He must be at least 75. Our eyes meet when I push past him with my overflowing laundry basket, and I cough and look away. If laundromats are such good places to meet people, where are the ones my age? I plop my load down a few machines away and begin sorting colors and counting change.

I hate laundromats. If a screaming toddler isn’t running off with all the laundry carts, a gum-popping adolescent is intent on running you out with his boom box. Or some old geezer won’t leave you alone.

“Is cotton ‘wool’ or ‘permanent press’?”

“What?” I look up warily.

“Cotton–is it ‘wool’ or ‘permanent press’? My blanket is cotton.” The man is puzzling over the settings on his washer, and I look at mine. “Cotton” is not one of them.

He’s clean enough, I suppose, but he’s shabby. He has no teeth and very little hair and he’s holding a smoking cigarette in the direction of my laundry. Now he’s peering into his machine. I walk over, more out of curiosity than anything else.

He pokes at the pinkish mass inside. Like a bubble in some primordial soup, it heaves and undulates inside the washer. I look at it in disgust. What sort of creature is going to raise its head and walk away from this swamp?

“‘Wool,’ I guess,” I say. The thing looks woolly enough to me. It seems to be doing fine without my advice, though.

“You know,” the man says, “I just got back from Hot Springs, Arkansas. It’s a nice town, with all sorts of things to do.”

So. Now he thinks he has a friend because I looked at his blanket. He speaks with a lisp, and his voice is soft, maybe even gentle. Actually, it’s not a hard voice to listen to. But I’ve just come to the bottom of my basket and found a cockroach scrambling around inside. How am I going to get it outside so I can step on it?

“I like my hometown,” the man is saying. “You can do just about everything there. They sure don’t like homosexuals, though. No, sir.” He shakes his head emphatically, and I feel compelled to ask if he’s still talking about Hot Springs. There’s a shyness, a vulnerability in his eyes that I’m not used to seeing in a man. The only other time I’ve seen it was in a guy I used to date–until I discovered that his roommate was also his lover, and a longstanding one, at that. This man reminds me of Jim. He has the same awkwardness in his gestures, but mostly it’s that look in his eyes. What does he think I’m going to do to him?

“I’m not wearing my teeth,” he says. “They’re too loose. I was in the restaurant over there the other day,” he gestures vaguely, grinning, “when I opened my mouth to say something and my teeth fell out. I grabbed them up quick in a napkin. A lady there says, ‘What’s that you picked up?’ Because she saw something, but she didn’t know what it was. I didn’t tell her, though. How could I tell her it was my teeth that fell out on the floor?”

He is laughing now. I laugh too, in spite of myself. What should he have done? Would the woman really have wanted to see his teeth grinning up at her from his hand? While she was trying to eat?

Our laughter dies away and he looks again at the blanket. “My hotel burned down, you know,” he says. His voice is shaking a little. “Did you hear about it? Over on Belmont? It burned down to the ground. Everything. I had a stereo, a color TV. They said the TV exploded. I had a safe-deposit box there, too, with all my money.”

I fidget. When am I going to study for my test, so I can get through this program, so I won’t have to be a secretary and come to a laundromat for the rest of my life? It’s hard enough to keep up with the homework and a full-time job without these interruptions. I can’t afford the time I’m wasting with this guy. But there’s no stopping him now.

“My boss owns the liquor store over there, next door. That’s where I work. I knew something was wrong, so I said, ‘Can I please, please have the day off?’ But by the time I got there it was too late.” He’s still smiling, sort of, but he’s staring down at the vibrating washer.

“The Red Cross was there. I thought they would give people a place to stay,” he says, a flush creeping into his pale face. He opens his eyes a little wider as he looks at me. “Wouldn’t you think so? I did. But they were only there because they wanted blood. The only ones who helped were the Salvation Army, and they found a place for two families, but that’s all.”

“What did you do?” I ask, appalled.

“My boss is going to help me get a place,” he says. “A friend of his loaned me some money for food. My boss let me sleep in his car. He’s a very nice man.” Then, almost under his breath, “It got awfully cold last night, though.”

The man looks off out the window. It’s getting dark outside now. Our reflections stare back at us.

He pulls on his cigarette. “Have you ever gone sailing? I love to go sailing. My boss has a boat. He keeps it out at some lake, not Lake Michigan. He took me sailing on it once, and we stayed with a rich friend of his. It was so nice. I said to him, ‘Oh, if I give you $200, can I stay?'” He laughs. We both laugh.

He turns away from the window. “My boss is going to help me get a place tomorrow. That building over there is no good.” He nods toward it. I can barely make out its bulk in the dim light. “That’s where drug dealers and prostitutes hang out. But that guy owns another building, and if you’re going to live there, you strictly cannot drink. He’s an alcoholic, though. Maybe I can get a place from him tomorrow. They’re nice places. You get your own room, with a sink and everything–$200. I sure hope I can get one.”

I’ve finished sorting my laundry; three machines are churning away with it. There’s another load, a small dark one, that I don’t have enough change to wash. “I have to take these clothes back to the car,” I explain, but he’s not hard to get away from. Outside I look for the cockroach, but I can’t find it. I’m edgy as I throw the clothes into the trunk and carry the basket back.

The man doesn’t look at me anymore. He’s staring out the window, smoking his cigarette. I begin to study for my test. I don’t notice when he moves over to the dryers and takes a seat by the window. But at some point I glance over and see him there, and I’m sorry we’re not talking anymore. When he leaves, I tell myself, I’ll catch his eye and say goodbye, wish him luck.

But it doesn’t take long to get a blanket out of a dryer. When I look up again, he’s gone.