Red Hibiscus

Wash on Monday, Iron on Tuesday, Bake on Wednesday, Brew on Thursday, Churn on Friday, Mend on Saturday, Rest  on Sunday.

I didn’t specifically go looking for an apartment without a washer and dryer; I went looking for an apartment that was $650 or less. I know it may sound unusual for a writer and English teacher but math accompanies many an epiphany for me. One particular problem I tackled around Thanksgiving 2006 was taking my income, calculating 25 percent and realizing I was paying a full $250 more than a quarter of my income. And that was a huge part of why I had no money even though I didn’t seem to buying any thing but food and gas.  I resolved to rectify this situation.

New Year’s Day 2007 found me cruising looking for “For Rent” signs. I saw the small hand-lettered “For Rent” sign in front of a duplex building. The front door to one apartment opened to the side yard that was a jungle of bamboo and other greenness. On the door hung a red fake flower that caught my eye because it reminded me of a red hibiscus.

A month or so earlier I had been sitting on the back steps of my too-expensive house in pajamas with dirty hair and bare feet while I smoked a cigarette. I was broke and tired and I was pretty sure I hated my job. Plus, it was winter so everything was brown and gray and dry. I felt pretty hopeless that day. The house was big and I had sunk a lot of paint and sweat into the place to make it home, but it always felt creepy and the guest bedroom never quite lost the smell of the ferrets that the previous tenant had kept there.

And so fighting the urge to grab my keys, start the car and drive it right off the Mississippi River Bridge, I looked up thinking I might ask God for help. Maybe. On their way up, my eyes got caught by a red something something in my neighbor’s backyard. Looking closer, I was shocked to see a potted red hibiscus blooming like crazy in late November. It gave some hope. It was shortly after the hibiscus-spotting that I sat in the backyard with Janice listening to rats scurry across the garage and we plotted out my plan to get an apartment in line with my income.

The little bamboo-circled, hibiscus-adorned apartment spoke to me. Actually, over the course of my time there, it said a lot to me, but one of the first thing it said quietly to me was, “This is where you will become a teacher.” Less profoundly, but with more confidence, it said, “I don’t have a washer and dryer, and so I will openly challenge your already pathetic housekeeping skills.”

Both apartments in the building were available. One was $650, the other was $700. No amount of persuasion from either Janice or the landlady herself could convince me to take the more expensive, larger and nicer apartment. The little, cheap one was all brown and shabby on the inside. It had very little to speak for it other than two lovely floor-to-ceiling old windows in the living room and an old gas space heater in the corner next to the front door. That gas heater was blazing when I first saw the apartment. The tenant who was moving told me she was just finishing her first year teaching elementary school art. I was unmovable at that point.

The apartment had no pretensions of being anything other than basic shelter, which, on some deeper level, was what I wanted. I wanted to know how to do things, not just make things look good. So I wasn’t daunted by the no washer/dryer situation. In a twisted way, it just made me want it more.

I settled on Wednesday as wash day when I was seeking an orderly ritual in my housekeeping. And so, for two years, every week found me at the Washateria on Government Street, armed with my week’s laundry.

And so I became a regular at the Washateria. I budgeted $40 per month, $10 a week, for my weekly laundry. I fell in love with the laundry section at the Family Dollar. I bought baskets, laundry detergent, dryer sheets and constantly explored ideas for new laundry accessories.

What most people considered a horrible misfortune became for me this amazing time where, for two hours, I had no other responsibilities than to sit by myself in the Laundromat with all its sweet, clean smells. Sometimes, I would find an abandoned Advocate and do the word puzzles. Sometimes, I would use my laundry quarters to play Centipede or Pac-Man while I waited. Sometimes, I would read. Always, there would be the people-watching.

I experimented with different days and times. Weekday mornings were quiet and calm if I could steal away from work. Weekends were a no-no, especially Saturday morning. Not to put to fine a point on it, but the quiet, calm Washateria turns into a carnival of poverty, dysfunction, insanity and a chilling insight into the effects of institutionalization. The weeknights were where I usually found my groove. It was mostly other people, I believed, like me, who found themselves without a washer and dryer but with a desire to live a clean, decent, organized life.

There were occasional interactions with the other washers, some pleasant, some uncomfortable. But mostly I sat and processed my world and all its changes. It was there I first read a little pamphlet about St. Raphael the Archangel and picked him as my guy in the spirit world.

I loved the way the book talked about him. In the foreword, the author actually says, “I would like you to meet an archangel…” and “…I think you will like knowing him better.”

Raphael is mainly mentioned in Tobias, which is part of the Apocrypha. He was a guide for a young man named Tobias and told him to seize a fish and take out the heart, gall and liver for medicine. Using Raphael’s medicine, Tobias helped drive a demon out of Sara. She was a young woman who had been married seven times, but each wedding night, the demon that possessed her would kill her new husband.

So Raphael is the patron of love and finding a mate. He is also patron for healing and the mentally ill. My little book promises that Raphael will also give you peace of mind, and it also explains that he is the patron of everyday rituals of life.

I felt like I could use some help in all those areas and sometimes I felt like I could feel Raphael’s presence hanging around the oak trees on the little block of Government Street between Eugene and Kenmore where my Laundromat was located.

Heavenly intervention aside, it was in the Washateria where I would calm down. I would mentally organize my week while I waited to organize my clothes in neatly folded stacks.

I raved so much about it to Janice, you would have thought it was a yoga class or free money. I raved so much that she came to check it out.

“I don’t get it,” she said, repeatedly.

She said something like that after she was convinced that one of the other washers had stolen her Downy only to discover it was in her trunk.

“I’m not cut out for this,” she said, but she continued listening patiently to me as I gushed and would even still come help me fold my clothes.

One day, we were talking about something unrelated to laundry and the subject of my parents – my mother and biological father – came up. During that period, I was having increasingly distressing interactions with my mentally ill father who was dying slowly. There were various untreated infections related to diabetes and he seemed to be developing a senile dementia on top of schizophrenia.

I talked about my parents a lot those days.

“How did they meet?” Janice asked one night idly.

I froze.

It was a well-known story to me but I had not thought of it in a long time.

My parents were both from tiny towns on opposite sides of Mississippi. My father came to Jackson, Mississippi, with his mother, from Weir, a village in northeast Mississippi, for his last two years of high school. He started his college career with lots of promise involved with a football scholarship at the University of Mississippi. For reasons unclear, the scholarship was reneged and he was going to school at Holmes Junior College, which was nearby Jackson, so he still called his mother’s West Jackson house his home.

My mother arrived in Jackson about six months after she graduated from Benoit High School in Bolivar County, just a few miles from the Mississippi River. She came to the big city and got a job as an operator with South Central Bell. We just called it The Phone Company, though. She shared an apartment in West Jackson with a high school friend.

My mother and my father met at a Laundromat somewhere in West Jackson, I suppose.

They each thought the other was cute.

And there I sat, 40-ish years later, in a Laundromat.

“You’re kidding,” Janice said.

“No,” I said, feeling the color drain out of my face.

You really cannot make this shit up.

Ah, Janice says. Ah, what, I say. It makes perfect sense, she says. I have gone back to the root, she says. I was born from their mutual poverty and love of clean clothes. That is why I feel so at home in the Washateria.

Then she moves on, mystery solved as to why I have some Zen-like compatibility with the Washateria that she can’t access.

But I cannot really move on at that point. I still have my laundry to do.

After that, I try branching out.

I drove out to Florida Boulevard and other spots to try different laundries.

Nothing clicks, and I wind up back at my Government Street Washateria, but with less enthusiasm than before. It had promised changes in my life, and life had delivered them right up to the rotting doorstep on Olive Street. The washer-dryer-less apartment was taking its toll on me.

The only heat in the apartment was gas space heaters which were warm but I was afraid to turn on at night. Cold winter mornings meant a trip downstairs felt like going outdoors. I felt like I was camping sometimes. I would hurry down, start the heater, start the coffee maker but have to rinse my mug out with hot water. Otherwise the ice cold ceramic cup would cool my coffee too quickly.

It was in that apartment that I rode out Hurricane Gustav with my dogs – Ruby and Daisy —  and cats — Chick P. and Calypso – all curled up with me on my bed. And it was after Gustav that the apartment was never quite the same. There was unrepaired roof damage that cause water issues in both apartments.

But I stayed.

I came home to that apartment after I buried my father and discovered that my 11-year old cat, Chick P. was sick. I lay on the bedroom floor of that apartment the last night she lived. Her breathing was labored and I could do nothing but try to keep her calm, pray and wait until morning to take her to have put down.

I came home to that apartment afterwards and took to bed for two days while friends delivered me Calvin’s chicken salad and ginger ale and cried with me and told me I could stay in bed as long as I needed.

It was in that apartment that I found out I had an excellent score on the Praxis II, and there where I did, in fact, become a teacher.

I had grown so much but I was outgrowing the apartment. I could overlook a lot, but the rats were the final straw. Lying in bed with my boyfriend early one cold morning, there was the unmistakable sound of rats in the roof and walls.

“Rats!” I said with alarm, embarrassment and humiliation.

No, he said, trying to ease my mind.

“Squirrels, maybe?” he suggested.

I shook my head, knowing he knew as well as I do that squirrels don’t move in the dark.

I would be moving soon.

I was sitting on the sidewalk in front of the Washateria one evening about two months into my first year teaching, tired but ever-dedicated to clean clothes, when I looked up and saw a “For Rent” sign at a neat little duplex on a little side street next to Baton Rouge High School.

Quietly and quickly, I called.

It was $700.

It was clean and warm.

There was this little utility room next to the bedroom that had a washer and a dryer in it.

“We’re leaving the washer and dryer here with the apartment,” said the current tenant.

Yes, indeed.

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4 thoughts on “Red Hibiscus

  1. Sonya!!! These are amazing!!! I love them all. You are so very talented. Thank you for the sweet glimpse into your life.

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