“Launder” by Dolan Morgan

Jitterbug with Red, Bette Ridgeway

Working at the laundromat wasn’t my first choice, but it wasn’t my last choice either, okay? 

Then again, years have passed, and I haven’t made any other job decisions since accepting the one at Apollo Suds, so maybe it really was my last choice. As in the final one. Fair assessment.

But no: I like to think my true “last choice” refreshes itself every single morning when I remake the decision to get out of bed and return to this place. It’s bittersweet, really. Because it’s literally the last thing I would want to be doing with my day, yet it’s also my decision, mine alone.

On closer inspection, I’m not sure exactly what is “sweet” about that. About choosing every day to do the things I least enjoy. Not a lot of sugar in that pie.

I needed the money. I still need the money. 

Or, more precisely: my college loan providers need the money. I have no idea what they require all that cash for—I’m just confident they really need it and much more so than me. They call me every day to tell me. 

It’s a lot of money. Too much money. 

I know what I would do with that money, if I could keep it. There are all sorts of things I could use it on. My loan provider, though? Not so much. When they call me, at 6 AM, at noon, at 4 PM, at 8, I’ve asked the representative on the line if their office toilet is broken, if their sink leaks, if the crotches of their pants have holes, and from what I can tell, the answer is no across the board, so I think they just like to have it. The money, that is. And, sometimes, when I’m feeling especially down, I think they don’t even like having it, they just really enjoy me not having it. 

Or maybe they simply don’t want to do their own laundry, and this elaborate arrangement is the only way they could think to ask for help.

And so here I am, helping. Or folding. Mostly, it’s folding.

I get a pretty good view of the world from my perch in the back of the laundromat. Not through the window, mind you, which I can’t see through at all since my back is turned to it while I’m working, but through the folding. That’s my vista: cloth and fabric. I get to see all sorts of things in the folding.

For example, in the bag I’m sorting now, I can tell the man has a new job. Though I’ve never seen him personally, never witnessed the guy actually drop off his laundry (my co-worker, G, mans the register and most public-facing tasks), I recognize his blue nylon sack by its diamond-shaped rip near the top. It arrives every weekend, usually on Saturdays, and I’ve grown accustomed to its array of ankle-length gym socks, neon running shorts, and faded jeans. 

From what I can tell, the customer is slim but not too tall and, according to his collection of sweat-stained T-shirts, harbors an unfortunate affection for late 90s nu-metal he only reveals when working out. Having privately endured the same embarrassing tastes for years, I’m vaguely enamored of this doof. We could get along. We could share our private idiocies. We could turn our soft bellies to the sky and be safe. 

So it is no surprise I react with a mix of joy and confusion upon opening his bag to discover, tossed in among the old standbys, a set of five button-up collared shirts and two pairs of fashionable grey chinos. Over the coming weeks, these new items repeat, load after load, implying a sustained material change in his life. Fresh new underwear even appears, followed by gleaming argyle socks. If he has college loans, they’ll be taken care of soon. I’m happy for him. On my headphones, I blast the low, chunky guitar and emo screams of The Deftones while I lean into the folds.

Riding the B61 bus back home, I rest my head against the glass, peer out at the city skyline, and imagine folding it like a load of laundry. All those jagged, uneven edges—buildings jutting up like knives over here, whole neighborhoods swooping low over there⁠—might intimidate an amateur folder, but not me. With clothes, the trick to dealing with an irregular shape is to identify a few initial moves that will transform the chaos into the safety and familiarity of a square or rectangle. Then you’re in control. Then things become predictable, understandable. 

When taming a T-shirt with the “file fold” method, for example, you start by addressing the real problem: the sleeves. Horrible little goblins. They dangle out, protrude, and must be eliminated. By folding each sleeve inward, plus a little extra, we produce clean lines on either side of the shirt, leaving a much more manageable shape. 

Everything has its “sleeves,” I think, has its crap that just dangles there and overcomplicates things, even people, even me, especially me, or my mother for god’s sake, or my finances, or my body, good lord, and the same holds true for the city, I think. The city’s always changing, growing new protrusions, lopping off others, so it’s a little harder to fold than a T-shirt, but there has to be a first move I can make that will reduce its complex forms to something simpler. Something I can manage.

E comes over to my place in the evening, and we cook dinner and make out for a while, a rhythm that maybe doesn’t amount to a whole life, not for people our age, not anymore, or so my mother says, but it’s half a life and I’ve come to love it. E can barely boil water and so our dinner is terrible, as usual, but that’s okay. I like to hear about E’s day, to tell E about mine, and to be unalone. It’s easy, and I don’t have to fold a thing. When my college loan provider calls, I put it on speaker, and we enact our ritual of trying to see how long E and I can keep the operator on the line, what personal details we can get them to divulge about themselves or to understand about us, how deep of a bond we can forge with this stranger in the brief time we have. It’s never enough time and today is no different. Mary, this evening’s operator, does not want new friends, just my money, and her polite Southern drawl has very little patience for us, but we laugh and wish her the best. 

Afterward, E and I sit cross-legged on the rusted fire escape outside my window at dusk, drinks in hand, and the pure fact of summer catches me by surprise, as if the season’s heat and noise and light and long evenings have only just arrived in the world at this moment. It’s perfect, and we’re laughing, and I can feel my back against the warm brick of the building, see the last of the day’s glow falling across distant windows, and I fold into E’s shoulder like I don’t owe a thing.

The man with the blue laundry bag also is having a great summer, from what I can tell. Every folding job demands its own rhythm, so it’s hard not to notice the disorienting arrival of women’s underwear in his pile, the delicate shapes requiring me to recalibrate my whole approach. 

At first it’s just an occasional pair here and there, varying in size and appearing intermittently, but soon it’s a week’s worth, repeating regularly, joined by T-shirts and jeans, work blouses and sweatpants, yoga leggings and cardigans. It’s all so quick, as if this man’s life is happening at 2x speed—while mine putters along in slow motion, frame after frame without change. Soon, leisure and work outfits are joined by Hawaiian shirts and cargo shorts, bikinis and tank tops, hiking gear, rock climbing accessories, shirts from Las Vegas, from New Orleans and L.A. What a life, I think. Still, I wonder if she listens to embarrassing nu-metal, if she ever did, and if that matters. 

Once the miniscule pants arrive, and the tiny onesies and miniature socks, along with small pastel blankets, little towels, and matching booties, I’ve lost all sense of time and scale. By then, E is long gone, and just like that, half a life has become something smaller, who knows what fraction. How many times can something be folded into itself? I’d like to know. They say seven or eight is the max, but I think they’re underestimating what our days have to offer or can demand of us. Some high school student even broke the record by folding a giant piece of tissue paper, becoming the first person ever to do so nine, ten, eleven, and twelve times. The tissue was nearly a mile long. I imagine all of the people in her life that would have needed to help for a project of that size, who would have been there by her side, a whole community cheering her on, fold after fold, screaming and jumping as she crossed each new threshold. I picture them turning their soft bellies to the moon together in a field while I ride the B61 bus to Apollo Suds in the morning. While I stare out at the city skyline and choose this life, again, over all the rest. 

But you know what? If blue-laundry-bag man can careen through milestone after milestone by living his life at double speed, and if that little high school student can stretch her dreams out across a whole field while everyone cheers, and if E can just go off alone in search of whatever is waiting out there for any of us, well then why can’t I? Folding the city skyline is easy, I think—you just bend the uneven tops of the buildings down toward the street, like a prayer, leaving only straight, manageable lines. Yes, sitting on the bus, blasting my headphones, I decide right then and there that I’m going to cut the jagged edges from my life, too. I’m going to exercise. I’m going to save money. I’m going to not feel like garbage. I’m going to do things I enjoy with people I love, whatever and whoever they might be. I’m excited to find out. I’m going to get out of bed every morning and choose the day I want, again and again. It feels amazing even just to think about it, and I’m riding that tide of elated determination as I roll into Apollo Suds. 

So it’s no wonder I react the way I do when G pulls me aside to tell me that they’ll be garnishing my wages from now on. It’s no wonder I leave the building without saying a word after G explains that my college loan provider needs the money more than I do. It’s no wonder I eat three pieces of pizza like a filthy bird while standing in the parking lot in the sun dripping sweat after G assures me that, yes, they can in fact just take it and, no, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. And yes, it’s no wonder I sit down in the dirt by the side of the road and cry when I calculate how much exactly is left over for a person to live on.    

If you fold something enough, in just the right order, you can create elegant little frogs, or whales, or foxes, or turtles, or birds. I do not feel like I have been folded in just the right order. I do not feel like a fox or a bird or a turtle.

I think of my mother when I was young, how she carried us all, my sisters and me, after her divorce. I think of her bagging groceries and cutting coupons, see her with head bowed at the dining room table, exhausted. I think of her somehow shouldering it all, and I hear the sighs and sense the focus and see the methodical movement and feel her huge laughter, all of which I now can tell were born of a profound loneliness and fear, things she ensured that I would not have to understand at the time. I think of the heroism of that task, and where it got her: a trailer park far from everything she’s ever known, where she barely gets by, feels trapped, and misses her home desperately. If you fold something enough, in just the right order, you still get shit on.

So, really, is it any wonder that I take a sock from the blue nylon laundry bag that week? Is it any wonder I don’t bother to fold it? That I put it in my pocket to bring home? Is it any wonder that I enjoy it? No, and it does not surprise me, nor should it surprise anyone, when I take a second or a third sock from that blue bag the next week, when I make a habit of doing so with each new load. It feels natural. It feels good. Walking the three miles back home from Apollo Suds and watching the B61 drive past me, I think to myself: I’m garnishing the wages of this couple’s life. Because I need it more than they do. Because, yes, I can in fact just take it and, no, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  

In reality, this new habit does surprise someone, the man with the blue laundry bag to be precise, who, in a passionate speech at the cash register, which G describes to me later, makes quite clear his distaste for this newly shrinking wardrobe, and it turns out there is something someone can do about it, a fact made clear when Apollo Suds installs new cameras, at least one of which points directly at my folding table. So, more than anything else, it’s no surprise I stop routinely stealing socks I don’t need from this nice man and his wonderful family. Fine, sure.

Instead, I begin adding things to his laundry. 

At first, it’s just bits and bobs from around Apollo Suds. Receipt paper, a dryer sheet, crumpled coupons, tossed to the bottom of the bag. Things that could plausibly fall in on their own. It’s an easy sleight of hand, putting something in. Much harder to spot on camera than yanking clothes away and hiding them on my person. But soon I’m bringing my own belongings in as well—a sock, a headband, a cloth napkin, always something small that would barely attract notice—to hide among the nu-metal shirts. I like to imagine these small bits of myself travelling out of Apollo Suds, into the couple’s home, spreading out from the bag like seeds, and nestling into the folds of their life. Into their dressers, closets, shelves. Given enough time and a large enough collection of my things, I will eventually be an undeniable fact of their world. Their vacations, their exercises, their satisfactions, and me. If it goes on like this indefinitely, I think, my things will someday outnumber their own, rendering our lives indistinguishable from one another. 

With clothes, the trick to dealing with sleeves is to identify the moves that transform chaos into something more familiar. Then you’re in control. Then things become predictable, understandable.

Of course, I don’t have infinite belongings, and I certainly don’t have money to replace what I give away, so this plan of secretly ceding all my possessions to a well-to-do family in order to somehow become them has its flaws. Fortunately, while I may not have much, there’s one thing I do have: intimacy issues. 

With E gone, a parade of new people flows in and out of my life, each one accompanied by a host of trinkets, clothing, baubles, and trash. Any number of these items might end up making their way to Apollo Suds. Here’s how it usually goes: after a few cheap dates at parks or free museums, they come over to my place for dinner or drinks, we forget our lives and pretend that we matter to one another for a while, and then, eventually, after a few days or weeks, we stop knowing each other. It’s quiet, it’s easy, it doesn’t hurt, and if I’m lucky, they forget something along the way—a shirt, a sock, some underwear—and I know exactly where to put it. In this way, I maintain a steady supply of items to slip into the blue laundry bag, into the lives of these people who have it all.

The downside of this arrangement? I can’t control what these strangers randomly leave behind. So my clandestine smuggling initiative is subject to irregularities. Sometimes the objects are larger or brighter than caution would demand, calling undue attention to themselves in the load. However, none of these ostentatious items belongs to me personally, so I retain an air of plausible deniability, and I’m happy enough to proceed, even under the camera’s gaze. 

As such, it’s hard to say if what happens next is my fault. I think about it often.

On a Saturday in August, I grab the blue nylon laundry bag, careful not to put too much pressure on the small diamond-shaped rip as I pull it open, and am confused by what stares back at me from within. If I’m being honest, it has been a hard summer—lately, the depth of sadness in my parents’ voices when they talk about their lives and how much they wish to be home again is weighing on me, and I want so much to help them, but I keep overdrawing my bank account and incurring fees making it even more likely I’ll overdraw my bank account and incur fees, and so the routine of adding things to this laundry bag has slowly been losing meaning. Which is all to say that I could have, and probably should have, stopped much sooner, but I didn’t, and so maybe what happens next is on me.

I take each item out of the bag one at a time just to be sure, but there’s no denying it: the clothes all belong to one person now, not three. 

I see only ankle-length gym socks, neon running shorts, and faded jeans, only collared button-ups, fashionable grey chinos, and old nu-metal T-shirts. That’s it. No blouses, no cardigans, no pantsuits, and no little onesies, or tiny booties, or miniature blankets. 

I look at the pair of bright orange short-shorts I was planning to slip in among their things, and I imagine asking who they belong to, imagine wondering aloud, angrily, how something like this could have arrived in the laundry, in a home, on a bed. Cue the denial, suspicion, resentment. 

Look, I know that over sixty percent of marriages end in divorce, and I get that a single conflict should not break a strong bond, and I admit that when it comes down to it, I only tossed in a few random things every few loads, which hardly amounts to anything in the grand tumble cycle of our waking lives, but the fact remains that in the coming weeks, the blue nylon laundry bag comes back looking much the same, with only one person’s clothes, again and again. So, I just don’t know. Now, I fold each item slowly, with care and confusion, as if not to harm them, and I do not smuggle random pieces of my life into the mix.

On the phone at home, while reheating rice, I ask the college loan rep if she thinks it’s my fault. Her name is Dawn, and she is kinder and more open than most loan reps. She says that, yes, there’s a good chance it’s my fault, which is not what I want to hear, or maybe it is. But she also says that the fact that it’s my fault is not my fault, and she says there’s some comfort in that. I try to fold myself around that twist in logic but instead just flail a bit on the line and tell her I have nothing more to give, they’ve already taken it all, and she understands. She doesn’t do anything about it, but she understands, and she doesn’t say what we both know, what the whole world seems to hang upon: that there’s always more to give.

It’s hard to say exactly when I decide I’m going to get the address of the man with the blue laundry bag, but this moment is as good a guess as any.

G quits Apollo Suds that autumn and is replaced by D at the register. It’s the kind of thing that feels like it should be a big shift. I get emotional when G wipes the counter down for the last time, nods in my direction, and heads out the door with a little shuffle. And I’m instantly put off by D’s sour demeanor. An angry slug that nobody has folded just right, not ever. So, sure, I can see that change is happening, real tangible change all around me, but day to day, it hardly amounts to any meaningful difference in my life. D stands there much the same as G once did, the piles of clothes still come rushing my way in waves, as always, and then I clean and fold them, clean and fold them, the end. On the news, in the streets, in music and TV, it’s similar: change is undeniable and all around. New sounds, new people, new styles, new tech, new conflicts, yes. But Apollo Suds persists. However you dress up change, its clothes still need cleaning.

The man with the blue laundry bag, though? His life shifts at speeds I cannot fathom. His deterioration is swift and exhaustive. 

At first, the nice chinos and fancy button-ups fade, stain, and rip, then disappear altogether. In their stead, a small army of sweatpants and loose shorts joins the party. The bag appears once a month at best, and rarely do sheets or towels make the cut. Only the “necessities” appear, the meaning of which is relative and clearly devolving. Fewer and fewer clothes fill the bag, the diamond-shaped rip steadily expands, and all of it smells like grease, misery, and, more often than not, vomit. One month, there’s a shirt covered in blood and dirt, maybe shit, and I can almost see the story beneath those streaks of brown and red. Almost. 

By the time I get his address from our customer database and find myself standing outside of his apartment building for the first time, he has bounced back a bit from the plummet, reaching a new equilibrium. Among his clothes, the iconic blue polo of a large electronics chain has recently presented itself in triplicate, enough for at least a part-time workweek. It bodes well. And by the time I make a regular habit of walking through his neighborhood on my day off, looking to spot him, I guess, for reasons I can’t quite explain, to say sorry or just to be sorry, for myself or him, I don’t know—by then the blue laundry bag has started arriving at Apollo Suds on a more consistent schedule. The smell of sweat wafts only from gym clothes now, a regular feature again. No dress pants or button-ups have returned, but a crop of new underwear, crisp jeans, and simple but stylish tops steadily accumulates. I’m happy for him, and on the evenings that I circle his block hoping to catch a glimpse of the guy, perhaps wearing one of his embarrassing nu-metal shirts, I know that the blouses, yoga pants, miniature booties, and blankies continue not to appear in his life, that they will probably never appear, and that a kind of dignity suffuses the loads nonetheless. 

I think again of my mother and of the years after my older sister ran away from home. I think about how people must carry their sadnesses and how impossible that is. I remember how she would spend an hour in my sister’s room, laying her hands atop the unused pillows and clothes, her own private church—and how she would then fold up that hurt, put it aside, and get back to the work of carrying herself, and all of us, through the day, one shitty job at a time. She was alone then, standing at the edge of some vast emptiness, in ways that I have never been, and I think of the insult, the shame, the dignity and hope of her life. Of my sister’s life, too. Of the man with the blue laundry bag’s life. What does he do with his day? Maybe that’s all I want to know. What people do with their days. Often when I arrived home from middle school, I would find my mom sitting at the small electric organ in our living room, an instrument she could barely play. Her hands clunked heavily on the keys, and she belted out songs in her untrained voice about love being a river, a razor, a hunger, about an endless aching need. Then she got up, smoked a cigarette, and made dinner. I think about my loans, my wages, about the man’s shifting laundry and what’s missing from it, and I wonder why people so often have to hurt for us to see their dignity.

It’s a sunny spring afternoon when I spot the tables in front of his building from afar, each arrayed with an assortment of household goods. A pink poster hangs from a nearby stop sign: “Moving Sale today, 11 – 4.” A hand-scrawled arrow leads the way. I follow.  

Rows of vintage nu-metal shirts confirm my assumption; the fact that he’s moving means I probably won’t be folding his laundry much longer. This is maybe the end of whatever we have shared, if we’ve shared anything at all. I soak in the details. 

The man himself is rounder and softer and shorter than I expected. Older too. Dark, thinning hair. I’m happy to see a young dog, a puppy, gnawing playfully at his feet. 

Everything and anything is for sale. A blender, coffee mugs, picture frames, architecture textbooks, a record player, a side table, a sun hat, a woman’s earrings, a single dress, a collection of baby books and toys, a car seat. I feel a sense of disorientation upon spying a few items I recognize as my own: a tank top, a bandana, an ankle bracelet. I recall the feeling of placing each one into the bag, hoping they’d make their way here, into this life. It worked. I’ve won. I don’t feel like a winner.

“It’s all negotiable,” he says. To me, that is. I’m not sure I agree, but I don’t say so.

I grab the tank top, bandana, and ankle bracelet, along with a few other things of mine—a T-shirt, a ring, a headband—and I plunk them down in front of the man. I can’t afford this, not even close, but I’m going to buy them all.

He looks at the lot, then at me, and for a moment I fear there’s a blade of recognition in his eyes, that perhaps he’s connecting the dots, between me, these things, and Apollo Suds, and then the fear fades, and I’m instead excited by the possibility, of being found out, held accountable, to anyone, a person, a real person, not some distant ledger, and I imagine myself unfolding into that responsibility, finally, a great tightness loosening and unfurling, opening up, like that giant tissue paper in the field, but no, the man just pushes the items around with his hand for a moment and says, “Well, what seems fair to you?”

It’s a good question, and I try my best to answer it.

✶✶✶✶

Dolan Morgan is a writer and illustrator living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and is the author of two story collections including That’s When the Knives Come Down (A|P, 2014). Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in BOMB Magazine, The Believer, The Lifted Brow, The Rumpus, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, NPR’s Selected Shorts, and elsewhere.

Bette Ridgeway has exhibited her work globally with over 80 museums, universities and galleries, including Palais Royale, Paris and the embassy of Madagascar. Multiple prestigious awards include Top 60 Contemporary Masters, Leonardo DaVinci Prize, and Oxford University Alumni Prize at Chianciano Art Museum, Tuscany, Italy. Ridgeway’s art has permanent public placements at the Mayo Clinic, the Federal Reserve Bank, and elsewhere. Many publications have featured her work, including International Contemporary Masters and 100 Famous Contemporary Artists. Ridgeway has also written about her work.

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