A round white troll with a black, greasy
heart shuddered and hummed "Diogenes,
Diogenes," while it sloshed the wash.
It stayed in the basement, a cave-dank
place I could only like on Mondays,
helping mother. My job was stirring
the rinse. The troll hummed. Its wringer stuck
out each piece of laundry like a tongue--
socks, aprons, Daddy's shirts, my brother's
funny (I see London) underpants.
The whole family came past, mashed flat
as Bugs Bunny pancaked by a train.
They flopped into the rinse tub and learned
to swim, relaxing, almost arms and legs
again. I helped the transformation
with a stick we picked up one summer
at the lake. Wave-peeled, worn to gray, inch
thick, it was a first rate stirring stick.
Apprenticed on my stool, I sang a rhyme
of Simple Simon gone afishing
and poked the clothes around the cauldron
and around. The wringer was risky.
Touch it with just your fingertip,
it would pull you in and spit you out
flat as a dishrag. It grabbed Mother
once--rolled her arm right to the elbow.
But she kept her head, flipped the lever
to reverse, and got her arm back, pretty
and round as new. This was a story
from Before. Still, I seemed to see it--
my mother brave as a movie star,
the flattened arm pumping up again,
like Popeye's. I fished out the rinsing
swimmers, one by one. Mother fed them
back to the wringer and they flopped, flat,
into baskets. Then the machine peed
right on the floor; the foamy water
curled around the drain and gurgled down.
Mother, under the slanting basement
doors, where it was darkest, reached up that
miraculous arm and raised the lid.
Sunlight fell down the stairs, shouting
"This way out!" There was the day, an Easter
egg cut-out of grass and trees and sky.
Mother lugged the baskets up. Too short
to reach the clothesline, I would slide down
the bulkhead or sit and drum my heels
to aggravate the troll (Who's that trit-
trotting...) and watch. Thus I learned the rules
of hanging clothes: Shirts went upside down,
pinned at the placket and seams. Sheets hung
like hammocks; socks were a toe-bitten
row. Underpants, indecently mixed,
flapped chainwise, cheek to cheek. Mother
took hold of the clothespole like a knight
couching his lance and propped the sagging
line up high, to catch the wind. We all
were airborne then, sleeves puffed out round
as sausages, bottoms billowing,
legs in arabesque. Our heaviness
was scattered into air, our secrets
bleached back to white. Mother stood easing
her back and smiled, queen of the backyard
and all that flapping crowd. For a week
now, each day, we'd put on this jubilee,
walk inside it, wash with it, and sleep
in its sweetness. At night, best of all,
I'd see with closed eyes the sheets aloft,
pajamas dancing, pillow cases
shaking out white signals in the sun,
and my mother with the basket, bent
and then rising, stretching up her arms.