By Liz Betz
It seems to Ella that laundry days are family history days. The latest installment: this dryer over washing machine set, both tucked into a closet with slatted doors just like she and Marshall are tucked away in the senior apartments.
“The most interesting thing that people do here is die.” Marshall calls from the bedroom. He has yet to start his day.
Ella, who catches his words, shakes a towel out with extra vengeance and stuffs it into the washing machine. Then because she knows he can’t hear; she lets her thoughts be voiced. It is a perverse little pleasure.
“There is plenty to do, but you have to get out of bed. You can’t lie around all the time and not be bored. That’s just insane, Marshall.”
In Ella’s opinion, boredom is their biggest enemy. A person has to have a reason to get out of bed, especially at their age.
“What are you mumbling about now? God damn it, woman, speak up.”
Ella peeks her head around the corner of the bedroom door. Marshall struggles; a scowl on his face.
“Are you going to give me a hand or not?”
“Only if you ask nice,” she says, the cheery-helper approach gets her through the day. She wraps her arms around him and straightens him into a sitting position.
“Don’t dig your fingers in so hard. My ribs are sore.”
Ella positions Marshall’s walker. “Are you good to stand?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I got it.” Marshall’s hand comes up in a dismissive gesture.
Ella returns to her laundry. She’s only a step or two away if Marshall calls again. Not that he appreciates the consideration.
The only thing interesting is dying? What the hell is the matter with him? Life is interesting, dying is.... Ella stops in her tracks. She’s not going to think about dying.
Her washer/dryer set is marvelously new and she watches her blue blouse swirl past in the glass front for a moment then turns and admires her storage shelves. It’s like a mini-store – she has everything she needs.
She’d taken her time to decide what they needed and what they could let go. Ella planned this move logically with a bit of vision. She planned on living here, not dying of boredom.
But Marshall only lazed and complained.
There were other men living here for company. There are jig-saw puzzles in the lobby: there are pot luck suppers every month. What about the photos that he wants to organize? He could set that up instead of belly aching.
Ella knew that she will adjust better than Marshall but if he just tried, goddammit, he could find something of interest.
She folds the last garment from the dryer into the basket but it is hardly full. For a moment she stands, lost in time, on the farm where load after load of clothes went into this very same basket to be hung outside. Every week, sometimes twice a week, she recalls, sunny days. Windy days. Like one windy day in April, the year of the accident, when she filled the line with her younger son’s clothing. Then she gave them away, ready to have one less reminder of his short life. It took a long time before she stopped missing the little shirts. But there are other memories too, that she could share with Marshall.
“Do you remember when we didn’t have a clothes dryer? I loved hanging clothes. Well, not in the winter. Then my fingers would freeze and hurt like you wouldn’t believe.”
It was her job; Marshall never helped once. But he thought it a grand joke to lock the door so when she came back, in a hurry to be inside and warm up, she’d have to bang on the door. Then he’d be indignant that she didn’t appreciate his humor.
Marshall didn’t answer. Ella looks into the bedroom. She expects Marshall to be pushing his walker along in front of him. It takes a second to actually see his body on the floor, a slumped and still body.
She flings the clothes basket down and calls out to her husband, calls his name. She calls right through the sureness that he has died.
While it takes her a few minutes to know what to do next, her first impulse is to scold her husband. Why had he not chosen something else to do instead of dying?
Then with a start she goes to the phone and dials 911: her face flushes. She should have done that first. Maybe she should check if Marshall has a pulse. How? She’d have to press her fingers onto his neck, or his wrist.
His skin is chalky like a coat of white over charcoal. She’s seen that color before. She can’t touch him. Besides, if she found a pulse she’d still have to wait for the ambulance.
Then, as if the medical attendees were invited guests and she might be embarrassed by her housekeeping, she wonders what she should do to prepare before they arrived. Foolish thoughts.
She can keep Marshall company, as his soul approaches the forked road, where the total story of his life is revealed. She wishes for a moment that she could be there to see. She would know how his life measured up.
It occurs to her that she should phone their earthly son, but not right now. Right now, she has to sit and catch her breath. She has to think of their son who was only two when he died and whether or not Marshall will be joining him.
Eventually her mind stills and her body grows restless, so she retrieves the overturned basket, to smooth the laundry, to fold it neatly, to smell the scent, to be here.
Every laundry day, for the rest of her life, she’ll have time to remember.