February 1, 2022

Ragtime

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My mother was doing that thing she did. That thing with the rag in the sink.


I had watched her doing the rag trick a thousand times over the years, and every time it amazed me what she could do with a torn-up piece of cloth and a bit of science. Of course, the rag wasn’t actually a rag but a t-shirt, one she took from an old cardboard box that rested on the floor beside her. I can’t remember if my mother ever worked a traditional job but if she had, it hadn’t been during my lifetime. Instead, she spent hours soaking t-shirts in the sink and then carefully hanging the shirt on a line to dry. When I was a kid, I wondered why my mother wasted her time washing rags in the sink. She never complained, just kept pulling and dipping and hanging, for hours at a time.

Back then I had no respect for her, she was an embarrassment to me. I could never have friends over and whenever anyone at school asked me what she did, I lied and told them she was a professor. It was only when I got older, that I knew better. It wasn’t laundry but science, and it was how my mother had paid the rent, put food on the table, and sent me and my sister to college.


Mind you, my mother was no scientist. She was just one of a few women in the neighbourhood who happened to be in the right place at the right time when opportunity had come knocking on her door. I was too young back then to understand that my deadbeat father had just abandoned us, leaving my mother with nothing but a black eye and bruised heart. It was only when I got older and started asking about my old man that my mother finally got around to telling me about him and telling me about the laundry. About how she and old Mrs. Brady had been doing laundry down at the coin-o-mat when a young good looking man had come in and offered them a chance to change their lives.


She had told me the story so often now, it was like I had been there when it happened. How that man had explained that they could earn some extra money washing t-shirts at home in a special cleaning solution and that for every t-shirt they washed and dried, they would earn a hundred bucks. The way my mother tells the story, she knew what the special solution was but she didn’t care, she had kids to feed, rent to pay, and a future she had to work to finance. She needed the money, plain and simple. As far as my mother was concerned, washing t-shirts was better than selling her body, which was the only other opportunity on offer that year. No way was my mother going to sell her body. Even now, decades later, she is always quick to remind us that she did better than her sister, Mildred — Mildred the whore is what my mother calls her, even now. Mildred, who sold blowjobs and handjobs until she got too old and too fat to attract the local boys. That wasn’t about to happen to my mother, no sir. My mother had gone into the laundry business and had been working there ever since. The laundry business, that’s what she calls it. And for most of my life, that’s what I thought she was, a laundress. Every day she would wash t-shirts and once they were dried, she would fold them up and put them back in that cardboard box. And every Friday, that man would turn up at her door and after counting the t-shirts, hand her an envelope and leave. I never thought to ask any questions, though I had once asked why it was a different man every week. My mother had slapped me across the head and told me to get back to my homework and that’s what I did. I never asked her about it again.


And now here she is, so much older now but still washing those t-shirts in that special solution. My mother is the last of the laundry girls, all the others have died or moved on. I know it’s a crime. Hell, I know I should arrest her for what she is doing. All those t-shirts, all those drugs. Right here in front of me. But I don’t. How can I? The way I figure it, I go out there every day and arrest rapists, and murderers, thieves, and cut-throats. That’s got to count for something. I figure I do my part and that makes up for her part. The scales balance and the universe levels out. So I just sit there and eat my dinner and wait for Charlie to pick me up for my shift. Our patrol starts at midnight, it’s a full moon, and I know Charlie and I will have our hands full.


My mother turns briefly to look at me and smiles. She’s so proud of me and loves it when I drop by to eat her stew and keep her company. She has bridge club tonight but that didn’t stop her from putting on a full spread for me. She hangs another t-shirt and grabs a fresh one from the box. She drops it into the sink and starts humming the same tune I have heard her hum since I was old enough to walk. Outside I hear the kids playing in the street, and hear the sound of Charlie pulling the squad car into the driveway.


“Gotta go, mom,” I say and bring my bowl to the counter. “Don’t work too hard.”


I grab my cap off the table, slide the black baton back through the ring on my leather belt, give her a peck on the cheek, and head out the front door. I don’t like to keep Charlie waiting too long. It’s going to be a busy night.

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