“Perhaps, with the present collection” Lydia Davis writes in the introduction to A Manual for Cleaning Women, “Lucia Berlin will begin to gain the attention she deserves.” The attention Berlin deserves is the attention afforded to our best writers of short fiction — there is no doubt she should be engraved on the the metaphorical Rushmore of short story writers, alongside Yates or Carver or whoever else you’d like to put there.
Why? No postwar writer of American short fiction, at least that I’m aware of, more easily mixes provincial wisdom and humor with (so-called) cosmopolitan wit. Born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised throughout the American West, where she demonstrated an enthusiasm for the tradition of oral history, Berlin’s stories are marked by a world-wise, nearly gregarious voice that is on full display in “Carpe Diem,” the story excerpted below. — Jonathon Sturgeon
Most of the time I feel all right about getting old. Some things give me a pang, like skaters. How free they seem, long legs gliding, hair streaming back. Other things throw me into a panic, like BART doors. A long wait before the doors open, after the train comes to a stop. Not very long, but it’s too long. There’s no time.
And laundromats. But they were a problem even when I was young. Just too long, even the Speed Queens. Your entire life has time to flash before your eyes while you sit there, a drowner. Of course if I had a car I could go to the hardware store or the post of office and then come back and put things into the dryer.
The laundries with no attendants are even worse. Then it seems I’m always the only person there at all. But all of the washers and dryers are going . . . everybody is at the hardware store.
So many laundromat attendants I have known, the hovering Charons, making change or who never have change. Now it is fat Ophelia who pronounces No Sweat as No Thwet. Her top plate broke on beef jerky. Her breasts are so huge she has to turn sideways and then kitty- corner to get through doors, like moving a kitchen table. When she comes down the aisle with a mop everybody moves and moves the baskets too. She is a channel hopper. Just when we’ve settled in to watch The Newlywed Game she’ll flick it to Ryan’s Hope.
Once, to be polite, I told her I got hot ashes too, so that’s what she associates me with . . . The Change. “How ya coming with the change?” she says, loud, instead of hello. Which only makes it worse, sitting there, re ecting, aging. My sons have all grown now, so I’m down from ve washers to one, but one takes just as long.
I moved last week, maybe for the two hundredth time. I took in all my sheets and curtains and towels, my shopping cart piled high. The laundromat was very crowded; there weren’t any washers together. I put all my things into three machines, went to get change from Ophelia. I came back, put the money and the soap in, and started them. Only I had started up three wrong washers. Three that had just finished this man’s clothes.
I was backed into the machines. Ophelia and the man loomed before me. I’m a tall woman, wear Big Mama panty- hose now, but they were both huge people. Ophelia had a prewash spray bottle in her hand. The man wore cutoffs, his massive thighs were matted with red hair. His thick beard wasn’t like hair at all but a red padded bumper. He wore a baseball hat with a gorilla on it. The hat wasn’t too small but his hair was so bushy it shoved the hat high up on his head making him about seven feet tall. He was slapping a heavy fist into his other red palm. “Goddamn. I’ll be goddamned!” Ophelia wasn’t menacing; she was protecting me, ready to come between him and me, or him and the machines. She’s always saying there’s nothing at the laundry she can’t handle.
“Mister, you may’s well sit down and relax. No way to stop them machines once they’ve started. Watch a little TV, have yourself a Pepsi.”
I put quarters in the right machines and started them. Then I remembered that I was broke, no more soap and those quarters had been for dryers. I began to cry.
“What the fuck is she crying about? What do you think this does to my Saturday, you dumb slob? Jesus wept.”
I offered to put his clothes into the dryers for him, in case he wanted to go somewhere.
“I wouldn’t let you near my clothes. Like stay away from my clothes, you dig?” There was no place for him to sit except next to me. We looked at the machines. I wished he would go outside, but he just sat there, next to me. His big right leg vibrated like a spinning washer. Six little red lights glowed at us.
“You always fuck things up?” he asked.
“Look, I’m sorry. I was tired. I was in a hurry.” I began to giggle, nervously.
“Believe it or not, I am in a hurry. I drive a tow. Six days a week. Twelve hours a day. This is it. My day off.”
“What were you in a hurry for?” I meant this nicely, but he thought I was being sarcastic.
“You stupid broad. If you were a dude I’d wash you. Put your empty head in the dryer and turn it to cook.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“Damn right you’re sorry. You’re one big sorry excuse for a chick. I had you spotted for a loser before you did that to my clothes. I don’t believe this. She’s crying again. Jesus wept.”
Ophelia stood above him.
“Don’t you be bothering her, you hear? I happens to know she’s going through a hard time.”
How did she know that? I was amazed. She knows everything, this giant black Sybil, this Sphinx. Oh, she must mean The Change.
“I’ll fold your clothes if you’d like,” I said to him.
“Hush, girl,” Ophelia said. “Point is, what’s the big deal? In a hunnert years from now just who is gonna care?”
“A hunnert years,” he whispered. “A hunnert years.”
And I was thinking that too. A hundred years. Our machines were shimmying away, and all the little red spin lights were on.
“At least yours are clean. I used up all my soap.”
“I’ll buy you some soap for crissake.”
“It’s too late. Thanks anyway.”
“She didn’t ruin my day. She’s ruined my whole fuckin’ week. No soap.”
Ophelia came back, stooped down to whisper to me.
“I been spottin’ some. Doctor says it don’t quit I’ll need a D and C. You been spottin’?”
I shook my head.
“You will. Women’s troubles just go on and on. A whole lifetime of troubles. I’m bloated. You bloated?”
“Her head is bloated,” the man said. “Look, I’m going out to the car, get a beer. I want you to promise not to go near my machines. Yours are thirty- four, thirty- nine, forty- three. Got that?”
“Yeah. Thirty- two, forty, forty- two.” He didn’t think it was funny.
The clothes were in the final spin. I’d have to hang mine up to dry on the fence. When I got paid I’d come back with soap.
“Jackie Onassis changes her sheets every single day,” Ophelia said. “Now that is sick, you ask me.”
“Sick,” I agreed.
I let the man put his clothes in a basket and go to the dryers before I took mine out. Some people were grinning but I just ignored them. I filled my cart with soggy sheets and towels. It was almost too heavy to push and, wet, not everything fit. I slung the hot- pink curtains over my shoulder. Across the room the man started to say something, then looked away.
It took a long time to get home. Even longer to hang everything, although I did find a rope. Fog was rolling in.
I poured some coffee and sat on the back steps. I was happy. I felt calm, unhurried. Next time I am on BART, I won’t even think about getting off until the train stops. When it does, I’ll make it out just in time.
Excerpted from A MANUAL FOR CLEANING WOMEN by Lucia Berlin, published in August 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 1977, 1983, 1984, 1988, 1990, 1993, 1999 by Lucia Berlin. Copyright © 2015 by the Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP. All rights reserved.