Old Dominion Cleaners

The squirt of liquid soap mixes with my sweat as I push the hard brush bristles into the shirt’s collar. No breeze in the stuffy backroom of the Virginia cleaners on a July day, just the whir of plastic encased blouses, pressed pants and starched shirts as they creak by me on the ancient conveyor belt. During pauses I catch glimpses of the inked names of lawyers, lobbyists, and members of the FBI on cotton fabric; Gant, Ralph Lauren, Van Heusen, Arrow.

I only break the buttons of the assholes, the ones who shove the shirts at me, their garments reeking of dickness. One snap of the stapler and the circular plastic splits in two.

Danny, anything you find in the pockets under twenty dollars is yours to keep, anything more, we hold onto for two weeks, then we split it 50/50, Mary Lou the manager tells me on my first day.

Jack, Jack, Mary Lou yells out to her elderly white servant of a man. Jack drives the shirts back and forth an hour each way to Richmond to be cleaned off site. Jack will be dead by the end of summer, and to look at his shaking hands and wizen face, his countenance is a walking premonition.

One morning a blind man finds his way to the cleaners, I see him tapping bricks around the door. He dumps a pile of shirts on the counter; they smell like mildew and urine. I count the shirts, feeling moisture, wondering how many times he wore each one until he finally decided they were dirty. Thank you, thank you, he says, tapping outside into the darkness, as I watch him shuffle out.

Garments arrive in jumbled stacks, leave on hangers straight. We all do our part, Mary Lou, Jack, the facility down south, and me.

Greased Watermelon

Most of my friends don’t go to church on Sundays, they go to the pool. I give my family’s member number at the front desk, but everyone knows my sister and me, we’ve been going for years. I quickly pass through the locker room, trying to avoid seeing the ancient hanging testicles of older men drying themselves. Quickly out the door, it appears majestic like Memorial Stadium where the Orioles play. The pool. A thick blue chlorinated backwards L, two connected rectangles filled with the tanned bodies of summer. I look over at the distant grassy area where the high school girls in curvy bikinis are splayed out on towels talking about Guiding Light and General Hospital, listening to Q107 on their transistor radios. The upper area has the baby pool, shallow warm urine-filled liquid where chubby diapered legs splash and play with exhausted parents. I check out the high dive, see if anyone is trying for a can opener or leaping off headfirst. The warped Ping-Pong table is in action, sandpaper paddles hitting the ball from all angles, while onlookers chomp on frozen 3 Musketeers bars. I opt for a jump off the low dive, then get into the sharks and minnows game.

Sun high in the sky, no one is wearing sunscreen, as timeless moments pass at the glistening watery oasis. An hour later, kids compete in relays, dive for quarters, try to dunk lifeguards. The greased watermelon is the grand finale. I see it resting like an oval green buttery pig, on the edge of the high dive board. We all gather around the perimeter, maybe 70 of us, waiting for the oblong sphere to be shoved into the prepubescent abyss. The head lifeguard slowly climbs the ladder allowing the excitement for the time-honored tradition to build. Then with a nudge of his foot the thing is released to gravity with a cannonball splash. We are a kicking thrashing throng, Lord of the Flies, elbows and hands jutting out in all directions, like the start to a sugar-drunk triathlon. I can’t see anything, never wear goggles; I’m in the center of the wet stampede. Then I feel it, hard against my foot, of the earth, not someone’s thigh, the watermelon. I move it gradually, careful to guide it with my feet, barely paddling. Seconds later I heave it up to the side of the pool, hop out, struggle to hold it up, declare victory. A minute passes before everyone realizes the game is over, then they see me with it. A moment of awe, invincible, me, a man among boys.

Walking up the stairs to the exit, I want to think it was my skill, my power, my stellar swimming, but no, just blind luck. Before I leave, I stare at the photo of the 1966 swim team, their taut smooth baby boomer muscles at life’s physical apex. I clutch my watermelon thinking about my dad who went to Vietnam in ’67, shifting the weight from arm to arm, I hope I can carry it all the way home.

Old House In Virginia

Maybe you want to take photos of the paintings to show Liz, see if she might like them, my mom says, as we walk on worn wooden floorboards. The house smells old, slightly musty from the never opened windows, old like the Chickering grand piano that sits in the living room. We can’t even give it away, my mom says. It is from 1910 and apparently has an affliction that no piano doctor can cure, age.

I go into the basement where I used to play Ping-Pong, lift weights, hit the heavy bag. Only the netless table remains, labeled boxes piled on top. I see my name on some, peer inside to find yearbooks, faded inscriptions urging me to have a great summer, get laid, get psyched for high school. I look through old photo albums, take out my iPhone, snap shots of me with bangs, wearing polo shirts, my dad on a Honda motorcycle, send them to my wife. Cute, she texts back.

At night I tuck my son into bed, where he sleeps in my old room. My desk is gone, the mirror where I adjusted ties, gone, the wallpaper where I scribbled a girlfriend’s name, stripped off long ago.

Outside I amble along with the robins, squirrels, and chipmunks, everything so green and quiet compared to San Francisco’s flamboyant tech-savvy noise. Anonymous, I walk like an old man past young families, past houses where I used to eat ice cream, where I watched the Redskins on TVs with antennas, where I threw water balloons. Summer sun, the light is the same, the humidity, nothing has changed, I’m strolling through 1986.

Then I look across the street, stare at Howard and Dorothy’s former house where I used to rake leaves, both dead for years, my parents tell me. Back inside, my son is excited, shows me the time machine that he is building. I give him a kiss, I love it, I say.