I am not ready, but you drag me into the light anyway. You are gentle, and for this I am grateful. You treat me with respect. You fold my arms properly and set me on top of the box. You must be sad and you could not be kinder to me, and yet I am not ready and do not want to go.
From my position, I see all around. I am outdoors, on a table with dusty cheap glassware, bent-up harlequin romances, board games held together with masking tape, a toaster oven, a shoebox filled with cassette and VHS tapes, a pair of sneakers. The other clothes I lie on are ugly, dryer-shrunk, mostly forgotten. Fuzzy sweaters, polyester shirts, acid-washed jeans. I try to learn their histories but they are feebleminded. Most of them sat in closets almost from the day they were purchased, knowing only wire hangers, mothballs, and darkness. They are terrified by the sun and by the passing pickup trucks filled with furniture. When they are unfolded and handled, they mutter and whimper. I, on the other hand, have stains, worn spots, loose threads, and a stuck zipper. Can the other articles boast such history, such connection, such experience?
You, Evelyn, sit in a lawn chair with a book in your hand and a coffee can of change under your seat. It must have been hard to place me out here, with the Bargain Hunters looking coldly and ravenously, like hawks and vultures. They hope you are a sucker. But you and I know my value. Though I have hung in the closet for three years, the pride I feel for gracing Ernie’s shoulders will not die.
A large-bellied man approaches me. I would not fit him, not in any sense. He looks over the table with dispassion. In seconds he has taken in everything. He knows what he wants and does not find it; I can tell because of the look of pity and scorn he wears as if to tell you that you are the amateur selling junk. How dare he, Evelyn! He thinks you naive. I trust you to see this. He is about to walk away when he sees me. I feel icy horror. The man snatches me, unfurls me, probes me inside and out with his eyes and fingers. He tests my zipper and frowns. He runs his hands over my beige fabric, noting the chocolate stain from when Ernie’s ice cream landed on me, and the blood stain from when he fell off of his bike. The man holds my “Members Only” tag up near his face. I feel my strength draining; in his hands, my stains and holes feel dirty and trashy. I try to cling to the memory of Ernie, to your memory, but it is so hard. He looks at me as though I am junk, and I feel like junk.
“Two bucks,” he says.
“I paid fifty for that,” you say. Thank you!
“Sure. A couple of decades ago,lady. How much you asking?”
“No less than twenty,” you say. I am shocked. Don’t take a hundred dollars for me! I will not go with that man.
“Twenty. You gotta be kidding. I’ll give you three. No one wants these anymore.”
“You do,” you say, your tone even. “No less than twenty.” He tosses me on the table and walks away with a snarl. I relax. I was not ready, Evelyn. Please bring me back inside.
When you hold me in your hands to refold me, I can sense that you want to bring me back in, too. I would return to the hanger in the front closet, and it would be as if Ernie still lived here. But you set me back into the box. Fine. Just find me the right person.
More come. A little boy buys a board game; a young woman paws through the tapes and cassettes. No one touches me, and we both feel a glimmer of hope that I will return in the evening. I take up so little space but mean so much to us! But after lunch, a young man, black-haired and gaunt, approaches me. He looks a little bit like Ernie, only with darker eyes and a lip ring. He smiles and you return the smile.
“Hey,” he says, and “Welcome,” you reply.
The young man’s eyes move over the table, and he picks out some cassette tapes. Warrant. Poison. Cinderella. He tucks Ernie’s copy of “Labyrinth” under his arm.
“I’m Evelyn,” you say. “What is your name?”
“Cort,” he says, extending a hand, and you shake it. His resemblance to Ernie is unnerving.
“Are you looking for anything in particular?” you ask.
“Well, they got this club at school, see, an Eighties Club. They kinda talk about Eighties stuff and watch movies and listen to music and stuff. You know? It’s pretty cool.”
“Oh? Are you in that club?”
“Not yet. I just moved here and I don’t really know anyone. I just want to bring some stuff to the next meeting so I can fit in, you know?”
I remember when you bought me. Before that time, I knew little. Bright lights, sewing machines, boxes, department store racks, they all blend into one confusing infant memory. But I became what I am on Ernie’s sixteenth birthday. You had been too poor to even buy him a birthday cake. But he had wanted me so badly, had begged for me, and though you could not afford it, you bought me in hopes that I would end the ceaseless teasing he endured at school. Of course, I know this, Evelyn; how could I not after sitting on his shoulders every day? His knowledge became mine, and though I failed to earn him any friends in school, he and I connected far more intimately than he would have with a classmate. This must be why you have kept me in the closet for three years, because getting rid of me would be, to you, getting rid of Ernie.
“I bet you weren’t even alive in the Eighties,” you say, and Cort grins.
“Just missed ‘em. Born 1990.”
He is not Ernie, and yet I do not feel uneasy when he sees me. I sense a great…rightness, that he should look on me so. You lift me. Cort is dazzled.
“No way! A Members Only!”
“It was my son’s,” you say. “He used to wear it every day.”
“I’ve heard of them but I’ve never actually seen one.”
“Well, when my son was your age, everyone wore them.”
“And they’re, like, collectibles now. I’ve only got twenty bucks on me, but I can run home and see if my parents will lend me the rest. However much you want for it just—“
“I’ll tell you what,” you say. Oh, Evelyn, I know what you’re going to say and I’m afraid. “You’re a nice young man. If you don’t tell anyone, you can have it for free. I want you to have it.”
A wide smile spreads on his face, making him look more six than sixteen. Cort is so happy and I struggle between the joy I bring him, my own fear of leaving, and the sadness I know you must feel.
“Are you sure?” he says. You nod and pat his hand.
“I hope the people in your club like it, too.”
Cort slips me on his shoulders and I feel an instant at-homeness there. We fit even better than Ernie and I had. The perfect fit is beyond the shoulders, chest, and sleeves. I can still remember Ernie, but it is as though he is falling behind me, and I immediately begin soaking in Cort’s memories and thoughts. He thanks you three, four more times, and I thank you as well. Evelyn, I will go with Cort now. He chatters about the club at school and about Eighties memorabilia. You listen but I know your mind drifts again. Ernie would have wanted this young man to have me; of this you are certain. For three years since his accident, I have hung in the closet, knowing I would never feel his arms again. I thought you could not let Ernie go. But perhaps I could not let you go, because without Ernie I would have been mere junk. You were not keeping Ernie, I was keeping you, to not fall into the hands of someone who did not understand or care. After being given memory and history, I will not be cast off. But Cort is worthy, and I am ready to be passed along.
Adam Knight is a writer and teacher in northern New Jersey. His debut novel, At the Trough, was published in 2019 by NineStar Press. His fiction and essays have been published in a number of publications, including Bacopa Literary Review, Daily Science Fiction, Escape Pod, and Arcturus Review.