Brevity Nine

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Dirty Laundry

Brian Eno Photo

by Marilyn Knight

Are your garments spotless,

Are they white as snow,

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

He cooks. I do laundry. Thatís our deal. We share childcare. We clean in sporadic bursts, usually when someone is coming over.

His mother comes often. She pities him, in the kitchen kneading and mincing and basting, or whatever it is he does in there, while I sit in the breakfast nook with a glass of wine and a book. She plays sous chef ostentatiously with baleful glances at my cleavage.

I consider pointing out that I washed the sheets on her bed, the dish towel in her hand, my white sweater with the too-low neckline. Instead, I put down my book, pick up a loaded laundry basket, and head for the basement.

I pour Tide and Clorox into my big, square Kenmore and turn the dial to white-sturdy. I put in Jockey shorts, four pairs; how many times a day does he change? I put in my daughter's bra. It's what used to be called a training bra. She wears it about once a month. But soon she'll wear one every day. Her panties. She still wears little girl panties, white cotton with picks in the knit making interlocking hearts. She doesn't change too often. But soon she will. Soon her baggy cottons will be traded for silky bikinis. She'll wipe carefully, and her stains will be red. Soon she'll hate me.

My T-shirt, covered in cat hair. I have cats of many colors. Lots of towels. We need new ones; even the company towels are getting worn. I like old towels, thin and soft. Some of ours are so old they came with us from other marriages. The blue ones with the loopy white flowers were a wedding gift (first wedding) from Olivia Sutton who married my cousin Ken. Their daughter grew up and ran off with a black boy, and now they don't speak to her. Will I remember when it's time not to care about the race/age/gender of my daughter's lovers? Probably not. Olivia's mother, Dorothy, was my Sunday School teacher when I was a little girl. The night I was baptized, she stood waiting in the choir dressing room with towels and dry clothes for me.

The towels with the orange butterflies belonged to my husband's previous wife. I also got her wedding china and silver. All mine.

The Kenmore fills and begins to agitate, and I press my pelvis against the front of it out of long habit. It won't really do the trick until the spin cycle begins. My mother's washing machine broke when my youngest brother was still in diapers and my father couldn't afford to buy a new one. So he bought a used one from somebody, a Bendix, a great big thing shaped like a drum laid on its side. He never could get it balanced right, and it shivered and shook, sloshing white suds against its porthole of a door. When its spin cycle began, it really went wild, shaking so violently that, if not constrained, it would "walk" across the laundry room. My job was to sit on it during the spin cycle. When the agitation stopped and the sound of the water rushing out began, my mother would call me, and I'd run into the room and leap onto the thing like a bareback rider and grip it with my knees as it began to shudder and buck between my legs. It was my favorite chore.

Really, it was pretty much my only chore. My mother did the housework, and she did it right. She put Clorox in the dishwater and never wore Playtex living gloves. Her hands cracked and bled, and she'd hang laundry outdoors in the winter with her bleeding hands even after she got a clothes dryer; and as I grew I prayed, please God don't let me be a martyr, even if it means I have to be a bitch. Help me not to do my duty. Help me not to apologize. Help me not to look back. I don't want to turn into a pillar of salt.


Marilyn Knight teaches English at the University of South Carolina, Spartanburg.  She has  published a novel, Babydoll, as well as poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction.  Knight, her husband Don, daughter Molly, eleven cats, and three dogs, live in a Victorian house that she says "is in a perpetual state of renovation."