You start at one end of the house armed with a battery of cleaning tools: the German canister vac, assorted trigger-grip sprays, T-shirts torn into rags, a feather duster, paper towels. You dust the picture frames, the bibelots marching along the mantel, the wooden crossbars beneath the chairs. You spritz every glass surface and wipe in overlapping elliptical arcs until there’s a squeaky shine.
You start at one end of the house with every good intention of getting to the other end of the house with clean in your wake. You get as far as the dining room before the vacuum cleaner spews its bag full of dust all over the carpet.
You start at one end of the house, picking up stray articles of clothing, books, newspapers, opened mail, wine glasses, and coffee cups, putting everything in order before the housecleaning service arrives. You lock the buffet drawers where you keep your grandmother’s silver.
You start at one end of the house, spot cleaning the spots the housekeepers missed.
* * * * *
You start at one end of the house, baby proofing the electric outlets, the kitchen cupboards, the bathroom vanities. You move everything off the lower bookshelves. You shorten the cords on all the blinds. You climb up into the attic to retrieve a box of dusty toys and fill the dishwasher with plastic blocks.
You start at one end of the house, filling rope-handled shopping bags with things you don’t want to look at anymore, books you are never going to read, collectibles that aren’t part of any collection. You put the bags out on the front porch, then come back inside to survey the living room, now as impersonal as a hotel lobby. You go back outside to retrieve the set of ceramic Fu dogs. You place them on the mantel exactly where they were before.
You start at one end of the house with Windex and a roll of paper towels, scrubbing sticky fingerprints off bright work and windows. You run the plastic blocks through the dishwasher again before putting them away in the attic.
You start at one end of the house, turning off lights, swishing ice cubes around in your double old-fashioned glass, la-da-dahing the theme from “Laura.” You climb into bed with your laptop and have a little Jessica Lange film festival while you wait for your husband to come home.
* * * * *
You start at one end of the house, lighting candles and plumping pillows with karate blows. You make one last pre-party trip to the recycle bin on the side of the house and as a week’s worth of newspapers fall from you hands you see an envelope just out of reach with a return address you do not recognize. You whisper the address over and over in the cadence of a nursery rhyme until you are back in the house, at your desk, searching the Internet. You let your husband answer the door when the bell rings.
You start at one end of the house with a tray of canapés that are still too hot for anyone to eat. You insinuate yourself into conversations momentarily with a smile and a nod toward your tray. You’re grateful that being a hostess means not having to actually talk to anybody.
* * * * *
You start at one end of the house on your hands and knees, squinting under furniture, sweeping with a flashlight. In the belly of the robotic vacuum beached at the edge of the carpet, you find the earring you lost the other night along with another earring you can’t identify, and a piece of hardened chewing gum coated with turquoise lint, and your husband’s wedding ring,. You take the ring upstairs and drop it into one of your husband’s running shoes.
You start at one end of the house, checking the pockets of every coat in the hall closet, every suit jacket in the bedroom wardrobe, and all the ski parkas stored in the basement. You don’t know why you’re torturing yourself, but you think the pounding in your temples and the heat behind your cheeks will dissipate when you’ve exhausted this search.
You start at one end of the house with a cordless phone and a note pad. You pace as you arrange to have the carpets picked up for cleaning. You call the window washers. You make appointments with an upholsterer, a house painter, and a tree trimmer. You call your hairdresser. You collect your keys, your sunglasses, and your handbag on your way out the door. You spend the afternoon trading in your boxy white Volvo wagon for a sleek metallic blue BMW sedan.
* * * * *
You start at one end of the house and run back and forth, up and down the stairs, looking for your reading glasses. You find three pairs of them, together, on the nightstand next to your side of the bed.
You start at one end of the house, scanning the walls and floor. A sliver of porcelain, white and curved like a thumbnail, glistens in a corner by the fireplace. It cuts into your finger drawing blood as you pick it up. You imagine the room cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape. You laugh to yourself.
You start at one end of the house making sure every door and window is latched and locked. You turn on the security system, but you don’t feel secure. You lie awake until dawn in the silvery gloom cast by the street lamp just outside your bedroom window. You are asleep when the doorbell rings at two in the afternoon.
* * * * *
You start at one end of the house with a big black plastic garbage bag. You grab handfuls of dead or dying flowers from the ugly ceramic pots and cheap clear glass florist vases lining the mantel, the hearth, and the buffet. You throw these into the bag along with 27 condolence cards. The smell of the putrid water at the bottom of the vases makes you want to vomit.
* * * * *
You start at one end of the house, sweeping out cobwebs that hang like Spanish moss in the corners of each room.
You start at one end of the house tagging the furniture that’s going into storage and pricing everything else for the estate sale. The buffet drawers are still locked. You slap a sticky tag right in the middle of the antique walnut veneer that says $50.
You start at one end of the house, imagining another moving day, imagining your reflection in a mirror that no longer hangs above the fireplace. You leave your keys on the mantel.
Published in “Transfer 112,” December 2016
Honorary Mention from “Glimmer Train,” May/June 2017 Short Story Award for New Writers