A Short Story
I didn’t think much of it at first.
It was just a jacket. An old, ugly leather jacket with an asymmetrical zipper and flat wool lining around the cuffs. The material along the collar was cracked peeling like chapped lips. The hazelnut color had darkened over the years to a filthy greyish brown. Worst of all was the smell- a stale, musty odor which most likely came from it having been worn on the backs of sweaty, chain-smoking men for generations.
But as far as my grandpa John was concerned, it was good as new. The obvious signs of wear and tear never bothered him. Most times he acted like they didn’t exist. What mattered most, he’d say, was that the jacket managed to survive for so long.
Now that last part may seem a little strange but allow me to explain. My grandfather, John Gibson, had gotten the jacket on Christmas day in 1954, about a year after he’d returned home from Korea. My grandmother, Susan- I knew her as Nanna Sue- bought it for him as a welcome home present. The year prior, she’d been mesmerized at the sight of a leather-coated, leather-gloved and motorcycle-toting Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and since then had recurring fantasies of her husband clad in similar garb. These lustful visions popped up quite often, both in her dreams and while she was wide awake.
At some point, she decided enough was enough. She saved up a few extra dollars from her job as a salesclerk and snaked through every clothing store in town until she found what she’d been dreaming of. What she eventually wound up with wasn’t a perfect match, but hey, you take what you can get (and what you can afford). Fast forward to a brisk winter’s morning in a small crummy apartment in northeastern Georgia, and John Gibson receives what would eventually become a grim staple of our family tree.
Grandpa wore it everywhere after that- family outings, date nights with Nana Sue, football games, barbecues, New Year’s Eve parties, his sons’ graduations, his best friends’ funerals. Wherever he went the jacket came with. It became a second skin.
The two parted ways in the summer of 1990, when a heart attack put my grandmother to rest at Gordon Hills cemetery. I don’t remember much about her funeral. I was only five or six at the time. When I try to bring these memories forward, they come in quick flashes, like claps of lightning. I remember my father sobbing, his face buried in his hands. It was the first time I’d ever seen him like that, and it terrified me. My father always seemed like the type of person who was determined to carry himself as a man who would never break. And there he sat- painted black by his tux- folded over and weeping like a child.
When I close my eyes, I remember a brightly lit room. The scent of roses permeates the air as I stand trapped among a sea of grieving faces. People speak with sad, quivering voices as a piano played a mournful melody somewhere in the distance. My grandfather stands over a dark blue casket, a sullen expression engraved on his face. He’s wearing the leather jacket over a cheap black suit. He leans down, presses his forehead against the wood, and whispers something I can’t make out. Since then I’ve wondered what all he’d said to her. As an adult, it’s easy to guess what those words were.
Everything else is a blur. If only the memories that came after were just as much so.
As time went on, I noticed the jacket had made its way onto my uncle’s shoulders. Uncle Jasper was a jovial guy, the most spirited one of the family and the most juvenile. It’s funny because he looked so much like my dad- tall, slim build, short dark hair, kind eyes- but personality-wise, they couldn’t have been more opposite. Jasper had spunk, whereas my father preferred to stay grounded. If I had to count how many times his stupid pranks (most of which I may or may not have been a part of) or tasteless jokes got on my parents’ nerves, I’d need a few extra pairs of hands.
He wore the jacket like grandpa John. He dragged it along to wherever his misadventures took him- bars, clubs, casinos, every grimy and lowly place you could imagine. He raved about how warm it kept him in the winter, and how much more of a stud he looked with it on than grandpa. Grandpa John humorously agreed. Uncle Jasper continued boasting until one late and stormy August evening, when he was struck by a drunk driver.
His death was a hard reality to swallow. One minute he was here, with us, and the next he’s laying six feet underground next to his mother. At his funeral, my grandfather once again muttered something to himself when he approached and knelt over his son’s grave. Once again, I didn’t hear what those words were.
My father was next in line to inherit the jacket. He held onto it for a while, mostly keeping it tucked away in the bottom of a cramped closet at the back of our house. Years passed. During that time, my mother decided that she didn’t want to be a mother anymore. Based on the muffled shouting I’d often hear from the other side of the wall that separated their bedroom from mine, she was tired and woefully unhappy. The love she’d once had for her husband had faded into obscurity. She left quickly, and I never saw or heard from her again. I was thirteen at the time. My father did his best to keep on with things. Usually he had a colorful cocktail of pills and whiskey to help his stay emotionally afloat. Within the first few weeks of my first semester of college, his methods laid him side-by-side with uncle Jasper.
Then it was my turn. No one was left. I got the jacket on Christmas Day. It was neatly folded inside a recycled cardboard box and sealed tightly with several layers of scotch tape. I could barely bring myself to act surprised or happy when I opened it. The last thing I wanted was for it to be anywhere near me. The jacket was an eyesore. Just looking at it brought back memories of a past that hurt even to think about. But it made grandpa John happy, so I managed a small smile. He smiled back.
The months dragged on. Winter bled into Spring, Spring blossomed into Summer, and after the Summer succumbed to Fall, the autumn season dried into an even harsher winter. The jacket remained untouched inside the cardboard box and hidden away, this time underneath my bed in my apartment.
On a crisp January evening, a group of college friends invited my roommate Rosa and I to a fancy dinner party at a place called Bellaforte’s. It was a high-end Italian restaurant located a few miles north of campus. The place was small but exquisite looking, and it was usually brimming with snobs and socialites.
“Yeah, the prudish ones are pains in the ass to deal with,” Rosa said. “But I promise you’ll be so plastered on red wine that they’ll be nothing but a blur by the end of the night.”
“You need this,” her boyfriend, Chad, had said. “You need some time away from the dorm. Get some fresh air at least.”
It was true. My father’s death had left me with little to no motivation to leave my room, even for classes. The dinner party was a chance to get out there and socialize and get my life back on track. At the same time, my mind was stranded on a dark cloud. It kindly declined the invitation, but when I opened my mouth to say it aloud, what came out was a phonilyenthusiastic, “Sure.”
The afternoon of the party, I dug frantically through my closet for something to wear. The best thing I found was a long-sleeved white blouse, a pair of dark blue skinny jeans and beige-colored wedges. I wrapped my strawberry blonde hair into a messy bun and drew on a thin layer of eyeshadow and liner. All I needed was a jacket. Problem was I couldn’t find one anywhere. I tore through my closet and Rosa’s, and sifted through piles of dirty laundry. The only thing I found was my grandfather’s jacket, and I’d much rather freeze to death.
The time on my phone flashed 7:30pm. Rosa had left early to stop by her parents’ house and had promised to swing by and pick me up on the way to Bellaforte’s. She’d be there any moment now, and I didn’t have the time nor the money to get a new coat.
It’s only for tonight, I thought. A defeated sigh escaped my lips as they muttered, “It’s only a jacket”.
I pulled it from its hiding spot, doused it with a few puffs of fruit-scented body mist, and slung it over my shoulders.
It was dark by the time Rosa and I arrived at Bellaforte’s. Yellow artificial light poured through the windows. As people passed through the main entrance, the hum of friendly chatter spilled out onto the street. Our dorm-mates stood outside the restaurants, looking fashionably refined and cigarettes hanging from a few of their mouths.
As I approached them, a stout, short-haired woman stumbled up to them. Her doughy frame was wrapped tightly in a cheap-looking black cocktail dress. Her face was greasy with one-too-many layers of makeup. I knew who she was, but vaguely. Her name was Martha…I think. It was either Martha or Martina. I didn’t care much for her, so I didn’t make the effort toremember her actual name. For now, I’ll call her Marthina. Miss Marthina was a regular at the bars around campus. She was a vigorous socializer and wild child. People liked her manic energy during tailgates, parties, raves and so forth. All other times, not so much.
Before I could greet the group, Marthina stepped in front of me, slapping her hand onto my jacket and laughed. “What do you think you’re doing?” she slurred. “You can’t honestly think you can go inside wearing this hideous thing. You look like some pathetic old hag!”
It was a stupid insult, one better suited for bickering seven-year-olds on an elementary school playground. Though it hit like a sucker punch to the chest. Panic washed over me at that moment. The next thing I knew I was running, rushing through the cold and the dark and an endless sea of random voices. When I reached the apartment, I yanked off my grandfather’s jacket and tossed it into the large garbage bin sitting on the curb. I couldn’t have it near me anymore. I was done. I was done thinking about Nana Sue, Uncle Jasper, my mother, my father and my entire family whenever I looked at the jacket. I was done having all those years of pain and sadness draped over me.
I never went back to Bellaforte’s after that. The rest of the evening was dominated by an air of relief, and I felt like a crushing weight had been permanently lifted off my shoulders. I was free.
A two weeks later, I came home from work to find grandpa John sitting on my front porch. He barely acknowledged me. He was mostly still, just looking solemnly down at the pavement with his hands clasped together.
“Grandpa?” I asked. “Grandpa, what’s wrong? Did something happen?”
When he looked up at me, his eyes were stained red and glossy with tears. “My friend,” he said softly. “My friend is dead. Pete, Pete Upchurch. You may not have remembered him. Too young probably. I’ve known him for over thirty years. His funeral is in a couple of days. I need the jacket.”
I drew in a deep breath. “I don’t have it anymore, grandpa. But I can buy you a new one. I just got paid this week.”
“You did what?” he asked. He shook his head as though he didn’t believe me. “No. It has to be the one I gave you. Where is it?”
I stood silent. I began mentally rehearsing what I had no choice but to say. After a minute, the words finally slid off the tongue. “I got rid of it. It’s gone, grandpa. For good. I’m sorry.”
It came slowly, hesitantly, and yet with little remorse. My grandfather picked up on the latter quickly. As the words unraveled, he grew more and more despondent. He winced, and aftera moment he began sobbing. My anxiety sprung to life.
“But it’s just a jacket, grandpa.” The crack in my voice reverberated through me as my eyes welled with tears. It’s just a hideous jacket. As the thought crossed my mind, I could feel myself breaking. I couldn’t breathe properly. The taste of salt soured my tongue as tears flowed furiously down my cheeks and over my lips.
At that moment, I finally understood. I looked at my grandfather, and he locked eyes locked onto mine as we grieved. The jacket- that old, hideous leather jacket with the bad zipper and peeling surface- had managed to survive all these years. Everyone we loved could not.