The Abandoned, Broken, and Burned

The Abandoned, Broken, and Burned March 7, 2016

1950s DishwasherBy the time you read this, inshallah, we will have the new dishwasher purchased and installed in our kitchen.

I’m not holding my breath. It’s been this long, so it is easy to envision a horizon of expectations that continues to recede into the distance a few more weeks or months.

“Oh, come on,” my brother said to me a while back, “what is a dishwasher? $500? $1000? Just buy the thing.” It’s not that we didn’t have $500 lying around to spend—it’s just that there are so many other expenses— private school tuition, church donations, the remainder of our 2014 taxes—to cover, and it is always well to have a little cushion lying around in case of emergencies. (Our cushion is pretty little.)

We are well-paid, middle-class professionals (upper middle class if you look at the average household income for most Americans, though we actually feel pretty working class in our expensive coastal metropolitan area where two twenty-seven-year-old lawyers can easily clear $450,000 a year—First World, problems etc., etc).

So $500-1,000, in our house, is kind of a big deal.

I can’t bring myself to say that the dishwasher is actually broken. It is not broken! I promise you!  Even though the last time I used it, back in December, it gave off a sad groan and a metallic scent of an Industrial Revolution era machine dying on a factory floor. But it didn’t actually stop.

If I admitted that the dishwasher was broken, and had, in fact, been broken for a couple of months now, I would have to end up ruminating on the Platonic dishwasher of my memory, the turquoise and brown-fake-wood-paneled-metal Kenmore model that was in my mother’s Mississippi kitchen.

That dishwasher, instead of an upper rack, had a funky round carousel for my mother’s Noritake Up-Sa-Daisy cups and saucers, that you could spin around and around with your finger. This is something I could do endlessly as a child, which goes to show you that random time-wasting is not the sole province of the digital generation.

At some point in my growing up, the dishwasher broke down. It never worked again, and it was never replaced. After awhile, even discussion about a new dishwasher seemed to cease as a possibility, as my mother hand-washed the dishes herself –Lemon Joy scent in the air—and let them air dry in the rack.

Eventually, somebody bound the front of the dishwasher with a swath of gray gaffe tape, because the door kept falling open. To peer inside its airless, long-dried up interior, which I did on occasion, was like peering into a little tomb: I laugh about it now, and think about that line from Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead”: “Shall we, more hopeful / Set up the grave in the house?”

Because one thing that was a constant of growing up in Mississippi was the presence of the abandoned, broken, and burned. The highways to Greenwood and Jackson were noted for the landmarks, here and there, of brick chimneys, the lone sentinel survivors of farmhouses that had burned down—from kerosene lanterns, or space heaters, or (I wouldn’t know this until I was older), firebombs.

Another conceit from the era: If the big Zenith cabinet TV set breaks, then get a portable Sony Trinitron and stick it up on top. (My brother would suggest that folks get a third, miniature set to complete the look.)

There, the broken stuff always remains. I live now in a place where the broken stuff gets immediately swept away and turned into loft-style condominiums with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.

I laugh at myself, but there are benefits in patience and tolerance that accrue to the ability to abide the broken. For years, the Magnavox stereo in the living room dragged a bit when playing LP albums, but over time I learned you could spin it with your finger a bit, and it would ramp up to a perfect 331/3 RPM.

Even now, the timer on my dryer in the basement is broken, and for some reason it has not occurred to me to try to get it fixed—assuming that dryers can even be fixed, these days—instead, I am constantly checking clocks, clocks whose time might not even be correct, reckoning my own internal accounting, because didn’t Dilsey know to read the clocks that for all the rest of the Compsons were broken in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury?

I am a Fool for Christ regarding household fittings, I guess.  Even in my middle-class neighborhood, the sale of a home to new owners seems to mark the requisite arrival of a contractor’s dumpster in the driveway, the violent ripping out of cabinets and the repainting of breakfast rooms so that the chosen wall accessories “pop”—and sometimes even the brand-new appliances that the former owners bought to sell the damned house in the first place.

This ripping and vacuuming and clearing makes me think of nothing less than abortion, for God’s sake—so completely must the traces be removed, the existing fixtures not be borne. (It’s an analogy, though a pointed and intentional one. Chill out.)

When the new dishwasher finally arrives, with its “free haul-away guarantee,” I will pat and bless the old one before they cart it out, the way that monks on Mt. Athos kiss the spoons with which they stir their soup. I will dispatch it and thank it for its grace, on its journey to refurbishment and resale, in the vast secondhand appliance markets that are on the side streets and back streets of my very own city. For, as much as my own city doesn’t admit it, we have our own abandoned, broken and burned right here.

 

A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered.

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