by Tony Kicinski

A torrent of shirts cascaded on top of him. A yellow blouse with a hint of some exotic perfume wrapped its arms on either side, protecting him from two sweaty, smelly blue shirts. How inconsiderate of the owner not to have laundered them. A starched white shirt had the misfortune to fall on the blue ones.

On and on they fell, heavier and heavier. A man glanced at the height of the pile in the bin and checked the weigh scale beside it.

“OK, that’s it for this batch,” he announced as he closed the lid and pulled a lever. With the grind of a hundred rusty gears, the walls of the bin compacted the pile tighter and tighter.

All the air was forced out of him. Beads of perspiration from the blue shirts violated the yellow blouse and almost oozed through to him.

He panicked but was powerless to change his fate. This was the most uncomfortable and frightening experience of his existence. It was even more cramped than his place in a bolt of cloth before he became a shirt.

Straps snapped into place, one wall opened, and the forty-five-kilogram bale jolted down to a conveyor belt. It squealed around a corner, bounded uphill, arced into a cargo container, and thumped among a dozen others. A man jostled it into place.

Periodically, more bales followed. When the container was full, the man clanged the lid shut and locked it.

A Mack truck backed up, loaded the container onto its trailer, and drove to the highway. It sped east to the port of Halifax where a crane lifted the shipping container and swung it beside hundreds of others on a ship bound for Africa.

The ship was similar to the one that had brought him to Canada eight years earlier. A garment worker had created him from a roll of crisp, white cloth. A label on the back of his neck identified him: 15½ – 32, 70% cotton/coton 30% polyester, Made in/Fabrique en Bangladesh. The inspector picked him up, approved his flawless cut and seams, and checked for any droplets of perspiration from the worker in the sweatshop. A packer reinforced his back and collar with cardboard inserts, pinned his sleeves to his back, folded him, slipped him into a cellophane bag, and placed him in a sturdy corrugated cardboard box with his brothers.

That was the last time any light fell on him for two months, until the box crossed the Pacific Ocean on a container ship, traveled by rail across Canada to Toronto, and by truck to a clothing store in a shopping mall in Markham. He found it difficult to be patient in his restrained position until his destiny unfolded.

A clerk put him on display with 15-inch shirts on one side and 16-inch on the other. His whiteness sparkled under the bright, fluorescent lights like snow in winter sunlight.

The next day, a slim, middle-aged man with sparse, graying hair picked him up. He peered and prodded through the cellophane, admired the workmanship, and decided the shirt was to be his. He paid $59.99, more than one hundred times the garment worker’s income for the same shirt.

The man wore him for many years with a navy suit on special occasions. The shirt was proud to participate in business meetings, weddings, and even funerals. When his threads lost their crispness and the buttons and buttonholes loosened, he realized he had become a day-to-day shirt. He worried about his future. The man decided to donate him to charity. After picking up the shirt from the dry cleaner he folded him and placed him in a garbage bag with other retired clothes. The man dropped the bag into a donation bin on the way to work.

A truck made its rounds at the end of the week, and the driver added the bin’s contents to his collection. The truck was almost full when it arrived at a warehouse in an industrial park north of Toronto. “A good haul again this week,” thought the driver. “We’ll get a fine profit from this batch.” He threw his collection onto the heap on one side of the warehouse. At the other end of the pile, a man and a woman inspected the clothes and flung them into one of three bins: almost-new garments for charity thrift shops, good quality clothing for exporting, and fabric for chopping into industrial wiping cloths.

The shirt hoped he would be selected for re-use, and not be humiliated by dismemberment. Fortunately, his condition was still adequate for export.

The bale of clothes crossed the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, traveled through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, and sailed into the Indian Ocean. At times, the fabrics swelled from the heat and humidity, the straps on the bales straining against the steel walls of the cargo container.

The shirt was so uncomfortable for such a long time. He lost all hope of freedom.

Eventually, the ship arrived in Mombasa, Kenya, and unloaded. A wholesaler unpacked the bales and sold them to his team of retailers.

A shop owner bought the bale that the shirt was trapped in and brought it in a friend’s aging car to an outdoor stall.

The Canadian man’s old, white shirt swung in the breeze. He and his companions—yellow, blue, green and many other colors—were like a swaying, shifting painter’s palette. It felt wonderful to be free, with so much elbow room. In the tropical heat and humidity, the wrinkles from the journey fell out and mixed with the dust on the floor.

He caught the eye of a slim, elderly man with graying hair. The man rubbed the smooth fabric between thumb and fingers, inspected the seams, collar and cuffs, and sniffed the cloth. He held him to his arm. The fabric looked even whiter against his ebony skin. He decided to wear him on special occasions, and paid the equivalent of two dollars and forty cents in the local currency.

The man looked at the label. “You were made in Bangladesh,” he said. “How did you travel from there, I wonder?”

The first event that the shirt attended was the wedding of the man’s granddaughter. Everyone at the wedding complimented the man on his fine white shirt, and he smiled and nodded in reply.

After retiring from a busy, computer-filled work life, Tony Kicinski is enjoying the freedom to explore and expand his many interests, one of which is writing. He joined Markham Village Writers and began to compose short stories and to research and record the history of his family. An excerpt from the family history was awarded an honourable mention in the 2008 Days Road Writers’ Workshops “Summer Days” Memoir Writing Contest. One of his speculative fiction stories won third place in the 2012 In Places Between Short Story Contest, and his work has also appeared in Canadian Stories magazine, The Globe and Mail newspaper, The Travel Itch, CommuterLit and Markham Village Writers—The Collects Works. Tony lives in Markham, Ontario. He and his wife delight in spending time with their children and grandchildren, eating in ethnic restaurants, travelling, and cottaging. Tony also enjoys skiing and hiking.