Rodney: Part 3

“It’s the new slim fit shirts,” the store manager said over the phone to the store manager. “He can’t fold them.”

The regional manager didn’t understand. They were shirts, made out of cotton, with a crew neck and two short sleeves. She asked for Rodney.

“These shirts aren’t made to be folded,” Rodney intoned. “I’m sorry. I’m trying. I’m trying to learn how they want to be folded. But I’m, I’m sorry.”

The regional manager tried to say something but heard the rattle of the landline being passed.

“What about all the returns?” the regional manager asked the store manager.

“Oh that. The customers say that when they return to their homes or hotels, they realize they didn’t like the shirts, or they don’t fit right, or the material is too starchy. Or they’re from here and feel ridiculous walking around in an “I ❤️ NY” shirt. We’ve even had customers from other countries email us, asking if they could return the shirts and saying they’d be willing to pay the shipping. We tell them that’d be almost as much as the shirts.

“They like the slim fits, though,” the store manager continued. “Even the people who shouldn’t be wearing slim-fit anything. But they look awful folded. So we’ve had to hang them.”

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Rodney: Part 2

The box on Rodney’s folding station had been opened. Still, it bulged. Rodney pulled it apart. More shirts. But these were different. They had rumpled into piles, whereas the others had slid into each other. They were soft like a memory.

He picked at the shirt where it clung to itself, releasing only to ripple into more magnetic folds. He slid his arms into it and exalted them outward. Then, with a snap, he flapped it against itself, as if to fan the others.

He moved the box and laid the shirt in its place. He smoothed it some more, then grabbed his board. He pinched the right shoulder at the stitch, then the bottom seam with his other hand, and folded. He mirrored his movement on the other side. At the bottom corners of the board, where the other shirts had halted as if called to heel, this shirt had trespassed further before lying down. Rodney nudged it back, and the shirt’s top shrugged at the folding board. He slid shirt and board, bringing the shirt’s bottom onto the table. He tried again. This time the shirt limped into place, and he finished the fold and slid out the folding board.

He peeled the shirt from the tabletop, one hand holding the shirt’s edge while the other’s fingers tunneled under it until the forearm forced a backbone atop which Rodney pressed his other forearm. With this vice grip, he turned the shirt over and laid it down. Also like a memory, it had wrinkled. He tried to smooth it, ironing his fingers along its folds. Back it bulged, in an inhale. He pressed it by hand, with the board. Relentless. He laid the board atop it and left.

In the break room, Sandra and Marty were watching cartoons. The microwave dinged, and Sandra retrieved her Hot Pockets. Rodney took his Gatorade from the fridge and sat down. No one laughed at the cartoon, so no one asked him why he didn’t. He had already seen this episode.

Rodney: Part 1

Rodney didn’t even need a folding board anymore, at least that’s what the others thought. Rodney thought otherwise.

He clutched a clear plastic rectangle around like everyone else. For a time, he decorated his like everyone else too, in his own way. They adorned theirs with stickers and funny sayings and pages ripped from books like Where’s Waldo? or I, Spy. Rodney’s had motivational sayings. Clichés like “A stitch in nine saves time,” “Slow and steady, it’s not a race,” etc. He had come up with a few on his own.

But one day he decided they needed to go. That day Rodney ran his fingers down a slim fit shirt he had folded. The tapered cut could compromise the inside of the fold, bunching it up and bloating the front crease when seen sideways. As he tried to smooth it out, his fingers kept hitting the folding board’s stuck-on sayings, like a speed bump. He stopped. He unfurled the shirt, removed the stickers, went to the break room to wash off the leftover adhesive. Eventually he would ask for an all-new folding board, which the store manager granted him unquestioned.

One day the regional manager had stopped by to inspect the store before it opened. She almost didn’t make it past the first table. The tourist tees were stacked like china. She couldn’t help but to pick one up, to see what a sight its unfurling could be and was, like dye pouring into water. She picked up another, another color, until she had held all the colors. Having undone a half-dozen, she carried them to the store manager to apologize and to ask how the store had achieved such a fold.

The store manager walked the regional manager downstairs to the stock room, past aisles of back-stocked shirts folded identically to those on the front table, and finally to Rodney. Dressed in cargo pants the same sickly tan as his shirt, offsetting his black Reebok classics, Rodney stood in the corner at a folding station that was little more a standing table with hanging rods for sizing stickers. Bent over a folding board, Rodney’s long bangs swayed above a shirt as if to wipe an energy from it.

The store manager introduced Rodney to the regional manager. Then she took a balled-up tee from the regional manager and asked if Rodney would show her how folds it. He did. The regional manager was awed that she didn’t even feel her phone vibrate in her back pocket.

Soon after the store opened, the regional manager stood at the front to greet the customers and see how they received the shirts. A family with young children at first dented the perfection, then a busload of tourists rammed through the rest. The regional manager was horrified and delighted. These were not good shirts. And they were ashamedly overpriced. Yet the people went rabid at them. Many scooped up multiple shirts in varying colors and sizes and proceeded to the cash register, having won. Within seconds of the table’s desertion, an employee rolled up with a cart of replacement shirts and a cart for the remains to take to Rodney.

The regional manager thought back on this moment, this epiphany, months later when looking over the store’s latest numbers. They had fallen precipitously while the number of returns had rocketed. She saw Rodney was still an employee, though his hours had gone down. She called the store manager.