“Ah choo! Why do stores have to put perfume counters right smack inside the main doors?” Libby muttered.
A strolling model waited with an atomizer spray. “Would you like to try our newest fragrance?” She was poised ready to squeeze the bulb to broadcast liquid.
Libby held her breath, shook her head from side-to-side indicating a “no,” and tried to rapidly walk away before the model could move forward and do it anyway.
A sale table had merchandise laid out on a wooden table. These same items had been on sale, displayed on a hanging metal rack, just the preceding week. Libby smiled with the remembrance of that. The movement of her lips into an upward curve seemed to shake some tension from her body. She shifted her leather shoulder bag from the right to left shoulder, adjusted the collar on her plaid winter jacket, and freed some caught strands of limp hair.
“Hello, Mrs. Slotter,” spoke a young woman.
Libby turned. “Janet!” She smiled at one of the students in her English 251 class. “Didn’t I give you a long enough assignment that you’ve time to shop?” Libby joked.
Janet pulled the beret from her head and feigned shoving it in Libby’s mouth. “You’re a great teacher,” she then quietly mentioned, “and I like also being able to laugh with you.”
Libby smiled again. This time her eyes watered. Janet noticed.
“Guess you teachers really do toss papers down stairs and any that stay on the top step get A’s, ones in the middle B’s, and so on,” Janet quipped. She stood at an angle and the store’s fluorescent light gave her skin a slightly blue glow. Her features were full, almost fleshy, but the absence of make-up on her young skin was attractive.
“Of course,” Libby quipped. “Why do you think I have time to shop when I’m not teaching?”
Janet shoved the beret into her pocket. “Nice bumping into you, Mrs. Slotter. Whomever you’re shopping for, I hope he or she appreciates it.”
“Didn’t I tell you in class, people don’t consciously speak in correct grammar and you shouldn’t even, at your college level, try to write differently from your conversation,” Libby scolded in a fun way, but was serious.
Janet extended her hand. “Don’t tell anyone. But I’d almost love to flunk your class just to have you next semester.” She walked away humming softly.
A sigh seemed to squeeze out of Libby’s lungs. The escalator looked higher today. “Appreciate,” she sighed again and whispered to herself. She stepped on the rubber escalator mat. Unfastening her jacket and returning her purse to the right shoulder gave her something to consciously do and think about on the short ride to the store’s second floor. Coat department was to the left.
“May I help you?” A saleswoman quickly approached. She was short, wearing a too-long challis skirt and needle heels. Libby wondered how she could stand in those shoes all day, and why the woman hadn’t the courage to dress for her height rather than designer decree. Libby also thought of the times she needed sales help and no one ever appeared.
“Thanks. I need a few minutes alone.”
“Any specific size? Coats are arranged by color now, not by size.”
“Any specific color?”
Libby tried to keep the tension from returning. “Just a few minutes alone, please.”
The woman turned, approached another customer, and began the dialogue.
“Red. She said red. I don’t know why.” Libby muttered, caught her reflection in a long mirror, and without words, talked to herself. “She never ever asked for a specific gift. Never. Why now? And why such a ridiculous item for California? A long, red wool coat. She can’t use a long coat in California. And so specific a color.” Libby’s blue eyes looked greyish in the light.
The jacket she was wearing was placed on a close chair. Skinny marink,” she thought as she looked again at herself. I’m still skinny marink although I still don’t know what a marink is. Why did my mother call me that? Maybe I should ask her what a marink means. With the tubes in her, guess she couldn’t answer too well…but she was able to talk well enough to ask for a long red wool coat for her birthday. Why did she have to move 3000 miles west when most of family still is east. Was selling the house after Dad died so awful that she couldn’t stay on the east coast?
The short saleslady interrupted the silent monologue. “Ah. I see,” pointing to the jacket on the chair, “that you’ve found the color you want. Here,” she pulled out a petite extra-small coat, “this should look wonderful on you with your hair color.”
Libby’s hand went up as if to protect a blow. “The coat isn’t for me. I’m buying a gift for my mother. I’ll need it mailed to a hospital in California. No tax. Out of state mailing. Gift wrapped.”
“What size?” The clerk softened her tones.
“I don’t know!”
“Then how about a wrap-coat. Size isn’t too important.”
“No. I want the most luxurious feeling coat you have. She weighs about 115, well, she did anyway. Is my height. I’ll try some on.” Libby thought about her mother’s distended abdomen from disease which doesn’t let the body’s liver get rid of waste. “But it should be loose.”
“Here. Try this.” From a heavy wooden hanger, an all-wool coat was removed. It had a red acetate lining that was very shiny.
Red. Long. Wool. Coat. Libby’s head repeated these words like a record stuck in an etched groove. Never asked before for a special gift. Took anything I sent even when I sent something she hated. Aloud, she said, “Something else. The armpit area is too skimpy.”
A dolman-sleeved coat was handed to Libby. She slid her arms into it and wrapped its bathrobe style around her tiny frame. “What am I agonizing for!” She hadn’t realized that this sentence came out loud. Blood vessels filled and her face blushed.
“Gifts are hard when you don’t know the size.” The clerk was getting sympathetic.
Tears smarted Libby’s eyes. She sat down on top of her jacket. Her plaid skirt pleated around her knees. “This one will be fine.” A monotone sound of resolution. “It really does not matter.” She emphasized the word “not.” “My mother will never wear it.”
“She’ll love it. And if it’s the wrong size, she can ship it back and exchange it.” The saleslady sensed despair.
“She won’t need a different size. She’s terminal. She’ll be dead very soon. She asked me for a red, long, wool coat for her birthday so she could fly east when she gets out of the hospital and visit with me. The only trip she’ll make east is in her coffin, as family graves are here.” There. She said it. Out loud. It didn’t take the pain away. It didn’t take the disbelief away either.
“I’ll bring the book over. Sit.” The clerk wobbled on the stiletto heels and returned with the sales book. “If it’s never worn, you can have someone there ship it back and I’ll credit your charge. It’s the most expensive one we carry.”
Oh God. Libby smoothed a pleat of her skirt with a clammy hand. She knew the clerk meant well, but the coat was just going and not returning. On the tiny gift card, Libby kept up the charade: To Mom. Happy Birthday. Enjoy wearing this for your trip east. Looking forward to it. Love, Libby.
She printed the name, hospital address, on the sales slip. The gift card was slid into an envelope and secured to the paper slip. “Gold box. Big. Big red bow.” She instructed.
“I’m sorry.” The short clerk looked straight at Libby. Her eyes were green, Libby noticed, and large for her face. Her face had high cheekbones, and the purplish lipstick actually was flattering. The eye contact showed sincerity. “You know, red is the color of blood and blood is life.” She was almost philosophical. “It’s a good choice. She’ll love it.”
A repeated nod was all Libby could express. She signed the charge, patted the clerk’s hand, slid her arms into the jacket, and stood up. Her legs felt heavier and the down-escalator was a walk that seemed too far away. She still didn’t know why her mother had asked for a certain birthday gift, and couldn’t ask. “Maybe,” she whispered with a possible correct choice, “she wants it for a life-blanket to keep her body warm on its last trip east.”
Libby’s feet felt the escalator’s power beneath them. The coat was bought. She hoped it would make its way across the country for her mother to actually see it. She didn’t question why, upstairs, she’d bought the most vibrant, heavy, soft one; she’d resolve that another time. She’d lose herself in grading student essays soon, and that sense of purpose helped.
As Libby exited, the model instructed to sell perfume sprayed first, then questioned, “Would you like to try this new fragrance?”
PUBLISHING HISTORY OF “RED WOOL COAT”: 1996 Lynx Eye, copyright 1996 Scribblefest Lit (personal essay); reprinted as fiction, September 1996, Rochester Shorts (this version); reprinted March 2010 (personal essay) The Jewish Press
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items, photos, memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Red Wool Coat”
This story’s poignancy caught our attention immediately. Author Lois Greene Stone takes us back to a time when pre-mall, multi-story department stores with rubber-tread escalators were common, perfume bottles had rubber bulb atomizers instead of being the pressured kind we have today, and salesladies were easier to come by (even if they were sometimes a bit more in your face) to craft a wonderfully memorable story.
The author paints the scene and draws us so completely into Libby’s universe that, despite this being a short piece, we come away feeling as if we know Libby personally. We can also see why this piece has been reprinted several times since its first publication twenty years ago, and we’re glad to have the opportunity to show it off again to a new audience.