The Driver’s Seat

Judith Salcewicz

 

At seven, I had a creative mind without a firm grasp of consequences and there was a monster in our basement.

The monster’s name was Maytag. His shiny white cubed body was elevated on four legs tapering down to tiny wheeled feet. I liked watching the colors of clothes swirl in the sudsy water of his belly. They would dance and have fun until life was squeezed out of them by the monster’s toothless and terrible turning wringers.

My mother fished out each sacrificial garment and fed it into the perpetually hungry rolling jaws. The clothes dove into the rinse water tub to be swished by hand. Then it was through the wringer in reverse and into the wicker basket balanced on her hip. She sighed at the occasional cracking sound that signified the need to replace another broken button.

I played with my dolls but was really watching each step of the familiar cleaning process. Mother smiled as I poured pretend tea and awaited my chance to be a hero. I knew she wanted to ask me to come outside but didn’t because I was having a nice picnic with my dolls.

Mom carried the basket of stiff, damp, lifeless laundry up the stairs to the pulley clothesline that ran from the back porch to the big tree on the other side of the driveway.

I had been told not to touch the washing machine, but not today. Today I was almost invisible. Mom was worried about my sister. Carol had the measles and was wearing a harness that kept her in bed. If she stayed in the darkened room until she got better, she wouldn’t ruin her eyes. Mom and I waited until Carol was asleep to do the laundry.

Mother was outside. Carol, my shadow, was asleep. I was alone. I reveled in the freedom to do what I wanted. I removed my doll’s dress, picked up some washcloths that I’d used as picnic blankets, and marched to the monster’s lair. He slept, but I knew the location of the lever that would bring him to life. I used both hands to move the bar and shivered with happiness as the monster awoke. I heard the mumble, the rumble, the whir as the monster taunted me with words I couldn’t quite understand but knew to be a challenge.

I accepted.

Waving a green washcloth, I moved closer and closer, lightly touching the turning cylinders with the fabric until they bit. The fiend was strong, but I was stronger.  I snatched the green square from the jaws of death.  I felt my heart dance. I tried again with a white washcloth. Victory, the hero wins.  I raised my arms above my head and kicked imaginary balloons into the air.

I picked up my doll’s dress, a pretty pink one with tiny white flowers, two snaps in the back, and lace around the hem.  The dress fit on my hand like a puppet, I waved my arm back and forth in tantalizing dance movements. Closer and closer I inched. I was teasing. I was twirling. I was testing. I was caught!

My fingers hurt. I screamed. My wrist. I’m being squished. I screamed louder. My elbow. The rollers spun round and round.

“It hurts, it’s hurting me. Mom, mom, mom!”

 Can’t she hear me? Why isn’t she coming?

 Mother heard and rushed to my sister’s bedside. Carol was still asleep. My screams reached a crescendo punctuated by quick hollow thuds of mother’s feet on the cellar steps.

She shrieked when she saw what I had done. She unplugged the menace.

“Oh no, oh no. What have you done? What have you done?” she said.

My screams became sobs. Mom pulled the release lever on the wringer, cradled my arm, and surveyed the damage. It wasn’t pretty.

My elbow bone stopped the wringer.  A friction burn from the roller, that continued to turn in place, created a patch of angry red mush on the side of my arm.

Still screaming, mother improvised. She tied my arm to a Sear’s catalog using diapers. This seemed to be the only idea she had.

When she completed this task, she just held my arm and made loud wounded cat noises.

She isn’t helping me. She needs to help me and she isn’t. I will never be like this.

 I stopped crying and put a finger on a tear on my mother’s cheek.

“Mom, it’s okay. Let’s call dad,” I said.

She did.

Although I was only seven, I climbed into the driver’s seat of my life and made a decision that formed my character.  I resolved to be calm.

 

____________________________________________________________________________________________

About the author:

Judith Salcewicz has lived in Mercer County for over forty years and is a retired teacher. She is on the Board of Trustees for Lawrence Historical Society and is a member of the Lawrence Writer’s Group. Her work has appeared in The Kelsey Review, Horse Network, and Women’s World Magazine.

 

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