The cool basement air was a welcome relief from the hot day above. The light bulb string brushed the top of Andrea’s head as she descended the steps, and she reached up to pull it, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the dim light. The washing machine glowed faintly white in its gloomy, concrete corner. Andrea hugged the plastic laundry basket in her left arm, reaching out with her right to open the lid, cold and smooth beneath her hand. She tipped the basket against the opening and began unloading the clothes piece by piece—a pair of jeans, a striped T-shirt, a lacy red bra.
She paused. Was she supposed to separate first? She tried to remember. Darks and lights? Cold water and hot water? Her memory offered no answers, only an image of Tim’s white T-shirts and underwear filling the machine to the brim. The image swelled up and filled her head until she was aware of each tiny detail: the frayed necklines, the wrinkled softness, the sweaty smell. Her stomach and legs tensed up, and she gripped the laundry basket, barely feeling the plastic edges dig into her fingers.
She tipped the basket upside down, letting all the clothes fall into the machine at once. She dug a scoopful of detergent out of the box that sat on the dryer and threw it lavishly on the clothes, the powder rising up into her nostrils until she sneezed. She let the machine lid fall shut with a bang and leaned across it to study the controls along the far side, pressing her stomach against the hard front edge. Which button was she supposed to push? She stared at the dials, but the words and numbers refused to make sense.
The phone rang in the kitchen and Andrea responded automatically, climbing the spare wooden stairs to answer. She reached it just before the voicemail kicked in.
“Andrea? Maryann. How are you? I just thought I’d check in to see how you’re holding up in this weather. Me, I’m a wreck.”
Andrea stood still as a department store dummy holding the receiver to her ear while Maryann’s words fluttered through her head like leaves. Bill, the kids, baseball… Ordinary words from an ordinary life.
“Maryann,” Andrea interrupted to stop the flutter, “I can’t turn on the washing machine.”
“Oh, what a drag. That’s all you need at a time like this, huh? A broken-down washing machine.”
“No, I mean I can’t turn it on. I just can’t…do it.”
“You mean you can’t turn the control?”
“I mean—I don’t know what I mean. I just can’t do it.”
“Well, I don’t know what to say. If you want Bill to go over later and look at it, I’ll ask him to. He’s pretty handy with stuff like that. Do you want me to? Do you want me to ask Bill to go over and look at it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Or I could come over.”
“If you want.”
“If I want? Andrea, we’re here to help you, but you’ve got to let us know what you need. Look, why don’t we do this. You call me back later if you want me or Bill to come over and help you out with the laundry, OK? Bill will be home in a couple of hours. OK?”
Andrea stared at the wall.
“Andrea? Are you all right? Will you call me later?”
“Yes, OK, I’ll call you later.” Andrea hung up the phone without saying goodbye. From where she stood, she could see out the kitchen window to her back yard. A memory of summer air drifted through her mind, carrying a light fragrance of roses and wisps of birdsong. Now she looked at the outside through the glass window as if it were a program on TV. The sun shone brightly on the chicory that had started to grow by the back steps. Andrea watched a pale butterfly dance over the blue blossoms and her body filled with longing. If she were a butterfly, she, too, could dance among the flowers forever.
The butterfly danced away toward the daylilies that were growing along the fence, a mix of bright orange blooms and withered blossoms. Andrea remembered the laundry and turned back toward the open basement door. At the top step, where the cool darkness from below met with the sticky kitchen air, she sat down. She leaned back against the wall, sinking her weight into it. Back, back, back she leaned, as if leaning into Tim’s chest, warm and strong, as if she could lean back far enough to feel Tim’s arms wrap around her. She stayed there, floating on the sensation of Tim’s presence, and when the phone rang again, she didn’t get up to answer.