fiction by T. Jeremy Smith
“Oh my God,” Sphen said as he entered their bedroom. “Take that off. It offends me to see you wearing that.”
Kevin picked at the sweater, thinking a stretch here, a careful squirm there could master the garment. It was supposed to be a perk, freebies from his fast fashion office job at Coleman’s. But this monstrosity was beyond saving.
“I hate this garbage,” Kevin responded, dropping onto the bed. He pulled hard at the sweater, stitches popping as he wrenched it overhead. He let it fall in a heap on the neatly made bed. “Ugh, I wish I had a real job.”
Sphen laughed at him, gathering a sleek knee length coat from the chair and turning to leave. “Call Jennifer darling. You’re depressed again.”
Kevin slumped forward on the bed, shoulders sagging beneath a white T-shirt.“I am not depressed.”
Sphen came over and laid a hand lightly on his shoulder. “Darling you are. I told you not to quit therapy. Now I have to go to work.”
He bent and gave Kevin a quick kiss on the top of the head. Turning to watch, Kevin saw Sphen step out of the bedroom toward the stairs. One fine leather shoe slipped, Sphen sliding across dark hardwood. Quick as a cat, he corrected. To Sphen, it never happened.
“And please put the non-skid thingies down. You’re so handy darling.”
Kevin let his head fall into his hands. The T-shirt was another Coleman’s product. His boss treated every piece like treasure, bestowing them on employees in branded garment bags that lasted no longer than the clothes, maximum gratitude expected with every gift. The nicest part of the whole package were the wooden hangers. Kevin used those.
Brand new, the T-shirt was as bad as the sweater. A string poked out from the collar to tickle Kevin’s face. He pulled at it and five more inches came pouring out. Unknown forces compelled him to see how far it would go. He pulled until thread piled in his hand and the neck of the T-shirt loosened like a belt being unbuckled.
He stopped then, disgusted. He loved Sphen dearly, but he was so jealous: of his job with a prestigious fashion house, of his lean small frame and how everything he put on fit him perfectly, of the way chocolate skin glowed under elegant colors. Kevin looked in the mirror. He was pale, lumpy, with big, callused hands that never ceased to be callused even though he had left his Ohio farm life more than a decade earlier. Sphen had done it. Once, he was Stephen. But Stephen had sought transformation, and once free to be himself in the city, Stephen had ceased to be.
Taking the loose thread in two hands, Kevin easily snapped it free from around his neck. The ill-fitting sweater laid on the bed beside hanger and garment bag, a question tucked in beside them. Why did his boss insist on presenting their wares to employees with such grandeur? Staff knew they sold bulk items at bulk prices. If it were the grocery store, their clothes would be in a large bin you stuck a plastic container under. Press the button to fill. A paper bag or repurposed Wal-Mart plastic would have been a more appropriate vessel.
Kevin slapped at the sweater, tossing it against the headboard. It was not his custom to leave the bedroom in disarray, but he did today.
Mouse clicks and the heating duct overhead were all Kevin usually heard from his cubicle. Each click moved some quantity of clothing to a new distributor, tons of Asian made synthetic knock-offs of the week’s most recent trends landing in a mall in Omaha, so teenage girls could look hip no matter where they were in America. Kevin felt sick. He assumed it must be all the negative thoughts poisoning his gut, but the duct overhead was also spilling hot air down the back of his shirt. Starting to sweat, he stood and stepped out into the corridor waiting for the heat to stop running.
It still didn’t make sense to him, how they could hire one new employee after another and all the while he remained stuck in some far away corner of the office, isolated from the entire staff. He was part of a team. Why in three years had they not found a spot for him near his colleagues? Kevin’s hair was only slightly red, but he felt like the red-headed stepchild, neglected and abandoned.
The subject line on the email read, “Make a Difference.” Kevin wagered it was some kind of fundraiser. He prepared himself for the ask, guessing he would be guilt-tripped into a magazine subscription so somebody’s kid could take a band trip to Florida.
Your products are murder. Are you aware of the chemicals being used? They cause cancer, birth defects. And what about the working conditions for those producing your cheap goods? If you don’t care about people outside of your country, consider how you exploit Americans. You know these goods do not hold up. They are poorly manufactured, intended to be disposable, and they bleed money from unsuspecting consumers. Worst of all, they contribute millions of tons of waste to land fills every year. Consider your actions. There will be consequences.
Kevin looked at the sender, some strange arrangement of numbers and letters that had no significance to him. He had never received such a message and read it again trying to decide if he had been threatened. Consequences? Why send the note to him? He had no power in the company. He filled orders, nothing more.
He became suspicious then, wondering if hackers had installed malware, or if some algorithm had been monitoring his browsing history. Email addresses were sold every day, gold to the marketing world. Was it a practical joke from Sphen? Of course, he knew how unhappy Kevin was, but Sphen did not make a habit of getting this involved in someone else’s process. Sphen thought mostly about Sphen, not causes, or the planet. And he would never attack fashion that way. Not even Coleman’s, what Sphen referred to as Prosaic, or worse, clothes.
He was frightened for a moment. He had seen protesters outside of a recent show where the company was displaying new releases. Their anger was real. Kevin could feel it pointed his direction as he moved boxes and delivered coffee to those who mattered. Ten minutes of internet browsing confirmed the signs he had seen and could not forget, those quick quips with their careful alliteration. “Fast Fashion Fails Humanity” or “Coleman Clothes Kill.”
The jabs were correct. A lot of their merchandise was never consumed at all. But they made it at such low cost, they could afford to let a certain volume go unpurchased. And once the season had passed? Did it all end up at the Goodwill, packed into shipping containers to be delivered to some unfortunate soul in Africa? Kevin had seen those funny images, heard NPR stories where the reporter commented on the Bart Simpson T-shirt a forty-year-old man in Ghana was wearing. It gave Kevin that strange sense of sympathetic humiliation. Were the statements about working conditions also true? Knowing how his father had worked him on the farm, getting all the labor he could from his lone employee, he suspected it was all true.
Kevin left his cubicle and walked the corridor to his nearest neighbor. The walk made him mad every time, reminding him how far he was from New York’s fashion elites. Either the office powers-that-be resented his rural roots, or he had the plague.
“Lucy,” Kevin said, “Did you get any strange emails today? I got one and I’m not sure where it came from.”
Lucy’s desk was a nightmare. She shoved paper aside and clicked her mouse a few times, popping gum as she did so. She was young, Midwestern pretty as Sphen would say, and completely vapid.
“What do you mean strange?”
“I don’t know the sender. And it was kind of threatening. I don’t know, maybe something to do with those protestors last month.”
Lucy looked blank, her usual expression. She turned back to the monitor and Kevin wondered if the woman had ever been excited in her life.
“No, I don’t see anything weird. When did it come?”
“I just received the message, like twenty minutes ago.” The words came out like a question. It worried Kevin even more that he might be the one person being targeted. Maybe the protestors had identified him, tracked him down to harass someone more personally.
“No, sorry,” Lucy answered. She turned away then, and Kevin made his way back to his cubicle. He thought about texting Sphen, but knew he’d get no reply. Sphen never had time for him while he was at work.
Kevin looked at the email once more. He hadn’t realized at first how much blank space had been left at the bottom of the message. He scrolled until he found a signature.
“Shaman,” it read, followed by a quote. “Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are. –Kierkegaard”
“What is this?” he asked the screen. It was not his most productive day in the office.
At home that evening, Kevin knelt on the stairs with a hammer and a palm full of tacking nails. He agreed the wooden staircase was treacherous. The stairs had been pitched too steeply. Old buildings were notorious for such lapses in modern building code. It was easy to make a mistake while carrying laundry or anything large enough to obscure the view. The distance wasn’t natural. There was no muscle memory for stairs like this. He knew the non-skid strips were a good idea, but any blue collar task made him feel provincial, ordinary. It reminded him of home.
His father had never said a word to him about being gay. Little wonder, the man barely spoke. In high school, someone had turned him on to John Prine, and Kevin always thought of his father when he heard the line, “How in the hell can a man go to work in the morning, come home in the evening, and have nothing to say.” He gave Kevin his marching orders, his assigned chores for the day and they lived beneath that silence until Kevin had gotten away. In the city, he had embraced his queer identity, whatever that meant. He took some fashion classes, thought that would be his path, then dropped out to bartend at a gay bar when student loans began to pile up. That’s when Sphen came along. He got Kevin the job at Coleman’s. Sphen knew everyone in the community. But he refused to do more.
“I cannot always be asking,” was his vague response when Kevin inquired about other opportunities he might be aware of.
Kevin sealed the thin rubber strips to the stairs with three careful blows of the hammer. His big hands engulfed the handle, and Kevin chafed at how comfortable it felt, how natural.
Standing, he noticed all the other rough elements of the stairs. There was missing trim along the wall, leaving gaps that went from minuscule to gaping. He could feel a draft rising up from somewhere else in the building as he bent, cold air brushing his palm. The banister was sturdy, but also had finishing touches left undone. These included a single protruding nail at the top of the railing, its pointed edge stabbing up, reaching for the rounded knob that must have been there, once upon a time. It had been part of Sphen’s negotiations with the landlord. To acquire the apartment, Kevin would fix things. Of course, that came as great surprise to Kevin, who had never been consulted on the matter. His “skills,” as Sphen called them, were useful. But utility and what you wanted were rarely the same thing.
Tuesday and Wednesday came with the same kind of message, pleas about the environment, the costs to planet and people. After the fourth and fifth emails, Kevin was officially freaked out.
He slept fitfully that night. A dream sequence placed Kevin on a moving walkway, the kind that hurried people through an airport. But the walkway was in a narrow hall, worn wooden doors to either side. A slightly older Kevin stood inside each room, obviously preparing for work. A neatly groomed version of his self looked thin and dapper inside a beautifully tailored black suit. It would have been gratifying except for the miserable expression on his face. He saw an older, heavier version of himself, wrapped from head to toe in ill-fitting Coleman’s wear, their C shaped logo embossed on chest, the seat of his pants, on his forehead. A final version reached down to a tool box. In this portion of the dream, Kevin only saw his hands as he adjusted the fit of a pipe wrench. He could remember the weight of it, heavy in his hand.
Tuesday and Wednesday came with the same kind of message, pleas about the environment, the costs to planet and people. After the fourth and fifth emails, Kevin was officially freaked out. He spent Friday afternoon talking to HR and then the IT department, to see if they might track the sender. They laughed at him.
“What do you think this is, a forensics lab? Just block the sender.”
Kevin had done that of course, but the messages kept coming. They also became more and more perplexing. Kevin felt like he was losing his mind when the messages started to reference his dream.
You do not listen. A voice calls to you at night. It would offer you direction, but you refuse to hear. Are you valued? Did this world that you so wanted to be a part of, did it welcome you? Does your heart swell with the feeling of belonging? Your people are not among these superficial leeches. Know your own depth and be free.
Sitting at the kitchen table that Sunday, Kevin reflected on yet another dream. They had become as frequent as the emails. He had printed every message before leaving the office Friday. Studying the pages before him, he searched for connection, making notes in the margins about repetition within his dreams, circling and underlining words he thought significant.
His hand engulfing a mug of coffee, Kevin stared at lumps of blood-stained strawberry spread across artisanal whole grain. The jam was beautiful, the remnants of a final homemade jar brought back from Ohio. Kevin still visited once a year, what he had long thought of as his obligation.
“Your sulking is not attractive,” Sphen said, filling a travel mug from the pot.
Kevin hadn’t even noticed Sphen enter the room.
“Is that what I’m doing?”
“I don’t know what you’re doing,” Sphen said pointing at Kevin’s pages. “But your mood is exhausting. I’m going to brunch at Julian’s and you are not invited.”
“You might try asking,” Kevin said to Sphen’s back, the pages held aloft in a big pale hand.
It made no sense that Sphen should be mad about Kevin being upset. But then Sphen/Stephen expected everybody to play their part in his little performance. Kevin resented not being entitled to his feelings.
Turning back to his documents, Kevin set the argument aside. He hadn’t told Sphen about his dreams. He hadn’t told anyone. So how could the harasser know?
For a moment, he considered buying a gun. The first line of defense in rural Ohio, many country folk meant to shoot what they didn’t understand. He disregarded the notion, then pulled his phone close looking at different styles of Tazor.
That Monday, Kevin sat in his cubicle, scrolling through pages about sleepwalking and other abnormal night behaviors. Was it possible he had sent the messages to himself while in some kind of night trance? He knew the two hours of browsing would show up on his monthly productivity report, but after considering buying a weapon, he was well past caring about a scolding from his supervisor.
By week’s end, Kevin’s nerves felt as thin and frayed as Coleman’s-ware. Everything seemed to be deteriorating.
The relationship was on the rocks. And now he knew why. In his hours spent alone, mending fences on the farm, Kevin’s vision of the future had set up like concrete. Being gay in the city had become one thing to Kevin. Sphen was that statue, rigid and impenetrable.
Kevin had built a relationship out of idolizing Sphen. Charmed by spirit and charisma, Kevin longed to be half as certain about the life he had created. Sphen was glamour and society, façade. And Kevin wanted none of it anymore.
The sweater lay in a pile in a corner of the bedroom floor. Kevin thought it looked like a radioactive creature had backed up and taken a crap. He picked up the orange heap and shook it out. Pulling the sweater on, indecision tugged at him, like straining against some massive piece of farm machinery.
It was still an abomination. Kevin sneered at it from in front of the full length mirror. Contempt and pity pulsed through his chest. At least he thought it was feelings. But as he made to pull the sweater overhead, a pressure gripped him. Air was instantly pushed from his lungs. A quick huffing noise escaped his mouth as if a big fist had just punched him in the gut.
Kevin had his head inside the body of the sweater. It wrapped tight around him. At first, he was more shocked than scared. The sweater behaved like plastic wrap, seizing him, locking his arms overhead. It held him so snug his chest could not expand. It became impossible to fill his lungs.
His mind started to race. Had someone stormed into the room to rob and murder him? Kevin began to fight, bending wrist and elbow, flailing from right to left, tearing at the fabric with teeth and finger nails. He strained, hearing another stitch pop, then three. He screamed as the cloth got even stronger. His mouth open, a sleeve shoved its way into Kevin’s throat, and immediately he began to gag. He thought he might throw up and that would mean asphyxiation.
Thrashing, he hit the full length mirror, the side table. He almost fell onto the bed, shoving it askew with his weight. “It’s alive,” he kept thinking. “What do you do if attacked by a boa constrictor?” Kevin had seen it once on a nature show while in high school. Then survival overrode cognition. His arms were pinned inside the sweater, but his hands were free. He knew there was a small knife on the dresser. But his flailing only succeeded in knocking everything off the dresser. He heard Sphen’s antique lamp crash to the floor. His shoes crunched atop broken ceramic.
Deprived of air, Kevin started seeing stars. He was losing consciousness. Stumbling out onto the landing, he bumped the rail at the top of the stairs. His foot struck the non skid strip he had laid a week earlier. Then he remembered a nail, a sharp nail protruding from the top of the banister, where a rounded ornamental topper was meant to go.
Kevin bent and searched for the nail. He was groggy, light headed, like he had just smashed five martinis one after another. He pecked at the rail like a blind chicken till the nail stabbed his shoulder. He could feel the blood swelling. But there was no time. He was going to pass out.
Kevin hung a part of the sweater on the nail and gathered all his strength. He jumped. There was a tearing sound as he fell. His two hundred pounds were made that much greater as he lost consciousness.
Kevin woke in the hospital, to a dislocated shoulder and a tetanus shot. Sphen came the next day.
“Do you know the lengths I went to for that lamp? Julian and I must have gone to ten different antique shops. Those old bitties, they hold onto things like their life depends on it. It’s like you’re bidding on a Van Gogh at Christie’s or something.”
Sphen would receive as long as you were willing to give, but he’d never come down far enough to be equals. Honesty reached him as the pill kicked in and Kevin disappeared into that hazy, liquid state before sleep. Sphen was as different from Kevin’s father as he could be, and exactly the same.
He convalesced at a friend’s house. Once the dislocated shoulder healed, Kevin came back just long enough to pack his things. Sphen only stared from the top of the stairs, arms crossed as Kevin loaded and moved boxes. Whistling while he worked, Kevin recognized a trait from his father, a single minded focus on the job at hand.
“Do you plan to take all day?” Sphen said from his perch atop the stairs.
Kevin looked up from his daydreaming. Stepping into the hall, he took stock of the boxes. Clothes, books, and a box of tools sat with the flaps open. Kevin would have sworn he had already closed and sealed that box. Pulling the flaps up, he revealed a dusty photo of the family farm, taken from an airplane when Kevin was only a boy. The rolling hills, cattle and crops brought memories of home, fond memories. But there were no people in sight, no family. A heavy, tired sigh followed.
He walked back into the apartment and dropped a key on the side table.
He got no reply. Stephen had been dumped before, but never Sphen.
Kevin donated all the Coleman’s clothing that had been given to him over the past three years. The homeless shelter was grateful to have it, no matter the quality. He started his new job a week later, the hammer tucked neatly into a brand new leather tool pouch.
“How chic,” Kevin said, smiling at his self in the mirror.
T. Jeremy Smith is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor from Black Dot, Kentucky. As an outsider, Jeremy explores the margins of humanity through creative nonfiction and fiction with a speculative disposition.