by Joshua Silavent
God, she would bang those small-round metallic buttons on the spin washer with the palm of her hand again and again trying to punch quarters through the sticky slot, grimy and gummy like a weathered keyhole, the windblown grit of land and man carried into the slit by coins earlier wormed through – the silver pieces plucked, perhaps, from a street curb, a restaurant floor or the hand of a stranger inside this sullen public laundry where dried streaks of cigarette smoke stain the walls piss-brown-down.
“Oh, come on Jesus,” Willa Reed said.
This was just the way she prayed. For others to hear – God, too, perhaps, the echo penetrating the clouds between earth and heaven.
Willa Reed called to Christ so often that her prayers became her everyday talk, her grunts and moans, her praise and complaints. Forgiveness was appropriate for those who assumed she was just speaking to herself.
Anyone and anything crossing her path appeared to Willa Reed not as a physical, fluid form of breath and blood and guts in a wrap of skin, but more like an apparition finely sketched by the wisps of the wind, or the bellow of an air conditioner, the ghostly presence of family, friends or strangers demanding satisfaction or reproach that she knew only the architect could design.
So, the apparent disconnect between Willa Reed and the crowd remained persistently, intently in place, like she was cutting off the head of her own shadow, the keeper of doubt and tether to the fleshly world.
Willa Reed kept wiggling and jiggling those quarters through the slot, and when she ran out of coins, pulled a crumpled dollar from her front-pants pocket, uncurled the green paper and began rubbing her thumbs along its edges trying to smooth the creases so it would slide tenderly into the nearby change machine. But once, twice and three times the dollar was spit out like a child saying “yuck!” to the taste of peas.
“Don’t let me down now, Lord Jesus, not when I’ve got one last load to wash and dry,” Willa Reed said, looking up at the ceiling and pulling her fingers into softly clenched fists that were more a sign of devotion than frustration. “I gots to get going soon, anyhow, Lord Jesus. You know I gots to pick that boy up from school. What a handful … oh, Jesus, come now.”
When a stick-figured, middle-aged Latino man looked her way, eyebrows askance, nose sniffling and lips parting for broadcast, Willa Reed waved him over with a flick of her head before a word jumped out from his mouth.
“Ya damn right I pray for it,” Willa Reed said to the man who never did speak. “I pray all day, for anything, for everything, to find my keys, to catch a green light, for the characters in that movie about … well, I want ‘em dead or alive. But my pray, my way.”
Sewage runoff draining from five-generation-old homes once pooled beneath this public laundry, when the land was a vacant plot adjacent to a city jail, the holding pens now torn down, the land graded for mixed-use developers.
Today, a right turn turns you right to the city’s pristine white lakefront homes on Long Street, manicured with spiral columns of society’s regal indifference to the mold growing up from crawl spaces of sagging homes a few blocks away.
Lining the neighborhood’s backend are the interloping denizens of youth and age, race and gender, singles and families, homes and apartments, parks and littered creeks.
A left turn from the laundry turns you to the proverbial but no less real otherside-of-the-railroad-tracks with morning and nightly trains rolling freight cars with stapled or welded goods on switch-back double-lines.
That’s where Blue Town is located, those unsold seven blocks of African-American lore and haven south of Long Street that date to the earliest days of Reconstruction. A park, Baptist church and civil rights nonprofit running its affairs out of a 1930s brick-ranch home mark the neighborhood’s boundaries.
Latinos have carved the western side of the city into a crisscrossed corridor of languishing pastel homes and Spanish-language businesses – bodegas, butchers, car sales, salons, restaurants, tax prep services, taco stands, more car sales.
Every time I drive Terminus Highway I see day laborers thumbing for jobs in half-empty strip mall parking lots. And I always slow as I approach the Georgiana Inn, with its drop-in addict-priced rooms cleaned by short, sturdy immigrant women escaping unspoken violence by walking the motel’s balcony day and night.
The lines had been drawn between the races, the origins. Not in sand, but in sidewalk.
But the laundry was a place where some of the city’s disparate relations melted together in a state of rugged and wretched, yet often joyful, interplay.
The homeless had their clothes washed here for free every Monday night thanks to a local ministry. Saturdays and Sundays were awash in families uprooted from Mexico and Guatemala, migrants before the boom and the crackdown. Black families were the steady clientele on weekday mornings and afternoons, which also brought in work-a-day strays and tramping hangers-on and endless passers-thru. A few poor, single white mothers were regulars, always dutifully folding children’s clothes on the plastic yellow tabletops.
Worlds converging and colliding, neighborhoods rubbing and skimming along each other’s sides. The sharpening of knives. Fire from a flint.
“No-no … that’s not … not the way you do it, son,” Willa Reed said, her words dripping like a slow leaky faucet.
She had picked James up from school and returned to the laundry to finish her last load. But her instruction was useless, and James shot off to the row of old arcade games pinched into one corner.
I had known Willa Reed for about seven months, having been introduced by her cousin, a friend, after giving him a ride to a family reunion at a local motel one Sunday afternoon. That’s where we found Willa Reed sitting on a bench in a breezeway near the drained pool. She was humming and circling the tips of each finger across the nails of her thumbs.
Ever since, when spotting me at the laundry, Willa Reed offered a wink, sometimes a grin, for a greeting, but rarely a word.
Yet, with James mashing the big red-and-yellow buttons and contorting the joystick on the Pac-Man game, Willa Reed grabbed my wrist and with a whisper asked me to follow her outside.
There, she explained to me that James heard words in his head that would arrest his spirit and leave him stirring in a world of neurotic creation. Much like the rest of us – but different. His creations never leapt from imagination to page, or into speech, only action and movement.
He was her only child, and she was an only mother, tired of bouncing from one job to the next, she said, always renting and tired of asking for help with the rent.
Willa Reed was saying things to me like, “God did this …” and “God meant this …”
I suppose these affirmations of faith gave her solace about James’ fate. Otherwise, I had no idea what she meant. But I believed her. The way she shaped her words, the pacing of her phrases, melodic but syncopated, could drown a cynical heart in the music of devotion. At least until the organ was resuscitated by the next news scandal.
Willa Reed told me that she imagined heaven as a place with all the drama of this life but without the consequences. I wondered inside whether faith should be so certain. Still, I liked her vision, and pictured all the things I’d never have to apologize for, and all the bearing witness I might forever forget.
Later, as I gathered my clothes from the dryer, I heard Willa Reed singing, “No God of mine would do this …” and “No God of mine would mean this …” as she snapped her fingers in rhyme and shook her hips side to side.
I figured it was her way of answering the why of why James was who he was. Even the existentialists invented purpose where they thought none inherently existed.
When I held the door for Willa Reed as she left the laundry, I said, “God bless you.”
“He once did,” she said, nodding toward James. “But the world belongs to the youth and I hear Jesus saying, ‘Let go.’ So, let go, young man, of this door, whether you’re coming or going. Now, I will go.”
About the Author
Joshua Silavent is an award-winning journalist based in the greater Atlanta area. He was named Beat Reporter of the Year in Georgia by the Associated Press in 2015 for his extensive reporting on homelessness and affordable housing shortages. Silavent’s journalism has informed his lyrical, narrative and "reportorial" poetry. His poetry most recently appeared in the January 2019 edition of Driftwood Press.