The Ladies of the Laundry ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Two years out of high school, Virgie Smalls worked in the Handy Dandy Laundry. She hated the white uniform she had to wear and almost everything else about the job. The work was tiring, monotonous and steamy. All day long she moved her arms up and down, in and out, over and under, until they seemed to move of their own accord without any effort on her part. When she looked ahead to the future, it made her sick to think that she might have to spend her entire life in such a place.
The workers at the laundry were all older women, smokers and drinkers, whose idea of a good time was Friday night bingo at the VFW hall. Virgie didn’t bother to make them think she liked them, so, as a consequence, they didn’t like her. They never invited her to their baby showers or after-work drinking parties. When she walked into the room where they were talking, they fell silent.
Another person at the laundry who was just as disliked as Virgie was Sterling Fingers, the truck driver. He was only four feet, eight inches tall and had to sit on a built-up seat when he drove his truck to be able to see over the steering wheel. The ladies called him shortstop and tittered when he walked by. He got back at them, though, by coming up behind them and making pig sounds and then pretending he didn’t do it when they turned around and were ready to slap him. He also liked to play tricks on them by going into their locker room while they were working and switching their purses or tying their shoes together by the shoelaces in such hard knots that they weren’t able to get them apart.
One day one of the ladies went to the boss and complained about Sterling Fingers. She said he put his hand on her ass cheek and said a dirty word in her ear. The boss called Sterling into his office and told him what the woman had said.
“She’s full of shit,” Sterling said. “I never did no such thing.”
“We can’t have that kind of behavior here,” the boss said.
“I said I didn’t do it.”
“All right. I’ll take your word for it this time, but I have to warn you. You’re on probation.”
“Why isn’t the heifer that told a lie about me the one that’s on probation?”
“Remember what I said, Sterling.”
He wanted to do something bad to the woman who told the tale on him, but he knew if he did it would only get him fired. (What he really wanted to do would get him sent to jail.) His way of dealing with the situation was to stay as far away from the ladies as he could so none of them could ever have any complaints against him. Pretending they didn’t exist was easy for him, as he found nothing about any of them that could ever interest him.
One Friday when the boss was away and Sterling was emptying some trash, he saw the woman who had told the lie about him slip out the side door that opened into an alley. Curious, he went to the door and opened it just enough to see out. The alleyway was private, closed in on three sides. The woman, whose name was Bernadette, got into the back of a black van with a man and they closed the doors. The windows had curtains on them so Sterling could only imagine what they were doing. A while later Bernadette was back on the line as if nothing had happened.
Now, he didn’t care one whit what Bernadette did or with whom, but he knew it was a strict policy of the company that you were not supposed to leave without first punching out at the time clock. Anybody who left and didn’t punch their time card was guilty of what they called time theft. Sterling could have gone to the boss on Monday morning and told him what he saw, but he knew it would seem that he was only trying to get even, so he decided to wait and see how things played out.
He began watching Bernadette without letting her know he was watching: as she cut up with the ladies, as she went into the restroom and came out again, as she took her lunch break and as she left to go home at the end of her shift. If she ever looked at him looking at her, he yawned with affected nonchalance and looked down at his fingernails.
His vigilance paid off, finally. The next time he saw Bernadette sneaking out the side door, he was ready. He had a tiny camera that he had bought especially for the occasion. He took pictures of her kissing the man, getting into the back of the van with him, and of the man reaching out and pulling the doors closed as Bernadette began to unbutton her uniform. Her face was plain as daylight. There could be no question that it was her.
When he got the pictures back from the developer, he wrote DURING WORKING HOURS in the little white margin at the top of each one and put them in an envelope. He carried the envelope in his shirt pocket for several days before doing anything about it.
He saw Virgie Smalls sitting in the break room alone one afternoon, drinking a Coke. He sat down across from her and lit a cigarette.
“You hate Bernadette, don’t you?” he said.
“Bernadette. I said you hate her.”
“If I ever thought about her,” Virgie said, “I’d hate her.”
“You think about her and you hate her.”
“Well, let’s just say I despise her.”
“What’s this about?”
“We can get back at the silly cow now.”
He took the pictures from his pocket and handed them to Virgie. “This is just between the two of us,” he said.
She looked at the pictures and smiled for the first time that day. “Who took these?” she asked.
“Who do you think took them? Yours truly took them.”
“Who’s the guy?”
“It doesn’t matter who he is. The thing that matters is we’ve got the goods on a person we hate.”
“All right. So now what?”
“I need your help in this.”
She handed the pictures across the table as if they had become hot. “No! I’m not getting involved in anything like that.”
“All you have to do is get them to the boss.”
“Why can’t you do it?”
“For reasons that I don’t care to elaborate on right now.”
“So, all you want me to do is just hand them to him?”
“That’s the idea.”
“When he sees what they are, he’ll want to know where I got them.”
“Wait until he’s out and take them in and put them on his desk in a place where he’ll be sure and see them.”
“I guess I could do that.”
“I guarantee Bernadette will be gone in a matter of minutes.”
“You’re very naughty, aren’t you?”
“I don’t think anybody’s as naughty as Bernadette,” he said.
He waved the pictures in her face and watched as she took them from him and put them in the pocket of her uniform.
The next time the boss was out for the day, Virgie gave Sterling a sign that the pictures were on the boss’s desk.
When the boss called Bernadette into his office, presented her with the evidence and fired her, she bellowed like a bull. She ran through the building, turning things over as she went. Sterling was loading the truck at the dock, but he heard the commotion and went to have a look.
“You little rat bastard!” Bernadette screamed when she saw him. “You did this, I know you did!”
“Get her out of here,” the boss said to some of his men, “before she kills somebody.”
The next time Sterling saw Virgie, he smiled and made a dusting-off motion with his hands.
Bernadette’s dismissal was all the ladies of the laundry could talk about. The rumor mill was rife with speculation. The man she was meeting in the alley was really her husband, someone said. He’s an escaped convict and the police are after him to send him back to prison. No, that’s not true, another said. He’s an important man in politics and he has to be careful because if he’s caught cheating on his wife it could ruin his reputation. The question, then, begged to be asked: out of all the women in the world, why would he want to cheat with unattractive Bernadette?
In a few days, though, they all moved on to other things. A new girl named Josephine was brought in to replace Bernadette. She was newly arrived from Puerto Rico and was just learning to speak English. The ladies loved to gather around her and laugh at her fractured pronunciation of words. Every time they laughed, she blushed fetchingly and covered her face with her hands, eliciting more laughter. The ladies were all in love with Josephine, at least for the time being.
Anybody who knew Bernadette well knew she would have to have her vengeance, and when it came it was on a day that it was least expected.
The laundry was shutting down for a week for repairs and everybody was happy. A whole week off with pay to carouse around at night and sleep late in the morning. It was just like heaven.
Sterling Fingers was all caught up on his deliveries on that last day before the week off and was pushing some dirt around with a broom near the front door when who should come rushing in but Bernadette. She was staggering and obviously drunk and when she saw that Sterling was right there and she wasn’t even going to have to go look for him, her face lit up with an evil grin.
“Bernadette!” he said. “How lovely to see you! Ugly as ever, I see!”
“This is for you, you little son of a bitch!” she said.
She approached him and plunged a knife into his gut and turned and ran out the door.
“Oh-oh-oh!” he said, going down on the floor. “Oh-oh-oh!”
One of the girls in the front office screamed and everybody who heard her came running to see what had happened. Several others screamed and covered their eyes when they saw Sterling on is back on the floor holding his hands to his gut, blood gushing out around his fingers.
“Mother of Mercy!” he said. “Is this the end of Rico?”
Nobody made a move to help him except Virgie. She knelt down beside him and took his hand between hers.
“Somebody call an ambulance!” she yelled.
One of the ladies went and got some towels and handed them to Virgie. She pressed them against his abdomen where the blood was pouring out.
“It’s going to be all right, dear,” she said. “The ambulance is on its way.”
“It was Bernadette,” he said.
The paramedics arrived and lifted Sterling onto a stretcher. Virgie held onto his hand as long as she could.
He looked into her eyes, his voice weak, and said, “You called me dear.”
“Don’t try to talk now,” she said.
“You helped me,” he said. “You were the only one.”
“They’ll take you to the hospital now and get you fixed up.”
“Will I see you again?” he asked.
“I’ll be here,” she said.
As the paramedics lifted him into the ambulance, he said to one of them, “I want you to get the minge that did this to me.” He fainted then and didn’t say anything else.
The police caught Bernadette drinking vodka cocktails at a bar a few blocks from the laundry. She was smiling, smoking cigarettes and chatting with the bartender as if she stabbed somebody in the gut every day of the week.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp