The cold October wind sliced through Cora’s sweater and she gathered it close around her as she walked. The morning sun was hidden behind the clouds, making for a chilly day. Or maybe it was because her circulation had grown sluggish.
Doctor Finney had told her to walk at least a quarter mile each day, at as brisk a pace as she could manage. At seventy-eight, brisk was a kind of tea. It was not any kind of way in which she moved. Even so, she’d come to enjoy the daily walks. Fifty-Seventh Street had the prettiest store windows, all decked out in mums and colored leaves. And really, what else did she have to do, now that it was fall and the flowers had been removed from all the graves, leaving no watering, no pinching off of spent blossoms to fill her days?
By the time she reached the Laundromat, Cora’s fingers were numb. She glanced into the oversized window. Not many customers today. Just one young woman and a small boy. Maybe it would be all right if she went inside and warmed herself for a moment or two. She didn’t like to be a bother. The business owners probably didn’t want an old lady hanging about, especially one with no money to spend. Still, it was awfully cold outside. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to go in. She wouldn’t stay but a moment.
The warmth inside the Laundromat was as comforting as a home-sewn quilt. Oh, thank You, Lord.
Her watery eyes scanned the room and she brightened. There was work to be done. She straightened a stack of newspapers on a table, then gathered up the empty soap boxes that lay about and threw them in the trash. Wanting to stay a few moments more, she dug a handful of change from her coin purse and studied the contents of the candy machine, finally deciding on a candy bar.
“Can I get a chocolate bar, Mama?”
Hearing a voice behind her, she turned. The little boy gazed hopefully up at his mother. He was the loveliest child, with a blond crew cut and serious gray eyes.
“Not today, baby. I’ve got just enough change to dry our clothes. Maybe next time, okay?”
The woman’s accent seeped over Cora like syrup over a stack of griddlecakes, reminding her of long-ago summers spent picking peaches on her grandmother’s farm in Georgia. The little boy’s longing gazed moved to the candy bar and Cora tucked it away in her handbag.
When the double-loader ceased it whirling and groaning, the woman piled its content into a laundry cart and pushed it to the wall of dryers. Not bothering to separate the fabrics, she chucked the lot of it into number twenty-three and fed in a handful of quarters.
“Mama, can we go play in the park?” the boy asked.
She was going to say no. Cora could see it in the way she chewed her lip.
The woman glanced out at the temperamental sunshine. “Maybe for just a few minutes. Then I have to get our clothes folded and get y’all to Rose’s.”
“I don’t like to go to Missus Rose’s. She doesn’t have any toys for me to play with. Can’t I go with you instead, Mama?”
An echo of a memory tugged at Cora’s heart. David’s chubby arms encircling her legs, his tear-stained face. Please let me go with you, Mama. I’ll be good.
A young mother, at home all day while Joseph was at work, she’d wanted only a couple of hours for herself, a cup of coffee with a friend to break up the monotony. It was the most heart-wrenching memory, the little tear-stained face, the little boy outraged to think his mother might have a life beyond his needs. What she wouldn’t give to have those little-boy days back again, to be that needed.
Squatting to her son’s level, the woman took his face between her hands. “ I know you don’t, baby. And you’re such a good boy to go. But remember, Mama has next weekend off. We’ll go to Wild Willy’s. We’ll pick out a pumpkin and go for a hayride. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
The sweetest smile lit up the child’s face, and Cora had to turn away.
She watched from the window as they crossed the street to the park. She watched as the woman pushed her child on the swings, and was lost again in memories of monkey bars and grasshoppers, jars filled with fireflies and fistfuls of dandelions, and finger paintings taped to the door of the fridge. It crossed her mind to telephone David and tell him how much she’d loved those paintings, but he was a busy man, with children and grandchildren of his own.
The little boy found a baseball in the grass, and he and his mother threw it back and forth, back and forth. Behind Cora, the dryer stopped, and still, the boy and his mother played with the ball. She considered the dungarees and the smocks, the towels and the sheets, going to wrinkles in the dryer. A smile lit her face. There was work to be done.
Opening the dryer door, she picked out the small pajamas; bold, colorful things imprinted with Spiderman and Scooby Doo. As her gnarled hands caressed the flannel, her heart tumbled with memories of bedtime stories and bubble baths, of sticky kisses and the sweetest dreams. Thank You, Lord. Oh, thank you for this precious little boy.
She worked through a pile of little dungarees with grass-stained knees, little t-shirts splotched with cherry Kool Aid. The clothing of a busy little boy. Keep him safe, Lord Jesus. Tuck him beneath the shelter of Thy wings, she prayed, as she folded the last little shirt and tucked it into the cart.
Next there were waitressing smocks to sort. The smartest looking smocks, navy blue, the name LaDonna embroidered in white above the pockets. Cora creased the sleeves, smoothed out the wrinkles, folded them lengthwise, then widthwise, then lengthwise again, and set them in the cart.
There were sheets and towels and lacy little tops — a symphony of textures, and Cora savored the feel of them, savored the joy of being useful.
Time had betrayed her body, left her shriveled up, old. It had peeled away her layers and left her a wife without a husband, a homemaker without a home; a servant with no one left to serve. Show me, Lord. Please show me where I’m needed…
A flash of movement outside caught her eye. The woman and her child stood hand in hand, waiting to cross the street. Cora folded the last pillow case and added it to the stack. She fished the candy bar from her handbag and set it lovingly on top. As the mother and her child headed across the street, Cora made her way across the chipped gold linoleum of the Laundromat, out the back door, and into the brightest light.
© M. Jean Pike 2012
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.– 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17