The Practice of Cleaning

Sarah Nance

Cells, ghosts.
—Robyn Schiff, “The Houselights”

My mother knows there are three
ways to be clean: to take a mess
that’s there and cover it; to replace

what’s broken so it gleams; and to strip
it down: take out the screws and undo
the fastenings in order to reveal

the grimy grout holding every-
thing together. The forces of the earth
skew toward disorder but this we can

combat, armed with a pocket-sized Phillips
and a utility knife. Even if a body
cannot be healed, it can be cleaned: fresh

nails and trimmed hair, a little vitamin
E along the scar line. As the movers
empty her house, carrying out the couch

my father slept on and the bed my father
died in, I sweep the bathroom
in the basement, the one he so often used:

in the very back reaches of the cabinet
drawer, I find a piece of his hair twirled
like a blade of grass around the hinge

and slide, the dust I wipe out not just
the stuff of combs and brushes, floss
and scissors but of skin: the slow

build-up of time, cells not missed
but now revered. When I call you
later, rag still in hand, I hear your voice

across the line, warm in response
to my fear: every day, I think of a hundred
small ways for your body to fail.