Tucker Abbott sat at the edge of the couch in his suite of small rooms. With an indelible laundry pen, he carefully wrote his name and new address on the stiff canvas collar of his new green duffel. Then he filled the bag with his laundry, threaded the clasp through the holes, and buckled the bag shut. He lifted it once to test its weight.
Not too heavy—since it’s only been a few days.
He checked to see if there might be something else he should gather. While the inventory didn’t take long, he did decide, as he glanced around his bedroom, to take one of the books from his nightstand.
There were two books on the table, under the tiny lamp with the shade that wouldn’t remain level no matter how many times Tucker attempted to straighten it. He hefted each of the books, as if testing for the weight of their words.
In his right hand, he held a recent biography—thick and massive—of Martin Luther. Tucker found the writing deep and nearly impenetrable. The work came highly recommended, with a full page of plaudits by well-known scholars glowing on the back cover. Each scholar’s name was followed by an alphabet of degrees—many of them from seminaries Tucker had once considered attending.
The other book, a paperback, newly purchased only a week prior in the Minneapolis airport, displayed a metallic cover with a title so glossy it appeared to have been varnished. Thick red letters on the back cover shouted out: Terror at 40,000 feet! There were no scholars on this book—just a flinty picture of the author in a worn jacket with dozens of pockets.
Tucker grimaced. After a second or two of internal debate, he slipped the biography of Luther into the duffel and resnapped the catch. He could almost hear the voice of his mother, clear and pleading.
“You need to be deliberate, young man. Maybe someone will see
you reading a good book and they’ll ask you about it. That might be an opening. . . . You have to plan for that and never leave an opportunity to share to chance.”
Tucker offered a wry, nearly sad smile. It was a certainty no one would ask him about the Luther book—especially with the stern and very unsmiling portrait of the theologian on the cover.
Mrs. Abbott stood by the front door, almost as if she were expecting her son to return. She stepped out onto the small landing and looked down the street. The elms had just begun to turn, and a scattering of yellow leaves rustled along the sidewalk, hastened by a short breeze.
Chicago is so far away, Mrs. Abbott thought. Not like Northfield—or even Minneapolis.
She patted at her hair, making sure the wind hadn’t ruffled it from its proper place. She sighed at the sight of the empty street. She had been so certain when she and her husband sat Tucker down and explained the dangers of Chicago that their only son would be forced to reconsider.
But he didn’t.
She waited outside for several more minutes, then stepped back inside the house and carefully locked the door behind her.
It was just September and still warm. Tucker left his light jacket in the closet and carefully locked the door to his apartment. He re-moved the key and jiggled the doorknob a few times, making sure it was secure. He pushed on the door to check if somehow the latch might slip open with a shoulder pressed against the jamb.
Habits observed for a lifetime were hard to escape.
The door and its lock held firm. Tucker slipped the duffel under his arm and adjusted the strap on his shoulder.
The short, swarthy fellow—the one with a narrow, pinched face and nearly black eyes—in the apartment across the hall had provided directions to the nearest Laundromat, or had at least attempted to. It had taken Tucker several minutes to convey that he needed to find a place to wash clothing. Afterward, he felt as if he were playing charades in a strange country where both English and the concept of doing one’s laundry were completely foreign.
But Tucker had heard the name “MacKenzie Street” several times, and he thought he’d heard the word “north.” He had proceeded to fetch his neatly folded map of the city of Chicago, and his neighbor had traced with his finger the route Tucker would need to take to find this Laundromat. Then the swarthy fellow had jabbed at an intersection several times with great enthusiasm, smiling and nodding and repeating a string of words that Tucker could make no sense of whatsoever.
To Tucker’s relief, MacKenzie didn’t appear to be a long street—only six blocks from the looks of it. He peered constantly at the street sign on the corner at the end of each block, worried that somehow the name would change as he traveled north. His parents’ fussings and warnings, issued just a week prior to his departure, echoed loudly in Tucker’s memory.
The two of them, knees pressed together, had perched on their green sofa in the front room of the compact house on the north side of Owatonna, Minnesota.
Tucker had thirty-four years of experience listening to such warnings. His parents had warned him of the dangers of attending college in Minneapolis. They had warned him, biannually for six years, of the dangers of living and working in that big city. Even when he finally listened to his mother and enrolled at a seminary twenty miles from home, they continued to issue monthly warnings.
After a time, Tucker stopped hearing them altogether.
The stoplight turned yellow as the images of those last few days in his hometown replayed themselves in Tucker’s thoughts.
“You don’t have to go to Chicago to serve God,” his father had argued. “He’s right here in Minnesota, as well, Tucker. I’m sure He’s here in Owatonna. You can change your mind. I’m sure they’ll understand.”
“Chicago is dangerous,” his mother had said. “Ralph down at the Dollar General said that the North Side—where this church of yours is supposed to be—is the mugging capital of the upper Midwest.” At these words, Tucker’s mother had blanched white. She had practiced blanching for years.
Traffic stopped. Tucker looked both ways and hurried across the busy street. If his calculations were correct, MacKenzie Street lay three blocks farther east, toward the lake. He had seen Lake Michigan sparkle and glisten as his plane from Minnesota had banked and turned and rolled toward O’Hare.
The lake, at least what he could see of it, was bigger than he’d thought. And the water was colored a deeper blue than he had imagined.
MacKenzie Street did indeed lay three streets over. Tucker smiled and congratulated himself for having successfully navigated this simple journey in the complicated city of Chicago. In the four days he had lived here, his trips thus far had consisted of going to the church, the Aldi supermarket, and a small restaurant a block from the church.
He craned his neck to the south, then to the north. For some reason, he thought a Laundromat might be located more easily north than south, so he set off in that direction.
A block and a half farther north, he found himself looking up at a slowly flashing sign: Wash-Dry-Fold.
He knew the wash and dry part but was unsure about the folding.
He found himself shaking his head as he talked to himself. Of course I know what folding means—but does that mean they fold it? Do they have to fold? Does it cost extra? Do I want them to fold everything?
Then he squared his shoulders. Without thinking further about implications, without thinking about the possibility of a stranger folding his clothes, without thinking about not having the right change, without thinking about feeling like an intruder, he opened the wooden screen door.
They have wooden screen doors in Chicago?
The door slapped closed behind him as he stepped inside. Though he didn’t remind himself to smile, there was a smile, wide and comfortable, on his face.
Above the dryers, done with more artistry than graphic practicality, was a series of signs on painter’s canvas. The signs listed, with curling flourishes, the cost of each machine, how to load, how long cycles lasted, what to do if clothes remained in machines with no one about, when to add soap, how to get change, what to do in case of malfunction.
One sign was in English. Tucker recognized Spanish on another, but the last two may have been Polish or Ukrainian or Russian or some language other than English or German—the only two languages Tucker had acquaintance with.
As he read through the rules, he lowered his duffel to the floor. It took only minutes to find empty machines, to sort his clothing according to color and shrink resistance. His mother had been such a stickler for never, ever mixing dirty clothes in in-appropriate ways. And many of her ways had been ingrained in Tucker over the years.
He had set out that day with premeasured detergent in plastic bags and now emptied them precisely into each unit. He took quarters out of his pocket, counted them out, selected water temperatures, and started each machine.
Then he folded the duffel, took his book under his arm, and selected one of the plastic chairs arranged in a row by the front window, overlooking the street.
This is nice. Turning his chair parallel to the street and the bank of washers, Tucker laid the book in his lap and opened it, careful not to break the spine. He allowed himself a few seconds of feeling neatly smug with satisfaction—but not too long. At home he’d been taught that being prideful or smug was a sin but that humility about one’s self was the closest thing to godliness.
By now Tucker had read for quite some time, yet had not finished an entire page. As pedestrians passed by the window, he would look up—not with obvious curiosity, since that would be rude, but with an intensity he hoped he kept hidden. Chicago was a big city—huge when compared to his hometown of Owatonna. And the city had so many people, almost all of them different than the people back home.
While he watched the street and the passersby, he listened to the rumblings and sloshings of his three washing machines. He knew that back home a full cycle took up to a half hour—the extra-dirty cycle added fifteen minutes for an additional wash and rinse. Perhaps commercial machines accomplished the same task more quickly.
Tucker glanced at his reflection in the round window of the washer. Not pleased or displeased with the image, he stared a moment. Scrutinizing his warbly reflection seemed less prideful than perusing his image in a mirror. His sandy brown hair had been cut short and was parted on the left. One couldn’t tell the color of his eyes from the image in the window, but his driver’s license listed them as brown. He saw them as green-brown, but that was not a color the state of Minnesota recognized.
Tucker wasn’t tall, nor was he short. An inch and a half under six feet left him feeling average in most situations. He blinked at his reflection. His was not a face that was truly memorable—
at least in his considerations. He would, when feeling charitable, describe himself as pleasant, even moderately attractive. His features were neither chiseled nor rounded, but pleasantly in between.
He smiled, thinking he would never be one who would be easily picked out in a police lineup—even though he could never imagine being in a police lineup.
The glassed-in room at the rear of the Laundromat was deserted when Tucker first looked. It appeared to be an office, but Tucker wasn’t sure if a Laundromat required an office. As he read and reread the same paragraph at the bottom of page 105 concerning Luther’s father’s uncle’s role in the town government in Eisleben, his eyes caught some movement—small, gray, indistinct—in the dark space that might have been an office.
Maybe it’s a rat.
After all, this was a big city, and that was another story his parents had related in fearful urgency.
“The rats in Chicago are as big as cats,” his father had claimed. “They call them ‘super rats’ since even rat poison doesn’t kill them—they can eat it all day and feel fit as a fiddle.”
But this particular gray furry object moved lazily and deliberately, with no rodentlike scurrying.
Tucker found his bookmark, slipped it between the open pages, placed the closed book on his chair, and covered it with the folded laundry bag. Then he walked toward the back of the room. He tapped at the glass, and presently a very furry, very weary-looking cat peered out at him through the panes. The animal stared at Tucker’s finger, then smooched his nose against that point as if to rub against the indentation in the glass.
“How are you? You want to be scratched? Come here, boy,” Tucker said softly. The cat fell to its side with a hollow thump on the cluttered desk under the window, as if Tucker might reach through the glass and rub the offered exposed belly.
The door at the rear of the office swung wider. Tucker stood up, embarrassed, as if he were intruding on some private moment, some private space. A young woman, blond and slight, perhaps midway through her twenties or a few years older than that, bounced into the room. “Petey! Where are you? You’re wanted up-stairs for pictures,” she called out.
The cat meowed reluctantly as the young woman scooped him up in her arms. Shaking her long bangs away from her eyes, she glanced up and smiled at Tucker. He was aware the woman held a red-and-white paper hat in one hand, but he noticed more her gently rounded face and full lips.
The young woman stared at him, evaluating his features and his form, as Tucker grew more and more uncomfortable. When she finally spoke, he nearly exhaled a huge sigh of relief.
“You’re new here, aren’t you? I haven’t seen you in here before. And I think I know just about every customer.”
Tucker wanted to turn around and make sure she wasn’t talking to someone else. A pretty woman conversing with him was rare—enough so that he found it intimidating.
“Uhhh. . .yes. It’s the first time I’ve been in here.” He took a deep breath, trying to look like he wasn’t taking a deep breath. “I just moved to Chicago. I’m Tucker Abbott.”
The young woman gave him an innocent yet knowing smile. “Well, Tucker Abbott, I’m Cass Fowler,” she said as she hoisted the cat under her arm. “And this is Petey the Cat. We’re both wanted upstairs. Petey here was bad and ran off without taking his birthday hat with him.”
With a deft move, she slipped the red-and-white hat over the cat’s head and snugged the elastic band under his chin. Never was a cat unhappier and more resigned to his fate than the gray fuzzy cat tucked under this young woman’s arm, Tucker thought.
She half-turned, then stopped. “Would you like a piece of birthday cake, Mr. Abbott? We have plenty. Seeing how you’re new here and all.”
Tucker smiled. “That would be nice. I believe I would like a piece of cake.”
A wail echoed down the steps. It was the wail of a young boy. “Petey!”
Cass pushed an errant hair behind her left ear. “That’s our cue. I’ll be back with your cake. Promise.”
He tried not to stare as she hurried up the steps, but he did anyway, knowing no one was watching. He felt an odd rattling in his heart, as if somehow his future hinged on this one precise moment.
Tucker stood by the window for several minutes, not exactly sure if he was supposed to wait for his cake right there or if he was free to roam about the rest of the Laundromat while waiting for his promised dessert. He blinked toward the dim stairs leading up and away from where he now stood.
He listened for the sound of the washers and, not hearing them, wondered how long they had been silent. Hurrying his damp clothes to two dryers, he inserted his quarters and selected the medium-heat setting. His mother had given him enough warnings of the dangers of high heat, but he didn’t consider any of his clothes to be at risk of shrinking. And he certainly didn’t want to hang any clothing out to dry, except perhaps the blue denim shirt he’d purchased on his last trip to the Mall of America. That had been three weeks before he departed the state of Minnesota and “abandoned” his parents, to use their wording.
The warm tumblings started and he paused. Should I go over by the window and wait? Did she really mean she would be right back? Maybe she was just being nice.
He decided that waiting in the chair, even with an open book, would be acceptable. So he began to read. . .and surprised himself by getting through a score of pages. The dryers slowed, then groaned to a stop. Tucker busied himself with folding his clothes, patting them flat and according to crease. He was pleased that the Laundromat provided clean wide tables for the task. In short order everything was precisely folded and stacked, according to density and weight, then placed in the duffel.
Tucker wondered if he should wait for another minute or two now that he had finished. That young woman had said she’d return soon. And he wasn’t averse to at least offering his thanks and a good-bye. Before he came to Chicago, had he not vowed to be more open to new experiences? He waited a moment longer, then stood. After all, he was done with his laundry, and if he was done, he should be on his way.
Just as he hoisted the bag to his shoulder, he saw a flurry of movement from the dark hallway and steps, moving into the office at the rear of the Laundromat.
“Oh, I’m so glad you’re still here, Mr. Abbott. Things got a bit more hectic than I imagined.”
Cass stood at the bottom of the stairs. She held a small paper plate with a ragged triangle of chocolate cake.
“I suspect a hat on a cat is not a good idea, despite what Dr. Seuss says—especially in a room filled with very loud four-year-olds. It took Daniel and me forever to pry Petey off the top of the curtains in the front room.”
Tucker heard the name Daniel and, without cause, felt a stab of something akin to jealousy in his heart—then wondered with shame and amazement at those unexpected emotions. “That’s okay,” he replied, forgiving all for her smile. “I wasn’t waiting for. . . I mean, I know. . .or imagined. . .that you had your hands full.”
If asked, he would have described the young woman’s expression as a pout—a happy, deliberate pout.
“But I promised, Mr. Abbott, and I keep my promises.”
Tucker stepped to the open door and took the cake. She watched as he took his first forkful.
“This is delicious,” he said.
“Thanks. We didn’t really make it from scratch. It was a box cake. Our birthday boy specifically requested the flavor as well as the brand name.”
Cass moved a stack of papers to the side and sat on the desk. Tucker felt as if she were observing him as he ate, so he did so carefully. He finished with a smile and deposited the plate in a nearby garbage can. “Thanks so much. I do like chocolate cake.”
An energetic clumping sounded on the stairs, and both Cass and Tucker turned toward it. It was the sound of a man’s footsteps. Tucker first noticed the shiny shoes. After all, Tucker’s mother wouldn’t let him out of the house in scuffed shoes. This fellow’s shoes were shiny, almost patent-leather shiny. He was middling tall and perhaps, Tucker thought, in his late thirties. He had a brilliant smile.
“Well, Cass, gotta be going. Great party.”
Cass smiled back. “Daniel, this is Tucker Abbott. He’s new in the area. Tucker, this is Daniel Trevalli.”
Tucker held out his hand, and Daniel grabbed it enthusiastically. Tucker decided this fellow had to be Italian; he had dark looks, dark hair, and dark eyes. Even though Tucker hadn’t known any Italians personally, there had been one family who lived down the block when he was seven—and they’d had a similar odd-sounding name.
But that had been a long time ago, and Tucker had no recollection if they had the same smoldering look.
“Tucker Abbott—now why is that name familiar?” Daniel mused.
Tucker reacted with a mystified look. “I. . .I don’t know. I’m from Minnesota.”
Daniel eyed him, then Cass. Suddenly he snapped his fingers and pointed his index finger at his own temple. “You’re the new guy at the church, right? I heard they were going to get a new guy. When you said Minnesota, that did it. I mean, how many people from Minnesota move here every day? Not many, I bet. I remembered the name. That’s what triggered it. The name was different somehow. Tucker Abbott. Yeah, that was it. That’s right, isn’t it? Am I right, or what? You are the new guy, right?”
Tucker waited until the words stopped pouring, then said, “You’re talking about the Webster Avenue Church?”
Daniel nodded with vigor.
“Then I am that new guy. I start on Monday. I mean, officially on Monday. I have already stopped in a couple of times.”
Cass brightened. “You’re the new associate pastor? Pastor Yount has gone on and on about you. People have been talking all about it. Have your ears been burning?”
“I guess. . . .”
Daniel stepped out of the office. “I’m already late so I’m heading out, blondie. Tell Annie I’m taking off, would you? She was so busy with that pack of kids that she wasn’t paying attention to me at all.” He gestured to Tucker. “You need a ride? I’m heading up north. Or did you drive over here?”
Tucker shook his head. “No. I walked. It’s only a few blocks south of here. And west, I guess—on Wells. Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll walk back. Get to know the area and all.”
Daniel pointed his index finger at Tucker like a gun. “Gotcha.” He waved to them both as he hurried out the front door.
Tucker waited a minute, then turned back to Cass. “Thank you for the cake. It was nice of you.”
Cass beamed. She took hold of Tucker’s forearm. “It was my pleasure. And I guess I’ll see you Sunday.” She lowered her voice to a pleasing whisper. “I go to your church, so please don’t do anything bad—or I’ll have to tell your boss. And if you do anything bad, don’t let me see it, okay?”
Tucker smiled broadly in return. “There’s not much chance of that happening. I mean—of me doing something bad. I’m not the type, I guess.”
“One never knows, Mr. Tucker Abbott. One never knows.” Cass tilted her head and giggled as if she heard the faint hint of regret in Tucker’s voice.
Above the Laundromat, Annie Hamilton sat amid the wrapping paper and bows and napkins, tossed like autumn leaves in the wind. For the first time that day, the apartment was quiet. Chance, just turned four, was down for his nap. It had taken Annie nearly thirty minutes to get him settled. Cass had left a few minutes earlier, saying she was heading downtown. Even Petey the Cat was sleeping in a pile of red and white paper.
It had been a good party. A “Cat in the Hat” party. Chance loved it. His little friends seemed to love it. There had been a lot of screaming and shouting and only two episodes of angry tears. That was a significant accomplishment with a bunch of four-year-olds, Annie knew.
Annie was grateful for Cass’s help. She’d been surprised when Danny had made an appearance. Earlier in the week, he had dropped off a gift for Chance, claiming that one child was fine, but a gaggle of them made him nervous. But something must have changed his mind. So Annie had become the party director, and Danny and Cass had done great work with the cake and refreshments.
She pursed her lips as she sat.
Midway through her son’s party, Annie had hurried into the kitchen and found Danny and Cass in an animated conversation. Danny was standing much closer to Cass than Annie would have liked, both acting as friendly as could be. Annie had stopped short, and both Danny and Cass had taken an immediate guilty step apart. Danny had looked over at Annie, but his eyes had indicated nothing—as if there was no explanation needed.
That’s ridiculous, she told herself after she replayed the scene several times in her mind. Danny is much too old for Cass. I mean—he has to be at least fifteen years older than her.
Annie picked up a loose bow that had been wedged between the seat cushions.
He is much too old.
And so she agreed with herself that their playful conversation hadn’t amounted to anything. It was nothing to be concerned about.
They were just having a good time. It was a birthday party, after all.
Annie knew she had no claim over Danny, despite the fact that they had been “dating” for some time now—since Chance was two years old. Theirs was a casual relationship, though both knew that Annie would have preferred a more solid definition. Danny would stop by occasionally, and Annie would wish it were more often.
But she couldn’t shake the niggling feeling that something had changed that day in their relationship.