The boy hides in the closet when his own smell is too much. His skin carries traces of every mistake he’s made. His parents haven’t noticed, but other kids have. At school he disappears in the back of class to avoid spitballs and whispers, speaking only when the teacher calls on him. He hasn’t wet himself for a long time, but kids never forget.
Grandpa’s suit hangs in the hall closet among raincoats and winter jackets, shrouded in a heavy scent of tobacco and leather. The boy doesn’t remember his grandfather, even when his mother shows him a photo of a big man holding a tightly swaddled baby. That’s you and Grandpa, she points to the pink-faced bundle in the man’s powerful arms. Such a fine man. The boy is third in his family to carry his grandfather’s name, a long string of consonants he struggles to pronounce. A long time ago, his grandfather fought in a war, returning with a chest of medals. Studying the picture, the boy searches for his grandfather’s bravery, but the old man’s dark eyes focus on the sleeping baby.
Sitting cross-legged in the closet, the boy drinks in damp wool and muddy boots, his hands finding the coat in the darkness. Someday he will wear this suit. Raising himself on his knees, he runs his fingers over the thick weave of the jacket, then into a pocket, hoping to find a watch, a penknife, some clue his grandfather left for him. His hand always comes up empty.
The smell grows stronger, but no one at home detects the stench moving to his clothes. At school the jokes become louder. His teacher doesn’t hear the whistles and slurs. When he comes back from recess in tears, she stops him. Are you ok? What happened? He shakes his head. Nothing, I fell down. Wiping his nose on his sleeve, he wonders what his grandfather would say. What would he do?
The boy leaves school early. No one is home. He sets a glass of water from the kitchen on his nightstand before carrying the suit to his bedroom. It’s heavier than he imagined. Undressing, he folds his jeans and tee shirt, then slips into Grandpa’s suit. The boy has grown in the past six months, but the suit’s still too big for him. The jacket cuffs fall past his fingertips, the trousers balloon around his ankles. He’ll never fit.
He breathes in his grandfather’s man smells. Climbing into bed, he reaches for his water, the bottle of pills from his parents’ bathroom. Hands steady, he shakes a fistful of capsules into his palm. He slips the note into a pocket and closes his eyes. Make me smell like Grandpa, he whispers, waiting for darkness.
Phebe Jewell’s recent work appears or is forthcoming in Monkeybicycle, Spelk, Ellipsis Zine, Crack the Spine, New Flash Fiction Review, and Brilliant Flash Fiction. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for women in prison.
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