Fluff & Fold
By Lituo Huang
On a windblown, electric night—after even the sun has retreated, cowed by the Santa Ana winds that shrivel your eyeballs in their sockets and suck the spit out of your mouth—I am folding laundry. I’m balling up each sock in its brother. The dueling TVs on opposite walls of the empty laundromat are both playing commercials. On my left, a stack of bleach-stained towels. On my right, a stack of bleach-stained shirts. I ball up the socks and toss them in a pile in front of me.
I stare through the door of the laundromat, which someone has propped open with a shard of cinder block, at the man outside. He sits on the concrete bumper at the end of a parking space demarked by bright white lines. He stares at the road, smoking. I can smell the cigarette smoke that floats into the laundromat through the doorway. When the occasional car passes by, its headlights illumine him, and then I can see him in profile, his hand frozen in the act of carrying the cigarette to his lips. Yes, I think, he will have to do. That he is alone, that he is outside, being whipped by this wind, that he, too, will die—fills me with a throb, and I want to cry.
When I finish folding the rest of the laundry and cram it into my basket, I walk out to him.
“Good evening,” I say. I stop in front of him with the basket on my hip.
“Hi,” he counters, standing with an explosive movement. His voice is loud and cheerful. It drives the mystery from the night. Everything about him is ordinary—his dark baseball cap, the stubble on his shiny face, his shirt stiff with white paint, and the way he pinches the cigarette between his thick fingers. Polite, he holds it downwind. The wind blows the smoke away from us, it has no time to linger. Nor do I.
“Laundry?” he asks.
“Uh huh,” I say, bumping the basket higher up on my hip, “And what are you up to tonight?”
“I just painted this lot,” he says, hesitating over his words. He gestures with his hand a wide arc as if to say, all this.
“It’s just regular latex paint,” he says, warming to his subject, “There’s some that uses a roller, but I use a regular brush and trace over the old lines.”
I cannot wait. “Excuse me,” I say, “But are you up for this, or what?”
He looks at me. He’s confused, because his cigarette is halfway to his lips, and his head’s turned partway to meet it. He looks out of the corner of his eyes. Another car rolls by, its blue-white headlights flashing over us.
“I said, are you up for it?”
“Up for what?”
“Look,” I say, rolling my eyes a little, “This basket is heavy.”
He’s relieved. He understands now what is expected.
“Let me help you to your car,” he says, smiling, then tosses his cigarette on the ground and reaches for my basket.
“Not my car. In here.”
I turn and lead the way back into the laundromat before he can ask any questions.
I let him enter before kicking the cinder block away from the door, which clicks closed. The two TVs are blaring. One is playing a news show with four talking heads, each in front of a different backdrop. The heads are shouting. The other TV is playing a travel show. A man bites a skewered lizard and gags.
He sets down the basket on top of a washer by the door.
“Not there,” I say, “Back here.” I lead him to the back corner that cannot be seen from the entrance.
As soon as he reaches it, I am by his side. He drops the basket, which lands with a crack. Its contents fluff out onto the floor. I’m on him, covering his quizzical “Ma’am?” with one hand, and I feel him gasp at how cold that hand is. I force him to the ground. He struggles, he is strong, but I am stronger than he imagined possible, and I pin him to the floor, and I slip my arm behind his head and clasp my hands, all my weight is on him. I can feel his heat, the sweat that breaks through his salt pores. I see his blood vessels unfurling beneath the chickenish skin of his neck, taste the stickiness around his Adam’s apple. His stubble scrapes me when I rub my lips against its grain, tracing his jugular with my teeth. When I press down, the blood pulses into my mouth, thick and warm, like the juice of a smashed peach. He shudders beneath me until his heart grows quiescent.
The front of my shirt is wet. My tongue darts over my lips like a salamander on a fallen leaf. The man’s breaths come long and slow, even when I pick him up and curl him into a dryer. I toss his hat in after him and shut the door.
I right the laundry basket and pull out a clean shirt to put on. My soiled shirt goes into a washer. I count my quarters—six for the washer and three for the dryer. The travel show has gone to commercial again. A young mother rubs cream into her infant and I can already hear the uneven clunking of the dryer with its heavy load and its heat that blows down to the bone.
© 2020, Lituo Huang