Pete always made a point of getting to the laundromat early; 6:30 AM type of early. He liked to arrive just as the cleaning lady was unlocking the front door. He knew that her first task would be to search the washers and dryers for the various articles that had managed to disengage themselves from their owners the previous day. Then she would neatly display them on a table near the dryers as if expecting their owners to appear out of the dawn to claim them. But if they had done so, they would have been too late, because Pete’s early arrival ensured he had first pick of the left behinds.
He always selected any items that looked as if they had a few washings left in them, and added them to his own clothes before he started washing. He specialized in socks. Any color, size and fabric was acceptable. His current collection was so large that any sock could expect to find an acceptable mate when it was introduced to the others in his sock drawer. Just as most men rely on aunts, mothers-in-law, birthdays and Christmas for their footwear, Pete relied on the carelessness of total strangers.
This morning had produced an average haul, maybe approaching average-to-good, as there were now three socks and a nearly new bath towel churning about and becoming acquainted with his own clothes in one of the washing machines. Pete was engrossed in the latest Time Magazine the establishment had to offer. His mind was full of troop advances and retreats and the doins of General MacArthur in Korea when he heard voices.
He looked up as a man and a woman came through the doorway. It wasn’t often that he had encountered anyone doing their washing at such an hour, and for a terrible moment he thought there might be competition on the sock patrol. Or worse yet, perhaps they were the owners of the towell. He could see himself standing helplessly by while his washing was searched. But no, they didn’t even glance at the display table and headed directly to the nearest row of washers.
She led the way, carrying a clothes basket containing several towels, a box of soap powder, and a plastic bottle of something. He followed dragging a green plastic bag full of dirty clothes. He left the bag by the washers.
“I’ll get a paper,” he announced. “Whn I get back, you be ready for the butcher. I’m not spending all day in this place.”
“Don’t blame me,” the woman sighed. “You had all week to fix the washer. We wouldn’t need to be here if you had let me call someone.”
She spoke so softly it was obvious that she knew that her husband wasn’t listening. She had a sad, uninteresting face with a downtrodden look in her eyes. Her voice had no impetus, as though she was accustomed to being shouted down or ignored.
But as soon as the man had gone for his newspaper, a remarkable change came over her. A determined look came into her eyes. She squared her shoulders, hitched up her housedress, and began to sort the dirty clothes with the skill of a juggler.
The dark colored things went flying into the washer on her right, and the others into the machine on her left. Occasionally a particularly alarming stain would catch her eye and she would pause and attack it with the contents of the plastic bottle. Her eyes fairly sparkled and she radiated an air of confidence that suggested that, in the world of washday skills, she knew she could hold her own with the best.
Pete noticed his own washer had stopped and he transfered his damp wardrobe to one of the dryers. He was just sitting down again when the man returned with his newspaper and strode over to his wife.
“Haven’t you got them going yet? What the hell have you been doing?” he demanded.
“I can’t just throw them in. I can’t wash the darks and the whites together,” she said defensively.
“If you don’t get moving you’ll find yourself here on your own with your darks and bloody whites. And walking home. I’ve got better things to do with my time. It shouldn’t take all day to wash a few clothes.”
Her only reply was a slight sagging of the shoulders, as if his words had physically struck her.
The man continued to threaten and complain and she continued sorting the clothes, but her hands were moving slower now, and all the self-confidence that had been there a few minutes before had vanished. When at last she finished, she produced some coins from the pocket of her dress and inserted them into the washers. As the water gushed into the tubs, she very carefully poured soap from the cardboard box into a measuring cup. She even held the cup up to eye level so she could see the exact amount of soap she had poured in.
“Don’t make such a big production out of it,” the man grumbled. He snatched the box of soap from her hand and poured a healthy amount into each machine. “There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
“That’s too much soap. That’s too much,” the woman warned meekly. “It only takes half a cup. It says so right on the machine.”
“What’s the matter with you this morning?” he snapped as he slammed the covers on the machines shut. “Why don’t you just make a real effort to keep quiet the rest of the day? Let’s get out of here.”
“There goes the Safe-Suds-Level,” she sighed as she poured the contents of the cup back into the box. She used the words with the same respect that an economist might have used in saying Gross National Product. “Too much soap and they won’t come really clean. It has to be measured properly.”
The man ignored her and headed for the door, his wife half-running to keep up with him. When they reached the footpath, they turned to the right and were on their way to brighten the morning of some unsuspecting butcher.
Pete was all alone now, and he sat for a moment enjoying the silence. He still had eighty cents in his picket and any other morning he would have gone and got the morning paper. But the woman’s timid voice and her Safe-Suds-Level kept coming back to him. He could still see the sad expression in her eyes. He could get the paper later. This woman needed help now.
Anyone who has entered the world of the laundromat can tell you that eighty cents is equivalent to eight yogurt cartons of detergent. Pete went to the soap dispenser, quickly transferred his assets to soap, and added it equally to the two machines currently churning away at the woman’s separated darks and whites. Then he retreated to his chair and waited.
In a few minutes, suds, like white lava, began to flow from the tops of the washers. He watched with delight as the suds continued down the sides of the machines and started spreading out on the floor below. He saw that his dryer had stopped, and he cautiously waded through the slippery mass and rescued his clothes.
By the time he had stuffed them all into his laundry bag and rechecked the dryer to insure that he hadn’t mjissed a sock, the flow of suds had grown to avalanche proportions, had conquered most of the floor space, and was relentlessly seeping under the door and staking a claim on the footpath. And it showed no signs of stopping.
Pete put his bag over his shoulder and waded out the door. He would have liked to wait, would have liked to see the look on the man’s face when he saw the folly of not measuring the soap, and wished he could have left a script for the woman to follow as she and her husband ploughed through the snow-white current to the machines. But he had done his part.
If she couldn’t take it from there, she wasn’t worth the eighty cents of soap powder he had lavished upon her. Perhaps also, she might feel more inclined to speak to her husband about the dangers of too much soap to a Safe-Suds-Level if there were no outsiders present. By that time Pete would be home again, sorting and matching the latest additions to his sock drawer.
by Peter Gillespie
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