Clean Hands

Clean Hands by Claire Polders


He’s only a park gardener. Shaves, makes coffee, watches porn, wipes up the mess.

She’s only a traffic controller. Does her crunches and pushups, skips breakfast, curses everyone on the bus before charging out into the street.

They both love Johnnie Walker and unsoiled sheets. They wash their hands before going to bed—soap them, scrub them, rinse them. They don’t want the dirt and grime of life to defile their sleep.

There’s a kid, too, their kid, although they didn’t make him. He’s only twelve and already no good.

A decade ago, they had wanted a baby, which was difficult to grow after her hysterectomy. The adoption agent said it would take years before they could collect a cute baby girl. So they took the boy instead, seduced by the pitch that he was already out of diapers. His hair was dark—but so what? As long as they kept him inside, out of the sun, he could pass as family.

When the kid was five, he made prank phone calls to strangers and plucked begonias from the neighbor’s yard.

At seven, he ran away from home and trespassed into an office building, where he camped with a beggar under a metal desk. Together they wrote nonsensical words on the bathroom walls and unchained dogs that belonged to people.

On his ninth birthday, he stole the money he’d been given to get Johnnie Walker to buy a rusty knife from a classmate. The knife was later used in an attempt to hurt his adoptive parents who were about to punish him for eating an apple for which he had neglected to thank them first.

The gardener trims flowerbeds and prunes trees. It pays fairly well and the supervision is slack. The rosebushes sometimes die on him, but they are easily replaced. His problem in life is not the army of aphids or the stack of overdue bills. It’s the kid, always causing trouble.

The traffic controller points in all directions when the damn traffic lights are broken. She yells at drivers who don’t respond to her gestures as fast as they should. Her voice is hoarse, her legs, veined. If the schoolteacher dares to phone her one more time to “talk about the boy,” she will have to sue the bitch for harassment. She’s already wasted far too much energy on the kid—can’t he figure out how to make dinner on his own?

One night, the gardener and the traffic controller watch a show on TV about germs and contamination. It’s shocking how disease can sneak into a family and ruin everything. They start washing their hands more often, before each meal and after each whack.

Against parental orders, the kid plays outside every day, and his origins begin to show. His gaunt face could have been that of a refugee. No wonder he’s chased from the streets, forced to run down allies in his oversized jeans and threadbare sneakers. Scrubbing does nothing to get him cleaned up.

When he joins the deadbeats of the ‘hood—rappers, artists—he becomes committed to do each “don’t.” RESIST, the delinquents chant together, WAR ON THE FASCIST STATE. The kid travels through a series of misdemeanors from loitering to graffiti and worse. What are they going to do with him?

At fourteen, the riot police arrest the kid during a march against something or other—the kid is practically against everything. The uniforms deliver him into the hands of a juvenile judge who says, Speak your mind, boy, and defend yourself.

The kid talks incomprehensibly. About reaching out. About the comfort of poetry and flowers. He sobs. How animal cruelty needs to be fought by all means. How the toxic world makes him sick to his stomach.

His adoptive parents cross their arms and shake their heads. They silently retreat to the other side of the court. Perhaps the city would pay for some type of boarding school. Perhaps a juvenile detention center wasn’t so bad. If only the military still drafted boys like theirs.

He’s only a park gardener.

She’s only a traffic controller.

They have clean hands.


Claire Polders is a Dutch author writing in English. Her short prose was recently published in Mid-American Review, TriQuarterly, and The Pinch. Together with her husband, she wrote the novel A Whale in Paris, a kid’s book for all ages, forthcoming in May 2018 (Atheneum/SimonSchuster). You can find her at and on Twitter at @clairepolders.

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