The Stain

Submitted into Contest #31 in response to: Write a short story about someone doing laundry.... view prompt


Drama Romance

The stain is a black smudge on my white pillowcase. Depending on my mood, it reminds me of a horse or a pineapple or the Green Dragon character on a mahjong tile. It’s an inkblot test I take every Wednesday night at Tumbles Laundromat on Park Street. 

The stain is one year, three months and fifteen days old.

There’s hardly anyone here on a Wednesday. I used to come on a Sunday evening when it’s busy with a pocket full of coins, a book, and the expectancy of finding a girl or two to talk to.

Back then, when I met Harriet, I was one of those guys who was yet to realise girls appreciated—desired—being able to complete their domestic duties without guys trying to pick them up. 

I say pick them up, but I was never active in my pursuit of girls. Especially at the laundromat. I was more subtle than the other guys who tried clever lines and offered to buy drinks at the bar across the street. Though I had seen that strategy work on occasion, my technique was to select a book that I knew to be popular with girls at the time, hoping one would initiate conversation. 

Maybe a cute brunette would ask if I identified with the motivations of the psychotic wife in Gone Girl. Or a bookish girl hiding a tight body might ask if I thought Marcus in The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair was a dick and that she didn’t understand all the hype. We’d agree, then we’d go to the bar to further debrief on the state of popular fiction.

I’d thought of it as being passive assertive. Now, I realise, it was more like laying bait. Fishing. Predatory in a way.

Now, since Harriet, I read books because I want to actually read them. I sort my laundry, insert the coins, flip pages that provide a raspy contrast to the hum of the machines that are unable to—or perhaps refuse to—remove the stain from my pillowcase.

She walked in that Sunday with a basket of mixed colours on her hip and a flustered look on her face. It wasn’t busy for a Sunday and I had an unimpaired view of the girl with the wavy sun-bleached hair thrown up in a messy bun with a black velvet scrunchie.

I’d tilted Girl on a Train so she could see it clearly and waited for a nibble on my line.

As is typical of people not preoccupied with searching for dates, she appeared devoted to the task of laundry and she stuffed her garments into a machine. Then she stood back and considered the instructions as if they were hieroglyphics. She held a coin and searched for the slot. 

I watched her frustration gather around her forehead before I finally said, “It’s that box on the right.”

“Oh, yeah,” she said, smiling. “With the giant words that say ‘insert coin’.”

She deposited the coin, twisted a few knobs, then cautiously pressed start. She hesitated for a moment, hands raised, perhaps wondering if the beast was going to eat her clothes.

“You good?” I asked.

“Yes, sorry,” she said, shaking the frown from her face. She forced a polite smile and added, “Thank you. I’m hopeless with these washers.”

“It doesn’t help that each laundromat has different machines.”

Her frown returned and she dug out her vibrating phone. “Hey, Dad.”

She walked out and tucked a shaggy tress over her ear as she spoke. “Wait, hang on a sec,” she said and came back inside. “Sorry, do you think you could watch my laundry for a minute?” she asked.

“No problem,” I said.

“Thank you so much,” she said and went back to her phone. She walked outside and above the droning machines, I heard her say, “It just stopped working, Dad. I have no idea. It’s not even that old…”

I shared a look with the old lady I saw every week but was too ashamed to ask her name after she’d told me months prior and I’d forgotten it immediately.

“Pretty girl,” she said.

“You think so?” I asked though I’d had very similar feelings. “It’s been so long since I had a date, all girls look incredible to me.”

The old woman chuckled and folded her washing. “Nice handsome boy like you. Why don’t you ask her out?”

“Me? Oh, please. She’s way out of my league,” I said. “Besides, she’s definitely taken.”

“I don’t think so,” the woman replied.

“Trust me, they’re all taken.”

“A girl’s washing machine breaks down, she’s here on her own, and she calls her father? If she’s dating someone, it can’t be that serious.”

By the time the girl came back, I’d folded my washing and was sitting in front of her machine reading.

“I am so sorry,” she said. “Trying to find a repair guy on a Sunday night is impossible.”

“It’s really okay,” I said. “Mine only just finished,” I lied.

She looked at the machine sloshing noisily.

“How much longer to go?” she said, perhaps to me, maybe to the machine.

“Looks like you put it on a delicates cycle. Could be a while.”

“Should I cancel it?” she asked, looking at her watch.

“Got somewhere else to be?” I tried to smile in a charming way, and perhaps I did because she said no, she didn’t with a reciprocal smile that caught me off guard.

“I’ll buy you a beer across the street,” she said. “To apologise for keeping you waiting.”

“I told you I wasn’t waiting long.”

“Bullshit,” she said with a smirk that conjured a dimple from her left cheek. “You must have read fifty pages of that book since I left.”

“You noticed where I was up to when you came in?”

“I can see where you marked your page by folding it.”

“It’s a bad habit,” I admitted. “I feel like I’m defacing a book every time I do it, but I hate having a bookmark loose in the pages when I’m reading.”

“I feel the same way,” she said. “But when I borrow a book from a friend and I get to a page they folded, I feel like we share a moment. Sometimes I feel like picking up the phone and saying, ‘Hey, you put the book down in chapter four when the girl just got kidnapped’ or whatever. Like, ‘How could you put the book down then?, you know?”

I said, “If I’m reading at night and I’m tired, I’ll put the book down at a dramatic moment because I know it’ll keep me up longer. If it’s a really intense scene, then I’ll be too consumed by what’s happened to go to sleep.”

“Well, yeah,” she said, cocking her head. “I guess that’s true, maybe.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.



We shared a handshake and a comfortable silence before I said, “How about that beer?”

Three months later she moved into my apartment. She’d gotten her washing machine fixed but it broke within a month of the move and we made Sunday afternoon our laundry day with beers across the street from the laundromat while we waited.

When the washing was dried, we’d get takeout and a DVD, drink wine, and change the bedsheets which, we’d discovered, was far less of an ordeal when we were a bit drunk and was absolutely hilarious when we were a lot drunk.

The problems began when I lost my job at the café.

“It’s no big deal,” I’d said.

“It’s no big deal when you’re sixteen, Fletch,” she’d said. “It’s kind of a big deal when you’re thirty-one and only have a high school diploma.”

“Well, now I’ve got time to go back to school.”

But, of course, I didn’t go back to school.

Her saintly patience and raw chemistry got us through those first few months of our single-income existence. She forgave my listless approach to finding a job while I sent text messages of excerpts from the books I would never write.

“LOVE THIS!” she replied to an essay-length text of a scene in which a man tended to an injured bird.

“Can’t wait to find out what happens x” she responded to a 100-word flash fiction piece about a boy who builds a rocket out of aerosol cans.

“Okay?” was the reply to a sentence I thought might have been the opening to the first chapter in a collection of short stories about superheroes with chronic allergies.

Harriet had a pretty decent-paying job as a medical receptionist which was enough to pay rent and do our laundry. But the beers and take away and DVDs petered out to a once-a-month treat.

I was writing for a community newspaper—volunteer, of course—while working on three unfinished manuscripts and various short stories, none of them any good.

Money was getting tight.

When Harriet asked—gently at first—about my progress, I embellished my daily output and the interest from various publishing and media establishments. I insisted I could choose something now that I was destined to be unhappy with, or, hold out until something I actually liked came along.

“Okay,” she said with a look that suggested it wasn’t as okay as it used to be. 

One afternoon she came home from a particularly stressful day and I had, regrettably, failed to clean up both my breakfast and lunch dishes. It didn’t help that I was still in the same Iron Maiden t-shirt from the night before and that I had made significant progress in my video game.

“How was your day?” she said, wide-eyed, exasperated, indicating to the state of the apartment as she dropped her bags.

“Wrote a few words,” I lied. “Some I might keep. Maybe.”

“Oh, well that’s great, Fletch. Really great.” She threw her keys in the general direction of the fruit bowl that hadn’t, due to our budget, accommodated fruit in weeks. The keys skidded off the benchtop and clattered onto the floor.

“How was yours?” I leaned my head back toward her but never took my eyes off the screen while I strafed and jumped and shot and killed the unrelenting enemy.

I didn’t hear her answer. It was distant, an approaching storm threatening. I didn’t ask her to repeat it.

I heard her open the fridge then slam it shut. The magnetic picture frame with our Santa photo joined the keys on the floor.

It dawned on me how late it was and that I‘d forgotten our dinner. Before she could ask what the fuck I’d been doing all day, I said, “I thought we’d have Chinese tonight.” Adding as I trotted out the door, “Because you’ve been working so hard and you’re amazing.”

Seeking salvation, I ordered her favourite duck stir fry but my card was declined and I had to settle for lemon chicken from the bain-marie.

I walked back in with a spring in my step I didn’t feel and proceeded to make a great fuss out of setting the table. I put on the John Mayer playlist she liked. I told her to go and have a shower, to relax, but she was already standing in a damp towel with an incredulous look on her face.

“Okay, well dinner’s ready when you are, babe,” I said. I had a tea towel over my arm in the manner of a maître d' at a restaurant we couldn’t hope to afford. In the past, this might have elicited a positive reaction, even a delighted chuckle on a good day, but that night it seemed to illustrate in unfiltered reality how utterly pathetic I was.

She slumped down, still in her towel, and stared at the unappetising golden nuggets glistening under the fluorescent kitchen light. She looked up at me, her face still blotchy and pink from the scalding showers she took on bad days.

“Any rice?” she said.

“Shit,” I said. “Do we have any?”

She clenched her jaw and her fists, muttered something under her breath, stood abruptly, and marched to our bedroom. I imagined the aura of her fury as great solar flares, pulsating out from her knotted shoulders, disintegrating my ribcage, pulverising my heart; amplified by my acceptance that I absolutely, unequivocally, deserved her rage. 

I watched as she cast her towel onto the floor and got into bed naked. John Mayer was singing about a wonderland body and I knew there would be none of the explorations he described that evening or for any evening in the foreseeable future.

I woke up on the couch the next morning unshowered, repulsed by my own filth and wallowing in self-pity. On the coffee table, beneath empty beer cans and a half-eaten plate of lemon chicken, sat my notepad and pencil. I felt I was sufficiently miserable to perhaps evoke the inspired words and lyrics of true artists. But the Xbox controller was also there and the console beeped and whirred to life. 

I heard the shuffling of Harriet’s drawers before she emerged stone-faced and sheathed in bright activewear that appeared incongruous with her mood. A lifetime spent in the ocean had given her a remarkable figure and I longed for this episode to be over.

“Another productive Sunday for you then?” she said as she pulled up her blonde mane with the black scrunchie.

“I’ll finish this level, clean up, and then I thought we could do something?”

“Oh, great, Fletch. ‘Something’?” She muttered something under her breath again. “Well, I’ve got plans with the girls so I’m not sure when I’ll be back.”

“By this afternoon?”

“I don’t know,” she said crouching to lace her trainers. Then she stood, defiant. Her eyes were red and puffy and I could tell she hated being seen like this so I looked at her shoes.

“Going for a run?” I asked.

“Maybe,” she said. “I might just walk until I feel better. So I could be a long, long time.”

“I’ll do the washing then?” I said. I’d not meant it to sound like a question so I repeated it as a statement, “I’ll do the washing then.”

“You do that,” she said and walked out.

Later, I pulled the curtains back, opened the windows, and stripped the bed. In the bright sunshine, the evidence of our evolved nocturnal habits was obvious. Where, in our first months of living together, our designated sides of the bed had been determined by what side we fell asleep on after having sex, now the boundaries of our zones were clearly demarcated by discolouration roughly the shape of our bodies. On my side of the bed, a grey, formless cloud sullied the area in which I tossed and turned. On Harriet’s side, the small ball into which she curled left a slight yellowing of the sheets from the oils she applied to keep her skin soft. She was keeping her skin soft for me, she’d said after I complained she was staining the sheets.

I noticed the stain when I stuffed the bedding into our laundry bag. I thought for a moment it might have been ink before realising it was mascara. I remembered in her hurry to escape my wretched presence the night before, Harriet had not completed the cleansing ritual she religiously performed before bed.

It was exceptionally rare for Harriet to cry. At least, it was rare for her to let me see her cry.

To see her tears burned into her pillowcase like ash in melted wax was profoundly unsettling. I felt utterly disgusted with myself and great waves of regret crashed down over me with suffocating weight.

I repented my sins. I vowed to clean up my act, to get a job, to write my book, to buy Harriet flowers and duck stir fry. I would get my body to a state that more closely resembled the kind that Harriet’s toned physique deserved to be pressed against.

But first, I would do our laundry.

I raided the coin jar Harriet had labelled ‘Holiday!’ and schlepped the laundry bag down to Tumbles Laundromat.

When the wash was finished, I inspected the pillowcase and saw the black stain remained as clear and accusatory as if it were a part of the original design.

I scratched my fingernail over it in an attempt to remove it from the fibres but the stain held fast.

My elderly laundry companion tapped the lid of her bleach.

“Add a capful of this and some aspirin to your whites and they’ll be good as new,” she said.

“Thanks, ma’am,” I said, reaching for the bleach. “That’s very kind of you.”

I stuffed the pillowcase back into the machine and unscrewed the cap, then stopped.

I didn’t have any more coins for the machine.

“You know what?” I said to the woman. “I actually don’t have time to do another load. I’ll do this by hand at home.”

“How’s that girl of yours?” she said. I was probably just paranoid with guilt but I felt as though she knew where the stain had come from.

“She’s okay,” I said, hoping it sounded convincing enough that there’d be no follow-up questions. “See you next time.”

Harriet didn’t come home that night. Or the next night.

On Tuesday she came home with her dad who helped her clean out her stuff. She even took her busted washing machine.

That was a year, three months, and thirteen days ago.

At Tumbles Laundromat, I’m stuffing my bedding into the machine with a capful of bleach and an aspirin. In a separate machine, I’ve put the pillowcase with Harriet’s mascara stain. It’s not as black as it was but it’s still dark enough to remember her.

The stain is a black smudge on my white pillowcase. Depending on my mood, it reminds me of a horse or a pineapple or a black velvet scrunchie tangled in sun-bleached hair.

March 02, 2020 13:34

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I love how you wrapped up the ending with a sentence that had the same idea as the introduction. This got me hooked, great job Matt!


Matt Strempel
19:33 Mar 26, 2020

Thanks, Caleb. Appreciate the feedback. Glad you enjoyed the story! Hope you’re keeping well.


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Jess Errington
17:56 Mar 10, 2020

A brilliant submission - I was hooked trying to see how it would all pan out and I love how it spiralled back to the stain. And like Kimberly said, the tension between the characters is so well written, the way it just seems to weave through everything they say and do.... Wow!


Matt Strempel
19:52 Mar 10, 2020

Thanks, Jess. Your feedback means a lot.


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Kimberly Yu
03:46 Mar 10, 2020

The structure of your story is very cool! I like how you started and ended with the stain, and I could really feel the tension between the characters.


Matt Strempel
06:46 Mar 10, 2020

Thanks, Kimberly. Good of you to take the time to read and leave feedback. I'll be sure to go and check out your submissions!


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