The West |


by Henry Hoke

edited by Lisa Locascio

The day before the day before I bought the shirt I thought about buying the shirt. The day before I bought the shirt I thought about buying the shirt. The day I bought the shirt I bought the shirt.

I don’t know how to express the feeling of waking up and hating every scrap of clothing in my apartment. The day before the day before I bought the shirt I woke up next to him for the first time as cohabitants, face in the cold drool spot he was still contributing to, and got up and looked in the closet and had this feeling. Just hate. The closet seemed smaller with his clothes in it, and all my clothes were cramped lost causes. I put something on, something I don’t remember because I don’t remember really any other clothing but the shirt. I went and did the dishes that were left over from the night before, from our dinner to celebrate his moving in. I stared into the draining sink as it burbled its last and said, “I know.”

Work was six short blocks away, but I left early because there was a new thrift store between home and office and I needed to check it out. Hate sucks if it’s not at least the beginning of action. The world seemed a little smaller too now that he wasn’t living a few neighborhoods east, now that I wouldn’t have to get on a bus to see him, now that he was living in my bed or whatever, my couch, he didn’t go to work. So these six blocks were sort of going to be it.

The thrift store was medium-sized inside; you could slide down the aisles between racks but not without brushing fabric. The shop guy was more than ready to receive patrons, despite it being a few minutes after opening, and though I slipped past him without a “good morning” he gave me a friendly, standard “let me know if you want to try anything on.”

I wanted to try things on.

I just hadn’t found what yet but when I did it really was something, the shirt. It was completely hidden between two unremarkable, bulky options on the back rack and leapt out at my eyes. It was stunning, bright. A color I won’t try to describe but one I was immediately blinded by, and drawn to. I held the fabric between my fingers and pulled it from the rack, and as I did the shop guy was already at my service.

“It’s the greatest, isn’t it?”

I nodded, dazed.

“You’re feeling it, right, you love it? It’s the softest fabric ever.”

I commented on the color.

“It’s so bright. It’s so bright you could see it from space.”

I laughed in a kind of agreement.

“No seriously. From space.”

I took whatever I was wearing off fast in the dressing booth, and then the shirt was on me. The fit was great, but more than anything, in the mirror when I looked, I was one person again. It repelled the presence of anything else clinging, and startled me. I stepped out and heard a gasp from the shop guy

“I love it on you.”

Ducking back into the booth, I took off the shirt, put my whatever clothes back on, and tore out the door, mumbling my lateness to the shop guy.

Minutes later, in the office, I was just another someone of many at our computers.

I was close to a deadline on an article where I play the haunted levels of old video games, the spooky ones that are darker and full of ghosts or graveyards, and write about them. I hadn’t done much of it with all his moving in crowding my space and brain. Before lunch all I did was crack my knuckles and sit and play one level with a duck in it and then I wrote down one thing:

This house has an illusion wall.

After lunch I watched the first episode of a show online, a domestic comedy from the UK. My corner cubicle made it easy to do whatever, and I could always fold it into some content creation project or another if bothered by any bosses. I liked the greeting in the show: “How’s today, then?” Better than any US greeting like how are you or what’s up, the day as the central part. The shirt made today not another flat day, “textured” I was ready to say if anyone asked me, but of course nobody did.

We got take-out that night and I mentioned the shirt as we ate.

“You should buy it,” he cut me off.

I told him okay but I want to tell you about it, describe it to you so you can picture it on me.

“You should just buy it, buy yourself something you deserve it if you want it just buy it. We’re celebrating,” he said.

I don’t want that to be connected to this, I didn’t say.

The day before I bought the shirt he was in the bathroom when I woke up and for a second I thought maybe. But then he was back in bed with slightly wet hands. I was on my way to work quick with the light kiss he gave me resting on my cheek.

It took a lot of willpower to hustle past the thrift store but I didn’t have a lot of willpower and caved when it hit me that I hadn’t even checked the price on the shirt. I peered in to see if my shop guy was there again but it was a different clerk, so without embarrassment I went in and went right to the rack where I could already see the shirt glint. It was expensive enough that I wasn’t scared of someone snapping it up, and I could wait and get it as a nice reward for meeting my deadline the next day, sure. The designer’s name in raised cursive on the tag started GEN but the rest had faded away.

Back at work I played a full day’s worth of haunted levels, killed a lot of weird enemies and banged out a few solid fragments for the piece:

The haunted level is never the first. To prepare you there are rites of passage in sunlit places with grass or brick, monsters that might not exist in the real world.

Like most of them, this world centers around a giant house. Only the wealthy can leave lasting ghosts.

You love the haunted levels, don’t you? Where life is easy and full of pain.

As I sat across the table from him that night and ate his pasta there was a big thought forming. I knew I couldn’t just come out and throw it at him but the thought was this: sometimes when you make a big change it hits you that you actually need to make a much much bigger change. I knew he knew I was thinking about the shirt, he was probably thinking about buying it for me, but more than anything I knew that I could never wear it around this apartment. When he passed out I brushed my teeth hard, and yeah the bathroom sink was right there below me but I spit on the floor.

The day I bought the shirt I waited until I got off work, because I knew that of course I’d want to wear it out the second it was mine. The office wouldn’t accept it and couldn’t contain it. I drummed my fingers on the desk more than usual and met my deadline with this last little half-ass:

The whole game is filled with ghouls and mutants and aliens. It’s very early nineties.

I opened the door to the thrift store with a smile that said get the damn thing already, but when shop guy saw me I could tell something was wrong by his sour face. And then I looked to the rack and saw the shirt was gone. Shop guy made to mouth an explanation but then someone left the dressing booth with the shirt on, showing off to a waiting friend. The shirt looked dull and rough, nothing like the shirt I’d tried on. It was clearly not working for them so they put it back. I slid into the dressing booth and saw the tossed shirt on the bench and was dazzled again by the color, returned. I put it on for the last time.

I left my old shirt bunched on the floor and emerged. The shop guy softly applauded and took my cash with a flourish. The shirt was on me and I left the store and it didn’t hit me at all to head home. The brightness would totally blind him, I knew, and there was no way he could be happy for me. The world seemed small but the sky seemed huge. I could hear the scattered clouds and wanted to get up, to get closer. There’s always something at the highest point in the haunted levels, a treasure above the weathervane of the mad monster mansion or a ghost on the peak. I had to get there.

I walked up toward the park instead of down toward home and when I got to the convenience store lot the billboard above me seemed like a good start. I climbed the ladder fast and stood below the humongous dude faces, next to a big letter Y, a movie with no women in it. I could see pretty far over the city but it was still mostly buildings, including the one where I worked and the one where I lived and where he was, so I got back down and headed up six more blocks to where the sidewalk stopped and the park started.

I’d heard about the tower that people sometimes hiked up to, in a clearing at the top of the trail through the woods. I thought about the smell of him that was now my apartment. And then I was standing below it. A radio tower, slim and steel rising in front of me.

The climb was nothing. I didn’t even glance at the ground as I got higher and higher, and in really no time I was at the tip clasping the final rungs of the ladder below the spire. It was probably a great view but I ignored everything below and looked up.

There was something beyond the clouds and the fading light in the sky, something asking down for a signal, for my signal. This world I was above was way too contained for me now, too dull, I knew. They were coming down to get me, but there was no way I was waiting for them to descend through that entire atmosphere in between us. My hands let go and reached, I lifted off. My feet left the ladder and the tower dropped away.