Big Alabama and the Led Zep Jacket

by James Valvis

Big Alabama wanted a Led Zeppelin jacket she saw other people wear, but it was too expensive. All she could afford was a plain jean jacket.

"You'll need to paint it," my sister said.

"You're nuts," I said. "Do it yourself."

"I have no artistic talent. You do."

This was technically true. Big Alabama couldn't draw a stick figure. She couldn't sing and couldn't dance. And despite her incredible ability to fib her way out of any situation, she couldn't even spin a decent tale.

"I don't paint," I said. "It's not my medium. I draw. I use charcoals, pastels. You need someone else. I'll ruin the jacket and you don't have enough money to buy another."

"I suppose you're right."

I did a double take. My sister never let me off that easy. Then again, I wasn't lying. I would certainly ruin her jacket.

"We'll need to steal one."

"Holy crap."

"Only it won't be real stealing," she said. "We'll make a trade. Their painted jacket for my unpainted one. That's more than fair."

"No it's not," I said.

"Sure it is," she said. "My jacket is brand new."

"You bought it second hand."

"Well, it's brand new to me, and it will be brand new to them."

I shook my head. "I suppose you already know who owns this jacket you're going to pilfer."

"Gina Peretti."

"Are you crazy? You're going to steal a mobster's daughter's jean jacket?"

"No, little brother," she said. "You are."

I didn't believe Eddie Peretti was a mobster. This was merely a rumor and rumors in Jersey City were often a piece of truth surrounded by enough bull to stock a stud ranch. It was true enough he was Italian and wealthier than most people in our neighborhood, he always found work when other men including my father couldn't, he wore six gold chains and wife-beater tee shirts, he had tattoo sleeves on both arms, and he sat on his porch with his Beretta 92 resting in plain view next to his overflowing ashtray. If he wasn't a mobster or a prison tough, he was trying hard to pretend he was. But ironically this tilted me into the not-in-the-mob camp. Real mafia types try to keep a low profile.

His daughter was so homely she frightened small children and large animals. She was also second fattest girl in school behind Big Alabama. Though she couldn't fight like Alabama, people avoided picking on her for fear of her father. This was maybe why Gina Peretti never tried to squelch rumors her father was a mob boss. I thought I had it all worked out. Nevertheless, you could never be certain. What if he was in the mob? Best not to make any assumptions. When you're young, poor, and you live in one of the country's most dangerous cities, erring on the far side of caution was a dependable way to stay alive.

"I won't do it," I said. "You've made me do dumb things before, Alabama, but this is too much. You know it and I know it. If I'm dead, who will you extort money from?"

"You have a point," she said. "I'll think about it."

She thought about it a day and got back to me.

"All right," she said. "You're right. We can't just steal her jacket. It would be suicide. Not just for you, but me also. Gina would see me wearing it and know. Do you think you could paint my jacket to make it like the Led Zeppelin IV cover?"

"Do you mean that one with the Hindenburg?"

"Hindu what?"

"The blimp that exploded in Lyndon, New Jersey. You know, 'Oh, the humanity!'"

"Yeah, whatever. I don't care about religion. Can you do it?"

"I guess. It won't be exact, though, and I can't promise the proportions will be correct, but you could say some famous artist in New York City put his spin on the record cover. Maybe Andy Warhol."

"Yeah, Pete. I'll tell you what: I'll think up the scams. You're better off sticking to your books. Now get to work."

So I went to work. Using my sister's record cover, I traced an outline onto the cloth with black marker. I then painted it. Every day after school my sister asked if I was finished and I told her not yet.

"Hurry," Big Alabama said on the fourth day. "It doesn't need to be perfect."

"That makes no sense."

"I want it done by Monday."

"All I do is my homework and your chores. I can hardly squeeze out an hour a day for myself, and I'm spending it painting this dumb jacket."

"Monday," Big Alabama said.

I didn't watch the Jets game and worked on her jacket all weekend. I put the finishing touches on it Sunday afternoon. By late Sunday evening the paint had dried enough and I felt comfortable showing Big Alabama my work.

"What do you think?" I said. "I'm proud of it. I think it's the best thing I've ever done as an artist. I mean, sure, it's a replica, but it's an accurate replica. It helps the original was almost entirely black and white. I'm sure a professional artist could do a better job, but you get what you pay for."

"Not bad," Big Alabama said, which for her was handing over the Nobel Prize. "Do you have any red paint?"

"Sure, it's right there. But it doesn't need red paint. Except for the orange lettering, I didn't use any color."

She picked up the can, opened it, and, astonishingly, poured a thick glob over my painting.

"What are you doing!" I screamed.

But Big Alabama didn't answer. She merely capped my paint can and set it down. We stared at my destroyed masterpiece. Almost the entire white blimp was covered with a large red blotch. I wanted to vomit.

"Do you want to say what this is about?"

"Take the day off," she said. "You've earned it."

"Great," I said. "It's time for bed."

The next day I waited by her homeroom door holding that same can of red paint. Big Alabama was supposed to be at lunch and I was supposed to be in gym, but she'd ordered me to meet her and a choice between disobeying Big Alabama's wishes and risking school expulsion left little room for debate.

She carried her backpack with her. "Come on," she said. "We should hurry."

We walked into her empty homeroom, sped around empty desks, and disappeared into an empty coat closet. Well, not exactly empty. The long hall-like closet was filled with garments and backpacks. On top of hooks where coats hung, a shelf, home to notebooks, pens, textbooks, and art supplies, ran the wall's length at a cockeyed angle. Unionized carpenters, my father would have grumbled.

Big Alabama found Gina Peretti's jacket. She snatched it off its hook, folded it neatly, withdrew her destroyed jacket from her backpack, and stuffed Gina's inside. She then grabbed the paint can.

"Go be lookout," she said.

I hurried to the coat closet's edge and studied those empty chairs and desks. Nobody was around and, unless we were unlucky, nobody would be for another twenty minutes. Big Alabama poured paint on the floor. She then arranged her jacket I painted and she destroyed so its back was sticking out and splattered some fresh paint on it. Once this was done, she flicked red paint with a brush on nearby coats and placed her mostly empty red paint can on the top shelf over what was now Gina Peretti's imitation jacket.

"I'll be damned," I said.

We were gone in a shot. I visited Nurse Alison and secured a late slip for having diarrhea and was admitted into gym class without any trouble. Big Alabama reappeared in the lunchroom and everyone thought she stepped outside to smoke a cigarette.

I heard later Gina Peretti cried when she saw her jacket and threatened to sue her teacher, the principal, the school, and fate itself, but ultimately her father bought her a new jacket with Pink Floyd on the back. She then spent two months telling everyone Floyd was better than Zeppelin anyway.

Big Alabama waited until after Christmas and then put on Gina Peretti's Led Zep jacket. For years my sister wore it daily and I was the only one who knew what artistry she used to acquire it.

BIO: James Valvis has placed poems or stories in Ploughshares, River Styx, Louisville Review, Baltimore Review, Natural Bridge, Southern Indiana Review, The Sun, and many others. His poetry was featured in Verse Daily. His fiction was chosen for Sundress Best of the Net. He is a recent finalist for the Asimov's Readers' awards. A former US Army soldier, he lives near Seattle.