Drab, brown woolen coat.
A man’s overcoat.
Suspended on a wire hanger.
A light sprinkling of dust on the shoulders.
I open the coat, running my fingers over the satin lining and luxuriating in the pure pleasure of touch.
I come to a bump.
Not a bump exactly.
It feels like a…
It’s a key.
By touch I determine that it’s a skeleton key.
Sewn into the lining.
“What’ll you take for this coat?”
The old woman behind the counter, bent over a newspaper crossword puzzle seemed not to have heard.
“Excuse me,” I said, walking closer.
Her head came up and she looked at me over the top of her reading glasses as if noticing for the first time that a customer was in her thrift shop.
Her old woman voice croaked, “What’s that?”
“The coat,” I said, gesturing in its general direction. “What’ll you take for the coat?”
Suddenly awash in memory.
Transported along on swiftly flowing currents.
Eyes clouded over.
Tongue flicking, flicking, flicking against upper lip.
So long ago.
So much loss.
Questions left unanswered.
“I’m afraid it’s not for sale,” she said pointedly after what seemed to be an eternity of silence.
A glance at the coat and then back to the old woman.
“But, it’s out here on the rack. How could it not be for sale?”
Mouth working silently.
“It just isn’t,” she said and looked back down at the puzzle.
Walking back to the coat rack, I fingered the key through the lining thinking that I simply must have this coat.
“I’ll give you a hundred dollars for it.”
Crazy tufts of white hair spring from her aged head as if someone had been at her with a cake mixer.
She seemed to give some thought to my offer.
“Like I said, young man, it’s not for sale.”
Hand in my pocket fingering my store of money.
A rattling sigh and then, “No.”
I approach the counter.
“Look, I really want that coat,” I said patiently. “So, name your price.”
Eyes suddenly swimming with tears.
Lips trembling ever so slightly.
“You want to know my price? Well, I’ll tell you my price. I want my husband back. I want to hear him laugh just one more time. I want to feel his hand just there in the small of my back as he’d guide me through a door that he held open for me. I want to hear him whispering sweet nothings in my ear. I want…I want to see myself in his eyes–the way he loved me so completely.” She stopped to wipe carelessly at a stream of liquid that had carved a pathway through her heavy make-up. “That’s my price.”
I nodded silently and said after a few moments silence, “Can you at least tell me about the key?”
She smiled tiredly as her face seemed to ripple with as yet unspoken emotion.
“Our first apartment. New York City. Oh, it wasn’t much. A third floor walk-up. But it was ours. He had me sew that key in there right after we moved in. It was winter. Cold, it was. Bitterly cold. That way, he said, we’d never be locked out. I had actually forgotten about that until just now.”
After a few moments I said, “When did he die?”
She glanced upward and to the left as if searching for a memory.
“It’s been, oh, twenty-three years now. Twenty-three years.”
I was somewhat stunned by the revelation.
“He must’ve been quite a guy.”
“Oh, you can bet your buttons on that,” she said chuckling. After a brief silence she said, “I suppose you’re wondering why I never remarried, given how long my Harold has been gone.”
“It crossed my mind.”
She came out from behind the counter.
Walked unsteadily to the rack.
Touching the coat.
Pulling it off its hanger.
Holding it up to her face.
Breathing in a scent that only she could identify.
She did it again.
Hugging it to her body she began to sway.
Dancing to a long-forgotten melody.
“My Harold was the best dancer,” she said as she moved slowly in place, eyes closed. “And a real looker. Why, I was the envy of all the girls, I was.”
“So, you never found anyone else who could compare?” I asked softly, reluctant to disturb her reverie.
She stopped, stepped toward me, staring into my eyes.
Looked down at the coat.
Back into my eyes.
Fingers lightly brushing the worn fabric.
Without a word she suddenly thrust it toward me.
“Here,” she said solemnly, “I’d like you to have it.”
I accepted the garment as if receiving a sacred relic.
“I believe I said two-hundred, right?”
Returning to her place behind the counter she said, “No. I told you it’s not for sale.”
“I can’t sell a piece of my soul, young man, but I can give it away.”
“Let’s just say that you remind me of my Harold. You have the same sweetness in your eyes. Your voice has that same mix of strength and tenderness that his had.” She stopped and pierced me with a searching gaze. “You married?”
“Thirty years next month,” I said proudly.
“I thought so. You love her?”
“She’s my whole world,” I said, my voice catching a little in my throat.
Thumb working absently at the top of her ballpoint pen.
“Promise me one thing.”
“Okay,” I said. “What’s that?”
“That you’ll leave that key in there.”
I didn’t ask why.
I simply nodded, said a quiet, “Thank-you,” and headed for the door.
Just before exiting I turned back only to see her once more bent over the puzzle.
Dabbing at the corners of her eyes.
Out on the sidewalk, I wondered what I was going to sew into the lining.