By Mary E. Myers
Jen’s chaotic home was deep in the Rhode Island woodlands and near meadows belonging to electrical steel giants-their grey metal legs heaving high over our bent bodies as we manically collected blackberries before the sparrows raided every single bush. In the summer, when I stayed for a week or two, this was our habit- regressing back to the primal stage of human development and, once again, Jen and I became the gathers of our clan. The Wulf clan. The matriarch, my Auntie Barbara Wulf (who was really a first cousin once removed) was waiting in her kitchen for our bushels. She told us that this year she wanted to make jam for our toast. But of course, there would never be fresh preserves that summer evening since Jen and I ate most of the berries before entering the house. Compulsive eating took the edge off our miserable walk back. Unfortunately, modernity had weakened our foresight as my cousin and I foolishly rambled that day shoeless wearing only faded unwashed bathing suits exposing our arms and legs to the naughty fangs of thorny blackberry shrubs. As sun lowered in the sky, orange light reflected up against these electrical wicker men and into our eyes- a burning horizon ushering in mosquitoes excited by our fresh cuts as we made our way across fields.
To be fair, my Auntie Barbara had no intention of making blackberry jam or making our small lives somewhat home spun or pleasurable. In fact, when most television 70s housewives filled their countertops with herbs, spices, and cookie jars- Barbara had other objectives. From the sink to the stove, she had placed hundreds of nail polish bottles in multiple hues of pink and purple. If only sparrows swarmed through the window and rid her kitchen of the Sally Hansen line. If only they could build nests with worn out nail files and clippers and sponge toe separators.
My aunt either hated housework or had no intention of doing any until perhaps my uncle had to call for cranes, tow trucks while driving her to a salon for an authentic pedicure- an inconspicuous way to divert the culprit while a cleaning crew finished the job. She liked her wreckage and didn’t want it moved. But with every organized and emptied out room, this space stood before her as a blank canvas enabling her the opportunity to once again re-create Jackson Pollack’s’ drunken mid 20th Century vision.
Upside down expression.
Jen and I were perfectly content with disorder creating limitless opportunities to embrace destruction or at least it fed our playtime appetites with imaginary hours of building dams as beavers, performing a stage production of “Planet of the Apes” amongst broken furniture on the back porch or sledding over plaid couches using large plastic TV trays thereby reinventing Olympics for the hyperactive and mildly socially dysfunctional children across nations. Pristine households missed out near death yet excitable moments. The living room’s boxes were castles and the hundreds of unread books and magazines could be the walls of makeshift barricades as we pelleted each other with rolled up toilet paper. Yet, despite our fierce play, we were decent Godly creatures making sure our debris was cleaned up well before Auntie noticed which seemed counterintuitive since the place was always a mess. But it was an adult mess and not one caused by a girls’ improvisational theater troupe. And this made all the difference in the world to Auntie.
Yet, mostly, Jen and I were alone.
My Uncle was always at work. He was in charge of designing the Sunday funny pages for the Boston Globe.
And my Aunt was usually sleeping in her locked room-Rapunzel in reverse.
She stuffed plugs in her ears and covered her eyes with airplane blindfolds. She made 13 pounds of beef chili in advance so she wouldn’t have to disturbed in her coffin. Auntie placed her noodle monstrosity in a large round bowl. This was our nutritional sustenance for at least 3 days. Beef Chili for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Each day, she rose early in the evening preferring to spend her waking hours at night drinking red wine listing to Steve Laurence and Edie Gourmet records while vacuuming the hallways until three in the morning. Barbara might have neglected mealtime but excelled in keeping her carpets clean. It was an inconsistency that added to the mystic and legacy of my auntie. My mother believed Barbara’s eccentricity was due to her astrological sign, which was known for unpredictable yet admirable behavior.
I fully embraced the disorder that had ruled the Wulf’s household and severe lack of adult supervision which, despite my aunt’s strange sleeping habits, did not exist for most children in the later part of the 20 Century (children were free as Irish sheep along the cliffs of Moher). This freedom let me develop a dark fascination with one particular cabinet in the second floor bathroom, which led into a questionable laundry chute, which led down into a questionable laundry room.
I had never seen this room before. In the past, I was too scared or too young to care. Whatever the reason, it was unknown to me-an Amazon canyon waiting to be explored.
According to my mother, for months, laundry had been thrown down this tunnel only to fall into the windowless room below- neglected. Never washed. Never sorted. Never a stain stick remover applied. Perfumed dryer sheets disintegrated in the corner by the spider eggs. The ironing board was covered in soiled dress shirts and orange and yellow blouses. Slightly damp towels, mop heads and soiled and muddy socks piled five feet high-two inches taller than my grade school self. At least the laundry room was sealed up- away from the rest of the house. It was pleasantly vaulted behind a cute Tudor entryway, which my uncle had designed to make the downstairs look like a market place in a medieval town. The true genius behind my uncle’s stylish edifice was that it hid the illness that had afflicted his family- their hatred of washing clothes.
In the past, the laundry room had become a touchy subject with Auntie. My mother had once asked her how she managed to appear reasonably put together since nothing appeared clean. Barbara reassured my mother that laundry was getting done and she should just worry about her own damn hamper. So, the pile continued to fester-unchallenged and left to rot-perhaps mutating and growing- evolving.
One afternoon, after another sad berry picking attempt, curiosity had brought me to the cabinet that contained the chute that led to laundry hades. I made up a story about forgetting to pack a towel and socks. So I asked my cousin if I could borrow these essentials knowing full well that she had to get them in the laundry room. Jen nonchalantly headed there towards the wretched pools of filth to retrieve my requested items. As she walked away, I asked her if I could see the room but she smiled and said no because her mother didn’t want me down in this space. She then quietly disappeared leaving me to believe Auntie thought of me as some kind of trouble marker. Jen had returned and handed me a washcloth and some socks. Predictably, the towel reeked of filth (body odor) and the once white socks were blackened at the toes from the previous mud season.
Wonderment is the true weakness of all children. I was thoroughly preoccupied with the uncertainty of death and dying clothes. When, Jen had finally left me alone in the bathroom to wash my face, I bent down and slowly opened the chute’s door that led towards the adulterated laundry room- a petri dish in a lab. A swift wind carried mildew and urine up against my face. It was an open secret that my older cousin Kevin peed his sheets since infancy due to his undependable nighttime bladder. He flat out refused to wear his plastic underwear to bed. The fumes took on an even more undignified odor. The summer’s heat had infinite power that cooked terry cloth, silk and fine linens to perfect hideous cologne.
My eyes watered as I stared down at a lit laundry room. Jen had forgotten to turn off the overhead light- a single bulb swung- a minimalist’s chandelier. I saw a reptile creature swimming in the blue, grey, pink, and avocado green swamp of cloth beneath. If a man died below, his corpse would be lost forever.
Yet, suddenly, I felt calm. The fear of the unknown had dissipated and in its place was pure allure. To me, the room became the bouncy house at the Rocky Point Amusement park. The chute’s hard wooden slant became a well-greased playground slide –the entryway to every child’s dreamscape.
For a few minutes, I sat at the edge of the chute and watched my feet dangle above my destiny. I pushed my 8-year-old body with my hands (my flesh still stinging from the thorns of black berry bushes) and fell through. I went flying in the air- a condor in flight above the valley of unused laundry detergent. And when I landed, it was smooth. It was soft. It was gentle, kind and cushiony-reeking with- yes urine- but also with the joyful scent of mold. Glorious mold! Go Again! Go Again! I jumped off a flannel hill and ran through the door of a king’s court and up the long stairs to the second floor’s bathroom close to the chute. This time, I threw my body down the hole headfirst.
A swan’s dive.
I landed in a somersault and called myself Nadia Comaneci.
Enthralled, once again, I began making my way to the second floor’s bathroom. Jen caught my shoulder but I had no time to answer and only dragged her up the stairs- a teddy bear in my arms.
Down we went.
One after and the other.
We altered our experiences. Sometimes we slid backwards grabbing the sides of the chute. We dove first with the left leg and then with the right leg. We searched for our childhood paraphernalia and began jumping with: Malibu Barbie, stuffed animals, and Lego pieces. We kidnapped Kevin’s GI Joe (Kevin was away at hockey camp for the week leaving his toy venerable to annihilation) and threw this tiny green military man into the abyss. We threw comic books; a plastic Godzilla and a 45-rpm record down the hole. It all went down. Let it down.
As the day rolled on, Jen and I became more and more joyfully fantastical in our approach to pitching objects as we managed to heave a small ottoman through the chute and the complete collection of the Encyclopedia Britannica A-Z. It was an endless rush of chucking and jumping that went on for hours. Any repercussions from our actions were far from our mildly developed frontal lobes that housed reason. The endorphins were triggered. We had become addicted to gravity in its many incarnations.
We made a lot of noise.
Lots of noise.
And of course Auntie was sleeping and I knew she wasn’t a person for daytime shenanigans. I was used to her dead until 7 at night lifestyle and used this familiar quality of hers to my advantage thereby enabling me to fine tune my dirty diving- freely and unabridged as the encyclopedias down below.
But, Jen and I had lost track of time because obviously we were in one of the most blissful moment of our lives and didn’t hear Auntie’s shag slippers scrapping the floorboards. We didn’t see her turn the knob of the laundry room’s door. So when she screamed about holy hell and doom at laundry room’s threshold, Jen and I went for cover scrambling under a mass of soiled dollies to the left of the drier. I convinced myself that intricate lace was a marvelous decoy- one could be completely incognito yet able to watch the enemy through exquisite needlepoint.
That evening, my mother had to pick me up since Auntie had thrown me out of house for what she called “ Clara’s erratic behavior with furniture.” She stressed that it was a good thing her husband was working late because he would have died of a heart attack. Of course, the ottoman that I trashed had been in Auntie Barbara family forever and came all the way from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Then there were the torn pages of the Encyclopedia Britannica that Kevin depended on for his many research projects such as the life cycle of the sea horse and the Napoleonic Wars which was hard for me to believe since Kevin struggled spelling the name of his favorite sport: Hockey.
As I dragged myself out the door, I turned around to study Barbara’s black eyes and reddened face. But how could I tell Auntie how much I loved her house? How much I wanted to be neglected to the point of redemption? How I longed for the smell of mold and ruined comforters-the excitement of the imperfect world…unleashed?