Some years ago I was living in the Klamath Mountains of Oregon, in an off-the-grid cabin above the Rogue River, and coming into town only once every two or three weeks. I hated those trips: late July, temperatures in the high nineties, the great forests giving way to interstates, heat radiating in contoured waves from blacktop and rusted dumpsters and car hoods. I’d push a cart up and down the supermarket aisles in air-conditioning-induced shock; eat burritos as big as my head until I was nearly sick; sit in the laundromat and use the Wi-Fi to scan the three hundred e-mails in my in-box. I couldn’t wait to get back to the mountains, where everything I truly needed was close at hand — pen, fly rod, trail-cutting tool. I couldn’t wait to be on my own again.
I sat at a chipped formica table, a hard light cutting through the laundromat’s streaked windows. Lint and cigarettes perfumed the air. I’d made the mistake of driving into town on a Saturday, having lost track of the days of the week, and every machine clanked and banged and rocked. Old men in loose pants and women in sweats and even knots of children — an older boy or girl shushing and herding the others — queued by the wide-open glass doors with plastic bins on their hips, bulging garbage bags of dirty clothes at their feet. Earlier I’d had the table to myself, but now the laundromat was filled to capacity, and a woman fell into the metal folding chair across from me, back to the window, cell phone at her ear. She wore flip-flops, cutoffs, and a tank top with a faded-pink sports bra beneath, her face all dark eyelashes and sharp jawline. She’d been listening to whoever was talking on the other end, but now she let loose with a burst of profanity and banged the back of her head against the window as if to punctuate her sentences.
People glanced in our direction. I bent lower over my laptop, my last load whirling in a dryer. I’d answered all the e-mails that needed answering and checked what passed for news, and, though I tried not to listen, I couldn’t help but overhear her loud, one-sided conversation: something to do with her children. I heard her say “the girls,” then a boy’s name. With the blade of her palm she wiped at her cheek, began to yell something, then pulled the phone from her ear and stared at it.
“Fuck,” she said. She slapped the phone down and dropped both elbows to the table. I remember thinking how close her hand was to mine, a matter of inches. I could smell grease, mint, and cigarettes on her, could almost feel the seared skin of her sunburned shoulders. I pretended to be busy on my computer until she leaned so close to me I had to sit back and look up. She had my attention now. She smiled with one side of her mouth. “That was my mom,” she said. “Fucking Wicked Witch of the West.”
She glanced out the window, this unlikely Dorothy, all alone in Oz, staring at plastic bags and soda cups in the gutters beside a weedy lot ringed with chain-link. Then she spoke about her children and her work, how with school out it was “about fucking impossible” to get her schedule straight. In the unlovely light she went on, in great and intimate detail, and, though I can still hear the contralto of her voice, see the squiggle of a scar above her left eye, I don’t remember saying a thing to her. Not one thing.
What I wish I had said is I’m sorry, is I hear you, is I understand your pain must be as big as a house lifted in a terrible wind. And if I could talk to her now, I’d tell her that, for what it’s worth, I carried her pain back into the mountains, and the memory of it has remained with me through the years. It’s here right now, in this house where I tuck my own children into their beds each night: her pain, her story.