"The Mysterious Red Coat"

Only one piece of clothing remained in the closet. I lifted the hanger off the bar and struggled to hold up the weight of the heavy coat. The red wool coat had been hanging in the closet in the small hallway between the kitchen and the bathroom for as long as I could remember. Mom and Dad’s bedroom — which my mother said used to be the living room before they built onto the house — was on the opposite side of the hallway.

I could not picture Mom and Dad’s bedroom as a living room. But then, I also could not picture the house with only two rooms downstairs (a kitchen and a living room). My mother said my great-grandfather had built our house as a temporary place to live. He had started to build a much larger house, she said, but in the fall, a forest fire had burned it down, and with winter coming, they needed shelter. As it turned out, he never did get around to building another house.

I pulled the coat out of the closet and turned toward my mother.

“You can leave that where it is,” Mom said. “Nobody will be wearing it.”

During all the years the coat had been in the closet, I had never seen anyone wearing it, and in fact, the only time I saw it out of the closet was when my mother cleaned.

Every spring and fall, my mother cleaned the closet and rearranged the summer and winter clothing so it was easier to find what she and Dad needed. Since the polio made it difficult for my mother to get in and out of the closet, part of my job involved removing the clothes and putting them on the bed.

I turned the hanger holding the red wool coat so I could get a good look at the back of it. Then I hung the coat in the closet again, seeing as my mother had I should leave it there.

“Mom? What’s that coat for?”

My mother paused in wiping off shoe boxes. She was sitting on a chair in the hallway next to a pail of water with pine cleaner in it. When my mother cleaned, she sat on a chair to do the work. Her legs were not strong enough to hold her up for very long.

“What do you mean, what’s it for?” Mom replied. “It’s a coat.”

“I know that,” I said. “But I’ve never seen anybody wear it. It’s Dad’s isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.”

“So how come Dad has a red coat?” I asked.

The most colorful thing I had ever seen my father wear was the red bandanna handkerchief he kept in the pocket of the blue denim overalls he wore when he worked around the farm. Dad did not always carry a red handkerchief, though. Sometimes he carried a blue one. And when he carried a blue handkerchief, he was dressed all in blue: pants, blue chambray work shirt, denim chore jacket, blue-and-white pin-striped cap.

Mom leaned forward to pull out more of the boxes that I had moved toward the front where she could reach them. “That’s a hunting coat,” she said, her voice sounding muffled.

I was almost certain my mother had said ‘hunting coat,’ but since she was leaning forward, with her head inside the closet, she must have said something else that only sounded like hunting coat. Maybe she’d said – ‘morning coat’ or ‘evening coat’ or ‘special coat.’

“What did you say?” I asked.

“I said,” Mom replied, pulling back out of the closet, “it’s a hunting coat.” “A hunting coat?” I said.

“Yes, a hunting coat.”

I stared at her in astonishment. “Like for deer hunting?”

She nodded.

“But Dad doesn’t hunt!”

“Not now,” she said.

“Not now? You mean he used to?”

Mom pulled another box out of the closet. “He did a long time ago. Before you were born. Would you go out in the kitchen and get another scrub pail ready? While I’m wiping off boxes, you can be wiping down the walls inside the closet and scrubbing the floor.”

Ever since I was big enough to help with the cleaning, or rather, from the time I was old enough to know what my mother meant when she said things like, ‘wipe down the walls, not like that, use the whole cloth and go up and down and back and forth — and be sure you dip the rag in the pail and wring it out for each new section you’re washing,’ it had been my job to wipe down the inside of the closet. Mom said it was easier for me to get in the closet than it was for my big sister, seeing as she was taller than me.

I had taken two steps toward the kitchen when Mom cleared her throat.

“No, wait,” she said. “I guess I wasn’t thinking, was I. If you’re going to wash the walls, you might as well put that red coat on the bed with everything else.”

I pulled the red coat out of the closet, laid it on the bed, and then I went to the kitchen.

I stood at the kitchen sink, filled a pail with water and thought about Dad going hunting. My father said animals have feelings like we have feelings and that they deserve to live their lives the way we deserve to live ours. Could it really be possible that he had gone hunting? He also did not like guns, and as far as I knew, he had never owned one. The fathers of some of my school friends went deer hunting, though, and after Thanksgiving, some of the other kids talked about eating venison.

I had never tasted venison, and one time when I had mentioned that a few of the kids at school had been talking about venison for supper, Dad said I hadn’t missed much. “It’s gamy,” he said, “bitter-tasting, from all the acorns the deer eat.”

I turned off the faucet and carried the pail of warm water and Pinesol to the closet and stepped inside. At least wiping down the closet on the inside wasn’t as bad as cleaning the little storage space under the steps that we called the pantry. The smell of pine cleaner became almost over-powering in the pantry.

Half an hour later, when I was finishing up the closet floor, my father came in for his afternoon coffee break.

“Daddy, I never knew you went hunting,” I said, as I dumped the pail of dirty water down the drain in the kitchen sink.

Dad poured a cup of coffee for himself and then reached into the cookie canister for a handful of cookies. We usually had cookies in the cookie canister. My sister liked to bake cookies, and her favorites were chocolate chip, oatmeal and sugar cookies.

“Went hunting with Reuben and Gar,” Dad replied. He sat down by the table with his cup of coffee and cookies.

Reuben and Garfield were my mother’s cousins. Mom was an only child. Reuben and Garfield were older than Mom, but they had grown up not far away and used to help my grandfather with his farm work. Dad and Garfield often went fishing together. Sometimes Reuben went with them. I had never heard of anyone else named Garfield. His first name was Jens and his middle name was Garfield, Mom said, but he preferred being called Garfield. Sometimes Dad and Gar would let me go fishing with them. Garfield would bait my hook for me, like Dad would, and then he would tell me where to cast my line, also like Dad.

“Where did you go hunting with Reuben and Gar?” I asked.

“Oh,” Dad said, “we went someplace up north.”

‘Up north’ covered a big area. On several occasions we had gone picking blueberries ‘up north,’ and the trip took a long time, a couple of hours in the car. But Dad said there was much more ‘up north’ north of that yet.

“When you went hunting, how come you wore that red coat and not orange?” I asked.

Dad dipped a cookie into his coffee. “That’s what everybody wore,” he said. “They didn’t have orange hunting clothes back then.”

“Why don’t you go hunting anymore?”

Dad finished chewing his bite of cookie and swallowed. “I only went once,” he said.

“Once? You never went again?”

Dad shook his head. “Nope. Just that one time. I didn’t really want to go, but they talked me into it.”

He took a sip of coffee and reached for another cookie.

I pulled out a chair and sat down by the table.

“But Dad, it looks like a very nice coat.”

My mother stood by the sink, rinsing out the scrub pail. “It is a nice coat. Heavy. And it’s made out of good wool, too.”

I snitched a cookie off Dad’s pile. “Just because you’re not going to wear it for hunting, you could still wear it. It’s a really pretty color.”

My mother sat down at the other end of the table. “That’s right, Roy. You could still wear it. Kind of a shame to have that nice, heavy wool coat but not get any use out of it.”

Dad picked up his coffee cup and looked at me and then at Mom. “Yes, it’s a nice coat. Maybe I will wear it.”

He took a sip of coffee and set the cup down on the table. “Of course, you could wear it, too,” he said to Mom.

“Me?” my mother asked, looking startled. “Why would I want to wear it?”

“Why not?” Dad said.

“But where would I wear it?” Mom asked.

“When we go to town?” Dad replied.

“Hah!” Mom said. “Can’t you see me wearing that bright red coat to the grocery store? People stare at me enough as it is right now.”

Whenever I went anywhere with my mother, I saw people staring at her. Not everyone, of course. Not the people who knew her. But people who did not know her would stare as she made her way along, moving one crutch forward and swinging her leg out from the hip, moving the other crutch forward and then swinging her other leg out from the hip.

“Not everyone stares at you,” I said.

“No,” Mom agreed. “Not everyone.”

“But they might if she was wearing that bright red coat,” Dad said.

My mother turned a hard-eyed stare in his direction, saw that he was teasing and shook her head. “Oh — you!” she said.

For weeks after that, I waited to see if my father would wear the red wool coat. But he did not. Not even to the barn.

Actually, I guess I wasn’t surprised. I think I always knew red just wasn’t Dad’s color.

Not that much red, anyway.

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