I used to love to go downtown to see my grandparents at their drycleaners when I was a little girl. Papaw Webster was the best. I followed him around like a puppy. When he died of a massive coronary when I was only ten years old I cried myself to sleep for three months. I wrote an essay several years ago in remembrance of him and of the place I remember him the best: The Rightway Cleaners.
The enormous carved oak door creaked and the leaded glass window shivered as I entered my grandfather’s shop. I always had to carefully close the door behind me, for it tended to keep right on going and slam into the outside wall. “The Rightway”, Papaw Webster’s cleaning shop had many years and I always suspected many secrets crammed into its every corner. Coming in off the cold damp avenue into the steamy warmth of the shop was comforting to me. I skipped past the white marble shoe shine stand, which seemed more like a royal throne to me, on past the glass and oak counter which held the blocked hats; around to the little niche where my grandmother sat, at her electric Singer. Thimbles on almost all her knotted fingers, pins pinched into her mouth, she crinkled her cornflower blue eyes, and said, “um hum” in her slow self possessed way.
I went on my way, back through the gloomy corridor where I was always warned never to pause for very long. For there was an old hand-pulled elevator, leading up to the second floor. There were loads of junk up there. Papaw called it trash but Mamaw would retort, “It’s old family treasures”. The junk didn’t interest me nearly as much as the elevator itself, and once, along with my brother, I had attempted to crank it up. But we were caught, and had to sit up front in those old lumpy mission oak chairs, that smelled of shoe polish, old cigars and alcohol. We were given no pennies for the gumball machine, and had to content ourselves with the button boxes.
I walked slowly through the dusky corridor, past the room with the day bed, where Papaw sometimes napped. The hiss of the press in the back room made me jump with fright. I paused, took a deep breath and planted my eyes upon the object of my fear. The boiler, a huge angry black pot was always growling and belching. I had overheard my grandparents discuss all the frightening incidents that other dryclearners had experienced with their boilers, and I held my breath again as I tiptoed past the hateful thing. Across the hall from it was the ancient wooden toilet that gave my bottom splinters. I wasn’t tall enough to pull the chain and always had to have help, to my chagrin.
Through the gloomy light I passed into the pressing room where Papaw reigned supreme. He seemed a giant to me, handling those machines that spit and screamed with firm movements. There was a barn like door, which let in the fresh crisp air. I drew a deep breath of this wet, heavenly air and hugged Papaw on his scratchy wool pants. He put his hand in his pocket and brought out my favorite gum, Doublemint. I tore off the wrapper and lodged the gum right where my two front teeth had been. I savored the flavor of the gum, only letting a little sugar spurt out at a time. This minty flavor mixed in deliciously with the smell of the cleaning solvent, which was stored in cans in the corner. The rich lung piercing odor of the cleaning solvent was so strong I could almost taste it. When the gum had lost its flavor and Papaw had warned me twice to quit sniffing so closely to the solvent, I gathered up my courage and sidled on past the boiler to make my way to the front to see Charlie, the shoe shine boy.
Charlie shined my boots, as I sat on the enamel red throne; and I gazed up at the wall murals, which depicted three seasons only, excluding summer. I was always perplexed about why my favorite season was left out. Charlie gave me a penny for gum, after first letting me catch a glimpse of his thick roll of cash.
A day at the “Rightway” always ended in a walk with my grandmother down to The Wide Awake Cafe. She drank her coffee black as a rule, but the apricot haired waitress always winked at me as she sat two thumb sized glasses of cream in front of me. I made quite a ceremony out of it until it was all gone. I examined the glasses for remaining drops, and would pretend that I was a giant drinking some poor little girl’s drink.
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