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Adapted from an image © Jazavac, Dreamstime.com

The Stain

The man who just walked inside the Sunny Side Laundromat is in his mid to late forties—bald and portly. His face is pink, fleshy, round. He has two red blemishes on his left cheek, and his eyes, cast downward, seem to be blue. He takes two steps forward and stops: a white cotton Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt strikes a perfect loose-fit balance with the baggy red sweats. Thinning reddish-blond hair, half of which is flattened with a wet comb or spittle—the other half reaches for various quarters of the low-tiled ceiling, begging, shouting for at least some sort of compromise in the harsh fluorescence, because this lighting does not agree with him. Nor does he with it. His eyelids flutter.

He may or may not be wearing underwear, but he is most certainly wearing flip-flops. In his hands he is carrying a blond wicker basket, on top of which are blue jeans and something red, maybe another pair of sweats? Something black is underneath. I can’t tell what it is.

I ask the question: What is he hiding at the bottom of that wicker?

The question triggers a score of curiosities and suspicions, precipitates the theory I have developed over time, after numerous visits to the Sunny Side Laundromat. The theory, which is not really so much a theory as an observation, is simple: People always place the more acceptable pieces of clothing on top of their laundry baskets for everyone to see. The undergarments, the items of a more esoteric nature, however, are always at the bottom, because these are the items that hold the secrets of one’s week, of one’s true identity.

Laundromats, according to my theory, are sort of like a model of the human psyche, where two kinds of spots, two kinds of matter, co-exist. First, there is public matter: a grass stain, some red wine, candle wax, perhaps. This is the public stuff. These spots are always on top, for all to see, like this man’s jeans and sweats. Some people will even splay these pieces of clothing across the counter and then Shout it out for all the world to hear, “GUACAMOLE! BOLOGNESE!” They do so because in these spots there is really nothing to be ashamed of. Some will even vociferate with histrionics, “VOILA! PESTO!” These people, I’ve concluded, usually have a lot to hide, which brings me to the bottom of the wicker, where you find the spots of a private matter, the spots that must be kept hidden at all cost. They include things like blood, after-dribble, the skid mark, maybe even a tick or two. Crab lice? Who knows? Spots of a private matter are usually limited to undergarments and bed linens. And they are always jammed into the washing machine in haste—not like the spots of a public matter. No one would ever dare unfold clothing with a pee stain, let alone lay it out on the counter for all to see. No one Shouts out spots of a private matter. Never. Spots of a private matter are always kept hidden.

I once saw a lady get sore. When she opened the door, her knickers dropped to the floor, and she was never to be seen no more.

Over numerous wash and rinse cycles, I’ve thought of creating a new detergent, something that would draw less attention, something discreet, but powerful enough to get rid of spots of private matter, something I would call Whisper: strong enough for a Stain, but made for discretion.

According to my theory, everyone has their own particular stain. It is that freakish aberration of our nature that separates us from other forms of life—our stamp of unwonted individuality. The Stain is uniquely human. We’ve seen it appear in movies like Alice in Wonderland, where each character had their own stain and was afraid of showing it to others; their survival and growth was dependant on how well they dealt with their stains. The Stain reappeared again and again in classics such as Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the quintessential Don Quixote. Even Superman had his stain. Pulp Fiction used The Gimp. The list goes on. History has also given us her stains: Oppenheimer having created his own. And then there was Adolf Schickelgruber. And today, even the world’s superpower has its Stain, which raises a new question—does the Stain come from within or from without? They will wrestle with the origins of their Stain for generations to come.

But wait, I digress.

Back to the portly man in sweats.

I am certain whatever this man has at the bottom of his wicker would tell a different story than the Tommy-Hilfiger self he is trying to hide behind. Underneath we would see what he ate, where he went, maybe who he was with. If he were a killer, I am sure the evidence could be found beneath the jeans and sweats. The bloodied garments would never be on top; that would give him away. He would have to keep them hidden deep in the far recesses of his wicker. Maybe that is what is peaking out from underneath?

Maybe those are the bloodied garments of a horrific crime!

This man, I conclude, is a killer. Yes, most definitely, this portly man in his mid to late forties, with the pinkish round face and two red blemishes, who may or may not be wearing underwear, but who is most certainly wearing flip-flops, is a killer. And now he is in my presence at the Sunny Side Laundromat preparing to dispose of the evidence.

“Bam! Bam!” The man jumps and so do I. I notice the man’s eyes widen as he scans the room apprehensively. We both relax when we see it was just the sound of two drier doors slamming. Silence. And again, everyone slips peacefully into that choral hum of dryers—a sound resembling a Gregorian chant, a mantra, a mesmerizing shamanistic hum—the music of the spheres. The Laundra-hum, as I like to call it. And this is what brings us all here, here at the Sunny Side Laundromat. It’s in this sound when we try to rid our lives of our stains. Only those who visit Laundromats regularly can understand this. A newbie can easily be identified. A newbie usually attracts attention and distorts the hum. Like this man, the murderer, he’s a newbie. I can tell.

Who is he? What brings him here?

A yellow bottle of laundry detergent rests on his heap of clothes—a stream of liquid detergent can be seen running down its side, sort of like a baby with pabulum; the cap obviously tightened in haste because: He probably tried to wash the blood out at home!

The man drops his wicker on the floor. It says CHE! Everyone looks. The wicker teeters back and forth, rolls on its edges like in a circus act, until finally it comes to a standstill. The light catches it at different angles, giving it a more mysterious allure.

I want to know what’s at the bottom of that wicker. What is this killer hiding?

“Bam! Bam!”

He places his hands on his sides. He makes a noise with his throat. He bats his eyes. A look of uncertainty creeps into his face, anxiety perhaps. Another throat noise. A young woman wearing blue lulu lemon is obviously disturbed by the man’s presence. The man, the murderer, shifts his body, crosses his arms on his belly, and with his foot he pushes the wicker aside. He clears his throat, as if he were going to speak.

A confession?

I waited, but I waited in vain, for he, the man, this murderer, said nothing.

Suddenly, something on the street catches my eye—a car: a Ford Focus. Inside, a lone man is shouting obscenities at the world around him. He punches the steering wheel. It toots. An accident? A traffic jam? His lips and cheeks balloon outward. He runs his hand over his face. He’s obviously exasperated. Traffic, I conclude, will be the cause of his stain. He turns his head towards the Laundromat and sees me staring back. A look of envy comes over him as he peers into my world of fabric softeners and other ingenuities that make my life appear cling free. But oh, if only he knew. If he only knew that I was in the presence of a killer. If he only knew how tense I really was. I would take heavy traffic any day over this!

Suddenly, he nods his head in my direction and says something. But I can’t make it out. There’s thirty feet and two panes of glass between us! I furrow my brow at him and mouth the word, “What?”

The traffic jumps. The man turns. His head is thrown back as he and his Ford Focus are propelled into the night—sort of like science fiction.

Meanwhile, back inside, our portly man coughs a fourth time, then a fifth, a sixth, and a seventh. The young woman with the blue lulu lemon lifts her wicker past him as she exits. He bumps her wicker.

The wicker says, CHE!

She says, “Tsk!”

The man coughs an eighth time.

It isn’t until around the fifteenth cough when I realize he may be choking. I along with everyone else is waiting for someone to make a move when suddenly his body begins shaking, heaving, retching louder and louder, vociferously, until he falls to the floor on his knees with a thud! He grabs at his throat. He’s choking. The murderer is dying. Nobody moves. The sounds he makes are even more peculiar, archaic, sort of like the barking of a seal, which is kind of cute when coming from a seal, but strange for a human. No oxygen is passing through his windpipe. The sound is internal, stuck in his diaphragm. People begin looking at one another, wondering who is going to make the first move. Not me, though. Uh-uh. No way am I playing Jesus. This, I figured, is the perfect time to slip my sexy underwear into the washer, unnoticed.

There once was a man with song. But everything he sang was wrong. “Gather around my beautiful people and let me thing you a thong.”

Finally, with one last guttural hack, followed by a glottal stop, something breaks through. A bright orange substance emerges from the man’s mouth with a pop! and hits the floor with a slap! He wipes his chin with the back of his hand, climbs to his feet, and kicks the foreign substance across the room. As it slides across the floor, I study it: zucchini? cantaloupe? I can’t tell. Finally, when it stops, I see that it is neither, that it isn’t even a vegetable, but a fruit, an orange, a single pie-shaped section of an orange—perfectly intact! The man clears his throat one last time, wipes the tears from his eyes, the spittle from his chin, looks around, laughs, and says, ”Whew! Forgot to chew.”

He grabs his wicker and proceeds to the washing machine behind me.

CHE!

The orange remains on the floor in the center of the room. It’s presence strong, but not obtrusive, sort of reposed like a crescent moon. The man, I conclude, is not a killer after all. He’s one of us. I sit, pondering, meditating, while all around me, enveloping me is a soft, mellifluous, swaddling hum of the Sunny Side Laundromat. I feel safe now.

And then, once again, the plate-glass door starts to open, slowly, with hesitation, almost as if with calculation.

Copyright © 2008 by Darrin McCloskey

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Darrin McCloskey

Darrin writes:
Originally called "In the Launderette," from a bad poem I had written in the mid-90’s while living in Cambridge, England, "The Stain" appears in its present aberration after numerous wash and rinse cycles. It went from poem to story, from smudge to stain, after another visit to a launderette here in Vancouver, Canada. In some form or another, I would have to say the story drew its shape after I read the stories of Diane Schoemperlen, particularly her collection of stories called Red Plaid Shirt.

Darrin McCloskey has had stories published with Cezanne’s Carrot (Summer Solstice 2006), Melange Magazine, BENT, litbits.ca, latchkey.net, and others. He is presently working on a much longer story, to be set on Prince Edward Island—a story first conceived at the same time as the present one, back in 1994. He has also recorded music under the pseudonym Steve Heron.


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