The Handkerchief Shirt
A Short Story by Susan Sidell
May 11, 2022
The sticky humidity had burned off in the oven of the city sidewalks when Jazmyn strapped on her second-hand roller skates. The party guests were gone and Jaz breathed in the friendly loneliness. Now that she was ten years old, Jaz would no longer have the court-required babysitter. She was on her own during the long summer days until school started.
She poked at the frayed spot in the lace and squinted at it. Should she knot the edges of the string together now or wait until it broke in half? Her nimble finger rubbed the rough edge of the tarnished lacing hook that had shredded the dirty gray lace. Maybe she could put some tape over it to cover the toothy edge. Momma wouldn’t be buying new shoelaces, not for a toy anyway. Jaz would have to take care of these skates herself.
She kicked her laced skate out in front, admiring the hum of the spinning turquoise wheels, then poked her finger into one and felt the soft rub against her fingernail as the wheel slowed. She caressed the worn bumper stop, rubbing the asymmetry of it and thinking about how it must have looked, its former owner spinning and skidding to a stop on pointe like a ballerina. Jazmyn imagined herself on a smooth wooden floor, music blaring and pounding, beautiful smiling people spinning around her in circle after endless circle. She could see the infinity of sparkling lights from the mirrored ball dancing across her face like freckles as she spun and stopped on these turquoise toes.
A warning wind slapped the sleeve of Jazmyn’s handkerchief shirt against her face and brought her back to her front stoop. Looking down the concrete canyon, she could see the late afternoon thunderstorms building and could feel the moisture in the gusts that whipped her billowing sleeves. She finished lacing the other skate and rubbed at a dark gray scuff marring the toe. Maybe Mrs. Brown next door would have some shoe-white that Jazmyn could use to cover up the scuffs. Mrs. Brown had lost her son a year ago. She’d hardly come out of the dingy metal door that covered her porch since, except to go to church and the grocery store. Mrs. Brown went to the Catholic church a few blocks over, while Jazmyn and her mother went to First Baptist next to her elementary school. Still, maybe Jaz could sit out on the steps this Sunday and show Mrs. Brown her skates and Mrs. Brown would offer the shoe-white to make them look new.
Jazmyn grasped the chipped railing and hoisted herself up. Her feet slipped back and forth like sliding on ice. Jazmyn lurched forward, taking big, clomping steps with her weighted feet. She lurched across the sidewalk and into a tree, grasping it with both arms to hold herself up as her feet jigged beneath her. Jazmyn felt the rough gray bark dig into her cheek as she held tighter and tighter to the tree, her feet dancing further and further away. She squeezed her eyes shut against the inevitable fall.
A soft flutter kissed her nose. Jazmyn opened her eyes to see the red kerchief print of her giant sleeve flapping in front of her face. She watched the red paisleys edged with tiny white lace flap like a flag, gently whacking her nose. Come! Play with me! Jazmyn laughed at the sleeve and held her arm out, forgetting she needed both arms to keep her from falling. Her laughter filled her head with a magic air that floated her body up, forcing gravity to release its hold on her. The white skates with turquoise wheels floated above the cracked sidewalk and slipped under her. Jazmyn laughed again and held out her other arm, freeing that sleeve from its crush against the tree. In the gust of the coming thunderstorm, the freed blue paisley sleeve flipped in front of Jazmyn and high-fived its red partner, blue and red paisleys thwacking each other in delight.
Jazmyn brought her hands together, watching the sleeves slide up her arms in the gust. The red sleeve played peek-a-boo with the scar on her elbow, its equally red skin still fresh and smooth; the sticky outline of the old bandage still evident on her scrawny arm.
Jazmyn opened her arms out wide and the next gust pushed her backwards. She gasped in shock at the unintended locomotion and pulled her arms in close to capture the sleeves against her body. The entire world deflated; the dancing joy fizzled out of her like the air of an old balloon. Jazmyn looked at her skates. A moment ago they were magic carpets, now they were heavy as her school backpack, dragging her down, down, down.
Jaz tested a skate, pushing her foot a centimeter in front of her, feeling the large crack in the sidewalk grab her wheel and refuse to let it go. She lifted the captured foot gingerly, feeling its heavy tug on her timorous ankle. The other skate protested at doing all the work and threated a walk-out, insisting it would take Jazmyn’s knee down with it. Her eyes grew wide with fear and she stomped the lifted skate down and willed her feet to be still.
Don’t look down the paisleys danced around her eyes. Trust us
Jazmyn’s throat felt tight. She was afraid of falling and needing stitches again, of Momma’s anger at having to leave work and pay a doctor again. Her breath came in tiny gasps and her eyes began to pulse with her heartbeat. Momma would be furious if she had to come home from work when she had just started her shift. No, Jaz shook her head, she was ten now, she wouldn’t make Momma come home just to take care of her, she wasn’t a baby. Jazmyn slowly began sinking to the ground. She needed to get these skates off, to walk back to the stairs and to the railing. Maybe she could put the skates on again after she arrived at the sturdy concrete steps, and clutch the safety of the railing; just stand there and keep her wheeled feet underneath her. Skates don’t spin endless circles on broken concrete and dirty windows don’t sprinkle an infinity of lights across your cheeks, anyway.
She slowly bent both knees, keeping her feet in a rigid lock against the large crack in the sidewalk. She reached her arms down to the ground. She’d sit down and unlace the skates. Momma might notice her socks being extra dirty if she walked in them to the steps so she’d better take them off, too. Bare feet scrubbed up easier than socks.
Just as Jazmyn’s hand touched the ground, the red paisley flapped, snapping across Jazmyn’s face and pushing her glasses hard against the bridge of her nose. Don’t give up
Jazmyn’s head snapped back in surprise. The wind was gusting hard enough to make her eyes water, or maybe that was from her glasses hitting her, but the enormous sleeves hung down from her arms and waved gently. Jazmyn watched the paisleys dance, flapping each other, then wriggling away like the fish she’d seen at the aquarium on the end-of-school field trip.
Let’s go, the sleeves said.
Jazmyn lifted her fingers from the ground and felt the air rising in her chest again, lifting her body up as it had done moments ago by the tree. She stood tall, her eyes not on the cracks that would break your mother’s back, but on the crosswalk that was a hundred, a thousand blocks away, where no buildings towered over her and the grass let anyone walk and sit and step on it without getting yelled at.
Jazmyn stretched her arms out again and felt the quiver of excitement from her paisley red and blue handkerchief sleeves as they slowly stretched out into the wind. We are sails! We can go anywhere, here or there, anywhere!
Jazmyn kept her head lifted, her eyes on a faraway point of nothing. She felt the sailing sleeves tug at her arms, pushing them forward, while the gusting wind flattened her shirt hard against her back. She strained to keep her arms out wide, to let the sail-sleeves stay full. Without looking, she could see them flap in approval as they filled with wind and her body began to roll forward gently on the magical turquoise wheels. The wind blasted stronger and stronger and the lightening crackled behind her as the storm entered the neighborhood. Jazmyn kept her arms out wide. Her red and blue paisley handkerchief sleeves pushed her forward toward the place where the light sparkled and the breeze danced through the trees, rattling the leaves in a rhythmic beat. She rolled through the crosswalk and onto the next block, the sunshine breaking through the trees like a million little lights, no, an infinity of sparkling lights dancing across her face like freckles as she spun.
Special thanks to Reedsy.com for offering this list of prompts to get the imagination going.