Other than Lyle leaving, the day’s like any other at the farm, writers and artists always coming and going. You prefer being up at the butt-crack of dawn, knocking out a couple thousand words in the absolute quiet. Then you whistle out into a blistering day and plant the tomatoes Lyle left by the spigot. The task was his, but he’s a good enough guy, so you more than happily agreed to get them in the ground for him—the month was only going to get hotter and besides he had the drive from Kentucky to Texas in front of him. Two weeks here and you’re nearly out of undies, so you wash up and drive down the mountain into Maysville to do laundry. You think about the problematic end of the never-ending story you’ve been sweating over, and you think about Lyle hanging in the doorway saying, “Remember, you can always end it with a bird flying overhead or a dog barking in the distance.” He’d sniggered when he said it, and when you gave him that one-eyebrow up, one-eye-brow down look, he said, “No! Serious! Everybody knows that.”

Your tires sing on the fresh blacktop, crossing the Licking River. You suck in that rich new black-tar smell the way only an outlier, a rusticator, a city-slicker-come-to-the-sticks can do.

The Laundromat is empty of humans, but clothes and sheets and towels wave in the faces of the machines humming and thumping all around the perimeter of the room, waiting for their owners to come back. You divvy up the lights and darks and sprinkle the blue soap powders into two separate washers. You spread your yellow legal pads and scraps of papers over one of the tables set up for folding clothes. You pore over the pages you’ve conjured that morning, listening with half an ear for the last spin of the Super Cycle in the Monster Machine.

Two women walk in with crop-chop ’dos in natural gunmetal. Could be fifty-five or eighty-five. Lovers or sisters. They make themselves comfortable at a folding table with eleven-year-old magazines. You eavesdrop a while. Their gossip isn’t juicy at all, but still you manage to miss the slow wind-down whine of your particular machine. Canning. Somebody’s operation. Somebody’s chemo. Who won the big raffle at the St. Boniface Picnic last weekend. You have them pegged as stereotypical old farmwives who’ve given birth to a brood of auto assemblers and overweight disability payment collectors. The old girls had no doubt fallen on hard times after their crusty farmer husbands passed on, the kind of men who know how to spit out of the sides of their faces and appreciate what it takes to produce a really good plate of fried chicken. And the girls couldn’t keep up with the taxes and the farmstead went into foreclosure and they were forced to move into trailers out by the side of the road, hence the weekly trips to the Laundromat.

Just when you have their stories sorted out, the younger one stands up and moves behind the older one and begins rubbing her shoulders.

Scribbling furiously, you scratch the farm. No, keep the farm, and scratch the tobacco spitters. The old girls fell in love back at the bottling plant in ’74. Forced by the economic slump to pitch in and make the family into a double income-earning unit (it had come to be expected, after all, what with women’s lib taking the country by storm), Mavis and Beryle drew uncommonly close there on the line where they sat across from one another inspecting bottles of Ale-8 for uniform fillage. Suddenly Mavis found herself widowed by her husband’s beloved Allis-Chalmers 160, it having turned over on him when he was not three passes short of finishing the mowing on their nastiest pasture. A near vertical slope—Mavis had often demanded he just let it go wild, the broom sedge flopping and waving. When he wasn’t back at the house for the noon dinner, Mavis suspected the worst. She was the one who found him, flatter than a bake board under his big green tractor. She blubbered it all out to Beryle from the pay phone in the hospital lobby. The two had become as close as sisters by this time, or so people thought. Beryle insisted that Mavis not stay that first night alone in the big old farmhouse way out beyond the Licking River. Come on into town, stay at my house, Beryle said, just for the night.

But that first night became a week, then a month. It mustn’t go without saying, Mavis never left Beryle’s little shotgun house in town.

So, yes, scratch the farm, which brought a handsome sum under Jack Mattox’s auction gavel. A Hollywood producer coughed up said handsome sum to turn the old place into a movie set, or just to have somewhere to store his trophy wife. Or maybe it was the Amish who bought it, good cheap land for dairying and cheesemaking and the little willow baskets and rocking chairs and whatever else it is the Amish sell in their charming roadside shops. What matters is that the windfall enabled Mavis to pay off Beryle’s mortgage. She invested the rest in assorted mutual funds, all of which were balanced and didn’t duplicate one another in any way.

Mavis and Beryle could have afforded a washer and dryer long ago, but have come to prefer the Laundromat. The whirr of the machines reminds them of the bottling line and their early love.

You’re polishing the final image of Beryle bending down to kiss the soft wrinkles of Mavis’s neck, when the actual physical Beryle throws her head back in a horse laugh. “Honestly, Mama, sometimes you crack me up!” she informs anyone within hollering distance.

Scratch the bottling plant. Scratch the flat farmer under the Allis-Chalmers 160 and the tear-choked phonecall from the hospital lobby. Mavis’s freckled daughter Beryle obviously favors her dead father in profile, him being a red-headed fiddle-playing Scot with a round nose. How did you miss the tinge of rust in her hair and the early signs of melanoma on Beryle’s fair skin? Alas, her father has gone to the hereafter (maybe it was the Allis-Chalmers, but Beryle was too young to remember him anyway so it has ceased to matter). There is no washer or dryer in Mavis and Beryle’s sad little three-room apartment in town. Mavis’s fiddle-playing husband had taken to drink and slugged away the family income at hoedowns far and wide. No, wait!—unless they do live in the trailer out by the road—which is too small to comfortably hold a washer and dryer—yes, they live in the trailer, having been banished from the family farm (now condemned, out-and-out stolen from underneath them by that real estate tycoon Jack Mattox), a family farm which in its heyday supported the full extended clan of red-headed Scots-Irish but is now a middle-income development for the up-and-coming.
Beryle and Mavis would not be caught dead in that subdivision.

You put your pencil down and furtively bury your scraps of notebook paper in the bottom of your laundry basket. You fold the last towel. Mavis nods in your general direction with a lift on one side of her lip that you take for judgment. You sling the basket over one hip and head for the door, passing just inches from the table where the two women sit eating cheese crackers from the vending machine. The heebie-jeebie skeletal Mavis has eaten just one, while Beryle is polishing off the fifth and final cracker. Let’s face it; Beryle is past caring about her midriff. In fact she has not seen her midriff for thirty or forty years. She has not had a date since the night Jack Mattox drove up into her front yard on his father’s big green Allis-Chalmers 160 on a dare, saying he was there to pick her up for the Saint Boniface Church Picnic—insinuating that Beryle was so large she had to be transported on the back of a tractor. All Jack’s disreputable pals jumped up out of the ditch across the road, their faces ripped wide in coarse laughter. In the middle distance you can see Beryle crying there in her new yellow sundress. She’d sewn it by hand that very afternoon to wear to the picnic.

She did not entertain thoughts of young men ever again.

You pass Mavis and Beryle’s table and feel their eyes pierce the back of your head. You hear a swallowed-down chortling sound. They know you’ve been shoplifting their impossible pasts. Their resentment could set your hair on fire.

You struggle through the door with your basket under one arm, hip flung out. Set the little bell overhead to tinkling.

“You come back and see us, honey!” Mavis calls out.

You can’t decide whether Mavis owns the Laundromat and would like for you to patronize her establishment again, or if she is ironically remarking upon your status as the stranger-come-to-town. Her words promise to carry more ominous tones when you let yourself mull them over later that night.

As you stuff your clean clothes into the back seat you look up to see a scrappy starling dart into the eaves of the decaying strip mall. Her babies burst into maniacal screeching. You are almost sure you hear a dog bark off in the distance. Or maybe it’s just Lyle laughing as he barrels southwest down Interstate 40, pointing the nose of his El Camino to the Lone Star.