December 27

All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt


Mason endured a harangue from the latest indignant passerby, a librarian-faced woman with a fake leather coat pulled tight over her stick-thin torso.  She shivered with anger, rather than from the cold, as she accused his sidewalk booth of exploiting other people’s tragedy, declared that his merchandise was crude and offensive and probably illegal as well.

The stack of T-shirts had set her off, particularly the “I Survived The Apocalypse &…” designs.  Good thing she didn’t notice the bumper stickers.

“Don’t like it, then don’t buy it.  Move along.”  Clearly she wasn’t a potential customer, so he didn’t need to be polite to her.

“People died, you know.”

“Oh really?  I hadn’t realized.”

Cath almost snorted at Mason’s mock-innocent delivery.  She put her hand over her mouth and faked a cough.

“You should be ashamed.  You should both be ashamed.”  At this the woman finally decided to give up, and she huffed away down the sidewalk.

“Have a nice day,” he said.

Cath smiled.  “All the crazies latch onto you,” she said, and he knew his girlfriend got a kick out of watching them yell at him.  Whenever people had complaints, they went straight to Mason, assuming he was the guy in charge and that the whole sick thing was his idea.  Well, they were mostly right about that, even if it was kind of a sexist assumption.  Cath got to sit back and wait out each impromptu protest; but whenever there were sales, the payment usually got handed to her.

Mason refused to feel guilty.  Sure, the T-shirts and mugs and stuff were in bad taste — but you could say the same about a lot of humor.  People don’t want to wear slogans like “A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned” or “Every Cloud has a Silver Lining” or other boring crap.  Even before the Apocalypse hit, his best sellers were rude shirts proclaiming “My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Roll Kid” or “Jesus Loves You, But He Thinks You’re Ugly.”  The more outrageous the better — and what could be more outrageous than selling joke shirts about the Apocalypse, a few days after it actually happened.

Somebody had to do it.  The first guy to market always did the best business, and Mason already had an established “Sidewalk Sale” routine.  He had an inventory of bulk T-shirts from the Save Lots, a cheap cotton blend, and he printed out heat-transfer designs on his home inkjet.  The image would start to fade after a dozen washings, but by then the novelty would be over — or civilization itself, if the weather and radiation trends continued as expected.

All last night, he and Cath took turns, one person sweating over the ironing board with a Sunbeam set on steam, while the other person scoured the Internet for images and slogans to repurpose with some apocalyptic twist.  The “Nuclear Family” design, with skeleton or mutant variations, was already a top-seller.  A “Keep Calm” shirt was also popular, complete with a stenciled handprint — bloody and six-fingered, of course.  A simple outline of the state, with a mushroom cloud superimposed over it, and fallout shelter icons marking the larger cities, did better than Mason expected.  It wasn’t their most elegant design, slapped together at the last-minute.  But people really liked t-shirts that mentioned where they lived.

A college kid was rushing past the display, but he stopped himself once one of the shirt designs caught his eye.  His school-mascot windbreaker was unzipped, and Mason noticed he wore a competitor’s faded T-shirt underneath:  the image and slogan weren’t quite imaginative or offensive enough to have come from Mason’s table.

“Hey, that one’s pretty good.”  The student pointed at a shirt that parodied a popular TV comedy, all the friendly cast members turned to ash in their favorite coffee shop.  The potential customer bounced on his feet like an athlete anxious for the next pass, or someone needing to find a restroom.

Or, running away from something terrible.

The guy waved a hand over Mason’s merchandise table, leaned forward and said, “You might want to add a few zombie items.  Just sayin’.”

Mason raised an eyebrow.

“Reports are just coming in,” the guy said.  “It’s apparently pretty bad.  Happening everywhere.  Catch you later.”  And he ran off.

Cath raised a hand over her mouth — not to stifle a laugh this time.  She looked around at other casual pedestrians.  Some of them were running.  In the distance, a few of them were shambling.

Mason got an idea for a new shirt.  He scribbled a quick image and slogan on the back of an order sheet, then held it up for Cath to see.