Monday, May 24, 2010


(Photo by calico_13/Flickr)
[My brother called me up one night in 2007 when I happened to be working late at the office. At that point, I was a Software Quality Assurance Engineer and on this particular night that meant I was babysitting some critical jobs that were running, making sure they were completed successfully by the start of business the next day. I don't miss that part of my former career, but it was fortuitous this night. When my brother called me, I was bored. And the story he told me, which had just actually happened to him, captured my imagination. With a few hours to kill, I gave the story the creative writing treatment.  This is probably my favorite piece of my own writing. The only theological reflection I have on it is that I'm grateful for my brother's and my imaginations, and I'm grateful for interesting people in the world that we're blessed with encountering, if only we place ourselves at the ready...]

Walking into the Laundromat, I saw Bill sitting on a folding table, head cast up watching "American Idol" on TV. His mouth was slightly agape. Bill is in his early 50s and looks like he's having a tug-of-war with his past. And slowly losing. His faded black Gov't Mule t-shirt, hugging his paunch, looked vintage; not like the shit you get at those teeny-bopper bubble gum stores like Hot Topic. Despite the sleet falling outside and temperatures in the mid-30s, Bill had on khaki shorts and was wearing a pair of beat old Red Wing boots. Gray hair grown out and pulled back neatly into a ponytail. This guy was a sight. I would have passed him off as a pathetic old hippie and avoided him if I hadn't seen his eyes when he glanced at me on the way in. Cobalt blue orbs that were calm, inquisitive and intelligent.

I didn't know Bill when I stepped in and I'd never been in this or any other laundromat, for that matter. Our fucking dryer has been nothing but a headache for the past six months and we're tired of hauling the laundry to my parents' house and bugging them with our dirty clothes, our dirty dog, and our dirty kids. My wife somehow got out of it tonight, so there I was. Looking at Bill.

He glanced over at me again and gave a slow nod as I set the laundry down to start sorting.

"Ya watch 'Idol'?"

Answering in the negative, this launched us into a five minute educational session on the ins and outs of the show that I'd intentionally stayed away from on the television and the mind-numbing water cooler discussions of it at work. Somehow, Bill made it interesting and I actually cared about it for those five minutes as I loaded up the machines with dirty clothes.

"Ya wanna beer?"

Taken aback, I stammered, "uuhh...sure."

Reaching beside him, Bill lifted up the flap on a zip-up mini-cooler sitting on the table he leaned against. Inside, two bottles of Stella Artois glowed with angelic green light.

"Ya have a Styrofoam cup or sumthin'?"

Shaking my head, Bill scanned the rest of the Laundromat. It was empty.

"Well, the owner's not here, I don't think. What the hell." He handed me over a bottle, snapping the lid off with his keychain-mounted church key as he did so. The Belgian beer was cold and perfect. As perfect as imported beer could be at 8:30 PM on a weekday evening in a Laundromat in suburban Central Iowa.

A comfortable silence passed between us for a good five minutes as we sipped our beer and watched "Idol" with the hum and warmth of the laundry machines all around us. The buzz of the exposed florescent lights above us and the embrace of the dark brown faux wood paneled walls encompassing all. Paula Abdul smiled. Simon Cowell scowled. An old rusty truck with no muffler clamored by the front window. Bill and I glanced over our shoulders as it passed.

Our beers were empty and we started talking about music. His Gov't Mule t-shirt was no pose. Bill knew his shit and backed it up with a long talk about the band's birth out of the Allman Brothers Band. Warren Haynes is Bill's hero and he made me a believer in short order. Moving to rock bands in the 90s, my domain, I brought up a few bands. Bill was a fan of Alice in Chains and Sublime.

"Yeah, those guys were great. And ain't it the shits they both had to OD? Just like Morrison and Hendrix, man. Hell, Staley turned himself into a mummy. Nobody knew he was dead for weeks! The poor guy from Sublime...his band gets signed and what does he do? Kill himself with heroin."

Rolling the empty green bottle in his hand, gazing at it sadly, Bill said:

"Just doesn't make any sense, man."

The laundry was only half-way done for both of us when Bill asked:

"Hey, ya want another beer? I think I have two more in the car."

I wasn't going to argue or turn the guy down, so I agreed and Bill strolled out to his car and rummaged around in his front seat. Leaning back up against the folding tables, we settled in for another conversation. Bill started talking about his family. His daughter is married to a French-Canadian former hockey player named Francois.

"I told him, 'Francois, I love ya, man. You're the only one that can hang with my daughter.' I've watched his old game tapes; he was damn good! I asked him why he didn't keep playing after college and he said 'I'm a five-foot-ten, one hundred seventy pound hockey player who's moderately good; there are only about ten thousand more of me in Canada.' I couldn't argue with him on that."

We were mostly done with our beers and laundry when the front door opened. Looking behind him, Bill started.

"Shit, that's the owner, man!"

Without finishing his beer, Bill ditched the bottle in the big trash can by the folding tables and walked quickly past the owner and out the front door. He jumped into the front seat of his car and sat there, looking inside nervously. Before the owner reached the back area where I was standing, I discretely followed Bill's lead with my bottle and stood bewildered.

The owner was a real nice guy. Not nearly as interesting as Bill, but still nice. The thing that killed me is that the entire time the owner was in there, Bill sat out in his car trying to look not-nervous. Looking inside, turning his head away, looking down pretending to read something. The owner left and still Bill sat.

I finished the rest of the laundry inside by myself, watching some ridiculous doctor show that looked like ER except everyone was all horny and screwing in the hospital. Absolutely terrible.

With bags of clean, dried, and folded laundry strung over my shoulder and headed out the door, I glanced over at Bill. Through the windshield glass, dappled with sleet, he was still looking inside nervously. Throwing him a wave that he didn't see, I threw the laundry in the van and headed home.

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