A laundromat isn’t supposed to be scary. Sure, you might feel awkward being there alone late at night, if you’re a young woman and it’s in a bad neighborhood. But in general, laundry is a happy thing. It’s suds and bubbles, and clean scents, and warm socks, and washing away all the built up grime that soils your life in layers. You think about things like this, if you’re Maggie. Maggie thinks about what things mean, as much as what they are.
It’s not scary until the machines come to a stop all at once and the lights flicker and go out. You stop reading your magazine, if you’re Maggie. Maggie doesn’t like Glamour, but sometimes will read Cosmo in order to laugh at the sex tips, which sound like desperate attempts by confused alchemists to find some way to produce gold from a man’s penis. “If the alchemists were 16 and sadists,” Maggie once thought out loud. She had a habit of thinking out loud. She wasn’t sure if everyone did it, but it was better than being alone in your head with a Glamour magazine – talk about scary.
So you put down the magazine, and go to the door calmly and look out, and you see the parking lot lights are out, and the street lights are out, and there lights on nearby businesses are out too. So you shrug, because you’re fairly brave, and you step outside, lean up against the glass and take a few deep breaths of night air. It’s a little scary, but not very much so. Lights go out sometimes. Scary is a magazine for “women” that puts the word va-ja-jay on the cover. She didn’t say that out loud, because it seemed a little redundant. She’d already…
A shopping cart can be scary. If it’s got one broken wheel that squeaks and rattles and it’s moving slowly along the side of the building. But really, if the lights were on, it wouldn’t be scary at all. It would be ordinary, perhaps even cheerful – it could be a child pushing it, or maybe quaint and beautiful – what if it’s an older gentleman who walks his laundry down to the mat in a cart once a week, like he’s been doing for 25 years, or maybe even a little sad, like a lady who goes around with a car and checks the coin returns on pay phones. Laudromats always have pay phones. There’s a lady like that a couple of miles away in Maggie’s neighborhood, sometimes. She’s harmless. Not scary at all.
A growling sound can be scary. If you hear a growling noise from just inside the door, from where you just were, and you catch your breath, you try not to breathe, because you wonder what is in the dark. That can be exceptionally scary, unless it’s a terrier. Terriers never really hurt anything. Even a rabid terrier, you could probably kick it away with very little risk, and Maggie was wearing long, thick jeans. She alway did laundry in her jeans. Or what if were the pipes protesting, from all that water draining back out at once. Isn’t that what happens when the machines go off all at once? There would probably be a mechanism to drain all the water out, and the laundromat was old, after all. Pipes and terriers rarely terrify anyone. It just doesn’t happen.
Seeing your car in the parking lot with a flat tire, and hearing the the back door slam suddenly could be more than scary. It could be the last straw to make you start breathing harder, even as your mind searches for a rational explanation, for some alternative to the idea that someone wants to do you harm, someone who is with you in the dark, who planned it this way, who made sure you couldn’t get away and no one would hear you call for help. Being scared like that would be perfectly understandable, being Maggie, especially if your car keys were still inside on the folding table. You might look down the street for something that would be open late and wonder if you could make it. Or would running just make it very plain where you were standing? Would you be overtaken? Would the growling animal, or the door slammer, or the cart pusher run you down?
And then scary might be if the lights and the machines came on suddenly, with that enormous “thunk” sound the old ones make when they engage the agitators and the rasping, scraping noise of the belt drives on the dryers kicking in and starting to turn. You might jump from shock. You might feel that thing that happens to animals sometimes when deep down in the well of instinct a part of them senses it’s too late to run, and all the fight goes out of them at once, and they just sort of shut down and wait for the inevitable. That’s perhaps the scariest thing, because it’s happening inside of you, and you know it.
And then if you look around, and see nothing wild or demonic standing in the doorway, and you see the bar across the back door, like it’s supposed to be, and you realize the sound carries from the market that’s closed next door, and a lonely cart is straying, windblown across the parking lot, lost from its chain or its corral, or just forgotten by some underpaid part time employee, you might not be scared at all. You might laugh out loud, from relief. You could go in and get your car keys and unlock the trunk to get the spare or use the pay phone and call roadside service to change the wheel. You could do all these things, and you could toss that Glamour magazine in the big, round metal trash can with a disgusted thunk. Or maybe you’d draw mustaches on the models with a pen and leave it for the next person.
Maggie goes inside – that’s you – and does any of these things. And it all seems perfectly reasonable. Maggie knows what things mean, but sometimes she doesn’t know what they are. And so when the lights go on, and you see the dark figure at the back of the laundromat, and you hear the low growl closer and starting to get angry, and the crash of the basket on the side of the building cues your adrenalin, you run. You leave your keys, your Glamour, and the set of tires you just bought last Wednesday. You leave your suds, and your warm socks, and any change there might be in the coin return in the pay phone, and you sprint as hard as you can, and you don’t look back. Because you don’t know what things are, but you do know what they mean.