Saturday, March 14, 2009

THE STANDARD WASH by Heidi Lebauer

The pallid Russian man with the limp waits for her. He is always patient. And consistent, too. Whenever she comes, which is weekly, he is there, as if expecting her. But they never speak. . .how could they? And his green eyes avoid hers—she usually fidgets with her purse at the beginning to avoid the awkwardness until the suds come up over the windshield in a magnificent spray and suddenly, she is encased in a wet, velvety cocoon—all alone, all alone. This is when she closes her eyes and breathes deep and listens without concern to the hard spray going back and forth and over and under. If it went on too long she would fall asleep, she is quite sure of it, but it is for only a few moments, like a forbidden glance.

Through the lather and her heavy eyes she barely makes out the little red light turning to green—her favorite part—the bit she most anticipates—the part where she lets off on the brake and allows the track to take her in—she relinquishes control for these minutes and feels the tug and release and slowly the little Russian man with the limp disappears and it becomes Just Her.

When the huge wet slabs of fabric pound across the front of the vehicle, she always worries about the antenna. It is always okay. And her world gets darker and more cocoon-like and she begins to feel the urge welling up inside her yet again and for once she doesn’t have to tamp it back down like rising sludge. For once, she doesn’t have to act like she is well when she is not. Happy, when she is sad. Fulfilled, when she is empty.

That oily smell. That waxy smell. It permeates her nostrils and she cannot help but wonder as she moves slowly along the track toward the soft little droplets of Rainex that will patter across her windshield, how often does the Russian man service the car wash? The mechanics of it look ancient, ruinous even. She fantasizes about the track grinding to a halt half way between the wash and the rinse—stranded alone in the middle of the giant, belching cleaning machine. Would anyone come for her? Her husband? Her children? Her parents? The Russian man with the limp?

Since it is a fantasy, she imagines that they don’t. She imagines that she is left there, sitting by herself. Left to her own self for an unidentifiable amount of time. She has snacks stashed under the seat. A half-empty bottle of water in the drink holder. Some mini M&M’s in the glove compartment. She doesn’t consider that if such a thing happened, she could just get out of the vehicle and walk out. No, she is stranded alone and apparently not a soul knows where she is. And it is thrilling.

This is why she almost misses her cue. The jet engines start up as she edges toward them. One on either side blowing like the dickens. Whirling and groaning and screaming. Oh, but that is her. . .

Mouth stretched into an oval. Eyes scrunched together in effort. Middle-aged face, red with the blood-rush, taut and angry. It could be likened to the howl of an injured animal, one that has drug itself into a sheltered place to die. It is a call to the gods for mercy. It is a pleading to oneself to survive.

She screams because of the endless needing. It’s the kids. Or the dogs. Or her husband. Or the phone. Or the house. Or the yard. Or the piles of laundry that never cease. Or the bellies that must continuously be filled. Or the dishes that need to be washed. Again.

She used to have interests outside of all that. Could speak on current events. Had her haircut every 6-8 weeks. Had hobbies. Had passion. Had something other than Them.

She screams for her lost self. Her lost friends. Her lost energy. She has never felt more alone than now, which is ironic since she is hardly ever by herself. But she knows this, deep down, that lonely feeling, that emptiness—it has nothing to do with the others. The one she misses most is Her. There is a shell of a person looking back at her in the mirror—the one with the dark rings around her eyes and the increasingly deep crevices around the mouth. There is no time. There is not time. There isn’t.

At the end, there is a creaky, steamed garage door that opens always too quickly—almost startlingly- as the jets quiet themselves once more. There is also a little light that turns green to let her know that she can now put her vehicle in drive, yes, take back control. There are a few moments between the jets and the light urging her back out into reality. She sips her water then, as she waits, and checks her face in the rear view mirror in a cursory search for signs of disrepair.

Out comes a shiny van. Sparkling and well-maintained.

Her husband disapproves of her spending so much at the car wash. He thinks it is frivolous. Pointless, too. He says, why clean it if it’s just going to get dirty again?

But she knows otherwise, doesn’t she.


THE STANDARD WASH earned an Honorable Mention in the 2008 Competition.


Heidi Lebauer is a member of SCBWI and the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, MN. She is currently at work on both a stage play for children and a romantic comedy for the screen.