Home Sweet Clothes

By JULIE SMITH | Published: January 1, 2010

Dad, please come back down here. If you can contact me, if you are still able to communicate, I need you now.”

Henry stared up at his white ceiling hoping for a sign. He noticed the insect corpses inside the light cover, shook his head and made his way to the garage to get the ladder. Light has to be cleaned. The garage was meticulous and housed a late model Porsche under a jet-black cover which shined in the lights, He took the ladder inside and opened it up above the light fitting. As he climbed up, he noticed a movement in the corner of the room. His eyes flitted towards the nook and he let out a gasp.

“Uncle Ross!”

A podgy man with a bald pate had his arms crossed and one leg over the other, swinging his foot back and forth. One emotion was fighting with another; refrained frustration and subdued impatience. Then a smile slid across the cherubic face, slicing it like a waning moon.

“Hi Henry, your Dad couldn’t make it, so I came instead. You are looking fit as usual.” Ross was looking for a reaction and got it.

“I haven’t seen you since you died when I was 16! Are you really here? I must be dreaming – no this can’t be…How’s Dad?” Henry asked, remembering he had been negligent in visiting him in the nursing home.

“It’s early days yet. He’s just getting accustomed to the place. He said don’t worry about not visiting him before he went over and he would of come but his timing is all out of whack..”

“Whoa just a minute. Big whoa. I’m going to check out my bed and make sure I’m not there dreaming this. Be back in a minute.”

Henry ran into his bedroom. The bed was made and he certainly wasn’t in it. He took out a coin from his pocket and flipped it on the bed. It bounced up and came down. This is real, folks.

He ran back into the living room and skidded to a stop as he looked at Ross, now lying on his back on Henry’s red velour couch, twiddling his thumbs.

“Can’t quite seem to get comfortable here. Too much gravity or nervous vibes. You got a fag?”

“Hey wait a minute, just hold everything.”

“Look kid, we don’t have much time. What’s the problem?”

“You don’t have much time? What the hell else do you have?”

“Plenty. You’ll see. Now let’s get going. What ails you?”

Henry sat down next to Ross and started shaking. He put his hand on his uncle’s arm but it went straight through. “Yuk!”

Ignoring his nephew’s disgust, he asked, “What’s that pile of dirty clothes and shoes and stuff doing in the fireplace?”

“That” Henry hissed as he pointed his shaking finger, “is the problem. Three weeks ago I was running in the park and I saw a pair of mittens. One was blue and the other red. They were just lying there, one on top of the other on a fence post. Then I saw a pair of ballet shoes. They were deposited by the toilets at the Shell station.”

“Ok.” Ross shifted his position and looked into Henry’s eyes. “So you need me to…?”

“Well, that’s pretty strange, don’t you think? After I brought them back here, every day I went out I started to see more discarded clothes around the city. They are everywhere. Not that there’s an unusual amount; it’s just I notice them now.”

“And you want me to…?”

“Come with me and see for yourself! Tell me I’m not going crazy!”

“Chill, son.”

Henry got up and marched to the fireplace, reaching down, throwing pieces of clothing at Ross. “Here, a lavender bra! Could she have been raped? Next, one black sock. Where’s the other one? Was he in a car wreck and the medics removed this when they tried to stop the bleeding? Look - an umbrella! Why would anyone throw away a good umbrella? The owner was probably mugged and dropped it when he ran.”

“You got any whiskey?" Ross asked. Henry shook his head. “You ever hear of OCD with a splattering of paranoia?”

“Ok, then you come with me now. Just to test me or show me I’m not losing all plots, disorders not included.”

Ross laughed as he got up. “Let’s go.”

Uncle and nephew left the apartment after the surveillance camera was turned on, the security alarms set, and the dead bolt locked. They were walking together at a matched pace. “You always lock-up this way?”

Ignoring his uncle he said, “What’s it like up there…or down, or…?”

“’Over’ will do. It’s pretty cruizie. Your Aunt Thelma can’t get with it. No gossiping, or bad thoughts, just peace and harmony. Hard to describe.”

Henry’s eyes bulged and his arms were flying in the air; clearly delayed reaction to Ross’s presence. “Over where? Do you people come over and talk to us mortals often?”

Uncle Ross waved his palms up and down slowly, gesturing the universal meaning of slow down. “Nope, got a dispensation cuz your Dad went wacky. You can’t be that good and stay sane on earth. He got a lot of brownie points because he was so good over here and well, I was picked to come and visit my nephew. ”

Walking quickly, they split their perambulating partnership to pass a mother with a double pram. She looked at Henry like he was stark raving, turned in the opposite direction, shaking her head.

“Can other people see you Uncle Ross?”

“Nope.”

“Great.”

The duo turned the corner and Henry gasped. “Look, men’s underwear!” He picked up a twig and started probing at the red under shorts like he was looking for worms in dog pooh. “They are right next to my affluent neighbour’s mailbox,” Henry declared, like Sherlock Holmes with a magnifying glass.

“I gotta tell you something. It don’t matter how much money you have, you still gotta wear underwear over here.” Ross put his hands on his hips, right knee bent, chin jutting out and said, “What? You think he went out to get his mail, got raped and that’s evidence?”

“Why is it here? Why would anyone leave it?”

Ross looked over at his nephew and said, “You are sure taking this personally. Maybe it was kids cracked out, drunk, making whoopee and too disoriented to remember to pick it up. Probably threw them out the car, laughing their little butts off.”

Henry rapidly shook his head, adamant there was something more. Silence and hard thinking replaced nervous chatter. A couple of minutes later they were walking into the park when Henry yelped and pointed. One leather sandal was lying against a garbage bin. “Where’s the other one? This is a good sandal!” Fifty yards later, under a tree and almost impossible to see was a scrunched-up undershirt.

“Hey, you’re getting pretty good at this Henry. I have to admit it’s a little strange.”

“You don’t think I’m crazy anymore do you?”

“Well, you’re neurotic and pretty close to the fence, staring at psychotic. Let’s

look some more. But I wouldn’t worry, it’s harmless. Sure would be hell to live with, though.”

“Good! I’m not going crazy! Stay here Uncle Ross. I’m just going home to get something.” Before Ross could say a word, Henry took off. Five minutes later he came back with a black plastic bag. With a pair of tongs, he lifted the undershirt and dropped it in. They retraced their steps and retrieved the other clothes.

Ross didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t help Henry – Henry was just being Henry. Immune to criticism, bad manners or any slur to his person, he just didn’t get it. If he wanted to look for lost clothes and live in a sterilized lock-down, who was he hurting? But still…Ross needed some advice. Hell, he needed an extensive and extended stay at The Mayo in their obsessive-compulsive clinic.

“I gotta go now, Henry.” Henry’s face looked terrified. “Don’t fret. I’ll be right back. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

Uncle Ross disappeared so quickly that Henry instantly looked for some proof of his visit in the dirt; a footprint, hiding behind a tree? Nothing. He picked up his bag and went home and for the first time he felt lonely.

***

Two years later summer was peaking in July, bleaching the lawns brown. Henry’s ribs were sticking out, emaciated and covered by wrinkled dark skin looking like a prune. He was dirty and dishevelled, naked from the waste up, wearing only army issue fatigue pants and thongs. He bent down and fingered a muddy black lace and picked up a boot. The smell of mould wafted in his face and he turned his head away. He looked back and was intrigued; the boot was almost new…no wear on the sole except for a shiny tack in the heel. Again, he wondered why anyone would throw away one boot. He dropped it in a gunny sack and continued down the path towards home. {i}Home? I rent a house packed with lost clothes. Money is running out and I’m out of work…can’t work. Have to find the lost clothes. I need help. No solution. Death's looking good{/i}.

Henry opened his front door without a key, turned on the light and put the sack in the kitchen. There was just enough isle space to navigate between each room. The mounds of discarded articles almost reached the ceiling and covered the windows.

“I’m back, Henry,” Ross announced his return.

Henry jumped and gasped. “Where you been? I really missed you and needed your help. Geez, Uncle Ross, when you say you’ll be right back, what’s it mean when you say you’ll be back in a few minutes?”

“Yea, and it’s good to see you too,” Ross laughed. You don’t look quite as fit as the last time I saw you.” He looked around and said, “You certainly have a lot of clothes here, son. What are you going to do with them?”

I really don’t know. I have this fear that there won’t be any clothes left someday.

“What if you are wrong, as in dead wrong? For every bra you dig up in the park, they are making thousands an hour in China.”

“I know. I’ve got an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder,” Henry said as his face turned red and he looked down at his feet.

“That’s a massive understatement, my friend. Let’s give them away…Haiti, Indonesia, Africa…”

“Oh no-no-no.”

“What do ya mean, ‘no’? They are lost. You can’t find the owners! Sell them for a dollar a piece. They will go to a new home with kids, parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents. Ye gods, you’ve got enough to put The Salvo’s out of business. How many lost clothes you got, anyway?”

Henry’s face went crimson as he stammered, “Ah, quite a few here but lots more at the warehouse. Can’t help myself - can’t stop and I’m in trouble.”

“Warehouse! We gotta get rid of them, you know. That’s the trouble.”

“I know.” Henry collapsed on the floor by the shear weight of his dilemma. He cried like a slow, leaking tap, dripping from his eyes on to the floor – ending with a snot-glogged honk. His silent weeping jarred Ross into heart-aching pity.

The Uncle got busy right away while Henry sat staring. With purchases from a local hardware store, he painted a professional-looking sign saying, “Lost Sweet Clothes – Wanted and For Sale - $1. He tried talking to Henry, “You see, you call them ‘Lost” because people don’t want second hand. You use the word ‘Sweet’ because they are washed. Get it?” He tried kicking Henry’s foot but it just went right through him like he was kicking air. “What’s the matter? This is frustrating. Can’t even beat the shit out of you to welcome you into reality! Get up now! If you don’t, you’re done for and I’m leaving.”

“I can’t do it. I might need them someday…there might not be any left, don’t you see?”

Loosing all control to a waterfall of frustration Uncle Ross screams out, “CALL THE FOOKING NEWSPAPER AND PLACE AN AD!”

Henry slowly rose, straightened up and tried to find the phone. He moved about ten pounds of clothing before feeling the hard plastic casing. He put the ad in while glaring at Uncle Ross. “Yes, as soon as possible,” he said as he smiled fiercely at his uncle. Ross marched out and pounded the sign in the front lawn. The next day calamity hit Benson Street.

A long line of people awaited Henry and Ross in the morning. Four hundred people went through the house in six hours. They took in as many clothes as they sold making $2,000. The washing machine and dryer were going non-stop and couldn’t keep up with the pace. The next day a television station van was parked out front, interviewing people as they walked by. Elections were in two week and the House of Representatives member got wind of the story plonking himself on the sidewalk, handing out leaflets. Uncle Ross was absolutely useless except as a sounding board and mute advisor. One neighbor, a voluptuous brunette volunteered to help, answering the hundred calls that came in. Police showed up on day three and handed Henry an infringement notice. They were conducting a business in a residential area, creating a traffic hazard, on and on. Stop, do not pass Go…or you can go to Jail or be Fined or BOTH.

Uncle Ross’s eyes glittered, “So far I reckon you’ve raked in close to $10,000. Not bad for three days.”

“This is looney. I haven’t had so much fun ever. I feel complete, cured – well curbed.”

Moving premises and setting up a charity with staff had its problems. Lot’s of red tape but the duo finally saw the light at the end of tunnel by the fourth month. In the years to come, “Home Sweet Clothes” was to become one of the largest, non-church affiliated charities in the country.

One night they were sitting in a restaurant and Henry was talking to himself because Ross wasn’t there for everyone else. He didn’t mind the looks now. Everyone knew who he was and accepted his occasional eccentricity – the man who talks to himself. After all, he was the man of Home Sweet Clothes, the biggest success story in the town’s history. “You ought to ask each person to donate a piece of clothing before they leave,” Ross said looking at a drop-dead, gorgeous redhead in a black dress with a bra obviously absent.”

“Forget it Ross, she’s got shoes and probably a thong on.”

Then things got serious.

“It’s time I go now, son,” Ross said with a look of regret.

“It’s okay, Ross. I knew it was coming sooner or later. I’m going to miss you.”

“You know, you’ve changed. I think things will be okay now.”

Ross and his nephew got up, trying to bear-hug each other, but it didn’t work; Henry was just hugging himself. Then his Uncle disappeared.

I wonder if Uncle Ross was an illusion and I did this all on my own?

“In your dreams. Don’t forget to lock the doors!” Ross’s laughter echoed.



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