The Sweater

February 28, 2011
At first, all I could do was stare.

“What the hell is this?”

“Jake,” Mom warned, “watch the language.”

“But Mom,” I protested. “Look at this — this . . .”

“Piece of s***?” said Dave.

“David!” Mom cried.

“It is a piece of s***,” I asserted. “Who even makes something this hideous?”

We stared into the box once more, and it was like looking into an abyss. Tucked among folds of gaudy sparkling wrap, It sat in a vision of pink and red. If those colors weren't the only crime, it wouldn't have been so terrible; it was what sat on top the sweater that looked worst.

Stretched across the chest on its side was a hot pink violin that had been knit separately and then sewn on. The violin's neck stretched beneath the sweater's armpit so that the scroll at the end stuck out of the wearer's back, and a giant bow made up the collar. In addition, the sweater was needlessly adorned with puffballs and shining treble clef charms that stuck oddly out from every corner of the shirt.

“That's a gift from your grandmother,” Mom said. “I know she doesn't always know what to get people for their birthday, but . . .” Even Mom's words seemed to fail her.

I thunked my head on the kitchen table. “I guess I'm supposed to write a thank you card, then.”

“Of course you are, dear. That would be polite.”

“But how can I thank her for . . . for this?”

“The same way you thank her for all her gifts. Remember that lawn gnome she sent you for your tenth birthday a couple years ago?”

“Yes.” It still sat out in our garden, hidden behind the largest of our rose bushes.

“You were able to write a very nice letter to her after she sent it to you.”

“But that gnome serves a purpose,” I said. “After all, Sparky needs something to piss on when it's cold outside.”

Mom shot me another glare with her eyes. There's something about mothers — they could kill you with a look, if they only learned to harness that power.

“You're being a bad role model for your brother,” she said. Dave looked at her innocently with his big eyes, still chewing his Goldfish. “Just write the usual letter to your grandmother and we'll be done with it. The stationary is in the cupboard.”

“What am I, a girl?” I said. “A five-year-old girl? I don't think I've ever even touched a violin. I play the oboe!”

“When people get older, they sometimes forget things or make them up.”

“But why do I have to suffer for it?”

“Jake, we're done talking about this.”

That meant the conversation had to stop. I made a big show as I sighed and slumped back in my chair.

“Can I burn it?” I asked.

“Absolutely not — you'll stink up the house.”

I went back to thunking my head against the table. It seemed to help more than actually doing anything.

Dave pressed his little hand to my forehead. When I looked at him, he patted my head and imitated Mom by wagging his finger.

“You'll get a goose egg,” he said, and set a hand to his own head. “It hurts.”

I groaned. “I'll write a letter,” I said, “but there's no way I'll wear the thing. Maybe I can give it to someone else instead. There has to be a Goodwill somewhere that will take it.”

“Good luck,” Dad muttered from behind his newspaper.

“Maybe I'll go do that now,” I said, “since there's no one around to celebrate my birthday. Come on, Dave — we're going for a ride.”

I have a summer birthday. That means I usually spend a lot of time inviting a bunch of my friends to pool parties that they never come to. I really like getting to splash around at the outdoor pool in the summer, but it's no fun to go by yourself (or when you're only with your family, which is just as bad as going by yourself) because everyone else is off traveling to the Wisconsin Dells or Florida. The same thing happened this year — fifteen invitations, and no go. Everybody was at band camp except me.

So Dave and I piled on my bike under the sun and made our way across town in weather so hot the pavement might have grilled my toes. Dave wore the helmet and sat on the seat while I stood and pedaled, my own helmet hanging from the handlebars. I promised Mom I'd take a helmet, but that didn't mean I had to wear it.

We made our way to the Goodwill easily enough. I pulled in through the broken-up back parking lot and propped my bike against the side of the building. Holding on to Dave with one hand, and carrying It in the other, I pushed through the glass door and heard the clanging of an old Christmas bell that hung from the inside handle.

A tall, skinny lady with the kind of glasses that have chains talked to me.

“Can I help you?” she asked. Something about her sounded familiar. Come to think of it, I knew I'd seen that beaded chain around her neck before, but I couldn't for the life of me remember where.

I held out the sweater at arm's length, trying to keep it as far from Dave and me as possible.

“Do you want this?” I asked.

The lady raised her eyebrow. “Is that yours to give away, Jacob Papenfuss?” she asked.

Oh, crap. How did she know my name?

I tried to take another good look at her without staring. Her hair poofed out a little like Elvis Presley's, and even in the summer heat, she wore a purple sweater with buttons on it.

But I couldn't remember her name, or where I knew her, so I pressed on.

“It was a present for me,” I said. “And I don't want it.”

The lady rolled her eyes. “That's always why people give things away. Who ever buys clothes they like and gives them to people who can't afford them?”

“Well?” I said, “will you take it?” I felt a little like I was holding a gun at her when I held out that sweater.

She took it in a pinch between her finger and thumb.

“Stay right were you are,” she ordered, watching me before I could even bolt for the door. “I'll be back in a minute.”

She disappeared from behind the counter and slipped into a room off to the side. Of course, I followed her.

Dave tugged at my arm. “But Jake!” he said. “She told us to stay here.”

“Then you stay,” I said. “I just want to see what she's up to.”

I slipped to the door and peered around the corner. In a big, open room, stood a group of four old women — older than the one at the counter — with short white perms, giant glasses, and pearl earrings. They all hunched over giant piles of clothing, picking things up, looking them over, and tossing them into one of two piles. The first pile looked like a bunch of really normal clothes: things like sweatshirts and plain T-shirts. The second pile looked like a box of Crayola paints had puked all over the floor — fuzzy things that might have been sweaters, pants in seven different patterns, and one green stocking large enough to fit Dave inside.

The lady held my sweater — Grandma's sweater — before the group of older women. All four of them took it in their hands, turned it over, and passed it on to the next. The whole thing was creepy-quiet.

At last, when the final lady had looked it over, she returned it to the lady.

“No go,” she said. “This isn't even worth throwing out.”

“Very well.” The lady turned around.

I scrambled back to where Dave was, trying not to pant when the lady returned to her spot behind the desk.

“Sorry,” she said, holding it out to me. For a moment, I was tempted not to take it — to run once more. But Dave was watching, and I'm not supposed to teach him to be irresponsible. So I took it, feeling my face burn in shame.

“Thanks anyway,” I mumbled. Mom would have been proud of me. That was the worst part.

“Have a good day, Jacob,” the lady said.

I tried to look through the window again on the way out, just to see if I could remember where I knew her. No good — I kept drawing a blank.

“So what do we do now?” asked Dave.

I looked around the parking lot. Against the side of the building, there was a pile of garbage bags like the ones I'd seen in that second room. A large sign outside the door said: “Donation Drop-Off.”

Well, it was better than bringing it back home with me.

I crept over to the door, set the sweater atop the bag, and dashed for my bike.

“Where are we going?” Dave asked.

“No time to talk!” I said. “Just get on!”

I tore out of the lot and down the road so fast I had to slow down after a block so that Dave wouldn't fall off. But the wind was in my hair, the shade from the trees spilling into the streets. I was free at last!

Mom looked up from the skillet as Dave and I walked through the back door into the kitchen. I could smell my favorite lunch — omelets.

“How'd it go?” she asked.

“Great!” I lied with a smile.

“Good. Just don't forget to write that letter and pretend you kept it.”

“I know, I know.”

Dave looked ready to open his mouth, but I handed him a bunch of grapes from the fruit bowl instead. Food was the only way I knew he wouldn't talk — and even then, I wasn't always sure.

Mom finished making omelets and set them out on the table. I opened a chilled can of diet Coke from the fridge and savored the rush of sugar. Even Dave sat quietly, playing with the melted cheese on his fingers. It was perfect.

Then there was a knock at the door. For some reason, I found it very hard to swallow my last gulp of Coke, and I wound up coughing it up.

Mom asked if I was all right, and when I nodded, she made her way over to the door. Someone was knocking quite loudly. Through the window above the door, I could recognize a poof of Presley-like gray hair.

“Don't open it!” I coughed, watching her move toward the door.

“Why not?” she asked — and opened it anyway.

The lady from the Goodwill stood in the entryway, and in her hand was my sweater.

“Mrs. Haleck,” Mom said. “What brings you here?”

“You'd think after we'd attended the same church for fifteen years, your son would finally recognize a member of his own congregation,” Mrs. Haleck said with a sneer.

Mom didn't answer. I could only imagine the face she was making.

“As kind as it is for your son Jacob to donate to our store,” Mrs. Haleck continued, “I believe I already informed him that no one was interested in taking this item. There was a woman who thought her granddaughter might like it,” she said, “but then she remembered that her granddaughter plays trombone, not violin.”

“It isn't very Christian for you to refuse charity,” Mom noted.

“Well it also isn't very Christian for you to raise a liar,” Mrs. Haleck retorted. She thrust the sweater into Mom's hands, and took the door handle.

“Good day, Mrs. Papenfuss,” she said.

And just like that, Mom got our own door slammed in her face.

Dave and I didn't say a word as Mom very quietly walked back into the kitchen. She gingerly set the sweater on the edge of the counter and pulled off her apron. I could hear the clock ticking on the wall, and our neighbor's dog barking from the yard.

“Now can I burn it?” I asked.

Mom sat back down and folded her hands in her lap.

“I won't advocate arson in front of your brother,” she said firmly. “But if I ever see Mrs. Haleck again, and Dave is out of sight, you may burn anything you like.”

And with that, she picked up Dave. “Come on,” she said; “why don't we go read a book?”

She looked over her shoulder at me before leaving the kitchen.

“Jake, you do whatever you want with that old sweater — just remember to keep the fire department's number handy.”

I almost jumped out of my chair as I heard her go upstairs. I was outside in another blink.

I took the dreaded sweater with me and went to the front of the house to look through our bushes for some good, loose sticks. As I began to dig around, I heard the tiniest gasp come from beside me.

A little girl stood rooted to our sidewalk. In one hand, she held on to her mother — in the other, she carried a tiny violin case. Her eyes were locked onto something, something I was holding on to. I lifted the sweater. Her eyes rose to follow it. I moved the sweater to my right, and her head turned to keep it in sight.

“Do you want this?” I asked.

Silently, she nodded, eyes still wide. Her tiny fist gripped her mother's index finger. In her eyes, I could see that spark. It said: “In my few years, I have seen many wonders, but none such as this. My entire life has been a waste; the achievements I have amassed are ruins in comparison to this vision. I must have that sweater. And if I do not, so help me, I will scream until your head pops like a balloon.”

The mother picked up her daughter's sense of urgency and pulled out her checkbook. “How much?” she asked.

My brain turned off. I blinked. I stared. But I knew enough to shake my head. There was no way anyone would pay for something as stupid as this, right?

“It's not for sale?” her mother asked. I could see the girl's face scrunch up the way Dave's did when we told him he couldn't eat ice cream before dinner. She would start crying any minute.

“This won't cost anything,” I said. “I got it as a gift. You can have it for free.”

The scrunchy face was gone, and she broke into a smile. With her mother's permission, she ran up to me and took the sweater with her free hand, hugging it to her chest and snuggling with it like a teddy bear. The charms bobbled all over the place and sent little white specks of light all over the sidewalk.

“Emily,” her mother said, “what do we say?”

“Thank you!” she cheered.

“No problem,” I said.

Even though it was the middle of summer, Emily set down her violin case and pulled the sweater over her head. It was large enough to be a dress on her — but then again, so was her smile.

“Thank you, young man,” said her mother.

“No prob,” I said with a clipped wave. The last thing I needed was some woman like my mom fawning over what I'd done.

As Emily and her mother walked away, I turned to go back into the house. On the porch, I saw Mom standing with Dave, who'd fallen asleep on her shoulder. She smiled and held the door open for me as I came back inside.

“Nice job, Jake.” She set a hand to my cheek, and for once, I didn't duck away. “I'm proud of you.”

I didn't say anything. What was there to say, anyway? But I felt a little grin pull at my mouth, and so I let it loose and shrugged modestly.

Then Mom handed me a box of stationary. “Now write to your grandmother,” she said.

I groaned and went into the kitchen.

Join the Discussion

This article has 3 comments. Post your own now!

Jayanna said...
Mar. 7, 2011 at 9:25 pm
I liked it ;) I could just imagne the little girl :P So cute :) keep writing , love your style :)
IamtheshyStargirl said...
Mar. 4, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Awwww, I loved this :D Your writing style is very engaging, I was hooked all through this story, even though it's not something you would consider a thriller.

Thanks for writing this, I really enjoyed reading it.

amtpinkpanda This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Mar. 3, 2011 at 11:10 pm
hey! I like it! it was very realistic. i could practically see the boy pedaling away from this horrific gift.
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