The Coat

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Margaret Lamb/Writing to the Right-Hand Margin Prize Runner-Up (Nonfiction)


You won’t let me take my puffy winter coat to the thrift store.  What once was white is now dingy and speckled, with the gray condensing to form a black ring around the cuffs of the sleeves.  A soiled line runs over both shoulders, darker on the right side.  If only I had a car.  People with cars probably don’t have the telltale worn and discolored shoulders and hips of coats from days weeks months of carrying and lugging.  Only a transplant buys a white coat in this city of ubiquitous dirt.  Like a flashing marquee -I’M NEW HERE.  Feel free to splash me with that puddle as I stand too close to the curb.  And I did get splashed, and I did get hit by that bike messenger who rode through a red light because I assumed he would stop, and I did get handed back change for a ten when I gave the guy a twenty as he drove away because why would I count it.  The still newly white coat announced my arrival- Welcome to New York, dipshit!  The coat wrapped snuggly around me through each transaction.  Each deflowering that darkened my green.  Each ruler-rapped lesson leaving my knuckles raw and stinging.


Six winters later a friend tells me it’s time to say goodbye.  You look homeless, she tells me. Really, it’s gross. And buy a black one this time.  From the crevice next to the refrigerator, I pull out a vibrant purple shopping bag from a store I can’t afford.  When students at the school bring in their school supplies, their spiral notebooks never arrive in their original plastic drugstore bags, but have been oh-so-casually placed into a bag from one of the finest of the high-end department stores in the city. I fold the coat in two, and I scrunch and I press, but it slowly fills with air, oozing up out of the top, defying its fate and bloating the paper bag.  I tie the handles tightly together to keep it inside and set it next to the front door.  And there inside the store’s bag, my dingy, worn, no longer white coat sits defiantly, arms wrapped around bent knees, chin tucked to chest as it awaits its fate.


October wanes.  The brown corduroy jacket is no longer effective against the dropping mercury and rising winds.  I hang it back in the closet until next fall and pull my brand new friend from its sack.  Black, warm, fur-lined hood this time, tapered at the waist to give the hint of a woman’s shape under the quilting.  The white coat peeks out over the top of the shopping bag that still sits in the same spot by the door.  I avert my eyes as I slip on the new one.  This one will hide the dirt.  It will not show its age.  It will tell people I am gainfully employed, and it will allow me to sit on public benches without the fear of a stained backside.


We squat below the windows in my living room and peer out over the top of the radiator.  Through the falling flakes we see him again- the naked man is cooking at his stove in his apartment across the alley.  We discuss the many risks of such an activity.  Food contamination, splattering grease, the precarious proximity of genitals to flame!  We ponder possible motivation and laugh as we settle back into the couch to watch TV.


More items have been added to the bag. They don’t fit inside, so instead they get piled on top of on top of on top of the white coat.  It can’t see anything and it can’t breath very well.  A trip to the thrift store is imperative.  The coat must be put out of its misery.


Comings and goings, comings and goings.  My great-grandmother, Bema, would say this from her wheelchair in the nursing home as she watched the world scurry by from her stationary perch.  I’m often reminded of her musings as I walk in this city. Coming and going from buildings, in and out of cabs, up and down stairways, to and from offices, homes, bars, delis.  Comings and goings and usually in coats for at least seven months out of the year.  Anonymous forms in hoods.  Coats with legs.  An exoskeleton we shed once we get to where we’re going, but then we’re never where we’re going, so we enclose ourselves in our ever-present winter companions again and step back out into the cold.


I should really take that bag today.  It’s gathering dust, I say.  You ask me what’s in it and I rattle off some items.
When I get to the coat, you furrow your brow.  Which coat?
I snip the handles and pull it out from the bag to show you.
You frown. But what if you need it? you ask.
You know I have a new one, the black one.  When would I need a dirty old white one?
You think.  Well, what if we go sledding? You wouldn’t want to get the new coat dirty, so then you could wear your old one instead, you say.
I laugh. Sledding? We have never gone sledding, and in the rare case we do, the new coat will survive.
But you’ve had it for so long, you say.
I know, but it’s filthy!
You could dye it, you say.
Dye it? I don’t think that would work.  And it’s just so big and takes up too much space in the closet.
You think again.  You touch the soiled sleeve and rub the cuff between your fingers.
But. Well.  When we met you were wearing this coat, you say.
I sigh and smile as I put it back in the bag and drop it by the door.
We can take it next weekend.