February 25, 2008

The Coat

I hadn’t worn the coat in years. I had given up wearing it, because I think I wanted to look a little more respectable, a little more my age. It’s an old officer’s deck coat I bought at an Army Navy surplus store. Two columns of gold buttons run down its front. Raised anchors decorate the buttons. I still vividly remember the man who sold it to me.

“It’s rare, these buttons. You don’t often find a coat with all the original buttons anymore.”

“Really?” I said. I might have sounded skeptical.

“Sure,” he said, “extremely rare.”

But that night I was seeing a woman for dinner: a beautiful, high-strung poet with a deep soul. And the night was already charged because this was Valentine’s Day and it was only our second date. Many emails discussing the appropriateness of seeing each other on this night had been exchanged. But she was about to leave town and so Valentine’s Day was all we had. If we waited too long before the second date, our thing could fizzle out like that. We both knew this. We were both pros. We had been doing this for a long time. She was worth the extra effort. And I really liked her poetry. And her lips. And for some reason, I thought she would like that coat. It has an old, majestic feel. I look good in it. Those gold buttons help a lot.

Down on the subway platform, though, under the greasy lights, I saw the cost of leaving a coat in the closet for four years. A pelt of orange cat hair covered every inch of it. There was so much hair that I took the coat off and slung it over my arm. The thought of even strangers seeing me in that coat made me grow hot. The train took forever, naturally. Each second waiting was occupied by trying to figure out how I’d fix the problem once I got into Brooklyn. I remembered from once living in the neighborhood that a deli stood just across the street from the Carroll Street station. Maybe they stocked tape. I already imagined the spectacle I would make.

The place had changed owners since I had last been in there. First, it had been run by Italians, then Chinese, and now a couple of East Asians seemed to be in charge. The deli was still called Frank’s, though.

“Do you have tape?”

“Tape?”

“Like packing tape or Scotch tape, or something?”

He pointed to the rear of the store.

“To the left. We have duct tape and packing tape.”

“Thank you,” I said, heading to the back, “I’m covered in cat hair.”

I found a roll and returned to the register.

“How much?”

“A dollar forty-two.”

I paid and shook my head when he began to put the roll of tape in the bag.

“Ok, look. I’m meeting someone in five minutes and my coat is covered in cat hair. See?”

“Oh, Yes.”

“Do you have a scissors?”

“Yes, ok”

He produced a pair of scissors from somewhere under the counter. Meanwhile, I started pulling off a length of tape.

“I used to work in television and we had this little trick.”

The deli man had been watching us from behind his cold cuts counter. Now, he leaned forward to get a closer look at the unfolding drama.

A long strip hung from the roll, which I held up, gesturing toward the man at the register. He understood instantly what I wanted. He took his scissors and sheared off the piece.

I wrapped the tape around my hand, sticky side out, and then used it on my coat like one of those lint rollers, except without the rolling.

The deli man laughed.

“I mean I just can’t meet her looking like this,” I said. “Let’s do it again.”

I unwound another strip and the man at the register, standing at the ready with his scissors, snipped. There was a measure of satisfaction in his face.

The coat was starting to come together. We did it one more time. We had perfected our coöperation. We executed our roles with precision.

“Ok, how does it look?” I asked.

“It looks good. It looks normal.” He took a leap of faith. “She’ll like it.”

Before I left, I turned over the roll of tape. He ran a store. He could probably use an extra roll of tape.

I put on the coat and went to the restaurant. She wasn’t there yet and so she didn’t get to see me wearing the coat. I ruefully hung it on the chair.

When she arrived, we ordered drinks, we ordered dinner, at some point I made her cry, and then I paid the bill, and we left.

On the way out the door, she turned to me.

“Hey, nice coat.”

“My cat loves it,” I said.