When it came time to do the laundry, I would just do the laundry. I would carry the laundry in my arms, propped up stale and wrinkled against my chest, and down the elevator to the basement of my building where there were machines. Because of the wheelchair I couldn’t take the stairs. But still the feeling of carrying clothes down the two stories and out of your apartment is one that’s good, like, if anything else, what you absolutely have is the clothes you need.
I didn’t live in a big building, so there weren’t a lot of people who had to share the two washers and two dryers—just about ten of us all together. But most of us worked during the days and either did laundry in the evenings or during weekend afternoons. Sometimes things would get crowded at those times.
Running into each other in the basement wasn’t much. No one said much of anything to anyone else, because there’s no real reason to talk in the laundry room. That basement was a place of dirty and vulnerable things. If it was anything, it was a whorish ditch of the city-world. And the good thing about that is nobody has any need to lie.
On Tuesday I stopped by a supermarket after work to get quarters for the machines in the basement. I took them home in my shirt pocket, a small hard piece that made me think about carrying a gun somewhere under my arm like a soldier. At home I took off my tie and nice shirt and pressed my clothes to my chest and rode the elevator down two stories to the basement. I would look at the stairs in front of the elevator sometimes, the ones that wind around, first this way and then that way, like most stairs. In the elevator I supposed things were much different. It was a small thing that moved slowly. And the lighting was bad there so you’d have to be careful with pressing the right button for the floor you wanted.
And then there I was, in the laundry room, putting clothes into the two washers and four quarters into the game-slots on the tops of the machines. I didn’t have much trouble reaching the top of the machines. If I needed to I could lift myself a little. I usually did this to press the start-buttons and get the clothes out of the washers.
When everything was ready, I realized that I didn’t have enough detergent for both loads of clothes. It was okay, there was a convenience store just a block or so away from my building. I left my clothes, riding the elevators up and then down again, and got some soap for three dollars at the store, then came back to the basement.
The basement was still empty. My clothes were still there. I rode to the machines and dropped in the soap, then lifted myself up and got the machines going. They let off a lot of sound, like they were the engines of the entire building. In some way I suppose they were.
I settled myself in the corner of the basement to read a magazine that I had put in my chair earlier that day. I didn’t read much around that time, and sometimes I felt I should. So I used the laundry time to get it done. I would take these magazines full of people and things down into the basement, let the constant sound of motion clear my head, and study the words and pictures. I could usually get through half of a magazine or so by the time the washers were finished. I’d do the other half while waiting for the dryers. All in all I would spend about one hour down there, then go back up to my place feeling much better about what I had just done.
Either I was reading faster than usual, or the machines were going slower than usual, because I felt like I was there for a really long time. I quit reading when I got halfway through the magazine, and just sat, saving the rest for the dryers.
While I waited I heard a sound that wasn’t the machines come on, like someone had just flushed a toilet extra hard. In the sink next to the washers some water started to come up. I thought about pipes and plumbing, realized I had no idea how something like that would happen, but assumed that it happened whether I liked it to or not. The water kept coming, so I rode over quickly to take a look. It was about to overflow out onto the floor, so I looked down under the sink for a lever to pull or a knob to turn. I didn’t see anything, so I just sat there still watching the water rise and rise.
When it got close to the top I still didn’t move. I didn’t move until the water started to come over the sides. Then it all hit me. I pulled on my wheels quickly, moving back away from the coming water. But when I got to the middle of the basement floor, where the floor dips deep down and turns into a drain, I had come so fast and at such an angle that I got off balance and tipped over. The chair just seemed to stop and I kept going back, turning slightly to try to catch myself but failing anyway, then hitting my head, just above my right eye, on the concrete.
I opened my eyes after I don’t know how long. Not knowing the time or the length of the lapse upset me first, and only then the fall and the pain came to me. I remembered the fall fairly well, and I noticed that I had been moved from the center of the basement floor to the corner where I had been reading. I tried to focus my eyes and look around. My chair was folded up and sitting on a high shelf above the dryers. Just what are you doing up there, I thought.
Near the sink, on the other side of the room, was a man working with water. Oh, I thought. He was working under the sink. No more water was coming up from anywhere. The floor was mostly dry. And the washers were still going. I tried to talk but couldn’t really get any words out quite yet, so I tapped on the floor.
He didn’t hear me at first, so I did it louder and louder until he finally turned around. He showed no surprise or concern on his face.
“Are these your clothes in the washer?” he asked.
I looked at the washer and shrugged a little.
“They were here when I got down,” he said. “I think I might’ve come for the sink too.”
I coughed. I tried to respond, then I coughed again. He waited there patiently until I could get going.
“They’re still going?” I asked. “It’s been a long time.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Things there have been going a bit differently.”
I didn’t really know what any of that meant.
“I’ll fix it,” he said. “I will.”
“Okay,” I said.
I started to move toward him, in a crawling sort of way.
“No,” he said. “Oh, no, just hang out right there.”
“I don’t recognize you.”
“Nope,” he said.
“All right,” I said.
I assumed he was from some company, some plumbing place that could send over a repairman during an emergency like this.
My head was really hurting me at that point. I felt above my eye. There was definitely a bump there, and a little bit of blood. It wasn’t a terrible wound, just a small one considering the fall I had taken. But still I was in pain.
The man was tall and wrong like a bear. People like me aren’t used to seeing people like him. He moved to one of the washers and stood there like a tower. Then he opened up the machine, stopping the cycle.
“Wait!” I said. “It’s not done yet.”
He said nothing. He walked over closer to me and grabbed the small table that was nearby. He carried it over to the machine and started putting my wet clothes there on the hard and dirty surface of the table. He rifled through them.
“What,” I said. “What are you doing?”
He said nothing still. He looked through my shirts and my socks. He held some of them up to me like he was doing some sort of performance. He would smile and then put down the piece he had just shown me. Then he would keep looking through the clothes.
“Oh,” he said from time to time. “Yeah.”
I sat there helpless, leaned up against the corner of the basement.
Then he stopped as though he were thinking. He took off his shoes. He held up some of my white shirts that he had placed into a small pile.
“Look at the stains here,” he said. “Just look at them.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Look,” he said. “Really.”
So I did. The stains were there, and despite it all, and even though I didn’t want to, I reddened while looking at them.
“Yeah,” he said. “Okay.”
He took off his socks then, and put on some of mine. Then he took off his shirt and put on one of mine, one of the nicer ones without the stains.
“You keep the others,” he said.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“It’s just so hot outside,” he said. “Now that it’s summer. Really, the wet shirt feels good.”
He put his shoes back on. He looked different, with all of the too-small clothes tight against his big body. He had on my socks and my shirt. He didn’t button the shirt, and I could see his hairy chest.
“What are you doing?” I said again, almost needing to laugh.
Then he laughed.
“Well, the sink’s fine, I might just think,” he said.
I couldn’t help myself then, and I lost it. I started laughing, almost to the point where I wanted to cry. I didn’t know what was funny, if anything. Maybe it all was. Maybe in the basement everything was just hysterical and awful and fun.
“There you go,” he said. “Yeah, that’s it. Here’s your chair.”
He took it down from the shelf and opened it up. The magazine, I could see, was sitting on the seat, still folded over and around to the page where I had left off. Then the man came close to me, I mean so his face was close to mine, and just looked real hard. And then he was gone.
Between bursts of laughter I could hear myself say, “Oh my god.”
I touched my head again and slapped myself. I thought that this was what it must feel like to be in another country. Yes, I thought, this is exactly what it would be like.
I ran my fingers through my hair and pushed myself up. I looked around again. The man was gone. Yes, he was gone. He’d left me with only some of my things. I got in my chair, though it was more difficult than usual.
I finished my laundry, because it needed to be done. The dryers, unlike the washers, took the normal amount of time to finish, probably because my clothes had had a little bit of time to dry on the table in the fresh, thick air of the basement.
The man I still haven’t seen a second time. I picture him on the streets sometimes, moving back and forth through the other people with stealth and determination. He’s got a weapon hidden somewhere on him. And I’m certain sometimes that he can lead you somewhere.
In the morning I saw that my head, right where I had hit the concrete, had turned a purplish color. In the days to come it would turn blacker and blacker, then back to blue and back to purple and finally to a dull red, just before it looked again like skin.