The blue desert sky is untouchable, though the Sangre de Cristos reach their arms up shawled with ponderosa, embroidered with aspen. Down the slopes the desert meets them with fragrant juniper and piñon, then come the adobe houses, some rich, some poor and fewer of those among the old acequias down to the river where tall, strong cottonwoods shade the tourists and the tour buses and the retail workers on smoke breaks and service workers in their work trucks. Around the square sit the Natives as they have for decades if not centuries selling silver and turquoise to white people who do not understand it is bad luck to buy them for oneself—they can only be gifts. Out along Alameda stands the little shopping center with a natural food co-op still fending off Whole Foods, a coffee shop full of weird art, a dance studio, a Vietnamese restaurant, an office for the county, and finally the place from which I see this all: the La Solana laundromat.
Full sun breaks into the large windows. A mother and child and their hound/lab dog sit outside on the porch. The washerwomen speak soft Spanish, laughing easily. The TV is turned to news, never Fox, though it’s muted against top 40’s in English or in Spanish and 80’s ballads and at least once a day, “Let It Go” from Frozen. All above the murmur of spinning washers, thudding dryers, which noise keeps the people quiet themselves: the caballero-dressed gentlemen who flirt with the washerwomen, the white-bearded white men in ball caps who might have been civil rights attorneys before they retired to the vast disconnectedness of the desert, the mothers corralling three kids and four baskets of laundry, the young couples passing one another’s articles over in tenderness, the travelers finally stripping off their tremendous backpacks to pull out the Ziplock bags of toiletries and medicine and gas-station food until finally comes the pile of dirty clothes, mostly camo—and they are at home here. I do not know where else they are at home, but they are at home at the La Solana laundromat where they can sit and listen to the ballads and watch the news anchors and be lullabied by the spinning machines as we all can; for here, I am convinced, is where the dream of American democracy, e pluribus unum, has taken its refuge.
There are punks relaxed too, folding black torn jeans. There are the young women who place work aprons and uniform shirts into the wash and then go out and light a cigarette and have that twenty-odd minutes free. Most of the time they don’t even look at their phones. They smoke in the generous sunlight, they watch an inexplicable quarter horse and an appaloosa saddled and bridled in the parking lot. Twenty minutes of freedom is worth a lot these days—twenty minutes of silence even more. Two-fifty for a wash is a steal for it.
I’ve seen open pages of Louis L’Amour, Dostoevsky, Brené Brown, an anthology of southwestern Native poetry, Saul Alinsky, one of the older Kingsolvers, an X-men comic book, a Bible, the Santa Fe paper and the alternative Santa Fe paper, Auto Trader. Some of the kids read too and some play video games on their parent’s phones. The young couple retreats to the seats to watch a movie on their laptop, sharing a pair of headphones. A new lady comes in with rhinestone sunglasses and a French bulldog whom she must half-drag into the laundromat because it wants to bark at the horses. Probably dogs aren’t officially allowed but nonetheless the children ease over to pet the dog and so does the lady who had been reading Kingsolver.
A cholo-dressed man with his laundry in a purple folding hamper and a tattoo on his neck of a Zia forming the zero to 505, the Santa Fe area code; two carpenters or painters in dusted overalls who throw in loads and lean over the washers to watch and comment on the news on the TV. The tamale man shows up and half the laundromat rushes to him. He gives change from a wrinkled envelope and hands out warm tamales from a Walmart bag. Quatro, por favor, ¿cuánto cuesta? Bueno, gracias. The tamale man doesn’t show up every day. The tamales are wrapped in foil and then in corn husks, spiced with chipotle, better than any I’ve had since Biloxi.
The sun now coppers the western adobe walls of all the neighborhood around, it gleams in the windows as though each house were bursting with light, it alights the golden aspens on the mountainside and makes quartz-streaked boulders of Picacho and Atalaya glow like aged brass and already the evening star gleams like the finger of a god. Light on all this, on the desert in its indivisible wholeness, the sea of juniper and the car windshields and distances so great and visible they become things unto themselves—it’s like a sound, like the clear tone of five trombones holding a single warm brassy chord.
My dryer has thirty minutes to go and then I’ll get in the car to resume my life. By the city, light pollution will obscure the rising stars but toward the mountains or the desert one can turn and see the Milky Way. Although I must awake for the five a.m. shift, I will go out and crane my neck to look at those stars, specifically to incomprehend. The heavens will spin over us all, rich and poor, Native and Latino and Latina and Latinx and Black and White, the content and the troubled, and they will prove us to be so very, very small and frail, and so close to one another. There is much more they could prove, but that will be a good beginning.
Jackson Culpepper grew up in a small south Georgia town, attended the University of South Carolina for an MFA, and has since lived in east Tennessee, New Mexico, and Denver. more of his work can be found at jacksonculpepper.wordpress.com.
Jackson Culpepper recommends “America the Beautiful Again” by Richard Blanco.