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Tom Fillion is a graduate of the University of South Florida.He teaches mathematics and coaches golf and tennis at a Tampa high school. His short stories have appeared in many online publications. For a complete list please visit:

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The Rape of the Vestal Virgin



by Tom Fillion


                Before Sherman Westerfield entered the Neptune Avenue Coin-Operated Laundromat he looked skyward at the clouds. They were as dingy as his laundry. He crossed the threshold and felt immediately uncomfortable. Why had he come to this dump?  

                Nearby stood the coke machine with its contoured metal machine-gunned with corrosion. There was no clock on the laundromat’s walls. The soda machine was the only timepiece. It was covered with smudges and fingerprints of all the local hairpin queens who visited this bathhouse dedicated to the Roman god, Neptune.

The other customers were all females, middle aged or older who had paid their respects to Papa Time. They came in all sizes from behemoths to arthritic stick ladies, and they were all in various states of disrepair. Looking around the Neptune's lair the same curious atmosphere presented itself. The laundromat was in a state of decay. Besides the corroding soda machine there was dust and dirt everywhere. The floor was a quilt of chipped and stained tiles with chewing gum, hard and blackened, stuck on it. The wall behind the soda machine was white brick but the mortar between the faded bricks had turned gray. A soap dispenser hung on the streaked wall. 

            You can tell the character of a place by the condition of its laundromat, Sherman thought, looking at the washing machines and dryers rouged with rust.

            Lights shone from the ceiling through honeycombed fixtures.  The rays reflected anemically off the washing machines. The laundromat was on a fault line, a crack in the concrete, between darkness and light. Even the black lettering on the murky glass windows was shredded. Nearly undecipherable. How odd that people came to this place to clean the grime in their life, he thought. How could they overlook the cigarette butts on the floor?

Nevertheless, Sherman had laundry to do. He looked around for a vacant washing machine. An elderly woman in a blue checkered housecoat eyed him as he opened and closed the lids of various machines. He glanced at her. She was sitting in a lawn chair like she was at the beach. She frowned.

“Phoebe. You can use Phoebe down on the end,” the old lady said to him.

“Phoebe? Who's Phoebe?” Sherman asked.

“She’s one of my girls,” the old woman said.

Sherman looked in the direction the old woman pointed. He saw a long table for folding laundry. Above it was another shredded sign advertising the services offered. At the bottom of the sign in large, but nearly undecipherable letters he read, “No loitering.”

By then the old woman stood up, crushed the cigarette she was smoking, and grabbed his arm.

“She’s down here. She’s a good one. I only let special customers use Phoebe.”

“Thank you,” Sherman replied.

She stopped and stroked one.

“This is Winona."

“What, are they like Vestal Virgins or something?” Sherman asked.

The old woman thought about his question.

“My girls have lots of experience, but they’re virgins.  Everything they turn out is nice and clean like it’s never been worn before.”

“How much for one of your girls?”

“Seventy-five cents.”

“That’s cheap.”

“Here’s Phoebe,” the old woman motioned when they arrived at the end of the long row of washing machines.

Sherman placed his box of laundry on the adjoining machine.

“That’s Hermione,” the old woman informed him.

“She already has a customer,” Sherman said.

Hermione vibrated and spun.

He began stuffing his dirty clothing into Phoebe.

“Hold on, hold on. You young bucks. You're all the same.  You want to rush in here and then rush out. Rule number one.  Don’t overload any of my girls,” she stated.

“No overloading,” Sherman repeated.

“Rule number two. One cup of soap per load. We’re not going to have no bubble baths here on the floor, right?”

“No bubble baths,” Sherman nodded.

“Rule number three. No Canadian money. We got a lot of snowbirds with that crap. My girls don’t work for Canadian money.”

“No problem,” Sherman assured her.

“Those are the house rules.”

Once she had laid down the law, she walked back to her lawn chair. Sherman filled Phoebe with the remainder of his dirty clothing. He gave a furtive look in her direction then crammed in the shirt and sneakers that he was wearing. Two middle aged women on the other side observed him flouting the rules.  

            He closed the lid, placed three quarters on the protruding metal tongue then slid the coins inward. Phoebe shuddered momentarily before he heard the sound of water flowing inside her like an underground spring of healing water. Sherman returned to the empty lawn chair next to the old woman.

            “You forgot to put soap in Phoebe,” she chastised him.

            “You’re right. I was so excited about getting my clothes washed by one of your girls, I forgot.”

            The old woman pointed at the soap dispenser.

            “You got time. She’s just filling with water right now.  Phoebe hasn’t started her wash cycle just yet.”

            Sherman stood in front of the dispenser and looked at his choices.

            “You don’t have all day,” the old woman said.

            “What’s the best soap to use?” Sherman asked.

            “My girls all work better with this one,” she said.

She stood up and shuffled over to the dispenser. She tapped her finger on the middle selection. A sliver of rust fell off the machine.

            “Only the best for Phoebe,” Sherman said, sliding the coins into the slot then pulling the chrome handle.

            The dispenser groaned. A small box of detergent landed in the corroded cavity below. Sherman strolled down the aisle, opened Phoebe’s lid and sprinkled the powder on his submerged clothes. He closed the lid, and Phoebe began her wash cycle. The agitator churned. Sherman dipped and twirled as Phoebe vibrated.

            “What’s that all about?” the old woman called out.

            “I’m dancing with her,” Sherman said. “Does she slow dance?”

            “Only on small loads and synthetics. What kind of a load did you put in?” she asked.

            “I put in a large load.”

            Sherman gyrated in front of Phoebe as his clothes rumbled inside.

            “This ain’t no disco,” the old woman snapped. “I don’t have a license for that.”

            Sherman returned to his lawn chair. Phoebe went through her wash and rinse cycles. She was a few twirls into the spin cycle when the rumbling and screeching began. She rocked from side to side, banging against Hermione. Hermione collided with Gwendolyn. So on down the line.

            “What in blazes is going on?” the old woman shouted. “What you done to my girls?”

            Phoebe continued rocking. Her front corner rose in the air and slammed down on the crusty linoleum.

            “Nothing. I just put my clothes in her,” Sherman said.

            “We’ll see about that,” she said.

            By the time the old woman reached Phoebe, Phoebe was almost airborne.

            “There!” the old woman shouted after flipping the lid.

            She thrust her arms inside.

            “You, you,” she stammered at Sherman.

            “What’s the problem?”

            “Look,” she stated.

            Phoebe’s agitator no longer pointed straight up but angled to the side. The inside container was dislodged.

            “What do you think this is?” the old woman shouted.


            “She’s done for,” the old woman said.

            “She’ll be okay,” Sherman assured her.

            She fished around inside.

            “Oh yeah? Here’s the problem,” she said.

            Sherman looked inside. The old woman glared at him. His sneakers were wrapped around the agitator.

            The old woman shook her head.

            “Let me get those out of there,” he volunteered.

            “You didn’t take out the laces. That’s what did it. She never had a chance. It’s right there,” she pointed to the faint directions on the nearby board.

            “Please remove shoelaces when washing footwear. Thank you – The Management.”

            “I guess I was in a hurry,” Sherman replied.

            “Everyone’s in a big hurry. Jake!” she shouted.

            A man appeared from the back.

            “What is it, Rubie?”

            “Get the hand truck. Phoebe’s got to go out back. She’s done for, thanks to this turd in a punchbowl.”

            Jake turned but not before giving Sherman a mouthful with his eyes.

            “We’ll have to use her for spare parts,” Rubie added.

            “There’s five out back, already. I don’t know where I’m going to put Phoebe,” Jake muttered, returning with the hand truck.

            “Get your clothes out of here,” Rubie ordered.

            Sherman began removing his wet laundry. He pulled out a pair of shredded underwear. 

            “Don’t show me that,” Rubie said. “Why don’t you invest in some new ones, for God’s sakes?”

            Jake unhooked the water hoses behind Phoebe. 

            “You won’t need these anymore, sweetie,” Jake said.

            “I feel really bad,” Sherman said.

            “You should. Now she ain’t no more than spare parts and scrap metal,” Rubie complained.

            Jake slid the hand truck under Phoebe then tilted her forward. Sherman filled his cardboard box full of wet laundry.

            “One more for the scrap heap,” Jake said.

            Sherman had a look on his face.

            “Why don’t you let me take Phoebe? After all I’m responsible for what happened to her,” he said.

            “I like to keep my girls together, no matter what. I don’t know,” Rubie hesitated.

            “I don’t know where I’m going to put her,” Jake prodded Rubie.

            “I have a nice garage where I can put her,” Sherman said.  “My washing machine was broken that’s why I came here. Maybe I can use a part of Phoebe to get mine going.”

            Jake shifted his stance. He waited for Rubie to make the decision.

            “It would be like a transplant. A part of Phoebe would live on in my machine,” Sherman said.

            “Well, I’ll do it, but just this one time. I have my hesitations with someone like you that done her in,” Rubie said.

            “You got something to haul her home with?” Jake asked.

            Sherman pointed to a small pick-up truck parked outside.

            “I’ll give you a hand,” he responded.

            Together they maneuvered her out of the laundromat and perched her in the back of Sherman’s truck.

            “You drive her home and take good care of what’s left of her,” Rubie said.

            “I promise to take care of her,” Sherman replied.

            Rubie followed their movement out of the parking lot and down the street.

            “I try to do the best for my girls. You sure do meet some strange people in the laundromat business," Rubie said.

            Jake nodded.

            A short time later Sherman backed the truck several feet from his detached garage.  When he opened the door there was a dozen washing machines crowded together.

            “I really have to remember to take out my shoelaces next time,” he said, grappling with Phoebe, nestling her next to the others. 



    Spring 2010

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