I once edited the manuscript of a book about starting a cleaning business. Cleaning seemed straightforward and useful, and it paid better than editing. I got the author to let me go with him on a job, when I just took notes and tried to stay out of the way. He recommended a couple of books for me to read, and I was ready to try it.

I worked with him a while and then began to take over the jobs he didn’t want, like one where the client insisted on her floors being cleaned by hand.

First cleanings were always hard, because the houses of people who haven’t had a cleaner and finally decide they need one tend to be filthy. I did several one-time jobs—the ones where the clients act like potential regulars to get a good price and then, after seeing their former hovels spic-and-span, decide they can handle it from there.

My clients were good or I asked them to find someone else. The few bad ones—the woman who never picked up anything before I got there, expecting me to straighten and clean; and the woman with two big, long-haired white dogs; and the floors-on-hands-and-knees woman—didn’t last long. Good cleaners are hard to come by, and I didn’t have to put up with much.

It’s not a bad way to make a living—there’s usually nobody else around and I knew I had accomplished something—but the dust and animal dander eventually got to me.

Here’s what one house was like:

Clean shoes on at the door, street shoes into a bag.

Set up a base in the kitchen by the sink, tools and cloths in an apron, spray bottles in loops on my overalls.

Turn on the lights. It’s hard to clean what you can’t see.

Bathroom first, a duster on the tops of things—doors, medicine cabinet, window ledges, bulbs over the mirror, wainscoting. Dusting is mostly for horizontal and slanted surfaces, not vertical.

Five precise strokes with the blinds slanting down and in, then five more on the window side with the slats going the other way.

Eyeball to eyeball with somebody else’s toilet—cleanser in the bowl. Spray and wipe the outside from the bottom up, then the seat. Keep moving.

Into the hall. Wipe the windowsill and pane dividers.

Cloths too dry or too wet mean more than one swipe, doubling my time and halving my wages.

Knickknacks in the boys’ room—seven windup toys, two balancing birds, a soft turtle, three baby pictures, three monkeys and two banks, all to the front. Wipe where they were, then all to the back, wipe, everything as it was.

An emergency list in the kitchen—telephone numbers for the police, an ambulance, a hospital’s emergency room, a state 24-hour medical-advice line. Friends, relatives, neighbors last.

Blades and body of a ceiling fan. Vacuum. Small rugs shaken outside. After the kitchen’s mopped, the water in the bucket is barely cloudy.

Every other Wednesday.