The Shirt

The shirt had fit last year. Not only that, it had fit comfortably. Nigel stared aghast at the shirt in the mirror as it hugged his frame so tight it turned every bit of excess weight into its own exhibit in the Nigel Museum of Failure. It has been a bad year, he'd known this, but he hadn't realized the affect it had had on his body, which, as he thought about it, was even more pathetic. How could he not have realized this? Was he so out of touch with his own body, had he so given up on even contemplating the idea of attracting a mate that he had slipped this far without being at all cognizant of it? Perhaps it had shrunk in the wash, he thought, although he knew it wasn't true. Dammit.

His mom had made the shirts for the whole family last year for Christmas. The day after Christmas they had all gone to Amish Country. They were cheap t-shirts with iron-ons that said "I'm a Holcomb" in big ugly bubble letters. She was always doing something like this, buying the entire family some sort of uniform, as if they all needed reminding that they were joined together by the unbreakable ties of genes and being confined to the same home for years. Like they were all members of a godawful sports team. Team Reject. The Holcombs were unsuccessful. Generation by generation they were a family of failures. Which, of course, hadn't stopped each generation from putting undue pressure on the ones after it to break the cycle. Nigel's father had put the screws into him young, telling Nigel he had all the advantages that his father hadn't, which seeing as how Nigel's father had never starved and had as much education as Nigel had, the only real difference between their childhoods was the presence of television, which frankly hadn't been much of a help to Nigel at all.

He was going in to work, where he would bring his suitcase with him and then go straight from work to his plane, which would take him back home for Thanksgiving. His mother had told him to wear the shirt when he came, and she would meet him at the airport with his father and brother, all wearing the same shirt. "Won't that be great?" she'd said to him on the phone. No, it wouldn't be great, it would kill him, slowly, from the inside out. His heart would die and he would lose all will to live.

He couldn't wear this shirt to work. Not because he would look like any of the other guys there, but that he probably would. He worked administration at a plumbing company and one of the small victories in life that stopped him from going insane and killing all the neighborhood pets was that he didn't look anything like those overweight, slobby, poorly dressed bastards who came in and out of the office every day. He would change at the airport.

At work he sat at his desk with his small carry-on suitcase sitting right beside him. All he could think about was the shirt, the red, size L soul trap waiting for him inside the luggage. After everything that had happened this year, the break-up, the job issues, all the construction on the apartment, deciding to go back to school and then not getting accepted, even to his back-up, after all of that this shirt had to come around and kick him in the nuts. Of course he'd gained weight, all the stress he'd been under. Why wouldn't he have? He certainly hadn't been exercising very much, never played any sports, and Janine certainly wasn't there to cook for him anymore. He'd been eating out a lot. He'd have to stop that, he told himself. Learn to cook. Maybe he'd buy some cookbooks or something when he got back, get one of those George Forman burn-off-the-fat grills, there were probably classes at The Learning Annex he could take. You don't have to apply for The Learning Annex, do you? Nigel thought to himself. No, of course you didn't. But could they expel you?

"How's the work treating you there, Nigel?" Nigel's boss, Don Schreiber, ambled over to his desk. "Getting everything squared away before the holiday?"

"Oh yeah. Sure," said Nigel.

"Good lad! Don't want any unfinished business hanging over my head on turkey day! An upset mind yields an upset stomach, Nigel."

"Yes, of course it does," Nigel agreed.

"You're going home, ain't ya?" Don asked. Nigel nodded. "Nothing better than home cooking! Going to have to add a couple extra holes to the ole belt, right?" Don stuck out his stomach, causing his button-up shirt to rise above his undershirt, and rubbed his stomach. Nigel could only nod again, thankful that today Don had decided to wear an undershirt and not expose his hideous belly as he usually did. He must be going somewhere nice after work, like Applebee's.

"Whelp, finish up here and then check out when you're done. We're not going to be watching the clock too close today." Don winked at Nigel and then walked off.

Suddenly it occurred to Nigel that, damn it all, he WAS going home for a nice home cooked meal. A meal prepared by his mother, who doused everything with salt and butter and cooked nothing but starches and meat. If he was overweight now, in four days it was only going to be worse. A lot worse. Shit. He'd have to join a gym or an intramural baseball team or something to work this off.

Nigel finished his work and hopped in his car to drive to the airport. Long term parking at the airport had gone up in price and Nigel cursed inflation under his breath and wished he knew more about how it worked in that prices for things kept going up but he didn't seem to be making any more money, which is what inflation was supposed to mean, right?

It wasn't a long ride and Nigel got to the airport about three hours before his flight took off. He sat in the waiting area looking at everyone else waiting with their families or reading some big novel or listening to their i-pods. Nigel wished he had an i-pod. They seemed so cool. Everyone looked cooler when they were flipping through their i-pods, shuffling through songs or playlists or whatever. Maybe if he got a bonus this year that would be his Christmas present to himself. He'd go and sit in the park and listen to Glenn Miller. Maybe he'd listen to it while jogging. That would be the deal he'd make with himself. He'd buy himself an i-pod if he swore to himself that he'd use it while jogging. Nigel had brought a book to read, a collection of ghost stories written by some pretty famous authors whose names Nigel vaguely recalled from high school English class. He took the book out of his bag but didn't open it. Instead he stared at the cute girl sitting down the row from him, listening to her i-pod and reading a book called Kafka on the Shore by some guy whose name Nigel didn't trust himself to try and pronounce. It had a pretty cover on it and a bunch of quotes on the back about what a great book it was. Nigel wanted to point out to the girl that the book he was reading had stories in it by Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne and a whole bunch of other pretty smart people, but he figured he wouldn't really be able to approach her, and all she'd see was the cover, which had a really terrible picture of an old man in pajamas and an old-style lamp being scared by some stupid-looking ghost with the title Spooky Stories! written in big goofy letters across the top. He thought about buying, but when he went up to the newsstand nothing really interested him so he bought a soda and a Snickers Bar. He was half way through his Snickers and was just about to crack open his soda when he remembered the t-shirt waiting for him in his suitcase. He looked down at his gut and sighed, then threw away the candy and soda. He didn't have any more pocket change and didn't want to use his bank card just to get a magazine, so he figured there was nothing left to do but change into the shirt and then wait.

Nigel dragged the suitcase into the bathroom and waited for an empty stall. Finally one opened up and he crammed himself and his suitcase inside. Once in Nigel took of the shirt he had one and exchanged it for the t-shirt. He stood there with the shirt in his hand, looking down at both it and the roll of flesh that was hanging out over his belt line. Maybe it wasn't as bad as he remembered it. So he'd put on some extra weight, so what? Everyone's weight fluctuates, nobody really notices. Surely the guys at work must have gained or lost some what, but Nigel hadn't noticed, so no one had probably noticed his. No big deal at all. Nigel put on the shirt and stepped out of the stall and checked himself out in the mirrors. And there it was. Just like before, only it seemed worse now. He could only see the other guys from work. He thought about the cute girl reading the smart-looking book. He thought about his family waiting for him at the airport wearing the same stupid shirts, only his looked like someone crammed a walrus into a leotard. Nigel ran back into the stall and took off the shirt. He shoved it back in his bag and put his other shirt back on. It wouldn't be that big a deal if he showed up without the shirt on, right? His mom couldn't care that much, could she? It was just a shirt. He'll say he lost it, or maybe that it was in the laundry and he'd just dropped it off without thinking about it because he wears it all the time. Maybe that would work.

Nigel left the bathroom and sat back down in his chair. He looked at the girl and she looked back. Nigel gave her a little smile and a nod, and she smiled back. "Good," thought Nigel. "If I'd been wearing that damn shirt she'd have thrown up. Now I got a smile from a cute girl. Good. Good for me."

The flight was uneventful. As the plane began to taxi Nigel felt guilty. Maybe he should have put the shirt on and just sucked it up. But no, it was ridiculous, he wasn't going to sell out his self-image just for some dumb family shirt. It'd be fine. They'd buy his excuse, he'd pick up an extra shirt from an outlet store or something and it'd all be fine. He'd lose some weight and wear the shirt for Christmas, maybe, after it was miraculously found in a drawer or something.

Nigel pulled his suitcase down the corridor past the security checkpoint. Then he saw them, all the family lined up, mama bear, papa bear, baby bear. All wearing their shirts.

"Hello, Nigel!" his mother said, running up and giving him a hug and peck on the cheek. "Oh no. Where's your shirt?"

"Yeah, gee, wouldn't you know, I couldn't find it?" Nigel said, hearing his voice come out forced and questioning. He was a terrible liar. "I think it might be in some laundry I sent out. Maybe next time."

"Oh. Ok," said his mother.

His father looked skeptical. "Looks like you put on a little weight there, son," he said.

"Oh shush!" his mother chided. "He looks fine."

"He's going to have cholesterol problems," said father. "I've got cholesterol problems and I was a good thirty pounds lighter than he is when I was his age. And I played ball. You getting any exercise, boy?"

"Some," shrugged Nigel.

"Some," repeated father, rolling his eyes. "Hand me your bag, princess. Wouldn't want you to get winded."

At dinner that night Nigel barely touched his food. His mother asked if he was feeling all right. Nigel shrugged. His father speechified about the hard work his mother had put into that roast and how excited she had been to be cooking for her two boys again, and how in the days of the Old Testament it was legal to stone children to death for such impudence. Nigel wasn't really listening. He was concentrating on his stomach, trying to feel the hunger he was driving himself towards, hoping that the uncomfortable ache in his stomach meant that he was burning fat.

Later in the evening when Nigel passed on dessert his mother began to get worried. "You've never turned down apple turnover before," she said, clucking her tongue and putting the back of her hand on his forehead. "Are you sure you're feeling all right?" Nigel brushed her hand away and tried not to get annoyed. She was just being mom, after all.

"No, ma. I'm fine."

Nigel went to his room to get ready for bed. He opened his suitcase and took out his pajamas. After he had changed he sat on the edge of his old bed and looked down at the shirt. It seemed to sum up life for Nigel at that moment. A little too small, a bad fit. Nigel threw the shirt on the floor. "Goddamnit," he muttered.

Just then his mother opened the door. "Hey sweetie, just wanted to tell you before you go to bed..." Nigel started. In a panic he grabbed the shirt and stuffed it in the suitcase, which only too late occurred to him was the surest admittance of guilt.

There was silence for a moment, then Nigel stuttered out, "Gee, mom, you scared me. Hey, so, I found the shirt, apparently I, I guess I packed it, then I forgot I packed it and, geez, I guess I totally goofed on that. You know me, if my head wasn't attached I'd lose it, right?"

"Sure," said his mom. She began backing out of the room.

"Weren't you going to tell me something, mom?" Nigel asked.

"Oh, I just, we're going out to breakfast at Maude's Café, so wake up early, I..." his mom closed the door. Nigel collapsed back on the bed. That pretty much nailed it. He'd never hear the end of this now. There goes Thanksgiving. There goes Christmas. There goes family time for the next couple years at least. He knew it instantly, saw it when his mother started doing that breathing-through-her-nose thing she did when she was really upset. She'd tell father, and boy he wouldn't be happy.

Nigel curled up in the bed and drew the covers over his head. He felt ashamed, but didn't know exactly why. He remembered when his mom had caught him looking at porn when he was eleven. He remembered that look of disappointment. He had cried that night, telling his mom that he was sure he was going to Hell. His mom had rubbed his back and told him that she didn't think he was going to Hell, she knew that it was a temptation a lot of young boys fell prey to. She had just thought that her boy was better than that. It seemed to Nigel at the time that that was worse than Hell. He wanted to be better than that. He wanted to be better than some sleazy kid who looked at porn, or some jerk who got too fat and too ashamed to wear a t-shirt his mom had given him. Nigel found himself crying again, in the same position on the same bed that he had when he was eleven years old. Only this time, his mother wasn't there to rub his back.

The next morning Nigel got up early. He showered, he brushed his teeth and straightened his hair. He went into his room to get dressed. He put on his pants, his socks, his shoes. Then he stood in front of the mirror and looked at himself. He put on the red t-shirt. There it was. Still too small, still stretched like the skin of a drum. He noticed for the first time that he could actually see his belly button the shirt was so small.

Oh well, thought Nigel. Why not? What's the use? He trudged downstairs. This is what life was now, wasn't it? Compromise. Sacrifice. Putting family before self. Coming down the stairs he saw them, all three of them, sitting around the family table. His father, reading the stock page although Nigel knew for certain the old man didn't understand a damn thing about it other than arrows pointing up or down, didn't even own a damn stock a day in his life. Then there was his brother, reading the funnies. Then mom. Drinking her orange juice and reading the Style section, commenting on this and that celebrity, as though she knew them. Judging outfits as though she had a degree from the Fashion Institute. Mom. She looked up and saw him. She smiled, a soft smile, a conciliatory smile.

"Look what I found," said Nigel. "I packed it and forgot about it, so..."

Nigel's father looked up over the paper. "Jesus, son, you look like Baby Huey."

"Oh, come now!" said Nigel's mother.

"Whelp, we better get moving," said Nigel's father, putting down the paper and rising towards the door. "Everybody pile into the van."

Nigel headed towards the front door when his mother grabbed his arm with her hand, cold and smooth like marble. "My boy," she whispered into his ear.


Jake Thomas

Story Writer. Marvel Comics Editor. Wrangler of Squids.