The one-handed mop boy finds a dirty girl, grime-faced and ratty as his favorite stuffed animal, which he had torn apart with his four functioning, curled digits on his 13th birthday.
Now he’s 28, and that’s what his boss, JR, calls him: the one-handed mop boy, which is exactly who he is.
JR and the people at CLeaNCLaN have provided him with more than just an identity, though; they have also given him, for example, a smartphone. He charges the smartphone nightly and checks the smartphone daily for notifications: Is it Camilla on Cedar’s monthly aquarium cleaning? Does the wealthy man with the strong jawline, Antonio, have a last-minute request for a hardwood floor steaming? He prefers Camilla to Antonio because Camilla gives him a hug after appointments — but, to be clear, he does not discriminate, no way, against clients. He considers each one on an intimate, personal level. All his people. What he does is love their messes and love them well.
Today, the CLeaNCLaN app brings the one-handed mop boy to a new location, past the city into a small, isolated-seeming clearing. After trying the doorbell one, two, three ding-dong times (lovely sound), he walks around to the sprawling backyard, and in the backyard he discovers the dirty girl, resting in a trough encased within a big-big box made of glass. The dirty girl’s wrists and legs appear to be strapped into the trough, and the trough seems to be slow-filling with a viscous brown mud. His mother taught him the meaning of that word, viscous, and he’s proud of the recall. His mother, a nurse, encouraged cleanliness.
He soft-taps the glass with the blunt end of his mop. The dirty girl opens a brown-caked eye, says, Husband? Jean-Luc, my husband, is that you?
No, says the one-handed mop boy. I’m the one-handed mop boy.
Oh, she says. I’m Simone Sophia Delgado, and I’m looking for my husband, Jean-Luc.
I’m sorry, he says. I haven’t seen any husbands. I’m from CLeaNCLaN.
Is that— What is that, exactly? Some kind of ragtag gang? she says.
Why are you strapped into a trough in a giant box made of glass? he says.
If you’re a gangbanger, she says, you should know that Jean-Luc has big, very big fists, yes, and a bigger temper.
The one-handed mop boy takes a deep breath. Tempers his own growing anger. He would never hurt anyone, right? He doesn’t even open people’s medicine cabinets. (Cue internal laugh at thought of pill-peeping — so not his concern.) No, no way is he a mess maker, and Mrs. Delgado, she should know that: in the tone of his voice, in the put-togetherness of his uniform. He is not some messed-up mess maker, way no way.
He exhales onto the glass. Clears away the fog with his sleeve-covered stump. Peers inside the square glass edifice. Sunbeams escape the clouds and clarify the scene before him: If the dirty Mrs. Delgado has on any undergarments, he cannot tell. Her body, seemingly immobile, looks painted brown but wet, her hair more knotted than the threads of his mop. In the silence, he can hear a soft gurgling. Soon, he guesses, the trough will overflow, leaving just her neck and head free as the muck spills out around her, against the glass, like a septic tank.
Why was he called here, to a seemingly impossible-to-clean mess? Is this maybe his big-big performance review? JR’s hierarchical CLeaNCLaN litmus test? If the case, cleaning up this box could, in turn, by proxy, etc., open up a whole slew of possibilities (window washer, custodial assistant, janitorial manager?!).
His thoughts trail off as Simone Sophia Delgado stirs, as best she can, inside. What is that? she says, fixating her eyes on and flicking her head in the direction of his mop.
I use this to clean, he says and makes back-and-forth motions, like swish swish, swish.
No, she says, no, not that. Is that a claw holding it?
He looks at his four fingers strategically curled around the handle. I spent years developing this technique, he says, but I believe I am close to having perfected it. I can finish a medium-sized room in just over an hour, and a smallish one in under.
She closes her eyes again. Cracks her neck. Looks like a claw, she says.
He says, You’ll have to speak up?
Jean-Luc should be here, she says. To admire his handiwork.
He flinches at the mention of “handiwork.” Experiences a slight phantom pain in his right arm. (Cue internal realization — that is not a hand, that is a slight phantom pain.)
Clarification? he says, back-and-forth arm-shaking.
I believe this has Jean-Luc written all over it, she says. My husband, he works in the glass and glass services industry, but he has much, much more potential as an artist.
You believe that you — that this — is a kind of art installation.
He’s very talented, she says.
Then, as if responding to their conjecture, the thick liquid seeps over the edges of the trough, spilling down the sides and onto the dead, broken grass below. It seems to have started filling at an increased pace, he notices, rising up to fill the volume of the box. Simone Sophia Delgado’s head, currently unsubmerged, would not remain this way very much longer.
The one-handed mop boy, he never really did, well, understand, comprehend, etc., the idea of marriage.
When his parents became unmarried, his mother would come home from shifts at the hospital, often very tired, and bathe him. He remembers her sunken eyes like little caves, dark as her navy scrubs. He cannot recall any more prominent features than those heavy, silly eyes.
One time, she placed him in the half-filled tub and fell asleep before turning off the water. She worked very long days and nights, his mother did. On this night, the waterline met his nose (a pleasant sensation, complete, as if satiated or replete), and his mother did not wake until the water, overflowing, dampened her stained pants. When she awoke, she looked down at him, into the tub, with a sense of wonder: Had she just entered a dream or left one? he imagines her thinking in her moment of hesitation before lifting him up, way up. And he realizes now that when she pressed his head against her chest, they were the closest they’d ever be: like-mindedly hesitant, equally uneager, etc., to confront the obstacles that lay upon them.
(Cue internal super-obvious anguish — life equals a big-big mess.)
His mother called a cleaner to treat the waterlogged floorboards following that incident. She must have felt very thankful to have someone there so she could finally sleep. He was thankful too; she deserved not to have to coddle him for a few hours after catering to all her patients at work.
He experienced the phantom pain for the first time that night as he extended his arm up, way up, to touch her face, but he could not feel anything for some reason in spite of his reach.
He finally shakes off the pain now as the liquid in the box continues to rise, staining the glass inside. Simone Sophia Delgado delivers an exasperated sigh. I wish I could see him one last time, she says. He would see the pride on my face.
He studies her expression closely, looking for any indication of what she has described, but the one-handed mop boy can only sense his own confusion reflected in her gaze. If Jean-Luc truly cared, wouldn’t he flush all of this now, pull her out, and say, I’m sorry, my wife, I am more committed to being your husband than I am an artist and will return to the glass services industry if it means you will forgive me? And would Mrs. Delgado then, in turn, feel more disappointed or more relieved?
As the liquid fills the bottom half of the box, now almost level with the trough, Simone Sophia Delgado says, So, what’s going to happen now?
The one-handed mop boy presses his claw to the glass and contemplates what to tell her because he doesn’t actually know what happens next. He thinks back to the tub, that all-over feeling of total completeness as the water rose. Should he tell her that this is just a strange dream from which she will soon wake? No. He lands on the truth instead — the one thing she’ll want to hear above all else. He says, Your husband will become famous.
(Cue external smile — super proud.)
While he waits for the box to complete-fill, he wonders again why someone would notify him on his work-mandated smartphone to come here, to be present for all this. It now seems unlikely that it was a CLeaNCLaN performance review; they probably do not have the resources to execute something of this caliber. Could it have been Jean-Luc himself, then? Had he, the one-handed mop boy, been hand-selected above all others to be an artist’s assistant?
As he considers this very confusing career path, the liquid finally reaches the box’s ceiling — and when it does, a small, three-foot-tall space in the monument’s base falls open like a drawbridge, allowing the contents to spill out across the grass, spoiling his shoes before trickling away in the distance.
After the box empties, he pushes his mop inside before quickly crawling through the opening himself, his job now way, way clear. He meticulously cleans every wall until not one speck or two specks of brown or three can be seen — if God were to look down at this moment, he’d see straight through to the one-handed mop boy below, dutiful cleaner, hard worker, mess fixer, etc.
He walks over to Mrs. Delgado and looks down at her, into the trough, with a sense of finality. With no one to pull her up, she never had the chance to overcome her obstacles, which he thinks is very, very, super unfair.
He rakes his claw — his hand — through her knotted hair, making sure she too is clean before crawling beside her into what's left of the murky water.
He checks his CLeaNCLaN notifications one last time and finds a review from Camilla. She gave him a perfect score, five whole stars, for her latest aquarium cleaning, which is the highest amount of stars someone can give on the CLeaNCLaN application. (Cue internal response — his best work yet.) He smiles, letting his body sink deeper down into the trough.
Jean-Luc, he thinks, whoever he is, did his wife a disservice today. Getting recognized shouldn't hurt others, way no way.
He looks beside himself at Simone Sophia Delgado before the sludgeline rises to meet his eyes. He, the one-handed mop boy, Oliver K. Smith, can be her husband now.