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Washing Lines

“I’m just going out to hang the laundry, Mum. You stay here and watch your show.”
“I can help you, dear. No need to do it alone,” she answered. She started patting the arms of her chair, murmuring to herself. “Wheezy, have you seen my glasses?”
“I think you’re looking for your cane, Mum. It’s just behind you. Your glasses are on your chain, just where they should be. But really, Mum, I don’t need your help. I’ll just go hang the laundry by myself.”
“You’re hanging the wash? I love to hang the wash. Your father always said that a woman reaching for the washing line was a sight to behold. He claimed it did something beautiful to the line of her back. He should be back in time for dinner tonight. The ocean’s so calm today; he’ll pull all his traps in no time.
“Maybe so, Mum. You just sit here and watch your show, and I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
“Where are you going, dear?” she asked.
I sighed. “I’m just going to hang the wash, Mum.”
“Let me help you. I’ve always loved hanging out the clothes.”
“Mum, it’s nearly time for Wheel of Fortune. You love that show. I’ll put it on the right channel and you just sit here and enjoy it. I’ll get you a cup of tea when I come back.”
“Where are you going, Louise?”
This time I didn’t answer. Luckily the Wheel of Fortune theme tune started and my mother’s attention turned to today’s contestants. I considered putting on the kettle for her tea before heading outside, but decided against it. Best not to leave water on the boil if I wasn’t in the house.
I tucked the basket of wet laundry under my arm and headed to the far end of the washing lines, as my mother had always insisted. I could just hear her saying, “To do it properly, start with the corner farthest from the house and work your way back, just overlapping the edges to save on pins. Then when you’re done, you’re back at the house and ready to move on to something else.” I stood, nightgown in hand, looking back across the empty lines towards the house. Through the open window, I could hear Pat Sajak saying, “Do you want to buy a vowel, Ethel?” I swept up the basket and headed back towards the lilac bush by the back door.
I liked to start by the house; “backwards,” my mother always called it. When I finished, I’d end up at the far side of the clotheslines, away from the house, hemmed in on one side by dangling sleeves and on the other by a stand of pines. I could smell the trees and the shaded earth beneath them on one side, and the damp cotton, on the other side, already giving in to the wind. And if I was lucky, no one could actually see me. It was like those forts my brothers and I used to build beneath the willow tree; they were only a success if we were completely hidden.
It was strange, really, her calling me Wheezy; she hadn’t done that in years. In fact, it was my brothers who called me Wheezy when we were all children. I finally insisted that they call me Louise when I reached high school. “I’m no longer a child,” I’d say. But even then they still called me Lou. Now I’d let them call me Wheezy all the time, if they’d only visit us more. They each came every few months and took Mum out for lunch. They’d leave me at home, saying, “Have a rest. Enjoy the break.” I always ended up doing those jobs I couldn’t manage when she was home. I’d be even more exhausted when they came back. They’d be anxious to leave having spent two whole hours making conversation with her. What I wouldn’t give for an afternoon to myself. I’d go to the bookshop in town and browse for at least half an hour before choosing a book, a mystery probably. Then I’d go to the café next door, order a cup of coffee and start the first chapter.
I reached the end of the first clothesline, filling the last bit with socks and underwear so that they were hidden from view by the garage. “No need for the neighbors to see your smalls. Better to leave it to their imagination,” my mother always said, laughing. Pat Sajak’s voice rang out again, “Bad luck, Eddie, bankrupt again.”
As I worked my way back towards the lilac, my mother called out from the kitchen, “Would you like some tea, dear?”
I hesitated and then ran for the door.
“Thanks, Mum, that would be lovely. Let me help.”
“Oh no, Louise, I insist. You do so much for me; let me at least get you a cup of tea.” She stood holding two empty mugs, gazing at the television in the other room. “That poor young man keeps losing all his money. He won’t win any nice prizes today.”
“Don’t worry, Mum, I’m sure he’ll get something.” I turned off the tap that was running into an empty sink. The kettle sat expectantly on the draining board. “That’s funny, I think I smell gas.”
I lunged for the knob on the stove. “You go on through, Mum. I’ll just open some windows.” I’d have to remember to turn off the gas at the wall before leaving her alone again.
Mum turned back into the kitchen, away from the television. “Are you making tea, dear? I’d love a cup.”
“Of course, Mum, I’ll just bring it to you.”
“You’re so good to me, Louise. What do you think about pork chops for dinner tonight? Your father loves them.”
“Perfect. Here’s your tea, Mum.”
“Oh thank you, dear, just what I wanted; a cup of tea.”
She turned back to Vanna White and her letters, and I headed back outside.
It was one of those days again, when he was haunting us. She’d keep mentioning him, waiting for him to come home. If I could just wait to tell her until after dinner, then she’d eat something before the grief started again. Sometimes I just wanted to tell her first thing in the morning, “By the way, Mum, in case you don’t remember, Dad died two years ago. Sorry.” But she wouldn’t remember more than five minutes anyway and I would have to go through the agony of telling her more than once that day.
I finished hanging the last of the clothes and stood, looking out to sea. The closing theme tune of Wheel of Fortune trickled from the window. Only another minute before I had to go back in. I closed my eyes and breathed in the salt air. A seagull flew overhead, calling for its lunch. I listened to the waves breaking on the rocks down in front. If I stood quietly enough, maybe she’d think I was back in my old apartment and she’d forget that I even lived here. Maybe she could manage without me. Maybe, just for tonight, she wouldn’t need me. Maybe she wouldn’t even notice that I wasn’t there.
“Oh dear, Wheezy, I’ve spilled my tea! Wheezy, where are you?”
I hesitated a moment, feeling the cool sea breeze blow across me.
“I’m here, Mum, hanging the laundry. I’m just coming.”
I stood a little longer, the corner of the sheets slapping greedily against my calves. Then, leaving my sanctuary, I turned and made my way through the lines of too bright laundry and went back inside to my mother.

by Sarah Merrill
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