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The Shirt

by Rudy Eiland

I’m sitting at the bar and there’s an old man and I’m thinking about my father, the grip of his fingers when he looked at me for the last time. He told me to get him some water and when I came back he was out of it, muttering scattered prayers to himself, dead by the morning with one last rasping breath. A little while before that, lying drugged in his white hospital room, he gave me some advice. Try to be a good boy; do what you’re told. He said this is how the young learn from the old.

Now there’s an old man with liquor on his breath; it’s not my father but I can smell the vodka when he leans close and mutters that we should get a table. His eyes glisten like the spit-shined bar we’re sitting at. His hand, old and gnarled like a dirty rat’s claw that’s pale and shrunken and wasted, rests now on mine. His face is covered in little white hairs and wrinkles, stretched tight on his bones like the pale old yellow shirt he’s wearing. “Nikolai’s Motors” it says, sweat and oil stains dripping down the sleeves.

I don’t know what to say. His stench is killing me and his bones are small and tough, digging into my hand. He’s got a big nose, white frail hair, no neck at all; it looks like someone smashed his head and drove it down in between his shoulders. Tongue darts out like a chameleon’s and wets lips he doesn’t have.

His grip gets stronger on me. There’s something familiar in all this. My mind’s on my father and I can’t do anything except agree; he stands up and drags me to a table in the corner, darkest one in the room because the light above it is broken.

He shoves me down and then sits on the other side, looks me in the eye, puts his hands together, knots his fingers one hand inside the other, and fiddles with a thumbnail. “I spill something on this shirt every time I wear it.” Tugs on one of the greasy yellow sleeves. “Don’t like it. Need a wash.”

I can’t say anything to that. I’m drumming my knuckles on the table, trying to get my eyes off a discoloration on the guy’s right cheek, where it’s gone all greenish-yellow underneath the wrinkles near the mouth. Makes me uncomfortable. I don’t think I heard his question right, so I ask him what he just said.

“Said I need a wash. ’Least my shirt does. You like being a janitor, boy?”

I’m looking at him straight now, my hands resting flat on the table. It was a family job, awarded to me after I was out of high school, passed down the line. Dad apparently assumed I wanted it, but I didn’t have a choice one way or the other.

I talk to the chameleon mouth. “I’m no janitor. Don’ know what gives you that idea.” I do know. Got a nametag on my shirt, stripes down the sleeves, “Blake Wash and Dry” scripted on the back; you can see it a mile away. The same on my hat.

He’s saying nothing. I don’t know what to do, so I start to pick at my napkin and tear it into little strips.

“Don’t waste a good napkin, boy. You know what they say. Don’t waste a good napkin.”

I’m quick to let it fall out of my hands; I look him in the eyes and he’s fingering one of his sleeves, not looking at me. “I tell you I’m no janitor, old man. I’m telling ya again. I don’t wanna hear nothing about it, either.”

I try to give him a mean look, but all I can manage is a grimace. He starts to laugh when he sees it. Sounds like a crackly fire siren; some people look over at us because it’s a loud laugh. He can see right through me. He knows I’m not telling the truth and he knows that if he pushes me enough I’ll do anything he asks. He’s old enough to know this. I duck down a little in my seat.

“I said I need a wash, I see you’re a washer, and now I want a wash and I want you to do it for me.” His voice is harder now, more persuasive.

I know he’s not really saying anything new, I know there’s no reason for me to do anything.

“Can hardly make it to the cleaners these days. The smell there kills me. You look like you wouldn’t mind the smell.”

There’s no reason for me to do anything, but I know I will.

He looks me up and down and wipes his mouth with his old rat claw. It looks like he’s smiling a little.

My voice is weaker. “What d’ya want me for? Do things for yourself, old man. You got no business ordering me around.” I try to stand up, but he leans over and grabs my shirtsleeve. Starts rubbing it in his fingers like a rich man inspecting the material of a new suit. He’s got an almost aristocratic look about him.

Not knowing what to do, I stand there and look at him a little and drum my knuckles on the table. I want to be rational about this. I pull my sleeve away from his greedy fingers.

“Why ain’t you leaving then, Joe? You wanna be called Joe?”

“Joe’s fine.”

“Why’nt you leaving, Joe? Something about all this make you wanna stay? Am I wrong?”

“Damn right you’re wrong. Don’t know why I sat down in the first place.”

But I don’t leave; I sit down again. Why do I sit down? I don’t know what to say about an old man like this. Maybe it’s his grizzled skin or the scratch of his eyes that’s sharp as nails, but he’s got something, and it means I have to stay. Maybe it’s just him. An old man.

He lets his hand fall on mine now; I don’t do anything to move it and he lets it rest there and his eyes bite into mine. “You gonna wash it, Joe?”

I sigh and it comes from all the way down in me, from the bottoms of my toes; it rises up through my body and out my mouth, it goes through every part of me moving like a million hungry snakes and comes out my mouth all full of me. I feel it through my gritted teeth, try to bite it and suck it back up but it still gets out and lives in the air, mixing with the stale and smoky air, floating around the room and I’m there in every corner of the room, living in every dirty crevice. “I’ll wash the damn shirt.” I think of the last breath I ever heard from him, rasping out as mine is now, stale and smoky in a big, dead room.

He leans back and lets go of me. His hands now are back behind his head and he smiles wide, his teeth yellow and cracked. When he blinks, his eyeballs move like lightning up into his skull and rest there a second after he opens his eyes. It’s a tic and he doesn’t realize that it makes him look like a great leering snake.

“Good boy,” he says. “Knew ya would. Now, question is, where you gonna wash it? Know any places, or can a good janitor like you use magic?” Laughs like a screeching ambulance, high-pitched. It seems to echo all over the barroom.

I wonder why nobody looks over this time; his laugh is like a siren. I don’t respond to his joke. I’ve got my fingers clenched together, one hand in the other, digging at the dirt in my nails.

“Know a place, sure. Rosco’s Cleaners on Twenty-First. Cheap. Give me some quarters, then.”

He leans his head back and rubs his palm against his chin, slowly. I can hear the low scrape of stubble against skin. He eyes me, looking downward because his head’s leaned back. “Think I got quarters, Joe? Hell no, I don’ have quarters. Looks like you gonna have to pay for it yourself.”

They get to a certain age where they stop paying for things, knowing there are younger people to do it for them. I stare at him for a minute and then push my weight on the table and stand up, keeping my eyes on his. I look awkward, standing there; I reach my hand behind me and scratch my lower back, pulling a little at the rough cotton shirt rubbing and irritating my skin. I keep looking at him. “What do you want me to say?”

He says nothing, his lips moving slowly into a smile again.

“I’ll pay for your goddamn laundry.” My voice rasps a little while I say it, and I drop my hand down to my side.

* * *

“Most of my days aren’t memorable. It all blends together after a while. Doesn’t seem to be much difference from one day to the next. Yesterday same as the day before, and same as the day before that, and same as today too. Memories of Tuesday no different from memories of Wednesday. Can’t tell ’em apart.”

The lights are fluorescent, beating down into me and giving me a headache. The smell of the place is strong as it always is; it’s a thousand different cleaners all mixed together in the air, chemicals making me dizzy.

The old Japanese guy is putting me to sleep. He’s been rambling for a while and I don’t know what he’s talking about. He’s got big cloudy glasses that he has to push back up every once in a while. Staring off into space, he sorts clothes into two big brown boxes with reflexive, flawless movements. I can tell he’s done it a million times before. He doesn’t stop talking; all he has is his words and the laundry.

The old man’s shirt is in the dryer. I’ve been here an hour, and the shirt’s almost done. When I took it out of the washer, it was fresh-smelling, but the deep sweat stains weren’t gone. I figured he better get used to them. I don’t want to do any more favors.

He’d given me the shirt in the bathroom, taking it off in front of me and handing it over; it smelled like he did, like sweat and oil and vodka, like a deathbed. He had white hair on his chest, shriveled, sunken skin, deep scars all over him as though he’d been whipped. He said he wanted to get some reading done and stepped into the stall. Said he’d wait for me there, and I better make the shirt smell good. He’s waiting there now.

No more favors. I decided that the minute I put his shirt in the wash. Enough. Time to grow up.

And it’s done. Can’t do anything now except take it out; I pull open the door and feel the scalding steam run over me like a breath. The shirt’s hot, still wrinkled, sweat stains never going to disappear. It’s gonna have to suit the old man, because I’m sure as hell not doing anything else for him. Now that he’s not here, I know it. I’m sure as hell not doing anything else for him.

The Japanese guy keeps talking as I’m leaving, but I stop listening. “Same as before, it’s all the same, just the same again. Can you find anything in all this? Can you find...” He goes on and on. The sound trails off.

Outside the night goes on and on; I feel the cold rushing over me, I can feel it everywhere. The bar’s just a couple blocks away and I’m almost there. I clutch the shirt up close, not wanting to drop it and get it dirty and have to wash it again. No more favors. Got to live my own life.

The bar’s the same as before, quiet as always, shady people sitting in the corners. Drunks at the bar. I walk past it all and find the bathroom with its dirty scratched door, “Men” sign hanging sideways. Push it open and I get hit by white, all of it dead blankness, staring me in the face. No marks; it’s as though someone wiped all the walls down, or blew away all the dirt with some strong deep breath.

And there on the floor, looking like a dead body, grinning like a dead body, chameleon mouth half open, is the old man clutching an empty bottle. I can see the white wrinkles still tearing up his face all over, his eyes sharp-biting because they’re nothing but two pieces of broken greased glass, vodka in his eyes, dripped all over his shirtless body. I can smell it like a swamp of sin. His eyes fixed, greedy; I can tell he can’t stand up. One hand is scraping the ground, trying to push some weight, but it can’t move an inch.

“You empty that bottle, old man? Thought you were going to read.” I’m walking closer to him. Soon I’m right by his side; my foot slides on wetness.

“Gimme my shirt,” he mutters. I can hardly understand him, his voice rasping in the strain. He’s got spit dripping down the sides of his mouth, a bloody spot on his forehead. He probably fell down. Eyes are like hell, blood dripped into them. He’s dirtier than when I saw him before, not able to move, short quick breaths hissing from his mouth. Wasn’t like this before. I can see the energy gone out of him, the command gone out of him.

“What shirt?” I look straight down on him, our eyes level; I could spit on his face. “This shirt?” I’m holding it over him, a foot and half above his face. This is good. I know he can’t get it. I can see him try.

He struggles, drunken frustration in every wrinkle. “Ya bassard,” he mutters.

But it’s my turn to be above. His eyes are getting hazier. I start to smile.

“Is there a problem here?” Voice behind me. I turn and it’s the bartender at the door. He’s always been a calm guy; I always liked him. His eyes are sharp, looking across the room at me standing over the old man, dangling the shirt over him. A second later: “What’s going on here?”

I look back at the old man. Eyes closed. He’s splayed out on the ground, the bottle in his hand resting against his hip now, mouth open wider. His nose has started to bleed. I’m back again. I’ve been here before. Every breath could be his last.

I look around the room. Bright white walls. Blank and clean. Too clean. I could pound on these walls like hell and never get a thing from it; they’d always be cold and silent, watching me struggle. Old, young, a man feels like nothing in a place like this. When you’ve got the rest of your life and that means sixty years, that’s one thing; but when you’ve got the rest of your life and that means a few minutes, a man feels like nothing in a place like this.

The bartender is still looking at me, waiting for a response; his hand is holding the door, light in his eyes, jagged light.

I look down at the old man and I see it. I don’t have to do anything for him. Not anymore. He’s far gone now. But a man feels like nothing in a place like this.

He told me to do things for him, and I can’t help doing them. This is how the young learn from the old. This is what they tell us; and for a long time we’re resentful. But after a while something seems to fade away, gone out into the cold night air. I’ll wash his shirt, and I’ll get him water too. I’ll do things for him even when his throat is too clogged with blood to tell me to.

“There’s no problem, sir.” Let the hand with the shirt fall to my side. “This old guy’s got a nosebleed.” I drop to my knees and wipe the shirt over his face, wipe away the blood and sweat and oil and vodka and dirt, wipe it till his face is dry and shining with fever. The shirt is dirty again. He breathes slowly.

I look back up at the bartender, and I gesture downward, motioning with the shirt. “Old man just needs to wash his face.”

Copyright © 2009 by Rudy Eiland

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