We have a washer and dryer in the basement of our apartment; “free” for our use (we don’t pay for water, but somebody’s oil is heating the hot water being used and somebody’s gas fires up the dryer — I don’t know if it’s ours, our neighbors’, or split between our feeds). It’s great to have such convenient access to this necessity. Well, “convenient” isn’t quite the right description — while it beats having to stuff all the laundry in duffel bags and haul it to a coin-operated laundromat, it still requires navigating through two doorways and down several flights of stairs into a rather foreboding cellar.

Since the staircase is narrow and steep, we’ve gotten into the habit of taking down just one load at a time to maintain our balance, rather than peering over the top of a mountain of dirty clothes piled nose-high in a basket that’s too wide to make it around the corners without being handled like a video-game controller. The machine is pretty up-to-date, technologically — multiple buttons to regulate settings for wash/rinse temperatures, how fast it will spin, extra cycles, soil level (that’s the polite industry term for “skid marks”) — all of which contribute to some algorithm run by the on-board calculator that determines the time this will take to complete. Depending on the settings, sometimes a cycle is 45 minutes, sometimes 48, sometimes 53… I click the start button, the front-loader door locks, and water begins to flow. I hike back upstairs and set the timer app on my phone for however many minutes were on display.

However, I quickly learned that the machine’s timer lies. While it counts down metronomically from the start — 53, 52, 51 — something happens when it reaches the final minute. I’ll come back down and see a green glowing “2”, which shortly switches to the exclamatory “1”, leading me to think there are a mere 60 seconds left before the machine stops, the washer door unlocks and I can move everything over to the dryer. But that’s not the case, not at all. Time suspends at the 1-minute mark and the machine continues to exert itself for an undetermined period — sometimes just a few extra minutes, and other times as many as eleven or twelve more. There might be an extra full rinse cycle (not programmed in at the start); it might begin to spin rapidly — but always at what seems like the end the machine briefly stops, just long enough to fool me, and then begins a lackadaisical tossing motion, this way and that, as the laundry that’s plastered to the inside of the washer drum from its centrifugal spinning is gently coaxed to peel away and pile together in an exhausted heap.

This flummoxes me — why does the machine behave like this, seemingly of its own volition? Does it sense that there’s a smidgen of smudge still stuck to the surface of my shorts? Is it trying to shake the last few nickels out from my jean pockets? Or, as I suspect — does it sense my presence and knowing that I’m waiting for it to finish decides to just fuck with me? It excels at this mind game.

The other evening I came down when I *thought* a load of towels would be done – ha! While the “1” was already on display, the machine continued to run for five, six, seven minutes or more. The spinning ended, and then it went into tossed-salad mode. I sensed my opportunity and decided I’d extract revenge (and my laundry) by interrupting this useless step with the “pause” command, remove my towels, and then cancel the process and clear out the display. But the machine would have none of this. I hit “pause”, which summoned a loud click and the machine ceased any internal motion. I went to open the door — it remained locked. I hit the “pause” button again, which resulted in the entire display returning to its original settings, with 45 minutes on the timer. I hit “pause” once more (those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it), and water began to flow into the machine as a new wash cycle began. I quickly hit “pause” once more, stopping the flow of water — but still I couldn’t open the door. Was the machine now holding my towels for ransom? I had a glimpse of my future — stranded in the cellar, my towels agonizingly just beyond my reach behind a tightly-secured glass door, the machine taunting me with their proximity while they slowly began to mildew. Desperate to rescue the wash and extricate myself from this Mobius strip of confusion, I took the most drastic step I could think of (well, I thought of trying to pry the door open with a crowbar, so I guess I took the second-most drastic step I could think of) — I unplugged the washer from the electrical outlet. I had a strange sensation that the machine continued to live for a few nano-seconds after being disconnected from its power source. Had I just committed laundricide? Regardless, I was now able to open the door and remove the towels, which were of course dripping from the additional spritzing I’d subjected them to. But at least they were freed from captivity and could be placed in the dryer and brought back to their intended state of absorbency.

I placed the sodden clump of towels into the dryer and set the dial to “more”, figuring some additional time and effort would be necessary to remove the excess moisture. The dryer runs on a sensor; while there is no time display, it runs only as long as necessary to remove the dampness and leave its cargo dry and fluffy. I twisted the start knob and trudged back upstairs to await the soft, warm outcome. I poured a double Maker’s Mark with trembling hands, sinking into the couch cushions and slowly sipping my drink while savoring my triumph over the malevolent Maytag. I’d estimated the time required for the drying cycle, and when alerted by the phone app I labored up and headed back into the dungeon, feeling a sense of victory tinged with relief that the ordeal would be over. The dryer had already stopped running so I opened the door, ready to remove and fold the towels and bring them upstairs to tuck snugly back into their home in the linen closet. I reached in and pulled out the first of the towels — finding a cold and sodden wad of Egyptian cotton in various stripes and colors. The dryer had tumbled — it was turning as I’d gone back upstairs — but failed in its core mission of providing the warmth I, and the towels, had been counting upon. Damn it! I reset the dryer, starting it again and waiting a few moments to make sure the heat fired up, which this time it did. I turned and was resigned to yet another wait and trips up and down and up again. As I spun toward the stairs I walked past the washer and noticed a quick flicker from its display panel — all those green glowing lights for the various settings. I thought for a moment I’d accidentally brushed against the machine and set something off — and then noticed that it was still unplugged. It had become self-aware, and pulling the plug didn’t shut it down. It had already communicated with the dryer as part of its effort to eliminate me as an enemy.

I can always buy new towels…