There are some first lines that just snatch your attention, and “Housecleaning,” the next story in Survivor’s Guilt and Other Tales from Greg Herren, has one of them: “The smell of bleach always reminded him of his mother.” It’s a statement that, in another collection, could feel mundane, but here it comes through the lens of the tales that have come before and I found myself immediately uneasy. There are a lot of reasons to use bleach, and some of them… well.
What follows is the story of a man cleaning his kitchen floor while remembering his upbringing with a woman who—to put it mildly—did not display many characteristics of caring or compassion. She did put a roof over his head—many roofs, in fact—but their temporary homes always ended the same way: leaving in the dead of night, assuming new names, and starting over. The man cleans, remembers, and as more and more of his past with his mother is revealed, her compulsion to remove all trace and leave and start over gains a sharper and sharper edge.
I’ve mentioned it before in this collection, but one of Herren’s real strengths is leaving the narrator’s revelations on those edges, right up to the point of revelation. “Housecleaning” is one of those stories. Even as we feel for the boy (now a man), there’s the sense of something bad looming over the whole of the narrative, and the final moments of the story are shudder-inducing. Also of note in this tale is the descriptiveness of the man’s home (a place he finally isn’t at the whim of a mother who randomly forces him to move on) where the tiniest of details—some grease here, some dust there—gains such weight in the space of narrative as the man, well, cleans.