“Mr. Spotless” was the winner of the national short story contest sponsored by the literary magazine The Ledge. The story appeared in the Fall 2006 Issue of the The Ledge (No. 29).
My father stood at the kitchen sink washing his hands the way he always did, scrubbing them front and back, soapsuds halfway up his forearms. I was sitting at the table with my two sisters waiting for supper, my mother by the stove stirring the spaghetti sauce.
Dad looked over his shoulder. “So, Charlie, what’ve you got going with that busy schedule of yours on Saturday?”
“Just work,” I said. I was fourteen and had a job as a busboy at a restaurant downtown. “I have to be there by five-thirty.”
My father nodded and turned back to the sink. He rinsed off the soap and lathered his hands again, then he took a short-bristled brush from the jelly jar on the windowsill and started to clean his fingernails. My sister Patty, who was a year older than I, slid down in her chair, her tongue lolling out as if she were starving, which made my little sister Tina giggle, and Mom gave us all the evil eye. There was a salad and basket of bread on the table, but she wouldn’t let us touch a thing until my father sat down. He rinsed his hands again and turned off the water. His left arm, the one he rested on the open window of his truck, was much tanner than the other, the white silhouette of a watch around his wrist. He took the tea towel from the hook and began to dry off, wiping carefully between his fingers. It was a peculiar ritual, the way my father washed his hands, every movement as slow and deliberate as a priest at communion. Otherwise, he was kind of a slob – shirttail hanging out, trousers sagging under his pot belly, neckties stained with coffee and mustard – not exactly a walking advertisement for a man who made his living as a dry cleaner. He hung up the towel and picked up his watch from the drainboard. When he turned, a bemused smile came over his face, as if he were surprised to see us there, waiting. Then he took his seat at the head of the table.
It was a Wednesday, the one evening a week that my father came to our house for supper. He had been living with my grandmother for the past four or five years, sleeping in the same room he’d grown up in because my mother said she’d had enough of his drinking. Every Sunday we all sat together in our regular pew at twelve o’clock mass then went to my grandmother’s for dinner, same as we did when my father still lived with us. But Sundays and Wednesdays weren’t the only times I got to see him. Sometimes he’d stop by the house and take us all to the movies or a Pirates game under the lights at Forbes Field, my mother included. Or else I’d run into him on East Ohio Street as he was heading into Brinkman’s saloon, or coming out, and we’d both be a little embarrassed, and he’d slip me a quarter out of guilt.
After we started eating supper, my father said, “The reason I was asking about Saturday, Charlie, I was wondering if you could come along with me on my route?”
“Pretty much. I’ll have you home by three-thirty, four o’clock the latest.”
I hesitated, trying to think of an excuse, then I said okay. He had never asked me to go with him before.
Tina, who was eight, said, “How come Charlie gets to go to work with you and you never take me?”
“I’ll take you real soon,” my father said.
“Soon. Scout’s honor.” He raised two fingers to seal the oath.
My mother said, “Why do you want Charlie to go with you?”
My father lifted one shoulder and let it fall. “I got a lot of deliveries. I could use his help, is all.”
“You’re going up to the Hill District, aren’t you?”
He shrugged the same shoulder again and my mother let out a deep sigh. We lived on the North Side of Pittsburgh; the Hill District was one of the colored sections of the city. Twice in past year thieves in the Hill District had broken into my father’s truck. They’d stolen only clothes, which were mostly covered by insurance, but my mother was worried that my father might get mugged and she thought he should stop going there entirely.