Writer - Kate LaDew
It was time for Sam to buy a new washing machine so he sidled up to the landline phone they never used and stuffed the paper his wife, Nancy, printed out with the exact make, model and price of the exact washing machine she, and by extension Sam, wanted, in his pocket and walked out the front door.
Easy enough. Those were the words Sam thought in that exact order in his own head. Soon, he would consider engraving those words on his tombstone.
Sam entered the store with a positive outlook on life in general and washing machines in particular. He scanned the rows and rows of things he would never use and never know the name of, finding the customer service counter and striding up to it like a man who knows what he's doing. "Hello, my good man," he threw his charm like spaghetti on a wall. "Can you help me?" There was a silence that lasted, Sam thought, longer than necessary.
The clerk looked up, folding his arms. Then he said, "So you're here, huh?"
Sam said, after a pause, "I am."
"And who are you, may I ask?"
"Sam," Sam said.
The clerk nodded. "That's entirely possible."
Sam nodded back. He wasn't sure why. He looked at the clerk. The clerk looked at Sam. "You can help me?"
"I don't remember responding to that particular question."
"Oh," Sam said. "I asked it."
"Yes," The clerk said. "And as I mentioned but a moment ago, I do not remember responding to that particular question that you--" He gestured toward Sam.
"Sam," Sam supplied.
The clerk waved the name away. "That this man standing before me, asked. In fact, I remember not responding to it. That I remember very well."
Sam scrunched his brow into an accordion. He wanted a washing machine. This was a store that sold, if the paper his wife printed out was correct, washing machines. Sam had never known his wife to be wrong. "Huh," he said to himself. "Well, now."
"That's what I was thinking," the clerk said, snapping the fingers on his right hand and pointing them like a gun. He had not moved from his chair behind the counter.
The finger gun startled Sam. "Washing machine," he said quickly.
The clerk curled up his fingers and, picking a ball of lint from his red vest, said, "Heard tell of 'em."
"I mean," Sam blinked. "A washing machine."
"Is what I need."
The clerk's eyebrow popped. "But is it?"
Sam blinked again. "But is it?"
"Is it what you need?"
"I," Sam said. "Don't know."
"That's always the rub, isn't it?" The clerk shook his head sadly, but not very sadly. "No one knows what they really need."
"I-- I know what I need."
Sam was blinking like a sputtering lawnmower now. "I thought I did."
"The last words of an uncertain man."
The comment had an ominous ring to it. Sam thrust out the paper his wife had carefully researched and said, "This."
The clerk didn't look at the paper. He didn't look at Sam. It caused Sam to wave the paper about like an airplane. "This. This," Sam said.
Only the clerk's eyes moved. "What is 'this' ?" he said.
While he had not made quotations marks with his hands around 'this,' Sam could hear them. "It's what I want. It's why I'm here."
"Why is anyone here?"
"Look now," Sam was agitated. Like a washing machine, he thought. "I want to buy this. Where is it?"
The clerk clucked his tongue. "Don't have it."
"What do you mean you don't have it?"
"I say what I mean and I mean what I say."
"How do you know you don't have it? You haven't even looked."
"A man doesn't always have to look to know. Or seek to find."
The paper made another run at the landing strip. "I want a washing machine. Where is it?"
" 'A' washing machine?"
"This. This washing machine."
"We don't have it."
"Any. Any washing machine." Sam abandoned he and his wife Nancy's plan like a sofa on a curb. "Just give me a washing machine."
"I can't just give you anything. We're trying to run a business here."
"Are you? Are you trying to run a business?" Sam's eyes narrowed. "And who's we?"
"We is us."
"We is us?"
"Is that the collective 'we' ?"
The clerk spread his hands, encompassing the entire store. "We," he said slowly. "Is us."
Sam breathed in and out. "There's just you." He frowned for a moment before a smile slapped him across the face. "It can't be just you. There has to be somebody else. Let me speak to somebody else."
"I don't know who."
"Then I can't help you."
"I know you can't help me. I know you can't help me." Sam found himself slamming the paper on the counter. "I want someone else to help me."
"I don't know who specifically," Sam's voice raised into a strange whine he had never heard before. "Someone else. Anyone."
"Like the washing machine."
"The washing machine?"
The clerk smiled a thin smile. He rested one arm on the counter, turning his head and gazing into the distance at nothing particular.
Sam felt there was a speech coming. In his experience, whenever a person gazed into the distance at nothing in particular, a speech happened.
"A short time ago," the clerk began. "You were waving a piece of paper around with a picture printed on one side. You were very adamant in your assertion the picture was in fact, a washing machine. Then your strength seemed to fail you, and you further asserted you did not care which machine washing. 'Any,' you said."
"You told me you didn't have that washing machine."
" 'Any.' You said, 'any'."
The paper crumpled in Sam's hand. "I was flustered. You flustered me!"
" 'Give,' you said. 'Give me a washing machine.' You wanted me to give you a washing machine. And do you remember how I responded to that demand?"
"How you -- what?"
"It was but a short time ago. How did I respond to your demand I give you a washing machine? Any washing machine."
"I-- " Sam felt like he might cry. "You wouldn't."
"And do you know why?"
"I -- do I know why?"
"Do you know why I wouldn't give you any washing machine?"
Sam bit his lip. "Because…"
The clerk waited.
"Because you're running a business."
The clerk nodded, satisfied. "Yes. For that is what this is. Also, get the hell out of here. I said that too."
Sam let the paper drop, balling his hands into fists. "You did not."
"I should have. I should have told you to get the hell out of here. It's all you deserve."
A tear of frustration dangled in the corner of Sam's eye. He thought about walking away. Driving home and watching TV. Drinking a beer. Doing something accomplishable. His wife Nancy's face suddenly filled his brain like a technicolor movie. The diligent internet search. Comparative shopping. The little sheen of excitement over her as she held out the printed paper with the exact make, model and price of the exact washing machine she, and by extension Sam, wanted. No, he thought. "No," he said.
"No. What I deserve--" he raised his voice. "What I deserve is a washing machine." Sam uncrumpled the paper, spreading it out with shaking fingers. "This washing machine. And I'll pay for it too," he added quickly.
"You certainly will."
"Then show me where it is!"
"I would if we had one. We don't."
"What's that right there?"
Sam pointed. The clerk turned. One hundred feet away a washing machine sat.
The clerk turned back. "Where?"
"That is a washing machine!" Sam's foot stomped. "Give it to me."
"I've already told you, I can't just give you--"
"Show me that washing machine right now!"
The clerk put up his hands, laughing a short little laugh. "Okay, buddy. Lets try to keep our cool here, huh?'
"Show me that washing machine."
The clerk's eyes looked to the right then to the left. His lips pursed, his chest moved up and down. Then he smiled. A defeated smile? Sam wondered. Had he won? Was Sam getting a washing machine? Sam smiled back. Not triumphantly. Not just yet. But it was a start.
"Right this way, sir," the clerk said. This sudden politeness made Sam take a step back. Not just yet indeed. But he was walking towards a washing machine. There was a washing machine in his vicinity. The clerk stopped in front of it and placed his hand on the top. "Is this what you were referring to?"
"Is this what--" Sam gusted out a breath. "Yes. This washing machine is what I was referring to. It is only what I have been referring to for what seems my entire life. Washing machine. Washing machine," Sam chanted. "I want this washing machine."
"Yes," Sam snapped. "It's perfect. It's exactly what we want."
"Is that the collective we?"
"That is the 'my wife and me' we."
" 'My wife and I'."
"You," Sam said. "Are pushing it."
The clerk looked down at the washing machine. "This is 'the' one?'
"Yes. It's perfect," Sam repeated.
"Would be," The clerk simultaneously shook and nodded his head. "If it worked."
Sam said nothing for a little while. "If it worked?"
Again, the clerk simultaneously shook and nodded his head.
"If it worked." Sam said slowly. "If. It. Worked." He rubbed between his brows with the palm of his hand. "What are you trying to tell me?"
Sam dropped his head onto the washing machine with a smash.
"No need to come apart at the seams." The clerk pulled a hose out of the back of the washing machine. "This is the problem."
Sam didn't look up. "What's the problem?"
"This," the clerk said holding out the hose. "And probably that dent your head just made."
Sam lifted himself up. He looked at the hose. "That's the problem?"
"Maybe if it were attached to the washing machine it wouldn't be a problem."
"It was. Until I pulled it out."
"Why did you pull it out?"
"To show you the problem."
Sam nodded. "You know what the problem is?"
The clerk held up the hose.
"The problem," Sam put his hands on his hips. "Is me walking into this store and assuming I could buy a washing machine. That's the problem." He looked down. "Why would you have a nonworking washing machine on display anyway?"
The clerk lowered the hose. "Oh, did you need to launder some clothes? Right here, right now in the store? Are they the clothes you're wearing? Because if you want to launder the clothes you are wearing you will not be laundering the clothes you are wearing as this establishment requires clothes to be worn on the person and not thrown into any washing machine you might see."
"Oh, is that policy?" Sam said. "Not to take off all your clothes and throw them into washing machines that don't even exist?"
The clerk pointed the hose at Sam. "It is in fact the first and only time I have had to evoke the 'don't take your clothes off and throw them into any washing machines you might see ' policy. The first time. Because of you. Because of a man like you."
"Oh yeah, and what kind of a man am I?"
"One who takes pleasure in bothering people with his silly shenanigans of throwing the clothes he's wearing into any washing machine he might see. That's the kind."
Nobody said anything for a long time. Then, "We might have some in the back," the clerk said.
It was quite sudden. Sam cocked his head, narrowed his eyes and poked out his lip. "Is this," he started. "A trick?"
"I just thought you might like it if I had a look in the back."
"You just thought I might like it? Now you're thinking about what I might like?"
"I just thought you might like it if I had a look in the back."
"Yeah," Sam laughed bitterly. "Yeah, go have a look in the back. Maybe you can lose yourself in there, huh? Maybe you can just never return. Maybe you can do that."
"If I never returned," the clerk said. "How would you know what we have in the back?"
Sam didn't say anything. The clerk handed him the hose. Sam took it. The clerk walked towards two large swinging doors. Sam followed. The clerk disappeared. Sam waited. He waited some more. "What's going on?" he called.
Immediately the clerk peeked his head out between the two swinging doors. "What's that?"
"I said 'what's going on?' "
"Just having a look in the back."
"I know you're-- what's back there?"
"What's back there?"
"Yes. What's back there?"
The clerk looked away. Then he looked at Sam. "It's not a working washing machine, I can tell you that."
Sam nodded. "I'm going to strangle you with this hose."
"Very well," the clerk nodded back. "But I should warn you, those hoses have been known to break."
Sam slammed the hose down. He slammed himself down, forehead on his knees. Sam breathed in and out. He looked at the ceiling. He looked at his shoes. He tapped them once, twice. He looked at the clerk. "I just," Sam said, his voice breaking in little sobs. "I just want. To buy. A washing machine."
Taking a seat on the floor beside him, the clerk slung an arm over his shoulder. "Sam, my friend." He leaned in, lowering his voice to a whisper. "You can't. Buy one. Here."
They sat in silence for a few moments. Then Sam sighed, "You are a very bad salesman."
The clerk sighed back. "That would be true, if I were trying to sell anything."
"You're not trying to sell anything?"
"Not to you."
"Why?" Sam gulped. "Why not to me?"
"Something about your face."
"Something about my face?"
"Yeah." The clerk shrugged. "Don't like it."
"Huh," Sam said to himself. "Well now."
"That's what I was thinking." The clerk smiled. "Now get the hell out of here."
Kate LaDew only wants to make the world a better place. She is always the nicest person in the room and if you don’t believe that, you can go to hell (or another room). She enjoys writing flash fiction but throws in a few manifestos for flavor. You can find her work on this very site and all bathroom stalls in Graham, North Carolina, a city Google Earth might visit someday (fingers crossed!).