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.