Ticket to a Child
by Rosanna Oh, 16, Jericho, New York
When it stormed, as it often did on many moonstone evenings, the lights went off in all the houses. Our town expected it before summer left and water veined the streets, pouring and cementing wells of muddy broth...then silently misted into September clouds. The moisture slinked into the candlelit walls of the house, diffusing a dusty mildewed odor throughout of dead wood.
Sometimes during random bouts of heat, the house itself yellowed, soiled by earthenware wafts; the marble floor seeped with sour sweat, of the sewage in the innards of our neighborhood. I didn't want to spend my vacation doused in pork smells but, more importantly, I didn't want my future in-laws to think me as just an incompetent paleontology major at a decent university. Trent was touring with his friends in Europe to attend a famous historian's lecture on the origin of African folklore. After telling me his intentions only the day before, he added, "I'm sorry you can't make the lecture and have to be alone, but don't worry. Mom will check on you soon." In the morning I saw him leave the apartment in the taxi with a snowboard.
Now I was in a dingy flat above a concrete intersection choked with Starbucks-gorging, gabbing, car-honking New Yorkers with Mrs. San due to inspect me soon.
I had to get the stench out.
Alice's tallow candles did manage to burn a bit of strawberry scent, but only within a three-foot radius; Sandra's gum fresheners ruined the furniture; and in the end even Wei's beloved Lysol, which had never failed to kill ninety-nine percent of odor-causing bacteria, couldn't oust the stink in the bathroom closet. I had to call Mom.
"Why don't you go into a Laundromat and wash your bed sheets, clothes, everything?" she queried. "Yes, the clean smell will get the stinkiness out nice. And a little laundry won't hurt you either, if you have the time." I heard her sigh in her Florida cottage in the middle of nowhere, yet peering over our apartment strewn with dirty clothes and naked chaos.
The next morning, I toted the heavy load of blankets across the street to the Laundromat.
An aged Chinese couple, whom Trent and I had met before moving, managed Frenchie's Laundromat. Rust icicles dripped on aquamarine blue panels in front of the cooped place. A faithful neon sign flickered "Frenchie's" and obstructed any sunlight from the inside. Only Mrs. Shang stood behind the counter when I went in—a straight-backed lady with an ashen face, she shuffled daintily on the floor, completing orders. I picked a washer and stuffed my blankets inside, but I had no change.
Since the change machine was out of order, I asked Mrs. Shang for quarters. Scurrying over to the register, she pronounced in choppy English, "Next time come with change, please." When she handed me the quarters, she hesitated and started talking in Chinese.
"Um, I'm not Chinese," I said apologetically.
"College?" she asked.
"Yes. I'm studying history."
"Oh. Study hard." She gave me quarters and left.
One quarter lasted for seven minutes. Damn it, I thought. I wanted to read the washing instructions for the blankets but since they were made in Korea, the directions were in Korean—a language I had long ago forgotten. Trent couldn't help me—he was Jewish—and telephoning was useless. Water level, water cycle? I could read textbooks on statistics or macroeconomics more easily. Paleontology isn't a lot of help either, I realized. Isn't picking prehistoric animal bones harder than pressing buttons on a washing machine? Am I not an educated woman? If illiterate nannies and housekeepers could do this, why couldn't I? I should know this. What was I doing wrong?
Finally I crammed everything unsorted into a machine, pressed HIGH twice, inserted three coins, and flicked on START. Suds started to ooze between the fibers soon. The rotating wheel fascinated me; here was a living model of Earth's genesis, in a washing machine. Water inundated the lands and from the teeming tides came forth bacteria—in this case, three months' dust mites, human hair, and, of course, the pork-odor-causing bacteria. I shut my eyes and I dozed into a rhythmic unconsciousness.
A calloused hand prodded me awake. The machine had stopped. The hand belonged to the Latina janitress who mopped the floor. Her perfume of hard Clorox and astringent floor wax seemed to repel my pig-stained clothes. A cheap gold cross with the martyred Jesus haloed her neck, under a starched shirt and streamlined onyx hair. Her pants were mottled with Clorox and she made noise wherever she tread because she lugged a mop bucket behind her.
I was relieved to see the blankets had not mutated. I started to cram them into a dryer, but the janitress articulated, "No, no. Put in different. Then go." I did so and thanked her. As the dryer spun, I watched her move deftly around other customers, making her way past the video games and the abandoned trolleys. Time and again her sleeves would move past her elbows and she'd hurriedly push them back into place. Mrs. Shang ignored her; as the janitress pulled at her arms, I could hear Mrs. Shang pattering. I looked at the dryer. Tomorrow would be for clothes.
Before I left for the Laundromat the following afternoon, Trent called.
"Hi! You should have come. The guy is a genius!!! And me and the guys picked up so many books on African folklore...Europe is just unbelievable."
"And was the snow good?" I sneered.
"What? Oh...no." Mute static.
"Oh, that's a shame. And why the hell are your parents coming to check on me? Can I not take care of myself?" I seethed.
"No, it's just...you can examine dead animal guts better than you get along with...I don't know."
The Laundromat was open. The rooms were beginning to smell pleasant.
when Mrs. Shang saw me enter, she said, "So much cleaning! Children?"
"No, no. Marriage is too much work," I joked. No response.
"Have you any children?"
She stood there, hands tucked primly under a cotton blanket before she answered, "No. I do not." Excusing herself, she skittered towards the counter and called the janitress to sweep. Again, the janitress reminded me to sort my clothes and started sweeping. She bumped into me.
"Goddamn...Jesus Christ! Are you hurt? What happened?" Crimson welts charred her tanned hand, boiled by hard soap."
"No miss!" she implored, seizing her cross and praying, "I'm fine!"
I relaxed my grip.
Then she fled away, from the watching eyes that I had attracted unto her, buttoning her collar and sleeves. "What happened?"
"Mrs. Shang, she's been attacked! I have to report it to the police!"
Her eyes were like lunar tides of brown.
"Shhh, shh, I know. When I hired her I understood her situation. Please finish laundry and do not bother her; she has made a choice. I cannot fire. You are not social worker." She clasped her ironed hands around mine then, smelling from the layers of dirty laundry, and walked to the back room.
It took more quarters to dry the clothes and more time. The janitress didn't come out—she hid in the arch beyond the big arcade games. I accidently took someone else's laundry: seven baby clothing sets and lace lingerie. A petite, angry woman glared at me as I left. But I didn't care—Mrs. Shang's daughter was looking at me from a cracked frame in a lit nook in the wall.
"Hello, this is Trent's mother, Mrs. San," droned Mrs. San's tuned voice. "I am reminding you of our rendezvous soon. I hope to find you well." Click.
Next: "Hey, it's Trent. If Mom has called you, that's a good sign. She'll love you. You should be here with me to share Barcelona...I miss you." I wish I could have sent a bouquet of our apartment to him then, breathing of purity from blankets.
That night I made a report to the police after I had finished folding Trent's linen sheets.
"Mrs. Shang, I'm sorry, but do you have any quarters?"
She smashed the quarters onto the table, salivating spitefully.
"Miss, do you know that Alba has been taken to the police? This afternoon they went into apartment in Corona Park and took her and baby." Was she trying to restrain her anger?
"Oh really? Good. Then whoever called the police was smart?"
"No smart. Police are watching. She called me—"
"Because husband is beggar on Roosevelt Avenue and beats her! Because parents hate her when she came home with baby to Mexico instead of money! Because son is still in crib! She chose to earn money clean. Now she go to home for abused women!"
Weird—was she trying to make me understand something?
"Well, her life can be fixed." I had done the right thing...right?
Shaking her head, she murmured, "Just like my daughter. Thought she was right about everything. Too nosey. Ran off with some white man nowhere. Should been doctor, but made china dolls. It wasn't a smart thing you did. Let women make their choices. You don't have to act as a...savior. Just take care of yourself."
"Mrs. Shang, that woman's life was ruined! Doesn't it matter to you that we should help lost people, especially battered women who can't speak English?" It was utterly pointless, I snickered; she couldn't understand my English! I started gathering my clothes.
A Korean lady with a lollipop-yellow-faced daughter started to speak.
"Aiygo, what a shame! Her parents should commit suicide for having such a crazy idiot! Stupid! Child, don't act like her..."
Tears starched my face, mingling with the sweet-scented raindrops descending again. Mrs. Shang was gazing longingly after her lost little girl in a shroud of fog from her godforsaken place.
"Smell is absolutely impeccable in here! And the rooms!"
It was Sunday. As Mrs. San examined the house, sunburst breezed tumbled into the room. I had polished chrome furniture and posted prints Trent had taken from an African safari. The fresh smell with all its wispy subtleness enlivened the flat, reminding me of Scotland. Mrs. San, a refined lady of English tea, reappeared, wearing a mink stole drowned in manly perfume.
"So...what are you going to do with paleontology?" her mouth smoked.
"Listen to lectures, read, visit places for a while, listen and learn..."
"Gosh, aren't you going to be something? Editor, homeowner, volunteer?"
Anger frothed inside. "When I am done, listen? When I am ready to handle it."
"Love, enjoy it while you can—that's what really counts."
Goddamn it. She was stinking up the room.
Mom and Dad were having guests when I told her about Alba and Mrs. Shang.
"My daughter," she spoke wearily in pure Korean, "life is like a movie and everybody wants to get in at a child's price. But that doesn't happen. Who can say Alba is stupid, or smart? You are no child—you will age...Alba's misfortune forgotten. What I mean is...would you want somebody examining your bones many years from now? Humble people don't want—"
"Mom, what are you talking about? She was being abused! She was—"
"Every person is different. Wouldn't you rather be respectful than insincere—"
"I was sincere to Alba."
"Look in the Laundromat again. Apologize. People who go to Laundromats are poor; they can't afford a washing machine at home. No, I'm not...what's prejudiced—They practice being themselves. They want clean. They clean themselves—do you see the mother smiling, the father look like he won the lotto? Or Mrs. Shang, laughing in the dirty place? It's hard—you realize reality in such a small room!! Do you understand? It is not a place—"
"But Mom, I go to the Laundromat." A hesitant sigh, brows upturned in sweat.
"Ah-gah, that doesn't mean you'll be there every day for the rest of your life."
Trent came home a few days after, relieved to see me smiling; when I hugged him he smelled like pine trees freshly rooted. Then he pried my hand open and laid a figurine there. Her lips were enrobed in deep coral, her eyes imagined in silver filigree, and her slimness corseted in enanameled silk; it was a—
"China doll." Trent offered and grinned. "I'm surprised. You're supposed to be an expert of figurines of Chinese goddessses." He frowned, but laughed, presuming he had had me—but not quite.
"She's Lo-shen...maid of rivers. She's gorgeous."
Trent looked disappointed.
Campus opened again, vacation ended. I was walking home after research and found Mrs. Shang's worn spine cracking underneath a heavy door. She seemed ready to let the door pummel into her knobby foot, wanting pain instead of numbness. Feet ground into the concrete, her legs between enshrined forces was a divisor of strength. And before this void of warmth collapsed, I helped her, pulled her away before the clashes of iron. I persuaded her to have dinner with us at home.
Mrs. Shang hated our meal: dehydrated, over-marinated Lean Cuisine in leftover Peking duck sauce. She not only cringed from it, but received it with an ironical twist of the lips. Was my cooking that distasteful?
Trent was supposedly absorbed in some History Channel special event. But I didn't mind.
"Smells so clean. Not afraid to relax," she breathed. I was surprised...the place was clean, even to her.
"Oh, Mrs. Shang, you can come anytime you like! It'll always be clean, you bet!" Trent invited. Always be clean and you bet?
"Of course! Good daughter cleans—" She clamped her wire lips together.
I leaned forward. "Your daughter?"
Mrs. Shang shoved me away with her teary eyes staring at me like Tahitian pearls.
"No. I have no daughter. No remember?"
"No. Nothing more. I want to live life clean. I'm going now."
"But she's your daughter—"
An imitation leather bag whipped through the silence; I heard splinters of plated porcelain, puncturing the still atmosphere. I turned around.
Lo-shen had become a river of scattered ashes boring into the tile floor.
When Trent announced his trip to visit the Aboriginals in Australia the next day, I went to Silver Hanger, the more posh and renovated Laundromat. It took me three more hours than usual to understand their washers. I kept chucking clothes into it; the machine was like an over-prepared time-saving-miracle accessory for life. And while I pulled monochromatic bundles of grey, while I slipped and broke a tooth on suds overflowing onto the linoleum floor, no one's hand, bleached or manicured, came to help me.
After I washed my blood from the linen drapes, I put Lo-shen into a bag and left her in the recycling bin. The next day, I didn't see her among the empty diet soda bottles and the beer cans—she had left quietly as water leaves a pruned cadaver.
With Trent gone, I had less laundry to do—I visited exhibitions, workshops, and book discussions at cafeé K. Everyday the professor mentioned an exciting new discovery; my mind picked at dinosaur bones entombed in rock, my eyes imagined plumaged aves in deep hues, and I heard speculations and constant bickering over whether the specimen had been, perhaps, a "dysfunctional Neanderthaal" or a "sacrificial victim to the Valkyries."
And during the freewheeling discourses and study nights in Central Park, we never listened to the unpolluted stillness and we stopped admiring the lateral aurora of stars...I had forgotten how lost I was.
Each day heralded a new discovery, each worthy of the Nobel Prize or some other prestigious award: new hermaphroditic species, behaviors among sterile animals, and daily average counts of eggs produced by fish. While the scientific world became inebriated with grand discoveries and a spontaneous generation of "geniei" (plural for genius), I stopped going to all the bohemian student gatherings and exclusive museum parties with their haut gravity. They rubbed their smell into my face; their obsession with bones and tombs made me think of the bacteria and the much coating the corpse. Students rushed upon the professor as any fly would to rotten fruit. The stench of analyzing, picking at minutiae, and robbing the animals from the ground to put them into translucent tombs became foo much for me. I had grown accustomed to breathing clean air and smells; my lungs would never readapt to their full size again. My life was shrinking into a preshrunk future. I had only stretched too far in the past, in that Laundromat, and now I found my life too tight and unable to be tailored for me.
Frenchie's wnet out of business. I found the place empty behind bars and Frenchie's was etched out. Graffiti frosted the now-grimy windows and brick walls were thatched with even more gum than before. What would Mrs. Shang do if she saw this? I wondered. she would probably...
I had forgotten the old woman with her quiet and detached manners. Soon after I forgot the little Chinese lady who had owned the Laundromat, a small fruit and flower shop emerged.
A few days after I attended a book club meeting, I stopped at the fruit store—Mario's Fruit Bowl—and I bought some Atkins meals because Trent was coming home from Chile that night. When I came home, I saw a brown paper package. As I tore the paper, a tempered white appeared with a few strands of dark, dark black streaks. It was a china doll, but not Lo-shen, and not from Trent. He would have wanted to see my reaction himself. Instead, Feng-Po, bringer of Chinese rains and winds, was robed in azure lacquer with her pearly arms stretching beyond, as if she were imploring the spring clouds to rain again in a faraway land in China as she had legends ago.
What had happened to the crinkled cleaning woman? Her disinherited daughter, the "white man," Alba? Ripping more tissue, I gazed at the handiwork as the artist's name, T.S. Shang, glazed into view.
Had Mrs. Shang's daughter come back? If she did, why would she send something to me? Or perhaps Mrs. Shang was an artist herself? Was she sorry for what she had done? Was I right?
I did not know, nor would I ever know. I knew that they had, as the lady had said, begun to "live clean." I would let them practice being themselves and let them inhale many more sunsets and landscapes away from that confined Laundromat. Though it had been my place of solace, it was a deterrent to them...I respected them.
And, as I opened the window to welcome a flooding flight of fresh air, I forgot Feng-Po, her mysteries, and breathed in breaths of clean calm.