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Red Shirt

by Ellen Collett

The first short story selection by our new guest fiction editor, Ivy Pochoda

Isaka Rwanyabuto does not like the look of the house on Hughes. He re-checks the address against the work order on his clipboard. The stucco is pitted and the house sags as if melting into the hot South Central asphalt. There are grilles on the windows and door and the dirt yard is full of rocks — no, not rocks, he sees, but dried turds. The size and quantity suggest a very large dog or maybe several. The yard says the animals are not cared for. The block is taken up by rusted cars, so Isaka parks his truck around the corner and walks back with his toolbox.

He would be more wary of this situation if he weren't so upset about his shirt. The Phone Company manual states technicians must wear the uniform on all calls. Every night before bedtime Odetta presses his uniform shirt and leaves it on a hanger in the kitchen, along with the ruffled red shirt required for his night job at the restaurant. Americans are odd in many ways but their need that a shirt speak for them he finds childish and superstitious. In Rwanda a man might own two shirts, perhaps three, and these he wears according to when they are washed, and until they can no longer be mended. Here there are separate shirts for each thing. The shirts are allowed voices, and they speak. A few weeks ago Isaka brought home a T-shirt for Samuel, which made his small son weep. Odetta explained the shirt had colors belonging to the Florencia Trey Crips and that Samuel would be beaten if he wore it to school. Isaka took it back and exchanged it for a yellow one with a picture of a footed sponge. He does not fully understand a country where thugs can own a color, but he has experienced thugs and does not take chances.

The red ruffled shirt is wrong with his uniform pants. What it speaks about him is lies. He is not shiny or loud and does not call attention to himself. In the daytime, the shirt brags of a slick carelessness that is false. But on his last job his uniform shirt was ripped from neck to waist when it snagged on a metal climbing peg of the phone pole. He cannot make his final call in only an undershirt. That shirt would speak of him as indolent and savage. In his language there is only one word for shirt; here the shirts have individual names and this one is called "wife-beater", a brutish shameful thing to be concealed beneath something else. So he has put on the ruffled red one that buttons low on his chest. He is not happy with its loose sleeves or the open collar that leaves his throat exposed.

The door is answered by two young black men with rags tied around their heads and the huge pants that seem strapped to their knees. The shorter of the men laughs.

"Yo Cheez, lookahere, they done sent us "Scarface" Phone Man! Nigger be all Tony'd up, he probably go out clubbin' in that shirt, waste him some muthafuckers comin' home." He mimes shooting an automatic weapon, hopping around with the recoil. "Nigger," he says in a mocking voice, "that shirt is tight!"

Isaka does not like the word "nigger" and does not understand why black men here use it to greet each other. Much worse is the boy's reference to clubbing. He realizes the red shirt has made him a figure of ridicule and lawlessness, and that this boy believes he has chosen to look like this, as if to spit on his job.

The one named Cheez doesn't smile. He points down a narrow hall to a door that leads to the basement. The house smells of dog and rotted food and a chemical tang that sticks in the back of his throat. From behind a closed door comes the thumping bass of a rap song and the sound of too many people in a small space.

Cheez watches Isaka all the way down the hall then turns back to stare out the grille of the door. Isaka sees the outline of a gun in the boy's back pocket where his pants have slipped to his knees.

The basement is dark and suffocating. Isaka switches on his flashlight. The phone box has no cover and the wires have been chewed through; rat droppings are everywhere. From above him he hears laughter and a new song that sounds no different than the previous one, just the same slow thump, thump, thump.

Isaka knows he must call in, relay his location and get out of this filthy house, past the unsmiling boy upstairs. He reaches for his handset unit — and then remembers he has put it in the pocket of his uniform shirt. Which is a block away in the truck. The detestable red shirt of slick polyester and no pockets sticks to his chest with sweat. It amazes him now that in the air-conditioned restaurant at night he has loved this shirt, loved how it slides like silk against his skin. Carrying fragrant plates of curried goat and plantains though the tight spaces between the tables has felt like dancing. In the restaurant what this shirt says about him is that he is elegant and pleasing. Here, in this underground rodent hole, it snickers he is foolish. He heads back up the stairs.


As Isaka opens the basement door he hears running footsteps and shouting from outside and the sound of guns. Boys in sagging pants pour out of a room to his left. Everyone is yelling and shooting through walls. The only word he hears is "muthafucker!" which everybody is screaming at once so it forms a chant and sounds like prayer.

Isaka shuts the door and kneels in the dark on the filthy stairs. He has been in such a situation before, but it was in another country. And it was not so loud. When the madu hits human flesh the sound is wet, like cutting fruit, then a soft crack as the nail-studded club shatters bones. He closes his eyes and tries to imagine himself someplace cool and silent and far away. Samuel has memorized a poem for the speech contest, one about a man who stops by a forest on a night when it is snowing. Isaka has never seen snow before, is not sure he believes in it. And it is difficult for him even to imagine being cold, but he tries because it requires concentration. The scar on his face beats with blood like a drum.


After a time, Isaka becomes aware the gun sounds have stopped. With his eyes closed he has felt himself in that snowy forest, but imagined the snow black so as to hide. He cannot remember the words of the poem, but thinks it is about regret, and he can see Samuel's little face concentrating as he speaks them. He takes a breath, then cracks open the basement door.

Down the hall he sees the boy named Cheez. He has been shot in the leg and is crying. A pitbull laps the blood that pools around him. A policeman is speaking into a walkie-talkie, and other policemen are pulling handcuffed boys out of the house.

Isaka steps into the hall with care and is knocked to the floor. He feels a knee in his back and his arms are wrenched behind him and tied together with a plastic cuff. A man is calling him "asshole" and telling him he has the right to remain silent though he has not said a word. He tries to explain he is with the phone company.

"Yeah, and I'm with Avon." The policeman pulls Isaka to his feet by the cuff. "Ding-Dong."

Isaka has no idea what the policeman means. He explains his I.D. is in his truck. The policeman calls Isaka a joker and takes him out to the sidewalk with the other handcuffed black men.

They are all loaded into a van and driven to the 77th Street police station. One boy with a red bandana asks who Isaka is and Cheez's friend says he's the phone guy. The red bandana laughs. "Bad timing for you, nigger. Hey, we gonna tell them po-lice you the badass gangsta muthafucker run that house. We just be doin' what you say cause you O.G. and we young'uns all scared of you and shit."

The rest of the boys howl as if it's a party in the van.

At the police station Isaka is photographed in his red shirt. He is fingerprinted and checked for outstanding warrants, then put in a cell with the others. He is told he may make a phone call, but he discovers the telephone has been vandalized. He could fix it if he had tools, but he is tired of being laughed at when he mentions the phone company. Prisoners are taken upstairs one at a time to make their calls and the process is slow. There are at least 15 men ahead of him and it is several hours before Isaka is able to call his supervisor.

When he finally gets his call he is forwarded to an automated system. A recorded voice asks him to press number after number and he is transferred from digital place to place without ever speaking to a human. He begins to understand why people hate the phone company. When he has exhausted all the options for finding a person to help him, Isaka hangs up.

Back downstairs in the cell, he is given a baloney sandwich for dinner. Odetta and Samuel must now be sitting over bowls of stew at the little kitchen table he salvaged from an empty lot. In Kigali such a table with its shiny legs and speckled top would be a prize men might fight over or even kill for. When he walks Samuel to school in the mornings, they make a game to count the broken sofas left out on the sidewalks here. Some are missing cushions and scarred with cigarette burns, like victims of an interrogation. But they are not yet done for. They may be sat or slept on still, and if a man has the strength to carry one home he may claim it without a fight.

Isaka leans his head back against the wall of the cell and prepares to sleep. Odetta does not expect him home from the restaurant till late. She will wait up for him in their tiny kitchen, warming the iron to press his shirts for tomorrow. She will not panic when he does not come. People do not disappear here.

Next to Isaka, an old man shakes like a kicked dog and talks to somebody who isn't there. Isaka suspects he is a drug-taker or perhaps simply crazy, but the rhythms of his voice are like a lullaby.

"It ain't none of my business and surely not none of my baby," the old man is saying, "but I believe Angel herself done killed that child. I surely would like to know why she telling people I done it. I surely would. I did dearly love that girl once, but now I wish I would never laid eyes on her. I wish I would never have walked past her mama's house and seen her up on that porch, Lord God, yes, I surely would."

Isaka finally remembers a line from Samuel's poem. "The woods are snowy, dark and deep", he says aloud.

"You damn right", the crazy man says, "but that don't mean we ain't going in there."

Original artwork courtesy Rob Grom.

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Articles in this Issue

Red Shirt, by Ellen Collett
The Anatomy Lesson, by Bill Hayes
The Fallen Sky, by Christopher Cokinos
Zombieology, by Michael Atkinson
Photography, by Maureen Ann Connolly
Communications, by Kyle Boelte
August 2009


Ellen Collett graduated from Yale and works at the L.A.P.D. She's finishing her first novel.

Where loss is found.

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