“You usually get here this early?” she asks. A woman, sixty or so, white uniform dress, stockings, white shoes, dropping her clothes into an open machine.
“No,” I say, “I’ve never been before noon.”
“I love this place early.” Her voice is soft but strong, the accent more Mississippi than Arkansas. “Before everyone else gets here with their big bags of clothes and children piled up all over the place.”
I like the quiet too, the waiting while clothes spin and soak and dry, flipping through magazines and staring out into the parking lot, watching people come and go with their takeout boxes of BBQ, all of it in a sort of suspended animation: the laundromat, where nothing is expected beyond feeding quarters to machines and scooping soap and softener at the appropriate times. But this morning’s different. It’s my birthday, but that’s a thing no one else can see. No, the real difference is that I have plans while I wait. A tall coffee and a stack of student papers on the table near my white plastic basket.
“I just got off work,” she says while letting the lid to the washing machine come down. “I work from six to ten every morning.”
She works at the elementary school nearby, and says no when I ask [End Page 33] if she’s a nurse, smiling in a shy way that reminds me of Rose Middle-brooks from junior high, the friend I’d forgotten until this very moment, eyes as brown, skin as golden as the woman at the washer thirty years later. “In the cafeteria,” she says, “fixing breakfast.”
I ask what she cooks and she says it’s more like reheating frozen things than actual cooking, and sometimes as simple as setting out doughnuts and boxed cereal and whatnot.
“Well,” I say, “I’m sure the kids like all that stuff.”
“Yes,” she says, they sure do, and sits beside me saying she notices I have only one load spinning in the washer and do I live alone.
I nod while tucking the paper I’d been grading into my bag. “I have a husband, but he’s away a lot,” and I realize just then how sad that sounds. “And two cats,” I tack on, as if to fill out my house. I want to tell her that my husband’s home right now making a painting of the river, that we’ll go to the pub tonight for onion soup and soda bread and beer. And more than that, I want to tell her that I don’t mind the time alone, my love of space, the price of which is sometimes loneliness. I want to describe the way it settles around me, space, and the freedoms I have, the way my life has both worked out and not worked out according to anyone’s idea of success. But she’s only asked about my lack of laundry, and is now telling about a cat she once had and her current menagerie: two parakeets, and a betta fish. “I talk to them birds all day long,” she says, laughing, “all day long, lord.”
“I hope you don’t mind my asking.” Her voice changes now, the laughter evaporating. “But why did you move here?” Her eyes go shy again and as I scan the smooth face, I think maybe she’s not so old after all, or I am truly grown older today, the gap between us closing. And anyway, I’m used to this question, and the tone in which it is asked. Unlike New York or San Francisco or Bar Harbor, where the appeal is generally assumed, Memphians are truly stumped about why outsiders come. German tourists down on Beale Street and the Brits lined up at Graceland, they almost understand, but someone coming to live here? It’s nothing short of mystery.
“A job,” I say, and tell her about my students at the local public university, how I was the first in my family to go to college, how so many [End Page 34] Memphis students are in the same boat...