William looked largely the same as when I had seen him last, except that he now carried a brown leather satchel over one of the shoulders of his suit. It clashed with his otherwise formal businesslike attire, and I wondered why he wouldn’t just get a briefcase or some such thing.
“Hello!” William smiled, his face literally glowing, evidently fully expecting that he would actually be invited inside this time. Was it hard on them to be rejected again and again? Did they feel frustration? I decided I didn’t care and shoved the list of demands into his chest. Glittering hands moved quickly to catch the paper and with no more than a cursory glance moved to put them into the satchel. Then William looked at me again. “I suppose this means you don’t want me to clean your house?”
“Yes, but I have more to say to you.”
“I am listening.”
I drew in a breath, “William, I want to apologize to you and the other Cleaners.”
William was impassive.
“I was wrong when I had Robert Cleaner killed. I don’t know if it means anything to you, but”
“Diane Wallace,” William interrupted.
My eyes widened and I took a step back, “I told you that’s not my name.”
“Yes, I’m sure you are telling the truth,” William said quickly, “but Christine has suggested we call you Diane Wallace even if it is not your name. It is simpler.”
That Christine. I thought we had been on the same page.
William paused. Haltingly, he tried to come up with words to express what he was thinking. “You – Your… conscience was … dirty. Now,” William lifted his hand in front of his face and moved another across it, “it is wiped clean. Diane Wallace, you are cleaned.”
This sudden, disarmingly sincere expression of forgiveness caught me off guard. “Why? I’m just as guilty as any of those men I called.”
William thought. “No. You were, but now you are a cleaner.” When I straightened he frowned :( and raised his hands defensively, “No, no, not like us. A different kind of cleaner. A… wrong cleaner. A… cleaner of wrong. You cleaned the Anti-Cleaners of wrong.”
“I” I started, bewildered, but William interrupted me.
“You stopped the violence, Diane. You are a hero to the Cleaners.”
Finally understanding, I murmured under my breath, “Oh, William.” If only Henry had been here to see this. Who could doubt now that Cleaners had souls? “William” I said, “I don’t think I could begin to explain what this means to me.” Tears were beginning to prick the corners of my eyes. “It’s just the right thing to do, you know? It’s wrong to kill people.”
“Yes,” agreed William flatly, “It is wrong.” Then he reached into his satchel, “I have something for you, Diane.”
William pulled a wooden disc from his satchel, about the size of a dinner plate. It had bark around the edges, and looked to be just a cross-section of a tree trunk. I accepted it and asked, “What is it?”
“It is a wood burning,” stated William.
“It is?” I asked. The disc looked like it could become a piece of wood burning art, but as it was it was completely blank.
“William Park, my mentor, enjoyed wood burning. He taught me the trade when I was first learning who I was. Naturally I set it aside when I started work as it served no purpose.” William paused to give me an opportunity to say something. When I said nothing, he continued. “During the few days recently when we were expected to have hobbies or otherwise be individualistic I decided I would pick up wood burning again. Of course, I did not simply mimic my mentor’s styles but found my own leadings.”
I saw where this was going. “This is a clean wood burning.” I said, pursing my lips.
“Yes!” beamed William :D, “It is not only the cleanest and therefore most beautiful design, but it is also the most economical. I found I could purchase as many wood burning bases as I liked and decorate them all almost instantaneously. I suspect that it was among the most efficient of the hobbies my peers and I developed during that time.”
“Ok, William.” I said as politely as I could, “Thanks for the gift.”
“One more thing,” said William, “As thanks for your help, we want to let you know that you will never have to pay for service from any Helper.”
“Yes, now that we Cleaners are a phenomenal success, our brand is being expanded into other realms of service, such as landscaping and construction work. Collectively, we will be known as ‘Helpers.'”
“You could send someone to water my plants?” I asked. “My outdoor plants?” I clarified.
“Yes, and I’d also be happy to clean your house at no charge.”
“Nice try, William.” Abruptly I remembered what I was supposed to be doing, “I want to call a meeting with the Cleaners.”
“You can submit concerns to Cleaner Corporate at http://www.thecleaners.com”
“No, William. I want to meet with all the Cleaners. Not some people you hired. You. Christine said I could.”
“Oh,” said William. “Our lawyer Mr. Hyland has suggested we make sure he is present at all such meetings.”
“Ok, William. When is he available?”
William’s face changed to a “…” and then back to a “:).” “I have contacted his secretary to schedule. Will you be able to get to Grand Haven Michigan?”
“Oh, uh, yes.” I stammered.
“Good. Mr. Hyland’s secretary will email you.”
Then William left. I watched him glitter as he walked to the sidewalk and turned to visit the Fletchers next door. I looked more closely at his wood burning. It was completely blank, just as he had said. Except it wasn’t. I ran my finger against the grain of the wood, enjoying its rough, irregular texture. It was lightly colored, but I could see the faint rings extending from the center like ripples on a pond. A ripple from a single seed dropped into fertile ground decades ago. How William could look at this work of art and think only “clean” was beyond me. I placed it absently on my dining room table and sat heavily on my couch. I picked up the phone and dialed Henry, hoping I could get him to take me to Michigan like he had Wyoming.