‘Sunshine Cleaners’ by Daphne Kalotay
Any weekday in Brookline, drivers caught in Beacon Street traffic might see Sergei hurrying along a certain stretch of wet sidewalk. Sergei’s back crooks slightly to the left, and his pants, baggy on thin, bowed legs, billow in the cold April air. If he’s already completed his transaction, he’ll be heading west, pockets sagging with quarters. When he arrives back at Sunshine Cleaners, he obeys the “PUSH” sign on the door, half expecting—one might call it hope—to find something changed. But there’s old Lida behind the counter, smoking her second cigarette of the day, taking dirty silk shirts from a bald man. The man has also brought a pair of shoes to be resoled, and Lida is shaking her head.
“But the sign in the window says ‘Shoe Repair,’” the man protests. Other signs read, “24-Hour Tailoring,” “Instant Zipper Fix,” and “We Store Winter Furs!” but those are incorrect, too.
“Down the street,” says Lida, already turning back to her sewing machine, while Sergei, now out of his snow-flecked red satin bomber jacket, begins work: taking piles of clothes around to the front, past the partition, into the laundromat, over to the wall of bright yellow washing machines. All day he tosses clothes into washers and dryers and adds them to flat, folded stacks.
If it is a Monday, Sergei keeps an eye out for the tall girl. Last week she told him, “You disgust me!” This was after the change machine took her dollar without giving quarters, and Sergei, when notified, said, “Not my machine.” Other customers have given up on Sergei—if they ever addressed him at all—and no longer bother to approach him when machines malfunction. Not the tall girl. When she offered him her other dollar for four quarters, Sergei just shook his head. That was when the tall girl yelled, “You disgust me!” The two other customers looked frightened, not realizing that Sergei and the tall girl have such conversations regularly. Sometimes Lida, from her wooden seat in front of the Singer, joins in while hemming a skirt, not looking up, yelling, “You disgust me!” or “Not my machine!” or something in Russian that the tall girl can’t understand.