The Electric Fan, Part 3, pp. 15-21
WARNING: Strong language and ethnic slurs are used for the construction of the story. If you find such usage offensive, do not read The Electric Fan. Thanks.
rusted thin pipes, bent and angled into hand rails, lining either side of granite steps which dropped steeply below ground level and ended on a concrete landing not much broader than the steps themselves.
“Holy shit!” cried Joey, leaning forward and trying to peek down at the landing below. “What the hell’s down there?”
David moved past Joey and grasped the rails as if scared he might fall. “I knew there had to be something here!” he exclaimed. “I just knew it!” he said proudly, grinning over his shoulder at Charlie and Joey.
Charlie and Joey inched up to the hand rail next to David. Looking down at the bottom of the steps, the youngsters saw a half-opened door which even when viewed from above could not hide its badly weathered condition from years of wet summers and icy winters, New England style, with layers of green, red, and brown paint peeling off it.
The boys instinctively forgot their squabbles and clung together, looking like the three-headed behemoth come back to life, and gradually began their descent, forced to move so carefully on the narrow granite steps that they could not avoid taking turns stepping on one another’s feet on the way down.
When safely on the concrete landing, the boys examined the half-opened door. Painted in matte black on the middle top half of the glass section of the door was the address 112 Tyler St. A bunch of cursive characters in dark brown, once outlined in antique gold, were queued vertically down the right hand side of the glass, very like the poetic brush inscriptions on Chinese landscape paintings.
“It’s open!” cried Joey, instantly silenced by David, who placed his right hand against Joey’s open mouth to cover it.
“Shhhhhh,” whispered David, holding the index finger of his left hand against his own lips. “Keep quiet or you’ve eaten your last meal, fatso,” he again whispered, smiling and winking at Joey.
“All right, you chickens, let’s go in.” said Charlie, impatiently, keeping his voice low and prodding the other two in the ribs. “I need a new shirt. Phew! Mine stinks.”
“Be careful,” said David to Charlie, using his right thumb to point out a door bell on the right side of the door frame. “Don’t touch that or you’ll give us away.”
Charlie looked at the bell for a moment. “That thing don’t work, jerko,” he said, smiling at David. “It’s all rusty.”
David signaled to his friends to squat down, which they did, and the trio formed a staggered line with David in the lead, then Joey, then Charlie. After David gradually pulled the door wide open, being careful not to make any noise, the boys duck walked through the doorway, moving slowly while nudging and poking one another as they went, making a foolish game of the adventure, still apprehensive of what they might find inside. Each of the boys, no matter his position, wanted to be the last in the line in case something went wrong and they had to run back up the steps, while at the same time each wanted to be first in line just for the sheer thrill of seeing something unexpected or scary--proving that he was the bravest, winning bragging rights to the adventure forever.
No sooner had the boys made their way through the doorway than they heard men’s voices from the street above. In a quiet panic, the duck walkers fell on all fours, scurrying out through the doorway and back onto the concrete landing, getting to their feet just as a tall blonde man, wearing a brown striped suit and grey hat, and a heavy-set, dark-haired man in a light suit and brown hat, came charging down the granite steps, the hard heels and the rubber soles of their dress shoes clacking, squeaking, and echoing all the way down to the landing. The boys’ locked their knees as they stood instinctively at attention, trying to look invisible or at least innocent, while the two large men, giving the youngsters a quick nod of their heads and a short “Hi!”, ran right past them to the laundry door, pulled it open with such force that it banged against its hinges, and quickly vanished inside.
“Whoa!” exclaimed Joey, quickly covering his mouth with both hands.
Charlie smiled as his freckled face flushed red and his eyes closed shut, squeezing out tears of delight. “Heee, heee,” he squeaked, relieved and thrilled that the two men showed no interest in what he and his friends were up to.
“Whew!” sighed David, smiling at his friends and wildly shaking his loose right hand at the wrist. “That was too close!”
“You’re chicken. Hey, you chicken!” taunted Charlie, holding up the thumb and first finger of his right hand and arching the middle finger over the top of his first finger, simulating the profile of a bird. He moved the creature’s beak up and down by pinching the thumb and first finger together. “Bluck, bluck, cluck, cluck!” he cried, imitating the sound of a hen by bouncing his tongue off the roof of his mouth.
David returned the tease by holding up both of his middle fingers in front of Charlie’s grinning face. “Fuck you!” he whispered. “Take these birds, you queer!”
Joey moved back to the half-opened door and stood sideways with his left ear close to the opening, listening for any sound.
“What’s going on?” asked Charlie, looking at Joey and making chicken heads with both hands at David.
Joey’s eyes widened. “Holy crap! Someone’s comin’!” he cried, jumping backwards.
Unable to hide in the confined space, the boys stood side-by-side with their backs flat against the brick wall as the door swung open again and the same two men, talking to one another and carrying several brown packages with pink tickets attached to them, shuffled past, this time ignoring them completely, and charged up the granite flight two steps at a time, disappearing in the street above.
Emboldened by the men’s activities, the boys were back inside the entrance to Wing’s Hand Laundry within seconds. For several moments they grinned foolishly at one another in the dim light as they crouched on the narrow wooden landing leading to a perilously steep flight of stairs, worn by years of foot traffic, descending ever deeper below Tyler Street. The chance and excitement of being discovered as trespassers filled the boys with an almost uncontrollable urge suddenly to start yelling and screaming, deliberately giving themselves away in the process, and running off in terror with an imaginary mob of jabbering and howling Chinese just behind them, an urge no more sinister in the boys’ minds than the satisfaction gained from doing it. And the tension and suspense of remaining quietly undetected in the dark proved a challenge the boys thought impossible to meet and still be fun.
Charlie held back a giggle by squeezing his nose and mouth in this left hand and jabbed Joey in the ribs to get him to break silence or wind and give away his presence, forcing everyone to burst out of the entrance and up the steps. Joey jerked forward, his cheeks puffed, and his lips pursed as he struggled to keep from laughing. Unable to resist the temptation, David punched Charlie on the side of the arm, forcing the surprised victim to grab his arm and contort his face in feigned agony.
David bared his teeth and smiled in delight at Charlie’s exaggerated suffering. “Shush, you jerks,” whispered David to the others, slowly putting a finger across his lips as his dimples deepened.
“You’re a jerk. And you’re an asshole," whispered Joey to David and then to Charlie.
A faint thump at the bottom of the stairway interrupted the boys’ jesting. That someone or something might really be stirring at the foot of the stairs startled the youngsters. Suddenly, even the dark brown wall paneling, stretching up to a narrow grey dust-laden ceiling high above the landing, seemed ominous as did the top of the patinous wooden handrail on the right side of the stairway.
David crept forward on all fours to look down the stairway to see what made the thumping sound. Charlie and Joey crawled forward, too, on either side of him. The boys’ senses became sharper and more focused as damp air and the smell of wet clothes floated up over the stairs to the dark landing. Several more muffled thumps, in a rhythmically relaxed succession, sounded from below. The youngsters then became aware of a droning sound, interfused with an irregular clicking and buzzing, that carried mechanically through the air below and winded its way up to the top of the stairway to where the boys now had repositioned themselves, sitting side-by-side with their feet resting on the first step and their forearms resting on their laps.
“What do you think?” asked David in barely audible tones, sensing his friends’ nervous breathing.
“I ain’t afraid of no chinamen,” said Charlie, his eyes fixed at the bottom of the stairs. “C’mon, let’s go down.”
“Me neither,” assured Joey quietly, looking at Charlie and then at the half-opened front door.
Charlie gradually stretched his left leg forward, rotated his body to the right, and shifted his weight to his sweaty palms, lowering himself to the next stair. Joey imitated Charlie’s move. David sat facing the stairway and extended his left leg then his right, one step at a time, sliding his rear from step to step.
At the bottom of the stairs the laundry was lit by a long fluorescent lamp on the ceiling. The lamp’s magnetostricted core clicked and buzzed from time to time, as if punctuating the constant drone and intermittent rhythmic thumping.
When the boys were nearly at the bottom of the stairway, Charlie whispered a warning to David and Joey. “If a crazy chinaman shows up with a hatchet, run like hell. Every man for himself.”
In the flat grey light it soon became clear to the boys that there was no crazy man in the laundry. Instead, they saw only a wooden counter extending across the room from left to right like a horizon. The wall directly behind the counter was covered with shelves reaching halfway to the dusty ceiling. Brown paper packages, similar to those carried by the two men who ran past the boys, were stacked on the shelves according to sticker color, some pink, some blue, some yellow.
A table-model electric fan rested on the counter top off to the boys’ far right, its oscillating caged head sweeping dutifully, and its old motor struggling hard enough to make the droning sound.
In the thick heat and humidity of the laundry, the fan’s blades barely pushed the dense air through the room to reach an old laundryman whose flat iron thumped as he dropped it against then pressed it over the back of a dress shirt. The droning, buzzing, clicking, and thumping combined in a sort of dirge-like chant articulating the old man’s resigned silence.
The outside door of the laundry was again opened with such force that its hinges moaned as if in pain. An obese man carrying several soiled dress shirts over his right arm rushed into the landing and down the flight of stairs without using the handrail. The entire stairway shook and rattled as the man’s weight dropped against the stairs, kicking up dust and lint from even the smallest cracks and crevices. The customer’s breathing and snorting was so loud that the boys jumped up in panic and threw themselves against the side of the stairway wall as though they expected to be trampled under foot. When the man passed by the boys, his suit-jacketed flared open and dragged against their chests and faces, drawing them off balance and nearly knocking them down the stairway. The customer continued up to the counter and leaned heavily against it with his stomach, resting his forearms on the counter top, as he coughed several times and caught his breath.
“Hey, Charlie! Charlie!” he shouted to the laundryman, who appeared unimpressed with the customer’s size and volume. “My shirts ready yet?”
The three boys giggled nervously to each other, unable to hide their shock at how fast the obese customer moved.
“Damn, that fat shit nearly ran over us,” said Joey.
“Yeah, well don’t you get that fat,” quirked David, patting his friend on the back.
“Hey, Charlie, didn’t you hear me?” the man said impatiently. “My shirts ready yet? C’mon. I’m in a hurry!”
The laundry man looked into the customer’s face for a moment and stood a hot flat iron on its end on the counter top he used as his ironing board. “You have a ticket?” asked the laundry man.
“Ticket? Ticket? Oh, yeah,” said the fat man, rolling his eyes. Snorting and sniffing, he searched anxiously through his pants and jacket pockets for the ticket.
As he waited for his customer to find the ticket, the old laundry man brushed a piece of thread off the ironing board onto the floor and reflectively ran his right hand over the surface of the ironing table, but a plain nylon cloth with some padding underneath stretched over the length and width of the counter, as if it were an old friend in need of attention if not affection. Several outlines of hot irons set down too long blemished the cover, and other marks lined up along the outside edge of the table bore the unmistakable shape of forgotten cigarettes.
“Oh, yea, yea, yea, yea!” chimed the fat man, pulling a pink ticket out of the vest pocket of his pinstriped suit jacket. “Ah, here it is, Charlie!” he said as he smirked and handed the ticket to the laundry man. “Holy Jesus! I never know where I put anything any more these days, I swear!”
The old man said nothing, took the ticket, inspected the number, turned to the shelves behind him, and searched the packages up and down, mouthing “214” to himself. When he spotted the number, the old laundry man stood on his tiptoes, reached up, and slid out a thick package which was tied with white string and had the corresponding ticket half attached to it.
The three boys had moved to and quietly bunched at the bottom stair, as though intrigued with the interaction between the old Chinese man and his obese customer.
“Five shirts. Three eighty-five” said the laundry man in a low voice.
“Humph! One of these days you’re gonna break me, Charlie,” replied the customer. “But I’ve got to keep up my image, though,” he added, breathing almost normally.
The laundry man tore the bottom section of the shirt ticket off the package, paired it with the customer’s half, and impaled both pieces of paper on the point of a check spindle, sliding the pieces down until they rested on top of a stack of tickets.
“Here you go, Charlie,” said the customer, handing a five-dollar bill across the counter top.
The laundry man took the money, turned around, and bent down to lift the lid of a White Owl cigar box that was partly hidden on one of the lower shelves near the floor. For a second or two the old man looked at the image of the white owl perched like a sentineled old friend on the lid’s underside. He then placed the five dollar bill in the box, picked up some change, and carefully lowered the cover on his cigar box cash register.
“Dollar fifteen change,” said the laundry man, spreading the money on the counter top while carefully avoiding any physical contact with the fat customer’s clammy upturned palm, thick fingers, or fleshy thenar. He then politely pushed the package toward the fat man with the other hand, without saying a word.
“All right, Charlie,” said the customer, frowning and grabbing impatiently at the change with his left hand while flinging the soiled shirts he was carrying with his right arm on the counter top. “Oh, yeah, here’s some more shirts for you. Not too much starch in the collars, okay Charlie?” he said, sticking the change in his pants pocket. “Too much starch and the collar cuts into my neck, you know?” he added, rubbing his right hand under his multiple chins.
“Ah,” said the old man, nodding his head in agreement, reaching for a pad of new tickets, tearing off the lower half of the top ticket, and handing it to the customer.
“Okay, Charlie,” said the customer as he grabbed the ticket and shoved it into his vest pocket. “See ya’ next week.”
The old laundry man inclined his head very slightly in acknowledgement as the customer turned away from the counter.
Almost disinterestedly the old man reached for a pencil that was balanced behind his right ear and checked a box on the top half of the ticket. He then wrapped the soiled shirts into a loose bundle, stuck the ticket inside, and with a cursory look at a canvas cart, he threw the bundle, hitting the top edge of the cart as the bundle toppled in.
Meanwhile, the boys got out of the way of the fast-moving fat man who, tucking the package under his arm, ran past them as though they were transparent, snorting and farting a few times as he rumbled up the stairs and out of the laundry.
The boys held their noses with one hand and wildly waved the air just in front of their faces with the other hand.
“Phew!” exclaimed Joey, closing his eyes as if to block out the odor.
“P-U!” said Charlie, inserting the first and middle fingers of his left hand into his nostrils. “Something must ‘of climbed up there an’ died!” he cried.
David cupped his two hands over his nose and mouth and shouted at Joey and Charlie. “Who let the rotten eggs?”
As David began to laugh, he and the others became aware that they were in full view of the laundry man who was staring at them.
“You want to pick up shirts for someone?” the laundry man asked from behind the counter, his dark eyes shifting from boy to boy.
“Er...no, sir,” answered David.
“No?” mumbled the laundry man indifferently to himself as he reached for a shirt from a pile behind the counter and methodically spread it out on the table, continuing to work as though no one else were in the laundry. The boys watched in silence as the old man reached up without looking and grabbed hold of a spray gun that hung from string tied to a cord anchored in the ceiling. Squeezing the trigger, he directed a fine spray of water all over the shirt. When he released the gun, the boys’ eyes followed it as it jumped up toward the cord, bounced a few times, and then hung just above the laundry man’s head.
“You sure you don’t want something?” the old man asked finally, holding the iron in his right hand and sweeping its electrical cord out of the way with his left.
“We was just takin’ a look around when that fat guy came in,” answered Joey. “We didn’t mean anything, mister,” he said, looking at the old man then at the fan.
The laundry man pressed the iron against the shirt with a thump, moving the hot metal forwards, backwards, and from side to side, covering as much surface as quickly as possible. Readjusting the shirt, he sprayed again and thumped again, saying nothing more to the boys.
Convinced the old man was harmless, David and Charlie moved up to the counter while Joey slowly moved to the other end of the counter to the electric fan.
David and Charlie leaned on the counter top and watched the hot iron as it moved back and forth over the shirt, creating small puffs of steam from the light film of water on the fabric.
“Hey, Charlie,” said Charlie to the old man, “how long’s it take to iron a shirt?”
The old man’s arms, still muscular, tensed and their veins bulged as he tightened his grip on the iron’s wooden handle. “My name’s not Charlie,” he said, softly, thumping the iron against the table.
“Whatd’ya mean it ain’t Charlie?” said Charlie. “He called you Charlie, that fat smelly guy. I heard him.”
“To him, all Chinese are called ‘Charlie’,” the old man said, adjusting the shirt and reaching for the spray gun.
“But your name is Charlie, Charlie!” teased Joey, smiling wryly at his red-faced friend while running his finger along the base of the electric fan.
“No it ain’t, you jerk! My real name’s ‘Thomas’. ‘Charlie’s’ is just my middle name, fat ass!”
“His name is Charlie, mister!” said Joey to the old laundry man who continued working without looking at either boy. “And he’s always lyin’ about somethin’. Besides, it’s his mother who’s named ‘Thomas’.”
Charlie gave Joey an angry look and turned back to the laundry man. “Well, if you’re name ain’t ‘Charlie’, then what is it?”
The old man turned over the shirt, avoiding eye contact with Charlie, and inspected it. “Ng Po!” he replied proudly, folding the shirt with such speed and precision that the boys’ eyes bulged like the muscles in Po’s arms.
“That’s a funny name,” said Charlie. “It’s like forward and backwards. It’s like ching chong or chong ching. That’s a funny name, ching-chong chinaman.”
“No it’s not,” replied David, glancing at Po. “His name is funny! His name is Beshwarthy...but you can all him ‘Dishwathy’, like dirty dishwater, for short!” said David, turning to look at Charlie. “Everybody else does!”
“Hey, shut the heck up!” cried Charlie, reaching out to pinch David’s right ear as David, grinning, slipped out of Charlie’s reach.
“So, Charlie, which is your first name and last name?” he asked Po.
“’Ng’ is my last name,” quirked the old man, reaching for a blue paper band from a stack lying on the side of the ironing table. “‘Po’ is my first name.”
“Oh, yeah, then how’s come it says ‘Wing’s Hand Laundry’ on the sign outside?” asked Charlie, watching Ng Po press one end of the paper band on a wet sponge, fitted into a small glass cup, moistening the adhesive on the end of the shirt band.
Ignoring Charlie’s question, Ng Po slipped the band under the shirt, slid it down midway, and pressed its two ends together to seal the band around the shirt to keep it from unfolding.
“Neat!” said David, watching the laundry man pick up the finished shirt and place it to his left on the ironing table.
“You go to school?” asked Ng Po, reaching to his rear, picking up another shirt, shaking it, and placing it on the table.
“Yes, sir. I just got out of Quincy school. Now I...er...all of us are in Abraham Lincoln school.”
Po smiled at David. “You like school?”
“That’s good. Education is a good thing. School is good for you.”
“Hey, Charlie, so’s how come it says ‘Wing’ on the sign?” interjected Charlie.
“Wing used to work here before,” answered Po, spraying the shirt with water. “He went away.”
“No shit,” said Charlie, slowly moving to his right toward Joey and the fan. “Okay. So how come you don’t change the sign then?”
“No money,” said the laundry man, abruptly.
David peered over the counter top to this left. “Ng Po, what’s in there?” he asked, gesturing with his chin at a door at the back of the laundry.
“Wet wash,” said Po, thumping the shirt with the iron.
“Wet wash?” mumbled David, looking perplexed.
“Washed shirts to iron,” said the old man, reaching for the spray gun and taking a quick look at the fan.
“Oh,” said David, turning his attention to a small set of hinges on the counter top to his left.
Ng Po banded the shirt and carefully placed it on top of the other to his left. He glanced nervously at Charlie and Joey who were taking turns waving their hands in front of the caged fan blades.
Within good lieth bad, within bad lieth good. --- Laotzu
Last edited by nevergrowup; 04-25-2006 at 12:04 PM..
Reason: typo error