“There’s nothin’ wrong with it. It’s a perfec’ly good shirt.”
It was a long-sleeved, white cotton shirt his mother was talking about. She’d ironed it so Jack could wear it to church that morning. But nothing could make him put that shirt on. And he didn’t have to say it. Just the pained look on his face was enough.
“Weren’t ya jus’ tellin’ me how ya di’n’t have a white shirt for your class pi’ture at school?”
It was true. He did tell her that, although he rarely complained about stuff like that to his mother. But he did feel embarrassed when he was the only kid in the class picture without a white shirt. He never felt that way where they used to live. But this was a better neighborhood, and all the kids wore white shirts for class pictures.
“It’s all ironed up nice for ya.”
It was very hard saying no to his mother about anything. It had to be something he had awfully strong feelings about. Because there was this almost overwhelming sense of duty and obligation he felt to her. It was something kids in regular families wouldn’t even know about.
All those times seeing his mother come home in tears. What could a ten-year-old boy say to comfort her? If he was bigger, he’d beat up some of those creeps at work.
He knew how she struggled to hold on to a job and raise two kids alone. How she worried about them in some of those neighborhoods every morning she went off to work. How she was always trying to find a better place they could afford to live.
But she was asking the impossible. She taught Jack to be proud and stubborn, and that’s just what he was.
It was one night last week that two people from the new church showed up with a big cardboard box full of clothes. He was embarrassed when his mother let them in. But really, what else could she do? Once you answered the buzzer and the pastor’s voice came over the speaker, you were stuck.
They’d just moved into the little apartment over a grocery and liquor store at 75th and Colfax. There wasn’t any bedroom. His mother shared the Murphy bed with his grandmother. His brother slept on the couch, and he slept on a cot in the dinette. They did just fine. You might even say things were kind of cozy.
At least they seemed that way to Jack after what he’d been through. In the old neighborhood, their apartment was just as small, but he’d spent the last couple of years just being afraid. Afraid of getting beat up going to school. Afraid of getting beat up at school. Afraid of getting beat up on the way home. This neighborhood wasn’t like that at all. He liked going to school now. In Jack’s mind things were pretty good.
But that didn’t mean you wanted guys from church around poking their noses into everything. Wherever they lived, they always went to church. His mother was just like that, Sunday school and church every week, but nothing like this ever happened before. Jack sat there mortified when they came in with their box of clothes. Did he look that bad on Sunday?
God, his mother even offered them coffee. He thought they’d never leave with their eyes, between sips of coffee and friendly smiles, carefully taking in every detail of the place. Probably trying to figure out how they all slept in there.
Jack swore he’d never be seen wearing a thing from that box. Nobody was going to be looking over at him in church, feeling satisfied about how they’d sent old clothes to that poor woman and her kids instead of throwing them out.
“Well, it’s up ta you. I’m not gonna make ya wear it if you’re dead set against it.”
Jack was dead set against it. Actually, if it had been up to him, he wouldn’t ever go back to that church. But that was expecting way too much from his mother. She’d never agree with anything like that. At least he’d show them he didn’t need their junk.
“Ya better hurry up an’ get somethin’ else on, or you’re gonna be late for Sunday school.”
Later that morning, after Sunday school, Jack sat, as he always did, next to his mother and brother in church. Again, as he always did, he sat as still as possible so he didn’t make noise in the rows of creaky auditorium chairs that served as pews. But he sat up really straight.
His face felt a little warm and flushed. And he was sweating a little, feeling nervous about anybody that happened to look their way. But he only saw them out of the corner of his eye because of the way he kept his head up, his eyes straight ahead. He was feeling fiercely proud of that stupid old plaid shirt.