I remember, when I was living in San Diego, several incidents surrounding the little laundry room at the end of the court where we lived. The first incident had to do with “laundry days.” Each tenant had one day of the week when she was Queen of the Laundry Room. Early in my tenancy I went down one day, with my first basket of laundry and my roll of quarters, to find that someone else had decided to do her wash on my day. She stared me down, and my lips quivered. I went back upstairs, raging, but couldn’t cope with a confrontation.
This memory is a fond one, simply because I have finally learned to cope with confrontation, albeit in a very low-key way. I am still inclined to be “kind,” or “understanding,” but if I really feel the situation demands it, I can be firm. One point for me. But a far more interesting incident concerned the lady who lived upstairs, above the laundry room. She and her husband, childless, looked after her bedridden mother. Janine was a sensitive woman who must have been in her forties, and an artist. We had some interesting talks, mostly about literature, and she steered me towards some quite good novels.
Little by little, Janine went “off.” The first indication of this was when she was caught shoplifting in a department store. I was startled, but thought nothing more about it. Then there were the notes in the laundry room. These were supposed to be love notes to the man in the moon, and were left on the washer. Janine was convinced that he was going to come for her. She would make strange gestures over her body when she told me this, and then would laugh, as though it were all a big joke. I guess I thought she WAS joking. Later she took to walking along the sidewalk, waiting for him to come. Finally, she was institutionalized for a time, and I found out later that she had been given electro-shock therapy.
What is it about a washer that brings out the worst in people? Is it a representative of the need to clean up our act, to purify? Which of course can cause some people to rebel and take the opposite tack. But this was the only time I saw someone go completely “round the bend,” before my eyes, and at the time I didn’t even notice. I was too busy trying to get my clothes washed without having to engage in confrontations. Thus are we distracted by the mundane.
When I was about four years old, I remember an incident involving some wet clothes, my large-breasted mother, a locked back door and a wringer washer. All I can hear now is the panicked voice of my mother—very pregnant with my sister—trying to encourage me to get the door open, so I could go and get help. She was stuck in the wringer!
Try as I might, I could not reach the latch on the door and, thinking back now, I don’t know why I didn’t go and get a chair. The memory of jumping up and just missing the latch is imprinted in my body to this day. I was thinking that I could go get Muriel, the neighbour with the big cyst on her wrist, and I began to wonder if Muriel’s cyst might not have something to do with one of these seemingly evil wringer washers. My mom was stuck, not going anywhere. She must have instructed me on how to use the phone so I could call my dad at work, because I remember hearing the story, over the years, for its dramatic climax.
Dad was a fireman and, on this particular day, over all car radios came the message: “Murph, your wife’s got something stuck in the wringer!”
Knowing how voluptuous his wife was, they all imagined it was her breasts—or, at least, one of them. I remember that it seemed to take forever for him to get home, although I’m sure he came as fast as he could. I remember feeling totally helpless and awful about the predicament, especially since I was too short or not strong enough to effect any real change. We had been able to stop the machine—I guess Mom did by kicking it—but it seemed to want to just take her right in. A pile of wet laundry was stacked up, waiting to go through, but the washer wanted Mom and wouldn’t settle for anything less!
The cellar seemed to drip sweat, I could feel the walls beating and hear the clock ticking. And my mom stayed calm the whole time. My little brother slept through the whole thing. When Dad rushed in, he had a stunned but relieved look on his face as, finally, he released Mom’s arm from the wringer.
“Washer” is word #56 and can be found in Volume One on pages 111 and 112.