One of the best summer reads this year is Patricia Abbott’s The Concrete Angel. I mentioned in my review of it that Patricia was known for her short work. She was kind enough to share one with us for our crime fiction Friday. “How To Launder A Shirt” shows her ability to use simple domestic acts to build an underlying sense of dread. It also has a killer last line.
“How To Launder A Shirt” by Patricia Abbott
I can’t stop thinking about my husband’s new wife.
She must throw his shirts into a clothes dryer because I haven’t seen them hanging on the line. Not once. In fact, the clothesline is wrapped around one of the metal poles out back—as if it hasn’t been used in years. I’d like to tell her that line-dried sheets can be awfully nice. She’d be surprised at the difference fresh air makes. Maybe Helene didn’t grow up in a place where you could hang wash outside in the bright midday sun and capture that scent. I’d bet she grew up in the city where clothes that hung outside sometimes had to be washed again. Or the feel of them wasn’t something you wanted on your skin.
Helene stands on our porch all the time. Joe never did like putting chairs outside so it’s empty just like it always was. It still needs painting and has the same loose floorboard just as you step up to the door. He said a chair on a porch was an invitation for folks to visit, and he didn’t care for strangers in his house. Not even on his porch. I said “our” porch just now when I really meant “their” porch. No one ever talks about the difficulty of altering pronouns when a marriage is finished.
She stands there smoking like I did once—burying the butts as I did too. She’s hoping for a car to pass by or watching the brazen crows pick corn from the farm next door. Maybe looking for an airplane to fly overhead. The days can be so long that you want to break them up with almost anything. I still remember that—the way a ringing phone or a crop duster became something exciting.
Late in the day, Helen might be looking for the school bus to drop off my kids. Her hair, which is long, wispy, and reddish-blonde blows prettily in the wind. The back of her hand shades her gray eyes when the sun starts to drop eye-level. I kept my hair short after a few mishaps. Nothing could grab hold of it.
Now towels—towels need a dryer with one of those little paper sheets to make them soft. Hang them on the line, and the wind can blow the softness right out of them. It can take a long time to learn which routine works best on which laundry. Trial and error, but Joe isn’t the most patient man. You’d better get your Ps and Qs straightened out fast where he’s concerned.
Helene wears slacks—the dressy kind with pleats. Joe never liked me to wear— trouser— as he calls them. Said a woman with legs as good as mine owed it to her husband to show them off. I didn’t mind. Well, yes I did mind, but when a request—or an order really—comes along with a compliment attached, what can you do? Joe even had a specific skirt length he preferred. Too long, and he said I looked like an Amish woman. Too short and I looked like a—well, you know. Since we didn’t have a full-length mirror in the house, I figured he knew best.
I wonder when Joe started liking pleated slacks. Maybe Helene’s legs don’t draw men’s glances. Despite what he says, it’s just as well they don’t. That’s one of the tricky things about Joe—he blames you for what happened when you were just following his orders.
Perhaps his new wife—Helene— sends his shirts to a laundry. Maybe that place on Elm Street in Marine City tends to their things now. Chinese people are known for their skill in laundering shirts. If this is the case, Joe must’ve changed his mind in the last year or two because he couldn’t tolerate commercially-laundered shirts in my day. Said the chemicals they used in laundering his shirts were poisonous—just like that MSG they put in food. Told me the machine that tumbled the clothes was filled with other people’s germs.
Joe was very particular about most things, in fact. Like his shoes, for instance. They always had to point north in his closet. Point them east or south and I was likely to spend some time in the closet with them. Forget to insert the wooden trees and well….
Joe worked for—well he still does, come to think of it—the Ford dealer down in Warren. Sales were down to almost nothing that last year of our marriage. I kept telling him I could get a job and he kept—well—doing what he did when he got angry. Now the car business is back on track, I hear. If only things had recovered more quickly, it might be me looking for the school bus from that porch.
It’s possible Joe’s invested in wrinkle-free shirts although that would surprise me. That kind of shirt was around in my day, but neither of us was satisfied with the way he looked in them. They had the sort of sheen that bounced off your eyes, looked like they might melt into your skin if you stood too close to a fire. Actually, I didn’t think they were that bad, but Joe said he lost sales when he wore one. Said, it looked like he couldn’t afford anything better—or that no one was taking good care of him.
I felt my eye twitch as I watched him finish the knot on his tie that last day, wondering if I’d carelessly put too much starch in his shirt collar. It looked so stiff against his neck somehow. Joe’s neck was tender and getting the starch just right took some doing. I can’t tell you how many fights we had early on over those shirts. I wish I could warn Helene about that.
Although the laundering of shirts seems like a simple thing, it’s one that comes up every day. The care and maintenance of shirts involves equipment and processes that choke, burn, and electrocute. It’s easy to fall going up and down the cellar stairs. One can strangle on a clothesline that twists cruelly on those metal poles. Things you care about like your good coat or the kitten that climbed up on the porch one day can turn up inside a clothes dryer.
I just can’t stop thinking about my husband’s new wife. She’d do well to get the procedure for the care of Joe’s clothes sorted out as quickly as possible.
Unless she wants to rest well under the back-forty… with me.
You can find copies of Concrete Angel on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.