First Place

 

The Jacket

by Robin Rance

 

I’d walked on this bridge hundreds of times with my mom, and it seemed a fitting way to say goodbye.

“Can I have that jacket?”

The voice coming from behind me sent prickles up and down my spine. I’d been by this spot on the bridge every night for the last week. I didn’t turn around to respond, but instead spoke louder, “Why would you want my jacket?”

“It appears that you’re not going to be using it, and I know an elderly lady who recently lost the love of her life.  She’s struggled with her bills after the funeral expenses, and she could really use a warmer jacket. So…”

I turned around and contemplated the older gentleman who stood close behind me. He looked to be in his early seventies, close to my grandfather’s age.  He was handsome, and his smile as he stared back at me might have brought a smile to my lips under better circumstances. His clothing was shabby, but it seemed he was warm enough.

“You’re awful presumptuous thinking that I’m not going to be needing it.” I pulled the jacket tighter around me to prove my point. I turned around a stepped closer to the side of the bridge. “Go away; I came here to be alone.”

He laughed and even under my clothing I felt the hairs rise all over my body. “You don’t want to be alone, not really or you wouldn’t be here.”

I spun around. “Do you see anyone else on this bridge but myself?  I came to this bridge to be alone, so please go away.  You know nothing about me, or my reason’s for being here.” I faced the water once again and waited for him to leave so I could finish what I came here to do.

It was silent for a few moments, and then I heard the sound of his feet shuffling in the snow behind me. “But you’re wrong; I do know why you’re here, and it has nothing to do with your feelings at all, but it will affect the people who love you. So, let me have that jacket first; at least by doing that you’ll make one person happier.”

I clutched the rod iron railing that ran along the length of the footbridge. “No, sir, you’re the one who is wrong. I have no one waiting for me at home. There’s no one who’ll be bothered or upset if I don’t make it home tonight.”

“Young lady, do what you must.  All I’m asking for is the jacket first. It’s a beautiful jacket, by the way. Did you buy it for yourself?” His voice quivered when he asked about the coat.

I sighed, “No, it was a present from my mother. She bought for me last year, at a garage sale. Don’t get me wrong; it’s brand new. The woman she purchased it from was trying to raise money for something, and she’d bought the coat for her granddaughter as a Christmas gift, but couldn’t afford to send it in the mail. I didn’t wear it at all last year, and once again I disappointed my mother.”

I heard the man sigh behind me, and when he spoke next, it almost sounded like he was crying. “That’s heartbreaking. You said your mother bought it for you? Then don’t you think she’d like to see you wearing it now? You can show her how much the gift meant to you. Or you could give it to me.”

“You don’t understand; it’s too late to show my mother how it looks on me now.”

“Why not? I’m sure she’d love to see you in it. Life is full of regrets, and you shouldn’t be harboring yours. Where’s your mother, does she live far away?”

“I don’t want to talk about my mother.  Please leave me alone. Don’t you have somewhere else that you need to be?”

“You know what, young lady,  I’d give anything to be with my family again, and my sweetheart in particular. You remind me of my granddaughter. Her name’s Rose, and I’m sure she’s close to your age.”

He’d drawn my interest, “Does she live far away; is that why you haven’t seen her?”

“My sweetheart, or Rose?  I didn’t say I couldn’t see them, just that I couldn’t be with them. Tell me about your family. Do you have siblings, grandparents, parents…” His voice faded at the end of his last question.

“You’re confusing me now. Be and see, what’s the difference? I have no one… close.” My mind filled with images of my mother and her sister; they’d spent a lot of time together when I was younger and watching them had always made me wish I’d had a sister who was that close to me.

“I’ve thought about it, and I do no someone who lives in another state, but she’d never want to see me; not after what I’ve done.”

“Remember, it wasn’t your fault. You don’t know until you try.”

The more the man spoke to me the more confusing he became. I sat down on the curb and leaned back against the iron.  “What do you mean, try what? Now you’ve given me a headache.” I closed my eyes tightly and ran my hands back and forth across my face.

He chuckled, “I’d say that’s better than the alternative. Your aunt, have you tried calling her?”

I peeked up at him. “Alternative?”

“I’d say having a headache is better than feeling nothing at all; at least in my situation it would be.” He continued to stand there; he was closer than he’d been at the beginning of our conversation, but not close enough to touch.

I grunted, and then I remember he mentioned my aunt. “How do you know about my aunt? Oh my gosh, this conversation is driving me nuts!” I got up from the ground, glared at the source of my confusion, and then spun back around and clutched the rail again.

“Everyone’s got an aunt, and since you haven’t mentioned anyone else you’re close to… well, I’m sure she’d love to hear from you.”

I shook my head back and forth, slowly at first then more vehemently. “No, you’re wrong.  I could call her, but she’d hang up once she heard my voice.”

“Young lady, Christmas is coming soon, and everyone loves to hear from family. I wished I could speak with mine.”

I heard the sorrow in his voice as he spoke this time and turned around again to face him. “What happened to your family, if you don’t mind me asking?” I was surprised that he hadn’t moved at all and suddenly wondered if he was cold. I had a scarf in my pocket I could offer him.

“My family’s doing fine under the circumstances. Where does your aunt live; is she nearby?”

Was I misunderstanding everything he said to me? “I thought you said you’d like to, oh I get it.  You must be divorced or something. My aunt lives in another state.  I haven’t seen her in close to three years.  I think that’s the last time she came for a visit. Her and my mother were so close at one time, and then they stopped talking.”

I contemplated the man again. He must be freezing, his jacket wasn’t a warm as mine was, and he hadn’t moved around at all to keep himself warm. I reached into the pocket of my coat and pulled out the red scarf that my mother had knit made for me a few years back; I’d lost the matching gloves and hat that went with it.

“Are you cold?  I’ve got this scarf. You’re welcome to put it around your neck.”

“Put it back in the pocket of your jacket. Don’t forget; I know someone who could use both of those items.  Janet, why don’t you tell me about your mother; was she as pretty as you are?”

I smiled, “Mmnn, my mother was beautiful both inside and out. Wait, I never told you my name.”

“I’m sure I heard it.  Tell me more about your mother.”

I didn’t know if I wanted to share her with anyone else at the moment, but something in his kind eyes prompted me to start. “My mother was an angel. She would have given her last nickel to anyone who needed it. I watched it happen often. It became so difficult during this time of year especially when we went into the city to look at the lights. You know how cold it gets; the snow makes your breath freeze, and even with your hands tucked into your pockets they still don’t keep warm.

“Whenever we went Christmas shopping, my mother always ended up handing out all her dollar bills to the homeless people who sat on the corners, and it was worse if they had an animal with them.” My tears clouded my vision as I remembered the last time I’d watched her feeding the destitute man and his dirty mutt.

“She’d bought  a few burgers with fries and hot coffee from the nearest fast food place, and after she handed the man the sack, she got down on the ground in front of the dog and let it lick her face before she fed it from her hand.” I sniffled and wiped my nose with the back of my sleeve then turned back around to look at the river below me.

“I can never forgive myself for what I’ve done. If my mom hadn’t been out driving in that storm looking for me, after I’d disobeyed her and took off, she wouldn’t have been in the accident that killed her. That drunk driver shouldn’t have been allowed out on the road either. The bar where he’d been partying should have taken away his keys, but they allowed him to stumble out the door.”

I sighed, “My mom should still be here with me.”

“Janet, you weren’t the one who was driving that car, and you didn’t go against her wishes intentionally. You should have told her when you left what you were doing and for whom. She would have understood. You’re heart’s as charitable as your mother’s was.

“That’s why I wanted to ask you for the jacket. Let me tell you about my sweetheart before you make your final decision, and it will be final. My Marie is the most beautiful woman on earth. She loves her family passionately.  Whenever she does something for someone, she always writes a message or a note on the present or includes it with the baked goods to let them know how much they mean to her. I miss her very much, and it’s because of what happened to me that she’s struggling so much now.”

I listened to what he had to say and wondered if it was his Marie that he wanted the jacket for?  Then I remembered he said it was for a woman who’d had funeral expenses and couldn’t afford a coat of her own.

“You know what, you’re right, if I’m not going to use this jacket, then you might as well take it and give it to your lady friend.  I’m sure she could use it more than I can anyway. I’ve got a closet full of things at home. Which reminds me, I need to go through my mother’s things and give most of it to charity. Could your friend use anything else?”

“The jacket should be enough.”

I glanced down at the freezing water below me. “I shouldn’t be here, not when there are so many people who my mother can’t help this year. But I can. Hang on, you can have the jacket, my cars parked around the block, and I won’t miss it until I get inside.”

I pulled my keys from the pocket and shook them in front of him. “I’m going to keep the scarf though. It’s the last thing my mom made for me.  Hang on for just one moment while I unzip the coat.” I dropped the keys on the ground then quickly slipped the zipper down and shrugged out of the jacket. I held it in my hand to give to him, and as I bent down to pick up my car keys, I noticed there was something written on the tag inside the coat.

I turned the tag around, so I could read it better, ‘Rose, don’t ever forget, I’ll love you even when I’m no longer here, your Nana, Marie.’ I read it one more time out loud.

“Wait…” I looked up to question the stranger; I hadn’t heard him leave.

The first thing I was going to do when I got back home was to call my Aunt June and ask for her forgiveness. I hoped she’d let me be a part of her life again.

Christmas would always be a way to keep my mother in my heart, and she’d always told me, ‘You will always get more when you give.’ My mom kept all her receipts, and I knew she’d have the one for this jacket. My first gift would be for an elderly woman named Marie.