My first marriage ended suddenly in divorce–something I would not recommend to anyone. A lot of things changed for me over night but the one that I noticed the most was the singular effort required to just take care of my needs. For example Wednesday had a purpose; a focus that it never had before. Now, for a lot of people, Wednesday means that it is just the middle of another week…”hump day” as many call it. For others, it is the day that they head out to the weekly prayer meeting at their church. Wednesday, like any other day of the week, is significant in one form or another to all of us, at least at one time or another. For me, it was a really special day…it was “wash-day” down at the local laundromat.
Yes, I lost the washer and dryer in the divorce along with the refrigerator and most of the furniture. I had been sleeping on a pool float, eating out of tin cans, and washing my clothes at a local laundromat. Logically, I should have taken them to the dry cleaner but money was much too tight. It’s funny, these laundromats have been around with their coin-operated machines almost since the advent of the new-age washer if not before yet we only seem to notice them when we have to use them. Frankly, I had not even noticed their existence until two weeks after my divorce was final and I realized that all my clothes were dirty. I had to look in the Yellow Pages to locate one although I drive past it almost every day on my journey to work.
I never felt much like a “prisoner of life” until gaining awareness that my discipline of personal behavior required two hours just to do the laundry on a weekly basis. The alternatives, using the dry cleaner or just throwing away the clothes and buying new ones, were not within my child-support strapped, financial reality. A laundromat was my affordable salvation. I did not think it a big deal the first time that I showed up there on a Wednesday afternoon. It was shortly after my arrival that I realized that I would be tied to this place for both the wash and dry cycles lest someone might walk off with the only clothes I could afford…the ones that I currently own. Suddenly, I felt trapped and feeling as if time passed insanely slow in that laundromat.
I made an attempt to read to pass the time, but there were too many distractions. People coming and going; door chimes ringing; washers buzzing–signaling the end of their cycle. I just could not concentrate enough to read. Losing that past-time made time move even slower. People here and there about the room…an old man with a lonely look in his eyes; a young Mexican woman trailed by two squalling kids, barefoot with their noses running down their lip; a leftover from their most recent cry and a forecaster of the next one. Those who just sat and stared with their arms folded about them.
Reading was replaced by people watching; it became my way to while away time. I watched people from my perch in the hard, virtually indestructible plastic chairs that lined the area along the windows at the store front. These people were total strangers to me but they would become a regular sight as predictable as I was on a Wednesday. Their faces, actions, baggage, and habits became quite familiar to me. They were the “Wednesday Regulars” and I had unknowingly joined their group.
Some “newly single” guy might conclude that a laundromat is a good place to meet women. What a sad and erroneous conclusion that is. I knew by my second Wednesday visit that any hope of meeting a woman who was remotely attractive in this place was a complete pipe-dream. By my third visit, I had developed a mental escape for my waiting hours. I would daydream about meeting some babe here totally by chance as we both came to wash out our undies. In my fantasy, she was always some famous babe right off the silver screen. She was dressed to the sexy nines dripping with sensuality as she bent over the coin-operated washers and cut her eyes my way.
“What’s a good-lookin’ babe like you doin’ in a place like this?” Was my opening line in the fantasy. She heard me speak before she knew that I was standing right behind her admiring her laundry physique as she busied herself moving her dainty-delicates from the washer to the dryer.
“Why hoping I would meet a stud like you,” was always her reply. Then somewhere far off the sound of romantic music played by as we danced the dance of courtship to the beat of a pair of wet tennis shoes being tossed about in a nearby dryer tub. She was flawless from stem to stern and seemly totally enamored with me from the moment she first looked up and saw me standing over her. I never tired of watching her run her tongue over her lipstick-stained red lips. She was a hottie!
“Mister! Oh, Mister!” A voice from some distant unknown space called interrupting my recurring fantasy. I all but ignored it lost in the shimmering pools of my new love’s dark eyes. Suddenly, I felt a strong shove on my shoulder and was awaken from my fantasy as I lay over the folding table from the waist up leaning on my elbow.
“You’re in my spot!” She said. I opened my eyes to see a little gray-haired lady who was barely five feet tall and no more. I was now totally awake from my day-time fantasy but still I looked quickly about to find that “hottie” that I had been engaged with before this little woman interjected herself into my dream. There was no one about who came even close to fitting the “hottie’s” description. If she had ever actually been there in the laundry, she was gone now. “Thank you, Granny Clampett, I thought.”
“Now get your stuff and move down to the other end of the table…I need my space.” Granny demanded pointing her crooked little finger toward the far end of the large table set aside for folding clothes as they came out of the drying cycle. “You must be new around here. I’ll forgive you this time but don’t let it happen again.” She added still pointing the finger.
I heard myself saying “Yes Maam!” without even thinking about it. I was shoving my things right down to the end of the table and apologizing as if I had just executed some grievous injustice. It is funny how little ol’ ladies can push their weight around, especially when they rip you right out of one of the best fantasies that you have experienced in a long while. I was pretty sure that my dream girl had left the building for good now and I was right. The laundry was not that a place one could expect to meet beautiful women or even someone famous for that matter. I guessed that they had someone to do their washing.
“Are you in the Army?” I heard Granny ask as I moved down the table.
“No, Maam,” I replied over my shoulder. I was too young for World War II and I missed Korea by a few months…not that I am complaining.”
“My son is in the Army. He’s in Korea now. I expect him back at any time. We’ll have a big parade downtown for him. I cannot wait to kiss his cheeks again and have him safely back home,” Granny added.
“Yes, Maam, I know you will be glad when he gets back here. How long has he been in Korea?” I asked.
“Oh, he has been gone there about six months, I keep hoping for a letter from him but he must be too busy to write. I check the mailbox every day” She said, her eyes growing a bit moist. “Oh, dear I must get to work folding these clothes. I have so little time to talk.” And with that she turned to her laundry as if I had disappeared like that “hottie” in laundromat fantasy.
I walked over to the restroom to powder my nose. As I came out of the door, I met a tall, older man with a bushy head of silver-gray hair dressed in a red-plaid shirt with khaki paints. He had a very neat and organized appearance. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “You know she’s nuttier than a fruit cake, don’t you?”
“Who?” I quickly asked caught off guard by his comment.
“Why, old lady Hatcher over there at the folding table. She is as crazy as a crap-house rat. I’ll bet she told you that her boy was on the way home from Korea any day now. Well, he came home several years ago from the Korean War in a metal box. He’s been buried out there in the cemetery west of town for more than five years. She is still expecting him home as if she was not even there for the funeral.” He stated.
“Wow, she had me convinced,” I replied.
“My name is Charlie Huff. I live in the apartments up the street; come in here to do my laundry just about every Wednesday. Reckon I haven’t seen you here before. You must be new.” The old man observed.
“Yes, newly divorced and living on my own…laundry and all. My name is Phil…Phil James.” I replied extending my hand to shake his hand outstretched before me.
“Well she’s harmless as long as you don’t get in her spot on the folding table. But mark my word, every conversation that you have with her will cover the same ground. I can’t take it; I started folding my clothes at home.” Charlie offered.
“I’ll make note of that and steer clear as best I can.” I replied.
“Look out for those two snot noses brats that Mexican woman brings in here too.” Charlie warned. “She’s here like clockwork every Wednesday dragging them two little crying machines along with her. Sometimes I wish they had a coin slot in their head so that I could drop in a coin and turn things off. They run amuck when they are in here and she seems like she is mentally somewhere off in the far reaches of the Arctic Circle. Those brats will wipe their noses on your clothes when you ain’t lookin’. You better keep an eye out for them.” He added.
“Well, thanks, Charlie. I guess I need to get back to folding my stuff now. I appreciate the information.” I said starting to step away.
“Don’t mention it. Next week, I’ll tell you about my gall bladder surgery and how they are treating my liver with some of that stuff that we dropped on the Japanese in World War II.” Charlie said giving me a wave.
“Man I can’t wait until next week” I quietly thought to myself as I walked away from Charlie. As I returned to the table, Mrs. Hatcher was picking up her basket of folded clothes and heading for the door. I was safe for another week and could use any part of the folding table that I desired between now and then. The buzzer went off on my washer. I busied myself removing the wet clothing from the washer tub to one of the big dryers across from the folding table. It was a large load of clothing and the process required three trips. For a few minutes my mind departed the chaos of the laundromat totally while engrossed in the task at hand.
As I turned back toward the folding table, she was standing there on the other side. Her light-brown hair was tied up high with a bandanna. She wore blue-jean shorts and a shirt-like halter top which tied in the front. She had a smile as fresh and engaging as anything that I had ever seen. For a moment, I thought that I was back into my laundromat fantasy. I was totally fascinated and could not take my eyes off of her as she stood there on the other side of the table.
“Hello, my name is Norma Jean…Norma Jean Mortenson. I don’t believe I have ever seen you here. I do laundry here all the time but I have never seen you. You must be new,” She said with a happy little lilt to her voice that just added more to her total effect on me. In that instance, I was really glad that Wednesday was wash-day for both me and for Norma Jean.
I stuttered and stammered trying to get out my reply. I was turning into a rubber chicken right in front of this woman’s eyes. “I’m….I’m…uh, uh…Phil, uh, uh, Phil James” I said leaning across the table and extending my hand to her in greeting. She reached out and shook my outstretched hand with another smile on her face and winked just a little at me.
“Very nice to me you, Phil” She said and for a second I thought that I saw dimples in her cheeks. I was mesmerized in the moment and completely forgot what I was doing as the dryer that I had selected was sitting idle with my clothes in it and the door open.
“Well, aren’t you going to dry your clothes?” She asked.
“What?” I replied.
“Your clothes…they are in the dryer.” She said pointing toward the open dryer door.
“Oh…the clothes. Yeah…the clothes. Oh yeah, oh yeah, yeah, I was just going to dry them,” I replied stumbling blindly over to close the door and drop coins in the slot to activate the dryer. God I must look stupid to this woman I thought.
I returned to the folding table as she finished placing her clothes in the washer on the other side. “What is it that you do, Mr. James?” She asked leaning over the table toward me to be heard over the noise of the laundry machines.
“Oh, I am an accountant for Litchfield Industries. They make plastic pipe.” I replied thinking how unexciting this must sound to a woman who probably gets the come-on from every guy who comes within fifty yards of her. She seemed so oblivious to her beauty and charm; so innocent, with school- girl purity, skin like the surface of smooth cream and eyes that could make a man forget to breathe.
“I’m working as a waitress right now up at the little café near the corner,” She replied. “You should come by sometimes. I’ll wait on you!” She said in a way that seemed that she was excited about the prospect. “Ultimately, I want to go to Hollywood and become an actress on the big screen. I just have to save up enough money to get there.” She added.
“That sounds good. You certainly look the part.” I replied.
“I hope you get to have that fantasy and live it, “I said. “There are so many people today who seem to interrupt their dreams and abruptly bring them to an end.” I added thinking of my encounter with Mrs. Hatcher there along the folding table.
She smiled back at me. “Thank you, maybe one day you’ll want my autograph or you can tell folks that you use to wash clothes with me on Wednesday, huh? She said giggling just a little and rolling her eyes toward me as if she thought that becoming an actress was so far beyond possible for her that she would make jokes as to its outcome. I could tell. She wanted it and would America ever want her if they saw her upon that screen. On the other hand, my mind began to fantasize as to how life could be if she became the new “Mrs. Phil James” and settled into a life with an accountant for a husband.
We exchanged a few more pleasantries and my clothes were done. I thought about washing them a second time just to be sure they were clean but I did not want to appear too stupid in front of this absolutely beautiful woman that I never, ever expected to meet here in the laundromat. As much as I did not want to, I could not find any more excuses to stay. I left as Norma Jean waved good-bye and continued folding her clothes over the table. I could not wait for “wash day” coming up in the next week. Maybe then I would get the courage to ask her out on a date.
After what seemed an eternity, Wednesday finally rolled around again. I finished up at work and headed to the laundry. I could hardly control myself thinking of seeing Norma Jean at the laundromat. Through the weekend, I had tried to muster the courage to go to the street café at the corner and see her there but I was afraid that I might look too forward; too pushy…that I might scare her off. I had to wait for “wash-day”. Finally it was here and my heart was about to beat out of my chest in anticipation. I threw all my dirty clothes in a basket and headed out for the laundromat. I had an extra-large load this time which would take a long time to dry and fold properly. I would have plenty of time to visit with Norma Jean at the folding table.
Mrs. Hatcher was already in her normal place so I headed down to the far end of the folding table where she had sent me last week not wanting to “violate her space”. She didn’t acknowledge my presence as I walked past her then out of the blue she said to my back, “My boy’s comin’ home this week. We’re gonna have a parade.”
I turned to face her. “Oh that is so good to hear, Mrs. Hatcher. I will certainly try to be there for that glorious event. In fact, I wouldn’t miss it,” I replied.
Mrs. Hatch smiled briefly at me and went back to her folding task apparently done with the chit-chat. I looked about and saw several people, some familiar, some new, but no Norma Jean anywhere about the place. Still, it was early. She was bound to be along soon. I had to take my time so that I had a reason to be there when she arrived. I went to the restroom, powdered my nose and washed my hands; bought a box of soap…anything to kill time.
Charlie Huff stood gazing out a window again dressed in his plaid shirt and khaki pants…everything, every hair, precisely in place. I walked over to where he stood hoping I could kill a bit more time in conversation with him before I started washing my clothes. Charlie appeared to be off in thought in his little world. I just stood there beside him for a moment and said nothing. Finally, he turned to me as if he knew I would be there and said, “Damned snot-nose kids will be here soon, you know…this peace we currently have will be over. You know that don’t you?” He asked as he eyed me. I nodded my acknowledgement without speaking.
“I heard old lady Hatcher tell you that her boy was coming home. I hope you are not going downtown Saturday for the parade…there won’t be one.” Charlie stated very matter-a-factly.
“No, and what a shame,” I replied. “I always liked a parade and everybody loves a welcome home,” I added.
“Well, that Hatcher boy shore earned his fighting hand to hand with those commies in that cold-ass snow in Korea. I’ll take being shot out of the sky over Germany any day, but that’s another story for another day,” Charlie stated continuing to stare out the window at nothing.
The chime on the front door sounded and in rolled the two squallers with their Mexican mother in trail carrying the largest laundry basket that I have ever seen in my life. True to form, both kids were crying as their noses ran incessantly and seemingly without their notice or that of their mother. I dwelled on it for a bit and decided that it was just a phase of life that most of us probably go through but we don’t remember it for some reason.
The mother’s face was fixed in one expression; a rather sad one at that I observed. Maybe her life was less than fulfilling at this point and being a regular at the Wednesday wash was just not doing it for her. I wondered if she had a husband and then wondered why I wondered about that. She was not the woman that I was waiting for today. That was for sure.
“You seemed to enjoy yourself last week talking to that little “Norma Jean” girl there at the folding table.” Charlie said.
“Yes, she was quite nice. Does she come here much?” I asked just making conversation.
“Oh, yes, but I have not seen her today.” Charlie replied. “I have seen her here just about every Wednesday for the past six months. She is definitely a regular here on Wednesday. We’ll probably see her today. You know she works as a waitress up at the Starlight Café, don’t you? She says she wants to be an actress out in Hollywood someday. I wouldn’t have the first clue about how to do something like that,” Charlie added.
“You already washed your things, Charlie? I asked.
“Oh no, I’m not washing today. I just came down to see how things were going. It’s part of my routine these days. I’ve got the time. Time is really all I’ve l got but it is a fleeting thing. I’m getting’ old, boy and I’m telliin’ ya…if there’s something you want to do, get out there and do it before it’s too late. Otherwise, you’ll spend your old age dwelling on the regrets of things left undone,” Charlie said glancing over at me with a look of remorse in his eyes.
“You’re right about that, Charlie.” I replied. “In fact there are a couple of things I plan to get done today…real soon, in fact” I added thinking of querying Miss Norma Jean for a date this weekend. I couldn’t do that until she showed up and that could not be soon enough for me.
I began working on my laundry glancing up each time the door chime cycled hoping that Miss Norma Jean was entering the room. The event never came to past and there I stood with my last bit of laundry all folded neatly and stacked into my basket. It had been hours now and Norma Jean had not showed up to do laundry. I no longer had a viable reason to be here. It was time to take my laundry and go. I would have to change my plan as I could not wait the eternity of another entire week for wash-day to come around before I saw Norma Jean again. Tomorrow I would head over to the Starlight Café and see her there. It being Thursday, I just might still have time to land a date for the weekend.
About noon on Thursday, I entered the Starlight Café and looked about. The place was adorn with a long counter with stools and some red, shiny, plastic-covered booths along the windows. I grabbed a stool at the counter. A waitress immediately came through the swinging door which led into the kitchen area. She was dressed in a starched pink uniform-dress with large white collars. Her dark hair was pulled up in a bun and decorated with flowers. She had a pencil stuck into the bun of hair. She came immediately to my spot at the counter approaching me with a big smile.
“Hello darling, can I get you something to drink…some ice tea or a cup of coffee?” She asked while still smiling. She was cute but certainly not Norma Jean by any measure.
“Ice-tea is fine.” I replied.
“Okay, here’s a menu that you can look over and I’ll be right back.” She said spinning around to head off in pursuit of my ice-tea and unconsciously stuffing her pencil right back into her hair bun.
She was back in a flash with the ice-tea. It was a large glass full of ice with a large lemon wedge on the rim. “Now what can I get for you?” She asked setting the tea down in front of me on the counter.
“Let me have the egg salad sandwich and the soup.” I said.
“Oh you’ll like that one. It’s one of my favorites here!” She replied. The name tag pinned over her pocket indicated that her name was “Penny”.
“Will that be all for you?” Penny added holding her pencil at the ready to write on my ticket if I had any more desires.
“I don’t think so, Penny. I could use some information?” I stated.
“Well, sure…what do you need to know? I’ll tell you if I can,” She replied with a noticeable southern drawl.
“Is Norma Jean working today?” I asked.
“Oh, no, Honey, she’s not. In fact, she don’t work here no more as of last Friday.” Penny said. “She turned in her resignation at the end of her shift and said she was catching the midnight bus to Hollywood. Her dream is to be an actress and I guess she is serious about it. Anyway, she must have gone because she has not been back here to work.” Penny added.
I felt like someone had just kicked me in the groin. The thought occurred to me to just lay down on the floor there in the café and moan for a while. After considering it, I decided that would be a bad idea. The egg salad sandwich and soup were all but wasted on my now non-existent appetite. My hunger was gone just like Norma Jean. After paying my tab and tipping Penny, I headed out the door. As I approached my car, I decided that I was not going back to work today; I was too distracted. I didn’t know what I was going to do but I was definitely finished with work for the present. I got into the car and started driving. I decided to go west…Hollywood was in that direction I remember thinking.
I roared my Mercury coupe down the two-lane highway that headed west out of town. In a matter of minutes, the town was behind me and the country side flew by. There was no immediate plan to do so, but I remember thinking that if I was going to Hollywood, I should take some clean clothes. At that moment, I had nothing with me…not much of a way to get started out there I thought. I looked for a place to turn around and head back home. If I was going, I needed to do this right. I also needed to see if anybody at the café had a forwarding address for Norma Jean. There would be no finding her out there without some help. Up ahead a graveled road turned off to the right. I would turn around there.
I pulled off of the road to the right on to the country lane and immediately saw columns constructed of stone and a large sign which read “Sycamore Memorial Park”. In that moment, I thought of Mrs. Hatcher’s son. Charlie said that he was buried in the cemetery west of town. This must be the place. I pulled in passing between the stone columns and underneath the entry sign then found a place to park. For some reason, I suddenly found it important to locate the Hatcher boy’s grave. Deciding that I must be losing my own mind, I dwelled on the thought that I had started this journey pursuing Norma Jean out of town and now I was looking for a dead soldier that I didn’t even know. My chances of finding either one were slim at best.
I walked past hundreds of graves reading names and inscriptions on headstones but none with the name “Hatcher”. At a point where I thought it high-time that I gave up this search, the headstone appeared there before me under a large spreading oak tree that cast its shadow about in all directions for hundreds of feet. I walked up to the grave and read the inscription.
The large marble headstone had “Hatcher” cut into it in large letters across the top. Below that was an inscription that read, “Some Gave A Little; He Gave All”, Robert Franklin “Bobby” Hatcher 7 July 1934 – 22 November 1952, Staff Sgt. U.S. Army.” I stood there for a bit trying to know the young man buried in this grave; trying to gain some sense of his sacrifice and courage; trying to understand that endless denial which fogged the mind of his mother as she remained convinced that her son was still coming home. My heart was breaking just thinking about it and the tears gently rolled down my face as I mourned for this young soldier and his dear mother.
After a bit, I climbed into the Mercury heading back into town. I no longer fixed on my knee-jerk plan for heading to Hollywood. Standing over the grave of the “forever young” Bobby Hatcher, I came to a sobering reality . Suddenly, I realized that Norma Jean was gone; gone just like my laundromat fantasy. She was gone like young Bobby Hatcher had been when he arrived back home in that metal coffin. My window into her life had been brief and now it too had closed. I now knew that.
Norma Jean had dreams and hopes beyond me, the cafe and the laundromat. Now I knew that. She was gone and likely I would never hear from her again further confirming my conviction that the laundromat is no place to meet good-looking women or famous folks. Norma Jean was gone but if by chance she ever came back, we would most certainly have a parade downtown, and I would take ol’ Charlie down to see it. I took satisfaction in knowing that as I steered the Mercury back into town.
©Copyright WBrown2013. All Rights Reserved.