The Whirlpool Duet

Becky Ellis

They married in a vineyard. Flowers braided into her hair, a spring bouquet pinned to his satin lapel. Ripe grapes on every knoll, hope of happiness on the horizon.

Weeks later, a Whirlpool Duet was installed on the faded green linoleum of their first apartment.

Electricity plugged in, hot air ventilated out, and a thick cord screwed into the washer and dryer. Solid, durable interiors and exteriors glossed so smooth, she could see her shimmering reflection. One did the dirty work, the hard labor of spinning and wringing, and the other came through after, softening their world while the couple dined by candlelight. The soft tick of snaps against metal. Downy fragrance. Every day a celebration of spring.

The washer’s smooth metal drum rocked her delicates back and forth. A gentle spray of water, soft suds. The dryer warmed his blue jeans, tumbling around. Hot breath, extra time.

Then came the dirty diapers, juice-stained T-shirts, and turf-torn knees of three children.

They ignored instructions: monthly maintenance, a hand dry now and then, some attention. She stopped sorting. Whites, brights, and darks all went in together. Dirt was dirt. She paid no attention to temperature or time. Her husband paid no attention at all. He bounced off to work and forgot their Whirlpool Duet was even there, tucked away in a room of its own in their new home.

The Velcro of his swim trunks fused to the silk straps of her negligee. The hooks of her lace bra pierced the collar of his shirt. Crayons melted onto the metal drum, clogged the little holes. Socks disappeared, small things went missing. His collar stays, her vintage brooch, a child’s precious rock.

When the children entered school, a red mini skirt was tossed in with a load of whites. Out came pink towels, sheets, and tees. That’s when they discovered the benefits of chemical dependency. A Color Catcher absorbed any loose dye in the water. Oxy-Clean dislodged the toughest stains — red wine spilled on bed linens, rose lipstick on a lapel.

The washer began to work overtime, late-night hours, and pre-dawn too. It cranked through heavy loads. The top sunk in ever so slightly. The sides dimpled. One day, it went out of balance and thwapped so hard that the connection cord shook loose. The dryer couldn’t complete a full cycle. The wife stuck her head in the barrels. An echo of exhale circled through each chamber. A brief examination found no obvious issues. She added a little extra detergent, started using fabric softener.

Then the kids hit high school and the washer spit out a puddle of water. The dryer spun only cool air behind the glass. The cord that bound the two machines fell away.

They needed professionals and dialed in help.

The repairman suggested it might be time for a new set, but no, they wanted to fix their original pair. The patches held another month, another year, another graduation. Clothes came out mostly clean and almost dry. But deep in the pockets, dampness remained.

On their twentieth anniversary, the washer knocked against the wall, wild and uncontrollable. When the cycle completed, it calmed again, quiet a while. Until the next overstuffed load moved it across the polished marble floor. And then, it tried to walk right out the door. Hot air pumped through the dryer’s coiled silver tube, and a rancid smell filled the entire house. Something had nested in decades of lint and died inside.

The nest emptied. One, two, three children gone. The loads lightened, and she started separating. His from hers.

But the stink remained.

She couldn’t stand the smell of decay. She yanked the dryer from the wall and hauled it down the driveway. Long white scratches cut in stone, the scrape of metal on concrete. Trinkets fell out the bottom with each heave-ho. Things she didn’t even know she’d lost trailed up the drive. A seashell from their honeymoon, a glittering hair tie, odd socks.

At the curb, a shock of sun against the dial cast across the surface, exposing a thousand tiny scars cut into gloss. She inked block letters on a sheet of paper and taped the sign to the control panel, a single word: FREE.

Becky Ellis is the author of Little Avalanches, a forthcoming memoir in which she gives voice to the strikingly absent voice of women and children who live with trauma victims and offers a hopeful testament to the transformational power of storytelling. She teaches writing in Portland, Oregon, where she hikes, kayaks, and raised three daughters. You can find her at or on Instagram @beckyellisauthor.