Because I drew the short straw, again, I’m sitting in the Wash‘n’Go laundromat in Richfield, Utah, on a hot July afternoon with Calvin as my laundry buddy. The laundromat is an archetype of its species – sickly green paint on the cinderblock walls, dull brown asphalt tiles spattered with fleck of yellow and orange on the floor. Large windows on either side of the front door are plastered halfway up with fliers advertising trucks and hay and various used appliances for sale, a fundraising dinner and dance benefiting a family whose little girl has cancer, posters for lost dogs, and an offer from someone wanting to trade a lawnmower for a chainsaw. A double row of washers, back-to-back, runs down the center of the floor; the far wall is lined with industrial-sized drum clothes dryers. Along the wall where I am, there is a row of uncomfortable hard plastic chairs, a vending machine for tiny boxes of detergent and fabric softener, and a change dispenser that turns $1 and $5 bills into quarters. The year is 1978. The air is permeated with the smells of overheated fabric and Clorox.
There is no one in the place except for me, the old lady who runs the laundromat, and my archaeology field school classmate, Calvin Ross. The old lady, like her business enterprise, is a classic of her type. Short and dumpy, with gray, frizzy, badly permed hair, she is wearing a dingy white sleeveless blouse, a baggy, dun-colored skirt, cotton anklets, and scuffed tan oxfords. A brassiere strap hangs down one of her pale flabby upper arms, and a cigarette occupies the corner of her mouth. She moves slowly down the row of washers, wiping them off with a damp, ragged piece of an old towel.
Calvin is tall and skinny. With his unfashionable crewcut, straight-legged jeans, white t-shirt, and horn-rimmed glasses, he looks a bit like Buddy Holly, but not in a good way. He has an uncanny ability to say things that annoy people. We all view him as having been badly socialized; a later generation would perhaps classify him as being on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.
Our field school director, who is both a prude and a martinet, will not allow us to go into town as a group to do our laundry. Apparently, he believes that if the nine of us were together, we would be seduced by the fleshpots of this small Mormon ranching town and engage in wild debauchery. Neither are we allowed to go into town alone (even though all of us are over 21, and three of us are over 30).
Therefore, we make the 15-mile trek from field camp to town in groups of two or three at a time. As noted, I drew the short straw this week, and thus find myself at the Wash‘n’Go with Calvin.
I’m reading a day-old copy of the Salt Lake Tribune. Calvin is reading McGregor’s Southwestern Archaeology, which is widely recognized as the most soporific textbook ever published in our field. The door opens, and five men walk in. They are big men, heavily muscled, bearded, tattooed, and swarthy from long hours on the road in the desert wind and sun. They are all wearing do-rags, leather vests, shirts with the sleeves cut off, jeans, and heavy, thick-soled boots with silver studs and outsized buckles. As they swagger through the door, they fan out in a ragged line and stand silently surveying the room, and those of us in it, through dark sunglasses. I freeze, scarcely daring to breathe; the old lady backs slowly toward the rear of the shop. A few months ago, in another small central Utah town, a motorcycle gang beat and stomped a young man to death. The people of Zion are still very wary of their kind.
The men open two of the washers and take out wet clothing, carelessly tossing the items into one of the big dryer drums. I sit absolutely still, pretending to read my newspaper. In fact, I am watching desperately out of the corner of my eye for any indication that Calvin is planning to say or do something. So far, he still appears to be engrossed in McGregor, but given his personality, we are skating on thin ice.
The biggest of the bikers stalks over to the change dispenser, which is bolted to the wall not four feet from where Calvin is sitting. He pulls from his pocket a wallet, connected to his belt by a long shiny chain, and extracts a bill. Suddenly, Calvin shifts his body, trying to fold his boney frame into a more comfortable position on the hard plastic chair. The huge, grizzled biker, whose biceps appear to be as big around as my thighs, turns slowly and stares down at Calvin, his eyes invisible behind dark, wrap-around sunglasses. I am silently pleading, please don’t say anything, please don’t say anything, please don’t say anything.
Just then, the washers holding Calvin’s and my laundry finish their cycles and fall silent. I stop breathing. Calvin continues reading. The biker continues to loom over him. It seems to me that there is no sound left in the world except a soft sizzling noise from a failing fluorescent tube in the ceiling fixture above me. Just as I start to feel faint from hypoxia, the man turns back to the dispenser, inserts the bill, and collects his handful of quarters. He returns to the dryer, inserts some of the quarters in the slide tray of the machine, and rams the slide home. The machine begins ponderously tumbling the clothes. The slap of wet denim and the clatter of metal rivets and zippers against the metal drum fill the ominous silence. With one last glare around the room, the men turn and walk out. A motto is visible on the backs of their vests: “BORN TO DIE” with a death’s head forming the O in TO.
The old lady and I make eye contact. She shakes her head slightly, lights a new cigarette from the stub of her old one, and picks up her cleaning rag. I sit still, not trusting my shaking knees to carry me to my washer and on to a dryer just yet. Then the door opens, and the huge biker stands alone, silhouetted against the light like the villain in a B movie. By now, I’m experiencing an adrenalin crash, so my main response to his reappearance is weary resignation about my impending untimely death. He looks toward the old lady, raises one huge fist holding a small white cardboard box with bold orange print on it, and says, “I forgot to put in the Bounce.” He marches over to the dryer, yanks open the door, tears off a fabric softener sheet from the roll in the box, throws it in, slams the door, mashes the “restart” button, and walks out.
For a long moment, the rumbling of the dryer is the only sound. Then I look at the old lady, and she is looking at me, and we instantly become hysterical. I laugh so hard that tears begin to run down my face. She leans on one of the washers, alternately laughing and coughing a deep smoker’s cough. Calvin emerges from his McGregor-induced coma, looks blankly back and forth between the old lady and me, and says, “What’s the matter? Did something happen?”
Lynne Sebastian is a retired Southwestern archaeologist who received her PhD from the University of New Mexico in 1988. In addition to carrying out fieldwork and research on the archaeology of the Four Corners region, she has served as New Mexico’s State Archaeologist and State Historic Preservation Officer and as a historic preservation consultant for the SRI Foundation in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. After retiring, Dr. Sebastian began taking OLLI courses through the UNM Continuing Education program. A chance meeting in an OLLI course on Writing Memoir sent her retirement into a whole new direction when she was invited to join a creative writing critique group. She recently completed the draft of her first novel and is working on a volume of short stories.