Published in Panhandler Issue 1
Jeff Parker’s first novel Ovenman will be published by Tin House Books this year. His short fiction has appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Ploughshares, Hobart, Columbia and other journals. He teaches creative writing at Eastern Michigan University and is the Russia Program Director of the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg. This story is part of a cycle of James stories done in collaboration with artist William Powhida and titled The Back of the Line, forthcoming from DECODE Art Publishers.
James’s Love of Laundromats
What I am supposed to be doing is taking James to the bank and having him sign an Affidavit of Responsibility for the three thou in phone sex bills he charged up on my girlfriend’s phone. She wants no more dealings with him so it falls to me, his best friend. The Affidavit of Responsibility is something that can clear her credit if James doesn’t pay up. James is supposed to be paying up, but he doesn’t appear to be doing that.
What he appears to be doing is test-driving mopeds. He appears to be sweet-talking the sales guy, and when we get the keys to two spanking new Vespas we appear to be going around the block when what we are doing is stealing them and cruising the streets in search of a new Laundromat.
Our old Laundromat, run by our friend Rodney with hands like pinchers, had gone out of business. The concept had failed. I never liked that combo Laundromat/bar anyway. Drunk people were always dropping their socks.
We leave downtown and enter the ‘villes. James has something very specific in mind. We know we have about thirty minutes tops before the moped people catch on. Near the dry part of town, between Clintonville and Woodville, he cuts me off, swerving into the parking lot of a little strip mall with a Korean grocery and a Battery-Mart. We cruise into the back and roll the mopeds down an embankment into some sewer runoff. Then we double back.
What is it? I say.
A potential, he says.
Shouldn’t we hit the bank? I say
We’ll do it later, today’s our only day off.
We only work half days, but half days turn into whole days when James is around, and days turn into weekends and weekends into weeks and etc. It’s just the way it happens. Next to the Battery-Mart is a dark window that says Cowtown Herps, and I go in there while James checks out the Laundromat.
It smells like moss. A hippie girl is changing a millipede’s litter. Little alligators are stacked in black tubs and their mouths electrical-taped.
You’ve heard of the snakehead? I ask.
I’ve heard, she says.
Happened to have one?
No, sir. That’s an illegal fish.
What’s a legal alligator?
Want to see his papers?
An alligator’s got papers?
Everything’s got papers.
What’s a shame, I say.
Wait a sec, she says. You know anything about a snakehead?
I know they can walk.
She goes over to a tank and reaches her arm in to the shoulder, wetting her sleeve. She takes an embryo-looking fish out by the head. She drops it on the linoleum where it flops around.
You call that walk? she says.
It’s got flounder skin, I say.
It has the motion of walk, back and forth, one side then the other on these flimsy front fins. It basically turns a circle.
He’s cute now, but within the year, he’ll outgrow that tank. If you sit where he can see you a lot, he’ll love you.
Thanks, I say.
When I walk out I hear the ploosh of the snakehead returned to the tank.
The Laundromat is wide and empty except for the most sterling steel washing and drying equipment. Everything new under fluorescent lights. The Laundromat/bar had hundred-year-old gunk, beige machines tinted purple by lint. The smell of onions about the place. The dryers here exhale, I would say. The washers—petite toploaders to super industrials, which, a sign claims, can take up to sixteen sheets at one time.
The only thing old is the sound system, like spaghetti strainers installed in the ceiling. The sound comes out with a hiss: In just five weeks, you too can conquer death. Order now to try our program free, and you’ll soon be death free.
James has his arm around a small Korean man, who is smiling.
I’ve got a million ideas for you, Steve, James says. Euphotopia.
Wednesdays, we’re gate-check squad. There are sixty-nine functioning gate arms on campus, which spans less than four square miles. We check each one. We drive a golf cart with a pickup bed. When we find a broken one, and there can be many, especially after football, we have two options: 1) If it snapped close to the mechanism (Reattachment Acceptable), we saw off the splintered end and salvage it. It will still obstruct most of the roadway. 2) If it’s broken anywhere near the middle, we chunk it in the Unusable Crate and bolt on a new one.
We make them over by the bus facility because Immediate Supervisor, whose name is Rectifor but who we call Immediate Supervisor, says they cost $200 each from gate arm companies and it’s only $20 per with me and James slapping them together. We cut them out of soft pine and attach bendable Plexiglass pieces on the end like Immediate Supervisor wants. James saws the Unusables into shelves for his locker.
I am frustrated with our job and it has a lot to do with the following essential truth: gate arms are not designed to stop anything. You can crack them by looking at them funny. I’m like, if we’re going to make gate arms, why don’t we make gate arms? Something that will really stop somebody or damage some paint? What’s the purpose? And for what purpose are we replacing them all the time if they have no purpose?
The only time we see Immediate Supervisor is when we’re handing in the Gate Arm Status Report Sheets. Other than that, everyone pretty much leaves us alone there, which isn’t exactly what we want, since we’re going for full-time.
James has the broken gate arm radar. Out of the sixty-nine he can take us direct to the broken ones. Today he is glazy, distant, but still he zeros in on the broken gate arms, and at his direction we hit the West Stadium side first.
Do you know why I love Laundromats? James says, as I am sawing off a splintered end. We sit on the grass to do this and the business of the day—buses, shuttle, bikes, skateboards, cars with permits and cars without—goes by unimpeded.
Why do these gate arms even exist? I say.
Because they’re warm. The sound of dryers is a lullaby. If you go into a high-end one, that smell, all Snuggles. You can play video games, eat gumballs, and get change for free. But let me take the interlocution farther: Question: What is warmer than a Laundromat? Answer: A Laundromat that allows you to snooze, near-naked in an MRI-like tube of fluorescent bulbs, which cook your body while its compatriot machines wash and then heat your clothes to a toasty warm. Warmth, in totale.
I understand it is about the impression of obstruction, but I can’t help but feel even more useless than when I didn’t have a job, always replacing them when they fail to perform the function they are designed to fail to perform, I say.
I have proposed—and Steve has accepted my proposal—that he incorporate into his Laundromat a tanning facility. Whereas most salons sell thirty-minute or hour-long, Steve’s Korean Laundry & Tan’s increments will be associated with your wash cycle. At mid-tan you walk out, transfer your clothes, re-up your dryer time and back to tan based on that particular dryer increment.
Forcefields, I say. Forcefields are the future of vehicle-access control. Not these toothpicks. I crack the remains of an Unusable over my knee.
I have a feeling there’s some serious work for us over by Research Library, he says.
We pack up and watch one of our new gate arms raise for a Fritos truck.
Immediate Supervisor comes on the walkie-talkie.
Immediate Supervisor, I say. And just then my Nokia buzzes. It’s my girlfriend. I drive the cart with my knee and listen to the walkie-talkie with my right ear, the Nokia with my left.
What are you doing after work? my girlfriend says.
Where are you? Immediate Supervisor says.
We’re test-driving mopeds, I say to her. We’re right here, I say to him.
I cheated on you again last night, she says.
Where’s here? Immediate Supervisor says.
His gate arm bigger than mine? I say.
Oh, honey, she says, like tossing a hotdog down a hallway.
Wherever you are, Immediate Supervisor says, get you and your wacko guy over to Research Library. Someone battering-rammed it.
James and I hear the sound of urethane on asphalt. We turn our heads in time to see a rollerblader snap through a gate arm we’d just replaced and speed away down the hill.
James and Steve unpack the tanning bed and I go visit the Herp girl. Maybe it’s the ease with which she handles things that bite. I cringe to reach for a teddy bear hamster. She has no fear.
Can we try the snakehead in mud? I say. My feeling is it can walk in mud. We can clear the alligators out of one of these tubs and pack it with mud, then that thing will go.
What snakehead? she says.
The one you threw on the floor the other day.
That wasn’t a snakehead. That was a particular catfish which happens to resemble a snakehead. Like I said, snakehead’s not legal.
We are standing across from each other, separated by the small cages of the millipedes and tarantulas.
But even if it was a snakehead, she says, which it’s not, it couldn’t walk in mud. It’s a myth, that they walk from lake to lake decimating populations. Thing’s got bad press. Might be legal if it weren’t for that kind of dis. They decimate populations, sure, eat everything with gills, sure, some amphibians, sure, but they, meaning snakeheads, which is not what is over in that tank in this licensed pet shop subject to wildlife laws and regulations of this fine state, do not walk, period.
She leans across the counter, resting her breasts on a tarantula cage. The tarantula tries to attack them through the aerated lid. It hops at her breasts, but she doesn’t seem to care. She sniffs my shoulder.
You have the essence of broth, she says. After the boil. I can smell you coming a mile off.
I eat a lot of soups, I say.
The Laundromat is empty. I go back into what used to be the office but is now the tanning facility. Steve and James are standing in front of a high-tech coffin and puzzling over the directions. They’ve stapled a poster of a waterfall on the wall and they are piping in some fuzzy bird chirping from the old spaghetti speakers.
You’re in luck, James says. You just won a free tan.
Steve looks at James. Free? he says. Steve and James confer quietly in the corner.
I don’t want a tan, I say.
Come on, man, James says. That pet store girl is crazy about guys with tans. She probably lives for the beach.
What do I do?
Lay your shit down, hombre. I’ll come get you in twenty.
Could stand a little color, I guess.
That’s the spirit, James says.
I strip down to my boxers and James hands me a pair of Ray Bans. I climb in and hear a switch flip and these long tubes light up. It warms quickly, and I start to think James was right about this. It’s nice.
I close my eyes underneath the Ray Bans, taking in the hum of the bulbs and the bird chirping. Earlier, when we’d hit Research Library, there were twelve downed gate arms, none of them broken near the mechanism, so they all went in the Unusable Crate, which on one hand made our jobs easier because there was no sawing, only bolting involved, but which on the other hand always seemed needlessly wasteful to me.
We felt good about our day, like we’d worked at our useless job, until Immediate Supervisor came by to collect our Gate Arm Status Report Sheets and said that there’s a budget crunch, that the increased destruction of gate arms isn’t helping any—so by the way we might lower the size of the Reattachment Acceptable or even duct tape some ends onto the longer Unusables. But whatever, there’s a very real possibility he’s going to have to let one of us go.
I have the broken gate arm radar, James immediately said.
Hey, I said. Here he was, turning it into a competition again, always at my expense. And in this case he had the edge. I had no practical skill which would give me an advantage over him in replacing gate arms. Maybe I could saw faster or bolt quicker, but probably not. If he could shave off precious seconds of the workday by driving direct to the brokens, how was I to compete?
hen I wake up, there is the sense that something is wrong. The feeling of being inside the tanning machine has changed. It sears. I push the lid off the coffin and sit up. My arms, my whole body is chalky and pink. I pull on my clothes, which burn when they touch my skin.
Steve and James are leaned over the Korean Bible in the main area of the Laundromat. I come around in front of them and they don’t even look until I wave a pink hand in front of the Bible.
Wait a sec, James says.
Steve points to a squiggle and tells James that it means Job.
You guys maybe forget something?
Man. You look all crabby, James says.
Timer, Steve says.
Timer, James says. Hey, we were thinking of hiring some good looking tan bitches. Maybe your girlfriend would do it?
I am standing here burnt to a crisp, I say.
You are burnt, he says. It’s a significant burn, acknowledged.
Speaking of my girlfriend, we need to get ourselves to the bank, I say.
James points at another squiggle in the Bible. Steve opens up his Korean-English dictionary. Faces of the ground, Steve says.
As soon as I have time, I’m going, James says. I agreed to sign the little paper.
I say, Catch you at the schoolhouse. I take the bus home but it hurts to sit.
A cold shower brings out the red. My girlfriend rubs a special aloe cooling agent all over my body. It is one of the best nights we’ve shared until she boots me to the couch because, she says, I emanate too much heat. By morning I already peel.
I formulate my own proposal, looking to put me one up in the initiative category and make more work for us, which means more hours which means more payola. When Immediate Supervisor collects our Gate Arm Status Report Sheets, I pose a question: Who breaks our gate arms the most, Immediate Supervisor? I say.
It’s Fall, he says. Why are you so red?
Drunk people, James says.
Drunk people in cars, drunk people walking, drunk people riding bikes, Immediate Supervisor says. Students who don’t want to pay. Students who want to park where they’re not supposed to. Though they have universal remote openers for gate arms, emergency vehicles crash through them rather than waiting for them to rise.
There’s nothing we can do about some of those, and maybe not even a freak occurrence like this Research Library thing the other day. But when mostly do all those drunks you mentioned do their damage?
Football days, he says.
Football days, I say. Of which tomorrow is one of those.
Listening, he says.
I propose that James and I, tonight and all subsequent football day eves, remove every gate arm on campus for its own protection. I believe this may be a cost-saving maneuver.
Immediate Supervisor tips his head back and mouths some numbers.
You may be onto something, he says. Do it.
So we log some overtime unbolting all sixty-nine gate arms from the mechanisms and after work, like usual, there is no time for the bank. James doesn’t bring it up, and I won’t bring it up. Instead we sit in the Laundromat opening and closing dryer doors, appreciating the suction of the seals, pulling out the lint screens and admiring their lack of fuzz.
Steve brings bowls of something that looks to be nipples in rice for the three of us from the Korean Grocery. The brown oblongs have little asterisks on one side. I opt out. James eats mine. He pops the things into his mouth like it’s a good old time. Steve and James take fifteen-minute turns in the tanning machine. Their skin tones have achieved the greasy bronze of fried chicken.
I go to visit the Herp girl, who loves to pull the peeling skin from the back of my neck and feed it to the fish. She is giddy about the prospect whenever I come in. Except now, when I push through the door, she cold shoulders me. At the sight of me under the threshold of the still jingling door chimes she reaches for a small puff adder and drapes it around her neck, knowing that I won’t approach her like that.
It’s an interesting tongue on that necklace, I say from across the store.
She says nothing. She flips through a sea horse catalog and adjusts the puff adder. Normally a bitchy snake, known to hiss and play dead, it’s nearly as calm with her as she is with it. I putter around the store, not knowing exactly what to do. I kick the side of one of the black tubs and the alligators’ cat eyes meet mine.
Don’t disturb them, she says. I actually have a lot of work to do today.
What work? Does any place in this strip mall besides the Korean Grocery do business?
Battery-Mart does fine, she says. Mail order is our bread and butter.
You want to feed the fish? I say, offering her my neck.
Your friend, the tan guy, was in here, she says. He told me about your girlfriend.
The one you have.
He tell you he’s after her?
He told me you’re on-ramp to marry.
I wouldn’t say anything like that.
She puts the puff adder in its little cage. I take this as a signal, come closer.
You lied to me Broth Man, she says.
I never said anything.
Your eyes lied for you. And maybe you know a little more than I’d have a deceptor like yourself knowing. She glances at the snakehead aquarium.
Okay, I say, I get the problem here, but understand you could have been the one to break me free of her. You were the only possible chance I’ve seen.
You may consider yourself, as far as this store is concerned, on the illegal list henceforth. Not to be bought, sold, traded, or tampered with.
She adjusts the top of a tarantula cage, the jumper, and I back away. When the door bells jingle she is back in the sea horse catalog. I go next door and tell James I have a fucking question for him.
Well I have fucking question for you, he says, massaging some bronzing skin cream into his forearm. Why did you do that today? It’s a stupid idea.
It’s a win-win.
It’s no win-win. It’s unnecessary. Anyone can take those gate arms off before the football games. Anyone can do that. Not just you or me. I’ve got us under control.
You told the Herp Girl I have a girlfriend.
Here’s what you don’t get, he says. I’m helping you. In every respect, I am always helping you. And it’s about time you wised up to that.
The next morning we bolt on all sixty-nine gate arms, grabbing us both time and a half and still saving the university over what they would have spent replacing so many. Then the very next day, on the way in, the day we’re really no matter what going to get to the bank and do that thing, James’s gate arm radar is off the charts. Could be twenty, thirty, he says. But when we walk into the locker room two cops are there and Immediate Supervisor with a look on his face. The cops put me and James against the lockers. Immediate Supervisor points at James and they let me go and cuff him, march him out. Immediate Supervisor tells me to go wherever it is James told me to go because gate arms are down all over campus and he should know.
They got him on felony destruction of public property, and some other things I didn’t know about, vandalism, assault. They didn’t even think to consider what vehicles he was driving through the gate arms, which were all stolen—mopeds, and motorcycles and a few beat-up Pontiacs. He had been coming at night all this time.
Immediate Supervisor promoted me to full-time, and I got some new responsibility for my football-day gate arm removal initiative and since there’s way less gate arm work with James out of commission. Steve’s Laundry & Tan went out of business, and they expanded the Korean grocery into where it used to be. Now, instead of going to a Laundromat with James, me and my girlfriend sit bitterly on the porch most nights drinking margaritas and eating cold cereal with milk.
I went and visited him once. I guess it was the same old James, just something in him seemed trammeled, beaten. It made me sad to see that because I’d always admired him for being so admirable in the way like he was above trammel or beat.
I brought him a Downy dryer sheet and he tipped his head back and laid it on his face, breathed deep for a while. It wasn’t like a real jail. There was a counselor listening in.
James folded the dryer sheet neatly and tucked it in his breast pocket. He proceeded to speak and I’m not sure if it was for me or the counselor or for his own self. He confirmed for me that no matter what his circumstances, he would always have a way with the world that I would not.
At first, I thought I was helping us keep our jobs, man, he said. Then I realized I couldn’t stop. I had to take them out. They called to me in the night. I shook just to approach a gate arm. They haunted my dreams.