BY VIVIAN PAIDE
Copyright is held by the author.
MARTHA ARRIVED home carrying a dark blue box tied with a wide silver ribbon. The box was so big that she had trouble holding it while fitting her key into the lock. Greg, sitting on the couch, beer in hand and TV tuned to MMA, looked up as she came in and stumbled over his work boots.
“Whoa, careful!” he said. “Need some help?”
As she struggled to stay on her feet and keep a grip on the box, she knocked over the recycling bin on the foyer table. Martha sighed and shook her head.
Greg wasn’t sure if Martha meant she didn’t need help or if she was making a comment about him again not taking the recycling to the garbage room. It’s better not to ask. Instead, he picked up the rolling cans and sour-smelling milk cartons and returned them to the bin. As he left for the garbage room, he shuffled his socked feet through the spray of orange soda on the floor to soak it up.
Returning to the apartment, he found the TV off and Martha sitting beside the box on the couch like a cat who brought a mouse home as a present. Martha and the box took up the entire couch; the only place to sit in their living room. Greg pulled over a dinette chair and faced Martha, straddling the back of it.
“That from that ritzy clothes store that just opened in the mall?” he asked, struggling for a neutral tone of voice.
“Brightman’s, yes it is.” Martha stroked the ribbon on the box slowly, her lips parted slightly.
Taking a deep breath, Greg asked, “What’d you buy yourself?” Maybe if I handle this right, I can get her to take it back. He glanced over and saw the bill for the suspension on his pickup on the coffee table in front of her.
“Oh, it’s not for me,” Martha said, a smile he had never seen before on her face. Her voice seemed to be different too, like she suddenly had a posh accent.
Greg eyed her, not having a clue about what would happen next.
“It’s for you, Greg! Come and open it.”
“For me? But it’s not my birthday or — our anniversary.”
“It’s just because,” Martha said.
Greg sat the box on his lap. He undid the satin ribbon, feeling the smooth material catch on his calluses, and lifted the heavy lid. There, under crisp layers of tissue held together by a big silver seal, was a black cashmere overcoat. The fabric felt like it was made of clouds. Satin lining glowed as if it came with its own light. He lifted the coat carefully out of the box, holding it as if it might break. “Wow! Thanks. It’s — it’s great.”
“Try it on,” Martha said, sounding a little breathless.
The coat was light but very warm. Greg wanted to take it off right away and put it back in the box before he got anything on it, but Martha began stroking the coat. She ran her hands over it, looking into Greg’s eyes and telling him in that new voice how handsome he was.
Later that evening, Greg put the coat carefully into the closet between his leather motorcycle jacket and his camo hunting jacket. He never wore the coat out anywhere. They never went anywhere that he felt would be the right place to wear it. Sometimes he would put it on at home when Martha asked him to, but he always felt like he was wearing a costume. The times she asked became fewer, and then one day he came home and she was gone, the empty hangers on her side of the closet jangling a mournful minor tune.
* * *
In the lonely years that followed, he would sometimes caress the coat, and think about his failure to live up to it. After a while he noticed a line of dust, like grey snow, had gathered on the shoulders.
One bitterly cold February dawn as he was heading to work, he almost stepped on a man curled up in the doorway of his building. The man was asleep in a moth-eaten sleeping bag spread over a tarp, a knapsack as his pillow. A grocery cart filled with plastic bags, aluminum cans and bits of clothing was nearby. The man’s thin body shook visibly through the paltry protection of the sleeping bag.
Greg went back upstairs and retrieved his coat, laying it gently over the sleeping man so as not to wake him.