Pat’s mother parked the car right in front of the laundromat. The place was fully lit, and there were people inside even that late — or that early, counting the hours until dawn. The front door was wide open to a soft April breeze.
On the laundry-folding table was a section of the previous day’s news. Months after the Russian missile crisis, the last American prisoners were leaving Cuban jails. During the standoff, Pat’s class had to stay crouched under their desks until the end of bombing drills. Any kid unlucky enough to be at the blackboard when the siren started would drop to the floor, press himself against the wall, and feign sheltering under the narrow trough for chalk and erasers.
There were plastic chairs near the washer his mother was loading. Pat carried the newspaper to one of them and looked for the puzzle page. With so much to do the next several days and rain possible, hanging wet linen on the back-yard lines could have left them with another mess. That may have explained incurring the expense of a commercial laundry; but having incurred that expense, why not do an entire load or two, not just the sheets on which, moments earlier, his father had died.
Frustrated by the crossword, Pat laid the paper aside and reread parts of the novel he had finished the previous afternoon. It was a huge paperback a neighbor had given to him. On leave from the merchant marines for a hernia operation, the neighbor liked to talk literature and sometimes pulled down the bed linen to display his surgery. Although the incisions looked painful and crusty, the neighbor told Pat not to be afraid to touch them.
Pat’s school preached repentance on the threshold of nuclear annihilation and discouraged the reading of contemporary fiction. But this book was about Luke the Evangelist, Pat said when challenged by one of the teachers. There were chapters about meeting Christ and becoming an apostle. Flashbacks explored Luke’s early career as a physician in Rome, serving the gladiatorial community. Those were the parts Pat was rereading in the laundromat right after his father died.
Before long, dazzling white linen billowed from the dryer. Pat’s mother folded them flat then motioned for him to carry them to the car. She had stopped looking up or talking. The drugs were taking hold. When the doctor came to the house to confirm the death, he gave her sedatives to control the desperate heaving. She took the one while waiting for the funeral people. The two men who arrived carefully lifted the body from the bed. There was a small, pale deposit on the sheets.
The previous afternoon, despite difficulty focusing, Pat had finished as much of the novel as he was ever going to. His mother was out of the house at work. He was alone with his father, who had been dying of lung disease, like most of the men in their coal-mining community, and who was able to breath only through a plastic tube connected to an oxygen tank at the head of the bed. The bed itself occupied all the parlor except for the corner where Pat sat trying to read until his father’s breathing grew more labored than usual.
For months, the pure oxygen from the tanks had been burning through the once powerful body, and for weeks, he had eaten nothing solid. Even soup he pushed away, knocking the spoon or bowl out of Pat’s hand and soaking the worn bath towels that served as bibs. None of these were in the load at the laundromat that night.
At his father’s side, Pat checked to see whether the tank needed changing or whether mucus in the tube might be impeding the flow. There was stubble of his father’s chin and hollowed cheeks. Pat would have to shave him again soon. The perfumed lather made it one of the few ministries the two enjoyed.
Not much else pleasant had ever passed between them. Pat could not remember his father’s ever being healthy. In one of the photo albums in his mother’s closet was a shot of his father taken from the top of a wall or tree. It showed a man with a beautiful body surrounded by other naked men – all of them smiling up at the camera from a shallow pool not much larger than a wishing well.
Caring for a man whom one has loved continuously since he was young and strong had to be different from the burden Pat felt – no matter how he tried to reflect the love that informed his mother’s way of doing things. He could never be as tender as she was, but he could keep her from worrying about her husband’s safety while alone with a resentful teenage son.
When his mother stepped out of the laundromat, Pat was on the passenger side of the front seat with the clean sheets on his lap and the window rolled down. For a moment, panic crossed her face and she turned to go back in.
“I have the bed clothes,” Pat called to her. She approached the car, gestured for Pat to slide over, and handed him the ignition keys. He handed her the linen.
By the time they reached home, she had fallen asleep, her chest and shoulders half-covered with the sheets.
“Mom, we’re home.”
“Let me rest a while.”
“You can’t sleep in the front seat of the car.”
“It’s more comfortable than the roof.”
“The doctor gave you some pills, so you’re not thinking clearly.”
“Test me,” she started then said smiling, “No don’t. Not so soon again.”
Suddenly in tears, Pat blubbered, “I wasn’t a good son.”
“Here, wipe your face.” Offering him a corner of the sheet, she added, “Now that I’m awake, I’ll have trouble falling back to sleep. Can I borrow that book our pervert neighbor gave you?”
“Okay,” Pat sighed, “But read fast. I need it back before the apocalypse.”
Recently retired from the practice of law, Chuck teaches English in San Francisco. His work has appeared in numerous publications. Some of his fiction has been collected in Sierra Showdown: A Triptych and in Against Slander: Three Admonitions. Both books are available on Amazon.com.