by Julian Cloutier
I carry the bag of old clothes. It’s heavy enough that the garbage bag is stretched, with odd streaks and bumps in the black plastic. This is why I carry it. My little wife Marta’s not more than a hundred pounds herself, and she has back problems to boot. I’m her designated schlepper.
Inside the church, she points me to a corner where there is already an excess of cardboard boxes, old coats humped on a bench, a little line of shoes.
I put my bag on the floor, and some guy in an old yellow cardigan, says, “What sizes?”
“It’s all my stuff,” I answer. “My size.”
“Okay, shirts in that box. Pants there. Anything else?”
I shake my head, and he goes back to matching and folding socks, as if that were his true calling, and stopping to talk to me had been an indignity.
I take the stuff out. It’s all crap I haven’t worn in a long time, but each item has a sort of patina of memory, an emotional residue I can feel as I hold it in my fingers. I feel like I’m giving something up. And for what?
A few families in the neighborhood lost their homes when an apartment building burned down. Marta and people like her had been sending group emails, calling each other, organizing to do “whatever they could.” And one thing they could do was get old crap out of their houses. A list went around with the clothing sizes of all the freshly homeless, and the bachelor who lost three cats in the fire turned out to be a 36-inch waist, 32-inch inseam, large shirt. Exactly my sizes.
This was a double coup for Marta, who wanted to help and was always telling me to clean out my closet. She got so mad at me when I demurred at first; her usual, “You don’t care about anyone but yourself.” So, I gave up some old chinos to prove her wrong.
“Miguel, I’m glad you made it,” the man in the cardigan says to someone behind me. “Take a look at this.” He points at the boxes I’m filling. “There’s a lot of generosity in this community.”
“Yeah, it’s amazing,” Miguel says right behind me. He’s probably trying to look over my shoulder into the boxes.
I’m done making my deposit, so I step back.
Miguel kind of nods at me, as if he has to thank me. I look him up and down once, quickly. I had heard he was an Iraq War vet who had never really found his way back to normal life. He was pretty distraught about leaving his cats behind in the fire; I guess they were a big deal to him. He seems okay. He murmurs a joke for cardigan’s benefit, smiles, looks down at the box, hesitant to reach in and, I’d guess, seem greedy.
There’s something about him I don’t like. Then I look more particularly at his waist–my 36-inch equal. He has on a thick leather belt, and his stomach pushes over it in the front and on both sides. He is thick and soft. Not obese. Certainly not like a lot of people. But, God, it makes me worry what people think when they see me.
Marta comes over near my elbow. “That’s him,” she says like she just saw Justin Timberlake.
Miguel still hasn’t taken anything. I realize he’s in some other zone, looking at the clothes but not really seeing them. An older woman with suspiciously black hair, who had been lingering at the door, comes up and wraps a hand around his upper arm, as if she’s going to help him walk forward. She whispers to him, and then his tears come out. His head falls. His body shakes with each noisy sob.
Everyone is sort of hushed and watching, as if perched at the edge of a precipice and contemplating the plunge—Miguel being smashed at the bottom already.
Marta wraps her two hands around my one and squeezes hard. She wants to do something for this man, I know. Heal him and show that all of humanity can be healed. “There but for the grace of God…” she whispers to me.
I notice that the older woman has now put an arm around Miguel’s waist, where it must sense the thickness of his middle and the weight of his paunch. What does she make of that? I wonder.