Walt's Yellow Shirt
Walt was going to ask his boss for a raise, so when his shift at the balloon warehouse ended he went to Sears and tried on five or six button-down shirts. The weight he had put on complicated his effort; he was stuck in no-man’s land, somewhere between large and extra large. Finally, with half-hearted assistance from the teenage sales clerk, he settled on a solid, banana yellow short-sleeve shirt with two pockets, one for his pen and the other for his order forms.
Walt wore it out of the store. He was so eager to parade in front of his wife Rita that he forgot to remove the price tag. He tossed the frayed plaid shirt with pen marks on the front pocket onto the passenger seat, put on his sunglasses, rolled down the windows on the Toyota, lit a joint and turned on his favorite Oldies’ station. On his way home, he stopped at the Wawa on Route 35 and picked up a few things: a six-pack of Budweiser, a box of Entenmann’s chocolate donuts, a gallon of milk and a bag of cheese doodles.
Walt parked in front of his house, tossed his head back and pulled on his joint; he was so lost in the Fleetwood Mac song that he didn’t see Rita standing in the driveway, wrestling with two bulky trash bags. Rita called out to him: “Can you bring these bags out back?” Walt shouted over the radio: “What did you say?” Rita scowled; her nose flared, and to Walt she looked like Sister Mary Theresa, who spanked him with a ruler in front of his second grade class for having scrawled “The Beatles” on the spine of his Good News Bible. “Never mind. I’ll do it myself.” Walt leaped out of the car and tracked Rita down, taking hold of her elbow. “Please Walt. I got dinner on the stove. I don’t got time for your games.” It was Thursday so that meant meatloaf, mashed potatoes and string beans in tomato sauce. He watched her limp to the backyard, dragging both bags behind her and thought about how his raise still wouldn’t be enough to pay for her hip replacement.
They were plowing through their dinner, but just before Rita shoved the last piece of meatloaf into her mouth she blurted out, “Marie is in the hospital again. It doesn’t look good this time.” Marie and Lorenzo Marchese lived on the first floor and had been renting the second floor to Walt and Rita for nearly twenty years. Rita carried on about Marie, but Walt wasn’t really listening; he was preoccupied with the rent that was already a couple of weeks late, wondering if he should slip the check under Lorenzo’s door or wait for him to come home from the hospital and hand it to him as he had on the first Monday of every month; in return Lorenzo occasionally handed Walt a bag of zucchini and tomatoes from his garden. “I made the sauce with Lorenzo’s tomatoes,” Rita announced. “It tastes really good, honey,” Walt responded. He didn’t want to splash tomato sauce on his yellow shirt, so he’d taken it off and draped it over the empty chair between them. “Do you notice anything different?” Walt asked. Rita pushed her chair back and inspected her husband. His tight white undershirt had a large hole, exposing a patch of black and gray hair in the middle of his chest: “We have got to stop in at Sears this weekend and get you some new undershirts. That one you’re wearing, Walt, is from the year of the flood.” “Not that,” Walt implored and then like a game show host, he turned toward his yellow shirt with outstretched arms, his face a beaming “tada”: “Isn’t it spectacular?” Rita studied the yellow shirt for a long time: “It’s awfully colorful, Walt.” “Thanks. It feels really good on,” he replied and then turned back to his meatloaf. When he looked up, he saw Rita staring at her plate, gripping her knife and fork in each hand; he figured that she was upset that he’d spent money they didn’t have.
After dinner, Walt read the newspaper and dipped chocolate donuts into milk, while Rita did the crossword and watched Entertainment Tonight. He wondered if she was thinking about Marie. “Would you like another donut?” Walt asked. “No, but I wouldn’t mind some cheese doodles.” Before handing the bag to Rita, he poured a handful into a napkin and placed the pile next to his glass of milk. “Walt, next time get the crunchy kind,” Rita requested as she wiped a speck of orange spit from the coffee table.
Walt scheduled a late Friday afternoon meeting with his boss, hoping that he’d be in good spirits in anticipation of spending the weekend at his summer home in Long Beach Island. “That’s a sparkling shirt, Walt,” his boss remarked. “It feels really good on. You know what I mean?” Walt replied. He praised his new shirt, but he was just stalling, trying to summon enough courage to make his appeal. Walt started selling balloons during his final semester at college. It was supposed to be a temporary gig, while he pursued his music, but after receiving a handful of rejections from record companies, he decided that it wasn’t meant to be and despite Rita’s objections, he packed it in for good. The meeting was brief; his boss never stood up from his enormous oak desk. Walt’s request had been denied, but his boss promised to reconsider at the end of the month when the commission checks were distributed.
Walt parked in front of the house, tossed his head back, lit a joint and sang along to Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” He thought about how he was going to break the news to Rita who was standing in the front window, rubbing her palms on her apron and gazing at the street below. Sunset was her favorite time of day; it was when she liked to spy on Marie and Lorenzo, strolling arm-in-arm down the block -- Marie took wide strides so that Lorenzo had to quicken his pace.
Walt was in the shower - his yellow shirt draped over the toilet seat so it wouldn’t wrinkle. Rita entered: “I brought you a Dr. Pepper.” She set the can down on the yellow shirt and inspected her face in the mirror. Walt popped his head from behind the shower curtain and inspected Rita. He hadn’t noticed the two heavy bags that had settled underneath her dark eyes. She pulled a shred of beef from her capped front teeth, having lost them in a bicycle accident when she was ten years old. “Do we have any beer left?” Walt asked. He assumed that Rita had interpreted his request to mean that he didn’t get the raise, and that they’d have to postpone her operation again.
Rita was scrambling eggs when Walt entered the kitchen, buttoning his new yellow shirt: “I was waiting for you Rita, but you never brought my beer. And you put the Dr. Pepper on my shirt and look what happened. It made a ring.” The phone rang. Rita answered it, but in the process spilled some yolk. She hung up, started mopping the floor and announced, “That was Lorenzo. Marie died last night.”
A glob of ketchup fell off Walt’s fork, landing on his shirt. In a state of panic, he rushed to the sink, slipped on the wet floor and nearly broke his neck. Rita hobbled to the refrigerator and poured seltzer into a dishtowel. Walt was smearing the spot with a dirty sponge when Rita pushed his hand aside and started dabbing: “There. It’s like brand new.” Walt considered returning the shirt, and now that there wasn’t a stain there was still a chance.
“Did Lorenzo mention anything about the rent?” Walt asked, but he didn’t notice that Rita was crying. Walt couldn’t understand why Rita was so moved by Marie’s death; they weren’t friends; in fact, they argued over trivial things like the parking space in front of the house. Marie had claimed that the spot belonged to the landlord. Rita didn’t talk to Marie for a long time after that. Walt put his arm around Rita’s shoulder, but when he pulled her into his chest her fake pearl earring fell onto the floor. “I’m sorry, honey,” Walt apologized. He got onto his hands and knees and scoured the kitchen floor. When he got back to his feet, Rita was standing in the front window, rubbing her palms on her apron and looking down the street. Walt put the earring in his shirt pocket, sat back down at the table and finished his American cheese omelet.
Walt couldn’t remember when he became interested in college football, but he rarely missed a Notre Dame game. He placed a bowl of Ramen noodles, a handful of Saltines and a can of Budweiser on a tray, and just as he situated it onto his lap, the Fighting Irish had surrendered a touchdown on the opening kickoff. Notre Dame’s inauspicious start didn’t discourage Walt. Even if the Irish would go on to lose, at least he had the next three hours to himself, nursing his cold, while Rita was attending Marie’s wake.
By halftime, Notre Dame was down by three touchdowns, so he turned down the television and put a Van Morrison record on. He thought about the steady gig he played at the local bar during his last year at junior college. Every Monday night, he took requests from the drunken clientele. He’d forgotten the song Rita had requested the night they had met. It might have been “Crazy Love,” as Rita claimed, but he wasn’t entirely sure. He was beginning to nod off when he caught a glimpse of the upright piano tucked away in the corner of the living room. He plucked himself out of the easy chair, turned off the stereo, slipped into his yellow shirt and plopped down on the bench. Having been acquainted with some of Elton John’s more popular songs, he opened the songbook and turned to “Rocket Man.” His fingers collapsed onto the dusty keys, pounding an E minor seventh chord. The piano needed to be tuned, so he returned to his recliner and watched the halftime report. It was only Saturday afternoon, but he was already dreading Monday morning and bumping into his boss.
When the game was over, Walt never once cheered; he turned on the USC game and picked up the newspaper. There was a robbery at the dry cleaner on Route 9, and the owner had been killed. Walt had always liked the way Mrs. Huang smiled at him; it reminded him of the way the girls at the local bar smiled when they requested he play a song.
Rita returned from the wake with a quart of orange juice and a bottle of NyQuil. She was wearing the only dress she owned. Walt couldn’t remember a time when the wrinkles in the sleeves weren’t there. He thought her black dress made her look old; he tried but couldn’t picture Rita’s youthful face, the way she looked the night they met.
“She looked good. She really did.” Rita was searching for something positive to say. Walt found the comment to be insipid. “How’s Lorenzo doing?” he asked. “He’s devastated. How do you think he is?” Walt pictured Lorenzo, kneeling before his wife’s casket, holding her hand the way he once held Rita’s as he told her of his return from the Korean War, one hand gracing her palm, the other resting on top, his thumb stroking her knuckles.
“Anyway, I invited Lorenzo to dinner tomorrow night,” Rita shouted over the screaming college students who had their team’s colors, maroon and gold, smeared on their youthful faces and emaciated chests. Walt wondered if Lorenzo had asked Rita for the rent check.
Lorenzo knocked three times before letting himself upstairs where Walt was sitting at the kitchen table, clipping coupons, and Rita was stirring the peppers and onions and singing along to James Taylor’s “Carolina In My Mind.” Walt detested the way she sang out of key. Lorenzo thanked Rita for her gracious invitation and handed her daisies, a bag of zucchini and tomatoes, and biscotti that his cousin sent him from Naples. He presented Walt with two bottles of Montepulciano, but he didn’t have a corkscrew, so Lorenzo retrieved one from his apartment and was back upstairs before Rita finished filling their plates. “It smells divine,” Lorenzo exclaimed. Walt wondered if he was just being nice. Rita scraped more pepper steak onto Lorenzo’s plate than Walt’s. “That’s a handsome shirt, Walt.” Walt thought that he was just making polite conversation but thanked him anyway and slid a plate of white bread in front of him. “Here’s a dishtowel, Walt. You don’t want to splash anything on your new shirt,” Rita suggested. “Do we have any Dr. Pepper,” Walt asked, tucking the checkered towel into his shirt collar. “You might enjoy the wine I brought,” Lorenzo suggested. “I’d love some wine,” Rita exclaimed. “It’s from the Tuscany region. Have you been to Italy, Walt?” Walt and Rita had never been out of the country. They wanted to go to Bermuda for their honeymoon, but it was hurricane season, so they settled on Wildwood instead. “Not yet, Lorenzo,” Walt responded, “but someday. I hope.”
After dinner, Lorenzo brought up his cappuccino maker from downstairs and made one for everyone. Walt didn’t touch his. Lorenzo took hold of Rita’s hand, placing one of his hands underneath her palm, the other resting on top, while his thumb stroked her knuckles. While Lorenzo reminisced about his boyhood summers in the Gulf of Naples, Walt grew irritated with Lorenzo, so he intervened: “It’s really a shame about Marie. How long were you two married anyway?” Lorenzo dropped Rita’s hand, hung his head and stared at a green pepper on the linoleum floor. Rita scowled at her husband. When Lorenzo looked up, his face was flushed and his eyes were red. Rita handed him a napkin and held his hand. Walt had never seen a grown man cry. “She was a lovely woman, Lorenzo,” Rita declared. “Sixty three years. I don’t even remember my life before Marie. What am I going to do now?” Walt was surprised that an eighty-four year old man could be so emotional. He thought about giving Lorenzo the rent check, thinking it would either distract him or cheer him up. Rita knelt down before Lorenzo, clutching both of his hands and consoling the old man. Lorenzo put his head on her shoulder: “She was the love of my life.” Walt thought that Lorenzo’s tears made him look younger. Rita put her arm around Lorenzo’s waist and escorted him downstairs. From behind, Walt thought Rita looked like Marie.
Walt knew that Rita would stay with Lorenzo, listening to the same stories he loved to tell like how he and Marie had fallen in love at first sight on the boardwalk at Seaside Heights. Walt hung up his yellow shirt, stripped down to his white cotton underwear, opened the window and crawled into bed. He had been asleep when Rita slipped in beside him. She pulled the sheet over her head then grabbed his hand and pulled it to her chest. Her sobbing shook the bed so much that Walt couldn’t fall back to sleep. He patted her head: “What’s wrong?” While he waited for her reply, she cried herself to sleep. Walt listened to Rita’s snoring, but in the distance he could hear Lorenzo’s sobbing—his bedroom was just below theirs—and then the old man cried out, “Marie, Marie.”
One rainy Monday evening, Walt was sitting at the kitchen table in his white undershirt with the hole in it, peeling the label off a Dr. Pepper bottle and trying to find the courage to talk to Rita about rescheduling her hip replacement again. Rita was frying liver, whistling something that was intended to be melodic, but Walt couldn’t recognize the tune and didn’t bother to ask what she had been whistling. He noticed a leak in the ceiling above the refrigerator. “I have to talk to Lorenzo about that leak,” he complained. Lorenzo had been staying with his only daughter, and they hadn’t seen him since their dinner.
Walt and Rita heard a whimper coming from the top of the stairs. They were surprised, frightened even, to see Lorenzo sitting there, sobbing. “Lorenzo, what are you doing here?” Walt asked. Lorenzo didn’t answer; he stood up, nudged Walt aside and walked past him. Rita said, “You’re dripping wet, Lorenzo” then pleaded with Walt to get a towel and a dry shirt for the old man. “Would you like to join us for dinner? There’s an extra piece of liver,” Rita asked her landlord. Lorenzo entered the three backrooms: the master bedroom, where he opened the closet and several drawers before looking under the bed; the bathroom, where he opened the linen closet and peered into the medicine cabinet and tub; the storage room where he looked underneath an old keyboard that Rita had given Walt on their first anniversary. “Where is she?” Lorenzo asked. “Rita’s right here,” Walt responded. Lorenzo opened the kitchen cabinets, the refrigerator and the oven, then walked into the living room, got onto his hands and knees and looked under the couch. “Did you lose something?” Walt asked. “I know she’s up here. I heard her laughing. What did you do with my wife?” Rita asked Lorenzo to take a seat, but he wouldn’t give up his search for Marie. He opened the closet in the hall, pulled out Walt’s corduroy blazer, peeked inside the pockets and walked into the dining room, opened the doors to the china closet, and before he closed them, Rita took both of his hands, pulling them to her chest: “Lorenzo, dear, your wife passed away. Marie is in a better place now.” Lorenzo hung his head and turned away, then he spotted the piano and walked toward it; he pulled out the bench, lifted the seat and looked inside: “Would you tell Marie to come back home? It’s our anniversary.”
Lorenzo played a major scale then shouted at Walt, “Why did you take Marie away from me?” Walt pulled the rent check from his back pocket and was about to hand it to his landlord when Rita gave him an order: “Will you get Lorenzo a towel and a dry shirt, Walt?” Walt withdrew to the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed, hoping that Rita would escort Lorenzo downstairs. He wondered if Lorenzo’s daughter was planning to take over the house and raise their rent. Lorenzo shouted from inside: “You already have a wife. Why did you have to take mine?” Walt opened the closet and took the yellow shirt off the hanger. He hadn’t worn it in a while, but he liked knowing that it was hanging in the closet. He put it on; it was tight in the mid-section, so he left the two bottom buttons unbuttoned and looked at himself in the mirror. He ripped it off and was about to toss it in the trashcan when Rita’s earring fell out of the pocket. He got onto his hands and knees and scoured the floor, eventually finding it underneath the bed next to a ball of dust. Walt was rolling the fake pearl between his fingers when he heard several sparkling notes coming from the living room. He could neither detect the composer nor the piece of music, and it was so technically demanding that even when he had been playing regularly, he didn’t have the skill to pull it off. At first, he thought that it might have been Rita, who played a long time ago, but by the musician’s skill, he knew it couldn’t have been her. How could an old man make an out of tune piano sound so extraordinary?
Walt stood underneath the arch in the living room, mesmerized by Lorenzo’s playing. He stared at Rita who was sitting on the bench next to the musician. Walt was clutching his yellow shirt in one hand, the fake pearl in the other. He thought about draping the shirt over Lorenzo’s shoulders, but Rita’s arm was there, so he put it on, leaving it unbuttoned. Lorenzo whispered, “I haven’t played this in years. Not since Marie’s first operation. It cheered her up.” “I didn’t know that you played, Lorenzo,” Rita claimed. Rita’s upturned face was illuminated by the yellow moonlight that was streaming in the front window. Walt thought that she looked younger, the way she had the day she thought she was pregnant. “It’s a beautiful piece,” Walt asserted, “just beautiful.” Lorenzo played effortlessly. He looked at the window and said, “I think the rain has stopped.” Rita skipped to the front window and tossed it open; a sturdy breeze blew her black curly hair into her eyes and when she turned around, she nearly tripped over Walt who was down on one knee. He took hold of her wrist, tucked the fake pearl into her hand, and stroked her knuckles with his thumb. “You’re beautiful, Rita,” Walt stated, “just beautiful.” Rita pulled her hair from her eyes and remarked, ”I don’t got time for your games, Walt.” She limped back to the bench, took her seat next to Lorenzo, and put her hand on his shoulder, while Walt stood behind them, thinking that he’d find a way to pay for Rita’s operation.