“One can of wax, one barrel of soap. Your change and the invoice are on the desk.” I said.
“Thanks Doc. Now you’re beginning to see how a real business operation is run. Easy-Quick car washes are a thing of the future.” Morris answered.
“Yeah, one on every corner,” I said and chuckled.
“Something like that Doc. You know you’re real smart, good at figuring things right away. One day you could manage an Easy-Quick and be just like me.” He reached down and grabbed a handful of belly through his vest and shook it. “This is prosperity.” He pointed to his head. “This is ingenuity.” Then he pulled his smoldering cigar from his mouth and gripped his desk. “And this is my place, Doc. I want you to remember that; lock, stock, and barrel.” He laughed “ and wax too. That’s all, you can go back to work. There’s a big Lincoln coming through, it needs a good towel job. See to it okay?”
“Sure Mr. Morris, right away.”
I left the office and found Willie Black wiping down the hood of a new 1956 Lincoln.
“That fat ass son of a bitch,” I said through the clouds of steam and water. I wanted to rub the triple black finish off the car hood.
“Ain’t but one man fits that handle, and he don’t work down here,” said Willie Black.
Willie worked for Morris for the past ten years, odd jobs mostly. Every business venture Morris had, had a Willie. They were expendable, exploitable and cheap. Morris bought Willie, and men like him along with the equipment. He used them both until they broke, or just wore out. Willie was forty-nine years old but his hands looked like a hundred. Gnarled and twisted arthritic fingers worked long enough to keep him chin deep in whiskey. He suffered the D.T. shakes so bad he couldn’t one hand a cup of coffee. All that and I kind of liked him.
“I don’t see how you take it.”
“Nothing to take,” he said. “My young buck days is over. Young Willie run when he wanted to run. Now the runnin is stopped. Just cars now, cars and whiskey. Don’t need nothing else.”
“Not me.” I said. “One day I’m gonna have it all, big house, no worries, and plenty of leisure time. Hell with washing cars. When that knock comes on the door, you better believe that I’m gonna jerk it open.”
“Missed, over by the hood.” Willie pointed to a spot the brushes missed.
“Got it. Where was I? Oh yeah, I’m going to have it all.”
Willie took a quick swallow of whiskey from the bottle inside his pocket. “Is that it?” he said wiping his mouth.
“No. I’m gonna have that woman from across the street.”
I stopped for a moment. What the hell did I just say? I wasn’t thinking about her and the way she moved in that dress. Her baby fine red hair falling over one eye.
Something stirred in me and I felt it tingle down my back, only for a moment and then it was gone.
A Chrysler eased around the back and lined up to come inside. One of the kids who skipped school regularly took the money and the man got out to wait. She slipped from my mind.
In the car wash business, that is the working end, you have to face one fact. You are eternally wet somewhere. Shoes, shirt, pants, it all gets wet. We worked steady that day till closing. I collected two dollars in tips. The two school kids departed early. Morris closed up and checked every lock twice.
“Good night, boys,” Mr. Morris said and climbed into his big Dodge and pulled away from the parking area. He left a fine brown mist of dust in his wake. I’d like to say Southern heat is all Mint Juleps, Gazebos, and back porch swings; it isn’t.
“How about a sip? It calms your nerves.”
“No thanks Willie, not tonight. I’m too wired up.”
“Sure?” He offered again.
“That bad, huh?”
“Ain’t but one look like that. All the same. Don’t matter if you’re black or white, the look is the same.”
Across the street Huxley’s neon sign extinguished and two people emerged from the front door. Frank and Margo Huxley climbed into a sleek red Buick convertible. The powerful engine roared to life and nosed the car out onto the street and headed West. I watched the tail lights until they blinked off in the distance.
“Boy, you got the worst kind.”
“What kind is that?”
“Another man’s wife”
“Come on Willie. You been sucking on that bottle too hard. You’re seeing something that isn’t even there.”
“Hah. I could suck the bottom out of this here bottle and go stone blind, and I could still see the way you was looking at her.”
“Willie, times like these I think you’re a plain old fool.”
“Then I guess that makes two of us.”
“G’nite Willie,” I said
“You take care, real good care Doc.”
Behind the car wash, and a couple of miles down Cooper’s street was Mrs. Gretchen’s Laundromat. Above that, a furnished one room walk up went for seven dollars a week. It was small but clean and close to work. I was lucky to get it, I guess. If you take into consideration a nosy landlady, and a damn striped cat that rubbed against my pant leg.
My landlady stood in the doorway of the laundromat with her hands on her hips. She was wearing a sleeveless wool sweater over a faded blue house dress. At 55 she had gained and lost all the things that had mattered most to her.
“Good evening Mrs. Gretchen. Fine summer night we got here.” I said, and started up the back stairs. My how-do-you-do’s paid up.
“Oh, Mr. Bonnely, how are you?”
She held me by the sleeve while her cat gave my leg the rub job.
“It’s Doc, Mrs. Gretchen, and I’m real tired.”
“A good woman could take care of that Mr. Bonnely. You could be coming home to a good hot meal right now. That’s what my man had for thirty years, May he rest in peace.”
“Sorry, well I guess I’ll be—“
“like I was saying to my niece today—she’s the one not married—a good woman is the best thing ever happened to a man.”
She talked, while Napoleon the cat did everything but wipe his ass on my shoe. “Say, time really flies and I’m dead beat tired,”
“Okay Mr. Bonnely, you rest. Oh, I took the liberty of letting myself in with the master key. Now you can sleep on clean sheets tonight.”
Upstairs, she looked at every stitch I had and put them back neat for the first time. I lay across the bed and smoked a cigarette in the semi-darkness while Margo pumped through my brain in hot waves.