Terry Lucas

The Shirt

I can’t say why it slipped past my mother— 

the chenille V-neck she let me order  

from the Hot Rod Magazine classifieds

was a Playboy Shirt—a shirt for a boy

to play in, perhaps she thought, or the girls

gathered around that ink-smudged teenaged boy 

looked wholesome enough in their cardigans 

& long pleated skirts, not swinging their hips 

to the Peppermint Twist or the Bunny Hop, 

better known in Southern Baptist circles 

as a sin. When it arrived, I carried the package

to my room, opened it alone—barging in, 

my mother said I forbid you to wear that shirt

outside this house. The dress code  

at Country Club Elementary required a collar, 

& so did the bow tie she made me wear 

to church—but home was enough. Locked inside 

the bathroom, I pumped up the sleeves 

revealing string-bean arms, inspected 

their reflection, flexed & coaxed bumps to sprout 

& grow big as muscles that bulged out

my dad’s faded green tattoos. Running

hands over my chest, I felt my pecs— 

how my nipples puckered, greeting the fabric 

with a kiss. I slept in my shirt, only 

took it off when I dressed for school, laying 

it face down on my bed where it waited 

all day for my incarnation. One night 

around 3:00 a.m. my father’s Cummins 

diesel engine announced he was home. 

Goddamns & hells broke loose from the master 

bedroom, despite Mom trying to quiet him down, 

shshsh of air brakes between her teeth, his voice

revved up above the red line, vibrating

my bed. Morning was tense, 

but quiet. Midafternoon they were at it again—

Dad punctuating curses with his trigger finger 

in her face, Mom yelling & holding her hands 

over her ears, backing out into the hallway

where he grabbed her by the shoulders & shook. I felt it 

rise beneath my shirt, into my arms & legs—

something powerful & ugly as what 

my father was doing. With arm cocked, 

I ran screaming Stop! When I got to the

tangled yarn of them, I took a swat at him, 

wimpy as a loose thread. He took a step back, 

voltage dimming in his electric blue eyes. 

I turned & ran into my room, hid 

under the covers—silence filtered 

by silence—at least accomplished that,  

I thought, as the shirt dampened around my neck. 

Soon the heaviness of my father’s frame 

warped my mattress. I don’t want you

to ask me for anything again, he said 

in a voice too calm. As he stood, 

my bed sprang back. Justin boots

throbbed on tiled floor, down the hallway, 

until he kicked open the front door. 

His truck groaned awake, pitch rising as he gunned it, 

then falling as the load engaged. I prayed 

never to hear the sound again. I may have 

slept, I may have stared at my bedroom drapes 

until the sun lit up the cars & trains 

straining their fabric tracks. I yanked the cord,

watched them race into their shadows. 

I peeled off my Playboy shirt, holding it 

at arms length, shaking it like a parent 

correcting a naughty child for being 

where it shouldn’t be, for seeing what 

it shouldn’t see. I’ll never wear you again, I said, 

opening my bottom dresser drawer. In darkness 

I slipped out the back door into the alley, 

found a trash bin, threw in my shirt. 

Walking away I couldn’t spit

the rotting taste out of my mouth, 

stomach the thought of vile juices 

soaking into fibers. Some nights now

too silent for sleep, I dream of stumbling 

back of that house, searching feverishly 

in moonlit alleys, reaching inside trash bins, 

feeling for the familiar frizz of my shirt 

until I find it. I carry it home, holding it close

to my chest, place it in a washbasin— 

cool water & delicate detergent. 

I immerse it, gently agitate the liquid 

through loose yarn, rinse it, let it air dry. 

I fill its arms with mine, slip my head through 

its V-shaped neck, feel its plush interior 

slide across my skin, lift its body to my lips, 

whisper: I will never take you off.