This is my final, Round Three story for the NYCMidnight competition. For this assignment, the genre was Romance, the location was A Laundromat and the object was A Hammer. Limit: 1,000 words.
Summary: Mitch doesn’t mind taking the time to do things right, whenever Gail is ready to let go.
You can tell how a woman feels about a man by the way she folds his shirts.
Mostly it’s a comfortable routine: shoulder to shoulder, flip the sleeves, fold it over, done. Sometimes she shakes it like the bastard’s still in it or tosses it on the laundry pile like she doesn’t give a damn. Or she folds it inside-out or with the design in so he can’t tell which shirt is which.
I was working in the laundry room of the Kingsfield apartments when a woman stumbled in with an overflowing basket.
“Let me get that for you.” I jumped up and we commenced a little tug-of-war till I guess she decided I was just a regular guy with old-fashioned manners. I set the basket on one of the folding tables between the banks of washers and dryers. “Right here okay?”
“Yes, thanks.” She was attractive rather than pretty, old enough to be interesting, with thick-lashed gray eyes and a shy smile. She gestured at my toolbox and the baseboard and molding I’d already removed. “Is it all right to do laundry now?”
“Fine, as long as you don’t mind the noise.”
“Can I ask what you’re doing?”
“I’m stripping the paneling. You can see it’s pretty banged up.” I pointed out scuff marks and scratches on the pine laminate covering the lower walls. “Then I’ll sand and patch, prime the walls and paint ’em—brighten up the place.”
“Sounds like a big job.” She had a voice like rich coffee, a little creamy, not too sweet.
“Well, the paneling’s stuck on with adhesive as well as nails, so it takes some time.” I picked up my chisel and hammer and began freeing the first panel from the sheetrock underneath. “It’s tempting to rush a job like this—to take big whacks that splinter the panel, and then pry it off in pieces.”
I repositioned the chisel and tapped it with the hammer. “It’s better to go slow, start at the top and work your way underneath till the panel’s ready to give. Less damage to the wall that way, too.”
“I liked the paneling—but I suppose it’s just what I’m used to.” She shrugged. “Thanks again for your help.”
“You’re welcome. If you need anything, my name is Mitch.”
“I’m Gail,” she said, and turned away. I watched as she lifted lids on three washers before finding an empty one. Then she pulled a man’s flannel shirt from the basket and began loading clothes in careful layers.
We worked to the sounds of my hammer, the rattle and clink of quarters in the coin slot, and the splashing, churning and spinning of the washing machines. Gail left the laundry room to return twice more with full baskets. She was moving her last load to a dryer when I broke for a snack.
“Would you like a soda?” I rummaged through my cooler. “I’ve got cheese sticks, too, and red grapes. No seeds.”
“Just a soda, thanks.”
“Chateau root beer or orange zinfandel?”
Her smile bloomed. “Orange, please.”
I leaned against the dryer next to hers. It was running with a pleasant hum and clickety-click as buttons and zippers tumbled against the drum. The heat felt good.
Gail fed wet clothes into her machine. I spotted jeans and tee-shirts too big to be hers, some dress shirts and a jacket with the Celtics logo. I checked her hands. No ring.
“Have you lived in the building long?” I peeled a cheese stick.
“Almost four years. Do you live here, too?”
“I’ve got a little house nearby. I’ll be working here a lot, though. The new management’s sprucing up the place.”
“About time.” Gail started the dryer and leaned against it, keeping some distance between us. “The old landlord never fixed one thing on the list we made when we moved in.”
She drained the rest of her soda and twisted the cap back on the bottle. “Me and my husband. Terry.”
I thought she was going to say more, but the signal buzzed on one of her dryers. She lugged over a laundry basket and piled the dry load in it.
“I’ve got it.” I hoisted the basket onto the nearest folding table.
Gail tumbled all the clothes out of the basket and pulled a shirt from the pile. A man’s flannel, green and blue plaid. She straightened the collar and pressed it flat. She folded the shirt in half lengthwise, shoulders touching. She matched up the sleeves from shoulders to cuffs and folded them forward on a diagonal across the body of the shirt. She flipped up the tail ends and smoothed them flat. She made one more fold to create a neat, square package. She laid the shirt in the bottom of the basket as if she were laying an infant down to rest. She reached for another shirt.
“I better get back to work.” I stuffed the bottles in my cooler. “It’s been nice talking to you, Gail.”
She placed another shirt, folded neat and square, in the basket. She folded three tee-shirts and added them to the pile.
“Terry died two years ago.” she said, her hand resting on the stack of shirts. “Car crash.”
I stepped toward her. Stopped. “Aw, Gail. I’m sorry.”
“Thanks.” She folded a crease down the legs of a pair of jeans. “I’m donating his clothes to the Pine Street Inn shelter.”
Two years later, I thought. I said, “That’s great.”
The signal buzzed on another dryer. She filled her basket. I carried it to the table.
“Someone should wear these,” she said. “Somebody who doesn’t have …good clothes.”
“Can I help?” I touched the basket. “You know, carry some of the load?”
“Thanks.” She flashed her shy smile. “I’ll let you know when I’m ready.”
I crouched down by the next section of panel. It’s tempting to rush the job, but I set the chisel, aimed the hammer. Tap. Tap. Tap.
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