Buy Photo

Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Herb Benham

I came downstairs and Sue was holding her turquoise-colored workout top. She had a funny expression on her face that was less ha- ha funny than stunned funny.

"Look at this," she said, holding it aloft for me to see. "It has black stains on it. This is my favorite workout top."

I'll be darned. How did that happen? Let me help you get to the bottom of this and catch the culprit, whoever that might be.

I examined the turquoise top with an eye toward fashion. Although black and turquoise can be an attractive combination, they don't blend as well when the black swooshes are oil-based.

"I thought you told me the washing machine was clean," she said.

I did say that. I remember using the word "clean" in reference to the washing machine. I had called the coast clear and then a naval destroyer glided in unawares and laid waste to the Allied positions.

There are moments in a marriage that are real. Real uncomfortable. Real alive.

This was real. Had I been able to dissolve, turn into a pillar of salt or shoot through the roof to outer, outer space, I would have.

The day before, I'd dumped the plastic bucket holding my garage rags, which were overflowing onto the concrete, into the washing machine, as I have done for the past 30 years.

These are the rags I use to wipe down my bike, tools and the top of my work bench.

I set the dial for a heavy load, scooped in more Tide than usual, closed the top and went on with my busy, productive life.

"The washing machine has some black in it," she had said the day before, prior to washing her workout clothes.

"Could you clean it out?"

Of course I can clean it out.

That's what I do. I am a cleaner. A fixer. A guy who makes things right again.

I sprayed Windex on it. I like Windex.

Windex is a versatile product that is quite handy, even outside the glass and mirror venues.

Opting for extra caution, given the tender load that would soon be tumbling in the washer, I employed the 409 with a round of fresh towels. One can't be too careful.

The inside of the washer appeared clean, and whatever dark marks remained on the stainless steel or beige plastic surfaces seemed to be of the institutional variety rather than of a more current nature.

"I thought you told me you'd gotten all of it out," she said, holding her favorite turquoise workout top.

I did. I got most of it out and your top got the rest.

Now it's clean for my next load of shirts and designer jeans.

I didn't say that because you can't. I thought it, because gallows humor does not pick its spots but, when it does, there is usually a smoking car, a busted window or an oil-stained workout top nearby.

"Sometimes there are problems for which there are no answers or explanations," said friend Rudy, when I told him the story later on.

I stood there. I went quiet. I wondered if the moment would ever pass and if it did, whether I would recognize the old familiar landmarks.

"I don't even know if I can find this top again," Sue said.

Of course you can't. That top has gone out of the Nike line. Nike probably discontinued it shortly before I called the washing machine oil-free.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I feel terrible."

I did feel terrible. I felt so terrible that I thought I might be getting sick. If I get sick, I might die. You wouldn't want to lose a turquoise top and a husband in one week, surely.

Sue texted later that morning:

"Good news: I removed the stains via direct application of Palmolive dish liquid. Have a good day."

The universe works in good, mysterious ways. So does Palmolive. For sopping up stains, it works better than a turquoise top anytime.