Abandoned Car Wash
by Belinda Roddie
It's seven o'clock on a Monday night, and the place is dead. It's always dead. Sure, some cars whiz by from time to time, always heading east to a baseball game or west to an all-you-can-eat buffet on its last economically sound legs. But the drivers never stop here. No one's around to wash their beat-up jalopies, anyway.
Even five years after it closed, Old Ben's Car Wash still smells like bleach. The strong kind, too - not the flowery detergent type that makes all your laundry as fragrant as a middle-aged lady's rose garden. I'm talking about formaldehyde-level bleach, the kind you use when you need to clean up secrets. The pungent odor gets in your nose, and it burns, like every hair in your nostrils is set on fire. The inside of the car wash is gutted, but the whole area still smells like it's been embalmed and preserved. Like a plaster and steel mummy.
Old Ben's Car Wash used to have a staff of thirty-two people. It had blue walls and a red roof and a little stand open outside for people to grab chips and soda while they waited for their SUVs and Jeep Wranglers to get soaped up. All you heard down the block was the low key hum of car engines, all waiting in long lines like snakes coiled around the establishment's entrance, and the yelling of employees and customers as windshields were hosed down and bumpers got scrubbed. Sometimes you heard English, scattered along the asphalt and metal benches. Sometimes you heard mostly Spanish. Sometimes you heard German. Old Ben's relatives were immigrants from Berlin, and they'd crowd around outside the little shop filled with knick-knacks and foodstuffs, spraying hard verbs and suffixes like how the car washers were spraying pressurized water. They always bought pretzels, the hard, crunchy twist kind, packed in a plastic bag with extra salt. As far as I was concerned, none of them knew how to drive.
And then there was Old Ben himself. Big smile, droopy jowl, white hair at forty-two. Drivers would be waiting for their sedans to be toweled off, and Ben would just swagger outside in his backward blue baseball cap, checking on the food stand and talking to the customers. He always made a point to emphasize how they never used those "newfangled machines" to wash cars. "Only sponges, soap, a bucket, and manpower," Ben would crow, somehow ignoring the hoses. "That's Old Ben's promise." He was charismatic enough, tipping his employees out of his own pocket. Whether it was based off actual generosity or a need to show off, I'll never be exactly sure.
The car wash did well until the Great Recession hit, and everyone scurried away from the town like scared rats. That was when everything started to turn gray. Black tar roads became gray and riddled with pot holes. The blue walls of the car wash shop looked more like an overcast day than a clear sky. The red roof appeared as if it were covered with rust from a distance. Even Old Ben and his staff were turning gray - whatever was left of his staff, anyway. Gray hair. Gray cheeks. Gray eyes.
You could almost taste the dusty obsolescence. No one found Old Ben relevant to this broken economy anymore. He was an extra cost. A non-necessity. A relic of times when paychecks weighed more. So people stopped getting their cars washed, and no one ate chips and drank soda by the food stand anymore. And even after the Recession ended, we never really recovered, so Old Ben never had a chance.
It's seven o'clock on a Monday night. And no one's around but me.
My father tells me - over eggs and bacon at the Smoky Bear Diner, no less - that a young woman, who happens to be a client at his firm, has bought the lot that the car wash is situated on and plans to demolish everything within the vicinity. This intrigues me; as a real estate agent, I have always been interested in the value of the property. It's become so run down that I figured it'd sell for cheap. That, and who else would want to purchase a place that smells like someone scoured away evidence of a homicide?
"Do you have her contact info?" I ask after polishing off a mouthful of overcooked, rubbery egg yolk. "I'd like to talk to her."
"I'm just curious as to how much she got it for. That's all."
"I can just ask her," my dad replies as he digs his bent fork into his own flabby mound of egg white. He then adds, after a long and thoughtful sip of black coffee: "I'm sure it cost her next to nothing."
"What's she planning to do with the lot?"
"I can ask her that, too."
He never does, and after a while, I stop pushing him on it. I have my own clients to tend to, anyway, and an abandoned car wash is not high up on the mental docket.
The old shop stays as is for a good six months after this mystery woman buys the lot. Then, almost as if it happened overnight, it's gone. Piles of fresh gravel and towers of wooden planks replace the small building's red and blue exterior. It's been dismantled, reduced to nothing, so not a trace can be seen on the tired asphalt.
But it still smells like bleach. My nose flares as I walk past on my way to work.
The town was never meant to be too prosperous. It's not a place with a rich cultural history. It's not a tourist stop. It's not a business hub. It's not even really the best place to raise a family. But the housing is affordable compared to everywhere else, and commuters flock here like sheep to a dry field of dead grass. There's not much taste-wise, but it can still be stomached.
How I manage to stay afloat as a marginally successful real estate agent without acting like a vulture in this town, I'll never know. But I make things work. I run modest apartment complexes and manage fixer upper sales and oversee house renovations, though said renovations tend to be more of a fresh paint job than anything actually substantial. Redoing the plumbing or electricity costs a pretty penny, and if it costs too much, the value of the house can fluctuate wildly - too low for its actual worth at one point, too high for prospective tenants to afford at another. It's a stressful situation, and it means that I end up peddling sub par homes in sub par neighborhoods.
It's the way things are, I suppose. There's not much crime here, so I have that going for me marketing-wise. And I'd be eaten alive if I tried to do this job anywhere else in the county.
Most nights, after work, I meet with an ex-girlfriend for drinks at the Sawdust Factory, which actually used to be a factory but now has been converted into a bare-boned bar with "rustic charm." There's not a lot of excess furniture, so most of the patrons lean against the rough, splintery walls or huddle in the corners when all the stools are taken up. I can't imagine how hard it must be to dust this big of a space, and from the dry, stale odor, it seems like the owners don't even try. Still, the bar is equipped with plasma screen TVs, always set to sports channels, so we have something to watch when conversation's dried up and the beer is getting way too warm.
The regular bartender's nice, too, and easy on the eyes. She gives my ex a free drink most nights, though, so I think I know who's winning the flirting contest there. They're both named Chelsea, though, and I can't possibly imagine dating someone who has the same name as I do. Still, the three of us know how to chat long into the night, which is helpful, as it gets my mind off the latest snag with trying to sell a two story with a bathroom that needs a serious maintenance job.
After Chelsea the bartender pours us our beers and tends to another customer sitting in the corner, Chelsea the ex and I start a stilted conversation about the latest baseball game. If there's one thing that's kept this shoddy town together like Elmer's glue, it's the local team. They've always known how to play an entertaining game, and the spectators of course act like crazy people. Moreso than being a quality group of players, the Jaguars have gotten infamous around the area for their physical fights with the opposing teams' pitchers or even the umpires. I went to one game about two years ago and saw a fellow fan jump from the bleachers to tackle the mascot as he was waddling over to help stop an all-out brawl between the Jaguars' catcher and the Ninjas' shortstop.
But I get tired of talking about baseball and steer the conversation toward the topic I've been focused on for the past week. "Old Ben's Car Wash is gone."
Chelsea the ex looks at me blankly, her beer growing flat in her stein. "I thought it's been gone for a while," she quips, not totally understanding my statement
"I mean totally gone. Torn down."
"No kidding." She raises an eyebrow. "Did you even get your car washed there?"
"My dad's truck. I wasn't a regular customer, though."
"I walk past the place a lot," I add, as if to prove a point or give myself some "cred" - however that works. "It was always pretty busy when it was still open."
"Yeah," chuckles Chelsea the ex. "Was busy."
"Operative word there, I know."
"So, what? Someone bought that shithole?"
"One of my dad's clients," I say. "I guess it wasn't a lot of money. I don't know what she wants to do with it."
"Does it really matter?"
"I mean, if she's trying to create a business here, I don't know how she can make any good money."
My ex shrugs. "I don't think about it," she says, taking a long drink. She wipes her mouth with the back of her scarred left hand. She accidentally burned it on the stove while making me dinner once, and she hates the way it looks now. "I'm getting out of here, anyway. It doesn't really affect me."
I nod. "Good luck with that," I reply, though I know she's said the same thing almost every time we get drinks together. She's going to leave this place whenever she can. She's looking for new work. Maybe she'll find another girlfriend. Whatever her plan is, it's been seven years in the making, ever since I met her and haphazardly dated her. Besides, if she goes away, she won't have little old me to whine to when she has another bad day at her minimum wage job, or if she has another nightmarish outing with a potential soulmate. Emphasis on potential.
Chelsea the bartender prepares another round for us, and I'm ready to swallow down my ale and slap down a twenty when a young woman with blonde hair and a killer blue pantsuit walks in. She can't be any older than thirty, but she carries herself like she owns the world and a little extra. I can tell she's wearing a little bit of make-up - only a little bit, to bring out her eyes and lips - but she certainly hasn't done anything to mask how pale she is. Before I can question whether or not she's actually a vampire, the woman sashays over to a stool and waves over Chelsea the bartender, who looks bemused at the sight of her.
"Your best whiskey," she says smoothly. It doesn't even sound like a command; it more sounds like a pick-up line. "Neat."
"Got a preference?"
The woman with the pantsuit and the power blinks. "I said, 'your best,' didn't I?"
Chelsea the bartender smiles, though it looks more like a grimace than a genuine grin, and fetches a bottle of aged Scotch from the lower cabinet. I watch the amber liquid descend into the highball glass, my reflection noticeable but murky in the sheen. The woman sips the whiskey and seems to stomach it as easily as she would water, a soft exhalation emerging from her rose pink lips. Chelsea the ex notices how keenly I observe the new patron, and she jabs me in the side to bring my attention back to her.
I know who this woman is without even asking her. She is someone with money and stature in a town that has little of either. Her choice of outfit, her cosmetic choices, and her demeanor gives her away. It's almost as if she might own some property - in particular, a new piece of property that may or may not have used to be a car wash.
The ex goes outside to smoke a cigarette or six, and by this point in the night, any other customers with dignity left have already gone home to their families or cats or both. So it leaves just me and the potential land tycoon at the bar, while Chelsea the bartender cleans pint glasses and pretends that she's not ogling the whiskey-guzzling dame. I finish up my second beer, but before I can call for a third, the woman looks at me with a glint in her eye that looks like a cross between mischief and curiosity.
"You look familiar," she says, her words still sounding as polished as old silver. "Have we met before?"
I stiffen, but I manage to shake my head. "Unless you're interested in a new house. Otherwise, I don't think so."
"Wait." Now she's smiling. She wags her finger at me, though she's not scolding me, or at least I hope she's not. "You're Ned's daughter, right? Ned Doherty. Big lawyer around here."
Welp, looks like my cover's blown. I briefly look down at my attire - the tired looking purple blazer, the wrinkled white shirt, the slacks that are starting to rip in the inner thigh area. I'm not exactly dressed to fit the part of "well established litigator's offspring." Still, I sigh, silently gesture for Chelsea the bartender to pour me another round, and then set my gaze back on my person of interest.
"I'm guessing you're one of my dad's clients?"
She smiles. "Can't talk too much about specifics," she says. "Confidentiality and all that. He's a good man. I trust him."
"Trust him as a lawyer, huh? I can hardly trust him as my father."
Somehow, the woman finds my comment worthy of an amused chuckle. She watches as I receive a fresh stein of ale, and the corners of her eyes crinkle almost warmly as I take a long drink and wipe away the offending foam from my upper lip.
"So, a real estate agent, huh?" she then asks, tapping the long nail of her index finger against her highball. "Any good houses on the market?"
"You're kidding, right?"
The woman shrugs. "Just hopeful, I guess. I just can't bring myself to commute anymore, you know? This town's nice enough to live in."
I find her words to be way too generous. Everything is gray here now. Not just the now non-existent car wash. Not just the people. It's all gray, save for the clothes and the beer. It gets depressing very quickly, and yet, here I am, still living in this tired, dilapidated abyss.
"What about you?" I finally inquire. Maybe, at long last, I can get the answers I've been searching for over the past six months or so. "Got anything to buy or sell?"
She doesn't answer me. She seems to have become distracted by something, or maybe even someone. Chelsea the ex has returned from her smoke break, and she's pulled her hair back so that only a few loose, black strands fall across the nape of her neck. I see the way the blonde tycoon stares at her; it's a familiar stare, one of hunger and temptation. Suddenly, I begin to feel very, very warm.
"You know what, Chelsea?" I say to my ex. "I'm going to go for a walk. You good for tonight?"
She blinks at me, almost as if she doesn't understand initially. "Sure. You okay?"
"I will be," I reply, and I mean it. I let Andrew Jackson's wrinkled mug make contact with the wooden counter. Then I shove my hands in my pockets and exit the bar, leaving the two ladies to chat about everything but what I actually wanted to learn.
The lot where the car wash used to be is now fenced off. I know this because that's where I decide to go on my impromptu stroll, braving the late spring winds to visit. All around the area, other office buildings and businesses are empty. Not condemned, but certainly not alive, either, And everything is still so gray.
I look at the sign posted on the rusty metal links and see that the space is now up for lease: By one Samantha Sullivan, no less. I debate calling the phone number posted, but I decide against it. The piles of wood and gravel seem more organized now, like assembling the beginning pieces of a new skeleton, of a new body. I look at my watch, and it's almost seven o'clock. Seven o'clock on a Monday night, and the place is still dead.
But when it was alive, it was certainly something. Old Ben's goofy smile is still pretty vivid in my mind, even if I only went to get my father's truck washed a few times. I remember when he would sometimes snatch a can of cola from the food stand and slurp it down while his workers rubbed away offending stains on a Volkswagen. I remember the laughter scattered in between stories told in German, as his relatives gathered around the man who had made a name for himself in a new country, a new world. I remember buying a packet of sea salt and vinegar chips myself, letting the sharp flavor settle on my tongue before handing thirty bucks to the lucky soul who had to wash away mud from the truck's enormous tires.
I stay by the now closed off lot for a while, staring at what used to be one of the town's staple establishments. Maybe we're not due for a revival yet; all we can do, for now, is reminisce on things we can't get back. Except maybe one thing.
The space doesn't smell like bleach anymore. It smells like dirt. Dry, dusty dirt, baked in the oncoming June heat. Definitely not a clean smell anymore, but an earthy one instead.
Somehow, I don't know if this odor is any better than the last. I'll cope, though. It wasn't my car wash. And it's not my land. I don't own either.
But it is still my town. And Heaven help me, I'm still living in it.
I linger until it gets so dark that I can barely see anything in front of me anymore. Then I leave before I get swallowed up in the vacuum left behind.
This week's prompt was provided by one of my students. During class, we exchanged prompts based on setting and wrote stories from there that focused on the use of sensory language.