Short Fiction

Bibbi’s World

Laundromats are a sort of temple.  They provide sanctuary and silence to be with your thoughts.  They have noisy congregations, and quiet times of solitude.  Their incense is the whiff of bleach and fabric softener brought to life by the steam of the dryers.  If you are cold, there is warmth.  If you are stained, there is purification.    You might find your tribe in the local ‘mat or discover it is not where you belong.  But there is no shunning.  There may be folks you wouldn’t choose to spend ANY time with, but there is tolerance.

The Wash Whenever was a neutral, non-denominational laundromat.  Apollonia thought decorations were just lint collectors and fire hazards, and the last thing she needed was the fire department up her ass more than they already were.    Not that the Wash Whenever wasn’t a good neighbor, it was just a “no frills neighbor” who discouraged loitering and the “bad elements” Bibbi’s mother had little tolerance for.

“We got no room for de lazy here,” Apollonia would say under her breath as she swept the lint and dust from between the machines into her dustpan.  It was another way for her to make her presence felt among the patrons, the elders nodding in acknowledgement while the younger ones tried to ignore her.  If she ever came upon a student, or anybody with a textbook in some sort of study, she would stop and offer an appreciative snort.  “Yes, that is a good use of time. To improve the mind, and make a living, no, a good living.  Maybe take care of your parents so they don’t have to work so hard.”

Unfortunately, this love of education did not extend as far as her own family.  There was no expectation that Bibbianna would be college-bound.  It wasn’t that she wasn’t smart, but as the only child of small business owners, she had a future and her own parents to take care of.  God-willing there would be a husband to help share the burden, but her life didn’t look so bad.  Maybe a bookkeeping class here or there, but no need to spend the money on college for a girl.  Better for her to put the money into the business: that was her future.

And Bibbi was an obedient child.  Without siblings she grew up in the company of adults.   Since all of her early childhood years were spent hanging around a laundry she met few children.  And these children were decidedly unhappy to be dragged to the Laundromat with their parents, and unlikely to have too much interest in making lasting friendships with the odd child they met there.

When she started kindergarten Bibbi did make a friend for life, Viv Sullivan.  Vivian was the youngest child and the only girl among seven siblings.  With six boisterous brothers she looked for any opportunity to hang out with Bibbi, an only child with a quiet home life.  Mrs. Sullivan’s constant exhaustion made it easy for little Viv to slip away after school to the Wash Whenever or over to Bibbi’s house.   Apollonia and Angelo grew fond of freckled Viv, and she didn’t seem to mind helping Bibbi with her assorted chores.

Bibbi and Viv were a gang of two. Both girls were quiet observers of the world, obedient to both parents and teachers.   Bright, but not inquisitive, they were never the teachers’ “favorites.”  Most of the time, teachers remembered a composite of Viv’s reprobate brothers who rotated through the vice principal’s office until they squeaked through high school and were able to work the docks.  Mr. Sullivan was a longshoreman, but by the time Viv was in high school he was on disability, and he began to see more of her and in her than he had ever noticed in his sons.

For Viv that meant higher career aspirations, and she went on to college and became a teacher.   Viv was a commuter student and she brought back stories to Bibbi of tan, soft-spoken suburban girls and student teaching assignments in newish schools out in the scrubby suburbs. Viv ended up marrying another teacher and moving into one of those suburbs herself.  Although they didn’t see each other as often as they did as girls, Viv still swung by the old neighborhood to visit Bibbi when she checked in on her parents or to visit the bakery for nostalgic treats.  Her visits brought Bibbi a connection to the wider world that she would never have sought on her own.  There was enough local drama, misery and injustice for Bibbi within the pale, linty walls of the Wash Whenever, but she always welcomed her old friend happily.  Viv truly brought  fresh air and the outside world to an insulated Bibbi.

 

(need to catch up?  See the last installment here.)  

 

 

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Short Fiction

Mercy and Halie

Mercy and Halie were indeed siblings. The eldest of five, they were holding their family together living in a van while their parents tried to find both work and another place to live. Unfortunately these searches were interrupted by their competing needs to stay on their meds or to spend their available cash on self-medication.  Bibbi was correct in her assessment that they were new to the area: they just pulled the van in off Route 80 and remembered the Wash Whenever from a drive-by. Halie clung to his job as a busboy at a local chain restaurant while Mercy made sure their younger sisters spent the day at school. The elder siblings made it their job to create a sense of stability for their sisters.

Their own childhoods weren’t a distant memory.  The slide into a precarious, nomadic existence didn’t take more than five years, but it was helped equally by both the impartial “domestic economic indicators” and their father’s alcohol-induced hyper-sensitivity to criticism.  He was both a self-made and self-destructing man.  Unfortunately his wife didn’t have the constitution for the ups-and-downs.  She also retreated into various bottles, rendering the pair of them no good to each other or the family.  But there was free-thought and access to books in each of the progressively shrinking homes:  there just wasn’t much room for two drunken egos.

As the adults withdrew the kids clung to each other, and Mercy and Halie became de facto parents of the Blaise, Lily, and Grace.   As a classic first-born Mercy was a care-taker by nature and embraced this role early in her life, but her brother was mostly angry.  It wasn’t that he didn’t love his sisters, but he hated his father’s weakness and drunken bluster more.  He hatred that Mercy would cover for them, forge their signatures on school documents, tell rosy stories of family life to the younger ones.  But he couldn’t imagine a life without all of his sisters, and he relied on Mercy to tell him what to do, and to figure out his own way to become a man.  Both siblings knew they were compromising their short-term escape in order to improve the odds of the group.  Their youth gave them feelings of invincibility, strength, and hope in far larger helpings than any outside observer would grant.

Their poverty took considerable effort.  Even though Mercy and Halie had few commitments and belongings to maintain, every activity of daily living became its own full-time job. It took logistical planning to budget a bus ride to and from the grocery store when they needed to save gas for the van. Fortunately that meant not buying anything perishable (read: expensive). The cheapest food choices usually had the longest shelf-life.   Doing the laundry right before Halie needed to go to work was carefully orchestrated to get all his clothes ready for the next five-day stretch. But that meant timing the laundry run right between his shifts, and last night’s was late.  No wonder the boy was tired and cranky: he had only a few hours of sleep before he needed to start all over again.

But the early morning air felt hopeful to Mercy.  An empty laundromat could feel almost luxurious, the air not yet perfumed by wet heat and artificial freshness.   This staring woman’s  presence made her feel safe; as if she were a guardian of some sort.   She felt she could relax a little, focus on the task at hand and not have to be two steps ahead of the next crisis for a change.  Mercy could feel her shoulders roll back to neutral from the hunch of their load, her neck rising a bit at the top of her spine.  She allowed herself a little bit of anticipatory hunger.  The siblings would share a bagel and maybe some hot coffee.  If Halie fell asleep quickly she’d get to drink the lion’s share, and that would be wonderful, indeed.

Halie did as his sister instructed.  He tucked Bibbi’s five into his jean pocket and headed out the door.  He leaned forward as he walked, propelling his effort.  His perpetual hunger gave him a kinetic energy that made people nervous. It was easily misinterpreted as looking for trouble, spoiling for a fight.   Within the family confines, Mercy would try to soften him, but out in the world she preferred her brother as safety barrier.

He was both tired and hungry, if only for this shared bagel and a nap on a plastic chair.  The only meal he was able to enjoy as his own was the plate he took before his shift at the restaurant.  Fatty, filling, salted food that he wolfed down fast.  He would be sated, but he never felt full.  If asked he couldn’t even remember the last time that happened.

 

(new to the story?  catch up on the last installment here, The Laundromat: Where Life Unfolds )   

 

Short Fiction

Feckless Fiction, Unfinished

Below is a piece I started during a NaNoWriMo attempt.  I’m notorious for starting with a full head of steam and then just petering out.  So I’m taking advantage of the A-to-Z Challenge to bulk up my writing muscles and get some word count in every day.  I hope you will indulge me by reading the excerpt below.  It’s a little over 1200 words which is technically cheating for the challenge, so I’m grateful for both your time and eyeballs. 

The Laundromat: Where Life Unfolds

“Baby, I’ve seen it all,” thought the overseer of the suds, Bibbianna ”Bubbles” Romana. Bibbi inherited the Wash Whenever Laundromat from her parents, and had worked the sudsy emporium since she was a child. She brought her husband into the laundry business when he got back from the Army, and it sustained her after his death. No children for Bibbi and Vic; it was the time before folks were so open about infertility. It used to give Bibbi a little pang when she saw young expectant couples or babies in the place, but then she got to see the snotty pre-teens, dragged along to attend to their dirty clothes by haggard mothers, and then it didn’t seem like she was missing anything.

Bibi sighed as she folded a towel. The premium wash and fold service was a money-maker for the Laundromat. To Bibbi’s mind, folks were just getting lazier, and that was where wash and fold came in – seems dropping off dirty clothes and toting home a Saran-wrapped bundle of clean clothes was an affordable luxury for a certain clientele. And Bibbi didn’t mind taking on the wash and fold work herself. Laundry to her could be a meditation, and another way to eavesdrop on the very different lives of her patrons.

In most ways her worldview was shaped by the microcosm of the Wash Whenever: Honest labor had tangible results. Follow the rules or you’ll break the machine. Too much soap is never a good idea – nor can soap wash away all sin. Music and popular culture are both uniting and dividing forces. And don’t touch stuff that doesn’t belong to you.

Early morning in the laundromat was Bibbi’s favorite time. It was still cool inside regardless of the season and she didn’t have to turn the TV on so she could be alone with her thoughts and a her third cup of black coffee.  Sometimes she had no thoughts, and that was a blessing. Most of the time she was thinking about machine maintenance or pest control – every living creature was looking for warmth and Little Chopsticks next door had intermittent rodent issues.   The Wash Whenever was a no-frills, old-school laundromat where you came to wash your clothes.  She got rid of the soda machine years ago – what a hassle that was. Too many people having an opinion on what sodas should be inside, and she hated the druggie route guy.

So she was folding and wrapping up a wash and fold order, and thinking about taking a little break for a bagel when she was startled by the sound of the front door opening. People did come in as soon as she opened at 6, but she knew those regulars: Margot coming home from the night shift at the hospital to get off her feet, and her daughter coming in to meet her with the laundry on her way to school. Or the drag queen Cherry Bomb who worked nights, too.  Cherry would basically strip down to her G-string, throw everything in the machine and then take a dirty diva nap next to the last dryer.

Bibbi was not expecting to see the rag-tag pair of scrawny kids stooped under the weight of their backpacks and dragging a huge, stained laundry bag between them like elves. Were they siblings or a couple?

“Hey, there,” the girl’s face brightened with a smile in her greeting. “So glad you’re open this early. We really have a lot of dirty duds here.”   The boy kept his eyes downcast – out of respect or just furtive?

Bibbi sniffed the air subconsciously. They didn’t smell like dirty transients. The girl had dreads under a greasy bandana and could have used a bath, but the boy’s head and face were clean-shaven, and he had the fresh smell of recent sweat. Maybe he hadn’t showered recently, but he might have been doing some kind of labor not too long ago.

“Is it OK if we use a couple a machines? We’ll be done faster and out of here before it gets crowded,” the girl asked Bibi indirectly by thumping her laundry bag on top of three machines, a little tail of a printed sheet lolling out.

“Suit yourself, hon. It’s first come first served.” Bibbi had no intention of stepping out to the bagel place now. Nosiness beat out hunger every time.  She went back to her wash and fold table, pulled out another basket.

“Thanks. Haile, gimme the soap and I’ll get set up. You can read if you want to,” the girl was economical with her movements and seemed to have an internal rhythm as she quickly sorted the clothes into three machines.   The boy had given her a baggie of powdered detergent with a plastic measuring cup zipped inside.

Halie was staking out three chairs over by the window by splaying out the two backpacks and sitting down on the third.   Bibbi thought she heard him exhale with tiredness if not exhaustion. Or maybe it was just resignation to a chore that couldn’t be put off any longer. Bibbi was no judge of looks, but she did notice this boy did not have any visible tattoos or piercings – not even an earring, unusual in this day and age. He squinted a bit: gang-banger or just near-sighted?

Bibbi noticed there were kids clothes going into the machines – not baby clothes, but certainly the loud pinks and purples of little girls. These kids couldn’t be parents could they? Bibbi looked more closely at the girl. A sheen of sweat was making her face shiny, but the complexion was pale – no make-up, and her lips were dry and bitten. She looked like she didn’t care much about her appearance or cared about something else a whole lot more. Her hands were red and rough, cuticles ragged and nails chewed to the quick.

“Mercy, will my stuff be ready in time for work? “ the boy asked gruffly. Despite the barking tone to his voice, he seemed slightly afraid of this gamey, sinewy girl.

“Yes, Halie, you won’t be late. Why don’t you run over to that bagel place and bring us some breakfast.   She turned to Bibbi. “Missus, you want anything?  My brother is going to get us a bagel.”

Although Bibbi was a little suspicious, her hunger overrode her misgivings of giving these strangers five bucks. Besides the girl was still here. “Thanks, doll. Let me give you some cash. I’ll take a garlic with a little bit of butter.” She pulled a fiver out of her smock pocket and gave it to Halie who had one hand already pushing open the door.

“We’re cutting it a little close. My brother needs his stuff clean to go to work,” Mercy said out loud. Bibbi got the impression she was saying it more for her own benefit rather than conversation. Although Bibbi spent most of her life at the Wash Whenever, she learned early on not to give too much thought to the patrons and their little dramas. As a small business owner she felt a bit of an obligation to keep an eye on the neighborhood. As an old Italian lady of a certain age she also felt a moral charge to stave off the “bad elements,” as her borderline racist parents described it.

Like most racists, Bibbi didn’t think of herself as one.  She’d keep her eye on this pair of gypsies.