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Getting Clean

Getting Clean
copyright@2020 will maguire

I go to church.

I generally sit in the last pew, trying to turn my grievances into gratitude. I fail regularly.

Last week this guy walked in wearing mechanic’s overalls covered with oil stains. His hands were blackened with grease. There is this large bowl at the entranceway full of water. Holy water.

I think it must have been his first time because he hesitated as he passed it. He took a few steps, then turned back.

He dipped both arms in up to the elbow and began scrubbing at the dirt and grease, like he figured washing his hands was a kind of prayer. Then cleansed, he rolled his sleeves down, found the girl he was going to meet and sat down.

And I got that old feeling in the back of me that I was watching something larger than it appeared to be.

In the early 80s I lived in New York City. That year a new and deadly virus, HIV, first made its way into Manhattan’s clubs and alleyways. Then in short order it climbed off the avenues into the penthouses. Before too long it entered into our national bloodstream.

In the city that year, after the deaths started, I can remember the growing rumble of panic. I could hear it in the eyes of everyone. It was all around us, and underneath, like an approaching D train.

At first doctors didn’t know how it was spread. And for a time everything was suspect. Doorknobs and handshakes, breathing and kissing.

Life continued, but at a slower pace, a kind of stumble.

Love didn’t halt, but first dates became interviews and every morning after dawned with worry in the mirror.

Longtime couples asked hard questions. Some were forced to come clean about their pasts. Some washed their hands of each other.

One morning getting out of the shower I caught sight of my back in the mirror. A series of deep purple bruises had appeared overnight. I called the doctor. He said come in right away. I did. He examined me and ordered a series of tests. Then looking away, he very quietly said, “You should be tested for HIV.”

I remember buying the Village Voice on 14th Street. Frantically thumbing through it, I searched for a testing ad. There was a place off Washington Square, so I called for an appointment.

I caught my reflection in a grimey store window. Then looking at my hands, blackened from the newsprint, I wondered how I would ever get clean of this.

I was living with a woman at the time, and I began trying to figure what to do if the test came back positive. If positive, I would have to leave. I couldn’t bear the thought that I might be the reason she would suffer. When I think of it now I still can’t.

My memory, the back of it, is still bruised.

That evening I sat her down and took her hand. I showed her the bruises, explained I would be tested and if positive I couldn’t put her at risk any more than I might already have. I would have to go.

She began to quietly cry, then whispered to me, “Please . . . no matter what . . . please . . . don’t leave.”

Don’t leave.

You think you know what love is. You convince yourself it’s the feeling, that tongue in groove certainty that comes suddenly, then wanes and comes again.

But that evening the thing I was sure I knew so well was swept away by something much greater, something towering left in its place. And there, in its presence, I felt humbled.

I still do when I think of it. I didn’t know a damn thing. I fear I still don’t.

God and me had gone our separate ways years before. At least I did. I hollered at Him regularly about unfairness and heartbreak and my modest share of suffering. The equivalent of a Facebook rant for the world being made of dirt and my hands, like the mechanic’s, muddied up to the elbows.

But the next day I went to church alone, and I prayed, not so much for me. For her.

And we were spared. The purple splotches were scarlet fever. In time, even the bruises were washed away.

These past few weeks the world has been reminding me once again that it’s mostly dirt. It spins up on itself in the middle of the night, leaving broken hopes and stained hearts.

I don’t really trust hope much. It’s like a cotton sweater. It used to keep you warm but it’s been washed out and thrown into a dryer so many times, it’s shrunk down now. Won’t fit. But it’s all you have, so you pull it on once more even though it has become ridiculously small.

But the people here responded, armed with their unshrinkable hope.

Some prayers don’t fit into words. They are spoken with chainsaws and shovels. They require some different kind of strength. They rely on muscle in your chest instead of your back.

And witnessing them, I feel that towering thing once more. It humbles me.

Getting your hands dirty may be the only way of getting clean. Being human requires you set the dirt of the world back into its rightful place. I suppose that’s the only kind of work there really is. Getting it back beneath your feet. With your hands. And your heart becomes a little cleaner for the effort.

A tornado of a different kind spun up these past few weeks. Quieter but no less deadly. The D train doesn’t run through Nashville. But lately I’ve been hearing that same underneath rumble once again. And I’ve been listening to it in the eyes of friends, in supermarket aisles and church pews.

Viruses can’t be seen but it’s hard to miss the fever of worry. Seems no one is left uninfected.

This is a place of many artists. But being an artist isn’t so much about color or sound or shape.

It’s about struggle, and seeing the beauty buried beneath it. So I think of that time and another virus, my hands dirty with newsprint, my heart in my throat.

And once more I feel it struggle, then break apart, exposing to me the towering thing I had been blind to. And the beauty beneath it.

This time, as always, there will be damage. And before it’s through there will be dirt under the fingernails of every heart.

There will be loss . . . some grievous. There will be struggle and beneath it, waiting to be dug up . . . beauty.

Wash your hands, the doctors say. So I think of the mechanic in church getting clean. And I think of my neighbors washing grief away with sweat.

Washing your hands may be a kind of prayer. So I do.

Maybe all water, like sweat and tears, is holy.

Maybe it’s the only way to cleanse us of those things we cannot see like viruses and doubt and the dirt of living.

I still holler at God, though not quite as much, and sometimes now He whispers to me in dreams.

It’s always something about dirt and tornados. Something about disease and hope. Something about how you wash yourself free. About getting clean. Clean from worry. Clean from heartache. Free from the dust in your eyes hiding what’s in plain sight.

And He always whispers...
in time, even the bruises are washed away.



  1. I saw your profile on and your eyes caught my attention. I read your article from March 20, 2020 and got caught on the phrase " could hear it in the eyes..." I enjoyed your article. nN


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