Andrea G. Labinger
Together we ride the elevator to the sixth floor of our apartment building. My mother holds a wicker basket full of clean, wet laundry, and I clutch a paper bag with wooden clothespins. We get off in the hallway, enter a dark stairwell and climb another half-flight, emerging into the sunlight. This is the Bronx, but as far as I’m concerned, it might as well be Paradise. I’m with my mom, and it’s laundry day.
I watch as she chooses a clothesline from the complicated tangle that crosses the roof, and then the ritual begins. She picks up a man’s white cotton shirt from the basket, stretches out the cloth, and carefully pins one shoulder, then the other, to the line. Solemnly, I hand her the clothespins. One, two. She repeats the process, gradually forming an army of hollow shirt-men that flap in the breeze. Next come the pants, all secured by their waistbands. By now we’ve reached the end of the clothesline. It sags a little under the collective weight of its occupants, so I can easily reach it. The socks are my job. One clothespin per sock. I stand back to admire our work. Those empty garments, those disembodied soldiers, belong to us. They salute us silently as we gather up the basket to return home.
But first, I need to admire what we’ve done. I run toward the edge of the roof to get a broader perspective.
“Andy, get back here!” my mother screams. There are no guard rails between this parapet and the street six floors below. Chastened, I return to her side. We retrace our steps: back to the stairwell, the elevator, the apartment. Later we’ll ascend again to collect the dry garments and iron them.
Mama taught me the secrets of laundry: how to bleach the whites, how to use a quaint product she called “bluing,” dissolving one cube in warm water – just the right amount to get the task done, but not so much as to tint the fabric – and adding it to the final rinse. How to wash the colors in cold water so they won’t bleed. And the trickiest part of all: ironing. Done right, ironing is the universal panacea for all woes. It eliminates wrinkles, hides imperfections, wrests order from chaos.
Today we are ironing. I hand the clothes to Mama and she runs the sizzling steam iron across the cloth. Sometimes she spits on her finger and flicks it against the flat bottom surface of the iron to see if it’s hot enough. I’m not allowed to do that. It’s too dangerous.
“Mama, what’s suicide?”
“Where’d you hear that word?”
“You said it to Grandma. You said Mrs. Skolnik tried to do suicide.”
“Commit. To commit suicide. You shouldn’t eavesdrop.”
“But what does it mean?”
“Nothing. You stay away from that woman, do you hear me?”
“I like Mrs. Skolnik. She showed me how to put on mascara. She said you have to be careful not to cry because then it makes black marks on your face, and you look like a raccoon.”
“I don’t want you talking to her.”
“Why? She’s nice. She said I could help her hang her laundry on the roof if you’ll let me.”
“You’re not to go near her, understand? Not ever. Besides, no one can go up to the roof anymore. The landlord posted a Keep Off sign.”
“But what about the laundry?”
“We’ll hang it over the shower rod or lay it on the radiator.”
In our new apartment house, the laundry facilities are in the basement. We still have to travel by elevator, only now we descend. The building is modern: there’s a row of shiny white washing machines and another of matching dryers, all coin-operated. There’s also a futuristic-looking device called an extractor that squeezes out excess water from the clothing so you can save money on the drying cycle. It rocks violently from side to side as it accomplishes this task, like a drunken robot. This is the Golden Age of Polyester, so the dryers don’t get much of a workout, anyway. Everything is permanent press. I don’t like the rubbery feel of polyester, but the idea of permanence is reassuring. Mama shows me how to retrieve the items quickly after the briefest spin in the dryer and fold them along the unrelenting creases in the polyester. Mission accomplished. I wish it took a little longer. I miss the cotton soldiers, fluttering in the breeze.
We have a new baby. She generates mountains of laundry, it seems, all of it Lilliputian. Tiny sleepers, shirts, bibs, minuscule socks. They need washing every day, sometimes twice a day. Who knew? My parents have flown up to New England to help out.
“What do you need for us to do?”
“The baby’s out of clean clothes. Would you mind . . .?”
“Sure, I’ll take it downstairs for you, and Daddy can pick it up later. You rest.”
Bliss. I sleep endlessly, awakened only by my parents’ laughter.
“What’s going on?” I rub my eyes.
“You won’t believe this – look what Daddy did! He brought up the wrong laundry. Do these look like baby clothes to you? I can’t understand how you could have picked up someone else’s load, honey. It’s really not that complicated.”
“I’ve never done this stuff before. What the hell do I know about laundry?”
I know about laundry. I am a veritable laundry maven. What I’ve learned about washing and drying over the years could fill several volumes. I’m the family washerwoman, and I actually enjoy it. Mostly, I like washing for you.
Three times a week, maybe four, I troop over to your little room at the nursing home and insinuate myself into the cramped bathroom, inching around the mechanical hoist, sometimes a wheelchair, in order to reach the green nylon bag where your soiled garments await. I take them home with me in a huge mesh shopping bag from Mexico. If only you’d open your eyes for a moment, I know you’d love the colors. When I arrive home, I dump the contents out on the floor and sort through the clothing for inspection. I squirt Shout on the gravy stain on the left sleeve of your red sweater, where the pureed turkey missed its mark. Then I rub the bodice of your pink shirt to try to remove some unidentifiable red blob. Jello, maybe? Yes, I think it’s Jello. I sniff a scarf in the hope of catching an ancient whiff of Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door, to see if it still smells of you. Into the machine it goes along with everything else, spinning and spinning in a dance of removal and renewal.
Then I iron the garments that need ironing, the ones I chose for you after you were no longer able to shop for yourself. It’s easy to tell the difference between my selections for you and the old ones, those items you chose with your still-capable hands. Yours are polyester.
Everything is folded neatly and stacked back in the Mexican mesh bag, to be returned to your room and hung in your half of the closet. You’re not aware of this rite, but it holds elements of the sacred. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to religion. Laundryism: my creed. Why do our garments outlast our skins? These empty vessels hang quietly now, as hollow as the body that houses your fading spirit.
Who will do my laundry when my turn comes? Will it be done by hired hands, or will that duty fall to my own child? What will she think as she scrubs the stains from a blouse or hangs a pair of elastic-waist pants in a closet? Or will there still be an accessible roof somewhere, awash in sunlight, and a white shirt with long sleeves to flap in the wind in a brief, rebellious flight?
For now, though, I’ll just watch you sleep as I put away your laundry. This yellow crocheted shrug, for example, has never known the dryer’s blast. Too much heat might shrink it. I’ve blocked it carefully, just as you taught me, and laid it on the back of a chair to dry, letting time and patience do their work. It’s made of sturdy fabric: plain and practical. It will endure.
Andrea G. Labinger specializes in translating Latin American prose fiction. Among the many authors she has translated are Sabina Berman, Carlos Cerda, Mempo Giardinelli, Ana María Shua, Alicia Steimberg, and Luisa Valenzuela. Call Me Magdalena, Labinger’s translation of Steimberg’s Cuando digo Magdalena (University of Nebraska Press, 2001) received Honorable Mention in the PEN International-California competition. The Rainforest, her translation of Steimberg’s La selva, and Casablanca and OtherStories, an anthology of Edgar Brau’s short stories, translated in collaboration with Donald and Joanne Yates, were both finalists in the PEN-USA competition for 2007. The Island of Eternal Love, her translation of Cuban novelist Daína Chaviano’s La isla de los amores infinitos, was published by Riverhead/Penguin in 2008. More recently Labinger has published The Confidantes, a translation of Angelina Muñiz-Huberman’s Las confidentes (Gaon Books, 2009) , Death as a Side Effect, a translation of Ana María Shua’s La muerte como efecto secundario (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), and Ángela Pradelli’s Friends of Mine (Latin American Literary Review Press, 2012). Forthcoming titles include Shua’s The Weight of Temptation (University of Nebraska Press) and Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story(Biblioasis). Please visit Andrea’s website at: http://www.trans-latino-trans-lation.com