Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
THE COAT
b y   b r u c e   t a y l o r   ~   s e a t t l e ,   w a s h i n g t o n

NOW, YOU see it's like this. Little Nicholas Jackson was born into his father's heavy black coat. And soon those were the first memories of Nicholas, struggling and wearing that ill-fitting dark coat and trying like hell to love it even though he hated it. But his father, Nicholas Senior, saw that not only was his coat good enough for him and his name, but if it was good enough for him, then everything he had would automatically be good for his son, and of course, the son, young Nicholas -- how could he know otherwise? So, of course Nicholas wore his father's heavy black coat -- it was all he knew for it was all his father ever knew, for it was all his father knew. And that's all there was to it.

And so, here was Nicholas, hereafter called Nicholas Junior, wearing his father's dark coat.

And it really was a ridiculous coat. What strange first memories young Nicholas had: a strange mixture of a world of sunlight and bees, and blue sky and yellow sun and the coat -- that immense, huge, suffocating, black, heavy coat.

Honest to God how absurd. The only place where he could feel the wind was on his face. No other place, save his hands and his feet when he tried to go barefoot (except he kept stepping on the coat). Nicholas Senior saw Nicholas Junior at times uncomfortable but simply said, "My father had to wear it. I had to wear it. I don't know what your problem is, but I'm sure you'll get used to it, just like I did."

By which Nicholas Junior knew that his father meant there wasn't anything he was going to do about it because if there was, he would realize he might have to do something about his own coat that he had to wear and, for whatever reason, wasn't about to do that.

Oh, how absurd, but at the time, Little Nicholas didn't know what to do about it at all. He didn't have the faintest idea that he could do anything, and whoever realizes that until they are many years along? Then, he might decide that the coat really isn't his style and then make a decision to take it off and drop or shred it, or leave it neatly at the parent's feet or even throw it in their faces.

Ah, would it not be wonderful to decide one's wardrobe so early in life? But not so for Nicholas Junior. Not so for him at all.

Now, you might wonder where was Nicholas' mother in all of this? Did she not realize that Nicholas was wearing too heavy a coat for the occasion? Any occasion, actually. Did not she wonder when Nicholas was just a baby what that dark aura was about him? Didn't she wonder when he, in the baby carriage, kept getting lost in the heavy black coat, that something was wrong? Didn't she ever say, "Nicholas, my baby and darling Nicholas, that coat will make you ill. That coat is much too heavy for your constitution." Now, how was it that the mother did not see? How could she be unaware that when Nicholas went swimming, he stayed and struggled beneath the surface of the water for really too long periods of time? (After all, such a heavy coat simply became waterlogged so that swimming was no fun, and was certainly just a struggle.) And where other children glided like pale fish through the sun-sparkled water, Nicholas just floundered and gasped like a fish out of water. Or how was it that on those lovely hot days, Nicholas, with face beaded and shining in sweat, almost suffocating in that black coat -- how was it that she did not see Nicholas' discomfort?

That is indeed a good question. Perhaps she didn't really want him, and by him being miserable, that way she could justifiably love him. Doesn't misery always bring out the caring in people? But maybe that wasn't it at all. But she did not see. For whatever reason, she did not see and Nicholas, wearing that black, heavy coat, got his mother's love. Time moved on and you know how that goes. Even though Nicholas knew the coat was somehow the very worst thing he could wear, well, not knowing any better, perhaps he wore it anyway. He grew into it. Sort of. Now just because you grow into something doesn't mean it fits any better. No, no, oh, not at all. It just means you distort your body enough to fit the form -- what else can you do? Poor little Nicholas, growing up, wearing a heavy dark coat that was anything but his own. But what can you do when you're a day old? Two months old? A year or so old? What choices have you about certain clothes that you have to wear for the rest of your life and no matter how ill-fitting, the only advice you can possibly get, given that it is given with love as it is known (which isn't really love at all but unconscious tyranny), the only advice you can get is that, "You'll learn to love it as you grow into it for there are no other alternatives that are love-defined in this family for you." So what are you to do at age two? Shove off the coat and risk rejection? And even Nicholas Junior, minutes after birth, knew the folly, the impossibility, the ludicrousness of that.

The black and heavy coat stayed in place, ah, sad, sad, anchored by survival need and quest for love, the coat stayed in place.

It stayed in place in spite of the admonishments of his best pals, Kenny for one, who wore clothes of bright colors and whose parents always respected his tastes and asked him what he wanted to wear, and so Kenny was quite the individual with a trust in his tastes and his own sensibilities and he always looked at Nicholas and said, "Gee, don't you ever get tired of wearing that coat? Look how black it is and how frayed the sleeves. The buttons are coming off and it's way too large. Don't you have other coats you can wear? Or other clothes? I can see this in winter when it's dark and gloomy and then everyone can't help but wear coats like this -- but all the time?"

To which Nicholas replied, hurt and defensive, "But what's wrong with it?"

And Kenny asked, "Is that really your coat?"

"It's the only coat that I know."

"But is it your coat?"

"Yes."

"And you choose to wear it?"

Desperately, Nicholas said, "Yes."

Kenny looked puzzled, unsure as to what to say for he saw the desperation, didn't know how to talk about it or much less what it meant and finally said, "Oh," but really meant, "I don't know what's going on with you, but that black coat that you always wear is a mean looking coat and I have a hunch you're wearing it for the wrong reason and it's not even your coat -- what do your clothes really look like beneath that old coat? What are you really wearing? Polyester? Cotton? Wool? Plaid? Blues? Greens? Red? My friend, what are your clothes and true colors beneath that black coat?"

Ah, poor Nicholas, what was he to say? For everyone's worst fears are such that if they have been taught that they must wear a dark coat, it must be because that which is beneath the coat is so worthless or so secondhand, or so colorless, that if they showed their wardrobe to the world, their clothes would be found to be utterly rejectionable; therefore, your worst fears about that which is beneath the coat are thereby confirmed. So of course, the coat remained in place. Nicholas wore it at school dances and while everyone was showing off their glorious but (of course) adolescent wardrobes, Nicholas just assumed that once the coat was in place, it would always be in place and that was the only wardrobe he had, there were no other clothes to wear. But oh, how hard it was to dance in an ill-fitting black coat that enshrouded Nicholas like a great black sack of space. And oh, how that coat made it so hard to dance; Nicholas might try to turn but the momentum of the coat simply made him ungainly. He'd try a new step but the coat got in the way and he'd end up falling. He'd reach out to touch hands but the coat sleeve flopped over his fingers and the only touch anyone ever got was a fistful of fabric and a handful of darkness. And where everyone else danced and as they danced their new wardrobes became more lively in color, more solid in hue, poor Nicholas; it was as though his coat became heavier, the fabric denser and darker and what, what, what was poor Nicholas ever to do? And what a strange sensation to be wearing a coat that was one's own but did not fit or really belong to one at all. Oh, what a strange and strange sensation that was. And to make it even worse, whenever he went home, his father always said, as he sat unconsciously distorted and destroyed by his own coat, "My, my, what a fine looking coat that is. You should be grateful that I gave you that coat. Why, if it weren't for me, you'd not have that wonderful coat at all. Wear it well and make me proud of you."

His mother, still, for whatever reason, unable to see that black coat even now, did notice his discomfort and always gave him much loving concern.

Who can refuse? Ah, that parental love is the strongest there is, and who can refuse? To such overwhelming love and concern, of course he said yes, and yes, and every time he said yes, it was as though the coat became darker and fit closer or like tender meat crammed into a shell, he made the coat fit as best he could, but oh, the pain, the sense of pain was always there. Nicholas could only guess that was the way it was -- but his friend Kenny appeared very happy and Melissa, she always wore bright colors and had gay and happy parties and his other friend Jackie, my how he loved reds and yellows. On the dreariest of days, he wore the brightest of colors as if defying the clouds, the very dark side of the moon, the unending dark and deep well of space, which could only try, just try to snuff out that blaze of bright fire known as Jackie.

At what point does one make a decision to remove one's coat? At what age? At what time? How is that decision made? Perhaps it was when Nicholas was sixteen. Perhaps it was because of Meredith that things began to change.

Meredith MacKenzie was as sweet a young lady as you could find anywhere, what with long blond hair and delicious smile. She liked Nicholas and Nicholas could not figure out why.

All this came about because she was in his art class with him and tremendously enjoyed the sketches he made, although to him they seemed of small consequence, even though everyone else liked them, too. It was the only thing he could do without the coat getting too much in his way, but the long sleeves did make it hard to draw, and frequently the vast folds of the coat made it difficult for him to sit and be comfortable, or draw without smudging the lines or colors. But in spite of the coat, that at least, was one place where Nicholas could accept a little color into his life, though how colorful it really was was as yet rather beyond him.

But one day, while sitting in the lunch room, sitting in his vast coat and trying to be as comfortable as possible in that dark and thick hand-me-down, Meredith came over and said, "Hi, I really liked the sketch you did."

And Nicholas, almost choking on his cold corned beef sandwich said, "Uh, oh, gee, uh, thanks -- it wasn't really anything all that good -- "

Meredith smiled. "Everyone liked it."

Nicholas smiled a grim little smile and it was though somehow the coat felt closer and bigger than ever before.

"Uh, well, gee," he said, "um, thank you -- "

"May I sit with you? Can I join you for lunch?" Her look was gentle and patient.

"Oh, uh, yeah, sure," said Nicholas.

And she sat.

And he did not have the faintest idea what to do and he seemed to lose himself in that coat even more.

"Don't you ever get tired of wearing that coat?"

"Huh?"

"That coat. That heavy black and dark coat. Why do you wear such an awful coat?"

Nicholas looked at her with a mixture of shame and guilt as if there was something terribly wrong with the coat and not only was the coat wrong, but what was beneath it was also wrong. And he did not know what to say so he sat there, but with very dry mouth eating a corned beef sandwich and feeling very unhappy indeed. But she was patient. And she kept smiling. She dug in her brown bag and brought out a tuna fish sandwich, a big red apple, and a small bag of potato chips. She ripped open the top and offered them to Nicholas. "Care for some?"

Guiltily, Nicholas accepted.

"It's okay," she said.

"Thank you," he said.

"You know," she said munching a chip, "my father used to wear a coat just like yours."

Nicholas stopped eating and stared at Meredith.

She crunched another potato chip. "It took a lot of work for us to help him take it off. He just couldn't believe that the natural clothes he wore beneath the coat were actually okay." Crunch, another potato chip, and she offered him some more. From the depths of his coat, he looked at her, comprehending but no, not comprehending at all.

"Of course," she said, "the hardest thing for him to realize was not only that he was wearing a coat in the first place, but that he could take it off." She sighed. "He just did not understand. But after you've known someone who wears such a coat, you see it on others."

Nicholas shrunk even further into his coat.

"I know you probably don't understand," she said, "my father didn't either, not for a long, long, time. But finally he let us become close to him because he finally saw that he was okay -- " And before she knew it, she had her hands up to her face and began to cry.

Just then, without even thinking, Nicholas, in spite of the heavy and dark coat that he wore, he right then reached through all that fabric and touched Meredith right on the arm and as he moved, his coat pulled away from him, oh, just a little way for him to look down to see a shirt he was wearing beneath suddenly become a blaze of reds and yellows and greens and blues; and Meredith, suddenly looking at Nicholas, looking through her own tears, said simply, "Thank you, Nicholas," and then softly, "Thank you very much."

And Nicholas, still blinded by the colors of what he really wore beneath that dark coat, began to grasp the nature of the decision that he had to make.

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