I have a new friend named Walter.
I met him couple of months ago at the laundromat. He was short a quarter for the dryer and was willing to trade a Capri Sun for it. Oh how I’m a sucker for those little bags of juice. So we traded. As it turns out, it was both a sound business and personal decision.
I found this laundromat on the outskirts of downtown Nashville — and about 7 minutes from my apartment — not long after I moved in. My apartment complex charges an arm and a leg to wash clothes and since I really don’t have any of those to spare, I had to outsource. Now I do my laundry for cheap — a dollar to wash, a dollar to dry — at a clean, well-lit laundromat that sits up on the side of a hill overlooking East Nashville and the Cumberland River. It’s about a block away from a little league ball park and a mile or so from downtown. It’s my new favorite spot. (And yes, I realize I’m somewhat romanticizing a laundromat. Get over it.)
A few weeks after I started my weekly laundry trips, I saw Walter come in, dragging three overflowing baskets much too heavy for his slight frame. He parked himself in front of a few machines, pulled out a Zip-Loc bag of quarters and started expertly handling his laundry. He sorted, he stain treated, he added fabric softener during the rinse cycles. He looked about 10.
I watched Walter week after week, always on Thursday nights, always with a multitude of laundry baskets – far too much to be just his. And then after admiring his skills in silence for a few weeks, Walter walked right up to me and introduced himself.
“Hi, I’m Walter and I need a quarter.”
“I need a quarter,” he repeated, his hands shoved down in his pockets, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet. “I must have miscounted. I’m a quarter short.”
“Is that so,” I said and started rummaging around in my purse for change.
“Yeah, sorry to interrupt your reading, it’s just you look nicer than that guy over there and I’d be willing to give you this juice box in exchange.”
He said this with a shy smile on his face and then dangled a Capri Sun in front of my face. I glanced over his shoulder at the only other launderer in the building and the kid appeared to be right — the guy had a scowl on his face and was furiously typing away on a laptop.
“I think we can work something out.”
We exchanged quarters and juice and then the ten-year-old headed back to his laundry and I went back to my book. It wasn’t long before Walter plopped down in the plastic chair next to me.
I stuck my thumb in between pages to hold my place and folded over the book so he could read the cover.
“I’m reading Harry Potter. The final movie comes out this summer so I thought I might read all the books again. This is the first one,” I told him.
“I’ve never read Harry Potter.”
“Have you seen the movies?”
“Well Walter, you’re missing out on a cultural phenomenon!”
“Mom doesn’t really buy us books or movies too much,” he said. “And I wouldn’t have time anyway. I have to babysit my sisters. I have seven.”
“Seven sisters? That’s a lot babysitting.” Walter just nodded. “Well I’m just starting this one, would you like to read it with me?”
Walter looked hesitant at me, his eyes flitting back and forth between the pages and my face.
“You don’t have to,” I said. “But I think you might like it. It has wizards and magic and evil spells and snakes and spiders.”
“Snakes and spiders?” he asked with a little more interest.
“Yep, and dragons and lots more really creepy mythical creatures.”
“You had me sold at snakes and dragons,” he said, a grin spreading across his face. “Alright, I’ll read with you. But only if you read out loud. I read too slow.”
“I can handle that.”
So while our laundry tumbled around in the heat of the dryer, Walter and I began to read.
“Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much …”
That evening, we made it through a few chapters of Harry Potter before I announced it was time for me to get home.
“But I want to know what happens!” Walter protested, the faintest hint of a whine in his voice making him sound his age for the first time since I’d met him.
“Well how about you take this with you,” I told him.
“You’d let me take your book?”
“Of course, I’ve read it before. You take it with you and keep reading. Then we’ll pick up from where you leave off next week.”
He reverently took the hardback book out of my hand and placed it on top of his folded laundry. “Next week?”
“Yes sir, I’ll see you Thursday,” I told him. And he was out the door and walking back home, lugging his laundry and his new book behind him.
That was about five Thursdays ago and we’re now half way through the second Harry Potter book. I’ve never seen a kid so excited to do laundry before. I’m not sure that I’ve been so excited to do laundry before.
Tonight after we’ve finished our laundry, Walter suggests we walk down to the baseball fields a few blocks away.
“You don’t need to get home?” I ask.
“No, I have about an hour left.”
“And you won’t get in trouble?” I press.
“No, I promise.”
So side by side and book in tow, Walter and I head to the ball fields. Settled on the top row of the metal bleachers, Walter flips open the book and points to the place we left off.
“Read,” he insists.
It is one of those unseasonably cool Tennessee evenings where the humidity is tolerable and a cool breeze dissolves the late spring heat. The sun is beginning to set, casting a gold light across the white pages of our book. In the background, kids are swinging at baseballs, running around bases, catching fly balls, parents are cheering in the stands. But Walter is far away. He’s walking the halls of Hogwarts. He’s pretending he has a wand and a broom and an invisibility cloak.
I read until my throat is dry and the bright lights over the baseball diamonds flicker on and signal nightfall.
“Time to head back,” I tell Walter.
Back at the laundromat, Walter piles in my car beside his laundry and I drive him the two blocks home.
“Next Thursday?” he asks just before he shuts the car door. He sounds worried, like I might say no.
“Next Thursday,” I confirm with a nod of my head. “You keep reading that book. We’ve got several more to get through.”
“I will, I promise,” Walter says. “Thursdays are my favorite day of the week.”
They’re mine too.