Short fiction: Sister Stella

by Abigail Malik

washing machine

Every morning for the past seven years, except on Tuesdays, Stella suited up in well-worn sneakers, baggy jersey shorts, and a blue scrub top with her name and the WashCity logo embroidered on the front.

“Hello there!” a young woman rang out on a Sunday morning. She burst through the laundromat’s front door, one leg holding it open as she maneuvered inside with a lime-green plastic basket filled with clothes and a grocery bag filled with hangers.

“Well, hey,” Stella said, squinting at the woman and wiping down the basin of a washer. Stella could never remember anyone’s name. The customers all seemed to look alike, even the ones she knew had been doing their laundry there for years.

“How are things?” the young woman asked.

“Oh fine, just fine,” Stella said. She closed the washer’s lid gently and wiped down the outside of it before lifting it back up and moving on to the next one. “This morning I found $200 in someone’s pants pocket.”

“You did what?!” The young woman dropped her belongings on the floor in front of a washer and turned around to look at Stella.

“Oh, Mr. Jenkins is always leaving money in his clothes pockets,” Stella said. “I’ll call and tell him we found it, and he just goes, ‘Oh huh, wow.'”

“That must be nice!” the young woman said.

“Yeah, he’s a good guy. So good looking. It just makes my day when he comes in here,” Stella said. “He’s Irish, and he has that Sean Connery accent.”

Stella shook her head from side to side.

“So good lookin’.”

The front door chimed. Lately Stella had noticed so many people liked to do their laundry on Sunday morning these days.

“Good morning, Stella!” a man said.

Stella looked up from her folding table at the back of the laundromat.

“Good morning, sugar! Got everything you need?”

“Sure do, thanks,” he said. The young man pulled his hood off his head. Stella wondered when he last ran a comb through his hair.

For a while it was just Stella, the young man, the young woman, and the soft sounds of the Parkers Creek Road Baptist Church morning sermon coming from Stella’s small television in the office. Stella liked to take her folding to the office so she could listen.

“Right, right,” Stella whispered every few minutes. “That’s how it is.”

By the time Stella finished her folding and the preacher had done the same with his sermon, the laundromat hummed with activity. Stella walked out to her table and began to iron.

On the opposite side of the building, a large man stood before a row of dryers. He was well over six feet tall and seemed just as wide. His smooth, pink face made it hard to determine his age. Wet clothes were piled high in his laundry cart, and he painstakingly selected one piece at a time to toss into a dryer. Stella watched him. He methodically did it with five dryers, going down the line and then returning to the beginning. He was so big that even that short back and forth made his breath a little heavy.

It’s going to take him forever to fill up those dryers, Stella thought. She stepped into the office and took a sip of coffee. She returned to her ironing.

“You know buddy, you don’t have to use all those dryers. Just put all those clothes into two. You’re wasting your money. And hogging the dryers.”

A gray-mustached man in his 70s sat in one of the orange plastic chairs bolted to the floor along the laundromat’s front windows. He leaned back, his legs crossed at the knee, and he punctuated every other word by tapping his cane on the floor. The cane’s rubber tip was worn through, so every time it connected with the tile floor, it made a “click” sound.

The large man at the dryers looked at him, startled. Then he returned his attention to his wet clothes.

A minute later, the older man sat up in his seat, uncrossing his legs. Firmly placing his feet on the floor and pushing his glasses up on his nose, he leaned forward.

“Just how big are you?”

Stella’s head lifted from her ironing, and her eyes searched around until she found where the question had come from.

“You gotta be at least 600 pounds,” the older man said.

The young man’s face exploded with pink.

Using all the strength in his cane-wielding right arm, the older man pushed himself into standing position. He stayed near his seat, but his demeanor made it feel as if he was nose to nose with the man at the dryers.

“You know what you look like?” the older man said. “You look like one of those young paid preachers. Is that what you are?”

He glared and waited.

“Got no use for them.”

Stella sighed, sat down her iron, and switched it off.

“Sir, can I help you with anything?” she yelled across the room.

“No, honey, I’m finished,” he said. He switched his cane to his left hand and picked up a white garbage bag full of clean clothes that had been on the floor near his seat. Slowly, he hobbled toward the front doors, his cane click-click-clicking on the tile until he was out of sight.

Stella sighed again, switching the iron back on. The mega-church in town had a Sunday morning worship service on television, and it was just starting. Stella shut it off. That would be enough for this Sunday.