A Tale of Two Coats
It was the best of coats it was the worst of coats. It was a coat. A worn coat at that, the shell of corduroy once dark and rich now faded. Its lining having grown thin had began to lose it battle with the chilly winds when winter filled the sky with clouds of gray. It had been a good coat, and for many years, more than the man who owned the mill could remember. Still he wore it, in the evenings when he slipped out into the cool of the night for a few sticks of wood to feed the fire place that warmed his parlor. That was where he read the newspaper and sometimes snoozed while his wife and the kitchen help set the supper table.
He wore it when he walked his dog in early mornings, frost crunching under his feet and smoke on the pond hovering as it waited to be burned away but the rising sun. He wore it when he hunted too in the deep woods and on the high ridges, its sleeves showing traces of powder burns and tiny tears. There were always prickly points reaching out from among the brambles and briers through which he made his way.
“And it doesn’t fit you anymore,” his wife added to the long list of reasons why he should pitch the old coat into the fireplace and be done with it. He couldn’t do it though, even though she called it the worst of coats and had brought him a new one each Christmas for the past three years.
They hung in the closet unworn as the day he unwrapped them. After sporting about in them to satisfy his wife to the closet they had gone where they were waiting.
He supposed she was right. He really had no business wearing the battered old coat to the mill. What would his workers think? Worse yet what would they say? Him the owner of the machines from which they made their living, clothed and fed their children, wearing the worst of coats. Yet despite this he would wear it just a little longer he told her on the first day of winter jamming his hands deep in its pockets, determined not to be persuaded otherwise.
After a failed effort to hide her scowl she kissed his cheek and called him stubborn. This made him smile inside before returning her kiss. He had to hurry. His driver had his car warm and waiting just as he did every morning.
“Even your driver is wearing a better coat than you dear,” she whispered with a hiss knowing he was paying her little attention. It was true. His driver’s coat was very nice and warm as it should be, with old man winter having shown up early.
Through the frosty glass he watched the country side pass by, cold and crisp and beginning to sparkle in the tiny rays of sunshine which danced about all day until nightfall came calling. Then on his way home he watched out the same window of the long black car half listening to his driver talk of the weather his mind still busy with work, and deadlines, which had grayed his hair and made it thin.
“Stop ahead,” the man said as they passed a figure of grey in the dusk.
“Stop sir?” the driver asked as he began to slow, bringing the big car to stop just ahead of a walking man, head down and shivering against howling wind.
With his window down he motioned the walking man over who eyed him with suspicion. Cars had passed him all day, none stopping until now when the half dark had overtaken the lonely road. With the eyes of a stranger the walking man told him he was making for home which wasn’t very much further at all. He had been in prison. He was free now. His family was waiting, a son he had never seen he managed to shiver out as the cold wind gnawed at him.
Ankle deep in snow his shoes long since wet, were now as frozen as the ground on which he walked.
As the car pulled away from the stranger who trudged in the newly made tracks of its tires he waved and the man warm inside waved back. He wished the stranger would have accepted his offer and joined him in the warmth of the car. But he didn’t. Prison does that to a man. He understood remembering the cold winter night his father had knocked on the door of house where he had grown up.
Through windows that had never grown tired of his eyes staring out he had watched his mother hug this stranger cold wet hungry and frozen to the bone. He had hugged him too, the man with the face he barely remembered.
There would be a happy wife and child tonight he told himself, somewhere up the road, his eyes watering from the cold.
His wife would be happy too, now that the coat was gone.
“Threw it in the fire,” he would tell her when she asked, glad that the walking man had accepted the raggedy worn thing which he hurried into with eyes saying, “Thank you,” a thousand times, all at once.
It was the worst of coats and it was the best of coats. It was the kind of coat a man fresh out of prison could accept with down turned eyes. It was the kind of coat the man’s father was wearing the night he too came home so long ago. He remembered.
This is a work of fiction dedicated to those who give and to those who accept.
Edward Reed 2019