November 6, 2009
The concept of a laundromat in this provencale village is as incongruous as the laundromat itself. It is a customized shipping container plonked in the middle of a car park. I am here to use the big machine to deal with a domestic disaster too large to fit in my own.
An autumnal breeze chases leaves around the tarmac and I am glad of the fragrant, humid warmth this box provides. There are three small machines, one large one and two dryers. There is a folding table, a detergent dispenser and a row of 3 plastic chairs bolted to the floor.
A man of about 45 is taking up all 3 seats. He is sitting on one, has his book on another and has been ferreting in a shopping bag that sits on the third. He doesn’t notice me at first – he is preoccupied looking for something, and now he has it – a pen.
“Bonjour” he says in French I know does not belong to him.
He hastily moves his shopping and two cans fall on the floor. As he bends down to pick one up I read the label on the other – “Boeuf Bourgignon”.
Who in their right mind comes to France where the markets are groaning with an embarrassment of choice in fresh produce and buys canned stew?
“Don’t worry” I say
“I have to load the machine so I won’t be sitting down just yet”.
“You speak English he says” in an accent I can’t quite place – Norwegian?
“Yes” I reply, unnecessarily.
I too have brought my book and make a show of starting to read it. I am not going to get caught up in a conversation. I resolve not to say another word.
He has the good grace to pick up on this, leaving the field clear for me to play my game. I want to decide who this man is but the rules dictate that I am not allowed to speak to him. I have to read as much about him from the physical evidence before me. A harmless hobby. I will be disqualified if he starts to speak and punctures my theories.
This is a challenge as I am a friendly and curious sort and the confined space and shared language ups the degree of difficulty. I am using the big machine which takes forty minutes and then will need the dryer for another 20. I like a challenge.
The seats are uncomfortable. The backs are unintentionally flexible and contort themselves diagonally when I lean back and provide no support anyway. I am wearing jeans but they don’t seem to have any traction on the chair and I keep sliding forwards every time I lean back . Looks like I want to have a little nap or back away from something dangerous. So I sit up straight. Bolt upright. But my arms can’t seem to find a natural position and it is hard to see my book from that angle. So I lift it up but realize this turns me into a school marm, primly sitting reading improving literature.
He is at the folding table sorting his dirty clothes into battalions. I don’t want to observe this so my eyes slide down to the shopping bag on the middle seat. Not much in there. Some toothpaste, a liter of fresh milk, some wine…hang on a bit, this requires some skill: I drop my book and in the course of retrieving it bump the shopping. I steady the wine and yes, (Goal!) manage to read the label and this really gives me extra points! Chateauneuf- du-Pap!
So here we have someone who knows what a good drop is and drinks it after sitting down to a can of cat food. Mmm.
Oops. Back to my book. He is loading the whites. He turns the dial, and then turns it again. 90 degrees. He’ll be here for at least an hour at 90 degrees and I am tempted to tell him that he is wasting his time – we live in a hard water region and everything comes out gray anyway. But that would be breaking the rules.
He is wearing a pair of Levis and a clean, but not new shirt. Now the darks are going in. Lots of socks and a few sweatshirts. Two machines start rumbling and he steps outside. I panic momentarily wondering if I have lost my chance just when I am getting into this story but no, he is coming back with another bag.
And now he does something peculiar. He opens the door of the third machine and puts the entire plastic bag in while casting a furtive glance in my direction. I, of course, am thoroughly absorbed in my book (not) so he whips the bag away in one graceful swoop and slams the door shut. He glances again in my direction.
He starts the machine, sits down and picks up his book.
“The One Minute Millionaire”. I know about this book. I’m a fan, in fact. I am the child in class who wants to shoot up my hand and shout “Yes Miss, Over here Miss!” and talk to him about the book. But there are the rules to think about. He picks up the pen and underlines something. Damn I want to know what it is.
He is a good looking man. He certainly isn’t gay. He is no stranger to laundry – he is at ease in this domain and undefeated by the sorting, the loading, the twisting of dials. He has a family somewhere. But if he has a family why be doing your every day laundry in a laundromat. Where is his home? Families come with washing machines.
He isn’t a tourist. His clothes are those of someone who works outside not someone out to take in the sights. And if he were a tourist he would not be eating Boeuf Bourgingnon out of a tin. He would be caressing tomatoes and photographing melons. It would no longer be food but an occupation, no, a calling.
I’ve got it! The cans are for him, the wine is for someone else. He has been invited out to dinner. Just as this thought hits me his phone begins to ring. Not a fancy ringtone, just “ring riiiiing”. I want to Hi five someone.
He looks at me apologetically and I give one of those compressed smiles that isn’t a smile and frown some more at my book.
His face changes.
“Hi”, he says, the word visibly growing tendrils and blossoming.
“Really? I’m doing my laundry” and he twists around and looks over his shoulder towards the car park.
“I know, I know you offered but you know…”
Know what? I want to know. Dammit.
Then he laughs, a good laugh, a kind laugh and he turns around and waves out of the perspex window.
A young boy comes in. A beautiful boy of about 10.
“Hi buddy” he says and I know he has spent some time in America.
The boy gives him a self-conscious hug. This fatherless boy. This boy looking for a father.
He sits down on the middle seat and starts to swing his legs. There is a lot in this boy’s heart and it has to do with finding the right things to say to make this man love him.
The door swings open again and a draft bearing a perfume I cannot place precedes a woman in her mid-thirties. Then I remember. Fragonard.
“I bought everything for dinner” she says
“Are you sure you want to cook?”
and he says,
“Of course. I make a mean lasagna”, and he smiles at the boy.
And then I know that lasagna is that boy’s favorite and this man had better know what he is doing.
He is a charmer. He is between families. He doesn’t want to have his laundry done at their house because that would make a statement he does not want to make.
The woman is not bad looking. Different, but not unattractive. She is smitten.
I think he likes her too but I am not sure how much. The boy is worrying a sticker on the folding table. It is a sticker off an apple. “Pink Lady”. I smile at the boy.
He is well-dressed but his clothes are far from new. Their age far exceeds the length of time he could possibly have been wearing them.
“I bought some wine”, he says, reaching for the bag.
“Would you like to take it now?”
“Ok” she says
Her eyes dance over the label. She smiles and tucks it against her like a secret.
There is a pause.
He wants her to go. I want her to go and take that hopeful boy with her.
He is going to break her heart.
I look at him. I’m not cheating. I am not using words but I’m saying
“Look here buster. There is a child involved. It is against the rules”.
My washing finishes and I haul it out and shove it into the drier.
His 40 degree load, the mystery one is coming to the end of the spin cycle.
Vip vap vip vip vip clunk.
He tugs at the door impatiently. It makes him wait the required minute before it will open. He is agitated.
I am no longer pretending to read. I have to see what he has put in there. I can be rude. I can stare. I’m representing the female population here. He must be brought to account.
He grabs the washing and pulls it up to his chest in a tangle of trouser-legs and t shirts. He walks across to the remaining dryer and opens the door with some difficulty. He shoves the soggy ball in without separating it as I know he would know how to do.
As he is about to slam the door a t shirt drops to the floor and he bends to pick it up. It has a red stain, splatter pattern over the front. He whips round to see if I have seen it and I can’t react quickly enough to pretend I haven’t. Where could that quantity of blood have come from?
He glares at me. I want to go but it would look suspicious.
I make a pathetic attempt to read my book. He is watching me. Sideways. I feel like running from here but have a feeling he would grab me by my denim jacket and shake me.
I look down at the floor and see his dirty trainers. They are a worn white but have recently been scrubbed. They are splashed with pink stains.
I can taste the tension.
I want to warn that woman. I know she is a single mother. I want to protect that boy. I don’t know what I can say. I have a full five minutes to wait before the drier is finished.
He goes back to his book he is not reading.
When the drier buzzes I am on my feet as if to a starting pistol. I grab my laundry and start heading for the door.
As I grab the handle a hand grabs it from the other side.
“Excusez-moi” a man says as he blocks the doorway.
He sticks his head inside and says
“Hey, don’t flood the floor here now will you” and laughs at his own joke.
The murderer looks up, the Seducer of women and Hope of lost children.
He throws his head back and laughs.
“I’m never going to live this down” he says, shaking his head.
He holds up his hands “Ok. I flooded your winery, almost a whole barrel! I bought a bottle for you though – and he hands him the second bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pap”.
“A demain!” the man says
“Yes, I’ll see you tomorrow” he says smiling and shaking his head.
Then he catches my eye as I am frozen in the doorway with my bundle of washing.
“What?” his eyes say.
“You are still going to break her heart. You may not be a murderer but you are going to break her heart.”
But I say it to myself. It would be against the rules.