By E.M. Paulsen
The laundromat looks crowded, which is surprising for a Wednesday afternoon. The boy in uniform stands outside the glass door, sees himself in it, and squares his shoulders. He shifts the weight of the duffel slung across him, swings wide the door and steps through it. Despite the crust of snow covering the mountains, the laundromat has a steamy jungle heat. As he enters, he ducks his head and removes his cap. He expects to feel eyes on him, but no one is paying attention. Clustered around the washers in the center of the room is what appears to be an extended family, four women of varying ages and a number of small children. One little boy is perched atop a washer, while around and around the washers his siblings—or maybe cousins—chase each other, shrieking and chattering in another language.
From the far corner of the laundromat, away from the foreign family, wafts the stinging scent of cigarette smoke. An enormous woman is slumped in a white plastic chair, a large black dog and a baby sprawled on the floor beside her. He tries not to stare, tries not to think about how she’s smoking, how she has her dog, no less, in a place where people clean their clothes. He wonders if six months ago he even would have noticed or cared. He’s home on leave for the holiday, but he’s also spent the morning doing recruitment down at the high school. Hard to believe he was there himself just last spring.
The boy in uniform sets his duffel on top of an empty washer, begins feeding it rumpled uniforms. He digs in his pockets for coins, stirring up lint. He pushes them into the slot one by one, waiting for the clink of metal on metal that tells him the coin has reached the belly of the machine and hasn’t gotten stuck. After he starts the washer, he lowers himself into one of the plastic chairs lined up along the front window. The legs of the chair shift beneath him as it struggles to accommodate his weight. He sits still, hands folded in his lap, sharply aware of the large body he has yet to feel at home in.
It feels strange to him to come in here and not see anyone he knows. These must be people come down from even higher in the mountains to do their washing. He wonders what language the family is speaking. Russian, maybe? Despite their chatter and noise, and the fact that they’re right in front of him, his gaze drifts back to the corner of the room. The woman is ignoring her baby, staring into the middle distance, a pair of glasses resting at the end of her nose. His own nose itches, looking at her. She has long, thin hair the color of dust, and her sides spill over the edges of the chair like thick drips of candle wax. The baby is gripping a chair, standing on wobbly legs. It is barefoot, wearing only a blue tee shirt that hangs almost to its knees. It tugs on its mother’s leg. Slowly, from some bag hidden to him by her girth, she removes a chocolate chip cookie and offers it to the baby. When it raises its arms to reach for the cookie, the tee shirt reveals a sagging diaper.
The boy in uniform realizes he shouldn’t be staring, even if they haven’t noticed him. He lowers his eyes to the floor. The linoleum has a deep, ragged crack running across it, as if the earth split just here. Through the clear round door of the washing machine, he watches his clothes spin in frothy circles. Every now and then, he catches a glimpse of grey camo, but mostly it’s just bright clean white. The color of the snow. He could have taken his laundry home. His mother would have been glad to do it for him, but she has his four siblings to care for, and his sister says his mother’s still sick. Her cough now sometimes brings up blood, but still she smokes half a pack a day. In her letters, his mother tells him a hero, that she’s proud of him for getting out of here. His mother’s never even been out of these mountains. She’s lived her whole life here. To her, town is this crumbling strip mall with the laundromat, the diner, the barbershop, the wide, low-slung church across the street that each Sunday holds all the people she knows. He wishes he could tell her about this one weekend, the first weekend they were on leave, when they drove three hours to Virginia Beach. He’d like to tell her about how the sand felt, how soft and unstable it was, how when you took a step it felt like the earth was shifting beneath you. He wishes he could tell her about the morning they got up early to run on the beach, how the sun came up over the water like a runny egg, and the color of the water changed from pearly grey to brilliant blue. He wishes he could tell her about this place they went at night, where he ate crab for the first time, cracked the shell himself and let the sweet juice drip out of his mouth. The band was playing jazz, the gold horns gleaming in the dim light. He wishes he could tell her how there’s more color on the coast than she can imagine. But she’d just worry. She’d be afraid of the things she’s never seen.
Two of the Russian kids have gotten one of the laundry carts and loaded two of the others into it. They push the cart in circles around the rows of washers, laughing and shouting wildly. The smallest child, the one perched atop the washers, scrambles back and forth, following their progress, his knees drumming on the metal washer lids. The women are paying no attention to them. They’re holding onto opposite corners of large greyish sheets, coming together to fold them. They’re immersed in their own loud conversation. The kids in the cart hurtle around the washers again. This time one of the girls is standing up in the cart. When he sees the cart headed for the crack in the floor, the boy in uniform half-rises to his feet. He’s about to fling an arm out, sure the girl will tumble from the cart. But somehow she doesn’t fall. The cart lurches over the crack, and the little girl screams a little and crouches back down in the basket. From across the room, the black dog barks once.
He falls back into his seat. The plastic legs sway under his weight. He feels a prickling at the back of his neck, a delayed feeling of fear. He was certain the girl was going to fall and crack her skull on the dirty linoleum. Why aren’t the mothers paying attention? But he knows the answer. The women are tired; they’re using what is likely their one day off to do all the laundry. They have too many kids to keep track of. The older kids are supposed to be looking after the younger ones, and if one of the younger ones ends up with a bloody nose or a broken arm, it will be the oldest child’s fault.
His laundry has stopped, puddled clean and wet at the bottom of the washer. He gets a cart, dodging the Russian kids. He fills it with his clean clothes and trundles it over to a dryer, starts his stuff spinning again. On his way back to his seat, he waits for the Russian family to pass him on their way out the door. All of them, even the smallest, are laden with armfuls of clothes.
“Take care,” one of the women says, startling him, on her way out the door.
With the Russians gone, the laundromat is quiet, except for the clunking and whirring of the machines. There’s nothing to do but wait. He glances at the corner where the mother is leaning back in her chair, eyes closed. The baby is bent over, tugging on one of the dog’s ears. The boy in uniform lets his eyelids drift shut. He thinks about going home, about how his mother will press him gladly against her soft, sick body, how she will breathe into his ear with her failing lungs. He thinks about lying at night in his old narrow bed, his eyes tracing the cracks on the ceiling, listening to her cough, listening to her insist in the morning that she’s fine, she’s fine, that it’s just the cold, you know how it is this time of year.
He thinks about if—when. His sisters are seventeen, fifteen, thirteen. His brother, the youngest, is only ten. His sister will be eighteen soon enough. Maybe he can rent a little house for them near the base. Maybe even on the base. Would they let him do that, let him live with them there, in a little house, the way the married men do with their families? He can’t come back here, and they won’t be able to stay here without him, in their damp house with the floors that slope down with the mountain.
He feels something against his leg. His body jolts and he opens his eyes. The baby from the corner clings to his pants, holding up half a cookie. The baby’s eyes are fever-bright blue, and there are two slick trails of snot running from its nostrils to its upper lip. The baby is smiling at him, revealing an uneven row of pebbly grey teeth. He tries to smile back, but his smile is a clammy one, with no warmth.
“No thanks,” he says, resisting the urge to shake the baby’s tight grasp on his leg. “That’s for you.”
“Hank,” calls the baby’s mother. “Let the soldier be. Come share your cookie with Dog.”
“No! Not for Dog!” the baby cries, waving the cookie in his fist. He turns and stumbles back toward his mother.
The boy in uniform sees it right before it happens. The baby’s bare foot caught in that crack just as he jams a piece of cookie into his mouth. The baby falls. The boy stiffens, anticipating the cracking of bone against linoleum. Miraculously, the baby lands on his hands and knees, not flat on his face. The moment after he lands, there’s silence. No gasping breath, no rising wail. Just a stuttering hiss of air as he tries to breathe, the cookie stuck in his throat.
The boy in uniform’s eyes meet the mother’s across the room. For a moment they are both still, each waiting for the other to act. Then the mother rises and rushes to her fallen child, her fat bobbling as she runs. The old dog rises stiffly to his feet and follows her, wagging his tail stupidly.
“He’s chokin!” she cries. “Hank!”
The mother grabs her son by one flailing arm and raises him to her chest. The baby makes sputtering noises, spurts of air struggling up and down from his panicked lungs. The baby’s face is an ashy color, his cheeks darkening to a purplish-brown as he searches for air.
“What do we do?” the mother cries, looking at the boy in uniform. But he is still as a drift of snow. His feet have become part of the floor, part of the mountain itself.
The mother begins shaking the baby, up and down, up and down. All the boy can do is stare. Suddenly, she stops. She raises her hand and hits her son square on the back, with a surprisingly deep thump. A glistening chunk of cookie flies from the baby’s mouth. He gasps and starts coughing, which quickly turns to wailing.
“Oh-Jesus-thank-God-Hank!” the mother exclaims, pressing the baby to her chest, almost obscuring him with the drapey folds of skin hanging from her arms. She, too, starts to cry, slow tears that drift down her sagging cheeks. She murmurs to her child, and gradually his crying quiets. They’ve forgotten about the boy in uniform, trapped in his chair by the weight of his own body.
Suddenly, he lurches to his feet. He strides over to the dryer. He yanks it open, the clothes still spinning. He shoves the damp uniforms into the duffel. When it is full, he hurries past the woman, the baby, the dog. He can feel their eyes on him, and he slouches his shoulders. He opens the glass door and steps out into the cold air, crunches across the parking lot. It isn’t until he reaches the bus stop that he realizes he’s shivering. The mountains hunch before him, black and wet with bone-white patches of snow.
E.M. Paulsen lives and teaches in Austin, TX. She grew up on the Monterey coast of California, a setting that influences much of her work, including the novel-in-stories she is currently revising. Most recently, she lived in Roanoke, Virginia, where she completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Hollins University. This story was inspired by Roanoke and the Blue Ridge Mountains. She chose not to name the protagonist in order to emphasize that his story is not just his, and not just the story of soldiers returning home, but the story of anyone who has had the disorienting experience of returning to a place they knew well when they themselves have changed.