On a rainy Friday night I’m again in the dolphin-run laundromat on 123rd, watching the races on cable access while my unmentionables take a spin. Might not be the height of a happening eve but it ain’t at all a bad place to wash your clothes. Benny and EveEllen opened the place just as that dolphin craze hit its peak in the mid-nineties. I know you know how most of their kind couldn’t see a world past Lisa Frank, but these two had real brains behind those bottle noses. As such it’s a damn well-run joint, free of the filth who would put pleather in the dryers and throw your still-dripping clothes into rusty old chairs when you’ve just slipped around the corner for an egg cream.
It is in fact the kind of place you go to feel at home when you don’t necessarily got a home to feel at all.
It’s only regulars in the ranks tonight. The babysitter from upstairs is separating colors, the old man from across the way is in the window staring at the bus-stop girls, and the bartender from the daylight Irish pub is folding socks into neat balls. I’m sitting on one of the worn plank gangways over Benny and EveEllen’s main tank, my feet dangling in the cool water while I take hits from a amber-brown bottle wrapped up in a paper bag. EveEllen swims up to me and nudges my ankles with her nose.
“Steep, you girl, you know we don’t allow that stuff in here,” she says, quiet, so as not to embarrass. The box on the wall translates.
“I know it,” I say.
“Well, you best not let Benny see,” she says. “He’ll just want a sip.”
“I never have seen a drunk dolphin,” I say. “Might be worth it.”
That makes her laugh.
“I don’t know why you do the kind of work you do,” she says. “When you ought to be doing something better.”
“It’s too late for me,” I say. “It always is for some people. You know I seen more than that machine can translate.”
“Please,” she says. “Surely you must know how Benny and I worry.”
“Well, quit it,” I say. “Where is that old sack, anyway?”
“Nosing the books,” she says.
“Cooking them is more like,” I say. “You know you’re too good for him.”
“Not all of us got the same choices as a pretty girl of your aperitif,” she says.
Sometimes the box gets things wrong.
“Haven’t you got other customers to torment?” I ask.
“Hmph,” she says. “And your ankles best be clean.” Then she swims away.
I drink to not taking the compliment, then pull my feet out of the water and roll down the cuffs of my jeans. Barefoot and a bit tippled, I pad across the plank and down the concrete stairs to my washing machine. I count five four three with my hand in the air and shout BUZZZZZZZ along with the machine. The man in the window looks my way and waves me down like I’m the pervert, but no one else looks up. I think Steep, old girl, you need yourself a boyfriend to take you out of this place. I think, hell Steep, pretty lady, you need yourself a husband to pull you out of this town. I think gee dee, Steep, you cow, you need a cop and a handbasket send you straight down the river to the farm. Or just maybe you need a desk job.
As I sort through my damp laundry, liberating things un-dryable, the ‘mat door goes flying open like it was from a gust of wind. I pause with underpants in one hand and more underpants in the other. In the doorway stands a beautiful woman of six or more feet. She has a bag of laundry slung over her shoulder and a half-cocked smile on her face, and she says:
“Is this where a girl can get a clean?”
We all sorta stare at her for a second, thinking, what a dumbass. Then the babysitter starts to laugh and laugh and the old man in the window turns away and the bartender makes a racist joke for absolutely no reason at all. Benny swims up using the center tank and tells us all to hush up, then asks the woman what’ll she have.
“Just a wash and dry,” she says. “Nothing special.”
“We got just the thing,” says Benny. He leads the newcomer down to a washing machine a few units down from mine. As she goes by, the light reflects off the water in such a way that I see what I see. A time machine, ten years back: my hands go frostbite, my breath goes vacuum. This stranger ain’t a stranger at all, not to me.
Man, can’t a girl catch a break!
I turn towards the row of dryers and throw my garments in there, one by one, plotting my most brilliant strategy. It has to be brilliant because she too happens to be brilliant, maybe moreso than me but my advantage is that I have recognized her and she has not recognized me. Unless of course that is her own brilliant strategy and–here I pause to hiccup–and if so then I have been outsmarted again. I slam the dryer closed, drop in four quarters, and hit Lo, for the environment. Then as a safeguard I flip the hood of my sweatshirt up. In these fleece confines I count my weapons.
By now Benny has left her and the stranger is bent over her mesh bag, pulling out dirty t-shirts and jeans crumpled like paper flowers. My feet are still bare and I move quietly, aurally masked by the fluorescents buzzing and the lazy lap of the water. I am behind her as she closes the lid of the machine. I am behind her as she deposits four quarters and presses Permanent P. I am behind her as I make my move: flat kicking her left knee and shoving her towards the machine with the full force of my weight. I grab her left hand with mine, wrenching it behind her, then twist my right arm around her neck and press into it the sorry edge of a small and rusted pocketknife.
“Don’t think you’ll ever be clean, Olivia K.,” I say.
“Easy, Imogene,” she says. “Let’s take it easy.”
She’s strong and she knows I can’t hold her, even with her left leg curled in pain as it is. I feel her tense for the push and I let go, holding the knife out and ducking her punch easily. Now as we face off the regulars are starting to take notice. The babysitter starts grabbing for her stuff–she’s got too many arrests to be here much longer. The pervert, too, but he likes a good scrap, especially between girls, and so he stays for the entertainment. The bartender yells for Benny, but he’s already there trying to talk us down.
“Now you know we can’t have this kind of trouble, Steep,” he’s saying. “Not with the marine crackdowns how they are.”
“No trouble, Benny,” I say.
“She’s drunk!” calls EveEllen from the back.
“I amn’t,” I say.
“Steep, huh?” says Olivia.
“That’s what they call me,” I say.
“That what they call you or that’s who you say you are?” she asks.
We are circling in a pentagon sort of way, taking the angles to make sure we don’t slip into the center tank. She’s got nothing in her hands and nothing to grab, unless she plans to strangle me with a pullover. Which come to think of it she just might.
“What’re you doing here, Olivia?” I say.
“Came to find you, Imogene,” she says.
“Funny,” I say. “Think you might have had more luck going back to that trench where you left me in the first place.”
“I knew you’d get out,” she says.
“May you be so lucky,” I say, and then I lunge, aiming for the bad knee and holding tight as the two of us roll. I slice the steam-air and narrowly miss her face, cutting instead a bit of her shoulder. She cries out and uses the strength she had apparently been holding back for kindness’ sake. Together we topple into the tank and underwater her blood looks like gasoline puddles. I lose the knife somewhere and just kick blindly, squeezing my eyes shut against the water-sting.
Overhead there is a dull explosion.
I break the surface with a gasp and pull myself out, sodden and sticking to the floor. Olivia treads water and stares wide-eyed at the front tank, where EveEllen’s got her auto-gun out and is pointing it back and forth like she can’t figure which of us deserves it more. There’s already a bullet in the ceiling. Benny’s screaming and the box has quit translating, he’s speaking so badly.
I stalk over to the bartender’s dryer, rip it open mid-cycle, and pull out a hot towel. He doesn’t object.
“Throw her out,” I say to Benny.
“This is my laundromat,” he says. “I throw out who I like.”
“Fine,” I say.
I walk over to the edge where Olivia is tiring and I hold out my hand. She eyes it and waits for confirmation. Only I just stare because it’s not my problem if she does or doesn’t. When she does I almost fall in again, but we get our balance and she sprawls out on the floor. I drop the used towel over her and head to my dryer. When it goes buzz, I just dump everything in a bag. Nothing’s getting folded tonight.
EveEllen’s still fretting at the main tank and I go to calm her. I tell her about Olivia and what she’s done. EveEllen says everyone makes bad choices, surely I am no stranger to that. I tell her I know and that’s why Olivia isn’t dead now on her floor, that and I love EveEllen too much to make her deal with my kind any further. I tell her I’ll leave and never come back but I hope she knows this is where I want to be. I tell her she knows what I do for a living and Olivia’s the one that made me this way. EveEllen says no one can make you any way. I say well maybe then I wasn’t made this way. Maybe I was left one way and then left to make my way, another way.
I say does she want me gone. Well, you never heard a dolphin cry before. I put my chin at the edge of her tank and she says it’s all right if I touch her head.
When I come back down the stairs, Olivia is waiting for me. Her wet laundry is bagged, dripping behind her.
“You know I got more than a damn knife right now,” I say.
“I know you know how to choose,” she says.
“I never would have had to,” I say.
“You always would have wanted to learn,” she says.
“That’s predictive predetermination,” I say.
“No, that’s just you,” she says. “Since we were babies down the street of each other.”
She holds the door open for me. The pervert in the window says,
“Don’t go punching each other in the face!”
And laughs forever.
It just quit raining and the city’s been cooled; my legs, too, and the jeans are caked to my skin. The air smells like asphalt and vinegar and I have this sudden urge to hold Olivia’s hand. Instead I stuff my left fist in my pocket, tighten my right hand’s grip on the laundry bag.
“So are you banned for life?” she asks.
“They wouldn’t,” I say. “I’m like a daughter to them.”
“They’re dolphins,” she says.
“I don’t have what you want,” I say, to keep it simple.
“You got forgiveness,” she says. “For your old childhood friend.”
“You still owe me three lemons and a half pound of sugar,” I say. “Not to mention dignity and pride. Not to mention the trench.”
“I know things that will ease the trench from you,” she says.
“You don’t,” I say. I thumb south. “That’s my way. It better not be yours less you want to know how good I’ve become at everything you taught me.”
“You make you,” she says.
“We make me,” I say. “And you, too.”
She heaves a breath, cocks that smile. Her ears are bigger than I ever would have drawn them for the police, were I that kind of girl. This is the first night she will try me, and because I am now experienced I know there will be others. Maybe mornings, too, maybe afternoons. She’ll be a reasonable, calm, and worthless shadow, and I’ll feel good by the pursuit. We’ll start to dream of each other and it’ll all go wrong the next time, and the dolphins won’t forgive me, and the knife won’t be dull, and neither of us will know how to swim either.
I drop the laundry and punch her in the face. Her nose breaks. The threat to society laughs in the window and pounds on the glass. Olivia howls and I pick up my laundry again. I walk south, which is my direction, and she never follows.