The Cleaner

The Cleaner

David stared at the long black stain. He had tried everything he could to clean it from the otherwise pristine white shirt, but nothing had worked. It had embedded itself deep within the starched cotton’s fibres. It was a jagged line of oil paint, and it didn’t matter what he tried, the stubborn stain remained.

The customer had handed him the suit sheepishly the day before. He had darting eyes, and beads of sweat were coagulating on his forehead, just below his perfectly sculpted dark hair. He was a regular customer, and David had always found him to be beautiful, and couldn’t help but run his sandpaper hand comparatively through his greying hair, and down over his own prematurely puffy and wrinkled eyes whenever the customer came in. At barely thirty two, it was not uncommon for David’s feelings of inferiority to percolate to the surface of his confidence veneer in the face of men such as this.

He gave up on the shirt, and wrote on the receipt, “Unable to remove stain in white shirt. Apologies.” He placed the suit in a bag, and hung it on the clothes rail by the counter. He stared out at the street in front of his Dry cleaner’s. It was shrouded in the colourlessness of Midwestern small-town winter. A cluster of family-owned fast food restaurants, hair salons and miscellaneous stores hugged the pavement; the paint on the signs hanging above the doorways faded, bleached by years of sunlight. They were all empty of customers, their minimum-wage workers standing around inside, nothing to do but sigh with boredom, while owners sat in back offices, their hair falling strand by strand from their heads as they tapped their fingers on their desks, staring at bills they weren’t going to be able to pay.

David’s was one of the only businesses in town that was still profitable. His was the only Dry cleaner’s within a twenty mile radius. And along with the usual suits and dresses brought in by the wealthier residents in town, who all had commuter jobs, and spent their days removed from small-town struggle, his new clothes repair service capitalised upon the financial tightrope everyone else was walking. Much of his time was spent stitching up tears in winter coats, and shirts and dresses, brought in by people who decided that feeding their families was more important than replacing their worn out clothes.

On top of that, David’s was simply a good service. For the most part, clothes would be returned quickly, and would look as they had when they were new. The permanent dirt smudges of time that had worked their way into the collars and cuffs of shirts were removed, he never shrunk anything, and treated everything with the same amount of care- whether it was a two thousand dollar suit, or a thirty dollar dress. It was not uncommon for him to overhear a conversation in the café down the road, or the convenience store around the corner, in which someone would encouragingly say: “You should take it to David’s. It will come back like it’s never been worn.”

After he had abandoned the beautiful man’s suit, David was called away from the back of the store by the sound of the bell above the entrance chiming. It was a woman who had come in to collect the dress that had had a blotch of red wine on the bodice.

David had been fascinated by the customer’s clothes since he was a child. He would vicariously imagine the customers as they wore them, trace their experiences through the stains and marks left in their clothes. Even now he still did it. Earlier that day, sitting in the back of the store, windowless and dingy, he had looked into the woman’s dress like it was a television screen. He imagined her two nights ago, maybe three, sitting on a sofa with a man. They were kissing, and he helped her take off her dress and pulled her closer into him, grasping with eager fingers at her bare thighs, and she threw the dress onto the coffee table, where it landed on the glasses of red wine that were sitting there, forgotten. They kissed the way only two strangers can: wild and uninhibited, yet with a wall between them, holding any real emotion at bay, letting only surges of passion seep through. And then David was looking out through the man’s eyes, and he was kissing the woman; he was the one feeling the euphoria. He was feeling the rush of being intimate with someone he didn’t know if he would ever see again. The more he kissed her, the more she pulled him away from the mediocrity of his daily life.

Now in the store, he faced her in reality, and he was handing her the dress without a word. She thanked him, and he watched her leave, the dress hanging in its bag at her side. They wished each other a good day as she opened the door to leave, and he smiled at her as she stepped into the harsh coldness outside, and walked to her shining, efficient German car.

At five o’clock David closed up, and left through the back door. His old, dull-blue Triumph motorcycle stood waiting like a misplaced child in the alley, and he listened for a second to its purr of excitement at his return when he started it up.

He had bought the bike when he thought he wanted to be Bob Dylan or Lou Reed; before he had moved back to the small, rural town; before his son. He still rode it despite fears that his now more filled-out physique, combined the salt and pepper hair and the leather jacket he still wore every day made him look like he was having a midlife crisis. But he managed to convince himself he didn’t look all that ridiculous, yet.

Once off the main street, the town slowly began to dissolve. Businesses became houses, at first packed closer together, then further and further apart, until the town had dissolved into a haze of sparse little clusters of ash-coloured trees, and brown fields stretching to the horizon, colours faded in the face of winter, punctuated sporadically by a clapboard house rising out of the ground – white paint peeling, window frames cracking, a building crawling towards dereliction. Seen from afar, David was a sole black figure traversing the thin straight roads, his engine the only sound, echoing around the vast, flat greyness surrounding him.

His own house was one of those standing alone surrounded only by dead fields. Like the others it was two stories, covered in white wooden panels, and topped with a faux-slate roof. A window that looked onto the backyard was boarded with a panel of plywood that had been put up after a stray ball had smashed the glass, which David was supposed to have replaced seven months ago. The window looked out from the dining room, which was now out of use; the lack of a window pane meant that since the beginning of winter, it felt colder in that room than it did outdoors.

Louis, his boy, three years old, ran to David as he walked into the house, stumbling along at a pace faster than his legs could carry him, filled with unquestioning love for his father. He was exuberant as only a three year old can be, where even the most mundane things, like heavy rain, or his father arriving home after work filled him with so much excitement he found it difficult to contain it within his small frame.

“Dad! Hi!” He said as he weaved in and out of David’s legs like a kitten, waiting to be lifted off the ground and embraced.

Instead David crouched down and kissed him on the crown of his dark hair. “Hello son. Have you been watching cartoons?”

“Yes,” he said.

“I could tell. Your eyes are almost completely square.”

Louis let out gasp, “No!”

“I’m joking. They’re like two little moons; round as ever.” He ruffled the boy’s hair with a quiet laugh, and stood, calling for his wife, Jenny; she made no reply.

He walked down the dusty hallway, the old floorboards loose and creaking under his feet. He wondered if they had been there since the house was built, and how long it would be before his foot fell clean through one of them.

The television was blaring sound and colour into the empty living room, cartoon animals singing to the lonely old sofa, its colours faded, revealing human outlines in the fabric. The murky late-evening light coming through the bay windows was making a last stand against the looming darkness of night, and it made the whole room look cold.

“Jenny!” He called again. He made his way upstairs to their bedroom, and found her in their bed, reading a newly released paperback bestseller on their big wooden-frame bed. “Hello my love. Is it any good?” he said, motioning towards the book. She looked up at him for a second, and blinked in reply. Her skin had grown pale in the sunless winter, and her ringlet-curls of shoulder-length blonde hair had darkened. He hadn’t seen her in anything but the faded-blue jeans that were torn at the knee for months. “How long have you left him downstairs alone?” he said.

“I don’t know, for about fifty or so pages.”

“Are you kidding, you just left him like that?” he said.

“He’s been watching the television, he’s fine, he’s not a tiny baby anymore.”

David walked over and sat on the edge of the bed, and could hear the spring groaning underneath him. “What have you done today?” he said, squeezing concern into his voice.

“Nothing, looked after our son, read…”

“So you’ve been in bed all day?”

“No, I have to get up to watch after Louis, don’t I?” she said sternly, warning him away from an argument. David looked around the room silently, the paint on the ceiling and walls was flaking away in areas, and below the window mould was beginning to grow where rain leaked through. Clothes were thrown in piles in front of the wardrobe and chest of drawers that David had inherited from his parents; the washing-basket was overflowing.

“This house looks terrible; it looks like we ran away and left it.”

“No, it looks the opposite. If you’re that bothered why don’t you do something about it?”

“Would I do that before or after work, eh?” he said, trying to keep his voice light.

“I don’t know. I don’t really care – it’s better than nothing. There’s a pizza in the fridge, we will eat in an hour or so”, she said, and turned her face back to her book.

David sat without moving for another minute or so, waiting for her to ask him something, about his day, the weather, sports, just to ask him something. But she didn’t, she just read her book as though he wasn’t there at all, so he walked back through the moaning house to find his son. He was in the living room, back in front of the T.V. “Turn it off, son,” he said, “go and play with your toys.”

“Okay”, Louis said. He thundered up the stairs and could be heard walking around his bedroom above, choosing his toy, before settling, and leaving the house silent again. David dropped into the armchair that was perpendicular to the sofa, and looked straight out of the big window to the wilderness outside. He picked a week-old newspaper off the coffee table, and he had drifted off to sleep before he could finish his second sentence.

David’s last thoughts before he slipped into unconsciousness were of himself riding his electric-blue motorbike on a smooth asphalt road; a roaring engine and flames bursting from the exhaust pipe, an orange glow in the dark ahead.

David had never been able to escape thoughts of his life ten years ago. Huge parties in small apartments with neon lights flashing, beautiful girls in small, bright floral dresses, a shitty job with shitty pay, but colourful co-workers; music and the city and public transport and on and on, endless spontaneity. Memories, every waking hour, of what he did and what he could have done and what he couldn’t remember whether he had done or not. That was his life before he had been obligated to run a business he inherited, before he had been obligated to move into a house he had inherited too, before he had to abandon everything in favour of things that weren’t his.

He woke later and the living room was in night-time darkness. Light, and sounds of movement were coming from the kitchen, bathing the living room in ghostly shadowy light. Jenny and Louis were eating dinner. His mouth was dry, and his head ached.


Next day, and the beautiful man had come in to pick up his suit. David apologised for his inability to be able to get the stain out. “It’s fine,” the man said, “Could you just throw it in your trash for me? I can just buy a new one downtown.” He took the shirt out of the bag and handed it back to David who put it haphazardly on the clothes rail. The man paid, and said thank you.

“What do you do? David said. The man looked back puzzled. “You come in here all the time and I don’t even know your first name.”

“Oh, it’s Adam. I work for a law firm.”


“Yeah, it’s work I guess.” He was beginning to look uncomfortable, as though talking to the guy who cleaned his clothes was like shitting where he ate.

“Yeah, I don’t get into the city too much. Not as much as I would like to anyway. I used to live close to downtown in a tiny apartment. I worked at a small record company, bringing in the mail and stuff like that.”

“I’m sure that was interesting, working with rock stars.”

“Not really rock stars. I miss the city more than the job”, David said. Adam was shuffling from foot to foot, and his shoulder was pointed to the door, already planning his escape. “Why do you live all the way out here then?” David said.

“My wife likes it. I don’t mind it really. It’s nice to come home to somewhere quiet after being downtown all day. How about you, why’d you come out here?”

“I grew up here. This place used to be my Dad’s. We lived in the apartment upstairs, before he bought a house just outside of town.”

“Really? You probably know my wife then; she lived here all her life.”

“I doubt it, what’s her name?”

“Fran. Her maiden name is Jones.”

“It doesn’t ring a bell.”

“She was a cheerleader at the school,” he said, with a bragging tone, adamant that David should know her, as though she was famous.

“I didn’t hang around with cheerleaders too much”

“Oh, right. Well, anyway, I better be going. What’s your name again?”


“David, right. Well, I’ll see you in about a week or so.”

Adam shuffled quickly outside; he sighed, relieved as he opened the door and the little bell above it chimed.

“Bye then…” David said as the door closed again, leaving him standing alone behind the counter of the empty dry cleaner’s, staring at muddy footprints on the otherwise shining linoleum floor.

David mopped the floor, and then took the abandoned shirt from the rack and into the back of the shop. He laid it on a table and examined it again. He looked deeply into the stain, and he imagined Adam a few nights ago, at a party in the basement of a big old brownstone townhouse just on the outskirts of the city. Wild, scattered, distorted pop music pounded through the huge open space in violent waves of pain and frantic excitement. The crowd whirled and shimmered under the blinking artificial lights. Champagne spilled from their hands as they lost control of themselves, giving in to the liquor and the music.

A man in jeans and a t-shirt was standing at the edge of the crowd in front of a broad white wall, holding a thick paintbrush and a tin of black paint. He dunked the brush and began slashing ebulliently at the wall, as a crowd gathered to watch. When he had finished, he moved back as far as the crowd would let him and everyone admired his work with hands over their mouths. Adam and his date stopped dancing, and she dragged him over so that they could look at it together. She was young and her eyes were still wide like a child’s.

“I wish I could paint like that”, she said after they had been standing in front of it for a while.

“I’m sure you could, it doesn’t seem that difficult,” Adam said, lowering his head so that his lips were touching her ear when he said it. She stepped back and looked at him, trying to comprehend his cynicism. And then she took up the abandoned brush and cut with it straight down his torso, and laughed at the horror with which he looked down at himself.

“You’re right, I’m not that bad,” she said, and dropped the brush to the floor and walked back to the dance floor.

Adam began to follow her, but he felt his phone vibrate. It was a message from his wife: “Where are you?! It’s 3a.m.!”

“Shit”, he said. He found the girl and grabbed onto her arm. “I’ve got to go.” He said.

“Okay, well, call me, I’m free next week,” she said.

He walked away, stumbling through the crowd, and out into the street; drunk, happy, his arm in the air, hailing a cab.

David cast the shirt quickly into the trash, panicking momentarily that Jenny would find out about the party if she found it.

He only had a few more customers that day, and after cleaning the big front windows, and the counters and the floor, he closed up and made his way home again.

He pulled into the driveway of the rickety house he had intended to turn into a palace. A goal he had forgotten about long ago; cast aside with one question, “Why bother?”

The house was dark. He was later home than usual, and the sun had almost disappeared below the dead fields. Louis met him in in the hallway, as usual, twisting about his feet until he received reciprocation of his love.

David bent down and kissed him and held him. “Where is your mother?” He said, drawing away to look into his son’s face.

“In the dining room Daddy.”

“Okay, why don’t you go and play in your room?” He said, and Louis ran upstairs. David walked into the dining room, and his breath started to drift up in front of his face before he opened the door, the coldness from the room seeping silently into the rest of the house. He found Jenny, sitting at the dining room table, reading. She had a thick cardigan, and a blanket wrapped around her. At first glance, David didn’t recognise her as his wife. Although she was still beautiful, decades of a life lying willingly before her, waiting like an anxious lover, she looked now as though she had endured a week of sleepless nights, her face weathered by love and unwilling acceptance of her life.

He longed for her youth. To be locked in a room with her alone, to lie together naked, frantically and endlessly, together; a quiet, hope filled melody drifting through the window into the cool sunlit air of the room – like used to. But he was here, and it was winter. And the more he longed for her youth, the older, duller, greyer she became. Time had passed, and would continue to pass, until they both were withered and old and crumbling into death like shrivelled little trees that haven’t seen sunlight for a hundred years. And he was sure that she felt the same; instead of her once young and beautiful lover, now she only had David, grey haired, wrinkled eyes.

“Why are you sitting here in the cold?” David said, and she looked up at him, unperturbed, the light from an old lamp was shining behind her, illuminating the boarded-up window.

“I’m not letting this room go to waste. I would rather endure the cold than do that,” she said to him. Her voice was placid

“It’s freezing in here honey. Just come and sit in the living room.”

“I’m fine in here, David. And if it’s cold, it’s only because the window is still broken.”

“Honestly… I know, but I will fix the window.”

“You won’t, and I have to be fine with that.”

“Why don’t you just go and sit in the living room where it’s warm. You’re going to get sick,” he said.

“I’m okay here. Just fine, David. I’ve got my blanket. It’s fine.”

“Maybe you would be better than okay in the living room.”

“Probably” she said, and looked back down into the book, as though the conversation was barely distracting her at all; she even turned the page every now and again.

“So you’re just going to sit in here, and I suppose I just have to deal with it?”

“Yes you do.” She didn’t look up at him anymore.

“Why? I try, Jenny. I’m at that place all day, cleaning up for other people. Putting food on the table; where would we be without that?”

“Without the Cleaner’s? We wouldn’t be here,” she said, with bitterness dripping like rusty water into her voice.

“But we are, so.”

“Yes, we are, for you. You made a promise to me about how it would be – didn’t you.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“You said you would be happy here.”

“I know.”

“You said it would change when we got Louis.”

“I know.”

“You said you would be your own boss. That we would have this beautiful house in the beautiful countryside, but we don’t.”

“I know.

“But you don’t,” she said, snapping her book shut and dropping it onto the table with a thud that sent a small cloud of dust into the air. “You don’t know. I have tried, David. I have tried to believe that you would be happy. We left everything and moved here. You could have sold all this, but you didn’t. And now all that’s left is to just accept it, and sit here in the cold,” she said. “I would love to sit in the living room, warm on the sofa, but that’s not going to work out. I won’t let this room go to waste.”

“I will fix the fucking window…”

“When, David? When the room is filled with snow, or ice? When it’s too late?”

“I will fix it this weekend.”

“Bullshit. You couldn’t care less. With your stupid little Dry cleaner’s, cleaning up for everyone else, letting this house go to shit.”

“I will fix the window.”

“You won’t, you know it. You can’t think of a reason to bother. You will sit here waiting for summer when you won’t need to. You thought this house would turn into a dream, and now it isn’t, and you have just given up. And meanwhile it’s us that have to suffer through it.”

“I’m sorry,” David said. The cold was beginning to crawl inside his skin, and he felt a shiver rise up in his chest and shoulders. He left her in the dining room, and closed the door. Louis was sitting in the living room, and David came in and sat on the floor with his back against the radiator, listening to its pipes clunk, expanding with the heat.

“What is wrong with Mom?” he said, too young to keep the worry from his voice.

“She’s fine, son. She’s just a bit upset about the window that needs fixing, that’s all. It’s too cold in the dining room.”

“Can she come sit here?”

“She likes the dining room; she doesn’t want to neglect it.”

“Oh”, Louis said. He stared at David silently for a few minutes. “Why is your hair grey, Dad?.”

“I must be old.”

“No, you’re not.” he said, smiling. David looked at his son, and stretched his lips into a tired-eyed smile. Louis put in one of his films, and David stayed where he was, leaning on the searing hot radiator, watching the light and colour from the television shimmer over the surface of his son’s face in the dark, not hearing the characters on the screen, only his son’s laughter, his worried gasps. His laughter.

After the film ended, David took him upstairs, and made sure he brushed his teeth, and then, after he had climbed into bed, he kissed his son on the head, and sung him a verse of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in a whispery voice. They said goodnight, and David left the room and softly closed the door.

The next morning David awoke on the sofa, beneath the blanket Jenny had been wrapped in in the dining room the night before. He had fallen asleep watching the news, and couldn’t remember her leaving the dining room. They had both slept alone.

He heard them in the kitchen again; the clink of spoons on cereal bowls, and the soft whistle of the kettle, growing in intensity, and the light and bantering tones of a conversation between a mother and her young son.

He walked through to the kitchen, where they were sitting together at the small table, facing him, standing in the doorway. But they didn’t look up; instead they sat almost motionless, serene. Jenny’s eyes were blue; their dark little pupils that once darted in a violent and frantic way, looking for excitement, now softly lay upon her son.

For the first time in weeks, white sunlight had broken through pinholes in the grey sky, and shone brightly through the kitchen window.

He joined them at the table, and his son smiled at him, and said good morning.

“Aren’t you going to be late for work? You’ll have customers banging on the door.” Jenny said. David thought of his customers, and their clothes, lonely in an empty building and he felt a pang of worry. He looked at his wife and son, crowded around the tiny table with him.

He ran his hands through his greying hair, and down over his crow’s feet, and puffy eyes. He reached out to his wife’s hand across the breakfast table. “No, I don’t think so. It’s a Sunday.”

“People will be coming to pick up their stuff won’t they?”

“I suppose. I will have to stop by and put up a sign or something, asking them to come back tomorrow. I think I’m going to go to the hardware store,” he said, and got up to make himself a cup of coffee.

After breakfast, he got dressed in their bedroom, and picked Jenny’s thick cardigan from where it hung on the wardrobe door and put it on. He picked one of her hairs from the sleeve and held it up to the window light, and blew it from between his fingers, and watched it drift slowly to the floor.

He went out into the garage that had stood almost as big as the house itself. Originally intended to keep a tractor, now it housed his motorbike, and the station wagon, and clutter. He found a sheet and threw it over his motorbike, and climbed into the station wagon that stood neglected beside it. The engine spluttered, and he pulled the rust infested car out onto the road. There was no ice on the road as there usually was on a morning. No anything. It was long, and straight, with bright yellow lines running parallel towards the blue horizon. Turning to look at the house as he pulled away, he saw Jenny standing, hugging herself, wrapped in her blood-red pea coat on the porch, watching him go. She raised her hand to wave as David put the car into gear and started towards the highway. She smiled as he went, and looked beautiful.