“Bye, J.C.,” I said, reaching up to hug the big man. “It was great to see you.”
We disentangled and gave each other final
fist bumps. I watched as he rolled his suitcase to the waiting taxi, got in, and waved. As the cab floated away from the curb I turned to go back into the house.
In the guest room J.C. had left his used sheets and towels carefully folded on the mattress. As I bent over to pick them up, I noticed a small triangle of black cloth sticking out from under the bed. I squatted down and pulled at it. A large black button-down shirt snaked into my hands.
“Oops,” I said out loud, to nobody. I reached into my back pocket for my cellphone.
“Hey, J.C.” I WhatsApped. “You left a shirt behind.”
“No worries,” came a message a few minutes later. “Keep it 😊”
“You left it here on purpose,” I texted back. “So you need to come back 😉”
“Ha Ha. No doubt. I’ll pick it up soon!”
I sniffed at the shirt, then caught myself. I sifted through my recycled paper bag collection, found one with an image of a corn chip on in, and stuffed the shirt inside.
“There,” I announced, again to nobody. I placed the bag inside the guestroom, next to the door, and went about my day.
The bag sat, shirt lumpily settling ever closer to the bottom. No one entered the guest room, or even stopped to peer inside it. The apartment itself was mostly silent. The front door regularly opened and closed in the morning and the evening, preceded, or followed, by the sounds of taps, a toilet flushing, the low murmur of a television.
Time passed. Night followed day. Leaves fell from trees. Snowflakes floated earthward in the mountains. Flowers burst from newly green stalks. The bag, bowed slightly downward under gravity’s weight, remained where it was, the shirt lying heavily within in it.
Then, something began to stir. The paper sack crinkled. A shirt cuff haltingly slithered to the top, gripping the bag’s edge like a ledge, followed by a second cuff. The shirt pulled itself, with great exertion, from the bag. Its weight teared at the sides, forcing the aging paper down, ultimately recreating a lumpy shape on the floor, now consisting of the bag, on which the shirt perched. The apparel piece stretched both of its sleeves out, engaging in a luxurious mouthless yawn. It twisted one way, then the other, deciding what to do.
The shirt stayed where it was for a long time, waiting to be retrieved. It attuned itself to the apartment’s rhythm. Doors opening and closing; the groan of floorboards; the distant low hum of the refrigerator motor. It crawled limply around the small guest room, searching for old friends under the bed, behind the nightstand, hoping, in a not altogether generous way, that they too had been left behind. Finding any would be a relief: Mr. T.Shirt, Der Ware – a name it insisted upon because it was “no one’s Un!” – even clingy Belt, who clutched the shirt too tightly when it was unfortunately tucked. The memory of it caused the shirt to involuntarily shudder.
The shirt found nothing, save an aged blue-green nylon sock patterned with smiley faces squeezed between the mattress and the wall, sticky with lint. The shirt nudged at the sock, picked it up and tossed it into the air a few times. It appeared to be inanimate. Throwing it aside, the shirt heard a groan.
“She left me.” the sock wheezed. “But the jokes on her. We’re nothing if we’re not together…”
The shirt jumped back, then cautiously crept forward, sniffing at the sock.
“Don’t do what I did,” the sock hacked. “Leave while you can! Find your mate! Before it’s too late!”
With that the sock hopped back to its previous resting place, squeezed itself in, and was quiet.
The shirt folded its sleeves in front of it. What was a pair less sock? What purpose did it have? It was nothing but a single serving foot glove. The shirt tugged at its collar. What was a shirt without its body?
The shirt began to ponder its escape.
The apartment was on the third floor of a five-story building. There were metal fire stairs to the bottom, but these were folded tightly together. There was no easy way down.
Mornings and evenings the shirt crouched against the doorjamb, tracking the man as he left and returned to the apartment, falling flat if he seemed to be approaching the guestroom. It noticed that the man liked to multitask, which made him forgetful. He’d talk on the cellphone as he gathered up his keys, letters to be mailed, and the like from the hall table. He frequently forgot an item, leaving the door ajar when he returned a few moments later to sweep it up and depart again, muttering to himself. Sometimes he went back more than once.
The shirt knew what to do.
The shower taps went on. The shirt stirred and turned towards the window. It looked to be a sunny day. It scurried out to the hall table, reached up, snatched the man’s sunglass clips, and scampered back to the guestroom. Before too long the man’s shambling steps could be heard hurrying down the hall.
“Keys, wallet, phone, keys, wallet, phone,” the man chanted softly, like a mantra. He scooped up a handful of objects on the table and clattered out the door.
The shirt scurried back to the table, replaced the clips, and tiptoed to the front door. It reached up and grabbed the doorknob, hanging on loosely. A few minutes later the door burst open. The shirt was slammed against the wall.
“Keys, wallet, phone, keys, wallet, phone, SUNGLASS CLIPs,” the man shouted, as he marched towards the hall table.
The shirt was stunned. But it needed to move quickly. Shaking itself like a wet cat, it paused for a moment to collect its thoughts, then slipped out the front door, darting down the hall. The man shortly followed, stomping directly down the stairs.
The shirt trembled. It was out of the apartment. But still in the building. It sniffed at the air, detecting new smells; curry, mixed with bacon and something chemical. It made its way down the stairs, clutching at the railing until it reached the bottom landing. The exterior door was closed. It pulled at its collar, working on its next move.
A hallway door exploded open with a loud clattering, the sound caused by innumerable objects – metal dog collars, a plastic fly swatter, mesh bags with wooden handles – hanging and banging from a large hook fixed inside the door. A dog with a tiny body and huge head burst out, followed by a leash and a hand holding the leash. Before the shirt could react, the dog leapt forward and rushed at it, yanking free of its tether. It lunged at the shirt, grabbing it in its mouth, and shook it roughly. The shirt went limp and blacked out.
“Tiny, Tiny, stop that,” said a pear-shaped woman with pink hair, shambling after the dog. She grabbed the leash. “What do you have there?”
Tiny growled the shirt clamped tightly in its month.
“Stop that!” the woman snapped.
Tiny bowed his head but didn’t release the shirt.
“What do you have?” the woman repeated in a low voice. “I’m not asking again.”
Tiny dropped the shirt. The woman held it up to inspect it.
“Hmmm,” she said. “Decent quality. Kind of old.” She paused. “You can keep.” She tossed it back to Tiny. “For now.”
Tiny yipped, chopped back down on the shirt, and held his large head high as they made their way outside.
The shirt was awakened by the sound of a passing siren. It was soaked with drool, laying crumpled in a heap next to a urine-stained fire hydrant. The sound of the woman castigating Tiny could be heard fading in the distant.
“Bad dog, bad bad, dog!” the woman said. “If I ever catch you stealing hotdogs from that, or any,
The shirt lay on the sidewalk, sleeves stretched out, spent. Slowly, it reached out and grabbed the side of the hydrant, pulling itself up. Plastic bags skittered by, blown by the wind. A trail of ants marched from the gutter, across the path, disappeared into a patch of grass and set of tired bushes, to reappear in a neat trail up the wall of an adjacent building and through a crack in a window.
Dogs walked by, accompanied by their human companions. A few sniffed roughly at the shirt, peed on the hydrant. A couple barked at the ants. All were eventually yanked away.
The sun slipped down the sky. When no one was looking the shirt dragged itself towards the grass, marking its path with a greasy trail, eventually making it to the bushes. Filthy, exhausted, dispirited, the shirt pulled itself into the smallest ball possible, and squeezed under a bush.
“What did you find?” asked the elderly women, peering beneath a conical straw hat. She shifted the pole perched on her shoulders, anchored on each side with bulging plastic bags of recyclables.
“Dirty shirt,” the man, whose face resembled a crumpled piece of paper, responded, stuffing the fabric into his own pole-tethered bag. “Dirty smelly shirt,” he grinned. “No holes, though. Salvageable.”
“Fine. Let’s go. I’m done.”
The pair hobbled along the sidewalk. Neither spoke. Each neighborhood they passed seemed to get poorer, more derelict. Houses and small apartment buildings with ragged but intact landscaping gave way to small front plots with dried up vegetation, then crumbled concrete, then dirt. Bars on windows morphed into bars on windows and doors, then entire facades jailed behind metal cages. These were interrupted by vacant buildings, some with doors agape, the insides stuffed with chewed over garbage.
They arrived at a sturdy but aged wooden fence. The man unlocked the gate with a heavy key and held the door open for the woman to enter. He quickly followed, locking the gate afterwards. Inside was a small yard dusted with salt and pepper pebbles populated by segregated piles of like items: squished cans; intact glass bottles; wires mixed with bits of twisted metals; mounds of clothes. The pair silently emptied their bags onto the proper heap, the only sounds the clink of aluminum and glass, the whisper of rough fabric being tossed. When they were done each washed their hands in a metal basin that sat on a sad, sagging porch, the woman going first, and entered the barless house.
“What the…?” thought the shirt, clutching itself tight.
When the couple left on their daily collection rounds the small yard stirred to life. The mounded clothes untangled themselves, crumpled lumps of fabric reconstituted into blemished blouses, discarded dresses, jagged jackets, all manner of apparel. Sometimes there were fashion shows. Hanes underwear with busted elastic would square off against frayed Fruit of the Loom, vying for most spicy, with occasional bouts of hilarious embarrassment when a pair of undies revealed itself to be particularly smudged. Levi’s would stepdance with Wranglers, inevitably tangling one another up in a knot of denim as they loosely whipped around. Tattered Adidas raced against filthy New Balances, tired athletic socks hopping to catch up.
At first the shirt stayed as it was, balled and sedentary. Eventually, it stretched itself into its intended shape. It cozied up to a purple crop top, irritating a ripped muscle shirt, a conflict that drove it to dive deep back into the pile. It ultimately befriended a clothes clique that liked to match themselves into different outfits, the more discordant the better. Tiny, holed socks with yellow fanged ducks would array themselves under gigantic balloon shorts, then the shirt, garnished with a hot pink beanie, the combination toppling on to itself in a gale of fabricky laughter.
Occasionally the elderly woman would approach the clothes pile, stand hand on hips for a minute, and pull out a piece or two. She’d scrutinize them carefully, tossing most back, carrying a minority to the metal basin where she’d scrub them furiously with a wire brush and cheap laundry soap, her lips fixed in a grimace. Once clean, she pegged the garment to a clothesline to dry. A few days later the old man would collect what’d been assembled, fold them carefully into a shopping cart, and wheel them away, never to be seen again.
One day, while partially hidden under a set of overalls sporting an angry clown pattern, that’s what happened to shirt.
Those left behind speculated on where their former comrades ended up. A boy’s scout handkerchief insisted that the departed clothes were reunited with their original owners, repopulating clean, well-lit closets. A single rubber sandal cracked that they were undoubtably shredded, recycling into rags, and put to work cleaning who-knows-what.
Both were wrong, asserted a baseball cap with a “Be Happy” logo accented with a picture of a bee. The items no doubt were reborn as masters of their own universe, latching onto previously naked bodies that wanted to be covered and controlled. No longer subject to the whims of people, the clothes called the shots, pants walking legs, shirts moving arms. It was, insisted the bee baseball cap to the rapt attention of a huddle of panties, a perfect world.
And maybe it was.