By Andrea Greenbaum
As soon as Liz sees the denim jacket, she knows it’s April’s. April’s boyfriend, Miles, had painted it and given it to her daughter for her 15th Birthday—her last one. It was from a Led Zeppelin album sleeve, but she wasn’t sure which one. The image on the back showed a bearded, elderly man, hooded and cloaked in white, holding a lantern with a glowing, yellow, six-pointed star. He stands on a rock, clutching his staff, apparently illuminating the way, either for himself or for someone else; it’s difficult to tell. Black symbols are drawn on the rock. April used to play Zeppelin on the stereo. “You need coolin’/baby I’m not foolin’/I’m gonna send you/back to schoolin’.” Liz thought the lyrics were clever for a man who probably only had a high school education.
In the seven months since April died, she recognized that the world had divided: those who were fractured by grief and those who weren’t. Everything on the other side seemed trivial now: the world of grocery lists, of petty conflicts with co-workers, of house cleaning. She has practiced, through mimicry and discipline, to construct a façade of normalcy. Mourning is finite. It has a shelf-life, an expiration date, like a carton of milk. Friends no longer ask her how she’s doing. No more meals or sympathetic phone calls. The cards stopped coming months ago. But the night of April’s funeral, she had not yet learned how to masquerade, didn’t have the vocabulary to fake it, and when, after the service, she lay in her bedroom, her eyes nearly swollen shut like a boxer’s, and the crowd gathered at her house, she heard a faint laugh in the dining room, and she lost it.
Furious, she nearly tumbled down the stairs. “Get the fuck out my house!” she repeatedly screamed to the room of mourners, as Bill apologized. They grabbed their coats and purses and headed for the door. She’s not herself, he said. I’m so sorry. The next day she told Bill she was going to stay at the Motel 6 until he packed up all of April’s clothes and got it the hell out of the house. Didn’t she want anything? No. Nothing. Get it out, she told him. And two days later, she returned to April’s empty closet.
And yet, here it is. She caresses the jacket on the rack, smelling it, hoping it still retains her daughter’s scent. It doesn’t. It smells like the Salvation Army: moldy, used. She takes it off the rack and puts it on and walks to the cashier.
When it’s her turn, the cashier glances up politely. “Would you like me to put that in a bag?”
“No. I want to wear it.”
“Let me see the tag.” The woman puts on her reading glasses and lifts the tag. It occurs to Liz that she hadn’t even looked at the price. Did it matter? The cash register rings twenty-five dollars.
Liz parks the car in front of the blue, ranch-style house. She walks through the gate, up the small path, and pushes the doorbell. When no one answers, she tries peering through the lace curtains, and finally she sees a figure languidly making its way to the door. Once it opens, it takes Miles a few seconds to register. “Hey, Mrs. Cooke,” he says. He is taller than she remembered.
He looks down at her. Waiting for an explanation.
“Can I come in?”
“Absolutely. “ They stand awkwardly in the hallway; Liz notices that his mother has shit taste. A plastic-covered, pink peppermint couch, on a horrid pink and white shag carpet.
“I don’t mean to be rude, and please don’t take this the wrong way, but why are you here, Mrs. Cooke?”
“I was wondering if you had any other jackets. You know. To sell. ”
“You want to buy a jacket?” Miles runs his fingers through his long hair and cracks the gum in his mouth. She remembers now that he was always chewing gum, and she told April that it drove her crazy the way he would snap it when he spoke to her. “I thought you didn’t like me.”
She ignores this. He’s right. She didn’t like him. “Have you done any other jackets? I’d like to see your work.”
“A few. Made some dough. Do you want to see the latest?”
He leads her up the stairs and opens the door to his bedroom. She sees the blacklight posters of bands: Led Zeppelin, The Stones, Jefferson Airplane, the Who. His clothes are strewn on the bed, the floor. A bong on his nightstand.
“I didn’t know I was having company,” he apologizes.
“Don’t worry about it.” There’s no place to sit, just a bed, dresser, nightstand, so she shoves a pile of his clothes out of the way, and she sits uncomfortably on the edge of his bed.
He opens his closet, and lifts out a denim jacket, holding it in front of him: An old man with stringy hair, disheveled, a bum, is hunched over, clutching his long jacket closed. The shape of his face, she thinks, is demonic, the eyes looking surreptitiously, hiding from someone or something. One hand reaching into his coat, to pull out . . . what? Menacing and dangerous.
“Jethro Tull, Aqualung,” he offers, and he drapes the jacket on the bed, then he kneels to sort through the albums that are splayed on the floor. He finds what he’s looking for and holds it up for her to examine. “Not bad, right?” He points to the Aqualung cover and smiles at her with his perfect, post-braces teeth.
It’s not bad. She sees that he’s talented. An artist. “It’s beautiful. May I?” He smiles consent, and she reaches for the denim, tracing her fingers along the painted man. He is coarse, and she can feel the dried, hard, paint straining against the softness of the denim. “This looks familiar.”
“I bought April the album before…” and he trails off, realizing that he brought up the name he shouldn’t utter, the Tetragrammaton. “Shit. I’m sorry.”
She nods, and she can feel the swelling of tears about to break. She won’t let it. She wipes her eyes, but it’s clear she’s crossed over.
Miles sits down on the bed and takes the sleeve of his flannel shirt and dabs her eyes. “I don’t have any tissues. You can blow if you need to. I don’t mind.”
His kindness overwhelms. She leans in and kisses him, gently feeling his lips on hers. He kisses her hard, in the only way a seventeen-year-old boy can, the way she remembers being kissed, and when he slips his tongue in her mouth, some tightness inside of her releases. He leans in, and she feels his erection, urgent, pressing, and she can breathe, like she’s no longer underwater. Her amputation cauterized. She’s alive, she’s kissing a boy. April’s boy, and mingled with the Wrigley’s she tastes the sweetness of her baby on his tongue, evaporating as rapidly as it appeared.