Double Load Wednesdays

thom nguyen

Thơm Nguyen is a Vietnamese-Australian illustrator and comic artist based in Naarm / Melbourne. Their work often explores life through sequential art and tactile print media. They are really into risograph.


‘Double Load Wednesdays’ makes mention of mention of bereavement and grief.

A portrait mauve monochrome digital illustration, showing a shrine with a plate of fruit, incense burner with four burning sticks of incense, and glass bowl filled with small offerings in the front row. The second row shows a large empty vase, with a burning votive candle and a burning tall candle on a candlestick at either side. On an upper shelf are three shrine figurines: a Buddha on the left, a Jesus in the centre, and a kneeling Parvati on the right. The background is grainy mauve, becoming lighter in the centre of the image behind the shrine. The image is peaceful and inviting.
Illustration by Thom Nguyen

Double Load Wednesdays are our busiest days. Customers think they’re getting a bargain. But when you add it all up—per item versus per basket—it works out the same as any other day.

            At six, Mum straps Dad’s urn under an arm. We stagger downstairs, unlock the double-bolted door separating us from the shop, steaming mug of Nescafé in one hand, piece of fruit in the other.

            Mum clambers up the dryer, her cheap leggings barely disguising her full briefs. She places Dad centre stage, between Jesus, Buddha, Nang Kwak, and a bowl of amulets. To watch over us while we work, she says, turning Dad a fraction so the inscription JOHN faces the street. Yesterday’s apple is swapped for today’s orange, then she fishes something from her top pocket and places it in the bowl. ‘For luck,’ she says. ‘From overseas. Strong magic.’

            I’m doubtful. But do I say anything? Of course not. It makes her happy. And why shouldn’t I indulge her? So up I go, swapping yesterday’s apple for today’s kiwi.

            We finish the shrine offering-cleaning ritual with the sign of the cross—because Dad was Catholic. And because Mum is Buddhist, we steeple our fingers to our head.

            ‘Go clean outside,’ says Mum, climbing off the dryer to find a place on the concrete floor for her contingency prayers.

Every morning it’s the same, some dead thing lying across our doorstep. You get used to it (especially if you bait as devotedly as Mum). Today’s casualty: a rat the size of a possum. It’s squashed and bloodied, like the neighbourhood cat had a go of it before realising it didn’t taste 100 per cent right.

            I bag the beast, throw it into the hopper, then saturate its final resting place in Glen 20 Original Scent.

Mum’s still putting in her requests when I return. ‘I pray John’s not a hungry horse. The washing baskets grow like weeds.’ Here, she opens her eyes to give me a sympathetic look. ‘And my daughter meet someone nice.’

            I bite into my apple and wonder whether praying to two gods is screwing my chances.

At half past six, we flick on the washers. We set up our boards. We down our cups of Nescafé to the drone of the warming machines.

            Mum uses the TO DO rack that runs along the left wall of the shop to stretch her muscles. I use the DONE rack down the right to stretch mine.

            ‘Ready?’ I say.

            Mum nods.

            I open the doors and in they come, with their long faces and freshly laundered bodies, tapping their details into the automatic check-in at the counter, leaving their dirty baskets behind.

            And away we go. Mum and me, side by side, synchronised laundry ladies filling the washers and pouring the soap flakes.

By ten, the dirty baskets are stacked up to our knees. Static hangs in the air. And Mum’s sore legs make her cranky. ‘Your hair keep getting stuck in the washing. Wear a shower cap or tie it back!’

            I tie back my hair because I do have some standards.

            Mum kneads her thighs, as she inspects the baskets. ‘Where they all coming from?’

            ‘Don’t know,’ I say, taking a break from ironing to restock the TO DO for the third time. ‘Google reviews?’

At one, the baskets are up to our thighs.

            We break for lunch anyway because Mum says her varicose veins are going to pop. We eat upstairs because no one wants their Hugo Boss smelling like bamboo shoots. I zap the leftovers in the microwave, grab the belacan chilli from the fridge.

            ‘Adoy!’ says Mum, slumping in the kitchen chair.

After lunch, we wash our faces at the kitchen sink, gargle water and spit.

            I make Nescafé and then we head back downstairs for The Bold and the Beautiful, Mum’s half-hour of life-affirming TV for the day. I unlock the front door and the baskets start rolling back in, as Ridge runs his fingers through Taylor’s hair.

            Mum gulps.

            I’m not sure if it’s because she wants what they’re having or indigestion from lunch.

At two, the baskets are waist high when the automatic check-in gives out. Some young guy in a double-breasted suit walks in, one basket on top of another, phone pinned between his shoulder and ear.

            Mum gives me a hopeful look. ‘You serve.’

            ‘Can you stop!’ He drops his baskets onto the counter, frowns at me and raises a finger as if to say gimme a minute. ‘It’s not true… Listen… Hohhh—’ He eyeballs his phone, then shoves it back into his pocket.

            The phone rings, some British rap about money, but he ignores it.

            ‘Gimme a sec.’ I hang a pair of slacks on the DONE rack.

            Mum shoots me a look as though I’ve just shat through a pair of white pants.

            The rapping stops. He fishes the phone out of his pocket.

            I grab all his details, but not before the rapping starts again.

            ‘Jesus!’ He hangs up and pulls out his wallet.

            ‘Pay on pick up,’ I say.

            The rapping starts again. He eyes his phone. ‘That all you need?’

            I tear off the stub and hand it to him. ‘Yep.’

            ‘Take a pamphlet,’ calls Mum.

Once he’s gone, Mum says, ‘You need to smile more.’

            ‘You need better taste,’ is what I want to say. But I just stack the guy’s baskets with the others.

            ‘You young. Have a whole life to live.’ She looks up at Dad. ‘You don’t know how lucky you are.’

            ‘Lucky enough to know I get a ten-minute break,’ I say, flicking off my iron, climbing over the counter, weaving past the customers and out through the front door.

            ‘What I do now?’ calls Mum.

The line wraps around the block.

            ‘How many loads you got there?’ says an old guy, rifling through a basket.

            ‘Stop touchin’ my stuff!’ another guy yells back.

            I just keep walking, pretending I don’t see a thing.

            The old guy chuckles. ‘This is why I’ve been standing here for over an hour. People like you!’ He’s shaking his head when he spots me. ‘Hey, wait up. You work at that shop?’

            I nod.

            ‘Know how long I’ve been standing here?’

            I’m about to say just over an hour when a lady approaches me from out of nowhere. ‘Hello? Excuse me?’ This lady has Eartha Kitt hair and a massive crystal dangling from her neck. She’s holding a stack of stapled papers. A satchel crosses her body. She smells divine—lavender or rosemary. I’m not sure. I always get the two confused.

            ‘Hola,’ I say.

            ‘Ohhh—’ she smiles. ‘Cómo estás?’

            I shrug. ‘Molto bene?’

            ‘You’re not Spanish?’

            I shake my head.

            Her face goes funny, like she can’t work out whether to be embarrassed or amused, but then she lets out this laugh that’s wholesome and encouraging. ‘Me neither! But I can speak.’ She hands me a bundle from her stack. A résumé. ‘Well, you look Spanish,’ she says. ‘If you give me a job, I will teach you.’

            Mum’s not going to go for it, but this lady smells good and seems really nice. ‘Our check-in machine just broke. Can you take names and numbers?’

            She tilts her head to one side. ‘I write slow, but I’m good with the customers.’

            Which is good enough for me.

Mum’s at the counter, sounding out a customer’s name when I return. She glances up. Then smiles with relief. ‘She’s back!’

            ‘Gimme five,’ I say to the customers. Someone groans, but I pretend I don’t hear it.

            I help Mara over the counter. Introduce her to Mum. Hand over the papers.

            ‘What I do with that?’ says Mum, giving Mara a sideways glance. ‘You know my eyes bad!’

            ‘It’s okay,’ says Mara, touching Mum on the shoulder.

            I ignore them both and start skimming when I stumble upon:

Psychic Medium (5th Generation)

July 1954–Present                       Self-employed

– Reuniting loved ones with those who have passed over
– Grief counselling

My face goes funny (or I’m guessing it has) because Mum asks me what I’m looking at. I show her. She clicks her tongue. ‘I told you—I don’t have my glasses!’

            Mara nudges Mum’s arm. ‘Don’t worry, my daughter helped me write it,’ she says, nodding at the paper.

            Mum looks away.

            ‘It says I talk to the dead.’ Mara puts a hand on Mum’s shoulder. ‘Now go get something of John’s.’

            Mum’s mouth drops open. I glance at Dad’s urn in full view.

            ‘Well, go on then,’ Mara says cheerily. She’s talking to Mum, but she’s staring at me.

            That’s all the encouragement Mum needs. She dashes off upstairs, not noticing Mara’s swift, cold reading of her—how Mara has analysed her weaknesses in a matter of seconds. I can’t blame Mum, though. Most people would miss it. I saw it on Mediums Uncensored. Hope blinds you. And seeing as Mum has enough hope in her for the two of us combined, she’s as blind as a coat hanger.

            Mara waits until we can hear Mum creaking around upstairs. Then she says it. ‘You don’t believe. I can see that.’ She hands me the rest of her papers and climbs back over the counter. She starts clearing customers out of the way. Most politely obey. Others mutter.

            ‘C’mon!’ says a guy in a top hat.

            ‘Fuck this!’ says another.

            Mara plonks her bag on the floor and starts rummaging through it.‘Make me a circle out of water-tumbled rocks here, one that I can sit in, and I’ll show you. Oh, and make everyone go away, so I can focus.’

            I don’t believe a word she’s saying, but I’m indulging Mum, right? So, I push everyone out of the shop, lock the door, tell them I’ll be a few minutes.

            ‘Will soap flakes do?’ I ask.

            ‘Sí,’ says Mara, pulling a rusted fork from her bag. ‘But the connection may be so-so.’

            I pour Mara a wonky circle, right where the customers were standing a moment before.

            The guy in the top hat knocks on the glass. ‘They go in the machine,’ he says. ‘And I have Whodunnit? in an hour. How long you going to be?’

            ‘Long as it takes!’ Mum yells, climbing over the counter and handing Mara Dad’s favourite stein. It has a painted landscape of a German village, windmill and rolling hills in the background. ‘This do?’

            Mara’s face goes grim. ‘Sí,’ she murmurs, swapping her bag for the stein, and sits in the circle with it and her rusted fork. ‘Whatever happens, don’t break the circle until I say.’

            Mum gives me a look, like she’s having second thoughts.

            I wrap my arm around her. ‘We won’t.’

            Mara holds up the rusted fork. I look at the crowd outside, pressed close to the glass window. They’re all staring at the fork. I stare at the fork. It all feels very tense. Very cultish.

            She mumbles some foreign words (definitely not Spanish), spits into the air. And then she plunges that fork into the palm of her other hand, crying: ‘E-E-E-E-E!’

            ‘Holy shit!’ I say. ‘That thing was rusty!’

            Mum gasps and accidentally does the sign of the cross.

            The crowd goes wild.

            ‘Okay, I can see you are busy,’ says the guy in the top hat.

            Blood pools into Mara’s palm. Her voice goes louder, but none of it makes sense. She siphons her blood into Dad’s stein, lifts it to her lips, downs it, and then slams it on the concrete. Shards go flying everywhere.

            ‘No,’ cries Mum.

            What crazy, illogical shit Mara’s into, I don’t know. I go to squeeze Mum tight, but she falls to her knees and starts picking up any fragments she can find. She’s cursing in Thai.

            Mara seizes a piece. I expect her to hand it back to Mum, followed by an apology. But does she do that? No! She shoves it in her mouth and this grinding sound starts, like two ceramic plates rubbing together.

            ‘What wrong with you?’ cries Mum. ‘I can’t glue it now!’

            It isn’t enough to deter Mara who picks up another piece and does the same. Blood drips from her chin like gravy.

            I’m shaking all over, but my eyes refuse to look away.

            Mara’s chewing slows. ‘I see him.’

            Mum stops what she’s doing.

            ‘Like a king… High up.’

            Mum’s eyes slowly gaze up at the ceiling.

            ‘Going ‘round and ‘round,’ says Mara. ‘He’s a… Hang on… Oh no… No… He’s coming—’ Mara’s head jerks back and then it jerks forward and then her shoulders roll back, so she sits tall and proud. ‘I am a wedgetail. Hear me pe-caw. I circle the skies, catch the fattest prey for my meals. I am happy. I wish the same for you.’ Tears start to trickle from the corner of Mara’s eyes. ‘It’s sad—’

            ‘What?’ says Mum, getting to her feet.

            ‘He is lying. I can—’ Suddenly, Mara’s eyes close shut. Her head jerks forward and back. When her eyes open again, it’s like looking at two boiled eggs.

            Mum grabs my arm.

            The circle of soap powder bursts into flames and then Mara lifts off the ground, like some levitating yogi.

            ‘You gettin’ this?’ shrieks someone outside.

            ‘It’s a miracle!’ shouts the guy in the top hat.

            I grab the fire extinguisher.

            ‘No!’ Mum holds me back.

            Smoke spreads like jungle mist.

            The fire alarm goes off.

            Outside, people start screaming, ‘FIRE!’ and ‘CALL TRIPLE ZERO!’ They hammer on the glass.

            ‘Who am I kidding?’ Mara yells over the crowd. But her voice isn’t her own; her voice sounds like Dad’s.

            ‘John?’ croaks Mum.

            ‘Yes, my love. It is I. I miss you. No immersion will change that. Not my mate for life, nor my fledglings. Not my impressive wingspan. All I can think of as I soar towards the horizon, drawing closer to tomorrow, is how much I long for another day with you.’

            Mum howls between coughs.

            My eyes burn, but I can’t look away. And I’m now coughing, too.

            The shop’s almost smoked out.

            Mara-Dad yells over the chaos. ‘It is not a T-bone, but it is the best I can do. My first kill every day. Fresh and warm on your doorstep. A token of my love.’

            ‘John,’ coughs Mum, dropping to her knees, probably regretting all those possum-rats she had me toss away.

            I’m buckled over, coughing and spluttering.

            Sirens blare in the distance.

            I pull the pin, point the extinguisher and shoot.

            The muted orange flames flicker and scatter, trying to dodge the foam. I drain the extinguisher until the fire dies out, until the shop floor looks like it’s smothered in snow.

            Glass shatters. Smoke begins to clear. The crowd has busted through the shop window.

            ‘Strong magic,’ Mum says over and over, as they carry her out.

            ‘You right?’ a woman asks me.

            I nod.

            Mara’s lying on the floor in a crucified position. Covered in foam. I go to check on her, but lose my footing and land on her instead. ‘Shit!’ She doesn’t make a sound. I roll off her, wipe the foam from her face. ‘You okay?’

            Two vacant eyes stare back. I wave a hand across her face, but there’s nothing.

            My eyes trail from Mara, out through the cracked shop window, over the top of the crowd and flashing lights, searching for a wedgetail circling the sky.