Laundry, a lost chihuahua and a doppelganger in Del Rio, Texas
The laundromat in Del Rio, Texas, was the lone business in a shuttered shopping strip, miles from downtown. The good news: It was open until 11 p.m. Little did I know I would meet my doppelganger there.
Usually we do laundry in the morning every 10 days or so, fluffing and folding before getting on the road again. It’s part of a day of errands after being out “in the wild:” stocking up on groceries, dumping and refilling tanks, getting gas, sometimes picking up our twice-monthly mail delivery.
That Friday morning, we were leaving Big Bend National Park after a week of sweaty, dusty hiking and ranger-led tours of birdwatching and geology. Our hearts were full, but so was our hamper. We figured we’d hit the washers after we picked up our general-delivery mail in Marathon. But Marathon had no public laundromat. Who knew?
Laundry on the road, though usually routine, can be an adventure in itself. And among the sloshing front-loaders and spinning dryers, you certainly get a sense of the specific place on the planet you have landed.
We’ve done laundry in a one-room shed at a camp in the middle of rural Arizona, where lizards and spiders were our companions, at a place in Rapid City, South Dakota, where social workers were handing out quarters to the needy to clean their clothes, and at a lovely, pristine spot in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where a Spanish-speaking, mother-hen-attendant helped Hispanic boys working in the oil fields fold their work clothes as they came fresh out of the dryers. Then she stood on tiptoe to give the boys, twice her size, a hug and kiss.”See you next week, abuela,” they said, as they headed out the door for another week of dirty, hard work. At that laundromat, and most in oil country, there were washing machines marked for work clothes, so the oil didn’t wreck people’s Sunday duds.
In south Texas, there can be a lot of open range between towns. It was another 175 miles to Del Rio, the next town on the map, the next hope for laundry. I called ahead. Yes, there was a laundromat. “It’s just right there on the highway. Once you pass the steakhouse, turn left. Country Laundry.”
By the time we got to Del Rio, it was the dinner hour, and because of the extra driving, we hadn’t cooked, so we drove past the laundromat, hit a local Mexican restaurant, where they had a fried catfish buffet for Lent. When we headed back up the highway, the sun had set, and we could hardly find Country Laundry, which had no lighted sign. Only the inside lights, shining through the plate-glass windows marked the place. There were eight small machines and two big ones.
We drug our hamper, detergent, hangers and a handful of quarters into the deserted room, only to discover the lack of a change machine. Tom took The Epic Van back down the highway in search of change, and I started the loads our quarters would cover.
As I sat in the fishbowl, I began to feel like a character in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks painting, except there was no one else here, and to wonder how safe it was, alone in a laundromat on a highway surrounded by nothing in the middle of south Texas. Then, something nudged my leg.
A tiny, black and white Chihuahua, obviously tame, no collar, shaking in fear, had tiptoed out of the bathroom in the back and was peering up at me with its bulging eyes. It let me scratch its head, but if I stood up, it ran back toward the bathroom. If I sat very still, it would sit under my chair, but it never stopped shaking. I was afraid it would bolt out the open door and into the six-lanes of traffic going 75 miles per hour on U.S. 90 just 20 feet from the open front door.
I stood up and scooched the teeny dog back into the bathroom and closed it inside. Then, worrying it might be afraid of the dark, I opened the door a crack, flipped the switch, and closed the door again.
What to do? I couldn’t just leave it here. It really was in mortal danger. I tried calling animal control. Closed until Monday morning. Another shelter. No answer. Adopt it? In the van?? Not a good idea.
Tom came back with two rolls of quarters, and I showed him the dog. We planned to leave a note on the door for the laundromat owner. No other solution.
Laura and Antonio, both in their 70s, showed up just as I finished loading our laundry and was writing the note. They live in a cluster of homes somewhere behind the laundromat, and obviously had a routine. Antonio brought a small step stool, so he could pour the detergent into the top of the two large machines.
Laura, from Morelia in the Mexican state of Michoacan, was short (like me), round (like me) and had gray roots, which I would have if I hadn’t given up coloring altogether and let my hair go completely native, as my friends put it. She was also gregarious like me, and we hit it off right away.
I told her we were living in our van, and she asked my sign, saying “I’m the sag…, sagi…,” she said, her accent struggling to pronounce the word. “Sagittarius?” I supplied. “Yes, yes. Sí,” she said. “I am gypsy. I love the travel. My birthday is five, of December. December five.”
I stopped in my tracks. “That’s my birthday,” I told her. Her eyes grew round.
“Antonio, Antonio,” she called to her husband. “Tell her my day, my birth, the day of my birth.”
Antonio hesitated. “Seven?” “No, no,” she said. “Five.” “September?” he said. “No, no. December,” she corrected. “Five of December.” “Sí, sí,” Antonio said, shuffling off to check the washer.
Laura and I looked at each other, Sagittarius sisters from another mother, different countries but same dreams of travel, thrown together in a laundromat in Eagle Pass, Texas.
I showed her the little dog in the bathroom.
“We had one like that once,” she said. “They are good. They catch the mice. I think it might be my neighbor. She lives just over there. She has many dogs. Her husband died.”
Laura said she and Antonio would go ask her once the laundry was going.
We talked about her home in Mexico, about La Manzanilla, where I go every year to do a kids’ art camp with my friends, Jackie and Meredith, and our kids. We talked about our children, mine in college, Laura’s two married.
“My son-in-law, my daughter-in-law, they come from Mexico. They look at what we have, and they want it. Then want us to die so they can have it.”
I tell her Nate is not married.
“Good womens is hard to find,” Laura said, shaking her head. “They don’t want to take care of the mens, of the house, of the babies.”
She was putting into words my fears for my son, that he would find a good woman to love.
My washers stopped; I carried my wet clothes to the dryers.
“Are you Catholic?” she asked. “No,” I said. “Are you?” “Sí. Sí. What are you?” “Nothing,” I said, then, trying to explain, “I’m nothing. My parents didn’t believe.” “They didn’t believe?” she asked, incredulous. “Not even in God?” her voice rising. “No,” I said. She sat, shaking her head in disbelief.
I asked if she ever traveled back to Mexico. “No, I have my children here. My granddaughter. Antonio, he’s getting old. There’s so many dishes to wash, every day, so many clothes to wash.”
A woman’s work is never done. Not in Mexico, or Texas. Not even if you’re a Sagittarius who dreams of travel.
“Puerto Vallarta,” she said, dreamily. “It’s safe there. You can walk on the beach, two, three in the morning. It’s safe.”
She drove to her neighbors to ask about the dog but came back empty.
“I knock, I knock, no answer,” she said. “Maybe she sleep. Maybe she …” (she pantomimed taking out hearing aids).
I convinced her to take the dog home until the neighbor could see it in the morning.
“It’s a sweet dog,” I said. “Even if it’s not hers, maybe she could keep it.”
“Sí, sí,” Laura said.
As we packed our clean clothes into the van, Laura came out to say goodbye.
“I know you say you don’t believe in God,” she said, a bit sadly, her hand over her heart. “But I know he will protect you in your travels.”