Cloth Guy. Mr. Rags. The Cleaning Man. His turf was the corner of Summit and Spenser, and I would see him there when the bus spit me out at 8:45, and again when it swallowed me at 6:15. He’d always be there with his frown and grimacing smile, and a pillow case close to hand filled with towels and T-shirts. He scoured the city — the light posts, the mailboxes, the vending machines selling porn newspapers — moving his cloth in fast figure-eights.
After a year watching, I could no longer contain my manners or curiosity, and I approached him. “Do you think you’ll ever get it clean?”
He was on his hand and knees, giving the sidewalk a go. “There’s a clean city beneath this one,” he said. “I’ll find it, eventually.”
I knew my history. Before the financial district grew up around here, this was Butcher’s Row. Offal floated down the hill on rivers of blood. And before that, during the great cholera epidemic, the settler’s colony chose this place to bury their dead. Armed patrols were posted to prevent famished dogs from digging up the bodies. This part of the city had never been clean.
“Long time ago, it was clean,” Mr. Rags said, anticipating my objections. His cloth made tight little figure-eights. “Nobody remembers anymore, because the dirt’s covered it all up. You people track it all over the place, tromping around like Mongol hordes over the steppe. We can never have nice things.”
My bus pulled up to the curb with a concert of hisses and squeals, and the doors accordioned open. Mr. Rags looked up at me, his hand still in motion. “It’d go faster if you helped.”
“Can’t,” I said. “PTA meeting tonight.” “What about tomorrow?”
“Dance recital. Or is it gymnastics? I can’t remember. It’s always something.” I stepped onto the bus.
“Isn’t it, though?” he said, pleasantly enough.
The bus doors shut with a slap of rubber, and I waved at him through the glass. He lifted his rag to wave back, and on the sidewalk, where he’d been polishing, a dime-sized spot of something bright as gold caught the lowering sun. I tried to rub the light from my dazzled eyes as the bus pulled away.
That night I dreamed. I can’t tell you what I saw in my dream, what happened in it, because the images and memories had fled by the time I lifted my head from the pillow. I do know that, as I brushed my teeth, I kept looking into the mirror, as if I maybe I could see something better behind it, and I felt like crying.
The next morning Mr. Rags was at work in the same place. The little spot of brilliance that I’d seen the previous evening was gone. If anything, the sidewalk was now dirtier than ever. He saw me watching him. “Thursdays are the worst,” he said. “Or maybe it’s Tuesdays.”
I could think of nothing to say. The gold light had been so pure.
He nodded with his chin towards his pillow case of rags. “Sure you won’t help?”
I checked my watch. My bus had run late. It was 9:02. “Budget report due before lunch,” I said.
He shrugged and smiled, returning to work, making his little infinity patterns.
And I stood there for another hour before finally setting down my brief case and taking up a cloth. I started with a bit of soot-caked, vomit-glazed side curb a few blocks away from Mr. Rags.
In all my years of effort, once, only once, have I seen a brief glimmer of rich, honey-colored light shining through. It was enough. Every day, when the bus comes and exhales grime on my labors, I pick up another cloth and begin anew.
Greg van Eekhout has sold fiction to Asimov’s Science Fiction, Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Starlight 3, Strange Horizons, and a number of other short story markets. He lives in Tempe, Arizona, where he is currently working on a novel. “Clean City” came about during an eight-day span in which Greg was writing a short-short a day, some of which he’d gathered in a suite called Tales From the City of Seams. He felt “Clean City” stood well enough on its own that he separated it from its litter mates and forced it to fend for itself. Fortunately for him and the story, Christopher Rowe and Gwenda Bond took it in for their fine zine Say…What Time Is It? Thematically, the story stems from Greg’s belief that there’s always cool stuff going on around him, only he’s too dense to notice.