The city was draped in blue velvet as I drove my daughter to a church dance on the east side of Wichita. Being winter, the sky was already dark by 7 pm, but it wasn’t particularly cold.
I pulled my mini-van out of the stake center parking lot and turned west onto 13th street, just starting my drive back home to the west side of the city.
Before I had reached the first stop light at Woodlawn, I saw some white objects in the road. Animals, vegetables or minerals? I was too surprised to discern. I slowed down.
Soon a figure was caught in my headlights.
A woman with an expressionless face froze and then squinted into the glare. She was tall, thin and appeared to be in her late twenties. She had dark hair and was wearing a dark baseball cap and a dark nylon track suit. This was probably why I saw the light-colored objects lying in the road before I saw her. I pulled onto a side street to my right in order to avoid hitting her.
I swung my car around so that I was parked perpendicular to the white objects on 13th street. My headlights allowed me to see more clearly what was going on. The street was littered with clothes.
The woman was dashing in between cars in an effort to pick up her laundry. Her head bowed and shoulders slumped with indifference. Her legs and arms moved robotically. I pulled my car closer to the intersection, illuminating her work space a bit more. I got out of my car.
By the time I got to 13th street, a man in his late thirties wearing light clothing and sporting an ample stomach was in the road with her now. I saw his car parked on a side street opposite of mine. He started directing me and the owner of the clothes, focusing on everyone’s safety. I pointed out my car working as an additional light source.
Beyond the light coming from cars and streetlights were nighttime shadows. Houses hovered over the street. Trees reached their limbs towards the clothes. Telephones cast tall, thin lines where the lights tapered off. The woman kept her eyes on her clothes. I looked at her from my peripheral vision as I picked up clothes. She was a silent, thin, dark figure keeping her own counsel.
The three of us worked quickly, watching for cars moving both east and west on 13th. The air was heavy. The night was dark. The woman’s actions heavy in contrast to the frenetic energy that the man and I exhibited. For the next few minutes, the only sound came from the traffic moving around us. I reached down and picked up a woman’s black camisole, a man’s white t-shirt, a toddler’s pair of Dora the Explorer underwear.
I then saw her white laundry basket sitting on the sidewalk.
My arms full, I moved to the laundry basket on the sidewalk and placed these underclothes inside. I looked for the woman’s car. I didn’t see one nearby. Had she been crossing the street on foot when the laundry spilled? Did the basket fall out of the back of a truck? Did someone throw the contents of the laundry basket into the street? From their body language, it was clear that the man directing our labor was not acquainted with her. He came upon the scene shortly after I did.
Here we were, an accidental trio, working together in the still, dark air of the winter night. I wasn’t sure what to say to the woman. I considered smiling at her, but she never looked my direction.
Once we were finished, she picked up her now-full basket and moved into the shadows. The man returned to his car on the south side of 13th. I got in my car on the north side of the street and continued my drive home.