First day of ninth grade, 1970, and I had this new shirt, a maroon and cream checkered polyester pullover with a pocket in front. I try to remember the pants, perhaps tan cords, bell-bottoms.
I missed the bus; schedules had changed, a mess. I threw on the clothes. My mother drove me. I entered homeroom late, and everyone stared, so jealous of the shirt.
During first class, when I tried to put a pencil into my pocket, I realized I had the shirt on backwards. I broke into a sweat, paralyzed. The kid behind me put something into the pocket. He didnt say anything. He didnt laugh, either, just slipped something in. I could feel its weight there. I guessed it was a marble.
I planned to hit the boys room and fix the problem, but on the way someone else put something in. Kids kept adding and no one said anything. I let it be, let the lump grow, fabric pulling at my neck.
Near the end of day a girl came behind me and whispered my secret, Pockets on your back. Her breath held a fruity gum. When I turned she was gone, into the crowd. I never heard that voice in school again.
I rode the bus home, the lump pressing me forward. I smiled and nodded. Its cool.
In my room I emptied the pocket like a Christmas stocking. The marble was actually a lead ball, some ancient piece of ammunition or a giant fishing sinker. There were orange peels, pencil shavings, used gum wadded in the foil wrappers. The gum did not smell like the girls, though, a disappointment. There were a couple erasers, a tissue, and a few folded notes. One said, DORK. Another said, TURN AROUND. And one said I love you, with a drawing of puckered lips.
I washed the shirt each night, and wore it every day with the pocket in back. I kept getting stuff. I examined and hid my booty in the trunk in my room. It was useless stuff but I loved it all.
The principal called my mother, so Id sneak the shirt in my backpack and change at school. Soon the sleeves hung to the ground, and the pocket was stretched as an old uterus. It could hold a basketball, which many times it did. I was a human backboard. Mean kids deposited dead bugs, dog shit. They tied the sleeves like a straightjacket. Still I hung on; these were the things I was made of. I accepted gracefully. I carried books, rotten sneakers, giant balls of rubber bands, baby dolls for parent training. I picked up trash around the school, bore its weight as the path to enlightenment. I became a laughing-stock, spine curled like an old man.
Finally I skipped school, became a scavenger, the shirt black with junkyard dust, the grease of alleys, but filled with cans and car parts and wire and newspaperthings I sold for coffee and a donut. I found an old outhouse in the junkyard, knocked it on its side and slept in it like a coffin, an old pillow in my pocket. Through the cut-out half-moon I pretended the florescent light was the real light of moon and stars.
There was a man named Red who ran the junkyard. I did his dirty work, filled his orders of bowling balls, hubcaps, hood ornaments, statuary. Red would give me a couple bucks and feed me.
One day Red frowned at my shirt, torn and hanging to my feet. Look, he said, puffing a cigar. Theres this girl. She lives deep in here somewhere. Metal shack. Anyway, she sews. Think she could make you a new shirt. If you can find her. Sometimes she sings.
There was barely a pathmetal and plastic tubes to crawl through, crates to climb, like a playground laced with occasional blades or propellers or glass in barbed wire. I struggled a good half-mile before the first hint of her voice. I could barely function with my pocket empty, so I filled it with bouquets that Red had made from beer cans. Finally I found her in her hut. She was singing Oklahoma from the school play. I dragged in, clanking, so filthy, but when she saw me she said, You!
I tried to stretch to my real height. You. I smelled her gum.
She held her nose over the state of my shirt. She showed me her fabrics. And said, Ill make you new ones, she said. With no pocket.
She showed me her rain barrel and told me to wash myself. When I took off my shoes I saw the I love you note, in my left shoe. It was worn, but clean and safe. I kept it there.
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