by Louis Gallo
In 1954 my Uncle Alphonse took the bus to Goldberg’s Men’s Clothiers on Poydras Street where he bought a new Arrow dress shirt, sparkling white with stern isosceles collars. It cost three dollars, a lot of money in those days. He unfolded it, picked out each pin meticulously and flapped it back and forth for airing. He hung it on a sturdy wooden hanger and told Aunt Cecile he would wear it only on special occasions.
He didn’t wear the new shirt to his birthday party in 1954, four months after he bought it. He said the shirt was more important than any birthday, especially at his age. Nor did he wear it on Easter Sunday to church nor to his fortieth anniversary of marriage nor to Christmas mass or the New Year’s Eve party. Uncle Alphonse did not wear his new shirt in 1954 but he dropped some moth balls into its front pocket and routinely admired its texture, brilliance and fresh starchy smell. In 1955 he did not wear the shirt to his first grandson’s baptism—and again, not on his birthday, Easter or Christmas.
He didn’t wear the shirt in 1956 or 57, 58, 59, to observe the death of Stalin or the Korean, War, Ike’s re-election, Elvis on Ed Sullivan, the invention of tranquilizers, Civil Rights, the Interstate Highway program, the launching of Sputnik. ‘He’s waiting for the new decade,’ Aunt Cecile chuckled. But on New Year’s Day 1960 Uncle appeared in one of his fuzzy, old and slightly faded flannels. ‘This isn’t the right time,’ he mumbled gloomily. The shirt had become a family joke by now. Uncle Alphonse did not celebrate Kennedy’s election, the Beatles in New York, Viet Nam, the assassinations, Chicago, Watts, the hippies, Neil Armstrong’s giant leap, not in his new white shirt anyway.
In the seventies Uncle did not wear the shirt when the war ended, when Nixon resigned and Jimmy Carter lusted in his heart, when Disco killed rock and roll or during the Bicentennial. He had become morose and secretive about the shirt, hid it in the darkest corner of the closet, sealed it in black plastic, sprayed it with mist to stave off dry rot. He did not wear his shirt to Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, nor to the baptisms and confirmations of more grandchildren, the funeral of his mother and Aunt Cecile’s operation. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the shirt still looked new, flawless and elegant, though perhaps a bit quaint.
And here’s where I come in—Uncle first let me see it around this time. He’d taken a fancy to me and sensed I would understand—I did, even if it’s hard to explain. When the fishhook started to shred Uncle’s gut and Chernobyl exploded, he turned yellow and coughed a lot, told me in a rare moment of levity that his skin would never match the shirt now. And something else: ‘Don’t let them bury me in it. What’s so special about death? Wear a new white shirt only when something really grand happens.’ They buried him in a black suit and blue turtleneck sweater. Aunt Cecile had already given me the shirt. ‘He wanted you to have it,’ she said. ‘I thought we might see him wear it to the Resurrection, but I guess I was wrong.’ Now it hangs in my closet, pristine as moonlight, immune to time, beautiful. It won’t surprise me to wait forever but one of these days something really grand is bound to happen. The moth balls are still pungent.
Louis Gallo’s work has appeared or will shortly appear in Wide Awake in the Pelican State (LSU anthology), Southern Literary Review, Fiction Fix, Glimmer Train, Hollins Critic, Rattle, Southern Quarterly, Litro, New Orleans Review, Xavier Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Missouri Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Mississippi Review, Texas Review, Baltimore Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Ledge, storySouth, Houston Literary Review, Tampa Review, Raving Dove, The Journal (Ohio), Greensboro Review, and many others. Chapbooks include The Truth Changes, The Abomination of Fascination, Status Updates and The Ten Most Important Questions. He is the founding editor of the now defunct journals, The Barataria Review and Books: A New Orleans Review. He was awarded an NEA fellowship for fiction. He teaches at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.