woman sighed, and he skated off.

Here.  She held the $10 bill out to Charlotte.  Thanks so much but I’m good now.  My son brought me more quarters.

Are you sure?

Absolutely.  But it was so nice of you. 

Charlotte put the $10 back in her wallet.  It was the wallet she had picked out for herself for her birthday and given to her husband to give to the kids to wrap.  Charlotte had feigned surprise when she opened it.  Now this is nice, she had said. 

The woman was folding a towel when a truck – the kind that sat three people across the front and hauled a dog and a tool box in the back – pulled up to the back door.  Charlotte watched a heavy-set man with a shaven head step out.  Without a word, he walked up to the woman’s table, picked up one of her laundry baskets and headed back out to the car.   The woman gathered up the other basket and her peanut butter jar, along with her cell phone and a free copy of the Smart Shopper and followed him out.  She stopped at Charlotte’s table. 

Thanks again and have a nice rest of your day. 

You too, Charlotte said, not surprised that the words felt hallow, aware that the inflection in her voice could only be described as perky, wondering if anyone was watching.   Charlotte looked up at the clock.  Quarter past two.  Meghan had a pool party at 3 and wanted to wear the shirt with the eagle on the front.   Charlotte stuck her hand in the dryer.  Still damp.   She dropped in another quarter, and then another and another and another and another until all the quarters were gone.   She pushed the change lever but it was too late. 

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About author

I do PR for a writing instruments company. I have three kids. I like to write. I used to write for a newspaper. I am very busy but still find time to over-think things.

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