by Thea Swanson | Suquamish, Washington, USA
Thursday, June 4th, 2020
In Buffalo in 1986, eighteen-year-old female Name-Patch Pressers arrive at 7:30 am at Cadet Cleaners. They turn on hot-iron presses that grind to life. On a work table, stacks of light blue shirts and name patches wait to be joined. Name-Patch Pressers grab the collars and tug the fabric taut around metal plates. They pick up blue-stitched ovals—Fred, Paul, Jerry—and center them. When they pull the levers down and the hot irons sear the glue to the shirts, Fred, Paul and Jerry scream across town, clutching bubbling skin over their hearts.
On their first ten-minute break, Name-Patch Pressers slip quarters into vending machines that leak coffee into tiny cups. Others also convene: Uniform-Pants Hemmers and Cloth-Towel Seam-Sewers.
Cloth-Towel Seam-Sewers dribble coffee down their smocks. This is getting old, you know?
Ya think? Uniform-Pants Hemmers say.
I don’t know, Name-Patch Pressers say, expanding their lungs. I think I’m pretty good at what I do.
Yeah, say Cloth-Towel Seam-Sewers, there’s that.
Name-Patch Pressers go back to their stations. They drop shirts onto the floor. They bring down irons onto crooked ovals. They affix Sam’s patch onto George’s shirt. I need some air, they say, and they leave their stations without asking and step outside.
With their backs against the brick building, they look up into the sky and ponder their existence. They walk up West Utica and down Elmwood. They walk until they reach a gas station at Forest Avenue. At pump #2, a uniformed man wipes a windshield and accepts a dollar from the driver. Name-Patch Pressers go to the man and stand before him.
Can I help you? he asks.
Name-Patch Pressers lift their fingers and reach out as if to touch his oval. Jesus, they say. I didn’t do that one, they say. I would have remembered.
That’s not how you say it, Jesus says.
Say what? Name-Patch Pressers say.
Never mind. Do you need something? I got work to do.
Are you good at your job? Name-Patch Pressers say.
Jesus looks at them.
Do you ever make mistakes? Name-Patch Pressers say.
Never, Jesus says, straightening the rolled-up cuff at his elbow.
I used to be like that, they say and look into the glare of the gas station window, a tear falling from their eyes.
No, senoritas, no, Jesus says. Don’t cry. I have a secret to tell you.
A secret? they ask.
The truth is, I used to make lots of mistakes. I used to stay up too late, drink too much—all kinds of bad habits. But something changed my life. Jesus looks side to side and unbuttons his shirt to expose his chest. The word “Jesus” appears in the same cursive as on his oval patch. Do you see? It is like, Stigmata. It is a sign. I have to be the best gas station clerk I can be for the rest of my life.
Name-Patch Pressers are amazed. They believe in the gas station clerk. They believe in what he does. They hold his hand inside of theirs and stare into his eyes with dreamy fascination. After one full minute, they look down, sad.
What is it, mijas? Why do you cry?
I don’t have a sign. I am lost, they say, arms hanging at the sides of their smocks. I’m not special at all. What is my purpose in life?
Your purpose will find you, Jesus says. You’ll see. Just wait. Be patient.
Name-Patch Pressers nod and walk back to work in a daze. Be patient, they repeat. On the way, they pass cafés where people chat and sip mid-morning roasts. They pass apartments where college students sketch in soft charcoal, and clothing boutiques where women finger vintage blouses. They pass all these things that are foreign to them, that are not for them but for someone else. They pick up speed and run to their irons, to their destinies. ■
Thea Swanson lives in Washington State and holds an MFA in Writing from Pacific University in Oregon. She is the founder and editor of Club Plum Literary Journal, and her flash fiction collection, Mars, was published by Ravenna Press in 2017. Thea’s work can be found in many journals including Fiction Southeast, Mid-American Review and Chiron Review. Find her writing at theaswanson.com and occasional tweets at @thea_swanson.