Harold reclined a little in the plastic orange chair he sat in at the laundromat. He placed his hands behind his head, clasped his hands so that his fingers intertwined, and observed the activity in front of him. A 20-something mother hurriedly emptied two dryers of clothes into a large basket. A toddler, presumably her son, kneeled beside her. For the past hour, the child had been somewhat entertained by a toy cash register and a frisbee, but he now appeared cranky and hungry. His mother appeared eager to spare the rest of the patrons the agony of witnessing his impending meltdown.
A newly dating couple folded clothes at a side table. They couldn’t have been more than 19 years old. The girl, a petite, artsy type, wore red patent leather heels and a polka dot dress. Her boyfriend wore a retro cartoon t-shirt and canvas sneakers. Harold chuckled at the irony of the couple’s activity, and he found it hard to believe his favorite childhood cartoon was now considered “retro”. He observed how the couple joked and embraced each other. They really were cute. Years ago, he and Paula had spent hours at the laundromat together. Paula loved going there after her last class on Fridays and, since he had no basketball practice on that day, Harold often joined her. Paula typically brought homework or a book to read, but despite her best efforts at productivity, Harold saw their laundromat time as open season for pranks. Once, he moved a roll of quarters from her purse and hid them in her laundry basket, amidst her towels. She searched for fifteen minutes trying to find them, and it wasn’t until she walked outside to begin retracing her steps that he finally showed her where he had hidden them. Paula was irritated, but she wasn’t angry. As he now watched this new couple sort their laundry and chat about their childhoods, favorite foods, and career goals, Harold remembered how he and Paula had shared a similar easy conversation while doing laundry. He allowed himself to daydream a little longer, but was jolted back to reality by a knife-sharp squeal and wail from the toddler. The young mother wasn’t quick enough to avert the tantrum after all.
Although only a few days remained until Christmas Day, Harold felt no shame in spending an evening in the laundromat instead of the shopping mall. He had finished his shopping weeks ago and, although he had a washer and dryer at home, he knew he could finish washing and drying three loads of laundry even faster at the laundromat. Plus, he wanted to get out of the house for a while. Annette, his friendly but persistent neighbor, had planned a Christmas Eve soiree for 40 of her closest friends and had been insisting he attend. He initially managed to avoid committing by saying he might have out-of-town guests to entertain, but with only a few days remaining, Annette was sure to extend the invitation again any day now. Annette was sweet, but he didn’t have the heart to tell her he’d rather sit at home preparing his taxes than spend an evening pretending to be interested in discussions about illegal immigrants, the proposed legalization of marijuana, or any other hot-topic political issue. He also didn’t have the heart to tell her how much he hated the way she called him Hairry with such an awful nasal twang. He was sure he had introduced himself to her as Harold several years ago.
After he had folded his last load, Harold placed his laundry baskets in the trunk and backseat of his car and drove home. As soon as he got home, he began seasoning two chicken breasts and some red potatoes he planned to cook in the oven. Next, he whisked together an oil and red wine vinegar dressing for his salad. As the chicken and potatoes baked, he began putting away his clothes. Then, the doorbell rang.
“Are you Harold Keystone?” asked the teenager standing on his doorstep.
“Yes. Can I help you?” Harold replied.
“I’m here to ummm–” Tim shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He had rehearsed this moment in his mind for years, and he had even practiced saying the words aloud throughout his car ride from the airport. Now, his hands were clammy and his voice quivered. But, he managed to extend his hand and say, “I’m here because I’m your son.”