December 15, 2019 by The Citron Review
by Kris Willcox
Marge was the last person on earth to start an argument, but when Edwin offered to buy her a clothes dryer for Mother’s Day, she refused. It wasn’t thrift, she told him, but loyalty. In the years since their sons’ departures, Marge and Edwin had slid from top to bottom of their town’s economic scale—a surprisingly quick trip, as Edwin never failed to mention in his holiday letters. A dryer was long overdue, he thought, but Marge said no, she’d use the rack outside. Never mind the pinch in her back.
Her boys called it the umbrella tree when they were little and everyone had a rack like theirs. Then suddenly—or maybe it was forty years—the rack was a relic. The skeleton of an ungainly bird. Every washable item in the house had hung there: towels, sheets, baseball uniforms with blood-stained knees, an Oxford shirt, sky blue on its first owner and nearly white by its third. Sometimes she draped her linen tablecloth over the top, tying it together it at the bottom so it wouldn’t blow away. On those days the rack became her mother’s nodding, kerchiefed head.
One morning, Marge was pinning up bras when the words of her favorite poem came to her: The morning air is all awash with angels. Richard Wilbur. She didn’t mind if her laundry altered what her young neighbors saw when they lifted their heads from phones and lattés. Not just undulating lawns and ornamental shrubs, but laundry. Plain housekeeping. The kind she and Edwin had grown up with.
After she came inside with her basket she had a visit from Diane, whose backyard bordered theirs. Diane and Rick had enrolled their sons in Montessori school, in the apparent belief that the local elementary wasn’t good enough, not that Marge cared what they did with their money. Earlier that week she’d noticed a “For Sale” sign on their lawn and made a point to forget them, so it surprised her to find Diane at the door, bright and anxious, in a silvery tracksuit that made Marge think of otter pelts. Diane accepted coffee, but fiddled with her bracelet and would not be still.
“I’m nervous about the open house,” she said, touching one of Marge’s photographs. “It’s hard having strangers in the house.”
Marge put little stock in women’s intuition, but Diane’s tone was as obvious as her perfume and just as cloying.
“It’s a lovely day,” she offered. “You have the perfect excuse to go out and enjoy it.”
Diane took the tiniest possible sip of coffee.
“We’re hoping everyone who comes to look at the house can see the whole sweep of the yards and all the wonderful landscaping you and Edwin have done.” She gestured toward the laundry rack.
Marge drank her coffee. Their yard, even in the most generous appraisal, could not be called landscaped. If Diane had simply asked her to take down the bras and dish towels, she would have. It was honest. But “landscaping” rubbed her wrong. True, she had washed Edwin’s undershirts so many times you could read a newspaper through them, but he liked them soft.
She looked at their modest woodpile and unlovely but perfectly serviceable shed, and felt her resolve thicken, the way custard set up as it cooled. She turned to ask Diane if her coffee needed sugar.
As she tipped Diane’s wasted coffee into the sink, Marge grew angry. That word, landscaping, stuck like a burr. She felt a tremor in her hands as she sponged off the counters and slammed cutlery into drawers. By the time she reached the bedroom her back throbbed. Edwin, startled out of his nap, didn’t understand why she was in the bedroom, emptying the dresser of clean laundry. What, he demanded, could she want with his socks? She said nothing, dumped all his socks into a basket and began adding underwear.
She turned stiffly. Edwin, her love of many decades, looked fragile without his glasses. His feet trembled on the bedspread.
“Marjorie, what are you doing?” She threw clean, matched socks from drawer to basket.
“Laundry,” she snapped.
From the kitchen, Marge could see the back of Diane’s house, just as if she were looking at a picture taken by the real estate agent. French doors opening onto a redwood deck. That grass is cut too close, she thought. Her own lawn was softer, like her boys in summer before Edwin gave them back-to-school buzz cuts.
She was watching the real estate agent arranging deck furniture when she noticed Diane was in her own kitchen, staring back. She looked vigilant—almost afraid—and it was then that Marge realized Diane wasn’t looking at her, but at the laundry rack, festooned like a Christmas tree with all the laundry Marge had carried out, ignoring Edwin’s plea for calm.
“I’ve lived here too long,” she told him, “to be told when to hang my own clothes.”
The longer Marge watched her, the more helpless Diane seemed. It was too late to take the laundry back in, and this gave Marge a curious feeling of regret, but also relief. She took a deep breath and as she did, the breeze stirred her laundry. Edwin’s socks, and the round bottoms of her underwear all lifted, then fell, as one.
Later, in the cool of her basement, Marge put drops of bluing solution into a tub and washed her linen napkins. The ease of her body came back, a slow sap moving from chest to arms to fingers. Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry, she recited from her beloved poem. Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam.
Edwin would be up soon and she’d ask what he wanted for dinner, to let him know she was peaceful again. She smiled to think of his socks moving in unison like a cluster of flags, each one anchored by a sensible, wooden clothespin.
Kris Willcox lives with her family in Arlington, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared numerous publications including The Boston Globe, Cimarron Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Portland Review, The Rappahannock Review and Vela Magazine.