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THE WASHER by Karen Storm

It wasn’t just any washer. This washer was my friend, my right hand. It had been through real stuff with me, starting in a basement in Long Lake, MN, running daily, churning out someone’s soccer uniform, greasy collared, button-down shirt, favorite blouse, or underwear, serving my first husband, Jim, and me, our two children, a cat, and a dog. It had faced its share of dirt and debris,—the usual stuff, and lots of it.

The washer was not some super-duper, top-of-the-line machine; rather, it was an all-we-could-afford Westinghouse that we bought at the Goodyear Tire Store because we could pay on the installment play. You might call it the bottom-of the bottom. It may have had humble beginnings, but it was dearly sought and appreciated.

I treated the washer well. Stuck a lint filter on the hose to the sink—that was mostly for the plumbing, we couldn’t afford a plumber either. I used Windex to keep the outside looking like it had just come out of its box. Any splashes of soap or lint on the inside were quickly wiped off. I didn’t overload it, measured the detergent carefully. This friend was valued—you might say “loved” if you can love a washer.

Then it happened, after nearly eight years of giving its all to us, the washer experienced neglect. Our children went off to college. I moved out, leaving Jim in the house. No more happy family to serve, no more sudsy loads of the happy family’s clothes, just the underwear and whatever of an abandoned man, waiting to sell the house and move on.

We sold the house after our divorce, rather the bank did as a foreclosure. The washer was paid for and still worked, but there was no home for it. I was in my apartment and Jim was now in his. We agreed to split the kids when they were home from college, but you can’t split a washer. Besides, we both had laundry rooms in our apartment buildings. Surely though, our circumstances would improve; one of us would get a house again and want the washer. Aunt Jean agreed to store it in her garage. There it could wait for a new life, a chance to serve.

Then it happened! I met Gary Stout and fell in love. The real thing where you love each other even though he listened to Yanni and I played Tupelo Honey over and over. We took our love to Utah for a fresh start. As for the washer, we trucked it across the Midwest to its new home in Sandy, Utah. Jim didn’t object to giving the washer a new home, and Aunt Jean wanted it out of her garage. Gary and I slid it into the laundry closet next to a new dryer we bought, and we started our marriage in our new home with a faithful witness from another marriage.

After a good cleaning with Windex, the washer adapted immediately, no rusted parts from sitting in a garage, groaning in objection, just smooth reliable clothes-washing. I, once again, treated it like a friend, grateful for its patience.

*****

The move to Utah was to be a new story, one about fulfilling dreams. I was a new assistant professor, a dream I’d had since starting grad school in my mid 40’s, now 51, and ready to research and write momentous studies. Gary had long wanted to leave the Twin Cities; he hated the weather. From the first time I met him, an urban development consultant, he’d told stories about working in cities across the US and then leaving on Friday to come home for the weekend. “I was always leaving beautiful weather and coming back to dreary cold.” He wanted warm sun in his life. And Utah was sunny. A great place to start a new second marriage for me and third for him.

After we moved into our house, I bought a welcome mat and put it outside, beneath the front door. It meant we were staying and were ready to make new friends. A few days later, I noticed it was gone, so I bought another one. Again it disappeared. And yet again, with a third one. “It’s the canyon winds, Karen,” my colleagues at the university told me. “They blow from Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons. You can’t leave anything loose outside.” So I didn’t, but the bare concrete porch made it look like no one lived in our new home. Inside, Gary and I, in our bed in our new bedroom, with the windows open and the moonlight over the mountains illuminating our faces in the dark, plotted more dreams, couple dreams—a long marriage, as long as our time on earth.

Sandy felt like the right place for dreams, a place where the only disturbance was the sprinkler systems turning on one by one, punctuating the quiet of the Wasatch Mountains. But still there were those canyon winds, and the low pressure the winds heralded, the sense that something wasn’t quite right, something hovered over the seeming perfection of Sandy.

And then it happened. Gary was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. On Friday, we were at the doctor’s for his upset stomach, and on Tuesday, three days later, he had surgery for what was predicted to be a cancerous tumor. It felt like the time when I was about eighteen and fell through a broken board on a swimming raft. One minute I was walking across the raft and the next I was in the water, trapped under it. Somehow, I found my way to the surface. Blindsided and nearly drowned—the way this diagnosis felt. One minute we were making plans for our future in Utah, rebuilding our lives. The next, a tumor threatened to drown us, and though I looked frantically for the surface, I wasn’t sure I could pull us both up.

When the surgeon opened Gary up, he found a Medusa-like tumor wrapped around Gary’s organs. He declared it inoperable and rerouted Gary’s intestines around it. After, in a room with green furniture, where families get the news about surgery, he told me Gary had six to eighteen months to live, depending on how he responded to treatment. What kind of a surgeon was he, anyhow? I would have gotten it out, cut carefully around all those veins and ducts and organs, and little by little worked it out.

Overnight, Gary became a patient, rolling an IV down the halls of a hospital and waiting to have his vitals checked. Overnight, I, a new assistant professor, became the wife, who after a quick cup of coffee in the morning, went to the hospital and helped drag the IV down the hall with him. Mostly I sat in the blue recliner in his room and listened. To him. To the doctors. To the nurses. Trying all the while to hear what our own hearts were saying. What was he thinking and feeling? What would become of us and our dreams? Did they have to end so quickly? But I didn’t ask those hard questions, not yet. I couldn’t. I wanted a way to survive this. I wanted the “us” we were to survive. Gary just wanted to go home.

At night, while Gary was still in the hospital, his two daughters called. How is he? Has he lost a lot of weight? How is he taking it? When can we come and see him? His daughters had both had baby girls about a month apart the year before. The babies were crawling and about to walk. Gary had been ambivalent about his daughters having children before their own lives were established. Now he told me, “Thank goodness they had those babies. I wanted to have grandchildren before I die. If I’m going to die, I want to spend a lot of time with them.” Less than a week after we arrived home, the daughters and one husband arrived with two babies about to walk.

*****

What a relief, we told each other, as we walked into the house from the Salt Lake City airport. We had just sent Gary’s family back to Minneapolis. It had been three days of babies crawling and grabbing everything at their level, crying at night, and turning our kitchen into baby-central. We needed to restore some order to the house and get a good night’s sleep. I took a deep breath and started restoring physical order. Gary went to his office to catch up on work. I was glad he was occupied. Unfettered, no one could rip through a house and get it clean like I could.

Once the upstairs was decluttered—I could vacuum later—I started on the bedrooms. His daughters had stripped the beds, so I went to the kitchen and opened the closet with the washer and dryer, thinking they would have put their sheets and towels on top for me to wash, and I could start a load while I cleaned the bathroom. But there were none there. I opened the top of the washer to find it crammed full with two sets of queen-sized sheets, crib sheets, and three days of towels. Water was standing to the top of the tub, and the washer had stopped mid-cycle. What were they thinking, putting everything in one load! I tried to restart it. I pushed and pulled, pushed and pulled the dial. No luck. I called Gary for help. I wanted to yell, “Look what your daughters have done!” but restrained myself.

Standing there looking at the filled-to-the-top tub, I was convinced it would re-start if we got some of the sheets and towels out. Gary and I reached into the murky water trying to unwedge the sheets and towels, but they were packed like cement. Neither of us was particularly handy, and we weren’t even sure how we’d drain the washer to get the water out.

I closed the lid and hung my body prostrate over it, secretly willing it to work. It had to work; it was something reliable in this shaky life. I’d depended on it through good times and bad, and it had shown up, not judging, just doing its job. This could not be happening.

Gary, still in some pain from his extensive surgery said, “Karen, I suspect they’ve so overloaded the washer that it’s just done, burned out. We got some use out of it. We can get a new washer.”

Fickle me was immediately excited about having a new washer, forgetting completely our changed circumstances. Hanging onto the hope that two divorced people could get marriage right with a new beginning in the state where Brigham Young declared, “This is the place,” the state where we would have a do-over. A new washer fit right into that vision.

“Great, we can get one with some of the newer features and . . . “

Gary nixed that idea mid-sentence. “You don’t know where you’ll be living when I die. I don’t think you’ll want to stay in this big house. We need to buy something cheap, just to use until I die.”

What did he mean, “to use until I die?” Did he think I’d leave this house? That I wouldn’t wash clothes anymore? I had my dream job. I was finally a professor. I wanted to cry. Stop it! The me that wanted nothing to change shouted in my head. Why couldn’t we be newlyweds buying our first washer together? But everything was changed. Inexorably. If Gary died, I probably would not live very long in our new house with no welcome mat. It would have a for sale sign and a used washer inside. I’d be single again, and he would not be bouncing grandchildren on his knee. I couldn’t breathe, much less tell him all this.

Dreaming in the moonlight was over. I started wiping the counters in the kitchen. Gary took the want ads and retreated into his office. He was a man with a task, and cancer was out of the picture—at least for the time being. He would get a washer immediately to handle all those wet sheets and towels moldering in the washer tub.

We went to bed quietly, dreaming together by moonlight on hold. In the morning, Gary assembled a list of places for us to look at washers, and we set out on our quest. He was still haggard from the surgery and the visit, but he was determined that we would get a washer that day.

None of the used washers were in Sandy, so we made the long drive into the city, into neighborhoods I had never seen. The first stop was a dingy ranch house near the airport in the heart of Salt Lake City’s high desert. Inside we saw a version of the many houses we’d looked at before buying our house. A main floor with well-trod carpeting, a large kitchen with room to feed a big family, maybe two or three bedrooms we couldn’t see, and the incessant blowing of mildewed air from a swamp cooler in the ceiling. We were led into the basement, a warren of small rooms for children, airless with no windows for escape from a fire. We’d seen these houses all over the valley, adaptations to large Mormon families. The washer was in one of the small rooms. Laundry was piled on the floor next to a spanking new washer and the one for sale was pulled out from the wall, disconnected with the cord hanging in the tub, sitting there looking exhausted, but supposedly, still working. The bottom was rusted, as though at one point it had sat in water, and plaques of soap, hair, and lint crusted the corners of the hinges when I lifted the lid.

“I don’t think this will work,” I told Gary. I didn’t want to insult the owner, who probably needed the money, so I kept my comments brisk. Gary didn’t protest, probably feeling much the same. We thanked the owner and drove to the next house, where the washer was much like the first.

After the round of houses on his list, all with washers in about the same condition, well-used, but still working, we made our way into an industrial area of the city where the used furniture outlets were. We parked in cement lots, the only green an occasional weed pushing through the cracks. As always, the sun was bright overhead, belying our mood, which was rapidly turning dark. I knew I didn’t want a grimy washer, one that had seen better days, in my house. Gary was resolute; we shouldn’t spend money on a washer I might not need. We passively lifted the lids, unable and unwilling to confront our differences here, in the presence of dirty, rusty washers and disinterested salespeople.

After looking in two used appliance stores, we returned to the car “to think about it,” as we’d told the proprietors and to make the drive across the valley to our home. Gary wanted to weigh the merits of each one we’d seen. I stayed quiet. They were all unsatisfactory in my opinion. But I was afraid to speak up, to risk a fight. What kind of a person fights with someone who is dying?

Gary framed it that we just hadn’t found the right washer, and we could look again tomorrow. Maybe his stubborn focus was a way of avoiding thinking about cancer. In my view, we could afford a new washer, but we were tramping around Salt Lake City to find something used because I might move from our house when Gary died. It made no sense. Gary should have been home healing so he could start chemo and radiation, Who cares about a damn washer when the person you love is dying? Do what’s easiest. . . go to the store and buy one. I could hardly speak to him, and he was just as crabby, nagging at me about my driving.

“You brake too hard. You’re making my incision hurt. Slow down,” He barked at me.

I swallowed the criticism, feeling guilty that he was in pain and that I was mad at him nevertheless. Couldn’t we just work at making some sort of life in the midst of death? Losing my trusty washer felt like a punishment, the diagnosis felt like a punishment. But for what? And this outcome for our new marriage—not getting to live it, being cut off just as we were starting our new life together. I would lose the man I deeply loved. Even worse, Gary was losing life itself. If we were being punished, then I would fight back, fight for both of us and what we were about. I wanted a brand new washer, one without other people’s histories, one that could go the distance for us, however long or short that distance might be.

* * * * *

The evening felt quiet, a détente of sorts. I sliced some leftover turkey and made a soup that I hoped Gary’s compromised digestion could handle. We sat across from each other at the table, making small talk about how much we liked the unchanging sunshine in Utah, as opposed to Minnesota’s volatile seasons. Later, Gary sat in his favorite spot on the couch and assembled another list of possible used washers we could look at. This time it was I who retreated to my office. I went through the motions of working on a paper I was to give at a conference in August, all the while telling myself that I needed to speak up. Until now, we’d enjoyed an easy synchronicity in our decision-making, two lovers each trying to please the other. I could feel cancer creating a divide we needed to cross.

He was acting like a man preparing for death, setting up my life in some yet to be determined future, and whether I liked it or not. Maybe it was his way of denying his cancer, instead taking control of what he could control—buying a used washer. But I saw it as capitulating to the disease. I wanted to keep Gary—both of us—in the land of the living for as long as I could.

We went to bed not fighting, rather smoldering.

In the morning, Gary told me that there were two new ads we could call.

“I cannot live as though you’re going to die,” I responded. “If you want a used washer, you’ll have to go get it yourself.”

I wanted to open the door, to talk about how to live our immediate future. Was he willing to let cancer dictate how we would live? I waited to see his reaction.

Gary said nothing. He looked at me, and then went into his office. I waited, believing he would come out, take me on. I wanted to argue my position, that yes, he might be dying, but there was still time and life to be lived.

A few minutes later he walked out and said, “Why don’t you go to R. C. Willey and get the washer you want. Have them deliver it.”

Not the fight that I feared, not even a discussion. Instead a simple surrender. Did he agree that we should live as fully as we could for as long as possible? Or had he already decided to spend his limited energy on his beloved work and leave whatever was leftover for me to handle? I never did quite find out.

For the time being, I went to R.C. Willey’s and bought the most expensive washer on the floor.

Karen Storm Author

Karen Storm lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has a Ph.D. in Education, was an academic for many years with many such publications. She’s also a graduate of the MFA program in creative non-fiction at the University of Minnesota. When she’s not writing, she’s waiting for the pandemic to end, still wearing her mask in spite of being vaccinated, and wondering what to cook for dinner.

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