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Mr. Key At The Dry Cleaners


  • Mr. Key At The Dry Cleaners, A SPECIAL TRUE CHRISTMAS STORY...

    It was unusually cold for November that year in East Tennessee. The normal weather pattern for years had been that we could expect snow any time after the first week of January, but this year it had turned colder than normal in October and by the end of the second week of November we were getting snow that made the roads hazardous. On this day I had considered staying home from work, but school was not called off so I went on to work as scheduled.

    My four children were all finally in school and although I had plenty to keep me busy at home, I had gone back to work while my children were in school. It seemed we were always stretching every dollar and so I decided to help my husband financially so we could pay the car off sooner. I was hired as the Alteration Lady for a dry cleaning establishment and eventually I was sent to one of the pick-up stations where we took cleaning in, but did no cleaning there. Besides doing my alterations I was a Counter Clerk. I could sew and loved sewing, so that job was a logical choice of work for me. I enjoyed my job. The man I worked for owned four dry cleaning establishments in and around Maryville. Tennessee. Not only did I sew on buttons that came off during the cleaning process, but I could alter anything from a man's suit to wedding gowns. My pay was sixty percent of the alteration charge plus an hourly wage for working as the Counter Lady. I was the only person working at that particular building because the cleaning was not done on the premises.

    I had learned to sew because my mother sewed and taught me the basics such as how to thread a needle in the sewing machine or change the bobbin. Mother's unwritten motto was, 'Every woman must know how to sew', but it was from sheer necessity that I had learned to make things for our home, like pinch-pleated draperies and kitchen curtains. I could buy material priced at three yards for a dollar which saved me a lot of money. I could pay the price of material much easier than draperies that were ready to hang.

    That cold Tuesday in early November, I drove to work with fear and trembling. The weatherman had predicted the snow would start moving out by lunch time, but East Tennessee weather is difficult to predict. It's as if the weather has a mind of its own. That morning as I made my way to work it was snowing fiercely and getting deep. I had not been at work very long when my children called telling me that school had been dismissed early due to an update on the weather. The snow storm was stalled on our side of the Smoky Mountains instead of moving east into North Carolina as the weather man had predicted.

    By one thirty in the afternoon other businesses around the dry cleaners were closing, but I knew they were doing our cleaning at the main plant, so I needed to stay on the job. Customers dropped off clothes to be cleaned and we promised they would be ready by four o'clock the following day. The delivery man would be driving up about three o'clock bringing the clean and bagged clothes and he would pick up any clothes that had been dropped off that morning. The weather was so bad I'd only had a few people leave clothes to be cleaned, but they would expect them to be ready the following afternoon. So I felt I had to stay until the delivery man came by.

    I had finished my last alteration for the day and hung it so the delivery man could take it back to the plant for pressing and as I turned back around I saw a man about to open the front door. Mr. Key! Oh no...not before my lunch time, I thought to myself.

    But this was Tuesday and Mr. Key came to that cleaners like clockwork every Tuesday to leave his laundry and pick up what he'd left the previous week. He only wanted his clothes washed; never pressed. I always dreaded taking Mr. Key's clothes. They stunk. They stunk bad. Like he never wore deodorant, must have worn his socks and underwear day and night for days and he must not have taken a bath as often as needed either. I was in the habit of bagging Mr. Key's dirty laundry as quickly as I could and pulling the drawstring tight while trying not to gag as I got them out of sight. And out of smelling distance. But he was a customer, so I had to be nice to Mr. Key. The bell jangled as the door opened and Mr. Key walked in. I made myself put on my friendly face.

    That Tuesday Mr. Key didn't look so good. He seemed to be having trouble breathing, probably due to the cold air and the snow. Knowing it was my duty (as well as my nature) to be courteous to every customer regardless of how they might smell, I said, "Good afternoon, Mr. Key."

    "Hello, Miss Judy," he replied while removing his hat and shaking the snow off to the floor on the other side of the counter. He took a few deep breaths and continued, "Whew. It shore is cold out there. Gets to me lately." He had the collar of his outdated wool sport coat pulled up around his neck and his thin frame shook from the cold. His nose was red.

    I took his brown paper bag with his stinky clothes inside and stuffed it into the canvas drawstring bag while telling him, "Why don't you sit down there in one of those chairs and warm yourself, Mr. Key. Maybe it will help if you warm yourself before you go back out." His clothes bagged, I tossed them in the big cart on wheels and shoved the cart back farther away from the counter. I'd done good this time. I’d managed to get them out of the way in record time and I only had one whiff of his stinky clothes. Turning back to face him, I said, "I'm really surprised to see you out on a day like this, Mr. Key."

    "I have to get out ever' day if I eat," he said.
    "Do you go out to eat every day, Mr. Key?"
    "Yep. But I guess I won't eat none till tomorrow now. I was gonna go to the restaurant soon as I left here, but I saw they've already shut down on account of the snow."
    "You don't have anything at home to eat, Mr. Key?" I asked, making small talk.
    "Nope. Sometimes I sneak in cookies or such, but I ain't got nuthin' sneaked in to eat tonight. But I'll be good and ready to eat in the mornin', I betcha."

    I can't explain what came over me when he told me that, but for the first time I saw Mr. Key not as a stinky old man, but as a half-frozen thin, stoop shouldered, silver haired man who was only out because he had to be. "How about a cup of hot coffee before you go back out, Mr. Key?" He gladly accepted the coffee and then for some reason I can’t explain, I found myself asking as I handed him the steaming cup, "Mr. Key, do you like homemade chili and crackers?"

    "Shucks yeah," he said. "I hardly ever have any homemade chili, but I shore do love it."

    "Well Mr. Key, would you like some of my chili I brought from home? I made a big pot last night and brought a thermos full for my lunch today. I know I won't eat all of it and I'll half it with you if you're not in a hurry to get back out." He replied that he would love to try my homemade chili. I put his chili and mine in styrofoam cups, reached in the drawer where I kept plastic spoons and halved my chili and crackers with Mr. Key. I lost count of how many times he thanked me or told me how 'delicious' it was. That was the first time I had ever really talked with Mr. Key.
    "Mr. Key, why do you have to sneak things to snack on?"
    "Cause, I ain't supposed to cook or have food in there. I just got a bedroom. Its a boarding house, you know, and I ain't got no kitchen or a stove to cook on. You can't see my place from here, I don't think." He turned in his seat, carefully clutching the cup with a bit of remaining chili in the bottom and pointed out the plate glass window. "You turn left right down yonder at that red light," he said as he put another bite of chili into his mouth.

    "My landlady don't want no food in our rooms 'cause she said she can't afford no bug man ever' week." Twisting back around in his chair he went on, "So I have to sneak in my snacks. Sometimes in cold weather, I set a quart of milk or a drink out on my winder ledge and it stays good and cold. Have to be careful though," he added. "My room is on the second floor and one time I had my milk carton settin’ out there on the ledge and accidentally knocked it off. It spilled all down the side of the house." He laughed to himself at the remembrance.

    By the time we had finished our lunch I had come to know Mr. Key fairly well and what I knew made me strangely sad. I really did not know there were people like Mr. Key nearby, especially in downtown Maryville, Tennessee in the late 1970's. He had a radio he listened to, he said, but no TV. He only had one wall plug in his room and one light bulb that hung down from the center of the ceiling. He shared a bathroom with seven other men. "We have a schedule that we go by, but sometimes we gotta go when it ain't our time," he laughed. The boarding house was an old Victorian style house that needed painting, but I never realized it had been converted into bedrooms that were rented cheap to men who needed a place to sleep but couldn’t afford anything better.

    "Do you eat out three times a day, Mr. Key?
    "Shucks, no," he said. "I'd hafta be rich to do that! I eat one hot meal a day and most of the time I take a roll or two with me to sneak in for later. I'm gonna get me some more jelly when my check comes in the mornin," he informed me. "Jelly tastes real good on that left over roll about bedtime and I keep a lid on my jelly jar so no bugs can't get to it. I keep my jelly in my sock drawer," he chuckled.

    We finished our chili and Mr. Key left that snowy Tuesday with two unopened stacks of crackers and a half empty jar of peanut butter that I had stashed at the dry cleaners. I wanted him to have something to eat that night. Peanut butter and crackers wasn't much, but I felt better knowing his stomach wouldn't be growling at bedtime. That evening when I went home I told my husband about Mr. Key. I told him everything, even the part about his bad smelling clothes. We both felt bad for Mr. Key.

    The following Tuesday my husband stopped by the cleaners on his way home from work. They had gotten off early that day because the company was taking inventory. He asked me if I'd had lunch and I hadn't, so he said, "Then, how about if I go and grab us a burger? We can have lunch together." That sounded good. Just then, the bell dinged on the door and in walked Mr. Key with his grocery bag of stinky clothes. I spoke to him while taking the clothes and as was my habit, quickly got rid of them, thankful that I would not be the person to pull them out of the laundry bag to put in the washer.

    I put on my customer relation smile and introduced Mr. Key to my husband, telling him, "Mr. Key is one of our regular customers. He comes here every Tuesday to pick up his clothes and drop off his laundry."

    My husband reached out his arm and shook that man's hand like he was just SO glad to meet Mr. Key, then he surprised me by saying, "I just now asked Judy if she'd like me to pick up some burgers for lunch, Mr. Key. If you've not eaten, would you like a burger with us?" So Mr. Key had lunch that Tuesday with me and my husband and the two of them talked and talked. By the time he left, Bill had invited Mr. Key to ride to church with us on Sunday morning and the man had accepted the invitation.

    I told Bill later that evening, "Its a good thing that son of ours is driving now, or we'd have to make two trips to get people to church."

    Mr. Key was waiting on the sidewalk when we drove up that following Sunday. His hair had been slicked back and combed and he was wearing a faded once-white shirt under the same old wool sport coat that he always wore to the dry cleaners. He had a big black Bible in his hand. That was the start of many Sundays we rode to church with Mr. Key sitting in the back seat of our car. Those people at our church, God bless them, just took Mr. Key in and treated him the same as they would have a U.S. Congressman in spite of the fact that he sometimes had an offensive odor about him. He sat by my husband Bill every Sunday and I sat on the other side.

    Mr. Key loved that church and those people and he was always waiting on the side walk for us to pick him up with no regard for the weather. Through falling snow, rain, thunder storms, there he was waiting for his ride to church. He was especially fond of the times when we would have a church covered dish dinner. The people always sent him home after those church suppers with a plate of left over food and goodies. They made certain that he had cake or cookies that could be eaten the next few days.

    We got to know Mr. Key well that November and we had him over for Thanksgiving dinner. Our oldest son went to pick him up so he could be there to eat with us. He exclaimed, "I ain't ate like this in years and I ain't never had such good cooking."
    After dinner Bill told him, "Let's head to the living room. You need to try out my recliner, Mr. Key. I'm going to stretch out on the couch." So Mr. Key sat in Bill's favorite chair and read the newspaper while Bill stretched out on the couch, watching a football game on TV.
    That Sunday at church Mr. Key testified. "I ain't had no family for a long time until I found this church. But I feel like I have a family again." He told the people at church the same story that he'd told us from his back seat in the car as we drove him home from church one Sunday earlier that month. He came home from work one day, he said, and found a note from his wife saying she was leaving because she had "met someone else." He said that was rough on him, his wife just "up and leaving for no cause." But worse than that, she had taken their eight year old daughter with her. "That girl was the love of my life. I loved my wife, but it tore a hole in my heart that I never got to see my daughter after that." His wife, he said, had fallen for a guy who played the steel guitar for a band that traveled all over playing in bars or wherever they were invited. "My daughter would be about twenty-eight years old," he said.. "I shore would like to see her. See what she looks like after all this time."

    Mr. Key became our church 'project' for Christmas that year. The people secretly took donations and made a nice big Christmas gift for him. It was a huge box, wrapped in Christmas paper and filled to over flowing with cookies, candy, potato chips, jars of jelly, peanut butter, Spam and other canned meats, Vienna Sausages, crackers, apple sauce, ready to eat containers of puddings and Jello -- foods that could just be opened and eaten. One family even donated a nineteen inch color television and that really made Mr. Key happy. Mr. Key cried. I did too.

    Sometime after the holidays, I think it was in January or February, we learned about some high rise apartments being built near downtown Maryville. The rent would be based according to income, so we took Mr. Key to see about an apartment there. He didn't want to go to see about them as soon as we told him about the apartments. It took a couple of weeks to persuade him. He said, "No need wastin' gas. I know I wouldn't be able to afford the rent money for a brand new place to live." We had no idea how much he got in his Social Security check each month. We never asked him. "Besides that," he concluded, "I ain't got no furniture. That bed and chest in my room at the boarding house, well, they ain't mine. Its a furnished room." But at our insistence he finally let us take him to talk to the person in charge of the new rentals.

    He came out grinning from ear to ear. The Apartment Manager had taken him to walk through one of the apartments that was completed and Mr. Key was accepted as one of the first few new renters. "My rent will only be $19.00 a month! " he exclaimed. His apartment was to be a one bedroom with water and electric included. To us this seemed to be a miracle. Mr. Key’s monthly Social Security check must have been very small and we were delighted he could finally get out of that old boarding house. Within two weeks we were taking him to his new home. I'll never forget when he turned his key in that door and walked in. Looking around, he said from a smile that covered most of his face, "This place ain't no apartment. Its a mansion! Look how clean it looks! I feel like I'm gonna be living in a palace." Having said that, he just slumped down on the tan carpet in his empty new living room and cried like a baby. I cried again then too, right along with Mr. Key. And I saw Bill pull out his handkerchief and wipe his eyes.

    Bill told him, "Mr. Key, the people at church have some furniture to give you if you don't mind used furniture." And that made Mr. Key start sobbing all over again.

    The apartment included a stove and a refrigerator. Bill made a phone call or two and soon the people started arriving with the furniture. Someone brought Mr. Key a couch that had been stored in their basement, a living room chair and a coffee table. Someone else donated an end table and a lamp to go on it. Someone else gave him a full sized bed with a mattress and box springs. And yet another gave him a chest and a dresser for his bedroom. For the next several days people were bringing in furniture and housekeeping necessities for Mr. Key. Ladies at the church dug out things like drinking glasses and dishes, mismatched silverware, pots and pans, towels and wash cloths and by the time they got through bringing things to him, the only thing he still needed was a small table and chairs for his kitchen.

    I heard Mr. Key telling someone at church the next Sunday, "I feel like I went to heaven without dying!" But he made it clear to us that he didn't want anyone to give him a kitchen table and chairs. He said they had given too much as it was. He asked us, "Wonder if I could find a store where I could make monthly payments on a kitchen table and chairs?" Bill and I had a talk about his idea and we concluded that on his own, with so little income, no one would give him credit. So we talked to the owner of a nearby furniture store that sold new and used furniture. Once in a while, they told us, people would trade in their old furniture when they were buying new. We made advance arrangements to pay in case Mr. Key couldn’t and it didn’t matter to us if he selected a new or used table and chairs. A few days later we took Mr. Key shopping for his new table and chairs. The store was in a location near his apartment building. He selected a used table with two chairs and asked the salesman, "Can I pay about five dollars a month? I can't go hog wild, you know. I gotta keep enough to buy me some groceries."

    The people at that store allowed Mr. Key to buy that table and two chairs and pay five dollars per month until it was paid off. “Five dollars a month,” he said, “won‘t hurt me none and I can still buy food to cook.” He walked out of that place with his head held higher than I had ever seen and it looked like he had added several inches to his five foot ten inch frame. We didn't know if he could really pay each month or if we would end up paying the small bill, but he never had to know that. It was between that wonderful store owner and us. But Mr. Key did pay that five dollars faithfully each and every month. He told me one Tuesday at the dry cleaners, "I'm going tomorrow mornin' and make my final payment on my table." We had offered to drive him to make his payments on that table, but he always told us, “I’ve done been to make my payment.” We assumed someone in the apartment building was chauffeuring him, but it turned out that Mr. Key had walked and made his payments no matter how cold it got. He was so very proud that he had bought his own table and chairs for his kitchen. And even more proud that he had obtained credit.

    It turned out that Mr. Key had a hemorrhoid problem and after he had surgery for that, he never smelled bad again. People in the apartment building, his new neighbors, helped him and cooked for him after his surgery and he was better in no time.

    Two years after Mr. Key moved into that apartment complex he was getting married! He met a widow and they were married at our church by our Pastor (who was also Mr. Key’s Pastor too by that time!) and Bill was his best man. Mr. Key's story truly had a happy ending!

    You know, its strange how once in a while we can suddenly just get a burden for someone and all we need to do is offer something as small as a cup of hot coffee or a serving of chili in a Styrofoam cup and it begins to change that person's life.

    Mr. Key and his wife are both deceased.

    • mailmandan
      mailmandan commented
      Editing a comment
      Re: Article: Mr. Key At The Dry Cleaners

      Thank you for sharing and Happy Thanksgiving!

    • tikawahyuni0802
      tikawahyuni0802 commented
      Editing a comment
      Re: Article: Mr. Key At The Dry Cleaners

      Wow thank you for sharing.

    • Martins97
      Martins97 commented
      Editing a comment
      Wow. Thanks for sharing

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