folding

Fiction, 4/14/12

Thad Whitish had been out of work for almost two weeks when he got finally got a call. It was Mary Segovia, from the hotel on the bay, asking him if he’d be interested in coming by for an interview. “This would be for a position in the laundry room,” she said over the phone. “Are you interested in this?”

“I’m interested in working, yes,” he replied. “And you said to come in at noon?” He hung up not long after, feeling oddly detached. That night, when his friends came over for dinner, he made no mention of the call.

The next day Thad sat on a black leather couch in the hotel’s lobby, across a glass table from Mary. She was thin, in her forties, with pale skin and dark, straight hair. She carried a clipboard and asked him questions from it, occasionally pausing to write things down. “Do you have a reliable source of transportation?” she asked. Thad winced a little at this, but she didn’t seem to notice. “I don’t have a car, not anymore. But I live on the bus line.” Mary was looking down at the clipboard and nodded slowly. “Okay, great. That’s fine.”

Mary started describing the work. “Most of your time will be spent in the laundry room, which is in the basement,” she said. “It gets hot down there, are you okay with that?” Thad said yes, sure. “There will be lots of folding and lifting of heavy, wet loads from the washer to the dryer. Sound doable?” Thad nodded. His palms had started to sweat. “You’ll be working with two other people in there, so you’re never just, alone, you know,” she said encouragingly. “And you get to listen to music, too, whatever you like.” At the end of the interview she stood to shake his hand. “I’ll get back to you by this evening,” she told him.

Two days later Thad showed up for his first shift at the hotel. He was told to go directly downstairs to the laundry room, to meet his coworkers. Entering through the parking garage, palming the warm door handle, Thad took a deep breath and tried on a smile. Inside was a small rectangular room with a large folding table in the center. Two mounds of towels sat on it: one folded; the other, larger, unfolded. An industrial washer and dryer sat in a recessed nook, thrumming away. Two tall, lanky, fidgety men named Lars and Jared introduced themselves and shook his hand. “Welcome to the laundry room, my friend!” said Lars, grinning crazily.

They trained Thad on the tasks of the job. Mostly it was folding: towels, bathrobes, sheets, pillowcases, mattress covers, and the like, each folded a particular way, stacked in a particular fashion. The room was stiflingly hot and the small radio on the shelf was tuned to an oldies station. Thad tried to keep track of the folding. When they stopped to break for lunch, Thad realized he had completely forgotten to pack something. “So, do you get, like, employee discounts from the restaurant?” he asked Jared. “I forgot to bring a lunch.”

“Yeah, man, they have an employee menu with lots of stuff. It’s, like, fifteen percent off. But hey—” He walked over to a shelf and pulled down a brown paper bag. “I don’t usually eat mine. My girlfriend puts it together at home; it’s, like, totally great stuff, I just don’t really get hungry at work.” He handed the bag to Thad. “Oh, wow. Thank you.” Inside was a ham sandwich, an apple, a bag of potato chips, and some cookies.

After lunch they resumed their folding. Lars and Jared both grew up in town, and had known each other since grade school. Thad thought they looked to be in their early thirties. Lars had been at the hotel for more than six years; Jared, almost three. “I went through some hard times,” Jared said vaguely. “I’m glad to be back on the right track. And this place, man, this place is all right. The work is kinda repetitive, but it gets to be kinda comforting, you know?” Thad wasn’t sure that he knew, but he nodded anyway.

The next day, for a change of scenery, Thad offered to go upstairs on a bed-stripping run. He pushed a laundry cart through the halls of the hotel, knocking on doors. If no one answered, he would let himself in and remove the sheets and pillowcases and stuff them in the voluminous bag on the cart. Thad had been excited to get out of the stuffy basement, to maybe meet some of the other workers, but then he began to notice things about the hotel’s aboveground. For instance, all of the lobby staff, who wore black slacks and dress shirts, would give a wide berth to the housekeeping staff, which were mostly Hispanic women in aprons and starched collars. There was no conversation between them, not even smiles exchanged. And another thing: Any guests he encountered in the hallways would avert their eyes at his passing, as if he were unworthy of acknowledgement. These observations sort of disturbed Thad, and later, in the laundry room, he remarked on them to Lars and Jared.

“You know, man, I’ve noticed that, too,” said Lars, expertly folding a bathrobe, probably his two-hundredth of the day. “That’s why I like staying in here, you know? No one bothers you down here.” At these words, Jared glanced at Lars and sidled across the room to Thad. “Hey, man, you, uh, interested in scoring some tweak? We can hook you up—it makes the day go by like that.” He smiled and snapped his fingers, and Thad shuddered.

Thad had started on a Tuesday, working nine hours a day, and Sunday was his first day off. After Friday’s shift he collected his things and walked out to the bus stop. He checked his phone for the time: five forty-three. In his voice mail box was a message from earlier in the day, left by his ex-girlfriend, Aubrey. She and her best friend Christine were having their joint birthday celebration at the bars at nine o’ clock, and she had invited him to come out. He got on the bus and went home and made dinner. After his third beer he made a decision and sent Aubrey a text: “Of course I’ll come out. Where first?”

At the karaoke bar he joined a crowd that had been drinking heavily for several hours, and he felt the need to catch up. “Hey Thad!” gushed a very drunk Christine when she saw him, kissing him on the mouth. “I’ve been waiting for you all night!” Thad quickly glanced around to see if Aubrey was nearby. He and Christine had been flirting a bit since the breakup a couple months back, and he knew he was toeing a fine line. “Where’s Aubrey?” Thad asked. “Over here!” Christine said, pulling him along, interlacing her fingers with his.

Aubrey stood at the bar, surrounded by her friends. She wore a low-cut blouse with tight jeans and wedges, and her face and hair were gussied up. She looked good, Thad thought. “Happy birthday!” he said, giving her a hug. “I’d buy you a drink, but it looks like you’ve got your hands full.” There were three or four shot glasses arranged in front of her. “I’m so glad you came out, Thad!” Her words were slurring together, and her eyes had a glazed-over look. Thad grabbed a stool by himself and ordered a beer. He listened to the karaoke singers.

Every now and then he’d look over at Aubrey’s group near the bar. They were loud, garrulous, drawing attention to themselves. Aubrey’s male friends, Thad noticed, would get unusually close when they spoke to her, putting their hands on her back, her arms, leaning in a little too far when they’d pose for pictures. He turned back to the karaoke. He drained his beer and ordered another.

As the birthday crowd gathered to leave for another bar, Thad approached Aubrey. “I’m going home, alright? But thanks for inviting me out.” He could feel Christine’s eyes on him and he avoided them. Aubrey was watching Christine, but then she turned to Thad. “You’re leaving already? Aww…well, okay.” She grabbed him in a fierce hug and kissed his cheek. He looked at Christine for an instant. She seemed disappointed. “Thanks again for coming out,” Aubrey murmured, and Thad waved to the group. “Bye, everyone! And happy birthday, you two.”

Thad drunkenly stumbled the mile and a half home, half-running at times. He had had too much to drink, and work was only five hours away. At his house he fixed the leftovers from dinner and then fell into a fitful sleep.

On Saturday morning he woke up late and ran for the bus. Unshowered, bloated from indigestion, and still slightly drunk, Thad stared sullenly out the window. At the hotel he stepped into the laundry room and sighed. Keep it together, he thought to himself, just make it through the day. Jared had the day off, so Thad and Lars worked by themselves, folding in silence. By lunchtime Thad felt weak and dizzy. “I think I’m gonna get some food at the restaurant,” he told Lars. He walked upstairs and ordered the mushroom risotto because it sounded innocuous, and also because it was the cheapest item. Sitting on the steps out back in the sun, chewing each bite slowly and carefully, Thad felt marginally better—well enough, at least, to finish out the day.

Back in the laundry room, Lars was fiddling with the radio. “You like Black Sabbath, man?” He looked over at Thad. “Whoa, man, you doing alright? You look kinda sick.”

“I’m feeling a little off, but I think I’ll be okay,” Thad said. He started folding towels. Twenty minutes later he began feeling dizzy again, and more than a little nauseous. “Hey Lars? I think…I think I’m gonna step outside for a sec…” He walked quickly up the stairs to the door leading outside. It opened to the hotel’s front driveway, a cul-de-sac where cars could drop off guests and their luggage. He was going to lose it. He blinked in the sunlight and frantically looked for a place to vomit, somewhere slightly out of view, but there was nothing. Thad couldn’t hold it any longer. There, right on the sidewalk, in front of the large bay windows that looked out from a busy, guest-filled lobby, he puked his guts out. He paused just long enough from his retching to glance up and see that the entire lobby was watching. “Goddamn you all,” he gasped, wiping his mouth with his hand.

Thad walked back downstairs into the laundry room and grabbed his coat. Lars stood there, towel in hand, staring at him. “Um, Thad…?” Thad just shook his head. “I’m leaving, Lars. I’ll call Mary tomorrow. Take it easy, okay?” He walked out through the parking garage into the afternoon sunshine.

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