canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


by Renée Hartleib 

Mela walked to work that Saturday morning, the way she had for the last fifteen years: out the front entrance of her apartment building, down the street, and right at the corner. Her route was straightforward and took her through the city’s south end, past houses she liked to call monstrosities. The men in their shirtsleeves were out, hauling old stereos out of their basements and setting down boxes of dusty books. Their earnest looking wives carefully wrote prices on masking tape. Yard sales depressed Mela and she kept her head down as she walked by. All the things that someone used to love being given away for dimes and quarters. Strangers leaving with little parts of you, zigzagging away like water striders on top of a lake.

Mela never altered her route to work, not even to alleviate boredom. It was the same with meals. She still cooked the same things her mother had taught her to cook: pierogi, potato pancakes, kapusta. She knew, although she didn’ t like to think about it, that this was one of the things that had driven Kasia away. Her daughter, who insisted on being called Catherine now, thought her boring, useless, and stuck. The one highlight on her way to work, which Mela anticipated in the same way she craved her morning cup of coffee, was the message in the glass box on the front lawn of the Unitarian Church. She was not a religious person or even someone who would have read her horoscope in the newspaper, but she had come to rely on the sign for a daily dose of goodness. She often repeated certain ones in order to memorize them and then wrote them down when she got to work.

Happiness is a decision we make everyday rather than something to be obtained.

Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future. 

“Why do you still work for that man?” her daughter would ask. Kasia looked so much like her father, the same sad shaking of the head when she looked at Mela; the way Randall had looked at her in the last months of their marriage, as if the ways she had disappointed him were too numerous to count.

“You could work at the Superstore, Mama. They’re looking for people. You could make the same amount of money and not work so hard. And then you wouldn’t have to do people’s filthy laundry. And deal with that crazy man and his incessant smoking.” Her daughter had started using big words after she got accepted to school in Toronto.

Mr. Stanley, her boss, was a difficult person but she’d learned how to deal with him. And the work wasn’t that bad. Kasia didn’t know what hard work was. Besides Mela couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. Until that Saturday, she wouldn’t have even considered it.

She’d had the same job since coming to Halifax fifteen years ago. This was after Randall left her and she couldn’t bear to be in Toronto anymore. A cousin in Halifax offered a spare room and that was enough. She packed Kasia and a few of their things and had the job within a week of arriving.

“Last girl didn’t work out,” Mr. Stanley said, when he first met Mela. He looked at her suspiciously, putting the emphasis on “girl,” as if her gender had been the problem. “She was lazy. Sat around reading trash. Couldn’t fold clothes worth shit.” He rubbed his bristly chin and shook his head, as he sat on what Mela thought of later as his throne- the green striped lawn chair with the saggy bottom. Coffee in one hand and his ever-present cigarette in the other. If the customers didn’t like smoke, “screw them,” he often said. “I’m too old to quit. If they don’t like it, they can lump it.”

Mr. Stanley had huge pink flabby lips that wrapped around the cigarette. Mela imagined soggy filters. She herself didn’t smoke, but she had gotten used to it.

She found out quickly that Mr. Stanley was a stickler for what he called “fluff.” Fluff accumulated in great quantities in a laundromat, under the folding tables and between washers and especially in front of the dryers. Mr. Stanley would often shuffle over to her with the broom and point wordlessly.

That morning, as she approached the church, she passed the convenience store with its permanently overflowing garbage can that attracted pigeons. Mela threw her hands up from her sides as she marched by, forcing the birds to struggle up and away. Although she liked birds in general, she couldn’t stand pigeons. Their murmuring and shuffling. All that pecking and bobbing. The tragedy of their colouring and the fact that they didn’t fly as much as flutter and stagger. If they could talk, she thought they’d be saying: “Sorry miss, didn’t mean to be in your way, I’ll be moving right along.”

When she got within a block of the church and looked ahead toward the sign, she could tell that something was wrong. A few steps more and she could see the glass had been shattered. Shards of it lay on the grass, glinting in the morning sun. The worst part was that someone had spelled “fuck you,” in the white space that usually housed her daily reverie. Mela felt instantly sick, but her steps faltered for only a moment. Two things prevented her from stopping: fear of being seen as the vandal and not wanting to be late for work. She was never late.

Her stomach was in knots the rest of the way there. Who would do such a thing? And why? She felt violated in a way that she hadn’t since the time she’d been called a “stupid polack,” during her first year in Canada. A man who tried to cut in front of her in the grocery line got in a huff when she wouldn’t let him. It wasn’t fair. She’d been waiting twenty minutes and there was a line-up of people behind her. “How did he know you were Polish?” Randall asked her. Can’t you tell? she thought, sure that her difference was written all over her.

Mela tried to calm herself by thinking of the nice cup of tea she would make herself when she got to work. Mr. Stanley would already be staked out in his lawn chair, reading the paper and slurping from his Tim Horton’s cup. If there was one thing that she respected about Mr. Stanley, it was his punctuality. He might not do much when he was at work, but he was always on time.

That Saturday, however, when she pulled on the door, it was locked. She peered through the window, one hand cupped around the side of her face. The laundromat was dark. Mela disliked it when things didn’t go as planned. She thought of those episodes as hindrances to a smooth life. Jarring bumps on a nice Sunday drive or the sudden onset of hiccups. She stood rigidly, looking up and down the street, willing Mr. Stanley to appear, his stocky body shuffling up the street.

She waited for twenty minutes, wondering what she should do, and felt panic growing inside her. She paced the sidewalk and heard Kasia’s voice in her head: “Why can’t you ever sit still?” Kasia had no trouble sitting in front of the TV for hours at a time. Mela had never been able to do that. She felt too guilty. If the TV was on, she needed to be ironing or making soup. Something. Busyness soothed her.

On the rare occasion when she allowed herself to have a bath and just relax, she was surprised when it actually felt good. With the door shut to the outside world, Mela sometimes found herself breathing deeply. It felt accidental, as if the slosh of the water and the climbing steam reached inside her chest and loosened something tight in there.

Yet, each time she dried off, wrapping her bathrobe around her and opening the door, relief flooded through her. It was the sounds of traffic and the neighbours fighting and the droning, pessimistic murmur of the news that made her heart rate accelerate back into the normal range and her breath tighten again, high in her chest. This was what she was used to.

Mela peered around the corner and was considering walking to the pay phone down the street, when she heard keys jingle behind her. A man she’d never seen before was opening the laundromat door. His dark hair stood up in tufts and he balanced a laundry basket under one arm as he turned the key in the lock. She approached him wordlessly, walking through the door after him, her heart pounding.

“Excuse me,” she said.

He put the basket down on the counter and turned around. “We’re not open yet,” he barked.

She stopped and stared at him as he turned back around. She finally managed to say, “I work here.”

“Good. You can put my laundry in then. I’m going to get a coffee.” He walked back towards her. He wore a filthy looking sweater and jeans with holes in both knees. When he got closer she noticed his fly was undone.

“Who are you?” Her voice sounded high and thin. He stopped when he was even with her and rubbed his face where it looked like he hadn’t shaved in a few days. She felt his eyes rake over the graying hair she refused to dye and the wrinkles around her eyes and the flabby skin of her upper arms, and dismiss her. She felt ugly and useless to him and wanted to back up against the row of washers behind her. She could smell last night’s booze and garlic on his breath.

“Don’t look much like the old man I guess, eh?” he said and snorted. “That’s a good thing. Ugly son of a bitch.” He moved towards the door. “Had a heart attack last night. He’s in the hospital.” He grinned at her. “Guess I’m your boss for awhile.” The door slammed behind him. Mela felt her breath slowly coming back to her as she watched Mr. Stanley’s son cross the street. She tried to get her body to move. The washers needed wiping down before anyone came in. She looked towards the back counter again and saw his dirty clothes spilling over the top of the white plastic basket.

The news of the Mr. Stanley’s heart attack wasn’t a surprise ­- he wasn’t exactly healthy ­- but it was still a shock to find him suddenly gone, to have her routine so disrupted. Mela tried to remember what her boss had said about his sons. She knew that one worked in Alberta, one was in jail in PEI, and one owned his own construction company in town. Was this the one who’d been in jail?

Despite the fact that Randall was not at all like the man who had just been standing in front of her, there was something about the two of them that seemed the same. Mela thought it was something in their eyes, something dark beneath the whites, something hidden. In the beginning, Mela had naively thought she knew everything about Randall, until she found a pile of dirty magazines in the storage cupboard two months after they were married. They were in a box with other things that he’d moved from his old apartment. The box was labelled “old books.” The box was open already, as if he’d been going through it. The magazines were underneath some battered spy novels that she didn’t know he read either. He talked about reading Dostoevsky and Dickens. She had been impressed.

Mela rifled through the magazines and counted them ­- twenty-two, more than a spontaneous purchase, that was for sure ­- and she noted that October 1980 was on top. When she checked the box a week later, June 1979 was on top. It sickened her to think that Randall had snuck into the closet sometime during that week, sometime when she was sleeping or had the vacuum going or was out shopping, and looked at those pictures. Were these women what he thought about when they made love? She remembered the way he squeezed his eyes tightly shut when he was on top of her and she felt the first surge of panic. There were a hundred more insecure moments like this one, culminating in Randall’s tearful confession three years later, that he was in love with someone else. She saw through his tears to his relief at being rid of her.

Fifteen years was a long time and still Randall came up, despite her best efforts. He surfaced and bobbed on the top of her water, like the pieces of wood he had loved to carve. After he left, when he told her that she didn’t “meet his needs,” that she never had, she took every stick he’d ever crafted into something other than what it was ­- duck’s head, snake’s body, pig’s snout -­ and had a roaring bonfire on the balcony in the hibachi. It was the first time in her life that she wasn’t afraid of anything. Not of dying or setting the apartment on fire or getting in trouble or hurting Randall. She just kept feeding his creations to the flames. She did this instead of crying about him. For fifteen years, she had refused to cry.

Mela tried to calm herself by hanging up her coat and putting on the kettle. She wet the cloth to wipe the washers down. She moved his laundry basket down to the floor and wiped the counter off as well. She kept looking towards the door but after almost half an hour had passed and he hadn’t returned, she started to relax.

She was sweeping with her back to the door when she heard it bang shut. She jumped and whirled around, but it was only the first customer of the day, a lanky blond girl in a tracksuit with her hair pulled back. She dropped a stained hockey bag on the floor and walked towards Mela. “Can I get some quarters?” she asked.

Mela walked behind the counter and tried to open the till. “It’s locked,” she said, feeling her face flush.

The girl frowned. “Well, can’t you open it?” She seemed then to look at Mela more closely. “You do work here, don’t you?”

“The owner’s sick today. He had a heart attack.” She guessed that Mr. Stanley’s son didn’t know that he was supposed to open the till and Mela didn’t have a key. It was one of the things that Kasia had harped on.

“You should be a manager by now. You should be the co-owner for God’s sake. You’ve worked there long enough. And the man won’t even give you a key!”

Mela had asked Mr. Stanley once if she could have keys and he snapped at her, so she didn’t ask again.

She thought about running down to the corner store for change or telling the girl to go find change somewhere else when Mr. Stanley’s son walked back in.

He had a coffee in one hand and a paper folded in half under his arm and he started whistling aimlessly when he saw the blond girl. “Well, I guess I’ll go somewhere else then,” the girl said and started to walk away.

“Wait. He can open it,” Mela said.

The son climbed the three steps to the landing where the counter was and leered at the blond girl. “What do you need, baby?” He spoke too loudly and smiled at her, his tongue licking at the corner of his lip.

“A little change would be nice,” she snapped and turned to Mela. “I thought you said he had a heart attack.”

The scream of the kettle pierced the air and Mela quickly unplugged it.

“Lady with an attitude. Gotta love it,” the man said. He leaned towards her and tilted his sunglasses down onto his nose. “Didn’t I see you at the Dome last night?”

She shook her head and set her mouth in a firm line. “Can I get some change or what?”

“I’m sure I saw you,” he said, looking her up and down. “You were with two other girls, one in a red dress. Short…”

“I don’t go there, so I don’t know how you could have seen me. Or maybe you just can’t see so well with those shades.” She snorted. Mela stiffened, wanting the girl to stop it, stop baiting him. She should just leave, not talk back.

Mr. Stanley’s son ripped off his sunglasses, and Mela moved out of his way as he came behind the counter, folding her arms protectively across her chest.

“No need to be rude,” he said and yanked on the money drawer. “How the fuck does this thing open?”

“You know what?” the girl said, striding away from the counter. “Forget it.”

Mela watched the girl pick up her hockey bag and leave. She could feel herself shaking.

“Goddamn bitch,” the man muttered.

Mela started to walk towards the front of the store again.

“Well, how the hell do you open this thing?” he yelled at her retreating back.

“Your father has a key,” she stammered and started to straighten the magazines by the window. She was thinking about how she could leave, what she could tell him. Bad period cramps, the flu, emergency at home. Only there was nobody at home now but her. She tried to ignore his swearing as he went through each key on the chain to open the till.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” he said when he finally got it open.

“Do I have to do tricks to get you to do my laundry?” he shouted. “This is a laundromat isn’t it?” Just then, there was a shrill ringing and she watched as he took a cell phone from his jacket pocket.

“Yeah,” he said gruffly.

Mela moved towards his laundry basket. There were filthy sweat socks and yellowed underwear and the smell of something fusty and unpleasant. She held it away from her as she lifted it up to a washer.

“I’m busy today,” he said. He dropped himself into his father’s chair and shoved his feet out in front of him. “Old man nearly kicked off last night. I’m minding the store.”

Mela had to walk past him to get money to start the machine. She gave him a wide berth. She could feel him looking at her out of the corner of his eye as she opened the till and pulled out a roll of quarters.

“Sorry baby, I’m a working man today.” He slurped his coffee. “Don’t start, Becky,” he sighed noisily. “I mean it. Don’t start with me.”

She felt uncomfortable putting her back to him at the washer. She half turned to start loading his clothes and realized he was off the phone. He must have hung up. He saw Mela looking at him. “Women,” he said and belched.

He was holding the phone in his hand still, like he expected it to ring any minute. It did. “Now you’re really irritating me. Do you hear me?” His voice was getting louder. Mela knew there was no one in the laudromat, but she looked around anyway, a frantic, fruitless searching.

“You’re annoying me, Becky. Do you get it? Or is that too big a word for you?”

Mela dumped all his laundry in the washer without sorting it. She hoped he hadn’t seen.

“Don’t fucking call me anymore. Do you hear me?” He was shouting now. “I’m turning the phone off. I warned you. Bye, bye bitch.” He laughed and she heard his phone beep. He dropped it beside him on the floor with a clatter.

Mela’s hands shook as she put the quarters in the slots. The lid slipped out of her hand and slammed down, making her jump. She walked quickly to the supply cupboard and took a roll of paper towels and window cleaner outside with her. Just being out in the air made her feel safer. She sprayed the windows and started to wipe them down, going more slowly than she normally would. She watched him through the glass. He finished his coffee and read the paper and by the time she was done the windows on the inside, his head had rolled to the side and he was snoring.

Mela stayed at the front of the store, shuffling the magazines into new piles and willing people who passed by to come in, but no one did. The washer had finished its cycle but she didn’t want to make noise and wake him up. And then the store phone rang. She watched Mr. Stanley’s son, who thankfully didn’t stir, as she crept back to the counter and picked it up on the seventh ring. “Hello,” she whispered. At first she heard nothing, no noise, only a sort of static, and she remembered that she hadn’t given the name of the laundromat. Maybe it was Mr. Stanley checking up on her from the hospital.

“Hello,” she said again, a bit louder, staring at the back of the son’s head for movement. “Bluenoser Laundromat.” A muffled cry that sounded like the low warning rumble before a crack of thunder began and quickly transitioned to sobbing and wailing. The sound terrified Mela, made her breath catch in her throat, but she pressed the receiver close to her ear. There was something familiar. And it was while she had the phone nestled to her that she thought she recognized the woman’s crying. For just a moment, Mela thought that the woman on the other end of the phone was herself. That some other part of her had left the laundromat, gone down the street, dropped a quarter into the pay phone and called. Mela felt an exquisite tremor of relief pass through her.

The sound on the other end of the phone seemed to wash away like a wave, and suddenly Mela was aware that the woman was talking and it was Mrs. Stanley and she was saying that her husband was dead. “Put Nicky on the phone, Mela.” She mispronounced Mela’s name as she always did when she called the laundromat.

Mela put the receiver down, retrieved her coat and purse from behind the counter, and walked to the sleeping son. “Your mother’s on the phone,” she said loudly and when he jumped from sleep, she turned and walked out of the laundromat and started up the hill home. The sun was shining and she took a deep breath. She imagined making a pot of coffee when she got home and sitting in a patch of sun or reading the novel on her nightstand that she never managed to finish.

When she got to the church, she saw that no one had cleaned up the mess. She bent down and picked up the largest fragments of glass, piling them in a corner of the church steps. Other smaller pieces crunched under her feet in the grass. She made another pile for the black magnetic letters that lay scattered about. They were slippery in her fingers and looked bigger up close than she thought they would be. Each one filled her palm.

The last thing she did was to take down the message that had been left on the board. This gave her the most pleasure and she smiled as she did it. She looked at the tidy piles on the church steps and the clean white slate in front of her. “There,” she said out loud, wiped her hands on her slacks, and kept walking.


Renée Hartleib is a writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her fiction has appeared in The Antigonish Review and is forthcoming in The New Quarterly and Carousel.







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