THE RED COAT

THE RED COAT

From Chicken Soup for the Girlfriend's Soul

The Red Coat

The squares and triangles for the quilt are poured across her lap like jewels. Patches of golds, greens, reds. She runs her hand over a block of garnet-red wool and smiles.

It was a cold, windy day, with winter nipping at the heels of fall. She picked up Abby from grade school and they rode the city bus downtown. Abby was bundled in a hand-me-down coat from her cousin, Linda Sue. It was perfect, with a rabbit fur collar, and hardly worn. They hopped off the bus and she held Abby’s hand as they dashed across the street. The wind whipped up a piece of newspaper and cut right through her thin brown coat— the same coat she’d gotten just before the war. Styles had changed a lot since then, with hemlines going up and down like an elevator. Now there wasn’t enough of the coat left to alter, and her full skirt peeked out from beneath it like a dust ruffle.

John had been home since September, and the only job he’d been able to secure was as a janitor at the hospital. He hoped to start night school in January; education seemed to be the ticket to a better job. Lately, he’d scrimped and saved, and just that morning handed over twelve dollars, saying, “Now, you go over to Harricks and find yourself a good winter coat.” She’d agreed, thinking it would be a challenge to find much of a coat for twelve dollars. She knew he meant well, but it might have been better to put the money under the mattress for a rainy day. Lord knew they’d had plenty of those.

As she and Abby entered Harricks, she suddenly remembered how she used to shop there with her mother, back when money flowed freely, before she’d married John against the wishes of her family. Now the shop seemed like a foreign land, and she felt like an intruder.

“May I help you?” asked a plump woman straightening gloves in a glass display case.

“No, thank you. I just want to look around a bit.” No use telling her she was looking for a coat, with only twelve dollars in her purse. The woman might laugh.

She walked through the store, pretending to observe the many pretty things. Abby pointed out a peacock blue evening dress. “That would look nice on you, Mommy.” She stroked her daughter’s sleek brown hair, the same color as her own, and smiled. Finally, they reached the back of the store and she turned around, ready to give up. Relief mixed with disappointment. But nestled in the corner was a rack with various items, the sign above it proclaiming: “Sale.” She glanced at the rack and something red caught her eye. It turned out to be a wool coat in a lovely shade of red, just the color of garnets. She carefully removed the hanger from the rack and searched the coat for a price tag. But surely, even on sale, it would cost too much.

“Mommy, the tag says twelve dollars!” Abby triumphantly held up the sleeve with the bright yellow tag. “You can get it, Mommy! That’s just the right price.”

“Oh, that can’t possibly be right. It’s much too nice. There must be some mistake.”

“Try it on, Mommy. See if it fits.” Abby tugged at the sleeve of her old coat.

“It’s probably not even my size.” But in the same moment, she lay down her old coat and slipped into the red coat. She couldn’t explain why, but it felt like honey. It was delicious.

“It’s perfect, Mommy. And it’s beautiful! You look like a princess.” Abby pushed her toward the mirror. It looked fine, probably too fine. And perhaps the red, though lovely, was too bright for a woman almost thirty. She hung the coat back on the hanger, then held it at arm’s length to study it again. It was a nice design, with bound buttonholes and large abalone buttons. Even the lining was smooth heavy satin—that’s why it felt like honey.

“Are you going to buy it, Mommy?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Abby. I think there’s a mistake. This is a very well-made coat. The price tag can’t be right. Coats like this don’t end up on the clearance rack, especially in November.”

“It says twelve dollars; it must be right.” Abby folded her arms and tapped her little foot with impatience. “Daddy said you’re supposed to buy a coat. Now you better get it.”

She smiled down at Abby, then put the coat over her arm and headed for the counter. An elderly woman was being waited on. The sales clerk carefully placed a brown felt hat with a long black feather into a hatbox and rang up the price. The cash register jingled as the tray popped open.

“That’ll be thirty-two dollars,” announced the clerk, and the woman wrote out a check without even blinking. She picked up her pretty box and bid the clerk good day.

“Can I help you?” asked the clerk sweetly. Her hand was extended as she reached expectantly for the coat.

“No, I, uh, I think I’d like to look around just a little more.” She stepped back and studied the coat again. The price tag was a mistake. If a silly hat sold for thirty-two dollars, how could this beautiful coat be twelve?

“What are you doing, Mommy?” complained Abby as she followed her back to the sales rack.

“Honey, I just know it’s a mistake. You can’t buy a coat like this for twelve dollars. There’s no point in even asking. We’ll just look silly.”

“But the tag says—”

“Shhh, honey, don’t make a scene.” She looked around.

Several other shoppers were close by now. She recognized Lily Andrews from church. She was new in town, and her husband was a doctor. Mrs. Andrews smiled in their direction and moved toward the sales rack. It seemed strange that someone so well off would be interested in clearance items. Her hand paused on the red coat and she pulled it from the rack.

“May I help you?” asked the clerk.

“What a lovely coat. And only twelve dollars?”

“That’s right. It was from last year; someone returned it in July, if you can believe that. A woman kept it all winter and never wore it. She never even took the tags off. The store owner just wanted to get rid of this coat since it doesn’t fit with the new line up in front. It’s quite a bargain—”

She couldn’t hear any more. She took Abby’s hand and quickly led her out.

“But Mommy, that’s your co—”

“Shh, honey.”

Tears stung her eyes as the wind blew even colder outside. It was still too early for the return bus, but they settled down on the bus stop bench to wait, anyway, huddling together for warmth.

“Why didn’t you get your coat, Mommy?” Abby’s voice was sad.

“I don’t know, honey.”

How could she tell her it was because she was foolish? And not only was she foolish, she was too proud to ask. How could she explain to John that their eight-year-old daughter had more sense than she did. She shivered. She deserved another winter in her old worn-out coat. That would teach her a lesson!

“Excuse me,” called a voice. She looked up to see Lily Andrews.

“Yes?”

“I know this is going to sound very strange. And believe me, I don’t usually do things like this, but I just got the strongest impression to give you this. I have no idea why.” She thrust the package toward them.

“I don’t understand—”

“Neither do I. But it’s as if God told me to do this. I know it’s very strange; you probably think I’m crazy.”

“It is strange.” She peeked in the bag. “I almost bought this coat just a few minutes ago. Please let me pay you for it.” She grabbed eagerly for her purse.

“No, that’s just it. I got the impression I was to give it to you. You cannot pay me for it. I’m sorry. I must sound like a madwoman. . . .” Her face was red, and tears were in her eyes.

“But I can’t take this; it’s like charity.”

“No, it’s not charity. Go ahead and give your money to someone who needs it if you like. But I know I’m supposed to give this to you. I’m sorry if I sound nutty; maybe I’m just lonely, but it’s the first time I ever thought I heard God tell me to do something. You have to let me do it.

Think of it as a gift from God . . . an act of faith.”

That was more than four decades ago. She’d worn the coat for many winters. Finally, it was so out of style that even Abby pleaded with her to give it up, but she could never bring herself to part with it. It had been packed in a trunk for ages, and she’d only thought of it last week when Dr. Andrews passed away and she wanted to do something special for her friend Lily. Now she was carefully cutting the pieces into a lap quilt for her good friend. She hoped it might be a comfort and a reminder that faith can be found in small things like red wool coats . . . and enduring friendships.

Melody Carlson

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