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  • The Note
  • Debra Gwartney (bio)

I stood at the back of the laundromat near the dryers and held the note between my thumb and index finger. I'd found it, the white square of layered paper, at the bottom of the hollow drum after the wad of dry clothes were pulled out and I'd gone back in for one last sweep-of-the-hand check. The note was resting there on the gray metal – alone, hot, waiting for me to pick it up. I did. I laid it on my palm, folded so many times it was about the size of a half-dollar and crisp from its trip through the washer and dryer. No writing on the surface; blank on both sides. I closed my hand around it so no one would see that I'd scooped what wasn't mine from the hull of the machine.

An hour earlier on this rare San Francisco day – rare because there was little wind and a bright blue sky – I had walked across the street from our hotel to wash my oldest daughter's clothes. It had been years since I'd done such a chore for Amanda, twenty-two now and long gone from my home. Out of her oily backpack I'd dragged pants and underwear and shirts that held the smell of her and even her shape (an elbow, a hip), threading them out one at a time, untwining them from one other. Amanda's familiar covers separating into whites and darks at my feet. I packed the washing machine and poured in soap, a strange buzz moving through my body from being so close, once again, to her things, as if I could – if I tried hard enough – draw some kind of evidence about who she'd become from the fabric sliding through my hands.

Then, promising even more of her, the note had appeared at the end of the first load. It had fallen from one of her pockets. I wasn't sure what I was to do with it.

My back turned to the few others in the dim room, the air sultry with sticky particles of lint, the churning sound of the appliances, and the nose-sting of detergent, I slid the scrap of paper into my jeans pocket and turned to Amanda's frayed panties and [End Page 89] Carhartt work pants with knees still dirt-stained. Her torn T-shirts, one with the faint image of Tom Waits crooning into a microphone. Unmatched wool socks, some gray, some red. I picked up a shirt and whipped out the wrinkles before folding it. I made smooth, neat piles on the black formica table in front of me. I ignored the small lump in my pocket.

Amanda had brought the soiled bag of clothes with her from the Arizona town where she went to college. She didn't have time after class to do laundry, she said, so she rummaged dirty clothes out of her hamper and stuck them in her pack before catching a plane to meet Stephanie – her younger sister who'd traveled from Massachusetts – and me in San Francisco for the weekend. I'd traveled from western Oregon. We converged, the trio of us, at the Oakland Airport. The trip was my idea: three days to make up damaged ground. Not all, but at least some – at least a partial remedy of the long years of too much distance between my oldest daughters and me.

The night we arrived, we found each other at the airport's chugging luggage carousel then ran to catch a bart to the city. Inside the train, I settled on one orange vinyl bench while Amanda and Stephanie sat across from me, arm wrapped in arm, heads so close they knocked together softly as the train bounced over the tracks. A half-hour later we climbed the stairs out of the Powell Street station into an inky night. The girls walked on either side of me up Geary Street, their backpacks hiked high, Amanda taking long drags on a cigarette and limping because of an injury to her foot, and Stephanie plinking quarters in the...


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pp. 89-98
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