“Deep Clean”

I never considered myself the pressure washer type until my neighbor said buying a pressure washer was the best decision he ever made. He was straddling the dry patch of grass separating the sidewalk from the curb while his mutt vibrated shit. He wore flip flops and patriotic shorts. Covering his hands were yellow plastic bags. Sometimes you saw him seeding his lawn or patrolling the playground with a garbage grabber. It was that kind of neighborhood. People cared.

“Literally changed my life,” my neighbor said, “You should get one. Clean this place up in a jiff.”

“I don’t know. Seems wasteful. All that water.”

“On the contrary. You’re actually saving water compared to conventional hose cleaning.”

“Not if you don’t own a hose.”

My neighbor massaged his jaw like he’d just been punched. “Can’t disagree there. But it sounds like you’ve got bigger problems amigo.”

He was right. The state of the siding ranked low on my list. But maybe that was his point. Start small, work your way up. Maybe a little momentum would do me some good.

That afternoon, after browsing the selection at Domestic Depot, I settled on an all-terrain Blast-O-Matic. There were cheaper models, but the sales associate sold me on the industrial steamer, the lifetime guarantee. “Excellent choice,” she said before filling my cart with valves, chords, and assorted accessories. At the register, she clapped my shoulder like I had just joined a secret club, a clandestine society that required a rain suit and a mask and eight hundred and forty-three dollars. I suspect she was working on commission.

Back home, I started with the stoop, where moss and bird droppings had accumulated over the years. Within minutes, the concrete turned from brown to green and finally grey. The steps hadn’t looked that clean since we first moved in. Next came the front façade. I worked from top to bottom, as the manual suggested, sliding my stepladder along the hedges. Mist steamed my safety goggles as waves of grime disappeared into the mulch. Gone too were the dark crevices on the deck, cobwebs clinging to the foundation. From the doors to the shutters to the tattered awning, everything gleamed, even the storm windows. The manual advised against pressure washing windows, but sometimes manuals prevent genius. Never before could I see so clearly into or out of the basement.

Propelled by my progress, I pressure-washed the roof, the weathervane, the gutters inside and out. The garage. Swing set. Sewer head. The retaining wall responded well, but when I pressure-washed the birdhouse, a pair of purple martins dive-bombed my head, pecking and cawing with hopeless fury. After taking cover in the kitchen, I realized how dirty the floors had become. A hypnotic buzz filled my ears as I attacked the tile, the sticker-stained fridge. Solution tickled my nostrils in the bathroom, where the caulking, now toothpaste white, contrasted further imperfections. Hardwater on the showerhead, stray hair hanging from the caddy, dried play-dough glued to the heating grate—look closely enough and every surface reveals its residues, evidence of microscopic accumulations. Another point missed by the manual.

So: I pressure-washed spiders off the wall, scotch tape off the kitchen table. I pressure-washed gummy worms and goldfish from hardwood cracks, screens flecked with the memory of beetles and mosquitoes. I pressure-washed the ceilings for good measure. I pressure washed my clothes. My t-shirts, my blue jeans, my sweaters, my sandals, my winter jacket, the cycling shorts I never worked up the nerve to wear—hung the wardrobe on the maple out back, canceled every last stain until my neighbor found me blasting the upper branches. It was a beautiful tree, big enough for a tire swing, but last summer a foreign fungus ate through the canopy. We tried pruning, nutrients, but nothing seemed to work. Nothing, that is, except pressure washing.

“You were right,” I said when my neighbor flipped the switch.

“Hey can we talk for a minute? Down here?”

“Sure.” I untangled the hose, climbed back to earth. I told him I understood now, about the pressure-washing.

“Listen buddy that’s great. But maybe you could take a breather.”

“I haven’t tried all the nozzles yet.”

“Right but some people down the block are complaining.”

He handed me a thick stack of envelopes bound by a rubber band. Was he joking? I searched his eyes for answers. He looked older now, his hair nearly white in the porch light. A snowflake spun out of the sky and settled on the grass.

“People like you,” I asked.

My neighbor laughed without smiling. “I’m sure the missus wouldn’t mind a little peace and quiet.”

When I turned the pressure washer back on, my neighbor crossed his arms, said he wasn’t leaving until I gave it a rest. Then he cleared his throat in a way you might call menacing in a court of law. Not wanting things to escalate, I angled the spout at his ankles.

“What are you doing?” My neighbor danced in the spray. “Hey that hurts.”

After he left, I stripped down to my boxers, turned the dial to maximum strength. I guided the stream up my toes, my shins, the pale flesh of my inner thigh, watching blood and hair run in rivulets down my legs. It didn’t hurt at all. I didn’t feel a thing.

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About Edward Helfers

Edward Helfers teaches writing for the literature department at American University. His fiction has been published in DIAGRAM, The Nashville Review, Web Conjunctions, and elsewhere. His criticism and essays have appeared online at The Atlantic and The Rumpus. He is currently at work on a collection of stories.