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At the Laundromat

At the Laundromat

Matthew Crawford

matthew-crawford2.jpg

I’d been using that laundromat for months now, uneventful months – or uneventful so far as my laundering had been concerned. Tonight, however, there was an old man sitting on the steps next to the entrance. His huge marine-blue plastic tub full of soggy clothes was blocking the entry. I appeared in front of him with my shopping bag packed full of clothes and waited. We stared at one another.

“Good evening,” I said in Korean after a few moments. He returned the greeting.

The man’s face was pale, with papery-looking skin. He was wearing a beret and his watery eyes gazed at me with a confidence that faded quickly into feeble disorientation, as the remnants of boldness flickered and waned.

“Where are you from?” he asked. I shook his hand and answered his questions, and he told me, proudly, that he had been a Hapkido teacher. The way he was rooted to the steps with a look of fear in his eyes made it hard to imagine.

“Do you know about Hapkido?” he said.

I nodded and encouraged him on.

“I travelled all over the world. Canada, USA, France … Do you speak French?”

His French was better than his English, and his few English words were tinged in a French accent. I wondered what to do with his marine-blue tub of wet laundry and gestured towards it.

“Just put it in the front seat of my car.” I glanced over at the dented wreck crowded against the sidewalk. The hinges of the door resisted my effort and the seat was covered in detritus which I had to clear onto the floor; the tub of laundry barely fit between the seat and the dashboard. Socks and underwear had fallen from the bulging heap; “Sorry,” I said as I retrieved them from the sidewalk.

But he waved it off with a “Not at all.” I set about doing my own laundry.

“Do you like to drink makeolli?” he asked as I stuffed a grimy pair of jeans into one of the washers.

“Yes, it’s delicious.”

“What other kind of alcohol do you like?”

“Oh, beer, hard liquor, soju – I like it all.”

“How about a drink? Come over to my place and we’ll have some makeolli.” The old man had still not ventured to stand. He looked shaky. He looked like he had just left a devastating battle as one of the only shell-shocked survivors.

He looked like he had just left a devastating battle as one of the only shell-shocked survivors.

“I had a lot to drink last night,” I answered truthfully.

“Maybe some other time.”

I had fished out the wet pieces of plastic from the cavity where the detergent was supposed to go. I nudged the round door closed, then flicked some coins into the slot and poked at the start button. The old man was still sitting in the same spot that I had found him in. I offered him a hand, helping him to his feet, and we stood there on the sidewalk in the illuminated blackness under the sloping tiles of the eaves. A police car drifted by with its lights off.

Standing there now, I looked at the car and then the old man. “Need me to drive?” I suggested. The old man was more befuddled than I’d realized.

“Move the laundry. To the back seat.”

When we were both seated I started up the car, put it in first gear, and stepped down on the clutch. I hadn’t driven for years, so I we drifted painfully slowly down the street. Another police car, or the same one as before, sidled past on the other side, going almost as slowly as we were.

“Next to the church,” he said. “Take a right at the intersection.” I told him that I lived near the church too. Its wall of ragged brick looms over my building. Sometimes I look up at the base of the wall, fortified with concrete against the lip of the small cliff. We were amused somehow by the fact that we both lived in the shadow of that stark, ridiculous building.

“Keep going, straight up the hill.” I looked right and left and began to panic since parking anywhere along this narrow lane would block it entirely, but then he pointed to an open gate, and I drifted his car in next to a white van. Switching off the ignition, I passed him the key, which he slipped behind one of the folded up sunguards. This wasn’t a car that anyone would care to steal.

 “Is this your house?”

“Yes. Let’s go down there, find a place to eat. I’ll buy you some dinner.”

“I’ve already eaten. I’m really full.”

“Come on.”

I held his elbow as we stepped mincingly down the slope. I was worried that his legs would give out. (He had blamed one of his bad legs on a hapkido injury.) He motioned towards a dokbogi restaurant, the kind of diner frequented by students or the indigent. The restaurant was empty except for a rotund old woman who raised herself up on spindly legs from the stool she’d been sitting on, underneath a television at the back end. She smiled absently, indulgently, but didn’t say a word. She was so old and worn out that she was like a ghost.

As we sat at the table, I could hear the clanking of a pot or a frying pan in the open kitchen. Soon the old lady brought out a plate of dokbogi and two sets of steel chopsticks. She returned to her perch before the television and took no further notice of us, absorbed in a soap opera. Every so often she would break into strange laughter, but mainly just gazed raptly at the screen, as very young children do.

In the light of the restaurant I could see unhealed gashes on the tips of the old man’s fingers, and along the sides of his hands, from many falls. I was feeling more comfortable now and our conversation livened up.

In the light of the restaurant I could see unhealed gashes on the tips of the old man’s fingers, and along the sides of his hands, from many falls. I was feeling more comfortable now and our conversation livened up.

When the plate was almost empty, the old man turned serious again, the flighty, shaken look reappearing on his face, in his eyes. “I’ve been going through hard times … Very hard times these past three years.” And then he fell into a silence. I was worried that he was going to cry, but he managed to continue: “It’s like an earthquake. The ground is shaking around me and I can’t find anything to hold onto. And I really don’t know what to do. I have no idea what to do about this earthquake.”

There was silence again. We looked at each other from across the table, separated by 40 years, while the old lady in the back dissolved into the pixelated screen of the television. Forty years is not a long time. I didn’t know what to do about the earthquake either. Sitting there in the bright light and the silence infected by fear I could already feel the tremors.

A thoroughly decentered Canadian-American, Matthew Crawford currently resides in Seoul, South Korea. His writing and photography have appeared, or are appearing soon, in Paper Darts, Nomad Magazine, Oriental Tales, Blue Print Review, 10 Magazine, and newspapers includingThe Straits Times, The Asia Times, and The Korean Herald. When he finds a chance, he heads to the mountains.

All rights reserved to Matthew C. Crawford.

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