Bob Sanders spent every afternoon of the last week of July at the laundromat. His family’s washing machine had just up and quit on them. Bob tried to fix it but only made it worse. There were parts all over the washroom floor, even after Bob had put the machine back together.
“Call a repair man,” Linda had said.
“So he can rip us off?” Bob had said.
“We have that card, from that man.”
“What does he know?”
Bob tossed the loose parts inside the machine and dragged the whole thing out to the street. It was still sitting there Monday afternoon when Bob left for the laundromat.
The laundromat was right down the street, next to the college. Bob drove by the laundromat twice a day, to and from work, but never paid it much mind.
“It’s always busy as hell in there,” Bob had told Linda, though Bob had never looked to see how busy it was.
“College kids,” he had said.
Bob left the house Monday with six garbage bags and two baskets, all full of laundry. It had piled up over the weekend while Bob tried to fix the machine. Bob had figured it would take two, or three trips to haul it all inside the laundromat, but when Bob pulled into the only empty parking spot, in front of the donut shop across the lot, a woman on the sidewalk was pacing and arguing with the thin air. She screamed at the thin air as Bob opened the car door; Bob pulled all six garbage bags and both baskets out of the back seat and started to haul them all at once toward the laundromat. He dropped one of the baskets, and all the clothes in it, in the middle of the lot. A man in a tank top and ball cap came out of the laundromat to help Bob.
“I have carts,” the man said.
As the man and Bob tossed clothes back into the basket, the woman screamed again. Both the man and Bob looked up at her.
“Crazy,” the man said. The man, who owned the laundromat, seemed to speak no more than three words at a time. Sometimes four. “Out here every day,” he said, nodding toward the woman.
Bob had rounded up every quarter in his house and put them all in a zip-lock bag. He guessed he had twenty, maybe even thirty dollars’ worth.
But when Bob rolled his cart up to a machine, there was no slot for his quarter. No slot in the next one over, either. Bob just stood there holding his zip-lock bag. He looked around. In the laundromat were a mom and her three sons, running wild; a dad and his two daughters, doing homework; and three college students, so Bob assumed, one boy and two girls, none of whom seemed to know one another. In fact, no one in the laundromat spoke.
The laundromat owner walked up to Bob. “Doesn’t take coins,” he said. “Gotta buy a card.”
Bob just stared.
“This way,” the laundromat owner said.
The laundromat owner led Bob to a kiosk in the wall and began giving Bob instructions, but Bob discovered that when the laundromat owner said more than three, or four words at a time, he did so quickly, and Bob couldn’t understand him at all. Bob asked him if he could say it again, and to slow down, but the laundromat owner would only speak louder and faster, and Bob still could not follow.
A college student, one of the two girls, who, as Bob and the laundromat owner spoke, had been navigating two carts at once down an aisle in which the running wild kids were playing freeze tag and who, having delivered the carts to her desired machines, had returned to the kiosk to refill her card, explained to Bob that he needed to insert three dollars into the kiosk to buy a payment card and then needed to use the same kiosk to load money onto that card, the college student then nudging between Bob and the laundromat owner to the kiosk, where, adeptly, so Bob thought, she added money to her own card before nudging back between Bob and the laundromat owner and returning to her own machine.
If this were not a work of fiction, the laundromat owner would have no role to play in Bob’s life, nor would the college student. We would not need to learn the laundromat owner’s name, a few pages from now, nor his wife’s name, and the college student would not reappear near the end of the story, because this would not even be a story. But, like all of Bob Sanders’s stories, this is a work of fiction.
Bob stepped up to the kiosk. No coin slot there, either.
“I have change,” the laundromat owner said, pulling a roll of bills from his pocket.
“No, I have change,” Bob said, not meaning it as a joke but, having said it, smiling as if he had.
The laundromat owner didn’t smile back. He took Bob’s bag full of change. Bob put his hand out for the bills, but the laundromat owner pulled three ones from the roll and put them in the kiosk, which shot out a card. The laundromat owner took the card and Bob again put out his hand, but the laundromat owner kept the card and the coins and left through a door next to the kiosk. The door had stickers on it that spelled Office Keep Out. After standing there a minute Bob imagined busting in the door and asking what the idea was, but the laundromat owner came out and handed Bob a twenty, a five, and two ones.
“What’s this?” Bob said.
“Your money,” the laundromat owner said. Bob stared at the kiosk, and, after a pause, the laundromat owner took the card and the bills back and, with a sigh that reminded Bob of his mother, inserted each, starting with the card, into the kiosk.
Bob noticed a sign taped to the office door, below the stickers. The sign said Help Wanted and gave a phone number. Bob pointed at the sign and said to the laundromat owner, “You’re looking for someone?”
The laundromat owner looked at the sign and answered, unenthusiastically, “Yeah.”
“My son is looking for a job,” Bob said.
“Hm,” the laundromat owner said.
“He’s a hard worker,” Bob said.
“Is that right?” the laundromat owner said.
“Can he give you a call?” Bob said.
“Sure why not,” the laundromat owner said.
There were three different types of washing machines in the laundromat, each a different size and each requiring a different amount of money per load. There were several rows of the kind of top-loading washing machine you would normally find in a person’s home, in their garage or, in movies, their basement. These machines cost seventy-five cents per load. At the end of each row was a larger front-loading washing machine that required a dollar twenty-five per load, and along the back wall of the laundromat were four giant machines that, if ever necessary, a person could just step into through the large circular door on its face. These machines cost two dollars and fifty cents per load. The college student who had helped Bob was using one of these machines.
Bob first approached one of the giant machines, drawn to its superiority in size, but when he saw the price per load and the number of instructions on a sticker across the machine’s top, he decided that seventy-five cents a load was a good deal, and he wheeled his cart back toward one of the top-loading machines, which he filled with clothes from one of the garbage bags, pushing and packing the clothes down into the machine, wishing to fit the entire contents of the garbage bag, which was actually more of a leaf bag, into the first load.
Even though the machine Bob was using looked a lot like the machine Bob had used for years and that was currently sitting in the street in front of his house, Bob couldn’t figure out where to put in the soap. The college student had to help him again.
“That’s a lot of clothes in one load,” she said. The student was wearing a shirt that showed her belly button, which was pierced. The student caught Bob looking at it.
“The machine could jam up,” she said.
“I think it should be fine,” Bob said. “Thanks for your help.”
The student went back to her machine. Bob imagined telling her that his name was Bob and, in turn, learning her name, but he had noticed her noticing that he looked at her belly button, and also when he looked at the beads of sweat on her chest, and he was a little embarrassed, so he didn’t.
The student thought of telling Bob that there were lots of machines open and he didn’t need to stuff all of his laundry into one machine, but after catching him once looking at her navel piercing and once at her chest, she decided she wanted to get away from Bob.
Bob didn’t have much to do while he waited for his load of laundry, so he called Linda on his cell phone.
“How’s it going?” Linda said.
“I think I’m getting the hang of this,” Bob said.
“When will you be home?” Linda said.
“I have no idea,” Bob said.
“How many loads have you done?” Linda said.
“Just this one,” Bob said.
“Did you call the repair man?” Linda said.
“No, not yet,” Bob said.
“A man came to the door asking to buy our machine,” Linda said, “and he wouldn’t leave.”
“Did he make an offer?” Bob said.
“He was a little aggressive,” Linda said. “I’d like to get that thing off of our street.”
“What do you mean aggressive?” Bob said.
“He just wouldn’t leave right away,” Linda said.
“What’d he look like?” Bob said.
“What do you mean what did he look like?” Linda said.
“Hold on, the machine’s doing something,” Bob said. “Call you back.”
Bob hung up the phone. The machine was making a knocking noise as if something inside was trying desperately to escape. Bob just stood there. Then the knocking stopped, and the buzzer buzzed. Bob lifted the lid and pulled out the clothes and put them in the cart. The clothes were soaking wet and dripped water all over the floor. Bob tore open another garbage bag and packed its contents into the machine. The second bag was a bit fuller than the first, and Bob really had to stuff all the clothes in. Then Bob wheeled the cart toward the dryers, leaving a pool of water that flowed into a small stream.
If the laundromat owner had heard the knocking, he would have come running and yelled at Bob about the amount of clothes he had stuffed into the machine, but the laundromat owner had been in his office, eating his dinner, with the TV on, when the knocking had occurred, but when Bob’s second, even bigger load also began knocking, perhaps even more violently than the first, the laundromat owner, who by this time had finished his dinner, did hear the knocking and began walking in its direction. And when the knocking turned into a metallic scrape and then into silence, he began running.
In a work of fiction, the laundromat owner would inevitably, while running, slip in the pooled water and fall. And, this story, like all of Bob Sanders’s stories, being a work of fiction, that is exactly what happened.
When Bob, who had been waiting with his first load at the dryer, watching his clothes tumble, got to the formerly knocking, now silent and emitting a not-so-faint burning smell machine, he found the laundromat owner on the floor, in a puddle of water.
“What the fuck?” the laundromat owner shouted at Bob.
Bob stepped toward the laundromat owner as if to help him up, but the laundromat owner got up on his own and splashed toward the machine.
He lifted the lid and looked inside. “Jesus,” he said. Then he looked at Bob. “Too much!”
“I don’t know what happened,” Bob said.
“Too many clothes!” the laundromat owner said. He started pulling all of the wet clothes out of the machine and dropping them onto the floor.
“The water,” Bob said.
“Shut up,” the laundromat owner said. He put his head down into the machine and pulled it back up. “You broke it,” he said to Bob.
“Are you sure?” Bob said.
“You’re gonna pay,” the laundromat owner said.
“Now hold on,” Bob said. “Aren’t you insured?”
“Screw that,” the laundromat owner said. “You broke it. You pay.”
“How do you know I broke it?” Bob said.
The laundromat owner kicked the pile of sopping wet clothes. “You overloaded.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know that?” Bob said.
The laundromat owner closed the lid and pointed to a sign on the top of the machine. The sign said DO NOT OVERLOAD. A red circle ran around the words, with a straight red line running across them. The same sign was on every machine, with larger versions of it posted up high on each wall.
“Well, technically, your sign says Do Not DO NOT OVERLOAD. Because of the red line,” Bob said.
“Shut up, technically,” the laundromat owner said.
“It’s a double negative. Or they cancel out. Two negatives make a positive,” Bob said.
“Shut up,” the laundromat owner said again.
The laundromat owner took Bob into the office, where he copied down Bob’s driver’s license number, Bob’s address, and phone number, copying down as well Bob’s, full name, height, weight, hair color, and birthday. Bob, while the laundromat owner copied, fluctuated between an apologetic and a defiant tone, telling the laundromat owner both how sorry he was that this had happened but also that he was pretty sure he hadn’t done anything wrong and didn’t owe the laundromat owner a thing, the laundromat owner ignoring both and concentrating on his copying, handing back Bob’s driver’s license, when he had finished, and telling Bob, “I’ll call you. With the cost.”
“Well,” Bob said, taking on a defiant tone, “We’ll see about that.”
“Now get out,” the laundromat owner said.
“But my laundry,” Bob said.
“Take it,” the laundromat owner said.
“But I haven’t finished,” Bob said. “I have more loads.”
“No,” the laundromat owner said. “Just go.”
So Bob put the wet clothes back into the leaf bag, loaded the rest back into the cart, and wheeled it all to his car.
When Bob got home, a repairman was there. He was talking to Linda in the driveway, midway between the front door and his truck, which was parked in front of Bob’s and Linda’s house. The broken washing machine was no longer in the street. The repair man had helped Linda wheel it back to the garage.
As Bob got out of the car, the repair man handed Linda a piece of paper. Bob walked up to them. “What’s all this?” he said.
“This is my husband, Bob,” Linda said. “Bob, this is the repair man. For the washing machine.”
The repair man extended his hand to Bob. “Lee,” he said. “Good to meet you.”
Bob shook Lee’s hand. “What can we do for you?” Bob asked Lee.
“Well,” Lee said. “Your little lady showed me the washer. Looks like a bad drum.”
“Hm,” Bob said.
“Probably overloading it,” Lee said.
“Is that right?” Bob said.
“I told you I thought those loads were too much,” Linda said.
“Never mind,” Bob said.
“Normally, it’d be about three hundred,” Lee said. “But I just gave the little lady a quote for one seventy-five.”
“Thanks,” Bob said. “But we’ll manage.”
“Bob…,” Linda said.
“How’s that?” Lee said.
“I said we’ll manage it ourselves,” Bob said. “Thank you for your interest.” Bob walked toward the door.
“Well…,” Lee said.
“We’ll call you,” Linda said to Lee.
“Like I told the little lady,” Lee said. “I can be back in the morning and done by lunch.”
“That’s alright,” Bob said. “Good night.” He went inside.
“Well,” Lee said to Linda. “I guess you’ll give me a call?”
“Call you tomorrow,” Linda said.
Linda went into the house, but Bob wasn’t there. He’d gone through to the back. He was putting the machine back onto the hand truck, to roll it back to the street. When Linda walked out, Bob asked her, “What’d you call him for?”
“To fix the machine,” Linda said. “We need it fixed.”
“Not by that jerk,” Bob said.
“Why not?” Linda said.
“Just wants to rip us off,” Bob said.
“Well we have to find someone to fix it, Bob,” Linda said.
“They’re all the same,” Bob said. “They all rip off. We can fix it ourselves.”
“You tried that,” Linda said.
“Yeah,” Bob said. “But I think I know what I did wrong.”
Linda, who planned to simply call Lee back the next afternoon while Bob was at work, changed the subject.
“How was the laundromat?” she asked.
“Fine,” Bob said.
“So it all got done,” Linda said.
“Actually,” Bob said. “Not so good. Their machine broke.”
“They only had one machine?” Linda said.
“They all broke,” Bob said.
“Oh,” Linda said. “Did you get some of it done? You were gone a long time.”
“A couple of loads,” Bob said. “One load.”
“Oh,” Linda said.
Later, after Bob had brought all of the clothes in from the car, Linda commented that the load Bob had finished was all his clothes.
“I don’t really have anything to wear to work,” Linda said. “Can we find another laundromat?”
“Tomorrow,” Bob said, and he went back out to finish wheeling the broken machine back to the street.
The next morning, Bob got up and had breakfast, and went to work. Linda went to work, too. Teddy, who was eighteen and had moved back in with his parents, stayed home.
A few months earlier, Teddy had dropped out of college, after one semester. When Teddy dropped out, Bob asked him why.
“I don’t know, Dad,” Teddy had said. “It just didn’t feel right.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Bob had asked.
“It just didn’t feel like I was where I should be. Doing what I should be doing.”
“What on Earth do you think you should be doing?”
“I don’t know yet, Dad.”
Now that Teddy had moved back in, Bob, at least once a day, would ask Teddy what he thought he was going to do now. And Bob would suggest this or that, but whatever Bob suggested, Teddy would answer that it just didn’t feel right.
“So sleeping until noon and watching TV, that feels right?” Bob would say, and Linda would beg, beg, beg Bob not to push Teddy away.
“Please,” she would say. “I can’t….”
On the way to work, Linda called Lee and told him she’d be home a little after three. He told her he could be there about four, four-thirty. She said that would be fine.
Linda also called Teddy’s cell phone. He didn’t answer, but she left him a message asking him to please roll that washing machine out of the street and back to the garage, but, unbeknownst to Linda, by the time she had finished recording her message, Bob was back at the house. He had called in sick and circled back.
Bob went into the kitchen and grabbed Lee’s itemized quote, which Linda had stuck to the refrigerator door with a magnet. Then he went into Teddy’s room. Teddy was asleep on top of the covers, with the TV on. Bob shook him awake. “Get dressed,” Bob told Teddy. “We have work to do.”
Bob and Teddy went to the hardware store—not the big one by the freeway, but the small one downtown—where they picked out two of every item on Lee’s list, except for one of the items, for which Bob and Teddy had to go to the big hardware store, Bob and Teddy spending eighty-three dollars at the small hardware store and another twenty-two at the big hardware store, Bob putting it all on the credit card that two months earlier Linda had finally finished paying off and had, on the advice of a radio program she had listened to, frozen in a coffee cup, Bob having, the night before taking the coffee cup with the card out of the freezer and set it to thaw on a hand towel in the tool cupboard, where Linda wouldn’t see it.
When Bob and Teddy got home from the big hardware store, the laundromat owner was there, waiting for them, with his wife. They were standing next to the broken washing machine.
“Is this your machine?” the laundromat owner asked Bob when Bob and Teddy got out of the car.
“What do you think you’re doing at my house?” Bob said.
“You owe us three hundred dollars,” the laundromat owner’s wife said. “You didn’t answer, so we came looking for you.” Bob had been getting calls from an unknown number the entire time that Bob and Teddy were at the small and large hardware stores.
“I was at work,” Bob said.
“You don’t look like you’re at work,” the laundromat owner’s wife said. “You’re at home. Did you break your machine, too? Is that your job? You go around and break washing machines?”
“It’s none of your business what my job is,” Bob said.
“We don’t care about your stupid job,” the laundromat owner’s wife said. “We want our three hundred dollars.”
“Where’d you come up with three hundred dollars?” Bob asked.
“From a repair man,” the laundromat owner said.
“Three hundred is a rip-off,” Bob said.
“What do you know about it?” the laundromat owner’s wife said. “Oh, right. You go around breaking washing machines all day.”
“Look what I’ve got here,” Bob said. “Teddy, get the bags.”
Teddy got the bags out of the back of the car. Bob took the bags and set their contents out on the sidewalk.
“What the heck do you think you’re doing?” the laundromat owner’s wife said.
“What’s this?” the laundromat owner said.
“These are the parts we need,” Bob said. “Three hundred is a rip-off. My wife called a repair man, and he came out here and he said three hundred, too. But he gave her this.”
Bob held up the quote with the itemized list. It had been in one of the bags. The laundromat owner took it and looked at it. Bob continued: “These parts cost me one hundred dollars. One hundred and five. I have two of every part. One for my machine and one for yours.”
“This is crazy talk,” the laundromat owner’s wife said. “Just pay us so we can fix our machine.”
“Yeah,” the laundromat owner said. “You can’t fix anything. Just pay up.”
“Why can’t we fix anything?” Bob said. “Why can’t we? Are these repairmen some special geniuses or something? They’re men, just like us.”
“They know what they’re doing,” the laundromat owner’s wife said. “Now pay us so we can pay the genius man to fix our machine. We need your money. You think we’re made of money?”
Bob looked at the laundromat owner. “Why don’t we fix it together? Your machine and mine.”
“We don’t know how to fix a broken goddamn washing machine,” the laundromat owner’s wife said. “With or without the parts.”
“Well, we can learn can’t we?” Bob said. “You own a laundromat. Do you think that was the last machine that would break? Think of the money you’ll save.”
“It might be the last if we stop letting you in,” the laundromat owner’s wife said.
“We just need YouTube,” Teddy said.
The laundromat owner and his wife looked at Teddy. “This your boyfriend?” the laundromat owner’s wife said.
“This is my boy I was telling you about,” Bob said to the laundromat owner. “He’s a good worker.”
“He looks like he just woke up,” the laundromat owner’s wife said, and before Bob could respond, Lee pulled up to Bob’s house in his truck.
Lee got out of his truck and walked up to Bob and Teddy and the laundromat owner and the laundromat owner’s wife.
“Morning,” Lee said. He looked at the broken machine. “Moved it back out front, huh?” Then Lee saw the parts spread out on the sidewalk. “Where’d you get all that?”
“I bought it,” Bob said.
Lee started to say something, then stopped and instead said, “Well, you’d been better off letting me buy them. I’d probably got a better price than you did.”
“Hm,” Bob said.
“What’s that supposed to mean? Hm?” Lee said.
“It means this all cost me one hundred dollars,” Bob said. “And you wanted us to pay three hundred.”
“Now I quoted you one seventy-five,” Lee said. “And that includes labor.”
“You want me to pay one twenty-five for labor?” Bob said. “Sounds like a rip-off to me.”
“I’m not sure about your math there, buddy,” Lee said, “but there’s twenty-nine years’ experience comes along with that labor. There’s a bit more to it than picking out parts.”
“He broke our machine, too,” the laundromat owner’s wife said. “You’ll fix it for one seventy-five?”
“Now that was a quote I gave to this man’s wife,” Lee said. “A special discount.”
“Well give that to us,” the laundromat owner’s wife said. “We’re nice people. We don’t break people’s things then not pay them.”
“You say he broke your machine?” Lee said.
“I never broke anything,” Bob said. “Now you can go on ahead with your day, sir. We won’t be needing your services.”
“If you think you’ll just stick those parts in there and all’s well, you got another thing coming,” Lee said. “There’s a bit more to it than that.”
“We’ll take our chances,” Bob said.
“You can come look at ours, now,” the laundromat owner’s wife said to Lee. “And we can talk special discounts.”
“Well,” Lee said. “I might be able to make it after lunch. Where’s your place?”
“No,” the laundromat owner said. “We’ll fix it ourselves.”
“Are you goddamn crazy?” the laundromat owner’s wife, whose name was Kim, said to her husband.
The laundromat owner, whose name was Ted, and who three months earlier had been a gardener but had inherited a laundromat from his uncle, said, “Then we’ll know how. How to fix one.”
Lee told them all to suit themselves and made a parting comment, under his breath, about wasting his time, then got into his truck and drove away.
Bob looked at Ted and asked, “Which one first?”
“Yours,” Ted said.
In a work of fiction, the work of fiction would demand that Bob’s and Ted’s endeavor to repair Bob’s broken washing machine would not go well—would be riddled with complications, a comedy of errors—but despite this story, like all of Bob Sanders’s stories, being a work of fiction, it went just fine.
By the time Linda got home from work, Bob, Ted and Teddy were finished with Bob’s and Linda’s machine and had moved on to Ted’s, stopping first for some lunch at Chili’s, Bob was pleased to buy lunch for his son and his new friend.
The first thing Linda heard when she entered her empty house was the sound of the washing machine running, and in the laundry room, she found the machine back in its place with a load in process. She called Bob.
“It’s fixed!” Linda said.
“That’s right,” Bob said.
“Did Lee come early?” Linda said.
“Who?” Bob said.
“The repair man,” Linda said. “Lee.”
“That jerk didn’t do a thing,” Bob said. “We fixed it.”
“Who’s we?” Linda said.
“Me and Ted,” Bob said.
“Teddy?” Linda said.
“No, Ted,” Bob said. “Me and Teddy and Ted. We fixed it.”
“Who’s Ted?” Linda said.
Bob sighed. “He owns the laundromat.”
“What…Why did…? He came to our house?” Linda said.
“Yes,” Bob said. “Now we’re fixing his machine.”
“You’re at the laundromat?”
“Yes, we’re almost done. And Ted’s giving Teddy a job. He starts tomorrow.”
“I…What’s…? That’s terrific!” Linda said. “Yay for Teddy.”
“Right,” Bob said.
“I don’t entirely understand what’s happening,” Linda said.
“We’ll be home in a bit,” Bob said. “But listen. Teddy showed us a bunch of movies on this YouTube, and we need to stop putting such big loads into that machine.”
“Uh huh,” Linda said.
“It’s the worst thing you can do to these machines,” Bob said.
“Uh huh,” Linda said again.
“Okay, we’ll see you in a bit,” Bob said.
“See you in a bit,” Linda said.
“Oh, wait,” Bob said. “What’re we having for dinner?”
Not much happened on Wednesday. Bob got Teddy up early and dropped him off at the laundromat. Then Bob went to work. Linda went to work, too, in her own car, and when she got home she started catching up on the laundry. On Bob’s way home from work, he stopped at the laundromat to pick up Teddy. When Bob asked Ted how the machine they fixed was working, Ted said, “Good,” and when Bob asked Ted how Teddy’s first day had gone, Ted, who honestly thought Bob’s son was lazy and a little stupid but was too tired to talk about it and figured he would give the kid at least another day, answered, “Good.”
That evening, Bob helped Linda fold and put away laundry. Everything was going well, which, in a work of fiction, meant that something bad was coming—a reversal from good fortune to bad fortune—and, this being a work of fiction, the next day, Thursday, everything fell apart.
Thursday started about the same as Wednesday, with Bob dropping Teddy off at the laundromat on the way to work. The first difference, though, between Wednesday and Thursday, was that Linda, on Thursday, was chaperoning a field trip—a college tour—and, as such, didn’t need to be to work until nine-thirty, allowing her time, Thursday morning, to finish a load of laundry and start another before leaving.
Linda was sipping the last of her coffee, reading the opinion page of the newspaper when she smelled the burning. She first checked the stove, then the heat register on the floor, before following the smell to the washing machine. She pushed the Start button, but nothing happened, so she reached between the washer and the drier and pulled out both plugs, not knowing which was which. She may have imagined it, but Linda thought she heard a faint, metallic screech as the machine whirred and then thudded to a stop.
She called Bob.
“There’s something wrong with the washer,” Linda told him.
“There can’t be,” Bob said.
“I smell burning,” Linda said.
“Burning?” Bob said.
“Yes,” Linda said. “Burning.”
“Are you sure it’s not the stove?” Bob said.
“Yes,” Linda said.
“Or the heater?” Bob said.
“Yes. No. It’s definitely the washer,” Linda said.
“Unplug it,” Bob said.
“I did,” Linda said.
“Okay. Good,” Bob said. “Maybe let it rest awhile.”
“I’m not going to just let it rest,” Linda said. “I’m calling Lee.”
“No!” Bob said. “Don’t call him. Just go to work and I’ll take care of it this afternoon.”
“I’m not leaving to work while my house burns down,” Linda said.
“Nothing like that’s gonna happen,” Bob said. “It’s unplugged.”
“I am not leaving this house until a professional has examined this machine,” Linda said.
“I’m coming home,” Bob said.
“There’s no need,” Linda said.
“I’m on my way,” Bob said.
“I’m still calling Lee,” Linda said.
“Wait for me,” Bob said.
Bob and Lee pulled up to Bob’s house at the same time. Bob had Teddy with him. On his way home, Bob had gone to the laundromat with the plan of picking up Ted, who would leave the laundromat in the care of his new right-hand-man, Teddy, and Ted would come home with Bob to figure out what they had missed on Bob’s washing machine and fix it right up, maybe first watching some movies on the YouTube about burning smells in washing machines, but when Bob got to the laundromat, Ted had just finished firing Teddy. Ted, after running to the bank to make a deposit, had returned to find Teddy napping in one of the rows of machines.
In the car, Bob really gave it to Teddy. When was he ever going to grow up? What did he think he was going to do with his life? Why couldn’t he be more like his brother? When was he going to stop embarrassing his parents? And, by the time Bob and Teddy were halfway back home, Teddy had started to cry, and Bob, who had not seen his son Teddy cry since Teddy, now eighteen, had been nine years old, had stopped giving it to him. He didn’t say anything, just drove while his son cried.
Bob got out of his car. Lee got out of his truck.
“Hear you’re having some trouble with that machine again,” Lee said.
“Where’d you hear that?” Bob said.
“Your little lady,” Lee said.
“Well my son and I can handle it just fine,” Bob said. It was then that Bob noticed Teddy was still sitting in the car.
“She said you’d say that,” Lee said.
“Did she?” Bob said, and he walked toward the front door. Lee followed, but before Bob and Lee could reach the front door, it opened and Linda, who had called in sick and stayed home from the field trip to be sure her house didn’t burn down, walked out onto the front porch just as Teddy, at the far end of the driveway, got out of the car.
Linda saw Teddy’s red, puffy eyes and asked Bob, “What happened?”
Bob opened his mouth to answer, unsure what he would say, but stopped when Linda said, “No!”
Bob turned and watched as Teddy, who had walked around to the driver’s side of the car, got into the car and backed out of the driveway. Linda yelled at Bob to stop him, but Bob just watched as Teddy drove away.
“Is everything alright here?” Lee said, but no one answered him. Earlier that week, while reading the paper, Bob had observed that this coming Friday would be twenty years since Bobby Junior had left them, but he didn’t mention it to Linda—who had been counting down the days to that Friday for months—not wanting to upset her.
Bob was getting into Linda’s car to chase after Teddy when Bob, Linda, and Lee all heard the sirens, and as Bob turned onto the cross street, his car and his son nowhere in sight, he saw the smoke in the distance filling the sky.
Not all works of fiction are the same. This story, which is a work of fiction, might have been different. It might have been more subtle. Perhaps the protagonist, forced to return each afternoon of a single week to the laundromat, becomes, over the course of that week, embedded in the culture of that laundromat, forms subtle relationships with the citizens of that foreign world, such as the laundromat owner, Ted, or with the man doing homework with his children, or, perhaps, with the college student—a series of subtle conversations with the college student, filled with subtext, perhaps establishing something like a Bill-Murray-Scarlet-Johansen-Lost-In-Translation tone: a subtle, though subtly-forbidden, sexual tension, unresolved, but through which the protagonist learns truths about himself, the universe, existence, the laundromat.
The story might have been a Hero’s Journey on the subtlest scale—a man is called to enter a laundromat and emerges with the elixir of wisdom.
But this story is not that story. This story will not end subtly. This story will end with fire.
As Bob got closer and closer to the smoke, it became more and more clear: the laundromat was on fire, and by the time Bob got to the laundromat itself, he could see that the fire had spread—to the donut shop, to the taqueria, to Outback Steakhouse. The fire was raging, jumping from building to building. The twenty-four-hour gym was next. People were running in the streets. Cars had been abandoned. One of the abandoned cars was Bob’s. It was still running, the driver’s side door left open, Teddy nowhere in sight.
Bob stopped Linda’s car behind his own. He got out, locked the doors of Linda’s car, then turned off the engine of his abandoned car and locked its doors, putting one set of keys in each pocket. He walked toward the laundromat. It was nearly gone, burning to the ground, as were the donut shop, the taqueria, and the Outback Steakhouse. The gym burned now, too.
Bob walked forward, looking for Teddy. People ran past him, screaming. Ted’s wife, Kim, ran up to Bob, screaming, “What have you done?” and then ran on.
Bob continued, into the smoke. He couldn’t see anything. But after several yards, he passed through the screen of smoke to the open parking lot, where a crowd had gathered to watch the strip mall burn.
Bob joined the crowd, and a man in the crowd began to narrate: “The fire, having burnt the laundromat, the donut shop, the taqueria, and the Outback Steakhouse, now burns the twenty-four-hour gym, the pet store, and The Hobby Lobby, and has just jumped to the office supply. The fire department has arrived, but the fire rages on. They have called for backup. The fire rages toward a small pizzeria next to the office supply. The diners and staff of the pizzeria have long since fled, but inside the pizzeria, in a small room past the restrooms, is a child’s birthday party—Missy’s fifth birthday—where loud, repetitive music plays while children dance and laugh, neither the children nor their parents able to hear the sirens or the flames or the screams.”
“Someone must save the children,” a woman in the crowd said.
“No one knows they are there,” the narrator said.
“We know!” Bob said. “We have to save them!”
“We are petrified with fear,” the narrator said. “We will remain here, watching it all unfold.”
“One of us has to do something!” Bob said.
“All of the paper in the office supply has ignited. A fireball has just risen to the sky. Who among us will brave that heat? The searing doors at the pizzeria’s entrance?”
Then the crowd was quiet, watching, until someone shouted “Look!”
Bob looked and saw his son.
Teddy saved them all. He saved Missy and all of Missy’s friends and all of their parents. He saved a homeless man passed out in the alley behind the gym and the shivering little dog that wouldn’t leave the man. He saved the family of five hiding out in the attic of the Hobby Lobby, and he saved all of the animals—birds, hamsters, kittens, fish—abandoned by the workers of the pet store. He also saved the woman who stands in front of the donut shop, screaming at thin air. When the fire started, she had stopped screaming and had curled herself up into a ball.
But before any of that, while his father locked the doors of the car Teddy had abandoned, Teddy saved Ted.
Ted, whose wife, Kim, had run away screaming, had gone back in, for the money, but couldn’t get back out. With panicked eyes, the college student pointed to the burning laundromat and told Teddy, “He’s in there.”
On Friday morning, Ted and Teddy were interviewed, together, on The Today Show.
“How does it feel?” the interviewer asked Ted, “to be saved by a complete stranger?”
“Oh, we’re not strangers,” Teddy interrupted. “We work together.”
The Today Show also interviewed Teddy’s parents, Bob and Linda.
“How does it feel to be the parents of a hero?” the interviewer asked.
“It feels wonderful,” Linda said.
“We always knew he could do it,” Bob said.
“You must be very proud of him,” the interviewer said.
“Oh, yes,” Linda said.
“I’ve never been more proud of anything,” Bob said.
“You guys must’ve done something right,” the interviewer said.
“Thank you,” Linda said. Bob, who by the end of that year would be gone, didn’t say anything. It was too much for him.
“Do you have other children?” the interviewer asked.
Later, an interviewer from another network asked Teddy what it felt like to be a hero. He answered that it didn’t feel like anything. He hadn’t thought about being a hero, it had just felt right.
About the Author
B.H. James is the author of Parnucklian for Chocolate and co-author of A Sea of Troubles: Pairing Literary and Informational Texts to Address Social Inequality. He teaches English in Stockton, CA, where he lives with his wife and two sons. https://bhjames.com/
Image courtesy globetrotter_