The Wash

A round white troll with a black, greasy  
heart shuddered and hummed "Diogenes,  
Diogenes," while it sloshed the wash.  
It stayed in the basement, a cave-dank
place I could only like on Mondays,
helping mother.  My job was stirring
the rinse.  The troll hummed.  Its wringer stuck
out each piece of laundry like a tongue-- 

socks, aprons, Daddy's shirts, my brother's 
funny (I see London) underpants.  
The whole family came past, mashed flat 
as Bugs Bunny pancaked by a train. 
They flopped into the rinse tub and learned
to swim, relaxing, almost arms and legs  
again. I helped the transformation  
with a stick we picked up one summer 

at the lake.  Wave-peeled, worn to gray, inch 
thick, it was a first rate stirring stick.
Apprenticed on my stool, I sang a rhyme 
of Simple Simon gone afishing 
and poked the clothes around the cauldron
and around.  The wringer was risky.
Touch it with just your fingertip,
it would pull you in and spit you out

flat as a dishrag.  It grabbed Mother 
once--rolled her arm right to the elbow.
But she kept her head, flipped the lever
to reverse, and got her arm back, pretty
and round as new.  This was a story
from Before.  Still, I seemed to see it--
my mother brave as a movie star, 
the flattened arm pumping up again, 

like Popeye's.  I fished out the rinsing 
swimmers, one by one.  Mother fed them
back to the wringer and they flopped, flat,
into baskets.  Then the machine peed 
right on the floor; the foamy water 
curled around the drain and gurgled down.  
Mother, under the slanting basement 
doors, where it was darkest, reached up that 

miraculous arm and raised the lid.
Sunlight fell down the stairs, shouting 
"This way out!"  There was the day, an Easter 
egg cut-out of grass and trees and sky.  
Mother lugged the baskets up.  Too short 
to reach the clothesline, I would slide down 
the bulkhead or sit and drum my heels 
to aggravate the troll (Who's that trit-

trotting...) and watch.  Thus I learned the rules 
of hanging clothes: Shirts went upside down, 
pinned at the placket and seams.  Sheets hung 
like hammocks; socks were a toe-bitten 
row.  Underpants, indecently mixed, 
flapped chainwise, cheek to cheek.  Mother
took hold of the clothespole like a knight 
couching his lance and propped the sagging 

line up high, to catch the wind.  We all
were airborne then, sleeves puffed out round  
as sausages, bottoms billowing,
legs in arabesque.  Our heaviness
was scattered into air, our secrets
bleached back to white.  Mother stood easing 
her back and smiled, queen of the backyard
and all that flapping crowd.  For a week

now, each day, we'd put on this jubilee,    
walk inside it, wash with it, and sleep
in its sweetness.  At night, best of all,
I'd see with closed eyes the sheets aloft,
pajamas dancing, pillow cases 
shaking out white signals in the sun,  
and my mother with the basket, bent
and then rising, stretching up her arms.

From The Land of Milk and Honey, by Sarah Getty, published by the University of South Carolina Press, 1996. Copyright © 1996 by Sarah Getty. All rights reserved. Used with permission.