In my late 20’s I went to work for a housecleaning service. Because of my uncontrollable gag reflex toward all things corporate and my reluctance to submit to a daily cavity search, I was unemployable by cleaning companies with adorable names or a fleet of custom-painted cars.
But I counted myself lucky when I got a gig with a small residential operation owned by a shockingly reasonable middle-aged white woman named Cheryl. All she required was that I showed up looking presentable to each house, more or less on time, actually got the place clean and left the premises without having broken, defiled or swiped anything. In return for this merely adequate level of output, she would afford me plenty of work and a surprising amount of self-determination — a main reason I liked the job.
Another reason was that I absolutely love to see the inside of people’s houses. Now, I’m not a classic voyeur because I don’t necessarily want to watch what people do; I’m just fascinated with the evidence of how they live — what kind of stuff they have, where they put it, in what state of repair and degree of order they keep it, etc.
So I noted the artifacts of our clients’ lives as I diligently swept and dusted, wiped and scrubbed, collected trash and picked up detritus and shook out rugs and changed sheets and made beds. My solid Midwestern family had taught me how to work, and I’d been a decent housecleaner since adolescence. So before long, Cheryl began sending me out on solo jobs.
The most memorable of these was the two-story tract home of a single mom with two teenage sons. On the job sheet detailing these basic facts as well as client preferences like “Tile floors — don’t worry about cleaning the grout,” the boss had also written “Sorry” with a sad face… which made me wonder what I was walking into.
The mom and one of the sons were home when I arrived. She opened the door, glowered at me like I was her cheating ex, then swaggered back inside, mumbling, swishing her hips with an exaggerated fierceness. She and the son were each glued to a different TV set, both blaring at top volume from opposite ends of the cavernous living room — his, with a single-shooter video game and hers, with Martha Stewart.
Lynda Barry once wrote a brilliant comic, titled “Common Scents” about the way every house in the neighborhood had its own particular smell, and each smell indicated the kind of people who lived inside. Some smelled like food cooking, some like perfume, some like cat pee. One aggressively radiated bleach. I wondered what ingredients could make a house feel infuriated and defeated at the same time. The odors here were complicated: A main overtone of perpetually lit cigarette mingled with the nuanced residue of overflowing ashtrays, punctuated by the chemical off-gassing smell common to prefab houses with lots of electronics inside, and finished with the sharp funk of rotting food and teenage-boy tennis shoes.
The only instructions she gave me were that the boys’ rooms were upstairs, there might be some dishes in there, and to watch out for the dog. I decided to leave all of that for later, and started in the giant dining room. Although it was empty except for a banquet-sized table and a dozen chairs, my main focus was a thick swath of what looked like dried spaghetti sauce trailing along the tile floor from the kitchen, up onto one of the chair seats and along the edge of the table — finally and mercifully disappearing, I assumed, onto a waiting plate.
After an unsuccessful attempt at softening up the sludge with a spray bottle and rag, I grabbed a spatula from the kitchen and began to roll up the goo with a chiseling motion. Twelve times I rolled up a double-handful of pungent, brownish-red ooze, balled it up in a paper towel and tossed the bundle in a trash bag, and I’d only covered half the floor between rooms. I was so relieved to know that I didn’t need to clean the grout, too.
Once I’d chiseled and scrubbed all evidence of ectoplasm off the entire route, I changed focus and ventured into the living room with the two deafening TV’s. The video game was relatively easy to tune out, as the ballistic sounds were all the same and the kid was apparently catatonic with his thumb on the “Shoot” button. It was the Martha Stewart TV that distracted me.
Every time Martha would elaborate on another facet of the fully-functional origami printing press she was making, my hostess, apparently rapt a few inches from the screen, would drag on her cigarette hard enough to make it squeak and then proclaim, “Bitch.” I set about filling the spaghetti sauce bag to the brim with ash and cigarette butts and Mountain Dew bottle caps, then used a broom handle to transport and arrange a dozen massive and variously degraded sneakers into a row by the side door, accompanied in my work by a soon-familiar chorus:
“… with one easy little fold.” –squeak– “Bitch.”
” … until it creates a load-bearing wall.” –squeak– “Bitch.”
” … and, if you like, add a little doily!” –squeak– “Bitch! Isn’t she a fucking bitch?!”
I felt that, for my own safety, I had to agree, she was a fucking bitch.
As I swept the floor covering into one knee-high dust bunny and attempted to wedge it into the top of the spaghetti-sauce-and-cigarette-butts bag, Martha finished her project and buttoned it off with her signature statement, “It’s a good thing!” That’s when — BANG! — the mom’s hand cracked the top of the TV as she leapt up, eyes blazing, cigarette hand jabbing the air, and demanded of me, “Don’t you wish sometimes that Martha Stewart would just DIE IN A FIRE?!” I agreed emphatically, yes — yes, I did.
It was time to try the boys’ rooms upstairs. Both were pitch dark at midday, the windows covered by blackout blinds and bedspreads, and neither had bulbs in the overhead fixtures (although one room did boast a black light), so I worked as best I could with the light from the hallway. The first room was almost wall-to-wall dirty dishes, so I returned to the kitchen, emptied the sink drainer, and used it to transport three loads of moldy cups and crusty plates downstairs.
Once I saw the carpet, I realized what I was up against and decided to cut my losses. I used a broom to jam the majority of the detritus against each of the nearest walls, creating a more or less open space in the middle of the room. Then I vacuumed the recent and historical topographic formations on the exposed carpet, letting the nozzle ramp up and over the mountains and trying not to suck up any more rug fibers than necessary from the craters. When I was finished, I was satisfied that the surface of the moon had never looked cleaner, nor the orbiting ring of space junk ever so organized.
The other room was plastered with metal posters and smelled like an abattoir. The mom yelled from downstairs, “Don’t worry about making the beds!” and I nearly cried from relief. I did attempt to straighten the bedspread over a landscape of nunchuks, Magic: The Gathering cards and Chinese throwing stars, but when I tugged on a corner, the movement dislodged a tiny, snarling Yorkie from a crack between the bed and the wall. Oh, god, I’d forgotten about the dog! It danced on the bed with hackles up and teeth bared, blinking and growling and lusting for blood, and I stood immobilized with shock — until finally I backed out of the room and shut the door. I’d been there for 6 hours, and I was done.
Downstairs, to my great shock, and despite the fact that the place still looked like a pre-FEMA disaster site, the lady of the house praised my work while I packed my supplies. “Wow, this shithole hasn’t looked this good since we first moved in! Can you come back next week?”