Luisa Beltran


Luisa Beltran is a Latinx fiction writer who was born in Chicago but lives in the Bronx (New York City). By day, she is a financial journalist. Her fiction stories have appeared in Cross Bronx and Contact her on Twitter at @luisarbeltran

Mr. Clean smiled at me

“You’re going to die!”

“So?” I glared at Homer. “I have to save Scooby!”

I tried to get away but Homer wouldn’t let go. We were both dressed in our third-grade best. I pulled us both onto the front porch. It was early fall, that time of day when the heat has finally burned off and dusk is just moments away. The air looked milky with splashes of sunlight. It smelled of old leaves mixed with cigarettes. I could see him, Mr. Clean, in front of my home. He was smoking and shouting and growling at my dog. Scooby, a chubby Chihuahua-terrier mix, ran back and forth as he barked at the stranger in front of his house. “Woof! Woof! Woof!”

Luckily, a fence separated the two. My father put up the steel eyesore a week before for some unknown reason. The fence protected a five by 10-foot plot of grass that barely grew. Even now, splotches of yellow-brown tendrils poked out of the dirt that was stomped on regularly by me, my seven siblings, and all of my friends. It didn’t stand a chance.

My crazed neighbor grew more animated as my dog howled at him. Standing hunched over, Mr. Clean waved his arms like a helicopter, while he screamed and shouted in some unknown language. “Aaarrrgh! Owowowowow!” he said, over and over. Scooby, unused to the man’s craziness, went nuts. He began jumping up and down as he barked. “Woof! Woof! Woof!”

It was a standoff. I knew that something bad would happen if I didn’t take action. I searched our neighborhood for an adult to help. Only Mrs. Gonzalez, a cranky old lady who yelled at me all the time, was around. She hated me. Mrs. Gonzalez still blamed me for the death of her tulips. In truth, I stomped on two of the flowers by mistake during our Cartwheel Olympics last month. Scooby ate some of the others. I don’t know what happened to the rest. Really, I didn’t. Mrs. Gonzalez was so mad when she found the flowers shriveled remains that she yelled at my mom. The old lady didn’t have any proof, but I was still grounded for two weeks. They made me replant everything, even the dandelions. Mrs. Gonzalez took to guarding her flowers as if they were made of gold. I could see her sitting in a green and white lawn chair, fanning herself with a paper plate, as she protected the little buds that were blossoming. As if I would do anything to them. I waved at Mrs. Gonzalez, hoping she would help. I heard her shout in Spanish: “Go back inside, you little hoodlum.”

Yeah, there would be no help coming from her today. 

I turned back to my house. Mr. Clean was still there, terrifying my dog. No one knew this crazy man’s real name. He lived on our street for as long as I could remember. He earned his nickname because he looked just like the advertisement for the cleaning product. He had the same round, bald head as the ad along with the crazy smile. Our Mr. Clean often wore a white T-shirt and jeans, just like the product that stood on the grocery store shelves. Everyone – my sister, my friends and even the local gangs -- was terrified of him. It was rumored Mr. Clean killed the neighborhood newspaper boy, because he didn’t like the “bang” of the publication as it hit his front door. Homer hadn’t gotten over the disappearance of his dog last year. My friend still sobbed over the loss of his puppy. That was also Mr. Clean, we decided. It was known he hated animals and children.

I couldn’t let him hurt Scooby. I tried to pull my arm from Homer. “Let me go!”

“Rita, no. You can’t.” He yanked me back.

“I have to!” I couldn’t believe my bad luck. My siblings, those that were home, were inside. Maybe they were too scared, like the rest of the neighborhood, to come out. Everyone was terrified of Mr. Clean.

“Please, Homer. Let go.” Again, I tried yanking my arm. My buddy refused to release me.

I could only watch as my dog got madder. Scooby didn’t know the rule about ignoring the neighborhood psycho. “Woof! Woof! Woof!”  I could see his skinny, tan legs running back and forth, while his barrel chest (yes, he was fat and not just big boned) heaved from exertion. I’d never seen Scooby run so fast. I wondered if he would have a heart attack.

“Arrrgh! Arrrgh!!” Mr. Clean’s blue eyes bugged out as he growled at my dog. Who just got madder and began throwing himself at the front gate. Pretty soon Scooby would hurt himself or worse, bust open the door and attack Mr. Clean. This was not good. I looked at the front window of my family’s house. How could my brothers, who I knew were sitting on the living sofa watching the Chicago Bears, not hear the racket?

“He’s going to hurt Scooby,” I said to Homer, trying to get away. “My baby!”

My best friend would not let go. He was convinced the lunatic would kill me if I confronted him. I happened to agree with Homer. But I didn’t have a choice. I’d had Scooby all of my life. Every night the dog plopped his chubby body on my bed and snoozed. He was the bodyguard who kept all the night time horrors away. I was no longer afraid of the Llorrona, who my brothers said kidnapped bad girls who didn’t comb their hair. The Llorrona didn’t stand a chance against Scooby. It was Scooby who greeted me with kisses and happiness every time I walked in the door. Scoobs was also there when I got in trouble, which seemed to happen more frequently. My dog didn’t care. He never judged me and didn’t care if my socks didn’t match, or I wasn’t neat, or didn’t arrange my hair right. I was perfect to him.

“I have to go. Please, Homer,” I said. My best friend refused to budge.  

This was the 1980s and we were both eight. I was bigger than Homer back then. He would eventually shoot up to six feet with arms as big as Popeye. Homer was always strong and he was determined to keep me safe. I was his only friend. My buddy, luckily, wasn’t that bright. “Oh, my God, is that the ice cream man?” I said, my eyes growing wide. I pointed down the street. The only thing Homer loved more than me was ice cream, specifically chocolate. Every day, Homer and I split a cone and even now, with the neighborhood psycho just feet from us, I could see my best friend was waiting for the “ding-ding-ding” of the ice cream truck. He looked away and his grasp weakened for a moment. I escaped.

“Get back inside,” I said to him as I flew down the steps.

La Villita, or Little Village, was a bad neighborhood back then. Even now, it’s not one of the best barrios in Chicago. Once the home of polish and bohemian immigrants, you can still find bakeries selling kolaczkis or some restaurants offering roasted kielbasas, which we would eat with tortillas and salsa. Little Village was, and still is, the launching pad for recently arrived immigrants. The neighborhood of my youth appeared as if it was transplanted from Mexico. There were Mexican supermarkets, Mexican restaurants, Mexican music stores. Everyone spoke Spanish, everyone had a story to tell about getting across the border, everyone missed their families. The most crowded place on a Friday? The money transfer agency. We all knew someone that needed help back home.

 Like many poor areas, crime was an issue but it didn’t faze me. I thought there was nothing wrong when members of the Latin Kings, the most brutal gang in Chicago, would run through my family’s yard. I never saw who was chasing them. I just knew that this was not something to speak about. I didn’t complain when a low rider car sped up just as I was walking across the street and nearly smashed me to bits. Those things happened. I did feel bad for the kids in my class that used cardboard to line their shoes, or who had to wear their dad’s clothes, because they had nothing for themselves. That was life and I was happy. I had many friends, including Homer. His family was so big -- there were 11 kids -- that the boys would gather and sleep together in the living room. I was jealous of this. My family was smaller, only eight kids, and I had a bedtime to keep, chores to maintain and I was required to dress appropriately at all times. It was very annoying. No one cared what Homer wore. For our third-grade class pictures, which had taken place earlier that day, he dressed the same way he always did. Jeans and some variation of a white T-shirt. (It took me years to realize those were his only clothes.) My mother had picked out my outfit for this momentous occasion, a red dress and shiny black, patent leather shoes, which pinched my feet. Even my dark, brown hair, which I often left shaggy and long, she tied into a prissy bun.

I was in no way prepared to confront Mr. Clean. I wanted to look dangerous and mean. Instead, I looked adorable in my Orphan Annie dress, which had a white collar and a matching stripe along the waist. My Mom had carefully ironed the outfit the night before.

My shoes slid across the sidewalk as I rushed over to confront Mr. Clean. I tried to make myself very imposing. I was only about four feet eight inches tall and skinny. I stood up straight and jutted out my chin. I would go down fighting.  

Mr. Clean didn’t hear me as I sprinted toward him. He stood in front of Scooby and howled. “Arrrrgh!” Mr. Clean said as he whipped his arms back and forth like a windmill, one hand holding a cigarette. “Arrrgh!”

Scooby was going crazy. He was only about 30 pounds but he had the loud dog bark of a German Shepherd. “Woof! Woof! Woof!” Scooby jumped so high that I could see the top of his brown, furry head over the gate.

“Leave him alone!” I said.

I planted my feet in front Mr. Clean and place my hands on my hips. I glared at the psycho the way my Mom did when she yelled at me. I tried to hide my shaking but I was terrified.

Mr. Clean didn’t even look at me as I stood there, threatening him. He just stared at my dog for what seemed like a lifetime, but was probably just a minute. Then, he took a slow drag of his cigarette. He appeared to be contemplating his situation. This was the 1980s and it was still cool to smoke. I waited for Mr. Clean to do something. If he was going to kill me, he should be quick about it. I wondered if all Americans were like him. Did they slowly torture their victims? I didn’t know many Anglos. Mr. Clean was the only one in our neighborhood.

As I waited for my doom, I noticed an interesting fact: Mr. Clean looked different. I’d always thought him tall with large muscles. Up close, he wasn’t that big. Mr. Clean of the advertisement looked like a giant, with arms bigger than The Hulk. The man before me was about five feet nine inches tall. Maybe. Our neighbor was slim and wore baggy khakis to hide his protruding hip bones. It was warm outside and Mr. Clean wasn’t wearing his customary white T-shirt. Instead, he was dressed in a blue Cubs shirt. I could see a couple more shirts outlined underneath, which he wore beneath a denim jacket, despite the heat. I had a brother who often tried this method to make himself look bigger. My 8-year-old-self wondered what all this meant.

Still, I was freaked. I said a silent prayer to the Virgen de Guadalupe that I would live through this encounter. Mr. Clean was crazy, everyone knew this. The streets emptied whenever he came near. Even the local gangs wanted nothing to do with him. No one robbed Mr. Clean, no one messed with his house, a two-floor brick bungalow that sat splat in the middle of the bock. Outside of Mrs. Gonzalez, Mr. Clean had the best kept front yard in the neighborhood. His lawn was big, at least 30 by 50 feet, and very green. The grass was edged by a row of green bushes, that were always kept tidy. No one touched this place. Kids sprinted past Mr. Clean’s house in fear and even the gangs left it alone. No way would I do cartwheels on his lawn, which looked very comfortable and inviting. He was our goblin, the monster in the night we avoided. We told stories about his crazy antics. Last week, Mr. Clean, in one of his episodes, ran through the street screaming. He jumped up and down on various cars, braying like a rabid animal as he stomped on the hoods. (Curiously, he never inflicted any real damage.) He then set fire to a mattress on the sidewalk. The stink of burnt polyester wafted through the trees as the neighborhood witnessed his insanity. Homer and I watched Mr. Clean’s antics from the window of his living room. My friend whispered that he saw Mr. Clean burying something in his yard that morning. “One of the Garcia kids went missing,” Homer said. “It was Teddy. Betcha it was Teddy Mr. Clean put in the ground.”

“I thought Teddy went back to Mexico?”

“Naw, he’s gone. Mr. Clean got him.”

 What can I say? Mr. Clean was a known murderer and he was glaring at my dog in a way that terrified me. I didn’t want my baby to disappear. At this moment, Scooby was having a meltdown. He was growling so much that white foam was dripping from his mouth. I was just feet from Mr. Clean and Scooby wanted to rip his face off. The dog had always been my protector. Scooby kept throwing his fat Chihuahua-mutt body at the fence, trying to dislodge the lock. I knew that if I didn’t get Mr. Clean to move, Scooby might make it out. There was no way I would let this man hurt my dog.

“Leave him alone!” I said, again. I glared at the man, urging him to go away. “He’s just scared.”

Mr. Clean finally turned to me. I expected lightning bolts to shoot out of his eyes, or maybe a snake to slither out of his mouth. I searched for any knives, maybe a machete, in his pockets. Instead, the madman just stared at me as he took another slow drag of his cigarette.

“Go away!” I said.

Mr. Clean said nothing. He just watched me as if I were a laboratory experiment. My mother often said that “El Güero Loco” (crazy white guy) who lived across the street was likely haunted by evil spirits. She reasoned that he must’ve done something horrible to bring their wrath down upon his soul. “You can see the evil in his eyes,” she said of El Güero Loco.

I searched Mr. Clean’s face for something wicked, something horrible. What I saw was surprising. His eyes look clear and remarkably blue. His skin was red in the way that white people get after spending too much time in the sun. Stupid but not insanity. I was puzzled.

All of a sudden, he spoke. “That your dog?” Mr. Clean said.

I was stunned by the words. I had only ever heard this man shout and scream. His voice was low and clear. He spoke to me as if we were in restaurant and wanted me to pass the ketchup. The lack of howling and shrieking caught me off guard.  

I could only nod.

“You have him long?” Mr. Clean said. He put the cigarette to his lips, which were pale and chapped. His teeth, I could see, were white and neat, as if he’d wore braces when young.  

“What?” The question made me very nervous. I wondered if I told him the truth, if he would hurt Scooby. I planted my feet so I could jump on him. I would fight this lunatic to the death, I decided. I nodded, again.

“He shouldn’t bark so much,” Mr. Clean said. He looked around. The streets were empty, of course. Homer, thank God, was safely hidden behind his front door. “It’s not good that he barks so much.”

I didn’t know what to say. Scooby didn’t bark any more than other dogs in the neighborhood. “Okay,” I said simply. I remembered my mother’s words and searched again for the evil in Mr. Clean’s blue eyes. They looked quite normal. In fact, the person that stared back at me appeared calm. He was even standing upright with his arms down at his sides. Like a normal person. I even recognized the aftershave, Polo, that he wore. Some of my brothers also used it, which confused me more.

I was not prepared for Mr. Clean’s next act. He said nothing for some moments before his pink cheeks dimpled and he grinned. My mouth dropped open as I realized Mr. Clean was smiling at me. If I hadn’t known him as the neighborhood serial killer, I would’ve smiled back. He even looked like one of my teachers. Some of the faculty at my school, Robert Burns elementary, were Anglos. They often grinned at me, their teeth perfect and bright, the way Mr. Clean was doing right now.

“Take care of your dog,” he said.

It must’ve been the disappearing light, or maybe something got in his eye, but I thought I saw Mr. Clean wink. As if he was telling me a joke or a secret. Then, the grin disappeared from his face and he transformed. He began shuffling forward, waving his arms and glowering like a gorilla. He lost his straightness; instead he walked with his back humped over. I heard him growl and moan. Mr. Clean was back.

I watched as he galumphed down the street and wondered where Mr. Clean was going on a Tuesday afternoon. Maybe he was catching the train, or going to work, or maybe even a movie. Even lunatics wanted to see the latest “Star Wars.”   

As if by magic, the neighborhood came alive. People appeared on their front porches, someone started mowing their lawn, one of my brothers came bouncing down the front steps of our house. Scooby quieted down when he saw I was no longer in danger.

“What happened? Did he hurt Scooby?” Homer said. I was so happy to see my friend unharmed and by my side.

“No,” I said. I was still watching Mr. Clean who was lumbering toward 26th St, La Villita’s main street. My sister often caught a bus there that she took to school. Something didn’t make sense. I wondered if Homer had witnessed the metamorphosis. Even a child could see Mr. Clean wasn’t crazy. He was just play acting, the way Homer and I did when we played “Star Trek.”

“You think he might hurt him? Oh, my God, Rita, what if Scooby goes away like…” I watched as my best friend began sobbing for his lost puppy. We blamed Mr. Clean but we both knew the truth. Someone had stolen Homer’s dog. His family could barely afford food and hot water. Somehow, they had come up with enough money to buy a beautiful full-bred Rottweiler puppy, which they walked brazenly up and down the neighborhood for days. The dog was sweet, kissed everyone and loved kids. It would be easy enough to steal a pooch like that. Scooby, on the other hand, was ugly. His face was so scrunched up it looked as if he pressed his cheeks against the wall. He growled and barked at everyone. He farted so much that I could smell him half a block away. No one wanted my dog, which suited me just fine.

“Scooby’s gonna be okay,” I said.

“How do you know that?”

“I just do.” I paused, wondering if I should share my insight with Homer. He wasn’t that tough. He cried when I told him the tooth fairy was fake. “Did you see...”


“Mr. Clean ain’t crazy. He’s just…”


All of a sudden I felt a hand on my back. I could smell tequila mixed with rosewater. Mrs. Gonzalez stood next to me, her brown eyes peering at me. She was dressed in polyester pants the color of emeralds that she matched with a yellow shirt. Her steel-gray hair was gathered in a messy pony tail. I remembered her crying after her husband died. Everyone could hear her wailing and her never-ending chant of the rosary. That was six months ago. I figured this was the main reason my Mom didn’t argue when the mean old woman claimed I ruined her flowers. “When someone is hurting, we help, Rita,” my mother said. Every day, my Mom sent me over with some tacos, or a caldo, or something sweet to brighten Mrs. Gonzalez’s day. She made me promise I wouldn’t talk back when Mrs. Gonzalez yelled at me or called me names.

I braced myself for more insults. In my mind, I’d done my best. I fixed her stupid garden, I said nothing when she called me ladrona (thief), and even tried to comb my hair. I fidgeted as the mean old woman watched me, the lines on her tan face gathering like little fans as she studied me. “What were you doing with El Güero Loco?” she said.

“He was gonna hurt Scooby!”

Mrs. Gonzalez nodded at my words. “And you thought you could save him? You could stop this mad man?” She said this as if she thought I was the crazy person.

I didn’t respond. I knew there was nothing I could’ve done to stop Mr. Clean if he really wanted to hurt Scooby. But he wasn’t crazy. Mr. Clean, I realized, was acting nutso for some reason I hadn’t figured out yet. I was never in any danger. None of us were. I wondered for a few seconds why someone would want to act crazy, would want everyone to leave them alone. No one messed with Mr. Clean. Then, it hit me. In a bad neighborhood, this lone man had found a path to safety. I needed to tell Homer what I discovered. I envisioned afternoons spent eating ice cream on Mr. Clean’s beautiful lawn and endless cartwheels. I was about to tell my friend the truth when Mrs. Gonzalez said something weird, something startling.

“You’re a very brave girl, Rita. Maybe a little stupid but still brave.”

I stopped at the mention of my name. Mrs. Gonzalez had never used it. She just yelled at me. “What was he saying to you?” the old woman said. Mrs. Gonzalez was short, just a few inches taller than me. She smiled and I could see the gold brace around her front tooth twinkle in the afternoon sun. Homer stood next to her, also waiting for my response. I really wanted to tell them, tell everyone what I found out.

I was unused to such attention. I saw my mom point at me as she talked to one of the other neighbors. My oldest brother, who barely bothered with me, waved from inside our house. Even Scooby sat waiting for me, quiet for once, near the gate. This was respect, I realized. I’d done something no one else had accomplished. I stood up to the boogeyman.

“What did Mr. Clean say?” I said to Mrs. Gonzalez and Homer. They both leaned in to hear my words. “Man, he was so crazy…”

© The Acentos Review 2018