Outside, it was evening and the night birds were settling quietly into their perches. Only the robins lingered to sing their last notes. The rush hour traffic on Higgins Street had begun to taper off as working people drove home with straight ahead stares at the sameness of everyday life. Not one of them noticed the middle aged woman pushing a grocery cart filled with clothes toward the Sparkle Clean Laundry and dry cleaners. Evelyn sat back against her suitcase and watched Katy Couric tell her how America’s day had been. She watched Katy’s face hang suspended in a television screen bolted to the ceiling of a Laundromat in Missoula Montana and it talked about the war and the economy and how tough things are getting to be for the middle class.
“You got that right sister.” Evelyn said to Katy.
When Evelyn still had a home, she talked to the television all the time; sometimes to argue and sometimes to exclaim agreement. When she had a home, Evelyn never gave much thought to the plight of the homeless because like most Americans, Evelyn never dreamed that she would actually run out of options.
Her divorce with Dwight was final in 1992 and it gave her the keys to the house along with a small manageable mortgage and an almost new Honda civic. Her sales position with a small well established printing firm seemed to be very secure until a merger closed the local office and Evelyn was laid off. Undeterred, she did some research on the internet about the popularity of Quilt shops and decided to open up a small shop of her own by buying into a new franchise which came highly recommended by her attorney. Evelyn cashed out her retirement account for the down payment and opened up her shop in 1996. At first, the franchise system worked. Business flourished and customers told their friends. The sewing classes were full and the business was fun to own.
After a few years corporations who had more money than Evelyn began to take notice of the success of small quilt shops. They opened larger shops with convenient parking lots and better signs. They were brightly inviting with more lighting and they enticed with huge advertising budgets. They never seemed to close. Seven days a week. Fourteen hours a day and staffed by underpaid workers who were very good at aggressive selling. Evelyn’s sales very quickly slipped into the red numbers and she began to take out home equity loans on her little house to stay open and to pay her staff. It was the nineties and everyone was offering low interest loans on homes that were escalating in value at unprecedented levels.
Evelyn began to panic. Her mortgage was twice as big as it used to be. She now brought home less than half her former salary. But instead of giving in, Evelyn reviewed her options and bravely forged ahead day after day, month after month. The red ink growing.
Soon, her retirement was gone and now the house was in danger if she did not bring the business around. She took out more loans to pay for advertising. That brought in a little more business, but not enough to pay for the extra expense of the advertising. In 2001, Evelyn was forced by the sheriff to close her doors. She filed bankruptcy and her little house was sold to pay her creditors. She held an auction of all her best quilts to pay the lawyer and to make first and last deposit on her modest apartment. Evelyn quickly found work at a local grocery chain as a checker at age 49. The paychecks were miserable for long hours but the discount on groceries helped and she soon discovered the taste of boxed wine was not too bad if you drank enough. Pretty soon two boxes a day were just about right. After a few years of two boxes of wine a day the manager noticed her appearance was slipping so he took her off the main grocery lines to work behind the camera bar and help customers with their money orders, lottery tickets and the occasional complaint.
This seemed to go Ok for a few years until one of the customers smarted off to Evelyn on a busy Friday night with twelve people in line and Evelyn really let her have it. The assistant manager brought her into his dark office in back of the store surrounded with dented cans of tuna and smashed boxes of crackers. He told Evelyn she was laid off indefinitely and that she should apply for unemployment because he didn’t see a position opening up for her anytime soon. The manager was away that day on a fly-fishing trip so Evelyn didn’t even get the satisfaction of telling the poor kid’s boss off. The poor kid was too scared to even look at her. Evelyn comforted him, smiled, stood up and took her apron off and strolled out of his dismal office. On the way out, she bought her first pack of cigarettes in twenty years along with two more boxes of wine. Evelyn walked out the automatic door into the parking lot not knowing what she would do next but confidant that there were plenty of other options.
The Honda died the next day in the middle of Brooks Avenue right in front of Walmart on her way to a job interview. A nice teenage boy with a crew cut helped Evelyn push it out of the way of the honking horns and irate shoppers who glared at Evelyn as they passed- their faces cutouts of hatred. They cursed at Evelyn for her inconvenient trouble causing them a delay in their routine. Evelyn thanked the teenage boy and she got behind the wheel and she cried while the traffic whizzed past. She tried the key one more time and then she grabbed her purse and her small bag of groceries along with two boxes of wine and she lifted up the hood of the old car to flag down a passing traveler for a ride home.
The unemployment ran out in January and Evelyn had to sell the car to pay the fines and tow bill to the city. She tried to walk to her next job cleaning rooms in a motel but her knee gave out during a blinding February blizzard and landed her in St Patrick’s hospital for two weeks. When Evelyn got out, she had no job, a partial paycheck for 32.40 for one day’s work and an eviction notice on her apartment door. She bought four boxes of wine and a pack of cigarettes and waited for the sheriff to knock. Evelyn discovered with alcohol dulled surprise that she had finally and ultimately lost her home.
The television was a comforting sound in the Laundromat. After Katy, the local news came on and Evelyn’s load still had twenty minutes to dry. She walked to the rest room and locked the door while she performed a PTA wash and sprayed herself with an extra dose of right guard. At age 56, Evelyn still had a cute face, dimpled with fading freckles and some red hair still showed through the white. The wine kept her weight down except for the protruding belly which she could suck in when needed. Evelyn thought about what Katy had said tonight. The war was bankrupting the country. The price of gas was approaching five dollars a gallon and jobs were scarce as unemployment continued to escalate during the recession. Food was too expensive and many families were turning to food banks to make it through the month. Many were losing their homes thanks to the economy. As she thought about these things Evelyn looked at herself in the mirror and smiled. She still had half a box of wine and Dwight’s stepson had invited her to come to Seattle to spend a few weeks to see the new baby. Two weeks of hot showers and a bed would be nice, Evelyn made up her mind to go right down to Salvation Army in the morning and take them up on their offer of a one way ticket to Seattle to help her out. Evelyn took another look at herself in the mirror, frowned at something and applied just a touch of rouge to her cheeks. She was reviewing her options when someone pushed against the locked door and hesitated briefly before walking away.