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.
red wool coat
"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, one's 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 stilletto 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?"
published Summer 1996 Lynx Eye ©1996 Scribblefest Lit. Group (as a personal essay) reprinted: 1996 Rochester Shorts (as short story)
reprinted: March 2010 The Jewish Press (as a personal essay)
reprinted: October 2016 Fabula Argenta(as a short story)
"Step on a crack. Break your mother's back." A small child was jumping on sidewalk squares and reciting the verse in a sing-song style.
Carole glanced at her wristwatch, then stared at the colonial frame house. She'd made a special trip to this street hoping it would help her decide about possible organ donation and subjecting her own life to surgical hazards on the slim chance it would help another. She needed to deal with anger stored up since her 1940's childhood.
"Step on a crack."
"Fifty years later," Carole sighed. "Still the same sidewalk game." Her attention focused on the house and, in her mind, she replayed a typical scene from decades ago:
"Ha, ha, ha-ha, ha," Molly chanted in a singing manner. "I get to dust the living room and can listen to records."
"Big deal." Carole pretended to not care. "I'd rather clean up the kitchen anyway today."
"I don't believe you," Molly laughed. "You're jealous that nearly every Saturday you lose the coin toss for dusting the living room."
"Oh shut up." Carole turned and walked away; her big braids bobbed.
Molly took two 78 rpm sized records and set them on top of the mahogany player. She wondered whether Frank Sinatra or Dick Haymes would upset her sister more. She decided to hear Haymes.
"Why do you have the music so loud?" Carole called from the dinette. "Just wait until Mother gets home and I tell her how loud you play the phonograph."
"She won't believe you," Molly again sang these words.
The living room had a false fireplace; below the wood stack was a tiny fan, a piece of red cellophane, and an electric light. When a switch was engaged, the fan blades revolved and the glow looked like a fire. On the left side of the fireplace was a built-in radio. The entire unit was framed by floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The walnut Baby Grand piano had a Spanish scarf draped over its closed lid; fringes hung helplessly. Molly told herself if she ever got that piano she'd keep the lid open all the time; she hated the scarf, all the `junk' on top, and the muffled tone when she played. She stood on a piano bench to dust the inner part of the torch lamp. Indirect lighting was pretty; she also hoped she'd someday own this tall lamp.
"Bet mom and dad give ME the piano when we grow up." Molly didn't hear any response. "Hey, Carole, did you hear me?"
"Oh, Molly, can't you stop picking for one day! Act your age." Carole, two years older, tried to sound mature.
The record ended and the needle made repeated scraping sounds across the final groove. Molly ignored it.
"Oh maturity," Molly spoke with sarcasm, "I hope you do mature in your head and someday get married because Mom and Dad said the older has to be married first. I'll be 90 if they make me wait for real."
Carole's appearance at the archway to the living room startled Molly. "Look, skinny, no one'll ever ask you."
Molly stroked her thin flaxen hair, wiggled her behind, and pretended to be untouched by the remark. "Carole-Barrel, Carole-Barrel," she shrieked. "You're so fat you could be rolled over Niagara Falls and not even get hurt."
Molly knew just where her sister was most vulnerable. Once she got started with this verbal abuse she seemed unable to stop it. "Carole-Barrel, you must be adopted 'cause no one else in the whole family looks like you."
Carole's greenish-blue eyes welled up with tears. Her short fingers felt the plump brown braids. Mom and Molly are blond, Dad has dark hair and light blue eyes, all are skinny, maybe I am adopted. Oh, God, don't let that be, Carole thought.
"Don't worry, beanpole, I'll get married first. Probably it'll be the only wedding made in this house." Carole tried to cover her wounds which Molly once again opened and irritated.
Molly did a cartwheel and nearly toppled the coffee table. "Let's see you do that."
"Leave me be," Carole replied. "You almost broke the china vase."
"So?" Molly said. "I'd tell 'em that clumsy you cracked it. They'd believe me. I'm pretty. I even have the bedroom with the window box."
"My bedroom is much bigger and I have three windows," Carole played out the one-upmanship.
"I have pretty nails; you bite yours." Chips of pink polish flashed out at Carole. Molly's storehouse of abuse was always ready.
The 1941, black, Buick's tires caused the gravel on the driveway strips to crackle. Both girls looked out through the wooden Venetian blinds. "Dad's home."
Molly ran to the front door to be the first to greet him. When he came through, she wanted to hear his usual "Hi, princess" before her older sister.
In the background, the record player revolved and the diamond needle continued to thump against the wounded groove.
"Step on a crack and break your mother's back." The small girl who was taking wide strides to avoid sidewalk cracks looked up and said, "Hi. You live around here?"
Carole looked down, smiled, and stated, "They still play sidewalk songs."
"Well," insisted the youngster, "do you live around here?"
"No." Carole ran her short fingers through her grey hair. "I once lived in this house," she pointed ahead at the brick and shingle colonial, "but that was a long, long time ago."
"Oh. Bye." The rhyme continued as the child took long steps and walked away.
The once-tiny Chinese Maple tree filled a large section of the left front lawn; its fullness concealed the living room windows. "You did manage to get the piano, Molly," Carole said aloud. "And the torch lamp, and the porcelain vase that sat on the coffee table."
Carole moved along the sidewalk until she could see the bedroom window through the higher maple leaves. The window box was gone. Carole whispered. "You always played the princess, and all these years have had it easy...until now, perhaps. Looks, brains, talent, nice kids, doting husband...even your hair hasn't turned grey yet. My life's been a mess. Wasn't it your fault? Wasn't it? Even during my divorce, you took sides with my ex. How could you side with that man!"
Carole shifted her heavy body. She turned towards the driveway, now a one-car, smooth, asphalt path. "Well, you were changed for the better," she addressed the once-gravel yardage. Me? I guess no one ever did care; I sure couldn't hold onto a relationship; I still bite my nails; I wish..." Carole was suddenly aware that she was talking out loud. No one was on the street except the little girl who was re-tracing her steps back along the sidewalk.
"You looking to buy that house, lady?" The girl stopped her giant steps.
"Do you have a sister?" Carole spoke.
"Yeah. She's a baby and I hate her. Bye again." Her walk continued.
"Simple." Carole said. "Simple. She's a baby and I hate her. Why couldn't I have ever been allowed to really express that? Why didn't I when I had the chance?" Carole glared at the two-story structure, turned and began walking up the street to where she'd parked the car. "Too bad girls couldn't have fist fights so we might have settled the junk and gotten on differently. Oh. Probably nothing would have mattered. Rivalry stuff. Why do my friends think that childhood peeves vanish, even when illness happens, and spew 'holier-than-thou' phrases to me?"
Carole opened the car door and slid behind the plastic steering wheel. Looking into the rearview mirror, she spoke as if her sister were behind the rectangle of glass. "Well, Molly, you used to wonder whether I was adopted, yet you want me to submit to tests to see if one of my kidneys is compatible with yours. Has my anger finally, today, been spent... or is it still festering?" She adjusted the rear view mirror for its driving position, hesitated as she thought of her emotional dilemma, shook her head gently up and down agreeing with her mind's choice. Then she inserted the key into the ignition.
©2000 Green’s Educational Pub. (Canada) It was the lead story in the Autumn 2000 issue of Green’s Magazine