Innocent Bystander
Mark Smith

When researchers get too close to their work, they risk losing their objectivity. But as one sociologist discovers, there's no such thing as an "outside observer"...

The thing that gets me about what happened is this: I didn't have to do my wash at the laundromat.

I make a good living. We have a big house with a laundry room complete with a washer and dryer. My wife always thought I was crazy for going out to a laundromat. But then, my wife would never leave the house if she didn't have to. That's how we're different, how we each cope with all the free time there is in our lives. We never got around to having children and now we're both too set in our ways to consider it. And living in a Texas town full of nothing but unemployed redneck racists -- with whom we have nothing in common -- we have learned to take our entertainment where we find it. Which is not usually at the Twinplex in the Target Mall.

So now my wife's idea of fun is to sit in front of the television all day watching soap operas and reading paperback novels. She says it's escape, pretends she's slumming, but I think it's more than that. She's an expert on the soaps, you might say. Even reads Soap Opera Digest. She knows the private lives of all the stars, why so- and-so really left Days of Our Lives and that sort of thing. I find that depressing. I told her that's just a superficial fantasy world driven by sentimentality where the only emotions are lust and jealousy and even those ring false.

I prefer the theater of real people I find at the laundromat. Real people are my specialty actually, my vocation. I'm a sociology professor at the teacher's college in town so watching people, studying them, is sort of an ongoing lab for me. And there's no place I've found -- except possibly bus stations -- better than laundromats for watching people. I tell this to my students all the time. I try to get them to go out and watch people, learn why they act the way they do, how their lives are a factor of their environment. I give them research assignments to go to laundromats, bus stations, thrift stores, soup kitchens. They look at me with just about the same expression as my wife when I head out the door with a load. Their idea of field study extends to bars and coffee shops in the immediate campus area.

I don't care. I never know what I might find at the laundromat. It's like an avant-garde play where the props stay the same, but the cast and script change every week.

I went down to do my laundry with a small basket of clothes (after all, we do most of the real wash at home). I go to the Kwik Wash in the Piggly Wiggly strip shopping center over on Woodland Avenue. Woodland is something of a dividing line between two parts of town. On one side are mostly blacks and some Mexicans. On the other side there are mostly whites who feel very threatened by the blacks who have begun to make enough to buy houses across the avenue. To add to that, the city's just come along and put in a low-to-moderate income housing project on the Avenue right beside the laundry. It's a little tense in that area, but you know what they say about how fools rush in.

I had tried other laundromats but none of them seemed to have quite the same mix of people as the Kwik Wash. There are plenty in our neighborhood, for instance, but we live close to campus and most of the people who use those are students. You can see them any hour of the day scratching their hung-over heads or burying their noses in fat textbooks, clutching their pink and yellow highlighters. I figure I see enough students during the week to become intimately familiar with their habits.

That morning I got to the laundromat at around 11. I was a little disappointed that there weren't many people there yet. Of course, the owner was the same as ever, doing his usual business: wandering around, checking the soap boxes in the vending machines, putting the lids up on the washers nobody was using, checking the dryers for those anti-static things that always get stuck to your clothes. He nodded at me when I went in. He was a gruff sort, though I never had any trouble with him. His usual outfit was a greasy undershirt and thrift store pants a couple of sizes too big for him. He had an unshaven grizzly look and he chain-smoked in spite of his "no smoking" sign. His sign was a variant of the ones with a circle and a slash: inside it said "smoking, soliciting, loitering, pets" and underneath it "Please supervise your children."

All things considered, he ran a good clean laundromat and I figured that was all that mattered. In my book, there are way too many people who don't give a damn about quality anymore. They slide by with as little as they can and then expect to get paid for it. The way I see it, you take the money, you do the job, regardless of how little you make.

Aside from the owner there were only two other people in the laundromat. One was a huge black woman -- she must have weighed 400 pounds -- sitting in one of the plastic chairs by the window with her basket on the floor between her legs. As she folded the laundry out of the basket she made neat stacks in the chairs on either side of her. She didn't look up when I went in.

The other was a white man with one leg who was hard at work banging on one of the two video games. He was a lanky middle-aged fellow with a deep tan and horn-rimmed glasses who looked like he had seen some hard living. He had his crutch propped up against the side of the machine and the empty leg of his blue work pants was neatly folded and pinned up. He leaned against the machine and concentrated on working the joystick and levers. The machine made exploding noises and machine gun rattles that sounded like they were coming from the other side of a thick door. Every couple of minutes he would pound his fist on the machine and say, "Son of a bitch!" and then reach into his pocket to pull out another quarter and keep going.

I set my basket on the floor beside the first available machine. I put all the clothes in, dump in some detergent I carry in a yogurt container, and put three quarters in the little vertical slots. I love the chung-chung feel of the coin slot when you slide it into the machine and then out again. It makes me think of the bolt action of a rifle, though I have to say I've never worked one.

I had just gotten my load going and was leaning against the machine when two Mexican men came in. One of them had his clothes in a pillowcase with a faded flower print pattern on it. The other was carrying an olive drab duffle bag like army surplus stores sell. They were about the same age -- mid-thirties, I guessed -- and they were dressed similarly in faded jeans and boots, though one wore a Sea World T-shirt that had a picture of Shamu and the other had on a plaid western shirt with mother-of-pearl snaps for buttons and on the pockets. They were talking their Spanish ninety miles a minute and laughing up a storm. After they started their clothes they leaned against their machines and kept right on talking. I'm not afraid to say that it bothers me when Mexican people speak Spanish in public. It's rude and, besides, I have never understood how Mexicans can live in this country and not learn the language. You'd think they'd want to so they could compete for jobs. But competition is an American trait and I guess they live by a different standard.

Slowly they worked their way over to the vending machine area. There were two vending machines, one for snacks and one for cokes. The snack machine had a heavy grating in front of the display glass to keep people from smashing it in and stealing a bag of Tom's Cheese Doodles or a peanut plank. The coke machine had big bars across it, though there was an opening for the coin slot and where the drinks came out. The Mexicans both bought cokes and stood there drinking them while they jabbered on in Spanish.

Just then, the glass door on the west side of the laundromat flew open and two black kids ran in, a girl and a boy, no older than seven or eight. They were laughing and yelling really loud. They chased each other under the big high tables with metal legs you use to fold your clothes. They didn't seem particularly destructive, but I could see the owner get nervous right away. He stopped in the middle of one of his little chores and waved a fat sausage finger at the kids and shouted across the room.

"Hey, now, y'all git on outta here, an' keep out lak I done told you already."

The kids paused in mid-step and stared at this big, rough white man who looked about as friendly as a pit bull. I couldn't see that he had any grounds to be so upset, but I figured it was his joint and he seemed to have some gripe with these kids, so who was I to say? Maybe he'd been chasing them out ten times a day all week.

Whatever the case, the kids stood there staring at him, all of their fresh bluster and banter gone, evaporated in a wave of fear of this white man who was older and bigger and maybe a little crazy.

The owner took a step toward the kids. They broke and ran for the door, disappearing back toward the apartments next door. Everyone in the laundromat--me, the Mexicans, the lady folding her wash, even the guy playing the video game--had fallen silent and watched with careful interest. When the kids were gone, the owner looked from one to the other of us and said to no one in particular, "Goddamn kids. They come from that projec' yonder. They ain't got no sense. They're in here all the time. All the damn time runnin' up and down the place. They don' never do nothin' but scare off my good customers." He shook his head in disgust. "Goddammit!"

The woman folding her clothes stared at him like she couldn't figure out what planet he'd fallen off of. The Mexican men didn't seem to understand what he'd said and the guy playing the video game pumped in another quarter and nodded his head sympathetically.

I nodded too because I understood what the guy felt like. He was clearly a redneck full of hate, but he was trying to run a business and he felt abused. I could see that. He must have thought I was the most agreeable to his position, so he shuffled over to me and kept talking in his too-loud voice:

"Them damn people don't want nothin' but a hand-out. They want someone to take care of them. They ain't working and they ain't watchin' their damn kids either. I'll tell you somethin': them kids ain't gon' 'mount to nothin'. Them people's just a bunch of trash is all."

I kept on nodding, though more out of politeness because I felt what he was saying was out of line. They were children, after all, and children are supposed to be rambunctious. I figure they all act a little wild once in a while. That doesn't mean they're bound to grow up bad. But I kept my mouth closed. I'm not one to argue with someone about their point of view. They're entitled to that, aren't they?

All the same, I was glad when the woman who had been folding her laundry spoke up, erupted in fact, like a volcano: "Hey, mister," she said, looking up at him from where she sat. "You ain't got no right to be sayin' that noise 'bout them kids. Huh-uh. You got a right to keep 'em out your place if they ain't bein' cooper'tive, but you don't go sayin' they trash or none of that talk, now. You could jinx those children you go talkin' that way. And the Good Lord knows they got enough against 'em as it is."

The woman delivered this speech with one arm akimbo, her hand doubled against her vast hip, using her other hand to point a dimple- knuckled finger at the owner. He stood looking at the woman with something between awe and dismay. No doubt he was not used to being talked to this way, especially by a black woman. The laundromat was very quiet. The Mexicans had stopped talking, the computer game had stopped exploding. The only sound was the low churning rumble of the washing machines and the clicking of buttons and snaps in the dryers. We all seemed to share an uneasiness, I guess because we regarded the owner as a temperamental man, easily capable of violence if provoked.

The owner seemed about to respond to the woman, his mouth starting to open, when the door of the laundromat flew open again.

I knew there would be trouble as soon as I saw the man coming in, his eyes glaring with the fury of years of pent-up anger. I don't believe I saw his gun until later, but I knew something was going to happen. His face was mask-like, stiff with hatred. Without so much as a glance at anyone else in the laundromat, he stalked straight over and jammed his face into the owner's like an indignant ballplayer confronting an umpire.

"Hey man," he yelled at the owner. "What the fuck did you say to my kids?"

The word "fuck" shot out of his mouth like a bullet. I would have been even more terrified than I was, except the owner just looked at the guy with his same old laconic, half-lidded expression. The owner must have to deal with crazies all the time. He'll know how to handle this guy.

"I told your kids the same thang I tell 'em ever' damn day. I told 'em to get the hell outta my laundry-mat 'cause they ain't up to no good."

"You got my kids all upset, man. My wife is upset, too. I don't need you upsettin' my family." I thought I could hear a plaintive tone beneath the father's anger.

"Go home an' calm down, hoss. You ain't got nothin' to be all hot 'an bothered about."

"Nothin'?" said the father, his voice so high it seemed to squeak. "Nothin'? Hey, white man, you call this nothin'?"

It seemed to me I saw the gun earlier, but I don't know how because at that moment the father stepped back one pace and as he did, pulled up his shirt and yanked the thing out of his pants. He held it in both hands, pointed stiff-armed at the owner's chest. The owner looked down at the thing like it was a fifty and the guy wanted change. His eyes never lost their sleepy look.

So much of our disposable culture -- movies, television, pulp novels, comic books -- depends on this drama of random, unpredictable violence. But for all of that, how many of us have ever seen someone point a gun at another person, much less at ourselves? I was unable to respond. I couldn't escape the denial that it wasn't happening, that I was watching this scene in a movie or on TV. I was locked there, unblinking, numb with fear. My heart was beating fast. I heard a humming electrical current of self-preservation telling me to move, run for the door, hide behind something.

But I didn't. I did something else, something very uncharacteristic and stupid. Since that day I've wondered why I did it, and the only thing I can figure is that I knew if I did nothing the father would shoot the owner and the owner would be dead. I did not want to see a man die. So I spoke the only word I could remember, the only word in my vocabulary at that precise moment:


That was all: just "no," just once. It shattered the moment as though someone had thrown a rock through the laundromat's front window, except for the sound because it was dead silent. In that silence, I could see the sound of my one syllable register in the head of the father. And when he heard it, he moved without thinking. I could see that. He just pivoted toward me in a single plane, his outstretched arms wheeling in an arc in front of him like the turret of a battleship.

He shot me once in the chest.

The doctors said that he just missed killing me. That may be, but I was dead. I knew it unequivocally in every part of my mind. I don't remember falling, only being on the hard floor of the laundromat looking up at the fluorescent light tubes on the ceiling, pushing myself along on the floor with my heels, the redness closing in around the edges, knowing I was dead and thinking only one final absurd thought: who's going to dry my load?

I don't remember anything after that. They tell me the owner grabbed the gun from the father and I guess no one else got hurt. I stayed in the hospital for a few weeks and by the time I got out the father had been sent to Huntsville for two years. I didn't care. In fact, I didn't want him to go to jail at all. Who can say which of us could get desperate or crazy enough to do something like that? He hadn't meant to do me any particular harm other than a general rage I imagine he probably felt toward society.

My wife never told me I shouldn't have gone to that place, that I didn't have to go, that I had no business trying to peek into those people's lives. She just came every afternoon while I was in the hospital, and sat in my room and watched her soap operas on the TV over my bed. The same ones every day: Days of Our Lives, Another World, and Santa Barbara. Watching every day, I began to feel myself tugged into the rhythm of the endless ebb and flow of the characters and their small world, like watching a tiger pace in a zoo cage. I became lulled by their perfect, trivial lives unscarred by any tragedy worse than failed love.

I haven't been back to the laundromat since. In fact I haven't been out of the house much at all. The college gave me a generous leave. At first some of my colleagues and students came by to visit, but they don't much anymore.

My wife still watches the soaps, but I'm onto something better. Her brother got a job in a place where they make copies of the tapes from security cameras. You know, the ones you see when you go in banks and Circle-Ks, braced on the walls, panning from one side of the room to the other. He can get me as many as I want and I take a lot. All the interest of watching people with none of the danger: the best of both worlds, and it's all real. Eventually I'll get a publishable study out of them, but for now I just watch them for hours at a time. People coming and going in a black and white world, choosing cans of beer, filling out deposits slips, buying lottery tickets. And all the time I'm watching: miles away, weeks later, over their heads, out of their lives. And they never have a clue.

Mark Smith ( lives in Austin, Texas. His first book of short stories, Riddle (Argo Press) won the 1992 Austin Book Award. His first children's book, Slosh, was scheduled to be published in 1997. (This biography written in 1996.)

InterText stories written by Mark Smith: "Back From The West" (v2n5), "Reality Check" (v2n6), "Slime" (v3n1), "Doing Lunch" (v3n1), "Snapper" (v3n2), "Innocent Bystander" (v3n3), "Sue and Frank" (v3n5), "The Hard Edge of Things" (v6n2).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Mark Smith.