The start of a week in late June. The shirt’s plain, loose, and white, unimportant enough to risk the filth of cleaning a building. Dropped ceiling tiles broken in bits on the moist and mold stinking carpet, sporadic downpours never not creating tasks. Instead of long term solutions, they want you to install a door to hide the mess. Your mentor of sorts tells you his same cyclical post-retirement stories as he guides your work with pointed fingers and passed tools. Humidity builds with the day’s progress, pant legs dampen and the shirt flaps like a flag under full-blast fans, lightly weighted with work’s hours. The door gets put up, though the stink still trickles through the crack beneath it.
Leaving, left: Later, the three pm sun produces a self-made and worn shower, fibers stuck to a slick belly marching up hills home. On walking into the apartment, the shirt’s stripped off and cast into a corner. Eventually it’s picked up, decided on for the next day of work and put on a hanger (though a bit away from others, pungent with sweaty cologne).
“It’s not supposed to be as hot as yesterday” you think as you sniff then put the shirt on. Traces of yesterday’re almost enjoyable, you love the smell of used skin. A faint draft tickles exposed and still-waking arms as you step outside. On the subway, enclosed and active cig smoke tightens your lungs. The first car chases you out to another at the nearest stop, but in the second car still no relief. The second smoker stands staring through fumes, smirking in all directions, looking for a problem. Instead, a young boy no more than eleven approaches and asks for a cig. Annoyed, the smoker gets up and walks off.
At work, staff-mates and other lingerers keep saying you smell like an ashtray. Every comment makes you more light-headed, makes you cough (as a stand-in scratch for unreachable itches inside). An extended coughing fit, a bit of blood freckles the shirt. They say you should go home, but you wave it off with an upturned paper water cup washing down the red taste. Most of the week’s work was sweated out yesterday, so you sit perfuming the lobby in mild clouds of menthol, an atmosphere unwanted by all clean and skin-tight liberals who wince through mini-conversations with you. Really, there’re endless little details that feel hopeless to address within the general, gradual collapse of the building. You do a few tasks, then sign out and head home. In the bedroom you haphazardly toss the shirt at the hamper, it catches and hangs to the rim through the night.
You wake up wheezing and late. The very much lived-in shirt is right there as you slip into shorts and socks. With an internal shrug you shrug into its arm and neck holes. Today’s commute isn’t so eventful as yesterday’s. Once at work, you and your older coworker spend a while trying to jimmy a huge old window unit out of a high up hole in the wall made specifically for it. The hole is tight, the machine weighs at least 500 pounds. Progress is made in centimeters, barely noticeable. After much struggle, he calls for a break and you slink off separately.
The sun blares on your shoulders, cooking the week thus far’s collective scent from the shirt. They serve you through a small window at the café — as you turn around an old acquaintance is smiling and waving, approaching with an energy powered by the time of day. After an exchange of hellotime words you ask a few open-ended questions, they speak and walk you back to work. It’s not that you dislike them at all, more the opposite. You always assumed they didn’t care about you, and this dump session doesn’t change that feeling. After walking alongside each other for a few minutes, they ask for a cigarette (citing the scent), prompting an explanation and mutual moaning about commutes. You exchange numbers with the promise of an unlikely future rendezvous.
Inside, the frenzied desk worker asks where you’ve been. Upstairs, the ancient window unit has dropped out of its nook, crashing through a therapist’s work/ventspace. A small throng gathers to survey the mess. Your mentor is gone for the day, he snuck out the back door, leaving room for worthless suggestions from other desk workers. With much strain and a push cart, you lug the machine to the dumpsters, but not before it gashes a big hole in your much-loved three day shirt along with a deep cut along your ribs. No one’s around to care or ask about it, the shirt’s streak is finally over.
As you sweep debris back in the therapist’s office, you think of what clothes’ll be sacrificed next to this insatiably decrepit structure. To be worn here is to be worn out here — another muggy day in purgatory.