I was pulling the wet clothes out of the washing machine, cursing each garment that fell to the floor and wondering if the three second rule applied to freshly laundered t-shirts, when I saw an older woman approach my boys and speak to them for a moment. They were a couple of rows away in the laundromat, having found an unoccupied table and two unused carts, then fashioning the lot into a fortress of sorts, and they seemed content in that space. There they sat, inside their fort, one doing homework and the other keeping watch. Their level of quiet was relative.
I watched the woman speak to my boys and strained to hear what she was saying, but the distance and spin cycles between us made my eavesdropping impossible. However, the boys could hear her clearly, and they were listening with eyes glazed over by shyness and the sudden realization that their bubble did not, in fact, make them invisible to the world around them. Their lips were still, their eyes slightly lowered, and the occasional nod was given by one and then the other. The woman turned and walked away. I pulled the last pair of pants from the washer and pushed my cart slowly toward the dryers.
“Is that your son?” asked the woman as we passed each other.
“They both are,” I said.
The boys were still sitting in their fort, and they were watching me.
“But that one,” she said as she nodded at my oldest. “That is the one that took my cart.”
I felt myself grow equal parts defensive and apologetic. My wife and I have raised our boys to be courteous and respectful, but it is a constant battle, and when they are lost in their world of imagination they tend to tune out the realm of reality, including those of us that live within it. His being unaware and helping himself to an empty cart did not seem all that shocking.
On the other hand, there are a lot of fucking carts, lady.
“He took my cart,” she continued. “He came up to me and asked in the sweetest voice if I was using it, and I told him that I wasn’t.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Then he asked if he could use it. He was so polite.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Such nice manners. You don’t see that enough these days.”
“That’s kind of you to say. We try.”
“You’re doing a great job,” she said, and then she continued on her way.
I looked at the boys. They were still sitting in their fort, staring at me beneath lowered eyes and shell-shocked silence.
“Did you hear what that lady said?” I asked.
“She told me, too,” said the boy in question.
“It feels good, doesn’t it?”
“I’m proud of you for using your manners,” I told him. He nodded and glanced at his brother.
“He has good manners, too,” he said.
I put the clothes in the dryer and waved them over to me.
“Here,” I said as I handed them each a bunch of quarters. “Those clothes need 24 minutes of heat or they’ll escape and shrink us all.”
They looked at their quarters and the quiet, giant dryers, napping in the afternoon heat—their eyes sparkling as they stepped up to the challenge and paid the machines to wake, to spin, to dance.
No one said a word as the strangers took their fort away, and no one asked them anything.