Laundromat Reflections: 14th of July
by Hall Gardner
[ fiction - march 06 ]
There is always the chance for chance encounters, like that brief encounter I once had with that proud Vietnamese lady, who had been in Hanoi as a young girl when Ho Chi Minh had declared independence in September 1945. Having fought against the Japanese occupation, providing weather reports for the Flying Tigers of General Chennault (then one of Ho’s heroes), “Uncle Ho” had cited both the American Declaration of Independence and the French Rights of Man and the Citizen. Needless to say that did not win him many friends, at the time, at least in Paris.
Yes, that was truly one of the seemingly forgotten ironies of early Cold War history, when the US, at least initially, supported the Vietminh’s resistance against the French re-occupation. Time does have a way of forgetting things, particularly important things that jolt the conscience, just as that walking monument of sculpted jade soon melted from my sight, just after she had folded her clothes and strolled, as enigmatically as she had originally appeared, out the glass doors of the Laundromat, never to be seen again.
And with her departure, all my hopes to narrate a Pulitzer prize winning biography of her life deflated in that very moment. Largely my fault, our promise to meet again never saw the light of day. Yes, I could have served as a ghostwriter for a woman who had survived all the great struggles of her country, from the days of French colonialism, to the Japanese invasion, to the French re-occupation, to the American effort to dam the red tide of Communism...
With such an angle, I would be certain to find a major editor, making mega bucks for her (and myself), certain to land the book upon the NY Times best seller list even in these days of internet publishing. A brief mention on TV by Oprah would be sufficient, catapaulting my book into the mega department stores, where it would be basking in glory on the shelves next to the Holy Bible and How to Fix Your Plumbing, and besides the thousands of TV sets, stereos, CDs, videos...
It was a chance meeting that unfortunately never quite fulfilled its potential promise.
Yes, there is always a chance for chance encounters, a chance to strike up a conversation that can transcend the doldrums of everyday suffering and soul searching that can truly bring out an individual’s fullest potential, and that can uncover something meaningful (and even, although rarely, something of truly historical consequence). Yes, a chance encounter can be very fulfilling, that is, of course, if one is truly interested in meeting someone to begin with - and then dares to seize the moment.
Laundromats do appear to be somewhat more accommodating for those strangers who, for whatever reason, desire to speak to one another, than either Metro cars or buses. And if one is in absolutely desperate need of breaking a spell of intense loneliness, one can even take courses in pick-up lessons from presumed experts. The thrill, like the roll of dice, is that one can never know what might be the consequences, high rollers or low...
The problem with most chance encounters, however, is that they generally pop in the sky like soap bubbles. Most encounters are truly not worth the time or effort, and sometimes they merely represent a means to show off one’s acting skills, particularly when one of the individuals involved pretends to be someone other than he or she really is. Or, if such encounters do solidify into some form of meaningful contact, they might ultimately result in some unexpected form of personal commitment, necessitating a hand out, or something else...
The downside is that it is possible that one could be dragged into something unmanageable, completely beyond one’s ability to cope, that is, unless one is a saint or a social worker, with one’s whole heart engaged in struggle for humanitarian causes and the rights of man... Can, or should, one even attempt to enter into a conversation with a perfect stranger? Is it even possible to talk to those who guzzle down their own bottles of cheap booze, while breathing in the fumes of the dry cleaning machines, waiting for a few shreds of clothes to be cleansed? Exactly what can one say? What can one really do for them? Is it really possible to tinker with souls and bodies in the same way that the attendant repairs the machines each night at closing?
There are, after all, reasons not to associate with anyone; there are reasons to not even try to initiate a conversation, whether meaningful or fulfilling (the same, unfortunately, may also go for even those who one may know fairly well). One may need to take precautions. After all, there are security considerations: One’s laundry must be protected from potential thieves, and from those who might toss it to the ground if no one is there to claim it. It’s problematic: Perhaps it is best just to sit there, with or without a book, with or without music plugged into one’s ears, and to say nothing, nothing at all.
Unlike those flaxen haired, lice-laden long hairs, your hair is cropped short, crew cut, in Milton’s “Round Head” or Mayakovsky style. Your worldly affairs spin around and around: It’s as if you are totally absorbed in your favorite daily soap opera, but are nevertheless able to find a moment to look up and glare suspiciously at all who enter/exit - even if there are never any commercial breaks for this particular showing.
There you are, stripped to your blue track shoes and white socks, and matching blue plaid boxer shorts. It’s nearly 40 degrees at the very beginnings of that summer heat wave when the French would infamously sacrifice the health of their elders to the chopping block of the bourreau of misfortune for the enriched bread of month long vacations, during that unexpected canicule.
Green tattoos stain your flesh and mark the fears of your spirit. A green-gray wolf head adorns your left forearm; a boa constrictor curls around your right. A shark peers from your right shin; a scorpion jabs from your left. A crucifix arches up your back. I can see the screams of pain in scarlet letters ripple up and down the nerves beneath your pale, emaciated frame.
Is it at all worth trying to initiate a conversation, if only to see your response? If one dared, one could ask sarcastically: "With tattoos like these, who needs clothes?" But such a mocking insult might well disturb you from your deep meditation and then awaken at least one of those miserable creatures that continue to needle beneath your skin...
Some of the crowd take chairs from the bistro and put them out onto the street. A few cars, honking obnoxiously, try to press through the meandering flocks, which surge from side to side, anxiously waiting. No one has any idea in which direction to look for heavenly illumination.
Tilting at an angle like a bateau mouche reflected in the Seine, the Eiffel Tower stops blinking. Excited and agitated, young teens toss their pétards onto the street or into the open doors of apartment buildings, blasting the ears of passerby's with instant headaches.
I see you again that evening, but you make no acknowledgement of my presence. The waiter in knickers fastens his corkscrew upon his swiveling hip like a pistol in a holster, and serves you cowboy style a bottle of le gros rouge qui tache. Your glazed eyes briefly meet his, yet you twist your baldhead with its plumes of razor stubble to the side, avoiding the encounter.
Suddenly the stars explode; glowing iridescent hearts are sent in a myriad of directions. Sparklers cascade like effervescent waterfalls from the heavens; electric fizzlers radiate in spirals, green and yellow. It’s the rocket’s red glare… The sky transforms from a matt of blue velour velvet into an irradiated acrylic sunset, the blood rays emanate from severed warheads and stream in rivulets upon the Place de la Concorde.
A dappled mutt quivers, shakes and tries to escape her leash. Another with curly hair whines and runs under a parked car. A third is held tautly by the wobbling hands of his elderly master who tries not to step upon the seemingly omnipresent landmines that lay beneath him. Memories of the horrific detonations of the past appear to haunt these shell shocked re-incarnated beings of the present, who are now reciting from memory, Dulce et Decorum est...
After drinking through the spectacle alone, you totter home in somber reflection from the bar in your thoroughly clean sweatshirt with its long sleeves dangling over your slender arms, just a few minutes after the expiration of that yearly revolutionary rite - a witness to that annual spectacle that reveals how, in history, an unintentional, even momentary, display of weakness is quickly preyed upon, while to feign strength through flashing lights and sonic booms has, over time, become the norm of humanity.
That 14th of July your mother awaits your footsteps. Her matted hair, prematurely gray, falls like a powdered wig onto her shoulders upon the blue smock she wears when taking out the garbage and then takes off (along with the rubber gloves) when returning to her apartment to take care of the children.
Slender and pale as white asparagus, jaws wired shut, you nod out on the couch, huddled like a pile of tattooed bones within an ancient Egyptian crypt, hauled off by Napoleon’s troops, along with the Rosetta stone and the Pharaoh’s malediction. Your baldhead is wrapped in swaddling like David’s tête de pestiféré. O Plague child, perhaps you remember the day when we first met in your apartment, long before we suspiciously regarded one another in the sweaty afternoon of the washers and dryers, in the headache high caused by the glue like stench of dry cleaning fluid in machines that should have been banned years ago...
With almost nothing to say, you spend most of your days staring off into space, still dressed in pajamas, in the pretence of watching TV. When the parents ring in the late afternoon after work, your mother hastily sweeps you into the kitchen of the one bedroom apartment. If they knew the truth of those scarlet letters stitched upon your skin, they would no longer keep their children there. Yes, if they knew what I knew, they’d all vanish in a flash...
She seems to care more for their children than she ever cared for you [when he whom she never speaks of was still around. A match would light the fumes from his breath, she once told me; yes, the alcohol in his blood would set aflame that tiny room where the infants now play, and where the pre-teens do their homework in the strictest silence. No thought of remarriage.]
Mopping the Laundromat floor in the hours before the children arrive, dumping the garbage cans, she will not admit how many extra jobs she now has to work, how many extra children she can support in her tiny apartment, how much extra money it takes and how much extra cash you take as you move from oblivion to uninsured oblivion...
Salmon, black boudin, plumed pheasant peppered by grapeshot, vin de table - an eighteenth century nature morte - become your mother’s Sunday company - now that you are have already become a living ghost. Will any firecrackers explode the evening of your final liberation? Victim of dirty tattoo needles? Or a blood contamination cover-up? Or some chance encounter??...
Rats rumble across the foggy steps. In Oran, Doctor Rieux awaits the lifting of the plague.