The Laundromat

a short story



© 2012 The author holds the sole copyright of this work. This story may not be copied, printed, recorded or published, in whole or in part, without permission of the author.

This is a work of fiction, the characters do not represent any real persons, living or dead.

It sat on a busy street corner, a nondescript turn-of-the century brick storefront. It had once housed a busy little mom and pop grocery store, selling the usual kitchen staples and penny candy. The section of town it resided on, is not the best part of the city of Albany, New York, in the twenty-first century. In fact, around two hundred century's had passed, since the area was considered the crème de la crème of real estate, by wealthy Dutch and British colonists.

A bit over one hundred years ago, it had been a thriving lumber district at the starting point of the Erie canal. In that time, it was inhabited by Irish immigrants, drawn there by the promise of plentiful labor. By the nineteen sixties, the canal was gone. An enterprise which had helped to spawn America's westward movement, was now filled in, and largely forgotten. Yet, the area still had a thriving, if somewhat less busy, commercial district. There was a Tip Top Bread bakery, a large printing company, and one remaining lumber dealer.

There was a busy little Esso gas station on the corner, whose sign encouraged drivers to "put a tiger" in their tanks. And the Royal Crown Cola bottling plant, was still giving their two biggest national soft drink rivals, a run for their money. And, the area also became the home of the city dump. It was a big, smelly mound, on the shores of the Hudson the river. Despite the smell, this was a popular place for local gun owners to go. The men would take their shotguns and .22 rifles and get in some target practice on the rats on Saturday mornings, before the ball games came on TV.

Though the area had come down slightly in the world, folks could still drive though the neighborhood at night, without locking their car doors.

In the twenty-first century, once again, everything changed. Most of the old businesses had gone. The bakery plant had become a mattress factory, before that too, went out of business. The soda bottler had packed up and gone elsewhere, leaving a vacant building behind with "For Lease" signs plastered all over it for the past fifteen years.

The dump had been shut down for nearly three decades. Much to the relief, one might suppose, of countless potential "target" rats. The lumber yard, that one, lonely reminder of the neighborhood's nineteeth century commerical glories, finally went bust. Its buildings and yards were leveled to provide yet another weedy, debris-strewn empty lot. The gas station became a used car lot and a half dozen other businesses, these days, an entrepreneurial albatross, standing empty and alone.

Jack's Bar was a bastion of the neighborhood's Irish. It had stood on the corner across from the brick storefront, for over a hundred years. Slowly going to ruin, the once green-painted Victorian-era wood building was gone by the new millennium. Replaced by an anonymous brick affair, home to a carpeting and flooring showroom, with a few apartments taking up the top floor.

Only one of the original businesses remained— the printing company. A staunch survivor of several decades of great economic and social turmoil in America. And even that proud old company, had recently seen its share of hard times.

The little mom and dad store on the corner, was now a laundromat. Had been since the mid-seventies. The one thing that hadn't changed much in this place over the last hundred years, were the people who lived there.

Though now many of the old-time Irish-American residents were being supplanted by people of other races, religions and cultures, essentially the same social-economic makeup of the neighborhood had remained. It was still a part of the city belonging largely to the working class and the downtrodden masses. All yearning for better incomes and lives, for themselves and their families.

Not unlike their nineteenth century fellows, many residents were struggling daily to survive. Treading water alongside an economic whirlpool of high unemployment rates, benefit cuts, and escalating inflation. Some of them, even living each day on the edge of an economic cliff, which could spell their social doom. And a few, were caught living between life's cracks. One little crisis, one more loss of what little they had left, and they were doomed. One faltering step, and they'd disappear from the eyes of a conservative American society, losing their humanity altogether, in the throes of homelessness and destitution.

Frank wasn't entirely new to the neighborhood, though he'd never actually lived there. At fifty-three, he'd had to seriously readjust his way of life, following a rather messy divorce. The ex got the house, the car and a big chunk of his monthly income. He got...well, basically the clothes on his back.

The divorce settlement had then been followed a few months later, by his being laid off from his long time job at the printing company. It was the usual story. The new owners decided to downsize their older workforce, in order reduce what they were paying out in wages and benefits. To keep the collection agency wolves from his door, he chose to work, rather than collect unemployment insurance. He was currently working two low wage part-time jobs to support the ex. To save money, he was living in a cramped, airless, efficiency flat. It was located above the carpeting dealer's showrooms. He hated it, but at least he didn't have to go far to do his laundry. Though coming up with the cash to use the machines, was sometimes a challenge for him.

It was just past midnight, when Frank got home from his job at a posh high-rise office building downtown. He worked nights as a security guard, these days. The job paid less than half of what he used to earn, but he'd decided that it was better than the humiliation of having to apply for welfare. Fortunately for Frank, the laundromat was open twenty-four hours.

First thing he did when he got in the door, was head for the shower. After a change into a pair jeans and a tee shirt, he inhaled a quick dinner of a frozen chicken pot pie, which he'd heated in the microwave. Then, Frank tiredly gathered up a pile of dirty socks and underpants from the laundry hamper in his bedroom.

Parting the dusty blind to one side, Frank looked out of the flat's only window. The big picture window overlooked Broadway and the west-facing hill on the opposite side of the neighborhood. That night, was a nice view of the floodlit spire of the nearby Catholic church, and the red neon glow of of the laundromat sign, across the road.

Frank always did his washing alone, which suited his depressed mood. He was usually the only customer, at that hour of the night. He guessed not many people wanted to do their wash at stupid o'clock in the morning.

Oddly, he had actually seen people go in there with their washing, late at night. But, every time he went in the place, it was always deserted. Which suited him just fine. No one to bother him. Like that creepy guy, a few week's ago. It was eight am on one of Frank's rare Saturday's off. Frank had caught some long haired beardy-weirdy staring intently at his underpants, as he was folding and placing them into his basket. From then on, he had made doubly sure to hide any of his pants with the skid marks on them, if anyone else was in the room.

Frank decided he'd have just enough time to do the washing, and catch a few hour's sleep, before heading off to his part-time day job. There, he'd work his six hour shift re-stocking shelves at a big supermarket. Some days, Frank wondered why he even bothered to get up in the morning. His life nowadays seemed so pointless. He was working his heart out, but between the wage garnishment from the divorce, and the high cost of his apartment, he was lucky he had enough left over each pay day, to eat and do his laundry. Frank longed to leave his present reality behind, and get out of this place. To do something he enjoyed, free of anal-retentive bosses, and monotonous, totally unappreciated work.

Frank smiled grimly to himself in the hallway mirror. Staring back at him, was a tired-looking, stubbly-faced, middle-aged man. He was thinking that he'd gladly trade his life away, for just one chance to eliminate this constant struggle, to get back his financial footing.

How he hated barely eking out a living from week to week! Frank was so tired, he was beginning to think he was working himself into an early grave. He never thought he'd be back at the bottom of the work heap, living from pay check to pay check, at his age. That's why, clinging to one last bit of hope, he bought a lottery ticket every day.

Piling a couple of his work shirts on top of the socks, Frank eyed the laundry basket balefully. He gave a long, drawn out sigh. Then, Frank unlocked his front door, re-locked it again, pocketed the keys, and clomped downstairs to the street. Shifting the plastic laundry basket in his arms, he groaned. His back was killing him. Unfortunately, neither of Frank's employers provided health insurance to their part-time employees, so he simply had to live with the pain, and get on with his life. He wondered though, when a basket of laundry had gotten too heavy for him to carry.

The light at the intersection blinked a mind-numbing red-off,-red-off, as Frank crossed the road. The pavement glowed orange, flanked by pitch black shadows where the light of a street lamp could never reach them. Then, the light abruptly went out.

"Goddamnit!" Frank cursed aloud, as he slammed his right foot into the curbstone, stepping up on to the sidewalk.

The only light he could see by, was the blinking red of the traffic signal, and the glow of the neon sign, which made the sidewalk pavement look as if it were paved in blood. Apparently, making a few select street lamps turn on and off at staggered intervals, was some idiot bureaucrat's idea of saving the city money.

"Not to mention making some hospital more profits." Frank muttered to himself crossly, wincing as he wiggled his sore toes.

No doubt whatever moron's bright idea this was, he obviously never had to walk down a dark city street at night. The lousy things seemed to be some sort of practical joke on innocent pedestrians. Programed to go dark at that exact moment when someone walking by them, needed to see where they were going, Frank thought bitterly. Gritting his teeth in pain, he was grateful when he reached the welcoming florescent lights shining through the laundromat's front window. Balancing the laundry basket with one arm, he maneuvered himself through the door.

Slamming down the basket on top of one of the long row of yellow enamel washers, Frank dug into his pocket for the roll of quarters he'd stuck in there. Then he stopped, tensed, and looked up at the fancy nineteeth century pressed tin tiles over his head. His gaze fastened on the fly-specked white painted ceiling, Frank once again let out a long string of curses. He'd forgotten to bring the bottle of laundry detergent. In his perturbed state over the missing bottle, he never noticed a handwritten card taped on the lid of the washer. It read: 'Out Of Order.'

Groaning with self-recrimination for forgetting such a vital item, Frank threw a hateful gaze at the vending machine fastened to a nearby wall. Little glass windows displayed a variety of single-use boxes of soap powder, bleach and fabric softener. The machine was long and yellow and had the words "Laundry Bar" painted on it. Which Frank thought was a very odd thing to call it. If the stupid thing dispensed those little bottles of liquor, then the name would make sense—and change doing laundry from a tiresome chore to a social activity. Why didn't someone open up a combination laundromat and cocktail lounge? Now that would truly make life easier for everyone.

It's not that he didn't have the money on him to buy one of those little boxes of soap. It's that Frank begrudged spending one of his hard-earned dollars on such a luxury. His gaze drifted towards the window, to his apartment building across the way. It would mean taking an extra fifteen or even twenty minutes to go back there, to get the bottle of laundry soap. Sighing, Frank decided to bite the bullet and feed his hard-earned money into the machine. He was far too tired tonight. Fifteen or twenty minutes getting the lousy soap, was that much less time he'd have to sleep. He was lucky if he got four or five hours sleep a day, as it was.

Pouring the soap in, Frank carefully loaded the machine, making sure that he had all matching socks. It was a tiny obsession of his, that he should always have perfectly matching socks.

Which was one of the many little things he did, that his wife apparently had told her divorce lawyer, drove her mad. Frank would sit on the living room floor, trying to pair up the right socks with each other. And since most of his socks were either black or white, and he had dozens of pairs, this could conceivably take hours. He wouldn't let his wife do it for him, because he could never be sure she took the job seriously. Frank couldn't abide the idea of going around wearing mis-matched socks. He even had a special way of rolling them up neatly together, just the way his mom had done for him, when he was a boy.

With the wash started, Frank had a good twenty-five minutes to kill, so he went over to the wooden bench against the wall and sat down. Picking up a tattered sports magazine, he stretched out his legs, and began to read. He was deeply engrossed in an article about Tiger Woods, when the florescent light over his head began to flicker. At the same time, his machine began its final spin cycle. Coming from the machine was a hollow thumping noise. It wasn't unlike someone banging away on one of those big round drums, the kind they use to help keep marchers in step during a parade.

As the banging got louder and faster, the light overhead also seemed to flicker more rapidly. Sighing in disgust at having his reading disturbed, Frank threw down the magazine and stood up. He had grabbed one of the laundromats' meager selection of small wheeled carts, when the washer began to groan and squeal. Frank turned and raised an eyebrow. It was only a small load, the washer shouldn't be protesting about it.

"Must be something wrong with the machine. They needed to get a man in." He said to himself.

Trundling the wheeled cart over to the machine, he arrived just as the thing abruptly stopped its shaking and moaning. Frank opened the lid, reached his hand in, and began pulling his wet clothes out, throwing them into the cart. As he pulled the cart along over to the wall of dryers, he heard and felt the washing machine give a mighty metallic shudder. Turning to look, Frank saw nothing to miss. The washer was off and silent. That was very strange.

Shrugging it off, Frank began tossing his clothes into the dryer. That's when he noticed something amiss. One of his brown socks had gone missing. Frowning, he sorted through all the wet socks again. No, it wasn't there.

"Right! Can't have that." He said determinedly, walking back over to the washing machine. "Always has to be that one sock, trying to get away from you." Raising an eyebrow, Frank chuckled, "Maybe I should buy one of those foot deodorizers."

Bending down, He squinted, peering into the dark maw of the washing machine. Frank spied the errant sock. It was stuck to the top edge of the drum.

"There you are, you naughty beastie!" He grinned, reaching a hand in to pull it out. "Thought you could get away from me, huh?"

Suddenly, without warning, the top of the sock opened up and enveloped his hand. Frank jerked his head up and snatched his hand out of the machine. The slimy warm, brown sock had now completely enveloped his hand, and was inching its way up his arm.

"Ey?" Was all he could utter, his eyes wide with disbelief.

Frank tried pulling the sock off his arm with his free hand, but it wouldn't budge. It was as if the rough edged nap of the inside of the sock, had suddenly become living tentacles, each individual fiber suctioning itself into his arm.

"What the hell's going on?" He cried out, his voice squeaking with genuine fright, as the sock continued to worm its way further up his arm.

It was now creeping towards his armpit, and was aiming for his shoulder and neck. Frank heard himself scream like a little girl, but his brain still wasn't quite catching up with the action. His mind barely registered the lights going out, as suddenly he felt the sock lunge for his head...

Jason hated his job, but at least it got him away from his mom's constant nagging for a while. And, the schedule worked well around his classes. College was very important to him. He couldn't wait to get done and get out into the world. Anywhere that wasn't this rotten old city. He hated living here, and couldn't wait to leave. He called this neighborhood, "the Armpit of Hell."

Jason felt like his street was full of morons, addicts, and nutcases. He didn't want to end up like them. They were nothing but a mob of work drones and work shirkers. The people around here were so low on the social food chain, that no one would ever miss them when they were gone. Yeah, this place wasn't for him. Screw the thankless, mindless drudgery of working for low wages your whole life, with basically nothing to show for it. That was just a modern version of slavery. He was going on to bigger and better things

Having to live with his mom at his age, wasn't doing much for his love life, either. Twenty years old, and still living at home. How pathetic was that? Even if mom did his laundry, cooked his meals, and cleaned his room, Jason wasn't sure it was worth it. Making out with his girlfriend in his basement bedroom, was no picnic, either. Not while mom and dad were sitting in the living room, right over their heads, shouting out the answers to Wheel of Fortune. It was definitely a sexual mood killer. He just had to get the hell out, before he became one of them.

Dumping the heavy backpack full of his textbooks behind the attendant's counter, Jason rolled his eyes and gave a martyred sigh. He went into the back room, to punch in on the time clock. On the way there, he noticed that someone had left a load of clothes in one of the dryers. They looked like they were still a little damp. Well, he hoped whomever they belonged to, came back and got them.

Lately, a lot of people seemed to be leaving all their washing behind, and not claiming it. The owner kept the stuff for a month in the back room, before dumping the unclaimed items into the nearest Salvation Army bin. He hoped customers had noticed the big sign on the wall, over the attendant's counter. The sign that said that management wasn't responsible for lost, stolen or abandoned articles.

It pissed Jason off, when some customer came in, nagging him about something they'd lost. Like it was his personal fault, some fuckwit was too thick to notice an item was missing. If they washed it, took it out of the dryer, and folded it, shouldn't they notice when something wasn't there? Anyway, who cares if a sock went bye-bye. Buy a new pair, for Christ's sake! Jason shook his head at the stupid stuff adults went on about, sometimes.

Coming out of the back room with a broom, Jason began sweeping up. While working, he thought about how much fun he and his girlfriend, Latisha, were going to have at the Beat Machine concert on Friday night. He stopped sweeping when he saw a single brown sock, lying in the middle of the grungy tiled floor. Jason shook his head in disbelief. He looked around nervously. Suddenly, unbidden, he felt himself shudder.

"Oh come on! It's only a sock. You've been watching too many horror films, Jason." He muttered to himself.

Even so, this was just too freaking weird. That's because, every once in a while, when Jason came to work in the morning, there was always a sock. Right there. Right in that very spot. The color and type of sock was aways different. Yet, the spot on the floor where it they were found, was always, always, the same.

Picking up the sock, Jason shook his head. He leaned the broom against a nearby washing machine—the one that always bore an 'Out Of Order' sign, because the owner was too lazy or cheap (or both) to bother fixing the thing. Taking the sock over to the counter, he casually tossed it into a box marked, 'Lost And Found.', and went back to his sweeping.

As the first rays of the morning sun filtered through the wide front window, they shone on the contents of the box. It was filled with mis-matched socks.