Once, my dad tried to give me the jacket the Army awarded him for serving in Korea. It looked like a varsity jacket, soft blue felt, pale arms. On the back it said, I know I’m going to heaven because I’ve been to hell. I was fifteen, and I thought a lot of my dad, where he’d been and how he’d built each of my family’s three houses with his bare hands. And there he was, trying to give me the jacket that stood for all of that. Son, he said, you have it.
I was a greedy little shit. I took it.
As soon as I did, a man grew inside the jacket. He had my red hair, my freckles, my short legs with big shoulders. But he was older. He looked upright and clean cut. He wore fancy shoes and his hair swept to the side in just the perfect way I’d never been able to produce.
Son, he said, I’m the man you could be. He saluted me.
I was horrified. I shoved him and the jacket into the closet, scaffolded on a hanger.
The next day, getting ready for school, the sleeve of that jacket whacked me in the face. The man kept grinning at me. I looked at the stupid skull T-shirt I’d grabbed and then at the jacket. I saw the hole in the armpit of the T-shirt, how it was stained yellow on the neck. I got goosebumps, since that fall morning was cold. Finally, I gave in. I slung the jacket over my shoulders on the way to the bus. It perfectly hid my shirt.
The man I could be was still in the jacket, and I wore him like a skin, like a cyborg suit. I let him do all the talking and moving, and the me that was still a kid shriveled and cowered and lay back inside of him. He picked up a girl’s books when someone sent them flying to the floor. He did not spit on the senior that tried to slam his head into the locker, like I usually did. He just held up his hands and crouched low to the ground. The senior didn’t know what to do except stare. The man told the hottest girl in school that she was beautiful, and she was all his if she’d let him, and he brushed past her arm in the hallway. Her pupils dilated and everything. He signed me up for JROTC, when I’d never even passed the gym ten-minute mile test. I was always staring at the clouds and the girls that would never love me. By lunchtime, when I walked down the hallway, everyone at school who before had been slamming their lockers and laughing, pressed up against the metal of their lockers and gave me wide berth. The principal called my name on the school speakers.
The man I could be marched me in there. He saluted the principal and sat down in the chairs in front of the desk. He leaned back, legs crossed so easily, like a cat of prey resting.
What do you think I’ve done wrong? he said.
The principal said, So, your daddy’s been to hell, has he?
I respect my father, I said. So should you.
This isn’t Columbine. How many guns do your parents own?
More than your parents, I told the principal. And I have impeccable accuracy.
I could tell how afraid he was of me. His lip quivered when I stood up, and he shrank in his chair.
You’re suspended today, the principal said.
That’s exactly what I wanted, I said to him in Russian, his parent’s language, one I didn’t even know how to speak.
I went home. I hid in the closet with the man I could be, both of us cross-legged on the floor, until my parents came home. I was terrified. I was impressed. What else can you do? I asked.
I know how to make love to a woman, he said. I can speak seven languages. I’ve been on every continent. I’ve killed a man. You could be me, he said.
Dread climbed up my spine like a monkey on my back. Would I have to wear the jacket for the rest of my life, to be this man? When I took it off, would I be skinny and atrophied, worse than I had been? Would I be a passenger in my own life? The truth was, I didn’t deserve to say I had been to hell until I had. It had felt miraculous that day, but also shameful, lying to everyone. I wanted to earn the jacket. I wanted to be that man, not wear him.
I hung the jacket up for safekeeping in the old shed behind our house, alongside my dad’s old army gear, canteens, boots, flashlights.
You’re making a mistake, the man said, arms out on the hangar like I had crucified him.
I locked him in the shed with a double padlock.
Girls all looked my way when I showed up on the school lawn the next day, but one by one their faces fell. I was smaller, ragged, my hair going every which way. My teeth were crooked. I was not what they’d dreamt about the previous night. They blushed and looked away, hoping no one else had caught them making eyes at such a boy. When I entered the front door, the principal stood behind a policeman who fingered his taser. The officer wanded me with a metal detector and told me to lift my shirt. I showed my puny ribs, and the principal squirmed, feeling silly that he had ever been afraid of me.
The senior who liked to bash my head into the lockers was waiting in the hall with a group of his basketball buddies. Where’s your fancy jacket? he asked, knuckling a baseball bat.
I wanted to spit on him. But I thought about the man I could be, and what he would do. I thought about what my dad had survived. So I invited hell. I spread my arms out wide. I could feel my stomach draining out through my legs. I smiled. Go ahead, I said.
The bat exploded in my face, and I saw galaxies. I fell down, frozen with pain, adrenaline commanding me forward towards the man with the bat. They held me down to the floor while he kicked in my ribs. I could hear my body breaking. I thought this was what war must be like. I thought I was going to die.
A sweet voice trickled down the hallway through my pain. You’re all so small, the voice said.
They let me go, and I heard sneakers running away down the hall. One of my eyes still hadn’t swollen shut. A girl stood over me. Rosario, the girl I had picked up books for yesterday. She couldn’t see that I was not the same person. But I wanted to be.
I went to the hospital several times that year, before the senior graduated. The principal and the police officer did nothing. I kissed Rosario in the eaves of the grade school playground. I didn’t tell her about the jacket or the man inside it, but she didn’t even seem to notice I was less of a man. I kept her away from the padlocked shed across the meadow, although sometimes at night I swore I heard the man singing. Rosario often had dinner with my dad and I. He liked her, and that meant a lot to me. I was fifteen and stupid, and I thought I would marry her. We hadn’t yet had sex because I thought that was the honorable thing to do.
One day Rosario was out from school sick. I came home to strange noises in the shed, like hands clapping. I sprinted across the meadow, blackberry vines snagging me the whole way. The chains swung loosely over the door of the shed. The windows rattled. I burst through the door.
Rosario had let the man off his hanger, and he was hunched over her. She lay naked in a pile of old sleeping bags on the floor. His face was buried in her hair, and he was telling her he loved her, words I hadn’t yet said. I wanted to puke.
What are you doing? I yelled.
He’s you, Rosario said. Almost.
I lunged. While she scrambled up from the floor and grabbed her clothes, he got in front of her like he was protecting her. But I wasn’t going for her.
He flipped me over, and the breath exploded from my chest. I lunged again and spit at him. I fell flat on my face, cold dirt grating my eyes.
I waited for the finishing blow I had felt so many times in that high school hallway, the one that sent me into the stars, that blacked out who I’d decided to be in that moment.
I won’t hit a boy while he’s down, the man said.
I will always remember you, he told Rosario. But you better not see him in this state.
It isn’t really cheating, Rosario said from the door, not if it’s a version of you.
He sent her out, and she left, as compliant as a lamb to his wishes. Then the man squatted down on his heels to watch me recover, snot and shameful tears mashing with the dirt on my face.
You could be me, he said. You could still be me, and you can wear this jacket.
When I finally got up, I wrapped chains around his arms. I dug a hole in the dirt floor of that shed, and I buried him up to his stomach. I didn’t go any further because I respected the jacket too much to sling dirt all over it. Meanwhile, he just sat there, taking all of it, looking like a god in full martyrdom. He watched me with pity. With pity! My rage boiled over. I added five padlocks, all with different keys and codes. I blacked out the windows. I camouflaged the shed in green paint and laced it with barbed wire.
Rosario never spoke to me again. I kept other girlfriends away from my house for as long as I could. Everything would be fine, and then, inevitably as clockwork, they’d get this distant look in their eyes. They’d gaze longingly in the direction of the shed. How they could possibly know what was in there? Maybe they could hear him still singing. They’d sigh and push their spaghetti around on their plate, and then finally they would leave me.
My father’s shadow was long and sometimes I drowned in it. So I left town for college. I studied meteorology. Something about the ways those women would sigh and look up at the clouds and then leave me made me want to figure it out. Then I left the state. I started a career. I appeared every morning at seven, eight, and nine on the local TV station. Eventually, I forgot about the man I could be.
Years later, my father died. I went home to bury him, clear out our old things, sell the house. My girlfriend drove down with me. We organized my father’s affects into boxes, tagged the furniture into what we would take with us, what we would sell, what we would bring out to the curb. She picked through my old toys, pictures of my mother. My mother had died before I could remember much of her and this only made my girlfriend more curious. I gave her a box of old photographs to pack up. When we were done, we sat on the porch and watched the ducks ease into the pond. I could smell her sweat from the day’s effort, like bread and lemonade, plain and good.
What’s that? she said, pointing across the meadow.
Then I remembered what I’d been avoiding all this time. I said, It’s nothing. It’s an old shed with nothing in it.
Hmm, she said. She turned her face towards the pond. She took in the meadow where my mother’s ghost picked white flowers for my father’s grave. The old, familiar fear loomed large in me, but eventually she looked away.
Later, while she was inside gathering her toothbrush and things from the bathroom before we headed out, I ran across the meadow.
The roof of the shed had caved in. I could hear soft little thuds in the dirt. When I pulled the door of the shed, the whole frame came off in my hands. The man was in there, still buried to his hips. He was spinning coins around his knuckles and dropping them into the dirt. He’d lost a few teeth. Mud and birdshit had dripped into the shed from the giant holes. The jacket I once told myself I would earn had rotted in tatters and bloomed mold on the shoulders. The man winked at me. It was so shameful. Someone should have taken better care of them.
Have you come back for me? he said. Have you finally given in?
I came back because my father died, I said.
And who are you now without him?
I’m a weatherman, I said. I can tell when it will storm.
Son, he says. I can skin a bear. I can kill any man within ten feet of me. I can speak languages no one even remembers. You see storms. You see storms? I can feel a storm in my very soul. I am a storm. I could let myself out. You think I’ve been waiting here all this while because I couldn’t get out?
He rose out of the pit effortlessly, hunching like a tiger.
I backed away.
He whipped me in the face. He stuck his hands out a hole in the wood and shook the chains. Let me out, he said. What are you so afraid of?
I know how you get, I said.
He hit me again. I spit out a tooth rattling inside my mouth.
You don’t trust her? he said. Why not let her decide?
He started singing this deep crooning song, so beautiful I almost cried.
Please, I said. Don’t make me. I love her.
Man up, he said. Let me put it this way. I’m not asking for your permission.
Finally I could see I would never escape him. So I called her name from the shed. I wailed to her inside the house. Dread hung on me in giant folds.
When she appeared in the doorframe of the shed, the light glinted behind her in sharp spears.
She saw the man. She squinted her eyes at me. She put her hands on her hips.
Everything I had ever done to her loomed in my memory. She had been with another man who treated her right when I decided I wanted her. We were in a movie neither of our partners wanted to see, and I put my hand on her leg. Don’t, she’d said, but I did anyways. I’m happy with him, she said, but she kissed me back. Years later when we were living together, I remembered her telling me about her past lovers while we walked around a lake, and once, I called her names because I was never okay with all the people she has loved, still continued to love. She cried. I had enacted countless, countless other sins against her. She took all my things to the dump and made me sleep in the backyard. I begged for forgiveness for months. Grow up, she said. And I did. I hadn’t yet asked her to marry me because I was afraid of what she’d say.
I burned with shame. I was filled with fire. I burst at the seams of my ordinary life. I could see, just behind her, my mother’s ghost flitting in and out of the meadow through the house.
You vindictive brute, my girlfriend said, pointing at my crooked nose, broken from all those years of fighting.
You lazy toad, she said, pointing at my gut. You’re a donkey, you’re an idiot.
She kissed me on the neck so softly her breath was like feathers. She knew me so well. Chills jolted up my spine. I put my hand in a box of my mother’s old clothes to steady myself.
My girlfriend took the moldy jacket off that toothless man I could have been. She pinned onto my chest every award that had rusted and rotted off to the dirt. The man shook his head, crushed the padlock in his fist, and left. He walked down the field, naked.
I slipped my mother’s moth-eaten white dress over my girlfriend’s shoulders, kissed her freckles on her collarbone, the chicken pox scar by her nose, the pinky that had grown bent after breaking. I would love her better.
Will we ever be enough? she said.
We stepped out into the meadow. Grass poked through the gaps in our toes. It was like all my guts lay open in that field in the dusk light. The sky was wide open and turning orange. A storm brewed low on the horizon. We were walking naked into it.
Art by Kerri Augenstein
Brenda Peynado is a Dominican-American writer of fiction, nonfiction, comics and screenplays. Her writing style ranges from lyric essays, magical realism, fabulism, science fiction, fantasy, surrealism, to some perfectly realistic exaggerations thrown in the mix.
Her work appears in The Georgia Review, The Sun, Threepenny Review, Epoch, Kenyon Review online, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her stories have won an O. Henry Prize, a Nelson Algren Award from the Chicago Tribune, a Dana Award in Fiction, the Writers at Work contest, two Vermont Studio Center Fellowships, and other awards.