"A Manual for Cleaning Women" by Lucia Berlin (FSG, August...

"A Manual for Cleaning Women" by Lucia Berlin (FSG, August 2015) Credit: FSG

"Angel's Laundromat"

A tall old Indian in faded Levi's and a fine Zuni belt. His hair white and long, knotted with raspberry yarn at his neck. The strange thing was that for a year or so we were always at Angel's at the same time. But not at the same times. I mean some days I'd go at seven on a Monday or maybe at six thirty on a Friday evening and he would already be there.

Mrs. Armitage had been different, although she was old too. That was in New York at the San Juan Laundry on Fifteenth Street. Puerto Ricans. Suds overflowing onto the floor. I was a young mother then and washed diapers on Thursday mornings. She lived above me, in 4-C. One morning at the laundry she gave me a key and I took it. She said that if I didn't see her on Thursdays it meant she was dead and would I please go find her body. That was a terrible thing to ask of someone; also then I had to do my laundry on Thursdays.

She died on a Monday and I never went back to the San Juan. The super found her. I don't know how.

For months, at Angel's, the Indian and I did not speak to each other, but we sat next to each other in connected yellow plastic chairs, like at airports. They skidded in the ripped linoleum and the sound hurt your teeth.

He used to sit there sipping Jim Beam, looking at my hands. Not directly, but into the mirror across from us, above the Speed Queen washers. At first it didn't bother me. An old Indian staring at my hands through the dirty mirror, between yellowing IRONING $1.50 A DUZ and orange Day-Glo serenity prayers. GOD GRANT ME THE SERENITY TO ACCEPT THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE. But then I began to wonder if he had something about hands. It made me nervous, him watching me smoke and blow my nose, leaf through magazines years old. Lady Bird Johnson going down the rapids.

Finally he got me staring at my hands. I saw him almost grin because he caught me staring at my own hands. For the first time our eyes met in the mirror, beneath DON'T OVERLOAD THE MACHINES.

There was panic in my eyes. I looked into my own eyes and back down at my hands. Horrid age spots, two scars. Un-Indian, nervous, lonely hands. I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.

His hands that day (the day I noticed mine) were on each taut blue thigh. Most of the time they shook badly and he just let them shake in his lap, but that day he was holding them still. The effort to keep them from shaking turned his adobe knuckles white.

The only time I had spoken with Mrs. Armitage outside of the laundry was when her toilet had overflowed and was pouring down through the chandelier on my floor of the building. The lights were still burning while the water splashed rainbows through them. She gripped my arm with her cold dying hand and said, "It's a miracle, isn't it?"

His name was Tony. He was a Jicarilla Apache from up north. One day I hadn't seen him but I knew it was his fine hand on my shoulder. He gave me three dimes. I didn't understand, almost said thanks, but then I saw that he was shaky-sick and couldn't work the dryers. Sober, it's hard. You have to turn the arrow with one hand, put the dime in with the other, push down the plunger, then turn the arrow back for the next dime.

He came back later, drunk, just as his clothes were starting to fall limp and dry. He couldn't get the door open, passed out in the yellow chair. My clothes were dry, I was folding.

Angel and I got Tony back onto the floor of the pressing room. Hot. Angel is responsible for all the AA prayers and mottoes. DON'T THINK AND DON'T DRINK. Angel put a cold wet one-sock on Tony's head and knelt beside him.

"Brother, believe me . . . I've been there . . . right down there in the gutter where you are. I know just how you feel."

Tony didn't open his eyes. Anybody says he knows just how someone else feels is a fool.

Excerpted from "A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories" by Lucia Berlin, published in August 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 1977, 1983, 1984, 1988, 1990, 1993, 1999 by Lucia Berlin. Copyright © 2015 by the Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP. All rights reserved.

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