Mr. Smith was a dry cleaner, and nothing more or less.
For over forty years, Mr. Smith kept his business quietly, running the best cleaners in town, in the state – maybe the country. Naysayers might do well to try out every cleaners in the country and then judge.
Mr. Smith had a secret formula for getting grease out. He had the moves, as the young folks say, to iron any wrinkle, and the patience to see it smooth too. Tears and tatters were a specialty – sewn so precisely that a trained eye couldn’t tell the difference between brand-new and hand-me-down, thrice.
A modest man, and quiet, Mr. Smith was trusted in the town, though few exchanged more words than necessary over each transaction. It was dry cleaning, after all. He would listen, study the cloth before him as each customer described their needs, and nod.
Mr. Smith nodded when Ebenezer Kraklin (the Honorable) creaked in with a sixty-some-year suit of questionable tweed. He knew the fabric and the age from a mere glance, and the nod knew the need. Even widowers go a-courtin’ in the winter years.
Mr. Smith nodded when Agnes DeLoit brought in an evening gown with puff sleeves, luxurious lavender unfit for a lady of church dress only. He had starched her collars and sleeves for years, Monday after Monday, but this dusty finery meant perhaps more than she intended his nod to know. She was dismissive of it (“Cleaning out my closets” said she), despite the color in her cheeks, and Mr. Smith was a gentleman.
The rumpled mid-aged man in shirtsleeves (Barnabas Clark, accountant and husband of Ann, 18 at the neck) had grease stains on his slacks. Mr. Smith thought of beautiful fried things behind grimy doors downtown, and nodded. Three hours was manageable, yes, but extra. Barnabas understood, and so did Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith’s nod knew the holiday menu, when he peeled remnants of golden yams and caked gravy from tiny collared plaid, when he soaked bloody cranberry and subtle creamy stains from velvet-topped tartan. He knew the tired smile of a survivor (Emily Bright, 6 month to 3 year), and his nod spoke support upon pickup. She would be back, but the clothes were one or two sizes larger each year. One year, she stopped coming altogether. He missed working with little cloth.
Mr. Smith added an eyebrow twitch to his nod when Taylor Drust (of 16 tender years) darkened his doorstep for the first time, sheepishly handing him a goldenrod dress shirt and store-matched tie. Taylor eventually returned the sleek black vest Mr. Smith “accidentally” included with his order, with a touch more confidence. Mr. Smith nodded and smiled, but only to himself. He was young once, too.
Mr. Smith nodded when Ms. Deloit returned several months later with a modest white gown with creamy lace, of many years and little use. He took great care in smoothing the wrinkles from the fabric and freshening the color, and Ms. Deloit smiled like a schoolgirl upon retrieval. He nodded when Mr. Kraklin (the Honorable) returned with a rush order on a suitable used black tuxedo. He offered matching cuff links. Ebenezer couldn’t care less if they matched.
Brittany Carmine (sized 4 and aged 17), blushing like a new bride, dropped off a long frilly fancy thing towards the end of May that same year, and Mr. Smith nodded with the gravitas of a father, eying the neckline with apprehension. Upon pickup, he gestured to a matching shawl he had conveniently arranged on the counter, shimmering like an evening. “Lost and found. It’s yours if you want it.” He nodded relief when she took it, and thought perhaps she felt the same.
She brought it back the following Tuesday, head down, salt-water standing in the corners of her eyes as she indicated a hastily tattered sleeve and a muddy hem. Mr. Smith’s heart broke, but he nodded. Sometimes the tears were unavoidable. She never picked it up.
Jeremiah Yoder’s hands brought his dress blacks twice a church year. Hands that deftly guided his plow or gentled a horse turned clumsy at the sight of a pen. Mr. Smith nodded upon inspection of each order, accepting with his nod both the man and the painfully-scrawled squiggle. Come Good Friday, these hands would rest on a slender waist as Sarai’s smaller hands tied his somber, smartly-starched tie. Sarai’s hands also took a good amount of patchwork from Mr. Smith’s payroll, but he didn’t mind.
Ms. Lucretia Crimenze’s butler peered at Mr. Smith over the bridge of his ever-upturned nose, when he delivered six brand new evening gowns on the 5th of the month. Mr. Smith wondered if she would even notice should he shirk his duties, since he had never twice seen a gown, and they were all pristine without his aid. But he had never once shirked his duties, so he never once found out.
Mr. Smith nodded when the undertaker stopped by with a questionable tweed suit and a modest dress of lavender. He took care to clean and press them as he would for the living, for he thought of them that way always, on each of their few anniversaries. Truly, they lived, even late.
And one day in early December, Brittany Carmine (sized 6 and aged 19) brought by a tiny collared shirt with life-red stains of cranberry dripped across the collar. She smiled, as survivors do. And Mr. Smith nodded.