Jessica Francis Kane reads from her short story collection, This Close, published in March by Graywolf Press.
Something about New York City makes a lot of people understand you should try to look your best. Tourists, for example, often wear brand-new shoes and socks. They buy them after they arrive, I think, probably spending more than they should. Recently I was buying a pair of new shoes myself when I heard another man in the shop proudly decline to take his old shoes with him. “No,” he said, pointing to the store entrance, a determined look in his eye. “I’m going to wear my New York shoes right out that door.” New York shoes, indeed. He seemed ready for a fight.
I got to New York in the early ’90s, in the spring, two days after my college graduation. I had a job but no place to live, and so spent the first six weeks of my employment at a second-rate advertising agency living with an older aunt and uncle on the Upper East Side. I was their only nephew, so they let me sleep on their living-room couch for a few weeks. When I found my own place—a small studio on the Upper West Side—they helped me move in, gave me the couch on which I’d been sleeping, and said, “Well, good-bye, Henry.” They seemed a little disappointed about the location of my new apartment, but at the time I didn’t understand. I was just across the park.
I settled in over the Fourth of July weekend. Christina, a friend from college, gave me a list of things to accomplish. She was both a native New Yorker and very beautiful, so I paid attention to everything she said. Her list of errands included setting up telephone and cable service, getting an air conditioner, finding a dry cleaner, and buying filter screens for the windows, if I intended to open them.
“The windows?” I asked.
“Yes, Henry. Do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Intend to open them?”
“Of course. What are you talking about?”
“You’ll need screens, then. To cut out the grime.”
Phone and cable had to wait until Tuesday, but Saturday I was able to buy an air conditioner and two filter screens from a hardware store around the corner. That left the dry cleaner. I had never before used a cleaner regularly, but, as Christina pointed out, I had never before been the kind of man who wore a suit every day. Everything about my life was changing then, and this seemed to be signified most succinctly by my shift in laundry habits: I had never owned clothes that could not be washed with water; now I had two suits that demanded dry cleaning only. I had been a student for nearly two decades; now I was to become a professional. I had been raised in a small university town; now I was living in a city.
“The city,” Christina said.
Christina said it would be hard to find a dry cleaner. As I explored the blocks around my apartment, I wondered what she could have been talking about. There were at least six within a three-block radius. I chose the shop on Amsterdam Avenue before I knew that what she’d meant was that the dry cleaning should, ideally, be done on the premises. Something about the little shop appealed to me, bravely facing, as it did, an ominous, fenced-in square across the street, a miserable bit of cement with one thin tree. The tree’s own canopy sheltered completely the small circle of dirt the plant had been allotted, making it difficult for rain to soak the ground. A metaphor for the city’s contradictions, I thought. Of more immediate importance: the shop was open that holiday Monday. I dropped off the suit I’d worn to graduation, and ticked off the item on Christina’s list. Then I treated myself to an Italian sandwich from a deli near my apartment and felt I’d arrived.
But I should describe the dry cleaner further, for it figured so largely in my life at that time, in my New York transformation. In the window, framed by a strand of white Christmas lights and several surprisingly healthy ferns, stood a female mannequin. I soon thought of her as Flora because all through that summer she wore a bright floral dress, freshly laundered and pressed to advertise the shop’s services. After a discouraging few days on her side at the end of August, she went upright again, modeling a turtleneck sweater and wool pants, both a bit shabby but smooth and spotless. There was something of the university coed about her, neat and dated. She stood next to an incongruous Queen Anne side table with a bouquet of silk lilies, and she faced, unblinkingly, the dark square across the street with the stunted tree.
Inside, the shop was exceptionally neat and clean. On the wall behind the front counter was a stylized drawing of two blond women striding down a well-groomed street circa 1943. It was one of those posters produced during the war encouraging women to fill the jobs men had vacated: the smiling duo, with their large, confident steps, were going places, enjoying fulfilling lives. It was hard not to contrast the optimism of the poster with the small, hot shop it adorned.
The place was run by two women who had a winning way of saying to their customers as they left, Having a nice day. Christina, who had not been to the shop with me, and, to the best of my knowledge, had never been to the shop, said they were Korean. It’s one of those things New Yorkers know, something not necessarily obvious to newcomers. Irish cops, Filipino nannies, Pakistani cab drivers, Albanian doormen, Korean dry cleaners. It felt strange to me to talk about groups of people this way, but Christina explained it was only generalizing about their ability in a profession that was wrong. Koreans make good dry cleaners, for example, would be inappropriate. That is an ethnic stereotype rather than an economic opportunity.
I began a weekly rotation with my suits. It took me another two months to start dropping off my laundry, just a few impersonal things, casual shirts and pants I could have washed and dried but didn’t have time to iron. It was a slippery slope, though, and soon I was bringing everything: underwear, socks, sheets, towels—my slow corruption giving the dry cleaning women a power over me I didn’t understand.
They might have been sisters, and both seemed very solicitous about a young boy who was often there. I never saw anyone who might have been his father. The shop was open six days a week, seven to seven, the two women always busy, washing, pressing, folding. The boy, when he was there after school and on the weekends, helped sort and fold. The dry cleaning was sent out, as I mentioned, but by the time I knew this it was too late. I was committed to the shop. I was smiling at them, they were smiling back. Christina said not to be ridiculous, but I didn’t see how I could switch to another place at that point. We’d been communicating in little bits of English for months. I had made-up names for them: “Braid” had one that brushed the back of her thighs; “Diamond” wore a tiny stud in the crease of one nostril. As for me, they must have thought I was an acceptable young man: wealthy enough to pay someone to do my laundry, stable enough to have a regular schedule. All through that fall and winter I dropped my laundry bag off every Saturday morning on my way to the park for a run and picked it up Monday evening when I dropped off my suit. Every time I felt guilty. I told Christina it felt like exploitation.
“Henry, paying them isn’t exploitation,” she said, and after a moment that did seem right.
By Christmas, Christina and I were dating and in the spring I was invited to spend the weekend at her family’s beach house for the wedding of one of her cousins. I remember standing in the kitchen the first afternoon and asking if there was anything I could do to help. One of those questions you ask because you must, expecting people to demur.
Christina’s mother, Susan, arrived with groceries. “Yes,” she said. “Come wash lettuce.”
We stood by the sink under a large window decorated with small vintage evening purses, little sequined clam bellies, glinting in the sun. Susan talked fast and washed lettuce faster. I struggled with the salad spinner, one that seemed to defy the laws of physics. A gentle pull of the cord and I got ninety miles per hour. I couldn’t stop it, and as the mound of washed lettuce was growing exponentially on my left, I couldn’t wait for it to lose momentum either. I jammed in my thumb, shook out the dry lettuce, started again. Susan chatted about Christ, death (her father’s the previous spring), the prospect of the newlyweds becoming Catholic. I thought they already were.
“Lapsed,” she said.
“What are you?”
She shrugged, a gesture I recognized. It meant I could improve myself if I tried.
The day something changed at the dry cleaner I was standing in line behind an older gentleman. He was complaining about the troubles he’d had with his shirts, though at a different establishment. Braid was helping him, but when he went on and on, Diamond came over. The boy followed her, so finally all three of them were facing the irritable man, understanding only half of what he was saying. It seemed deeply unfair, and so I stepped in. “This is a good place,” I said. “I’ve never had a problem.”
Then I smiled at the boy.
I thought, with all my brand-new New York bravado, that I could show him not all customers were so difficult. He didn’t smile back, but when I looked up, Diamond and Braid were smiling. Diamond put her arm around the boy and scooted him forward. You could see the resistance in his body, hear the soles of his sneakers squeaking on the linoleum, but the man left and the rest of us kept smiling and suddenly I felt a great misunderstanding was in the making.
Christina frowned when I told her. “Surely you’re making too much of it,” she said. We were on our way to my Wednesday-night confirmation class.
“Maybe,” I said, but I wasn’t. The next week Diamond asked me to take the boy to the park.
“He likes baseball. Good at throwing,” she said eagerly. “Needs help catching.”
I looked at the boy, who was standing right there. I said it looked like he had a good arm.
“Arms, yes,” Diamond said, nodding and patting his shoulders.
The boy and I stared at each other. I gave him credit for looking more patient than embarrassed. He couldn’t have been more than nine or ten.
“Next week,” I said, turning and smiling nervously at the summer downpour that started outside just then, my immediate, foolproof excuse.
But the following Saturday I was sick and spent the whole weekend at Christina’s. The Saturday after that I was back at home, with a laundry backlog. What could I say? That I didn’t have a glove? That I was the only guy cut from my high school baseball team? That I throw, in fact, like a girl?
All of these things were true, but I knew what she would say. Smiling and shaking her head, Not important.
Searching for something else to say, I’d end up staring at that awful poster behind the counter, those happy, lucky women.
Reprinted with permission by Graywolf Press, from This Close by Jessica Francis Kane. Copyright © 2013 by Jessica Francis Kane.