Life, or at least the first one, started in some cotton field. Then came the pickers, the millers, the dyers, and finally, a trip to the factory. The journey was supposed to move on to a drawer, then a closet, then someone’s back, but instead his Makers stitched and rent him endlessly. He was a million pieces at once, then one piece at once, then a million once more. It didn’t matter that he was born of similar stock as everyone else, because somewhere along the line he was deemed unworthy, in a million different ways, and thus barred from whatever was outside the factory walls, allowed only to be worthy in practice. He’d get close, and when he felt complete, they’d hold him up by the cuffs and smile and laugh and throw him back to the pile.
The buying bosses from New York came down once for an inspection. They walked around to assess worthiness. They walked around some more and one of the bosses walked off to the corner, where he came upon the pile of practice awaiting the seam ripper’s blade. The boss reached down and grabbed him by the collar. He looked at it. He looked to the other bosses. He looked down again and hollered “Boy, this sure is a fun shirt!”
The boss’s grin betrayed menace but not malice—the boss hadn’t done that thing he’d done before, where he turned around, marched over to some poor seamstress, and bellowed at length about standards and traditions of excellence and discerning customers—so the seamstresses were relieved. Fun Shirt betrayed no visible reaction, because he was a shirt, but his wrinkles looked like smiles.
The boss’s company was in charge of the orthodoxy as well as the factory. For a century or so they had been clothing the right people and picking the right colors, and now everyone who knew what they were supposed to be wearing knew they were supposed to be wearing the company’s goods, if not exactly why. Their fathers had worn them, and their fathers, and so on, and that was good enough. For the company, the joy of controlling the orthodoxy was the joy of changing the orthodoxy at will. The Fun Shirt would change the orthodoxy and into the void would pour money and they’d keep the money when the orthodoxy resettled. Here was a new venue for exploitation, delightfully imperfect, and it would serve the company well.
The first stop on Fun Shirt’s freedom tour was New York, where he was trumped before a board room, his unorthodoxy extolled in a presentation with charts and figures and a finish of applause. Next, he boarded the first truck to Cambridge; he was so excited, studying etiquette guides and mentally preparing himself for weekends at Nantucket. He really had no idea what he was doing, but he knew he was going to slide onto the arms of the status quo, and he was more than happy to make the most of his opportunity.
Instead he slid onto a hanger, into a display, with signs and words and script and arrows. They approached him warily, because they had neither seen their fathers nor their fathers’ fathers wearing something like him, and so they did not accept him thoughtlessly. They paused and whispered and eyed and roved and roved away and back and this did not exactly feel like the status quo.
Fun Shirt did catch the occasional eager eyes, but in them were mischief. The others darted quickly away, and their hands eagerly scooped up the other shirts instead, the pinks the whites the candy-striped blues. The salesmen eyed the purchases and tittered amongst themselves; they seemed excited, and Fun Shirt surmised that the scoops were coming faster and more fearfully than usual. He was a bit disappointed, but acceptance now would be acceptance still; he went with the mischievous eyes when their hands gripped him because this was something, at least.
On campus, the others were skeptical of Fun Shirt sharing their space. But he joined them in the classroom, ignoring the stares, and he joined them at parties, ignoring the snickers. He was unorthodox, yes, but if he was among them it meant he was going to become one of them, right? It meant that one day the backslaps would become back pats and exercised in warmth, not jest, but he wasn’t quite sure. By and by, the stares became eyebrows raised and they registered not shock but not acceptance either, and the snickers never stopped and the eyes above his collar, the eyes he couldn’t see, still seemed to give off mischief, or at least that’s what got reflected and this definitely didn’t feel like the status quo.
It went on for years like this and maybe that endless parade of winks and nods was the status quo, but the other shirts, the pinks the whites the candy-striped blues, were always there and they just seemed to be there and their presence never elicited surprise. They knew his name, “Fun shirt!”, and they recognized him, “Again?” and “Again?”, and he realized that maybe he couldn’t just be. But he was on the precipice, he just knew it.
Fun Shirt came out of those years hoping his time spent across the river would translate into a place of prestige. The rest of the world knew where he had been, and doubtless they couldn’t see far enough to know that he hadn’t quite made it there. He thought he could use his hard-won recognition-if-not-acceptance to exist untroubled, unburdened. There were stories of shirts worn in offices, plackets wrinkled and cuffs pencil-stained, or worn cross-country, sleeves rolled up during negotiations, or smelling of an infatuation’s perfume and a quick launder before a wife’s embrace, or edges frayed and weaves exposed, seasoned with the proddings of grandchildren, and he prayed any of those fates would be his. He wanted so desperately to live mild-mannered and, if unfulfilled, at least above-average, to think that he had come all this way to do something that meant anything, anything at all, even if was really nothing.
He spent a lot of time stuffed in the back of drawers, next to his dreams, and he mirrored their compartmentalization, and he lived that way, balled-up and often forgotten. He was back in New York for a while but he never went back to the offices, to that board room. He remembered the meeting and the applause and it had been a golden day, clear as can be. The journey so high from such depths surely meant he was preparing for launch, and whole galaxies of possibility had seemed to exist before him. There had been stars in his eyes, and now he knew the excitement hadn’t been for him, because he wasn’t the point, his whole journey hadn’t been the point, and the stars grew dimmer, and he remembered the talk of the void and he felt like they had launched him into it for all the constant darkness and muffled signs of life beyond. He had the occasional scrap of employment on Madison or Fifth or Sixth, or the offices transposed to shorelines and countrysides that would bring him along like decoration, and they still called him “Fun!” and he still saw the mischief reflected and he knew that this was as far as he’d come and as far as he’d go, and he allowed himself to think this was just fine.
Still, maybe that was enough, to be good and better than those who hadn’t been to Cambridge; it was far enough from and close enough to and if someone was standing aways they’d have to really squint to say he wasn’t in the mix, so he filled the distance with as much pomp and bluster as he could. He knew he was above the railroad stripes and the denim and the heavy thick blues and the flannels and the geometric prints and the gargantuan sports logos and they could only squint at him, and he figured they couldn’t see.
They all came from the fields, and they all went to the mills, and they all went through the factories, but their seamstresses didn’t have to worry about New York bosses coming down and screaming and so their lives went on inauspiciously. Most of them only had one life, and they were living it just fine, though it’s true many of them hadn’t been to Cambridge. But some of them had, and they knew what they were and what they weren’t and they quickly made peace with it, so their years were as good as they could have been. And they left and went on to do more or less normal things and even the ones who hadn’t been to Cambridge knew that they were all, at root, spooled from the same cotton, grown in the same earth, and they didn’t need to be in any drawer in particular. Sunlight, moonlight, hamper, laundry, clothesline, and over and over and all that was just fine.
They disgusted Fun Shirt, happy with lesser lives. He knew they were worse off, just knew, even when he saw them in the street or at the Alumni Club, that everyone who knew better knew they were cut from different cloths, knew that his was superior and theirs a mere temporary, token mistake. But his supposed lessers could see it didn’t matter because they could see so from afar and when they were close they could see even more clearly and when they got close he could see that they could see and, even if it weren’t true, he lied to himself over and over and over until it became his quiet truth.
He kept on repeating the lie and found another shirt that spoke the same lie and they lied to each other and lied with each other and soon they had children, and they hoped the kids would be given more room to be their oddly colored selves, and he knew they had good breeding—he had worked so hard to give them good breeding—but still, they were unhappy. But maybe unhappiness would be their lot, listening for the lies and working to enjoy their lives of privilege in distinguished anonymity.
That wasn't going to happen, of course. It had never really happened for Fun Shirt, and behind the pomp and bluster he knew that, and he watched the looks in his children’s faces at homecoming weekends, and he knew that that they knew and he hoped that they would inherit his durable aloofness, he hoped that they would learn his lesson, that they would lie to themselves and call it character development, but they were awful liars. They disappeared and reappeared and disappeared again, and they were no Fun Shirts, and, no matter how much he lied and worked to keep the lie going he thought he was far enough but he wasn’t. And when he finally realized he was never going to be among the pinks the whites the candy-striped blues, when he finally saw that there would be none after him, when he finally looked down, he was scrap again, in a pile awaiting his final death and the seam ripper’s blade.
Melvin Backman is a black writer from North Charleston, South Carolina, though he lives in Brooklyn now. His work has appeared with Spook, Seven Scribes, and The New Yorker. He also has a newsletter about clothes called 'If You Pleats.'