“How do you know he’s not homeless, if he never takes you home?” asked Sasha, pursing her lips and checking her reflection in the window of a store that sold ice cream to dogs. She scratched at a powder-concealed scab on the corner of her mouth, and narrowed her eyes at her ghostly twin.
There was a man inside the ice cream shop playing tug-of-war with a miniature dachshund. He stood up, smoothed out his apron, and saluted Sasha with a neighborly “sieg heil.” He went back to his dog and the tea-towel between them. “NO CATS” said a sign on the door, and also: “WOOF! WOOF! PLEASE MAKE SURE I DO MY BUSINESS OUTSIDE.” Sasha kept walking, embarrassed that she had been noticed and mad that she had not been noticed enough.
“You are so ruthless,” said Kim, who should have been Sasha’s best friend by now, considering the amount of time they spent together. Instead, Sasha took the role of world-weary mandarin -- balance to Kim’s hopeless naïf. “The world is not divided up like that,” continued Kim. “It’s not divided into horrible homeless people and into spiteful aristocrats.”
“The world is not divided,” said Sasha. “Some people don’t exist at all. These people you are always falling in love with. They are beyond division. You can’t ever divide by zero.”
“I know you don’t think that,” said Kim. “You are in a bad mood.”
Kim looked across the plaza at the huge clock-tower. It was time to meet Mat for dinner.
“I’ve got to go,” said Kim. “Can you get home by yourself?”
They had gone out for a drink, but Sasha had had so many drinks that the waiter had cut her off. Discreetly, of course. He had mentioned something about there being no need to spoil a relaxing buzz with redundant spirits. But Sasha had still been pissed, and had wildly over-tipped out of spite, even though she hadn’t said anything.
“Oh, I’m sure I can manage,” said Sasha. “But you have to answer my question. I worry about you! How do you know he’s not homeless, if he never takes you home?”
“He isn’t the type,” said Kim. “He doesn’t drink, or swear. We go for walks. He’s proud.”
“So he IS poor. Does he smell bad? Does he smell foul?”
“No!” said Kim. “No, actually. Actually, he always smells very nice. Like fresh laundry.”
“I’ll see you later,” said Sasha. “Just remember. All other things being equal, if you are attracted to a man that is too poor for your ideas of what life should be, then there is something wrong with the way you are thinking. It is rational to want a man who can make money! It is a sign of a future. All poor couples secretly hate each other.”
Kim only nodded. Her own mother and father had never been wealthy, and they loved each other to distraction. Kim had nothing but good memories of childhood, and even as her mother and father scrimped and saved, they were always rich in both time and affection. Her mother hand-made gourmet soaps which her father sold at the local strip-center from a pushcart. Her father traveled around the parking lot in a tired square, pitching for soap and letting old ladies smell his samples, while her mother spent all day babysitting neighborhood children while churning, boiling, carving, and packaging soap with names like “Etruscan Fanfarade.” Her father brought home fashion magazines when Kim asked and told her all about the latest styles. Kim never went hungry, and there had even been money for college, once the time came.
A cab stopped for Sasha as soon as she raised a finger. They always did.
“Go home with him, Saint Kimberly of the Crossed Legs,” said Sasha. “You’ll make sure he has one, and maybe you’ll even get a little something physical out of it.”
“He’s shy about that, you overreaching lush!”
“Then he’s homeless,” said Sasha. The cabbie got out and opened the door for her. They never did that for anybody, ever, but they did it for Sasha whenever she stood there tapping her toe. Always. Sasha poured herself into the back and smiled through sloppy, lipstick smeared teeth. As the cabbie closed the door and scrambled around to the front again, Sasha mouthed the word “homeless” in the glass one more time for good measure.
Kim walked to the steak restaurant where she and Mat had agreed to meet the day before. Mat always called from the same pay phone, so she could always tell it was him that was calling, and they always met at a restaurant near where she and Sasha worked at the
Mat was sitting out front under one of the umbrellas at the restaurant, drinking a glass of water, hunched over and hugging his elbows. He brightened up when he saw her, stood up, and waved. He tried to shrug the waiter off, but the waiter started arguing with him about something and he wasn’t able to escape and meet her before she could sit down at his table. Kim grabbed his arm, and made him sit down, too. The waiter saw Kim and retreated.
“I thought we could go for a walk,” said Mat miserably. “You know, maybe take a turn around the park.”
“I’m actually kind of hungry, believe it or not,” said Kim. “Maybe you’d like to eat something?”
“Oh no,” said Mat, smiling. “Not here. They have terrible service.”
“Maybe we could go somewhere else then,” said Kim. “Maybe we could buy some groceries even, and go back to your place and watch a movie?”
Kim had already explained in detail about all of the roommates she had, and about how her place was never private, with friends and hangers-on crawling through at all hours of the day and night.
“We could do that,” said Mat. “But how about a turn through the park? And we can talk about travels. I mean, you never finished telling me about the way the lights float on the big muddy river at night where you grew up. You started to tell me, and then it got so late.”
“I wanted you to kiss me,” said Kim. “Why didn’t you?”
She stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and forced Mat to stop alongside her.
“It didn’t feel right,” said Mat. “There is so much I can’t tell you.”
They had stopped next to a cart selling fried custard on a stick. Mat stared at the vendor – a foreign man with a lank mustache that drooped below his chin. His round face was covered in cuts, pits, scratches like a moldering potato and he wore a hat that had fingers like an inflated glove. The vendor held out a stick of fried custard and smiled weakly.
“Take,” said the vendor. “Buy. One dollar. So cheap. So cheap; I feel pains.”
Mat frowned and stared hard at the vendor and then at the custard. He reached into his pocket and pulled out eight quarters and counted them each out into the vendor’s hand, and then took two sticks of fried custard from him.
The man looked at Mat with the same hard, faraway look that Mat brandished. Kim stood nervously off to the side. Suddenly, the street vendor embraced Mat, and hugged him, beating him on the back with two meaty, powerful fists. Mat held the sticks of steaming custard away from the man to keep from burning him, and looked at Kim with deep shame. He finally managed to push the vendor away, escaping from blessings and invitations to dine and dance with his family that night.
“You shall be king and queen of apartment,” shouted the vendor.
Mat bowed and ushered Kim away, handing her the custard. She didn’t take it. She only stared at him.
“I know it’s not steak,” said Mat.
“Did you know that man?” asked Kim.
“People who work push-carts for a living have incredibly hard lives,” said Mat. “You might think they have it easy, but they are always at war. They are hassled by the authorities for the proper paperwork, and they are all alone so they have no one to talk to. I always try to buy from push-carts if I can help it.”
Kim had never said anything about her father, and she didn’t say anything now. She took the fried custard from Mat and simply stared at him, once again utterly amazed by this handsome and sad man with whom she was falling in love.
“I know what it’s like to be poor, you know,” said Kim. “Being poor doesn’t bother me. I don’t have any problem with poor people.”
“Oh yeah?” said Mat.
“I have not always had it easy myself.”
“What’s the poorest guy you’ve ever dated?” asked Mat. And then: “You don’t have to answer that question.”
“My mom and dad were so poor that we were always on food stamps,” said Kim. “I didn’t have a Christmas, most years. Most years, we went down to the Salvation Army and we helped volunteer, and then I got to leave with a toy. But it was good. It was honest.”
“My mom is dead,” said Mat. “I live with my dad. I have to take care of him, you see. My dad is so poor he can’t ever stop crying, and so he does crazy things if you leave him alone for too long, and you have to keep him hydrated.”
Kim laughed, but Mat was dead serious.
“I see,” said Kim. “That’s why you never want to go home to your place. You are embarrassed.”
“I am not embarrassed,” said Mat. “Only. Who’s the poorest guy you’ve ever dated?”
“Stop it!” said Kim. “I don’t see what money has to do with anything. I find myself falling more and more in love with you every time we meet, and then you always bring up money.”
“First of all, my name isn’t Mat Landro,” said Mat. “That’s not what my parents named me. I have been so ashamed to lie about it.”
“What is your real name?” said Kim. Her eyes were shining. “You can tell me. You can trust me with anything.”
“I trust you,” said Mat.
“Mat…I…need to know,” said Kim. “Are you homeless?”
“I have a home,” said Mat. “I have a very nice home. Very nice. I work hard, every day of the week.”
“I do not beg or steal, and I never will,” said Mat.
“Then what are all these secrets? Why all this shame?”
“It is better if I show you,” said Mat. “It will feel good to come clean.”
Mat started walking, and Kim followed. He didn’t say where they were going.
“I feel like a man ought to earn every cent,” said Mat. “Every quarter that passes through his hands ought to be gained from work that he has done and that any other man would rationally value as worth a quarter. That’s how I feel.”
“Deeply honest,” said Kim, grabbing his hand and squeezing it.
“I learned this from my father. This is not a modern way to live. The modern way is all about chiseling a profit, and bargains with every devil you can find. The modern way is all about image. About excess. About making a nest of lard around yourself so thick and so rich, that every which way you turn, you are cradled in the soft of life’s belly. The modern way is about having a separate pillow for your head, for your neck, for your shoulders, and for your wallet.”
They walked up and down streets, and it seemed to Kim that they were not going in any specific direction. It seemed to Kim that they were actually traveling in a spiral, flowing down toward some center pit that only Mat knew about. She wondered why they were taking such a roundabout path, and she noticed that Mat kept looking over his shoulder every time they crossed a street. A man in a bright yellow bathrobe who was smoking a pipe passed them carrying a large sack of laundry, and Mat pushed her against the wall and kissed her passionately until the man waddled by. The man in the yellow bathrobe chuckled to himself and choked up on his pipe stem until the bowl was against his lips. He gagged at the crosswalk, spit the pipe into his open hand, snapped it back into his teeth, and then traveled onward.
Kim melted into the kiss and closed her eyes.
“Oh Mat!” exclaimed Kim, as he let her go. His kiss had been so brutal. So sudden. He pushed away from her, frowning, his black hair hanging in his eyes. He brushed his hair back and grabbed her shoulders.
“It’s safe now,” he said.
He led her down one last alley. A gray cat whose tail had been cut in half glared at them from atop a dumpster. The cat was cleaning its claws, slurping on its footfur and spreading streaks of yellowish saliva across its matted, crinkled back. At the mouth of the alley, a dead rat lay in front of the cat like an offering. Its eyes were eaten, and its mouth hung open like a bell. The rat’s arms and legs were bent into cracked angles, and his pink nose was a shock of color in the blackness of his bloody fur.
Mat bent down to the rat and touched it. He splayed the fur at its neck, and Kim saw there was a single golden thread wrapped around the rat’s neck. While Kim stood there hugging her elbows, Mat searched around the dumpster on his hands and knees until he found two small pieces of gravel. He put the bits of rock inside the rat’s eye sockets, and then closed the eyelids.
“The world is a smaller, sadder place now,” said Mat standing.
He reached out to Kim, and she took his hand after some hesitation. Moments ago his fingers had been deep inside the exposed, bleeding brain of a crushed and festering rodent. Kim looked at the dead rat. The rat was writhing with millions of fleas, and there was an oily, red millipede inching toward it from underneath the dumpster, groping toward the rotting meat with its undulating whiskery cilia.
“This way,” said Mat.
Behind the dumpster was a swinging door over which somebody had nailed an umbrella skin to cover the holes. They pushed inside the swinging door and found themselves in an incredibly narrow passage. The passage seemed to be completely composed of steel cubes and hoses. Mat led Kim deeper and deeper until they came to a cross section. More cubes and hoses led away in three new directions. Two of the narrow passages ended in brick walls, and at the end of the third brick passage there was a lump of blankets covered with empty coffee stirrers.
“This is it,” said Mat. “This is home.”
Kim opened her mouth to speak, but couldn’t think of the right question.
Mat led Kim toward the lump of blankets. They passed an opening in the cubes, and Kim saw that they were actually inside four rooms full of washing machines and dryers. They were inside the dividing wall. The cubes on either side were huge, battered old industrial machines, grimy with decades of neglect. Someone had written lines of poetry in the dust of the nearest washing machine: “The finest lunch is a smelly cunt for a man with a hunch and an itch to bunt.” The poetry was not attributed.
The rooms were nearly empty, except for a very tall blond man who was covered in tattoos and who had fallen asleep cradling a large hypodermic syringe like a stuffed bear.
“Wait,” said Mat. “Wait a second.”
Across from the small opening in the wall of machines, a dryer was cycling down. Mat stuck his head out. He looked both ways, and then scampered out of the hole in a jittery, crazed sprawl. He ran to the dryer, reached down into the lint trap, pulled out a dirty ball of pink and tan fiber, and then scrambled back into the partition between machines.
He thrust the ball in Kim’s face. His eyes were blazing, and his mouth quivered.
“That’s wool,” said Mat. “Wool lint. Somebody is going to get a very, VERY nice blanket.”
“What are you talking about?”
The tall blonde man snorted in his sleep, and he fixed his bright blue eyes on Mat and Kim, where they stood at the intersection of washing machines.
“Say,” said the man, galloping over to them. “Say, Mat. I need a shirt. I need a damn shirt. It rained, and I lost my shirt. I’m here for a shirt. A shirt, like Jesus got. You got a shirt, Mat? You got that, Mat? You got my shirt?”
The tall blonde man glared and brandished his syringe as if it were a knife. There was no needle, which made Kim relax, but she still pushed back against the washing machines away from the blonde man’s fixed and dangerous stare. Mat sensed her fear and stepped out in front, shielding her.
“I have a shirt,” said Mat. “You know the price.”
The man fished deep into his back pocket and pulled out a quarter. He bent down and rolled the quarter in a straight line to the break in the wall of washing machines where Mat stood guard. Mat stopped the quarter with his shoe and picked it up. He reached over and dug in between two machines, his eyes never leaving the blonde man’s eyes, his feet still firmly planted to make him low to the ground and powerful.
He fished out a grey poncho from between the machines, embroidered with golden thread, and tossed it to the blonde man.
“Hot damn!” shouted the blonde man. “Hot damn Jesus! Jesus damn damn, hot Jesus damn! A new shirt! Say, Mat! Say, here comes the spin cycle!”
The blonde man stuck his middle finger out at Kim and Mat, licked it, and then walked out of the Laundromat, stuffing his arms and neck through the poncho.
“You made that poncho out of dryer lint,” said Kim.
“I am a fair hand with a needle and thread,” said Mat. “I have known better. I have known much better. But I am a fair hand, and a steady. My father was the best in his day, when he could still use his eyes. He charged a quarter at yesterday’s prices. We had rice every meal. Every meal but Sunday, to reflect and to suffer like the common man.”
“To suffer like the common man.”
“These coffee stirrers are from heaven itself,” continued Mat, bending down and picking one up. They littered the ground in the space between washing machines like crushed popcorn on the floor of a movie theater. “The company doesn’t know this, or else they would stop making them, but with a little bit of bleach, you can strip the cellulose from the hard core and make a paste that is very tasty and very nourishing. I take the bleach from the puddles around the washing machine hoses. I get the stirrers from several important dumpsters around town. We eat stirpaste most days, but I have some liberty with funds and food, now that I have intentions and there is a girl in my life. Dad says you must be a pretty girl. He doesn’t know you are the most beautiful girl who has ever lived.”
Kim smiled. She was so confused that she thought she might be sick.
“Where is your father?” asked Kim to change the subject. “Is he here somewhere?”
Mat pointed to the lump of blankets.
“He is there,” said Mat. “He cannot sleep, but he tries for a few hours every day. He will come meet you when he is ready. If you like, I can tell you his tale. To prepare you.”
“His tale,” repeated Kim. “To prepare me.”
“My mother and father were each born in this neighborhood in facing apartment buildings, and they each lived in the basements. They did not know it, but each night they slept in facing corners of their basements while each of my grandfathers raged against the Church and the Government. Both of my grandfathers were rival leaflet distributors at the same downtown bus station. My mother and father had always slept together, you see, but until they were teenagers, and they found each other through the stink and the musk of teenage animal necessity, a wall divided them. From their teenage years onward, until my mother passed away, they were inseparable. They had a perfect love. My father made clothes, and my mother cleaned the wounds of the homeless people in their colonies. She would travel around in a handcart, and sell my father’s clothes, and clean wounds with rags that she found, and alcohol that she made from fermented fruit snacks. The colonies paid her very well. We had such a good life together. Now a greater wall divides them: the wall of life and death.”
Mat put his finger on Kim’s cheek. Her cheek was not cold, but she was shivering.
“You are shivering,” said Mat.
“A handcart?” said Kim.
“Oh yes,” said Mat. “She was so thin and so tall that she could not support herself standing, and so she had to use a handcart. But she was so beautiful! Just like you! My mother named me “Laundromat,” because this is where I was born, and she knew it would be where I would make my home. My name is Mat Landro to the Government and the Church, but my real name is Laundromat because I am supposed to represent something clean and good. Someone who has moved up in the world by the struggles of honest people. As clothes go round and round and are purified, so too do the struggles of man in my heart.”
“Anyway, my mother’s death was only a matter of time, really. She caught an infection from one of the camps and her neck swelled up and choked her to death right over there, in that corner. She was too thin to fight, and the sickness made her weak inside. It made her emotional and selfish. She cried for weeks, as her neck began to burn and blacken. Her crying became more and more raw, louder and louder, so loud you could even hear it over tennis shoes in the fluff setting. She was afraid. But there was nothing we could do. She wanted orange drink. That was all she said, and she asked for it constantly. Get me orange drink! Get it for me! Bless her, but everybody becomes selfish when they are in pain. I don’t know how she got it into her head, but she must have had orange drink when she was a child, and she wanted it so badly.”
“That was the corner where she lay,” said Mat, pointing to a pile of hoses that led into a spotless, gleaming drain. The drain stood out in stark contrast to the rest of the laundromat's grime. Above the drain, there was a cross carved into the back of a washing machine. Under the cross were the words: “Bony Handcart Lady. 1970-1992. She was so beautiful to us.”
“My father couldn’t listen to her screams any longer, so he went upstairs to The Headphone Man. The Headphone Man collected headphones from the streets, and sold them to people for cheap at the college, and he was basically the neighborhood’s big shot. He could solve your problems, but there was always a price.”
“Always a price,” said Kim.
“That’s right. My father told The Headphone Man to put his head against the floor and hear my mother, but The Headphone Man said there was no need. The Headphone Man listened to my father’s request. Orange drink. It was not an impossible request, and many times we had heard of beverages with flavor coming into The Headphone Man’s possession and then passing through to people who wanted to live big. The Headphone Man listened, and he agreed. This is what he said. We say the speech to remember. The Headphone Man was taken away by the police three years ago, but we say the speech to remember anyway.”
Mat closed his eyes and cleared his throat.
“John Shirt-Sewer! You have come to me today because you want me to get your ass some orange drink for your bony bitch, the Bony Handcart Lady. I think that is fucking hilarious, because she is going to die no matter what you do. But it is so fucking hilarious that it makes me feel a little something inside that you might call pity, or feeling, or attachment. So I’m going to do this thing. I can make this thing happen. But I have had my sleep INTERRUPTED for a week now. Did you know that? For a full week, every time I lay my head down on my pillow – a pillow that I have bought from the store – I hear that bony bitch wailing, and crying, and carrying on. I CAN EVEN HEAR HER THROUGH MY HEADPHONES. So my price is this. It isn’t money. It isn’t something that will humiliate you sexually or spiritually. My price is that when your bony bitch finally does eat dirt, you will not cry for her out loud. You may leak. You may leak silent tears. But I will listen like a hawk, and I had better not hear any more sobbing or carrying on coming from down below. I am a simple man, and that’s my simple price.”
Mat opened his eyes and saw that Kim was falling apart. She couldn’t rest her hands. They kept fluttering to her face, to her neck, to her stomach.
“What happened?” asked Kim. “Tell me what happened. Tell me!”
“The Headphone Man was as good as his word. He called in favors, the beverage arrived, and my mom tasted orange drink one last time before she passed. We watched her go, huddled right there in that corner, her lips smacking, her shirt stained…”
Mat pointed again. He swallowed.
“…her shirt stained orange. And then The Headphone Man stayed to watch. He watched my father choke back his tears and stifle his sobs. He watched him eat his sadness, and he watched the sadness fall back into his chest and become a strained trickle. My father could never weep the big tears of his soul’s torment, and so the strained trickle never stopped – it only grew. He could never shriek and howl and get rid of his massive misery. And as a result, he never stopped leaking, and his eyes never went dry. The pain that should have left him over time instead welled up and multiplied. He became a monster. He became a monster who could never stop the silent flow of his tears.”
Kim laughed. She let out two bleats of shocked, horrified laughter and put her hands on her cheeks. Her purse fell from her shoulder into the crook of her arm and dangled there.
“His debt could not pass on to me, and so I may cry how I wish for my dead mother,” said Mat. “I am not like him. I am whole.”
Kim continued to laugh.
“The miseries add up, you see,” said Mat. “It is not just death. It is not just the untimely death of the one you love. It is everything; everything bad. Taking away a man’s ability to cry out loud is a very sad thing to do.”
“A monster?” asked Kim.
“To himself,” said Mat. “But not to me.”
“Laundromat?” said the lump in the corner. “Did I hear you come in, Landromat? Oh god, Laundromat is that you? And someone else…I sense someone else. Have you brought us a new woman to love? Have you brought us a good woman, Laundromat?”
Mat turned and held his hand out to the lump of blankets.
“Father, you must be patient,” said Mat.
The blankets shifted, and John Shirt-Sewer rose from his bed of quilts and plastic bags. Kim began to back away, slowly, slowly, her high heels unsteady against the concrete. John Shirt-Sewer was tangled under the blankets, his head covered like a breaching baby.
Kim tried to turn away, but her purse caught on a hose and she fell into a crouch. She gasped and covered her mouth as Mat knelt down and tried to help her up.
“No!” said Kim. “Let me go!”
The blankets fell away and John Shirt-Sewer rose up in the gloom in the far away corner, nestled between the tumbling grey machines. His eyes were completely white – drained of all color like an old fencepost. Two trenches as deep as pinky fingers bled out of his eye sockets all the way to his ears. The trenches leaked tears, which waterfalled down to his chin, collected, and formed into droplets that dripped like melt from the bottom of an ice cream cone. And he was smiling. Smiling. He was so happy. He held out both hands and stumbled forward, his fingers writhing with anticipation.
“He is smiling!” shouted Mat. “I don’t believe it! He is smiling!”
“I have to go,” said Kim as she left, so quietly that no one heard her. “I have to go. Goodbye. I have to go.”