Squeaky-Clean Suds by Christy O'Callaghan

Squeaky-Clean Suds

by Christy O'Callaghan

I don't know how long I’ve lived in this laundromat—maybe seven or eight years. Stayed might be more accurate than lived. Time used to be easier to measure based on modernized technology, but now there’s something new every day. There were other laundromats before Squeaky-Clean Suds. The most recent closed after a fire from too much lint left in the traps. In the one before that, the clothes were drippy out of the washer and stayed damp no matter how long the drier ran. The whole place reeked of skunky mold and stale corn chip foot sweat. Some laundromats were even worse. Squeaky-Clean Suds was the best of them until Fuzz appeared.

When you walked in the bright glass front of Squeaky-Clean Suds, you used to be greeted by rows of shiny blue and silver large-capacity front load washers—not busted-up dingy no-longer-white top loaders. Two whole walls were lined with extra-large newfangled driers that played little tunes when they were done, not a buzz that sets your hair on end. So jarring. Customers at those other laundromats used generic detergents. Saving a buck and pinching a penny is fab, but the bright plastic bottles looked like traffic pylons or children’s toys. I swear they create those bottle colors just to burn the cones of your eyeballs. But for so long at Squeaky-Clean Suds, detergent packages had happy faces, flowers, and sophisticated colors you'd find on the covers of long books or tea boxes. Rich people colors. Educated people colors. They smelled of lemon, sandalwood, cedar, and lavender—fancy. Wait, no, that’s not it—familiar.

Before Fuzz, the floor was mopped every night by the middle-aged woman with a saggy padded middle and more salt than pepper hair who worked behind the counter. She had this disappointment—or was it loneliness—that overtook her face when customers turned away. They never looked her in the eye. If they did, they might see her beauty and blue-green hazel eyes under the overworked leathery skin from too much tanning. Seeing the downward pull of her deep rose lipsticked mouth, I felt compelled to place my hand on her shoulder and say there, there. The word that came to my mind when I touched her shoulder was sister. At the fringes of my mind was the image of a smiling face and eyes like hers. I was telling her she was too young for the color she was using for lipstick. She cried.

After the last customer left at the end of each day, she shuffled from behind the counter, locked the front door, swallowed some pills with her diet cola, took a drag from her cotton candy scented vape pen—a new term I learned as she showed it to a friend—and blew some of the largest clouds I’ve ever seen. A cigar can’t even make clouds like that. Then she came out from behind the counter. Her hips wiggled to a beat playing from her phone as she danced across the floor, swishing the red-handled mop. Sometimes I would dance in front of her, pretending to be in the lead. I’m never light on my feet to fast music, but I can lead with the best of them.

Most nights, I sat on top of the washers telling her stories while she pushed the broom, cleaned the lint traps, and wiped down the machines so they didn’t stink of mold or get gooey from detergent. The stories were about my travels from now. I don’t remember before the laundromats, that’s always at the fringes. Since I found Squeaky-Clean Suds, I feel the closest to my time before the laundromats, to a feeling of home, of having a life. Every once in a while, she’d smile while I talked, and I’d speak even faster, waving my hands about. Maybe her smile was just the pills and cotton candy cloud. I could never tell if she saw me. That’s when I felt a pang in my empty stomach. I was lonely. I wanted her to answer me, but she never did. Fuzz is the only one who ever spoke to me, but he ruined everything.

The loneliness didn’t press on the center of my chest all the time. There were regulars I enjoyed. People who knew how to treat their laundry. No clothes stuffed into a black garbage bag only to be ripped open and discarded after one use, no siree, not my regulars. My people brought hampers or large personalized long-handled tote bags with Scrub a Dub or Laundry Day embroidered on the side. They took their clothes seriously. Shaking out each article before it was placed in the drier, using hangers—never wire—that they’d brought from home to hang up their shirts or dresses right away. A few years back, someone put up what they called a solar drier. I call it a clothesline, but I’m old-fashioned like that.

Glossy Nails was a favorite. Depending upon the season, her fingers and toes were painted with shiny, vibrant shades of red or pink. She came every Tuesday morning at 10:45 sharp after her yoga class a few doors down the street. Her smile evoked the word spring. She'd tell Hipster Manbun Number Five all about that day’s class as they leaned against the washing machines. I imagined myself as Manbun, leaning all confident and casual. In my heart, I know I’m not a leaner. I’m most certainly not casual. But I had all the time in the world to pretend. Sometimes they spread sticky mats out between the lime-colored plastic chairs, and she led him through some bendy moves. He’d blush and look away when she would adjust his body, but he watched her round bottom carefully when she demonstrated. Glossy Nails called herself an instructor, so she must have known what all those positions meant. I tried to follow a few times but didn’t see the point. See Fuzz, we had fun before you. Real fun.

More important to me than yoga was stripping down and throwing my clothes in with Glossy Nails’ load. She ran her wash on the delicate cycle to protect the fabric. She made her own powder detergent, which she carried in a lilac mason jar and measured with a wooden scoop. When she walked in, she would rest a clear mason jar filled with something called a green smoothie on top of the washers. It sounds like something you’d feed to a baby, looks like it too. Oh, what I wouldn’t do for a chocolate malted. That I remember: the cold, thick chocolaty cream sliding around in my mouth was heaven. Glossy Nails used those new-fangled wool balls in the drier and would add a few drops of lavender oil before she put them in with our clothes. Not that I have to worry about my fabric, but what more could I ask for?

Sometimes it seemed as if someone really saw me, and I’m glad I looked my best, but people are funny. They can stare off into space. They don’t realize how much life they’re missing by blanking out or staring at their phones. I’d trade places with them in a heartbeat. I could show them how to live. Treat them to an extra-thick malted. Only a few ever stop to sniff their clothes as they come out of the drier or off the clothesline. There’s nothing like plowing your face into a set of clean sheets.

I miss feeling alive. The closest I got was taking my clothes out of Glossy Nails’ drier and slipping them on while they were all warm and fresh or burying my face deep into Hipster Manbun Number Five’s soft flannel shirts. The heat from the drier, the soft cotton, the scent of lemons; reminded me of something. A flavor at the edge of my mind. Sour and sweet melting on my tongue. A celebration. An old pair of soft wrinkled hands. It’s in there somewhere. And it was living.

Mrs. Poodle Hair brought real books. I sat next to her as she read, but never when my laundry was in Glossy Nails’ load. That seemed improper and forward. Presumptuous. Other people read too, but I struggled to read off their screens. It’s hard to see them at an angle, and I don’t enjoy resting my chin on another’s shoulder. Some brought an audiobook or a podcast. Have you heard of these? Marvelous, just like a radio play. Leaning in, I’d catch what was being said unless they had noise-canceling headphones. Books are still my favorite, just like Mrs. Poodle Hair. Oh, for the feel of soft paper under my fingertips, the smell of pulp, ink, and glue. It’s magical. You can do anything if you can read—a voice in my head repeats. A man’s voice—it makes me think father or grandfather. Perhaps. People today get hypnotized by the blue glow of their screens, trading the sweet waft of books for the static punch of electronics.

To be honest, I reddened a bit when I read with Mrs. Poodle Hair. She was a lovely lady who enjoyed her books chock full of sex. They’re considered romance, but the characters’ main goals were to sleep with each other. Or fight, but I suppose that could be a metaphor for sex. All that thrusting, lunging, and running through. I might be wrong. A story should have romance but thought and contemplation as well. Poetry. But I still enjoyed her books because everyone was wrapped up in an argument or heading off on a trip or quest of some form. The stories were exciting. Even I need a little excitement now and again. Just a little.

It wasn’t merely Mrs. Poodle Hair’s books that brought me to her side. I loved the soft wrinkled folds of her skin. The velvety crinkle of hands. Her slightly curved arthritic fingers clutching the paperbacks with all her might. My fingers wanted to reach out to stroke hers. I felt as if our hands belonged together; they knew each other. I wanted to take them from whatever book she was holding and run them over my hair and hear her say everything was going to be okay. I fought the urge to put my head on her shoulder. Sometimes I gave in. Surrounding her was a cloud of spicy powdery vanilla. Each time it caught in my nose, a song would drift through my mind. A big man with a big voice answering a telephone, a saxophone skipping along, the twirl of skirts as her hips twist back and forth, her ponytail swishing to that deep voice. My song, she’d squeal when it came on. The one named for her perfume, that perfume. Her song, her scent, my heart. A stirring tingled in parts of me, which I shall not name for decency. If only I could take her hand in mine, the other on the small of her back, and guide her around the floor like the counter lady guided her mop. The song played for hours in my head after she’d leave. I wished I could ask someone to look it up on their phone. Occasionally, I allowed myself to lean in close and rest my arm behind her on the plastic chair. That’s what I was doing when I met Fuzz for the first time.

“What are you doin’?” The voice from behind me sounded like gravel being run over by tires. I was reading with Mrs. Poodle Hair, and it was a good part of the story. A man with a handlebar mustache was about to remove a corset, so I didn’t bother looking up. It’s not like anyone ever talked to me.

“Hey, you, Poindexter, I asked you a question. What are you doin’?” I jumped and turned around to see a shaggy, disheveled, hooligan glaring at me.

“And who are you?” I tried to sound casual and nonchalant about the intrusion. But I’m sure one of Mrs. Poodle Hair’s books would refer to the look on my face as slack-jawed. Such an unattractive term. Relief spread through my body that it was Thursday, and I wasn't in the buff.

“My friends call me Fuzz,” he said as he plopped in a lime-colored plastic chair across from mine. His watery blue eyes stared at me for a while as he picked his nose and wiped his fingers on a folded pile of clean towels. “I’m gonna call you…Drier Sheets.” Fuzz snorted at his own joke. His laugh sounded like rocks rolling around in a plastic pail. I tried to imagine who his friends were and if they were as oafish him. He had a fop of blondish hair that fell across his face and a faded shirt with a band I didn’t recognize. He seemed too old to be dressed the way he was. Fuzz leaned over the shoulder of a young man in an Ask Me About My Kind Heart t-shirt and touched his phone screen. The man’s face went from the usual blank concentration to a furrowed brow. Shocked out of his phone coma, he stood up, shook his head, and shrugged his shoulders. He put his phone in his pocket and walked over to check his laundry tumbling in a drier.

Fuzz laughed with those rocks in his throat at the confused look on the man’s face.

“What’d you do?” I asked.

“Nuthin’, just messin’ with the doofus. Watch this.” He leaned behind other people sitting in the lime-colored chairs, hovered over their shoulders, and touched their screens. One by one, their faces went from oblivious calm to anger, and they too got up to check their laundry.

“Why are they so upset?”

“Well, let’s see. I changed her boyfriend’s relationship status to single. I sent pics to that dumb ass’s wife that were meant for his girlfriend, hot stuff. I bought one thousand boxes of swizzle sticks for that guy over there, and I think he’s in AA, so yikes.” Fuzz laughed at his antics, even slapped his thigh.

I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms. “Why’d you do that?”

“Boredom. These people are so lame. Aren’t you tired of watching them wash the same clothes over and over again? Those idiotic faces just staring at their phones?” Fuzz drooped his face and stuck his tongue out. “Don’t you want to slap them, D.S.?”

I never thought of them as idiots or doofuses, as Fuzz put it. They were contented and mellow. Perhaps a bit wasteful of their precious time, maybe taking the little things for granted, but they seemed fine. And because of him, they were getting agitated and leaving, taking the scent of fresh laundry with them. At the end of the evening, as the woman popped her pills and came out from behind the counter, Fuzz left with a stupid smirk on his face. I had hoped that would be the last of him.

But he showed up again the next day and the next until months had passed. He laughed at people’s underwear as they were folded, made fun of their walk, pretended to hit on Glossy Nails, then get mad when she didn’t answer him. If I wasn’t paying attention, he yelled with that gravel gargle voice, “Hey, hey, D.S., did you see what I did? Huh, did ya?” He touched people’s phones and tablets, and they got angry and left.

After a few weeks, Glossy Nails stopped coming altogether. Not that I was adding my clothes to her wash anymore with Fuzz around. Walking around alfresco no longer had its appeal. I stopped putting my face in Hipster Manbun Number Five’s fresh warm shirts. I stopped seeking memories on the edges of my mind—too afraid Fuzz would laugh at me. Over time, the only one who still came was Mrs. Poodle Hair with her chewed-up paperbacks held by her lovely wrinkled velvet hands. But Fuzz kept talking, and I couldn’t focus enough to read.

“Please stop what you’re doing. They’re all leaving,” I begged Fuzz.

Fuzz stared at me for a while from under his blond fringe. “Nope, and you won’t do a damned thing about it.”

I sat back and thought, he’s right, what can I do?

He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, “Listen, D.S., I’m not hurting them, I’m freeing them. You’ll see, Drier Sheets, I’m freeing you too.”

I looked down at my clothes that needed a proper washing or at least a hanging out on the clothesline, then sat back and sighed. I didn’t want his freedom. When I found Squeaky-Clean Suds, I’d been walking for days, or was it weeks? Nothing else felt familiar. The fragrance of lemon, sandalwood, cedar, and lavender pluming out of the drier vent pulled me forward. The clean floor, Mrs. Poodle Hair, the clothesline, it all felt safe. There’s no way to tell Fuzz that I need to be safe. He’d just laugh. I realize these people aren’t perfect, but I’d been searching for safe since long before everyone had a phone in their pocket. And Fuzz was ruining it.

Traffic cone-colored bottles started appearing, and the floor was no longer washed every night. Blue goo dripped down the sides of the washers, so sticky and sweet-smelling it could cause cavities. As the customers shifted and the place got louder, Mrs. Poodle Hair stopped coming as well. Fuzz continued messing with people’s phones and laughing at their reactions, but these people seemed more resigned to issues beyond their control. They arrived at the laundromat annoyed and harried. Small glitches seemed part of their typical day. I felt a twinge of admiration for them. To roll with the punches the way they did. To yell profanity at the phone, even if it didn’t fix anything.

I miss my regulars, Glossy Nails, Hipster Manbun Number Five, and especially Mrs. Poodle Hair and her books and her hands. Where are they doing their laundry now? I haven’t left Squeaky-Clean Suds since I found its glass front window with fliers for guitar lessons, book clubs, and something called Goat Yoga. But now, I’m stepping out into the blinding midday sun and the smell of garbage from the dumpster in the alley. Plastic grocery store bags swirl around my feet on the sidewalk.

Nothing inside me signals a direction of this way or that—no guide for the next step. A flutter in my empty stomach tickles the edge of my mind. A memory of me, small and holding the hem of a black skirt with white polka dots. My short chubby legs running to keep up with shiny red shoes as they shuffle briskly up the sidewalk. I close my eyes and turn to follow the image of the red shoes and the polka dots. My body pulls to the right. Sniffing at the breeze, I hope to catch Mrs. Poodle Hair’s intoxicating fragrance floating out to find me. But instead, I see the shiny red flash of Glossy Nails’ hand on the door of her yoga studio, the tickle of her lavender detergent touching my nose. Some deep instinct in me causes my hand to raise and wave at her as I run towards the door and slip through before it closes. I can wait until her Tuesday class, and I will follow her to my next home.


Christy O’Callaghan lives in Amsterdam, NY.  Her favorite pastimes include hiking, gardening, swimming, snowshoeing, and collecting sea glass—anything in the fresh air.  To check out her nature photos go to @christyflutterby on Instagram and Christy O’Callaghan on Facebook.  For her weekly blog and learn more about her writing, go to christyflutterby.com.

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  1. A beautifully written story with such surprises and longing!

  2. Beautiful story. Full of “spot on” sensory descriptions. Nothing like a good ghost story to make you appreciate the small miracles of being alive, and this author has done just that. Now I want to go plow my face into a clean set of sheets.

  3. I think the thing I love about this story is that I feel for the man character so deeply. I want to grab their hand and run towards safety.

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