By MARISA GWIDT
"Oh, boy," Charlie High sighs as he watches a college student drag in four heaping bags of laundry. "She won't finish in time."
It's 9:50 on a Monday night at Starcrest Cleaners in Champaign. Charlie's supposed to lock the doors at 11. Yet here is this young woman, opening a silver front-loader and preparing to toss in a load of darks. Charlie, 67 years old, hobbles over in cuffed, faded jeans and intervenes.
"Uh-uh," he mutters to the student, shaking his head as though she were about to make a grave mistake. "I recommend that one," he says, pointing to another washer outwardly identical.
"Really? What makes that one superior?" she inquires with a smile, already starting to inch over in its direction.
The question clearly takes Charlie aback. His customers rarely engage him — the Monday-through-Friday janitor — in conversation. Charlie removes his navy blue Sturgis biker hat and thoughtfully smoothes his thin gray hair with stout, pale fingers. He then replaces his hat and leans his short, heavy-set frame against the recommended washer.
"It spins quicker," he explains, pleased to talk laundry physics with someone. "It's never got a service tag on it, and the coins don't jam."
All evening, as he talks, Charlie keeps working — wiping, mopping, sweeping.
"I needed to keep busy, and this place is always busy," he says as he stops sweeping to pick up a piece of pink lint a woman dropped right in front of him. "Hurt too much to think 'bout her not bein' at home."
"Her" was Charlie's wife, Janet, of 36 years. She died of colon cancer in 2003. After Janet died, Charlie went on Social Security. But money was tight, and so he took a job at the laundromat.
"Even if I had money, I would've kept workin'," he said. "Thinkin' 'bout her all the time would've killed me. Nobody knows how hard it is."
Charlie had never imagined illness could destroy such a beautiful, caring woman.
"She'd grocery shop for widow ladies in town," he remembers, teary eyed. "It isn't fair she's gone. I don't show it, but I still got a lot of anger in me over the whole mess."
Charlie makes his rounds at the laundromat. He empties the trash, ensures that the 75-cent Tide boxes are stacked neatly in their wall dispenser and wipes the blue droplets of detergent off the machines. From the corner of his eye, he notices that a washing machine has stolen a quarter from the student with the four laundry bags. He walks over to her and takes a quarter out of his pocket. He has already forgiven her for bringing in so much laundry at the last minute.
"Ya need dryer sheets?" he asks, shifting from foot to foot. "People're always leavin' dryer sheets. They're Bounce, not the cheap stuff."
Long before his nights were filled with the hum of dryers and smell of detergents, Charlie was a little boy living in Indianola. Janet lived 15 miles away in Broadlands. They went to different schools and met only briefly in the spring of 1963.
"We met for a second at a school baseball game. Guess she remembered me, 'cause when I went to the Army, she asked Mom for my address."
While Charlie was stationed in Oahu, Hawaii, as a tank repairman, Janet wrote him several times a week. He became so excited to receive her letters that he'd be in the camp's main lobby at 4:10 p.m. when the mail carrier arrived each day. Sometimes, he'd even get a care package.
"I liked her raisin oatmeal cookies," he says, smiling. "I didn't leave those things layin' around. The other soldiers would raid me if I did."
Charlie disappears into the laundromat's back room to fetch a dryer sheet. He reappears and hands it to the student in a pleased manner.
"Thank you," she says politely. When Charlie leaves her alone at the washer, she sniffs the dryer sheet. It's scentless, stiffer than it should be, old, and she discreetly slips it into a nearby trash can.
Charlie got out of the Army when he was 21. After a long boat ride and two flights, he sat down for a nice dinner with his parents.
"I don't know what I ate 'cause I was thinkin' about Janet the whole time," he says, as he fills a bucket with mopping solution. "I borrowed Dad's car and drove to see her."
That night, more than three years after they had met, the young couple went on their first date. They visited a hamburger joint and ordered root beer floats. They were married four months later.
When Charlie's on duty at the laundromat, he will help an old woman start a washer. He will recommend the best-sized dryer for a man with an oversized load. He will remind a mother to wash her white bathrobe separate from her darks, asking, "Ya don't want that pink, do ya?"
Charlie's customers often roll their eyes in reply. Despite Charlie's slow movements, he's alive in the laundromat. He doesn't mind working. He has worked all his life, mostly as a repairman and janitor.
He also likes his little laundry society. He knows all his regulars and has given most of them nicknames: "Ammonia Man" (a guy who washes all his clothes in straight ammonia), "M&M Girl" (a child Charlie gives packages of M&Ms when she comes in with her dad), and "Bike Couple" (a husband and wife who rig their bikes with special laundry-carrying baskets).
Charlie looks at the student with the four bags of laundry. He dubs her "Allergy Girl" after he learns she's washing everything in her apartment because her doctors are worried about her recurring eye infections.
"I get some crazies here," he says, laughing. "It sure keeps things interesting."
Charlie and Janet were as happy as two poor people could be. They quickly had two sons and started building a garage and house in Longview. They ran out of money, though, and never built the house. For the next 30 years, they lived in the finished two-car garage.
"Believe it or not, we got two bedrooms in there," Charlie says proudly. They raised two boys in those two bedrooms. "Janet liked it because it was small and easy to keep clean."
In what little free time they had between jobs, they spruced up the house, tended their "lot-and-a-half" lawn and spent time with their boys. Janet worked as a beautician and was a social butterfly, always cheerful. She liked to keep moving, even in her spare time. She got Charlie contributing to the community: grocery shopping for elderly folks, helping them with odd jobs around their homes, mowing their lawns. He liked to help but, mostly, he liked tagging along with Janet.
"We didn't do nothin' big," Charlie says, stopping mid-mop stroke. "We just liked bein' together. It was a real good life."
It's 10:50 in the laundromat. Charlie's chores are done and most of his customers have left. He opens a bottle of Diet Coke, sits on a table and notices the time remaining on Allergy Girl's dryer: 12 minutes. Charlie knows she'll then have to empty the load and possibly even fold it before she leaves and he turns out the lights. He doesn't care. Allergy Girl says she's sorry for taking so long.
"Hey," he replies with a shrug and a gentle smile, "you do what you gotta do."
Charlie's 36 years with Janet went too fast. When she got home from work one day, she sat at the kitchen table and told Charlie she didn't feel right. A week later, doctors told them she'd likely be dead in six months. She seemed fine for the first few months, tolerating the chemotherapy and radiation well.
"It went to her brain is what it did," Charlie whispers. "Near the end, she couldn't do anything for herself."
For the last three weeks of her life, Janet was put into a nursing home. Charlie visited her every day. On the last day of her life, she didn't remember anything.
"Who are you?" she asked him. The question still haunts him.
Clothes stop rotating.
It's 11:02 and Allergy Girl quickly stows her clean laundry in her four bags and heads toward the door. She stops to say good night to Charlie and tells him she'll be back soon.
"You be careful," Charlie says, pointing a finger at her. He directs those same words at most of his customers. It's his catchphrase — the expression of a man who seems to care more about his customers than they care about him. Allergy Girl smiles, giggles and exits. Charlie locks the glass door and "spot mops" the floor one last time.
"I miss her," he says of Janet, "but I find ways to pass the time."
Marisa Gwidt is a University of Illinois journalism student. This story was done in a version of Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class that included students and News-Gazette staffers. Funding came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation.