ISSUE 5 · FALL 2010







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Copyright © 2010

Catherine Sharpe

Shades of Gray




Pen was surprised to hear the cell phone ring.

Yesterday, she had washed it, buried as it was in a load of dirty laundry. She often piled things on top of the laundry basket for trips up and down the stairs—library books to be returned, her daughter’s toys, her laptop, empty coffee mugs, water bottles.

She discovered the phone a few hours later when she shifted a white load to her dryer. There it was like a miniature submarine in a frozen whirlpool. She pried the battery out and put both parts in the sun to dry before snapping everything back together. She should not have been hopeful, but still.

Then it rang. But there was no way to know who was calling so she pressed it to her ear.

“Hello?” she said.

“You’ll find it in Dryer Number Seven. Remember to twist to the right only. The more you use it, the less effective it will be, but the less you’ll need it. You’ll see what we mean. Dryer. Number. Seven. Try not to be late, Pen. Goodbye, Pen. Good luck, Pen.”

The speaker’s voice had clearly been disguised, jacked up from a contralto to a funny falsetto, or maybe digitally generated, hard to be sure. Maybe she had left herself a garbled reminder message, like a difficult-to-decipher note written in the dark, in the middle of the night, in between dreams.

Dryer Number Seven? It had been many years since Pen had been to a laundromat. Together, they had become Homeowners, capitalized like a brand name or a breed of dog or a job title. Now she had her very own machines for washing things like clothes and dishes. She had a house, she had a driveway with room for more than one car, she had an apple tree. She had all these things to herself.

She rested the phone back in the charger.

. . .

There was a laundromat next to the apartment building where she and Kate used to live. Dryer Number Seven was the one that ran the hottest.

There had been no apparent difference in age, brand, wear or tear among the machines. But Pen was Pen, so before committing even dull, well-worn quarters, she had tested each dryer—she had put her full hand flat on the glass face of every machine at the height of its cycle. Dryer Number Seven ran hot and fast, the fastest.

When they were new to each other, Kate and Pen never bothered to separate the lights from the darks, cramming everything into a triple loader. They would hold hands through every cycle and then stuff the hot clothes and sheets and towels into the laundry bag, charge up four flights of stairs to 5D and empty the bag on the naked bed; undressed, they would burrow under the still warm pile of clean laundry. The clothes cooled as the sweat cooled their skin. They lay together, fully visible to the ceiling and each other, thrilled at the impulse of their own thrills. Much later they would make the bed and accomplish other domestic duties.

. . .

She couldn’t concentrate. Periodically the cell phone would beep, as if there was a message. She was trying to decipher the literary analysis of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, sitting cross-legged on her couch in her long t-shirt. Something about literature as a diagnostic tool for cultural neurosis. It was muck. It was too hot, too summer, for muck. It was twilight forever.

She felt ridiculous after checking the phone a third and fourth time after it beeped, only to hear No . . . New . . . Voicemail. But this did not stop her from checking the fifth, sixth, and seventh time. Finally, she pried the battery out. She was so tired she was untired, like the undead.

When it beeped again without the battery, she didn’t bother with shoes; she got in the car.

. . .

The laundromat was closed, the front door locked. So Pen studied the names on the directory at the front door of her old apartment building. She did not recognize any—everyone she remembered had moved on. She pushed 5D for old time’s sake.

“Something was left for me just inside,” she said into the intercom. “I’m supposed to pick it up.” Trustful 5D buzzed her in.

She crept out the back fire exit and straddled the low fence between their apartment building and the laundromat next door.

The back door was ajar, propped open by stacks of folded cardboard. There was still enough light to see—the sun was not anxious to lay down for the moon—but even so, the laundromat had always been locked and empty at 9 p.m. But because of the phone call, Pen believed it would be open, believed it would be there, whatever it was that she needed.

A waste bin, full entirely of uneven tufts of lint the varied grays of rainclouds, had been knocked over. She eased in through the back door, stepping over the lint. The expected step down from the landing was somehow not there and she jerked to find her bare feet so suddenly on the cool linoleum.

Pen would trust. The device would be waiting for her. She believed, she knew it somehow, the same way she knew her bank account balance, roughly, without having to add or subtract; she knew it the way a bat knows fruit, knew it like the lines on her own palm. Pen knew it like the curves up to the knob of her smooth alabaster bedside lamp, the one she’d depended on for so many years, the one that remained of their matching pair.

She felt pulled inside, drawn towards the fading light bouncing like a dull ball from machine to machine, just the last bit of light rebounding off the gunmetal gray of the giant capacity front loaders. She walked past Dryer Number One, and past Dryer Number Five half full with an abandoned, disconsolate load of almost dry laundry. She patted her hips as if to find pockets, as if to find quarters to finish the load, forgetting for a moment that she was dressed for sleep, not household chores, or charity.

As she crouched in front of Dryer Number Seven, she worried that someone might peer in through the painted “O” of “LAUNDROMAT” stenciled on the front window and see her, might call the police, put her away with the crazies because, Oh!, what was this person, this grown woman, this Homeowner, this citizen, doing in her bare feet, her t-shirt washed thin and her legs prickly and not recently shaved, what was she doing alone in this closed business establishment?

And what were her fingers scrabbling at—unknotting a scarf?—squatting on the floor, unwrapping some kind of long instrument, an odd tube with a viewfinder, a telescope of some kind, or a periscope, or an oscilloscope of the heart, a device curlicued and etched with words that could only be understood looking back. If anyone had bothered to watch solitary Pen through the laundromat window, they would see, just before the sun vanished without explanation, a baffled woman sitting cross-legged on the floor between the triple loader and Dryer Number Seven, holding some apparatus out straight from her eye, looking east.

. . .

Pen draped the scarf around her shoulders—a perforated loosely-knit warmth woven from some muted rainbow of clay, tarnish, brick, mud, and slate. She repositioned her thumbs on the underside of the instrument, resting them into two smooth divots. With her legs bent, heels pressed into the linoleum, her elbows jutted into her knees. She turned the eyepiece rightwards against the stationary main shaft; she was holding her breath, prepared for anything, prepared to take it in. Each turn produced a tiny click, there was no going backwards, no recovery from this rightward movement. Click. Blur. Click. Blur. Click. Blur and then blurring finally collapsed into focus.

Pen could see nothing close with this fancy device, and not even anything in the mid-distance, but she zoomed through washers and dryers and laundromats and lies and stairs and walls and buildings and bridges and hills, all the way to that other city, balanced on another body of water, all the way to a room she couldn’t recognize, to a bed she couldn’t sleep in, to a familiar alabaster lamp. And that light clicked out.