We were married eleven days when I finally started the laundry on a beautiful autumn morning. We—my new husband and I—hadn’t been living in the same part of the country, let alone the same house, before the wedding. He was stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and I loved Chicago.
I had seen the townhouse Jason rented for us off the base in Clarksville, Tennessee, once before our New England marriage: a destination set by our parents’ residencies. I came to unload my things from the city. Jason remained there, getting us settled, while I spent two weeks before the wedding with my family.
When we came home to this place after our wedding and honeymoon, we opened a door to chaos. Since Jason had been living locally with two other lieutenants, he moved his household piecemeal, dumping trash bags of clothes and shoving furniture into any open space. My items from Chicago were treated similarly—books stacked atop dishes because they were in containers anyway. Boxed childhood treasures and housewares shipped from my parents’ home were stowed in every corner. Meticulously packaged wedding presents also arrived daily: When Jason brought them inside, he removed just enough tissue and peanuts or bubble wrap to determine the contents, then left the boxes open, burping their packaging, and now leaving them useless for stacking.
Getting dressed that first morning after the honeymoon—playing search-and-rescue with my clothes—was an ordeal. Corrugated cardboard made a labyrinth of the small townhouse. Bags of clothes competed with wads of packaging paper for floor space. Finding the box cutter was a good game. It was supposed to be returned to the lone window sill after use, but rarely was. An army of trash bags stuffed with Styrofoam peanuts resided under the back deck; they had to be doled out one each garbage day because that’s all the workers would take. Despite this bedlam, all our things—and we—were under one roof. Our life together would begin.
The second morning back, eleven days into the marriage, I was finally ready to start washing clothes.
Home laundry was a novelty. In the city, I had cabbed it to Laundromats, praying there would be enough open washers and dryers to finish the work in one shift. I stayed nearby to ensure nobody hijacked my machine mid-cycle for their own dirty clothes—or because they wanted mine. It was a victory when laundry only sucked three hours from my day.
The freedom to load the washer, then go about my business, was luxurious. While I couldn’t simultaneously run three machines like I did at the Laundromat, I hated being chained to my wash even more and disliked the constant surveillance that prevented me from enjoying a book.
My new liberty didn’t mean I now liked laundry, however, particularly since bulky man-garments entered the mix. One pair of Jason’s camos—his BDUs, for “battle dress uniform”—took up half a load. There was also a legion of foul brown socks. I debated making him wash his own clothes.
The washer and dryer had been his grandmother’s as recently as six months ago. She had died that winter, and the kids and grandkids made off with whatever wasn’t nailed down. My husband had wanted her Army medals—she had been a nurse stationed in London during the Blitz—as well as those of his grandfather, a World War II pilot, but the pacifist uncle took those. Jason drove out of Ohio with her washer and dryer, and various paintings of prairie animals and cavalry battles. It turned out the dryer was broken, but we didn’t learn that until after he hooked it up in the townhouse.
Because it was a beautiful fall morning, I found some twine and strung it around the back deck to create a makeshift clothesline. I looped it around green plastic chairs, the deck railing, and whatever was there. Anything big, like towels, would drag, but smaller items would be okay. They should dry, at least.
About twenty feet past the deck steps, across a sloped, weedy lawn, was a little creek. I had never walked those twenty feet to see just how little. Cottonmouths were down there. Occasionally, even during my brief residence on Rose Drive, we would see their run-over bodies in the road, having slithered up from the creek, perhaps seeking the sun. I was probably fine on the deck, but in those early days the cottonmouths were one more reason to dislike this place.
One load of wash—my things alone—was already drying on the makeshift line. Another load spun in the machine. I could tackle a box now, and maybe find the pots and pans, or my jeans, or my dictionary.
The phone rang. It was my mom. I assumed she wanted to chat about my honeymoon travels or how I fared with unpacking. Instead, she asked if I was watching TV. Something good must be on Regis. I started to explain about the laundry as I searched for the remote, but she cut me off. She said to put the TV on. Just on. My stomach clenched. Any channel. Turn on the TV. The World Trade Center was smoking. A plane had accidentally flown into it. This was insane. This was horrifying. This was surreal. After the second plane, we knew. Not an accident.
“Is Jason at work?” she asked.
“Yeah. Yes. Today’s his first day back,” I answered.
“Is his bag packed?”
“His bag?” I asked. “What—”
“His bag, his bag,” my mom sputtered. “He’ll need his things: his bag, his whatever—Does he have what he needs?”
“I don’t know,” I said lamely, looking around our living room with its clothes piles, and paper piles, and half-unpacked boxes, and wedding presents atop and under stacks of books. It looked like a bomb had gone off in here, but no; clearly one had not.
My mom said to yank whatever was in the washer, and get his uniforms in pronto.
I started crying. “We don’t have a dryer,” I sobbed. “His uniforms will never dry in time. I strung a line, but it’s crappy, and there are snakes and—”
“Kate,” my mom demanded, “Get his uniforms in the wash. Start with the t-shirts and socks. Do it now. I’ll stay on the phone. GO.”
I cradled the phone, ear to shoulder, and pulled my dripping shorts and tops from the washer, slopping them onto cracked linoleum. I threw fistfuls of pitted brown and gray T-shirts into the machine. As futility and fear shut down parts of my cerebral cortex, hands grabbed clothes and poured detergent. In the numb shutdown, a circuit sparked: This is what I do I do what is in front of me, I do laundry, one piece, one piece.
I could do laundry.
Drilling down to something specific, mercifully tedious and mundane, let me take the smallest action. We were falling in a bottomless abyss, but I could hang clothes on twine. I could have his uniform ready. No official phone calls came in, but the rumors were already flying. The unit would be gone, gone, gone. He would have clean camo; many clean socks. I would crush cottonmouths under bare feet. There was work to be done.
It was dark when I hung the final pair of BDUs. I knew they wouldn’t dry at night, but by then, that wasn’t the point.
Years later, with the small, dear clothing of four added to the mix, I still dislike doing the laundry: the perpetual sorting, carrying, loading, washing, moving, drying, folding, re-sorting, and putting away. It’s not hell, just an everlasting purgatory. Yet, when the smaller abysses and fissures crack open, laundry is the closest I get to real prayer.
Kate McCorkle works as a freelance writer and editor because life is not crazy enough with four children under eight, a husband, and a mutt from Clarksville, TN. A graduate of The College of the Holy Cross and The University of Chicago, her work has appeared in Free State Review, the Newer York, Darkhouse Books, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Crab Fat Literary Magazine, The Rain, Party, and Disaster Society, and Apiary Online. She lives outside Philadelphia with said menagerie and swims to stave off insanity.