My mother, I often joke, makes Joan Crawford look like a slob.
Even when I was a kid and she worked, our house was always spotless. I think one of the reasons I clean so obsessively is because I feel like, if my mother were to ever want to walk into my apartment, she would wrinkle her nose the way I am so familiar with and maybe would last about half an hour before she would start cleaning. An apocryphal story I like to tell about her cleanliness: one morning when I was visiting my parents, I would get a cup of coffee, add creamer and sweetener, stir it, and place the spoon in a spoon rest on the kitchen counter. When I would get up for a second cup, the spoon would be gone—she’d washed it and put it in the dishwasher, so I would have to get another. This went on for about four cups of coffee before I finally said something. She just shrugged and said, “It’s dirty and I can’t just leave it lying there like that.”
One Saturday morning I decided to really clean my kitchen counters, so I filled one of the sinks with water and poured some bleach into it (I keep a plastic container of Clorox wipes on the counter for use, but—sometimes I just need to clean them with a scrub brush. I am nothing if not my mother’s son). As the bleach fumes made my eyes water, I thought about my mother and the line came to me: The smell of bleach always reminded him of his mother. I walked over to the computer, opened a new word document, typed in the title “Housecleaning”, and then wrote that sentence. As I cleaned the kitchen—counters, floors, refrigerator shelves, emptying out the cabinets and washing those shelves, reorganizing as I put things back—periodically I would sit back down at the computer and write more of the story; more of it coming to me as I cleaned. It was one of those organic short stories that just came to me and didn’t have to be forced, the way most of them usually have to be. I let it sit for about a week, and then the next weekend I edited and rewrote parts of it, polishing and tightening.
And then came the ‘now what am I going to do with it?’
The smell of bleach always reminded him of his mother.
It was, he thought as he filled the blue plastic bucket with hot water from the kitchen tap, probably one of the reasons he rarely used it. His mother had used it for practically everything. Everywhere she’d lived had always smelled slightly like bleach. She was always cleaning. He had so many memories of his mother cleaning something; steam rising from hot water pouring from the sink spigot, the sound of brush bristles as she scrubbed the floor (‘mops only move the dirt around, good in a pinch but not for real cleaning’), folding laundry scented by Downy, washing the dishes by hand before running them through the dishwasher (‘it doesn’t wash the dishes clean enough, it’s only good for sterilization’), running the vacuum cleaner over carpets and underneath the cushions on the couch. In her world, dirt and germs were everywhere and constant vigilance was the only solution. She judged other people for how slovenly they looked or how messy their yards were or how filthy their houses were. He remembered one time—when they were living in the apartment in Wichita—watching her struggle at a neighbor’s to not say anything as they sat in a living room that hadn’t been cleaned or straightened in a while, the way her fingers absently wiped away dust on the side table as she smiled and made conversation, the nerve in her cheek jumping, the veins and chords in her neck trying to burst through her olive skin, her voice strained but still polite.
When the tea was finished and the cookies just crumbs on a dirty plate with what looked like egg yolk dried onto its side, she couldn’t get the two of them out of there fast enough. Once back in the sterile safety of their own apartment, she’d taken a long, hot shower—and made him do the same. They’d never gone back there, the neighbor woman’s future friendliness rebuffed politely yet firmly, until they’d finally moved away again.
“People who keep slovenly homes are lazy and cannot be trusted,” she’d told him after refusing the woman’s invitation a second time, “a sloppy house means a sloppy soul.”
Crazy as she seemed to him at times, he had to admit she’d been right about that. In school after school, kids who didn’t keep their desks or lockers neat had never proven trustworthy or likable. It had been hard to keep his revulsion hidden behind the polite mask as he walked to his next class and someone inevitably opened a locker to a cascade of their belongings. He’d just walked faster to get away from the laughter of other kids and the comic fumbling of the sloppy student as he tried to gather the crumpled papers and broken pencils and textbooks scattered on the shiny linoleum floor.
Take Josh, for instance. He’d been cleaning up after Josh for almost eight years now. Josh didn’t appreciate the rule of everything has its place and everything in its place.
But he wasn’t going to have to clean up after Josh again. Just this one last time.
As always, when I write a short story that isn’t specifically for a call for submissions, there comes that now what do I do with it moment. There aren’t many markets out there for short stories, and so the competition is pretty fierce. I thought about sending it to Alfred Hitchock’s Mystery Magazine or Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; unfortunately you have to choose one and can’t submit to both. The fact that the main character was gay was also problematic for me as far as submitting to either is concerned; both magazines are a bit on the conservative side, and so is their readership; so I finally decided not to send it there, and just wait for an anthology to open up that it might work for. A short while later I was asked to submit a story for an anthology, so I sent them “Housecleaning.”
This was the place that doesn’t tell you, apparently, that they aren’t using your story; I found out when the book came out. Ironically, the next year they asked me for this particular story again. And by that time, my friend Annamaria Alfieri had asked me for a story for an anthology she was co-editing with Michael Stanley called Sunshine Noir, so I gave them “Housecleaning.” And they’d written me back within a week that they loved it and wanted to use it.
So it found a home, after all.
Patience sometimes can be a virtue.