The Shirt Off Your Back

[set in a prison psych ward, two days in 1982]

I went to State U, see. Only for a year and a half, I’m not the studious type, but I was damned proud of it. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t cheap, and it’s made my life better, fuller if you know what I’m saying.

So one day I’m walking down the street and along comes this guy, looks like about my age, and he’s wearing a sweat shirt with cut-off sleeves that says STATE U right on the front of it. I stopped him, said he looked my age and when did he attend, and he says he didn’t go there at all. Said he bought the shirt from a street vendor at the beach, it appealed to him for some reason. I was sort of annoyed, ya know? Not in a big way annoyed, mind you – that sort of thing came later – but disturbed at why someone would wear a shirt for somewhere he didn’t even go to school.

Now maybe I should have known right off; the blue color was all wrong, sort of a royal blue kind of a thing, not the soft mellow blue of the real State U colors. But anyway, I asked him where he DID go to college and he says UC Santa Barbara, which I can assure you is one hell of a long distance from State U in the City, and in more ways than one.

I didn’t make a stink with this guy, mind you. It’s not the kind of thing to start a big deal over, after all. It’s his choice, he can go naked as far as I’m concerned, that’s his business.

Ya know, I wish t’hell they’d turn out that light, or at least turn it down at night. It’s been almost a year, and I still can’t get a good night’s sleep; every time I turn over, it wakes me up.

Anyway, the next time this thing comes up I’m on vacation in Arizona, and I’m at the edge of the Grand Canyon looking over and down, trying to see the River that I know is buried somewhere in the gorge, and there’s a woman standing on the observation platform a few yards away with a Boston College T Shirt and I was living back in Boston at the time, so I asked her if she still lived in Boston and she looks at me like I’m nuts. She’s all confused. I mean, I’m not even sure she knows that Boston College is in Boston, she’s so mixed up. So I said to her, “No, hey, I just saw your shirt and I live up in Boston and I just wanted to know if you still lived around there, or if you moved away after College.” Well, as you can probably guess she didn’t even go to BC, had never even been to Massachusetts in her whole life. And, she’s looking at ME like I’m crazy for asking the question.

“Ya shouldn’t be wearing the shirt if you didn’t even go there,” I said in self-defense.

“Fuck off!,” she replied.

Nice talk from a young woman, eh?

* * * * * * *

I’m glad you’re back because I’ve been trying to get this straight in my own head, when it really began in earnest, and I think it was in the fall after I got back from my vacation. It was late August or in September of that year; Sandy went right back to work at the school office and the kids seemed to start right in with classes almost the day we returned. I was out of work, just looking for the right thing ya know, and I’m walking back from the strip mall that was just around from my street when a woman pulls up in a van and asks me where there’s a McDonald’s. I’m telling her, there are a few kids in the back seat and I guessed they were hungry, and she’s wearing a sweater with a sailboat that says “Cape Cod” over the pocket.

I asked her where she liked to go on the Cape, for vacation or whatever, and I gotta admit, I had a feeling when I was asking that she didn’t know Cape Cod from the Bat Cape. I mean, I admit it, I was fishing for the wrong answer, which of course I got because I’m beginning to get the idea that no one, and I mean no one, has any ethics or logic when it comes to shirts and sweaters. They just wear any damned thing that they feel like, because they like the color or they borrowed it or something.

So she’s very pleasant and thanks me for the directions and starts to roll up her window saying that she never had been to Cape Cod, or at least not since she was a kid, and I really got mad all of a sudden. I had enough of this crap, ya know?

“Then why the frig are you wearing that sweater,” I enquired, but I must have been yelling because she startled backwards and stopped rolling up her window.

So I was able — oh thanks for the cig, mind if smoke it later after I tell ya what’s on my mind? – so I stick my arm in, over the edge of the window which is half-way up, and I pull up the pin and swing the door open. Her little white face went a helluvalot whiter at that, I can tell you.

I am suggesting to her as nicely as I can that she should take off the sweater. I mean, that isn’t a big deal, I wasn’t saying she should throw it out or anything. She was wearing some sort of a shirt under it, I wasn’t making any improper advances or anything. I just said for her to take off the sweater, but I must have been yelling real loud because she started screaming and then I was pulling at her arm and pulled her right out of the front seat. The car started to creep forward at that point, with the two of us standing on the curb and with me still pulling on her sleeve.

So then? No, no trouble finally. I realized there were kids in the back of the car, I jumped over and stopped the car and stood up and she jumped in and roared away like a bat outta hell and it’s the last I ever saw of her. Big woman, big shoulders, long dark hair, little bitty faced, scared as shit.

But I felt I had accomplished something, ya know? She heard, first hand, about how you should not wear stuff if it just isn’t true. That’s very important, and I realized that day, ya know, that not a lot of people understand that fact. Amazing!

I don’t mind talking to you, doc, because, face it, who else here will listen? But ya gotta do me a favor, okay? There’s a guy in a cell across from me, and he opened a package and it had a Notre Dame T-shirt in it. Sometimes, he just sits on his bunk reading the paper and wearing the shirt. So, I’d like you to take away the shirt. I talk to this guy all the time and, I tell ya, no way that dummy went to Notre Dame.

Then there was this woman, this namby pamby bitch in Gortex, a whole ensemble, she comes running past my house and her jacket is open and she’s wearing this T-shirt, and on the front it says in big black letters COED NAKED JOGGING TEAM. What does that mean, anyway? She’s fully dressed of course. Jacket, matching pants, a bra I come to find out, shoes, socks, watch, Walkman radio, the works. That mama never jogged naked in her life, let alone coed or on a team! What does that shirt mean anyway?

Well, by then it was later in the fall and I’d been seeing a lot of shit and I’m getting madder’n a hatter from all this shit I’m seeing. Coed naked everything. More people lying about going to Harvard than you can shake a stick at. Shirts telling me people visited places they never even dreamed of, or that they’re gay, or they’re horny, or they’re God knows what. Now, normal people don’t get upset by stuff like this, unless of course it just completely takes over the world and there is no place on earth to escape it, but that is just about our situation we’ve got right now with these fucking lying T-shirts, sweaters, jackets, sweat suits, whatever.

So I jump into my station wagon and I catch sight of this woman in the NAKED COED T-shirt about one block down, turning into a park where there is a path I sometimes take with Samantha and Todd that leads to a weedy pond with lots of frogs to chase. And I’m out of shape but it’s mostly downhill and I pull off into the small lot and hop out and tear down the path top speed, I’m wearing my sneaks so it’s no problem; and I overtake her about half-way around the pond in front of the tall cattails and, swear to shit, I don’t even bother to waste my good breath ‘cause I just know I’ll get that same blank stare and crap, so I just grab her around the waist and toss her into the reeds and go in after her and I rip off her jacket which isn’t hard because she’s still surprised, and then she wakes up and worse yet thinks I am after her sweaty ass, which is a joke, and she starts to thrash around and I have to give her a slug, which I do, and she crumples down and it’s easy, I just pull the fucking shirt up over her head and her limp arms and I rip that lying shirt from the neck into both arm-holes and I throw it down onto her stomach, and then I move it up to cover her jogging bra because actually she looks sort of bare; but the shirt is turned downward so you can’t see that bullshit printing on the front of it.

And that’s it with her. I didn’t touch her or anything.

I don’t know how that other stuff happened.

It must have been, someone else came down the path after I left.

Then another time this dumbass kid, maybe he’s fifteen, skin white as chalk, and he’s wearing a big green jersey, says “Boston Celtics” on the front, and the double zero – you know, “00” – on the back. So he’s Robert Parish, right? He’s now all of a sudden seven feet one half inch of lanky bony black man, playing center for the World Champion Boston Celtics, right?


Who the hell is he kidding?

Now you’re gonna tell me he’s just a kid, and everyone knows that he isn’t Robert Parish, and everyone in the world wears sports jerseys. Like that makes it okay or something? I mean, that’s my very point! That’s what’s WRONG! They’re ALL doing it. They ALL think it’s okay.

I’m not some nut you know, who wants to go out and change the way the whole world behaves to match his own sick, puritanical view of how things ought to be. The judge said so. The judge specifically found that I was NOT a nut. That I knew what I was doing.

I want you to remember that.

That is why I beat the ever-living shit out of that kid. To show them all, to teach them a lesson.

Him and that other asshole, some Lutheran guy with that “Italian Stallion” shirt. The closest he ever got to Italian was his salad dressing.

But I think ya know, I’m in here mostly because of a white sweat shirt being worn by a beautiful blonde who, I gotta admit, did set my heart aflutter when I saw her. It was almost Christmas now, and most people were deep into the working season, and looking kind of pasty and reddish but, this woman, maybe she’s thirty and is she ever looking tough. Real deep tan, like she spends her time in Florida or something.

So by now I’m moved out of the house. I couldn’t focus much on construction which is what I had been doing the last few years. I had a good gig going, doing interior work on condo conversions, easy stuff with no finished carpentry, but around then on some days I just wasn’t really up to it, and the wife got pissed and told me I was getting weird and I should take my act elsewhere, and she said she was worried about the kids and she even went and got a court order against me staying at home anymore.

So one night I’m at O’Hara’s having a few beers and it’s getting late, and like the old joke goes that ugly women always look best when you’ve had a few beers and it’s closing time, but there was this woman who was with a group of people I did not know, and they had a few beers themselves, but this woman was really a knock-out. So they come out of one of the booths in the back, and I’m only paying a little attention because you don’t want to stare, right, it’s not polite. So she comes to the side of the bar and gives me a little polite smile and I’m about to give her one of those return polite half-smiles, when I see she’s wearing this white sweatshirt and its stretched tight over her, uh, bust, ya know? And printed on it, and I am very serious about this, it says “JUST DO ME!”

How does she think she can get away with that? Doesn’t everyone have the normal reaction to that invitation? Or am I the only person in this whole bar, in this whole damn city, who understands what she is saying?

Now the police were called and kept telling me that it was clear that she did not intend to have her sweatshirt read and interpreted literally. And the prosecutor pointed out to the court that it was unbelievable that I conveniently assumed what no normal person would assume. But, I beg to differ.

And I don’t exactly like the way you are smiling at me and trying to hide it with your hand in front of your mouth.

Whoa, stop please, before you call the guard over, no, no just please sit back down and answer me one simple question: do you not agree that people owe it to be honest with each other in matters of normal human social interaction?

Me, I don’t even understand anyone who says they disagree, ya know what I mean?