A Loss

March 01, 1995|By COLBY RODOWSKY

The dry-cleaner was on a grimy stretch of York Road, close to a palm reader, an abandoned funeral home and a series of Chinese carry outs, but it was on the way to places and I stopped there often with clothes that needed to be cleaned or, occasionally, altered.

The shop itself was unimpressive with a stain on the ceiling where the roof leaked from time to time. The air was sharp with a mixture of cleaning fluids and the smell of smoke from a cigarette burning in an ashtray.

It was a Mom and Pop operation -- the wife working the counter, the husband the back room, coming out from the time to time to examine a slipcover that needed to be cleaned, or a pair of draperies, analyzing the fabric, the chance of shrinkage.

I never knew the owners' names though the wife remembered mine, and the address too, writing them on the slip before I was even inside the door. Then we'd visit for a while, chatting about the weather, the state of the world, the new kitten peeking out from behind the counter before I'd go off, oddly cheered, to do the rest of my errands.

I heard, sometime after the fact, that the husband had died, the son had taken over, and I wanted to say something but didn't. The way we sometimes don't say things that need to be said.

Several years went by. There were trips to the cleaners, conversations with the mother over the counter (the weather, the world, the cat) and if my load was cumbersome the son would sometimes carry it out to the car, laying the clothes carefully in the trunk.

I still didn't know their names.

We stopped there one Saturday before Christmas and found a roughly scribbled note on the door: ''Closed because of death.''

''But who?'' we asked ourselves. Someone distant, we hoped. A funeral they had to attend, perhaps a relative they hardly knew. Surely everything was all right and the store would be open on Monday. But when we called a week later an unfamiliar voice said it was the son who had died.

On trips up the road we watched the shop, telling ourselves that we would go in, say something, no matter how feeble, but by then there was a new sign that said ''Closed for the holidays.'' And this one seemed to stay in place longer than the holidays themselves.

We checked last week and on the door, hand-lettered, on cardboard, it said ''Open Sat., for pick up only -- 10-2.''

And next to that a ''For Sale'' sign.

We felt a loss, a sadness for people whose names we never knew.

And York Road is a bleaker place than it was before.

Colby Rodowsky is a Baltimore writer.

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