(Thanks to Michelle Robson for the title)
Wade Miller saw the girl standing in the darkness outside the laundromat’s window. She reminded him of a fawn, gangly and stalky, with wet brown eyes. Wade glanced at the clock hanging above the row of slumbering dryers. Almost midnight. He wondered what a teenage girl was doing on the streets at this hour. When he turned back to the window, the girl had vanished.
Wade finished sorting his clothes, dumping his colours into one of the washers. Leaving everything else stacked on a neighbouring machine, he went to the back counter. The clerk was watching a black and white television, the volume low.
“Can I get some change?”
As the clerk reached for the cashbox under the counter, he said, “I know you.”
“You’ve been here before,” the clerk said. “Your name’s Wayne, right?”
“Wade!” The clerk slapped the countertop. “I never forget a face.”
“I’m impressed,” Wade said. He’d come to the Electric Laundromat six months earlier, in the wee hours, just as he had now.
“You should be,” the clerk said. “These days not many people remember a face. Neighbours don’t know each other. Walk around like strangers.”
The clerk put a battered metal cashbox on the counter and unlocked it.
“I live above the laundry-mat, but I used to have a house downtown. Moved in, a month later the neighbours have a six-foot fence. God forbid you see each other. And walk over to borrow something? Forget it.” He opened the cashbox. “How much you need?”
“Five,” Wade said, tossing a wrinkled bill onto the counter.
The clerk counted quarters. “Even the people in here act like they’re invisible. That’s one of the reasons I remembered you: you talk, shoot the shit. You’re a salesman, right?”
“Two for two.”
“Bam!” the clerk said, slapping the countertop again. “A face, a name, a profession. Nothing gets by. You meet a lot of people in your line?”
“Any of them willing to make conversation? You ever eaten lunch at the same table as a stranger?”
“No,” Wade said. “Most people aren’t interested in that.” Being a salesman didn’t open a lot of doors to casual friendships. Wade was seen as a pushy purveyor of stuff few people wanted. People were often openly hostile to him.
The clerk dumped a handful of change into Wade’s hand. “Five bucks.”
Wade jingled the change, resisting the urge to count it. “Thanks.”
“You remember my name?”
A good salesman remembers the names of important customers and contacts, but Wade saw so many people on a daily basis that remembering one laundromat clerk was impossible. He struggled to turn on the charm and disarm the man with a smile, but he was too tired.
“Sorry,” Wade said.
“No problem,” the clerk replied. He stuck out a hand. “Name’s John. Owner-operator of the Electric Laundromat.”
Wade shook John’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Wade smiled. “Again.”
Wade sat down, stretched out his legs and closed his eyes. The clerk’s TV was sputtering noise. Beneath that, the neon sign out front crackled and buzzed. It was a familiar sound. The city had an undercurrent of electricity, buzzing like a hive of wasps. Wade had once longed for that tingling sensation. The city lights and barren highways had been a drug. It only figured that, sooner or later, he would overdose.
The clothes in the washer made a sound that lulled him into a groggy state of half-sleep. He fingers constricted out of habit, as if holding a steering wheel. He was driving in his sleep. He twitched, waking himself up.
The clerk was watching from behind the counter.
“You look beat.”
Embarrassed, Wade got to his feet and stretched. His spine crackled. “Long day.”
“I hear you,” the clerk said. “You got a smoke?”
Wade fished a pack of cigarettes from his shirtfront pocket and walked to the counter. “Here,” he said, giving the pack a shake and holding it out.
The clerk took two cigarettes, lighting one and tucking the other behind his ear. Wade felt a flare of irritation.
Wade put a cigarette in his mouth. He’d been married a lifetime ago. She’d left, tired of waiting at home while he travelled.
“Better deal,” the clerk said.
“I’m gonna get some air.”
Wade stood in the doorway, where the warmth of the laundromat pushed against the cold, damp night. It had rained earlier, and the sidewalk glistened. The neon sign threw down a flickering orange glow that shimmered on the oily black puddles. Wade finished his cigarette and flicked it into the street. As he did so, he saw the girl on the opposite sidewalk, in the narrow alcove between two buildings. Her skin looked alabaster in the gloom.
Back inside, the washers were going into the spin cycle, roaring like turbines. Wade sat down, straightening his legs and crossing his ankles.
“The air wake you up?” John asked.
“We’ll see,” Wade said. “Hey, you know a girl that hangs around here? Young, brown hair?”
“Is she back again?” John got up from behind the counter, irritation on his face.
“Across the street.”
John marched to the door and peered into the night. “She can stay there.”
“What’s the matter?”
“She’s a pain in my ass,” John said. “Damn street kid, ran away from some nice middle-class house in the ‘burbs. I used to let her come in out of the cold. Then she started to expect it.” He returned to the counter.
“What’s her name?”
“Damned if I know. Ain’t got the time to remember the names of every kid that wants a handout.”
The washers thumped to a stop, almost in unison. “I guess,” Wade said. He went to work transferring his damp clothes to the dryers. He closed the dryers and dropped in his change. The machines jumped to life, turning the clothes in an endless, thumping loop.
“You got another smoke?”
Wade glanced at John’s ear. The cigarette was still tucked there.
“Sure.” Wade handed the clerk another cigarette.
“Don’t get me wrong,” John said. “I’m as sympathetic as the next guy, but sometimes sympathy ain’t what people need. You know?”
Wade thought about the long hours on the road and his lost family.
“Yeah,” he said. “I know.”
It was just past one a.m. when the girl stepped into the Electric Laundromat. Wade straightened up in his chair, moving slowly, afraid that if he startled her she might bolt. She was looking at the counter.
“He’s upstairs,” Wade said. “You can come in.”
She came inside, eyes flitting anxiously. She was young, as Wade had suspected. She wore a pair of blue jeans that hung loose on her hips and an oversized white t-shirt. Her feet were bare and dirty. She went to the dryers and put her palms against the warm metal. Shivered with pleasure. Wade took his eyes away from her and cleared his throat.
“Is it cold out there?”
She leaned forward, breath fogging up the dryer’s round glass window. “Chilly,” she said.
Beyond the Laundromat’s front window a bus went past, a tired driver on the late shift. Water sprayed around the oversized tires.
The girl opened a door next to the dryers. Inside a closet were some cleaning supplies and rags. There was also a length of straightened coat hanger. The girl grabbed it.
“This is mine,” she told Wade. “He took it from me.”
She moved from machine to machine, getting down on one knee and sweeping the coat hanger through the dark spaces underneath. Coins rattled and clanked. From underneath one machine she got a five-dollar bill and a package of gum.
“You’d be surprised at what you find,” she told Wade. “A lot of people don’t even realize they’ve lost something until it’s gone.”
A door closed overhead. The girl hurried to the front door. Wade got to his feet, expecting her to disappear into the night. Instead she tossed the coat hanger outside.
“I told you, it’s mine.”
Wade raised his hands in mock-surrender. “I didn’t disagree.”
Another sound upstairs. Footsteps creaking on old wood. “He lives up there,” the girl said. “Don’t know how he can stand it. It’s so humid the wallpaper is coming off.”
“What’s your name?”
The girl looked at Wade, eyes turned down at the corners. “Why?”
“Just being friendly,” Wade said. He tried not to think about how much she reminded him of his ex-wife.
“I don’t need friendly.”
“What do you need?”
John’s footsteps thumped on the stairs as he descended from his overhead apartment.
The girl’s face softened. Underneath the hard edges, there was a young, scared girl. Perhaps she had run away from a good home, but she might have had reasons.
“Hey!” John shouted, emerging from a doorway behind the counter. “I told you to stay the hell outta here.”
The girl moved toward the door. The look of stark, animal ferocity on her face surprised Wade. He stepped between John and the girl, raising a hand.
“Hold on, John,” he said. “She just needs a chance to warm up. Besides, we were talking.”
John’s eyes were flinty and mistrustful. He put a hand on the dryer, feeling it pulse under his palm.
“It won’t hurt anything.”
The girl stood in the doorway, one foot on the rainy sidewalk. Neon light crackled around her ankle.
“Fine,” John said. “But she can’t stay long.” He pointed at the girl. “I’m only doin’ this ’cause Wade’s a good fella.”
The girl remained where she was, saying nothing.
John returned to the counter. When his back was turned, the girl raised one hand and flipped her middle finger. Wade stifled a laugh as the girl crossed to where he sat and hopped up on an idle washing machine.
“My name’s Tasha.”
Tasha sat on the washing machine, swinging her feet. Her heels bumped against it with a hollow sound.
“I didn’t ask.”
“I know. But you were wondering.”
Wade sat up, aware of John watching from behind the counter, anger clouding his forehead. “I thought you were younger.”
“How old are you?”
Her feet bumped the washing machine.
She looked at him, brown eyes unflinching. Wade shifted. “What?”
“You don’t look that old. My dad’s forty.”
“Do you live at home?”
She laughed, a derisive sound. “No way. I got the fuck outta there a year ago.”
The word “fuck” sounded like a broken piece of concrete when she said it.
“Why?” Wade asked.
Wade expected a tale of woe, something about an abusive father or an alcoholic mother. All the typical cliches.
“My parents didn’t want me to grow up. I told them they could go to hell. They said I could get out. They didn’t mean it, but I went.”
From behind the counter, John said, “See? What’d I tell you? Spoiled kids!”
Wade ignored him. Tasha removed a package of gum from her pocket and unwrapped it. “Gum?”
She chewed, eyes roaming the laundromat. Her fingers tapped against the washing machine, as if in tune with the subtle, electrical hum of the city. Wade’s fingers were motionless on his thighs.
“You got a cigarette?” Tasha asked.
Wade fished the package from his pocket and held it out. Tasha took one and said, “Thanks.”
Tasha lit the cigarette. She smoked clumsily, as if she had only recently taken up the habit. Wade felt like he was sitting across from his own daughter, everything unsaid between them.
She turned her hand, exhaling smoke. As she did so, Wade noticed the ugly lines of white scar tissue on the inside of her arms.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
“I saw a coffee shop a couple of blocks down. I thought I’d get a coffee, something to eat. I could get you something.”
“I have money,” Tasha said. “I don’t need goddamn charity.”
“I never meant that.”
“What did you mean, then? Forty-year old guy, wanting to buy me something to eat. That’s fucking creepy.”
Wade got to his feet. “Forget I asked.” He grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair. It was raining again, drops pattering against the window.
Biting her lower lip, Tasha said, “Coffee.”
Wade turned. “That’s it?”
He glanced at the dryers. “Keep an eye on my stuff?”
“As long as it’s all right with him,” Tasha said, jerking a thumb in John’s direction.
“John?” Wade asked.
“Do what you want,” John said.
“I guess that’s a ‘yes’.” Wade walked to the door and paused, turning. “Cream or sugar?”
A nod, and he stepped outside into the cold drizzle.
When Wade came back he was drenched. The rain had gone from a drizzle to a downpour.
“You look drowned,” John said.
Wade placed a cardboard tray on the nearest washer. It held two cups of coffee and a bag containing five donuts.
“I am,” he said. He pulled off his jacket and shook it. As he did so he noticed the empty silence of the laundromat. Both dryers had stopped. Rain pelted the roof and window.
“You miss her already?”
Wade hung his jacket on the back of his chair. “She didn’t leave, did she?”
“Your sweetie’s using the facilities.” He pointed to an unmarked green door set between two banks of washing machines.
Wade went to the dryers and opened them. One load of clothes felt dry and fresh; the other was still damp. He fed the rest of his change into the dryer and started a new cycle.
“There ain’t no reason to feel sorry for her. Kid like that doesn’t need to be runnin’ the streets. She’s got a bad attitude.”
“Is that what you don’t like about her?”
“Never said I don’t like her. But when she comes around here, getting all high and mighty, I don’t need it.”
Wade began folding his clothes. “I don’t understand the problem.”
“You never will, then. Girl like that pushes buttons to get what she wants, laughs about it afterward. Christ, she picks up loose change from under my machines. How good could she be?”
Wade kept folding clothes. His eyes went to the bathroom door.
“Not that I care what she digs out from under my machines. I’m not gonna waste my time scrounging around under there.”
“I don’t know,” Wade said. “Sometimes it’s worth poking around. Never know what you’ll find.”
John waved a hand. “I know exactly what I’ll find.”
Wade placed his clothes into a green duffel. He looked at the bathroom door again.
“How long has she been in there?”
John’s TV made an inaudible noise under the drumming sound of the rain.
“Hell if I know.”
Wade found himself thinking about the white twists of scar tissue on her arms. An image formed in his mind. Tasha, a towel knotted around her neck, hanging from a hook on the back of the door. He could see her swollen, blue face and bulging eyes. He hurried to the door and knocked.
“Tasha? You all right in there?”
He knocked again.
“Jesus, buddy, give it a rest,” John said.
“Tasha? It’s Wade.”
When his knocks went unanswered a second time, Wade put a hand on the doorknob. It turned. As the door opened Wade’s thoughts swung from things such as suicide or a drug overdose to something as simple as an open window, marking Tasha’s disappearance into the night.
Instead he found Tasha standing at a dirty sink, her t-shirt raised. She was using paper towels to clean away dirt and grime from her stomach and under her arms. Wade stammered an apology, his eyes drawn to the pale underside of one breast.
Tasha turned in his direction. He looked, aware of the line of her ribs. His eyes came up, passed the white swell of her breasts, to her face.
She was crying. Her hair was pushed away from her face. One cheek was mottled red.
Water was running into the dirty sink. Tasha splashed it on her face, smudging away the tears.
“Nothing,” she said. “The same nothing that always happens.”
She looked at him, eyes pleading.
Wade looked over his shoulder. John was pretending to watch TV, but his shoulders were stiff with alert tension.
“Was it John?”
“Why don’t you come inside?” Tasha asked. She lifted her t-shirt around her throat. Her breasts were small, the nipples dark and hard.
Wade shook his head and took a step toward Tasha. “No,” he said.
Tasha lowered her hands but her shirt remained bunched around her shoulders. A sob wracked her body. “It’s okay.”
“I know,” Wade said. He could suddenly hear the dry crackle of the neon sign out front, deafening above the crashing rain.
Tasha sat on top of the washing machine, hands in her lap. Wade sat across from her on a chair. His rain-soaked jacket had dripped onto the seat and made it damp. At the counter, John sat with his back to them, eyes on the television.
Wade handed Tasha her coffee and a powdered donut. She dunked it into the sugary liquid, eating with slow, methodical bites. Wade did the same, sugar sticking to his fingertips.
“I like to stand at the end of the block at night, when everything’s dark, and look at laundromat. It shines. And the sign out front looks cool, the neon. You know?”
“Yeah,” Wade said.
“When you get closer, it doesn’t look so nice. The sign is faded and the windows are dirty. I don’t like the sound the sign makes. It’s like a big bug or something, scratching around in the dark.”
Wade finished his second donut. “Why don’t you go back home?”
“I can’t. Even if they want me.”
Wade set his coffee aside. Across the way, the dryer stopped, filling the laundromat with silence.
“My stuff’s done.”
He crossed the room and opened the dryer, leaving sugary-white fingerprints on the door. Tasha said, “You should wash your hands first.”
Wade stepped into the dingy bathroom, flipping the light switch with his elbow. As the door swung closed, he turned on the water and rinsed his fingers. He felt exhausted, the weight of the night pressing down on his shoulders. He longed for home.
He dried his hands on a few sheets of paper towel, which he discarded into an overflowing trashcan. When he stepped out of the bathroom, Tasha was gone.
Wade unloaded the dryer and carried his clothes to his chair. He didn’t bother to fold them, choosing instead to just stuff the whole bunch into his duffel bag. He closed the zipper and grabbed his jacket. As he pulled it on, he realized that the inside pocket was empty.
He reached inside, stirring his fingers around. His wallet was gone.
John turned on his stool. “Something wrong, buddy?”
“She took my wallet.”
John laughed. “Can’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Wade sighed. “I guess not.”
“You’re a good fella, but you’re none too bright.”
Wade gathered up his duffel and made his way to the door. On the threshold, bathed in the neon glow of the Electric Laundromat’s sign, lay the straightened length of coat hanger. He picked it up.
Wade set his duffel bag down and approached the bank of dryers, aware of John’s watchful gaze. Wade dropped to a knee and fished underneath the dryers with the coat hanger.
“What are you doing?”
Wade didn’t reply. He went from one machine to the next, the coat hanger rattling in the dark, dusty spaces beneath. He found seventy-five cents in change, a pair of sunglasses and his wallet.
“Hell, that’s a surprise,” John said.
Wade dropped the change and the sunglasses onto a washing machine, then opened his wallet.
“She take your money?”
Wade closed his wallet and picked up his duffel bag. Throwing it over his shoulder, he made his way to the door. The cool night air had fogged up the front window, giving the night a milky, translucent hue.
“She did, didn’t she?” John asked.
Wade paused in the doorway, his wallet in one hand. “Yeah, she did.”
John slapped the countertop. “Bam! Right on the money again.” John shook his head and turned back to his TV. “See ya around, buddy.”
Stepping into the cool rainy night, Wade slipped his wallet into his pocket. For a few moments he stood in the rain, casting his eyes up and down the street. Behind him, the Electric Laundromat’s sign buzzed and crackled. A big bug, scratching a the night, he thought.
Shouldering his duffel bag, he walked through the rain to where his car waited at the curb.