Translation by Morwenna Symons
Please would you be able to clean this jacket, please? The woman was dressed in a severe dark blue uniform, and sounded stressed and friendly at the same time. I pulled the shirttails apart, looking for the care label. I needed this job to survive in the outrageously expensive metropolis. The woman’s two "pleases" made me warm to her.
When do you need the jacket for? I asked.
Could you do it right now?, she asked.
Her American airline company broach was pinned on the left, over her heart.
In theory it should be possible to have the jacket cleaned in an hour, I said.
The woman breathed out and bowed her head gratefully. I didn’t wonder why she needed the jacket so quickly, I just wondered why she still wanted this apricot-coloured thing at all. The jacket was completely out of fashion. I checked the material, because I didn’t want to raise any false hopes. It was shiny already, with worn elbows, linty and threadbare.
The jacket could get damaged, I said.
The woman tightened her lips, tilted her head to one side. I thought she was having second thoughts, and I suggested: why don’t you just get a new jacket instead, dry cleaning is expensive anyway. We have a second-hand section in the back.
The woman shook her head, this jacket was her mother’s favourite jacket, she said, and she’d promised her that she would bring it back to her cleaned.
Her voice was soft, and I find it endearing when someone keeps their promise. So I assumed a cooperative stance, and said I’d promise to be careful not to break any of the fibres.
The woman laid her hand on the jacket and repeated that she would be back punctually in an hour. She had beautiful, thin hands. The nail on the right index finger was chipped.
Yes, I said, that’s fine.
I didn’t ask about the journey, I guessed that she was going to fly to her mother, and I’m not interested in finding out anything private.
I lifted my eyes and looked into the brown iris of this dark-haired woman. The large eyes had thick lashes, the eyebrows were plucked into a high arch, the complexion like cinnamon. Even before she left the shop I knew where she was going to spend the next hour. She was going into the new nail studio on the other side of the road in Tompkins Square Park. She pulled her suitcase behind her over the road. She looked very slim and elegant in her uniform.
I set to work straight away. I pushed back the pile of clothes in front of the dry cleaning unit, and laid the jacket out ready. I got out the stain remover, and concentrated on the work in hand. The jacket interested me. Where did it come from, where was it going?
The inside of the collar was the dirtiest part. I had another look for the care label, but it was still nowhere to be seen. The jacket had probably been home tailored. The irregular seams bore this out. The lining had sweat marks on it. I found a few streaks in the armpits. I sprayed these with an extra puff of stain remover to ensure an optimal cleaning result. The jacket was made of velvet velour, an old-fashioned material, which is also used a lot for leisurewear. I stroked my hand over the front of the jacket, feeling the pockets. They seemed to be flat. The breast pockets were empty. All I found was a piece of paper stuck fast in the lower left pocket. I tugged carefully around it, the paper felt like it had swollen and stuck to the material. I fetched tweezers and a razor blade, bent over the inside pocket and separated the piece of paper from the material, fibre by fibre, until I could pull it out. It was a ticket. There were traces of writing on it. I thought I was able to decipher “The Sound of Music” from what was left of the black marks. I lost interest and laid down the jacket. I fluffed up the front parts, and sprayed the inner pockets with the high-performance stain remover, suitable for silk and wool too, so that the jacket would be cleaned deep into the fabric. I perform a service with a personal touch. The dry cleaner looks like a washing machine, but it is almost as big as a wardrobe, with a porthole in the door. I opened the door and hung the jacket inside the corpus. I looked at the jacket until it started to flap in the fan, which in the case of this apricot-coloured material gave the effect of a flame flickering.
I sat down behind the table and all I had to do now was wait until the machine was finished. Meanwhile the coffee machine was gurgling in the little room behind me. When I am in the dry cleaners I practically sit in the shop window and have to look busy to attract the customers. The more customers there are, the higher the turnover and the higher my earnings. I wondered how long this jacket had not been worn for. I wanted to look for another job. I should be more attentive to people, perhaps I would study psychology.
Outside it was midsummer. Traces of dog sick were melting and evaporating into the heat. The air con hummed. I got my cup from the whatnot over the sink in the toilet. I poured coffee into the cup and carried it to the table. Looked at the jacket flapping as it was cleaned. Despite the heat the pipes were smoking outside.
I sniffed my coffee. The cleaners think it’s funny that I make my own coffee. I don’t save a cent by making coffee myself and not buying it from the deli next door. I have to keep busy, that’s why I make my own coffee. I would brew it properly if I could, to use up more time, but the dry cleaning uses up too much electricity and the fuse blows if I turn on the hob.
I could see the woman sitting in the nail studio in a sort of dentist chair. I thought I could at least make out the dark hair, she had white pads over her eyes and had her hands stretched out on a little table next to her. I was writing down bits of words. Looking out at the tree in the park outside the shop window and writing on my pad of paper. A crossword puzzle in English. If the paper was outside it would be so hot that it would start melting the pencil. I turned the air con up higher.
The nail technician shimmered with a green glow and her bended right arm was moving to and fro, as I looked over. The stewardess rested in her chair. She had put on a pair of headphones, which for a moment I had mistaken for pads that had slipped off her face.
I heard the rattle of the coffee machine. I drink lots of coffee. I lowered my head, looked at the piece of paper. Another word for escape. I was the only one in the shop. The others were off today. This evening I would treat myself to a second lemon soda to dilute all the coffee inside me. In the paper it said that the drought was already costing lives. In the park children were dousing themselves under the spray from the hydrant. The hydrant spat out water for half an hour in the morning and another half an hour in the afternoon. And for me there was an evening walk awaiting and in a couple of weeks the departure to Vienna. It wasn’t clear to me where the stewardess would be flying to today, but I imagined her sashaying off to some boulevard with her trolley bag and the jacket I had cleaned. Florida, maybe?
Homeless people were loitering around the playground, thirsting for the mist of water. Adults without children are not allowed onto the concrete play areas. The homeless people retreated to the shade of the trees to sit on the bunkers next to the path. The bunkers look like coffins. Grit is stored there for the winter. Like the spirits of the dead, the street people squatted on the bunkers and carried on talking and gossiping in the heat. The homeless stink like hell in the summer. When it’s cold the odour molecules knit together. They peeled themselves out of their clothes and threw their things over the telephone box, as I saw the black-haired woman sitting down at the window and laying her hands under a little infrared lamp, whilst the homeless people stretched their hands under the wire mesh fence, fishing for a few drops of water to rub onto their tattooed chests. The stewardess had tilted her head back and the greenly shimmering beautician was painting her face.
I looked at the ticket. The date was illegible, the letters and numbers had run into the material. Her daughter seemed to me to be too accomplished for her to like escapist kitsch. I opened the drawer under the table, got out an envelope and put the theatre ticket inside. I laid it on the table to give to the stewardess later. I weighted down the envelope with the caddy where all the assorted buttons, buckles, and broaches are kept. Cheap, unimportant bits and pieces, which have come off or been found in the laundry items and left in the dry cleaner’s, finds from all over the world. A soul-bird lies on top of a cloverleaf, a pentacle, a Star of David. Crucifixes, anchors, a spray of azaleas, crescent moons, edelweiss, there is even a swastika on a stickpin underneath. Who has lost that? An emigrant Nazi, an America Nazi or just an Indian? For Indians it is a good luck charm. The dry cleaner gave a tinging sound.
I waited a few more seconds. The jacket was hanging behind the porthole. For a second I doubted my sanity. The right arm of the jacket seemed to be twitching. Then came the click. I pressed the button and the door with the porthole sprang open. A wave of heat came out.
I took a sip of coffee, waited until the dry smell of textile had blended into the air in the room. Although there was only a jacket to take out and iron, I was in a hurry.
The jacket was still fine. No rips, no areas damaged or perished. I laid the jacket on the ironing board and got the plastic ready to pack it into, laid it out on the table. A check of the inside pockets gave a satisfactory result. I took the protective cloth and placed it on top of the jacket to protect the material before putting the hot iron on the collar. And that was when I discovered the dark stain on the apricot-coloured lapel. The stain was small, but it was definitely there. I would have to employ aggressive means to get rid of it. I fetched the bleach activator, quickly opened a new bottle, took out the toxic stick and brushed it on, fibre by fibre. I dried the area with the blow dryer, but could see straight away that the stain was more stubborn than I had thought. Sodium percarbonate can corrode material, but I was sure that if I dabbed at the stain, I would be able to deal with it before the woman came back from the nail studio. I pulled on a pair of gloves to stop my skin getting burnt, pressed the little sponge over the bottle and soaked it with the fluid. I dabbed it around the stain, turned the lapel over and did the same at the back as well, trying to get rid of the stain from behind, as it were. I scrubbed the fabric with the rough side of the sponge, but stopped at once when the area started to become felted. Using the rubber tip of the glove, I scratched at the area a bit more until I saw that the most I could do now was to paint a chelating agent and optical brightener over the spot. The inner edge of the collar, where the skin touches, was clean but not yet ironed. I wanted at least this area to be perfectly finished.
I saw the woman stepping out of the nail studio and tripping her way over the street. She noticed me looking and waved at me through the window from the middle of the street. I carried on ironing.
As she stepped over the threshold, I caught the smell of evaporating acetone. Her lips were now painted light pink. Her cheeks were powdered with apricot-coloured rouge and her eyes glistened. She looked rested, even more elegant than earlier on and very worldly in her stewardess uniform. I had the jacket ready.
The woman looked at me expectantly, waiting for the jacket. I laid the jacket down. I was going to wrap it right away, but carried on fiddling with the plastic. The woman stretched her hand over the table and laid it on the jacket lying unprotected on the table. My gaze fell on the index finger tapping the jacket, its nail now repaired and painted in apricot-coloured varnish.
So did you manage to sort out the little jacket, then?, The question was purely rhetorical, but the description “little jacket” still disturbed me, because somehow it devalued my work and my efforts. It had just been a normal jacket, then, after all.
I rustled the nylon. She hadn’t seen the mark on the lapel yet. I wanted to wrap up the jacket and draw the woman’s attention to my face. I considered whether I should even admit that the small dark spot on the left hand side underneath the tip of the lapel even existed at all, should she discover it.
I pulled the jacket over the table.
Am I an honest person or not?, I asked myself. I can’t act against my beliefs. I am an honest person. I said, the jacket is completely clean apart from – I didn’t have to say anything else.
She lowered her eyelids, registered the stain and stared at me desperately. I looked at the unfathomable brown of her iris and thought about the word pupil, which described nothing but an empty hole sucking me into its swirling depths.
Oh God, she said, a stain.
It was a pretty big splodge, I said, and explained what I had done to try to get rid of the marks.
She was still being polite, but she was sobbing desperately, saying that she couldn’t present the jacket to her mother with a stain on it like that. Her larynx bobbed as she said “mother”. She swallowed. Tears flooded her pretty eyes. She shook her head and babbled something like “no more time”. I asked her why it was so bad.
She asked how much the dry cleaning had cost.
I didn’t know either. I offered her a discount. She shook her head. I said I could have another go with the stain remover. I tried to comfort her, saying that it was just that the jacket had a stain that had eaten into the fabric, and so you couldn’t get rid of it, but you could hardly see it. Her mother would probably not even notice it, if she was old and long-sighted enough. I said that apart from that, the jacket still looked really nice.
The woman said that she could not get her mother ready for the viewing with a stain on the jacket.
I didn’t understand straight away what she meant when she said viewing. Once I had understood, I didn’t alter my expression. I was in New York and not in Hollywood. That it had never once occurred to me that I would be washing for eternity in a laundry shop made me feel disappointed and mortified. Had I not been in New York, but in Hollywood, I would surely have thought of the dead Evelyn Waugh, laid out and all made up in an open coffin. It’s because it’s New York, I’ve been distracted by all this vitality, I thought.
My mother should be remembered as she had wished to be, said the woman and sobbed. Apricot suited her – and the cheeks and the lips and the shawl and the nails – it’s not just an accident that all this is in the same subtle tone, it’s all co-ordinated, said the woman.
Of course, I see, I replied. Well, we will have to come up with something, then. Perhaps I can still help, after all, I said.
I pulled open the drawer and looked for something that might serve as a drape, but there was no shawl or scarf that would have fitted. Instead I took the caddy off the table and offered her a broach. As I opened the lid, the stewardess’s face brightened.
I was pleased I was able to lend her a hand in this sad and sensitive task. I nodded encouragingly at her. She placed her fingertips together, then shot out her hand and started rummaging around in the caddy. I looked around furtively as if I had landed in an accessory shop for neo Nazis, as she fixed the stickpin with the swastika onto the lapel. Does she think she’s doing her mother a favour? I was speechless. The stewardess acted as if nothing had happened, paid, and left the shop. Or is she an Indian?, I thought, looking for a more tidy explanation, as she got into a taxi and waved goodbye to me. Ok then, good luck.