Excerpt: The Woman In the Bar

My parents adhered to the belief that cleanliness is next to godliness. This isn’t such a bad idea. Human beings have an innate desire to be clean. It’s the mentally ill people on the street who accept the inevitable filthy conditions. In other words, tolerating grime and trash and deterioration is not a normal state. Most of us go crazy when we open a cluttered closet. We don’t like seeing soap scum on faucets and toothpaste smears in the sink. No one would disagree that a dirty toilet is disgusting.

It’s part of why crack houses turn our stomachs when we see interior shots on the news, or scenes in movies. It’s not simply the sadness of addiction, it’s the filth that turns our stomachs.

We like to be clean. We like our hair washed and our fingernails scraped free of dirt and dead skin.

When looky-loos walk through model homes, ogling a decorator’s idea of idyllic living, admiring granite and tile, carpet and wood, most of what’s seducing them is the pristine condition. The counters don’t have dried rice glued to the surface and piles of junk mail and odds and ends that haven’t been returned to their proper places. They relish the absence of any odor beyond a light almond or coconut, the total eradication of grit and finely powdered skin and hairs and missed bits of food and dust balls.

It’s what we love about five-star hotel rooms. Immaculate conditions. Unless you peruse the internet and find out the dirty secrets of poorly cleaned rooms.

I couldn’t object to my parents’ desire for cleanliness. Maybe I was a freak of nature, but I enjoyed cleaning. The first time my mother handed me a soft cotton cloth and told me to sweep it across the tables in the living room, I was enraptured.

As the cloth ran down the length of the coffee table, leaving a clean streak of wood behind it, I was wildly satisfied with my accomplishment. Such a gentle, quick movement to change the environment. My actions had impact. I quickly polished the rest of the table and moved to the end tables, running the cloth around the bases of lamps and down the legs. The wood glowed in appreciation.

Holding the cloth up in the sunlight coming in through the living room windows made me even more content. The gray streaks of dirt now glued to the cloth were removed from the room. It glistened. My mother would toss the cloth in the wash, and it would emerge pure white.

The panic-stricken story of The Cat in the Hat Comes Back wasn’t true after all, teaching children that cleaning up a mess simply chases it somewhere else. That cat and those kids chased that pink stain all over the house and it took an act of magic to be rid of it. The story was a lie. Grime could be removed without magic. It might reappear in a week or so, but for that day and the few days following, the living room furniture was clean.

The only thing I didn’t like about the cleaning chores I was given was the fact that they were only given to me. My sister was too young, and boys did not clean house. Boys got to mow the lawn and weed the garden and rake leaves. I would have loved cleaning the outdoors as much as I liked sweeping debris out of the house.

But my father was adamant. Housecleaning was women’s work.

By the time I was in high school, I was cleaning the entire house. My mother still did the laundry and the boys did the windows. My sister was old enough to take over the dusting and vacuuming hallways. But the bathroom cleaning, the kitchen floor mopping, most of the vacuuming, windowsills and doorjambs and baseboards were my responsibility. My mother cooked, and we younger girls set and cleared the table, loaded the dishwasher, scrubbed the pans, and wiped the counters.

I became a housecleaning dominatrix. I loved to pick up my brothers’ scattered belongings and fling them into their bedrooms for sorting and organizing. I loved chasing them away from the bathroom when I was cleaning, forcing them to race up the stairs since they were in the habit of waiting until the last minute to pee. I loved informing them that the floor had been mopped and they had to stay out of the kitchen, barred from the refrigerator for the next thirty minutes.

Such power given to the cleaning goddess! The power was backed by my mother, and occasionally even my father. It was one thing, aside from my grades, that he praised me for, one thing that pleased him about the way I was growing up. He didn’t like my attitude, my lack of submission, my outright defiance of god, but he loved the way the house looked when I was finished with it. He loved the sparkling porcelain in the bathrooms and the evenly spaced tracks in the carpet and the lack of clutter.

Nice job.

Well done, Alexandra. A godly woman looks after her home.

The house looks beautiful. I’m proud to have company.

His praise was genuine, although I didn’t let it entice me into letting down my guard around him. He might be thrilled with one facet, but it didn’t mean he’d cut me slack anywhere else. Still, between my housecleaning expertise and my report cards, he was pleased with two aspects of my otherwise uncontrollable and troubling personality.

The power I’d been given was something I thought about quite a lot as the vacuum roared and I pushed it across the carpet, focused on keeping the path straight, making sure I overlapped each section so not a single thread or piece of fuzz or broken fingernail escaped its growling, sucking force.

In most situations, my brothers had the upper hand. They had more freedom, they were allowed to dominate dinner table conversations, and they were allowed to run around with their friends without having to account for every move. Their freedom infuriated me, and they acted as if they were superior because I had to clean up their shit, literally.

There had to be a way to use my power as the designated queen of clean to take control of them.

Beauty in a nightclub
Beauty in a nightclub

Excerpt from The Woman In the Bar — just released, the latest novel in the Alexandra Mallory series.

Share your reaction