Tuesday, July 01, 2014
Short Story: Dry Cleaning
I looked at the leopard print frames of her glasses and wondered if she had them specially made to match her outfits. I imagined her plush bedroom lined with cat print fabrics and scatter cushions. She stared back at me through the lenses of those glasses. Her eyes were not the mournful, intelligent eyes of a large cat but those of a small rodent. She was a rat in cat’s clothes I had thought at the time, slightly unkindly, I now realise.
“Thanks,” I said and took my dry cleaning, my husband’s shirts folded between sheets of crisp white tissue paper.
“Have a nice day,” she replied and I turned away.
Her rat eyes and her cat frames made me uncomfortable and a little sad.
I took my husband’s clean shirts home and sat and thought about the cat lady all day. I wondered how many cats had spots. The only big cats I could think of were leopards, lions, pumas and tigers. But lions, pumas and tigers don’t have spots. There were probably dozens of other large cats with spots. Ones I had never heard of.
That night a word came to me in my dreams: ocelot. It came at me from somewhere deep inside. Probably from elementary school or from a National Geographic special.
The next night it was jaguar. Of course. How could I forget that one? And cheetah came the following night. Another totally obvious one. Then serval slunk into my unconscious mind. I have no idea from where. The final one to come was lynx.
I was dreaming of cats.
A week passed and it was time to exchange my husband’s dirty shirts for clean ones.
The lady was there in her animal print outfit as usual. I handed her my husband’s pile of shirts and she took them brusquely and handed me his crisp clean ones wrapped in cellophane, along with the pink slip I would need to collect the next batch.
“Thanks,” I said.
“No problem,” she replied.
It looked like she’d been crying.
I wanted to ask her what was wrong but I didn’t know her well enough.
I left and said I’d be back the next Monday.
Her eyes were more like pig’s eyes that day, rimmed in red.
I sat and wondered about her. I didn’t want to tell my husband how much time I was spending thinking about her, but when he mentioned that maybe we should stop using the dry cleaners, my heart stopped.
“It’s bad for the planet,” he kept saying, “and now with you out of work, it’s adding up.”
I had to agree.
So I started washing and ironing his shirts. And I gave away all the clothes I owned that needed dry cleaning. We started living simply. Cutting back. Being frugal. To my husband it was like a game. How much money we didn’t spend became his favourite topic of conversation.
And the cat lady? I passed the dry cleaning shop most days on my way to the bulk food store and the recycling bank. I always looked in to try and see her but she kept the glass so shiny all I got were reflections of myself.
One day as I passed, she had the door wedged open and I got a full view inside. Someone else was behind the counter. A woman in her twenties, about my age, with dyed neon pink hair and a U of M t-shirt. She was chewing gum.
I went home and told my husband I was worried about the cat lady.
“You’re obsessed,” he said.
“And what if I am?” I replied.
“You need a job,” he said.
And that’s when I knew exactly what I needed to do. I got the sewing machine out and bought some fabric. I went for a 1950s style dress and a cardigan I found on eBay. The shoes were trickier, but a vintage store downtown had the perfect pair with a matching handbag.
The next day, I went in and asked for the cat lady.
“She’s sick,” said the woman. She was wearing a t-shirt that said ‘Of course I don’t look busy, I did it right the first time’.
“Oh, sorry to hear that,” I said wondering what the cat lady would make of the woman’s t-shirt. “Do you know when she might be back at work?” I asked.
“Um, no, she’s just had an operation. I don’t know how long it’ll take.”
“Oh,” I said, then gathering up my pluck, I asked, “do you know if she’s hiring?”
The woman looked at me, without blinking. “Um, I could find out. I’m heading back to college in the fall so maybe then?”
“That would be great,” I said.
The woman told me to come back in a couple of days.
And well, I wouldn’t be here now if it hadn’t all worked out. The cat lady was too sick to return to work. She visits though and we compare spots. We’ve ventured together into stripes. I found a fabric shop going out of business and bought all the cat prints they had. I gave her half of what I bought. When customers see us together they think she’s my mother. I’m totally fine with that because I don’t talk to my mother. In fact I don’t even like my own mother. She was never able to understand anything I did, nor did she approve of my husband. He, on the other hand, is relieved that I’ve found a job. He’s not sure about the outfits and the scatter cushions, but I think he’ll get used to them. As I keep telling him, I’ve gone too far to ever come back. Can you ever come back from anything as big as this? I ask him.
But my poor husband, he never has the answer.
This story placed third in the Wow! Writing Matters Flash Fiction competition in July 2014. The link to the three winners is below: