The Coat

“Other capitals,” began Roland, and paused for breath as he sometimes did. Sonya waited with apparent serenity. “… are in worse shape,” he concluded.

They were standing on the Pont Neuf, holding hands. All at once they embraced, as if ravaged Paris demanded it.

Roland Rosenberg was sixty and Sonya Rosenberg was fifty-eight. They had directed Camp Gruenwasser since 1945; but finally the place had been able to close, its last Displaced Persons repatriated to Romania. So the Rosenbergs too had left, traveling westwards on first one train and then another. Each was dressed in pre-War clothing, each lugged a single misshapen suitcase. They looked like Displaced Persons themselves; but their American passports gave them freedom, and their employment by the Joint Distribution Committee gave them cash.

Paris was giving them dusty cafés, a few concerts with second-rate performers, black bread, and this old bridge called New. Recovering from their embrace, they turned again towards the river. “The Old World,” said Roland, “is a corpse.”

Sonya—who had spent the War years in blistered London and the five decades previous in Rhode Island—knew The Old World only by reputation. Cafés, galleries, libraries, chamber recitals; salons de thé; polyglots in elegant clothing conducting afternoon dalliances before returning to one of the great banking houses… A derelict barge sailed towards them, sailed under them: thin children without shoes played on its deck.

*

On their third day, coming out of a brasserie near the Bastille, Roland suffered a heart attack. He spent a week in the hospital. Sonya sat by his side in a long room with metal cots and wooden floors that, like Camp Gruenwasser’s infirmary, stank of carbolic acid. She displayed an outward calm, she even felt calm—he would survive this attack, the French doctors told her, with emphasis on the this—but she could not prevent her long fingers from raking her long hair, hair that had turned from gray to white during the War and its aftermath.

When Roland was released they traveled by train to Le Havre and by ship to New York. The Joint got them a place on Lower Fifth.

It was a meandering apartment with mahogany furniture and gilded mirrors and draperies in a deep red. Circus wagon, Sonya might have called that shade, but she knew that colors had acquired new names since her departure in 1940, almost a decade ago—names borrowed from wines and liqueurs: cassis, port, champagne, chartreuse. The apartment was rent-free—that is, the Joint paid its rent to the regular tenant, who was away in California for a year. At the end of the year Roland and Sonya would find something more to their mutual taste, whatever that turned out to be. At Camp Gruenwasser they had shared an office and then a bedroom; they had married six months ago; but they had not yet together made a home.

Right away Sonya got her hair cut. The actress Mary Martin was playing a Navy nurse in a Broadway show. Mary Martin’s hair was clipped close to the scalp, like a boy’s. All over Manhattan women were trying that coiffure, most of them just once—even the prettiest face looked plain without surrounding fluff. But the cropped style suited Sonya’s long head and steady eyes. “You’re always beautiful to me,” said Roland when she came nervously home from the beauty shop. The effect of his declaration was stronger because of the flatness of its tone. “I’ll love you until the day I die,” he added, again without emotion; and she knew that to be true too. Let the day be slow in coming, she thought, again smelling the carbolic of the hospital.

Roland’s skin was still pasty but he was less often short of breath—a new medicine was helping. The Joint kept asking him to make speeches. Well, of course—who knew more about the plight of European Jews during the previous two decades; who could judge better the situation of those left on the continent; who could better suppose the future. He came home from speech-giving with his shirt moist. Thank God the apartment building had an elevator.

The apartment’s permanent tenant was a woman, they thought—they judged partly from the fourposter’s silk spread, creamy yellow. Eggnog? There was a crumpled lace-trimmed handkerchief in the back of one of the dresser drawers; it smelled of perfume. The tenant read German; German books were everywhere. “She is German,” concluded Sonya.

“Or Austrian or Swiss,” said Roland. “Or Lithuanian.”

“She’s no Litvak,” Sonya insisted, helplessly remembering Baltic Persons shivering in Gruenwasser’s underheated barracks. “She’s an aristocrat.”

“There are Lithuanian aristocrats,” began the reasonable man; but Sonya was already enumerating the signs of hoch culture: millefleur paperweights; framed eighteenth-century drawings; volumes of Rilke and Novalis; a shelf of novels in French. And the family photographs on the desk: a bespectacled father, a fine-featured mother—how would she fare with a Mary Martin chop?—five blonde daughters in the loose children’s dresses of the twenties. The photographs seemed unposed—perhaps a favorite uncle had taken them, Roland suggested. The girls, very young, played in a garden; mountains rose in the distance. Slightly older, they occupied a living room—three lolled on a couch, another sat at a piano, the littlest looked out the window. At the foot of a gangplank the entire family stood close together, as if bundled. They were all in coats except for the father, who carried his over his arm. Mama wore an asymmetrical hat. The girls—teenagers now—wore cloches.

“They got out in time,” said Roland.

“They’re not Jewish. Intellectuals, though, liberals…”

“National Socialism had no use for them. Which one is our landlady, do you think?”

Sonya peered at the faces, alike but different—one wore glasses, one had very full lips… Roland coughed, touched his chest. “The curly one,” Sonya decided.

And so, the identity of their more-or-less landlady more-or-less established, they turned to other things. Roland’s job at the Joint kept him busy, and Sonya was playing hausfrau and taking long walks. She got to know the butcher, the grocer, the fishmonger. She was a steady customer at the hardware shop and the lending library and the dry cleaning establishment. She patronized a coffee shop on Fourth Avenue, and established an ersatz friendship with its proprietress. Through the Joint she and Roland met apprehensive immigrants and were kind to them. And Sonya made two real friends: women who’d known one of her cousins—a jewelry designer on the East Side, a social worker on the West. Sometimes, on weekends, Sonya and Roland went to the movies with these women and their husbands, or out to a restaurant. Normal life, she exulted. She thought of Ida, the Camp secretary, maybe safe in Israel née Palestine, maybe killed by mortar fire.

There was an armoire in the room they called the study. Sonya had stored her few summer dresses in the right side of it, and Roland’s one summer suit. He had a winter suit, too. Insufficient; the Joint asked him to provide himself with a tuxedo at its expense. He was more and more in demand as a speaker, requested now by organizations of wealthy philanthropists, not just Zionists and Socialists. Roland reluctantly bought a tuxedo in Macy’s and Macy’s altered it to fit. It was delivered on a Saturday.

“I’ll hide it in that armoire,” he said. “And I’ll hope that I don’t ever have to pull it out, that those fellows find somebody else to harangue them. Just thinking of their dinners I get heartburn,” and he groaned in his easy chair.

“Don’t get up; I’ll put it away,” said Sonya quickly.

She opened the left door of the armoire; and held the tuxedo high, like a lamp. It was shrouded in the new element plastic. She attempted to hang it, and encountered resistance. Something was already hanging there. She opened the right door and thrust the tuxedo among the summer clothes. Then she took down the something.

It was a long black narrow coat of soft wool. It was double-breasted: buttons on its right side, buttonholes on its left, and so—she had to look down at her own striped cotton blouse to be sure—it was a coat designed for a man. It had a shawl collar of fur—brown fur, mink probably. Her friend the jewelry designer had a mink jacket, its glossy hairs similar to this. There was a producer who lived on West End Avenue; Sonya had seen him in his famous mink greatcoat.

She peeked into the living room. Roland was dozing now, the newspaper in disarray across his lap. She took the coat from the wooden hanger and, carrying it across her two extended arms, brought it into the bedroom.

There she put it on. The stripes of her blouse peeped between the crescents of fur like some other species. This coat needed a brandy-colored silk scarf costing perhaps one month of Roland’s salary, perhaps two. A bit of black would suffice. She reached into her middle drawer, pulled out a black slip, draped it within the collar. There.

Women’s slacks were just catching on. They were not generally for street wear, unless the streets were in the Village. Sonya had adopted them enthusiastically. They suited her long stride. She could buy men’s pants off the rack. She was wearing black trousers today, and Oxfords.

A pier glass stood between the two bedroom windows. She walked slowly towards it.

What a distinguished gentleman. How well the white-haired head sat above the fur collar. The owner of this coat must be a slender fellow—the garment barely skimmed Sonya’s thin frame. A man like this had had the cash to get out of Vienna, then get out of Paris, then get to New York—not like the little shoemaker Yenkel and his numerous children, not like chess-playing Claude, smoking and coughing on his lower bunk…

She took off the coat and brought it into the living room. Roland was awake. She showed him the garment like a saleslady, displaying the fine workmanship of the buttoned right cuff. The other cuff, she discovered, had lost its button.

“Very nice, but no use in California,” said Roland. “So she left it in New York.”

“He.”

“He, I suppose. We might have figured. A woman irons.” There’d been no ironing board when they arrived; they’d had to buy one. “A woman would have chosen different draperies—a softer color. Yes: this is a man’s apartment.”

“There’s no spice rack above the stove,” Sonya said. Roland gave her a thoughtful look. She turned from him and laid the coat at an angle on the Biedermeier sofa, its shoulders against the strict back, its skirts spread on the seat.

“But the photographs,” Roland said suddenly.

“Oh, your first guess must have been right.” She turned from the coat and walked back to Roland. “The pictures of that pretty family were taken by the coat’s owner, our landlord, the beloved young uncle.”

“No longer young,” he sighed.

“Still beloved,” and she touched his arm.

She took the coat to the neighborhood yarn shop—its missing button preyed on her conscience like a hungry pet. “Can you match this?” Sonya handed the buttoned right sleeve to the woman on the other side of the counter. The rest of the coat remained in her protective embrace.

“Ach, you don’t meet such buttons any more. May I see the others?” Without waiting for permission the woman leaned forwards and grasped the coat under the arms and took it from Sonya and laid it on the counter. She examined the carved leather hemispheres on the breast. She raised little green eyes to Sonya’s. “We have nothing like this here. I would not know where to look, though in Budapest…” and she trailed off sentimentally. “But maybe!” She thrust her ringed hand into the coat’s pocket, a pocket that Sonya had not guessed was there, so flat it was, so cleverly disguised by the seam. “Ach,” she said again. “He knew it was loose, ripped it off, kept it safe.”

“Who?”

“Your employer.” Sonya had pulled on an old cardigan sweater against the October chill. She supposed she did look like a housekeeper. “A tailor should sew this on; don’t try it yourself.”

The tailor on University Place did the job while she waited. A sudden wind swept newspapers against the shop’s grimy window. Once outside Sonya noticed that the temperature had dropped. So she put on the coat.

Only three blocks to home—one westward, two north. She was moving like a chess knight. No, a king. No, no, how self-important—minor nobility.

Roland wasn’t yet home. So she let the coat sit in his chair until, after five, the elevator began swishing up and down. Then she stowed it.

The next afternoon it kept her company in the kitchen while she cooked.

Another afternoon, while she lay on the bed reading, the coat slumped on a rosé chaise.

She did not wear it again until after the Christmas holidays. Then there was a cold snap. Her own coat was warm, yes; but would not the old gentleman’s be warmer still?—its lining, unseen between silk and wool, was light yet effective. When she held the fabric between thumb and fingers something slid within, as if alive.

She bought it a scarf—not real silk, synthetic, oh, these new fabrics. The color was perfect—cognac. She bought cashmere-lined leather gloves on sale. In a thrift shop she found a hat in the shape of a squat cylinder, mink-dyed squirrel.

Her daily walks became longer. She began on Fifth, turned onto Broadway at Union Square, stayed on its sunny side. In half an hour she was among the emigrés. She would not enter the cafeterias, where forgotten journalists argued all afternoon. But there was a café run by a sly man with a twirled mustache, and that place she did patronize. He was Bulgarian, she thought—her work at Camp Gruenwasser had made her adept at guessing nationalities. At the Bulgarian’s were newspapers, chess games, waiters in discolored white jackets. Soon Sonya had her own table by the window, and she could order her omelet by raising an index finger. The coat lay on its side across the other chair. Hat and gloves and scarf nestled under the sleeping arm. Keys and wallet reposed in her trousers.

She went to art gallery openings. The openings were free, as were the champagne and canapes. She went to noontime concerts in churches, also free, though lacking refreshments. Warmly she stood in the unimproved area behind the Library, and fed pigeons. She went to a Saturday morning service at a Reform Temple—Roland always slept late on weekends. She went to a big Conservative Synagogue. She went to an old shul, and sat downstairs.

She did not think of the coat as lawfully hers, oh, no. But in its illicit protection she became a personage. Immigrant men hoping to adapt to the New World were buying fedoras and second-hand broad-shouldered suits. Unwittingly they looked like gangsters. In print dresses their wives resembled charladies. Sonya, American by birth, graduate of a teacher’s college and an accounting course, never out of the country until she was past fifty… Sonya was preserving the Old World of ringstrasses, universities, coffee houses, salons, museums, bunds and diets and Parliaments and banks. She walked and walked. Truck drivers shouted coarse phrases to one another. Shopgirls out for lunch wore glistening lipstick. Sometimes she paused at a department store window and bowed at her reflection.

One March Wednesday she went to a student recital at a private school. It was an Episcopalian establishment, but some German-Jewish families had been sending children there for a few generations. The school occupied a block of brownstones whose shared walls had been removed, so that behind the burghers’ façade was a surprising interior: hallways hung with kindergarten art, an aquarium, the buzz of hopeful activity. A little auditorium was embedded within the whole. Sonya found a seat in the middle of a middle row. She saw from the program that she was to be treated to recitations, musical performances, a ballet…

“Your grandchild is performing?” said the person next to her: a hammered page-boy under a beret, a badly reconstructed nose.

“Yes… she will dance.”

“Ah,” slightly friendly. “What is her name?” slightly interested.

“She is my daughter’s child,” said the barren Sonya. “My name is…”

The headmaster mounted the stairs to the stage, and Sonya’s neighbor turned her worshipful gaze towards him, so Sonya had to be content with the botched rhinoplasty of the profile.

“…Gruenwasser,” she finished.

But the woman was no longer listening. Who wanted to listen to a refugee from God knows where. Delicate voices on the stage were singing Stephen Foster. The children’s chorus at the Camp had managed Berlioz; well, they’d been directed by a once notable baritone from Dresden. He was in Argentina now. She wondered how he was faring among the gauchos.

The recital ended. Half an hour later, stepping out of the elevator, Sonya heard the telephone ringing in the apartment.

“Mrs. Rosenberg? This is Dr. Katz at the Montefiore hospital…” She threw keys and wallet onto the telephone table. “…has sustained a heart attack, he’s very much alive…” She unbuttoned the coat and allowed it to drop to the floor. “…and conscious. His condition is stable…” She stepped away from the fallen coat, kicked it, got the room number, hung up, grabbed her raincoat from the closet—really, Spring had come at last—and retrieved wallet and keys from the table. She snatched up the square of challis Roland had given her for her birthday—paisley, it was all the rage. She ran down the five flights of stairs and hailed a taxi. In the cab she tied the paisley under her chin.

“Thank you for coming.”

“Thank you for inviting us.” Where should they sit, Sonya wondered. She watched Roland settle himself in his customary chair, and so she took her own. Their hostess sat at ease on the sofa.

She was not the curly daughter, she was the one with full lips. The lips were still full—she could not be more than thirty-five, after all—and the long hair was still blonde. On the telephone: “I want to meet you,” she said in a husky voice that she must have been told many times was irresistible; well, maybe it was irresistible; they hadn’t resisted. “You left me a nicer apartment than the one I left you,” she’d gone on. “Nothing out of place; and those improvements!” The spice rack, Sonya supposed; the ironing board, a chair leg that no longer wobbled, added plants… The button? “Besides,” she’d chuckled. “You forgot your tuxedo.”

Now Madame Schumacher—“Can’t I be Erika?”—poured generous tots of sherry. “You’re living on the West Side?”

In their building the elevator always clanged. They had no second bedroom. On Roland’s bad nights he sat up reading and Sonya slept on the living room couch. There she dreamed of London and the bombs. But the place caught afternoon sun. They had purchased cotton rugs and second-hand furniture. Then they had splurged on a Finnish chest painted with stylized flowers. They used it as a coffee table.

“The West Side, yes,” said Sonya.

“An easy bus ride to Carnegie Hall,” said Roland; and so they talked of music, and of the Mayor, and of films.

“Were you in Hollywood?” Sonya asked. Direct questions were not her habit; but she was a quarter-century older than this beautiful woman; and her navy shirtwaist gave her the modest authority of a nanny. She had abandoned the Mary Martin hairstyle; her straight white hair just grazed the shirtwaist’s collar.

“The whole family is in the movie business, none of us in front of the camera. I did some translations, this and that… I was divorcing when I left New York and I am thoroughly divorced now.” She gave a graceful shudder. Her accent was light, not at all guttural, just a sometime transposition of Ws and Vs, as in “diworced.” The sisters had all learned English from their tutor, she said; and she, Erika, had worked on French during a summer spent with an aunt, such a beautiful apartment, you could see the Seine. Sonya thought of the ailing Paris, the oily river, the bridge.

More conversation, then silence. They would not see each other again: the woman-of-the-world, the pair of pensioners. When Sonya and Roland got up to say good-bye, Erika stood also and left the room and came back with the tuxedo over her arm. “I didn’t notice it when I first came home; it was hiding behind Franz’s old coat.”

“Oh Yes The Coat,” said Sonya.

“My ex-husband’s. I kept it out of malice, he loved it so. I think I’ll give it to the Writers and Artists Thrift Shop.”

“Our organization distributes clothing to the needy.”

“I’ll remember that,” said Erika. She’d forget it before the elevator reached the lobby.

On the sidewalk, Roland pointed to the tuxedo, which Sonya carried over her arm. “I’ll never wear that thing again.”

“Who knows? ‘With proper care you can live another twenty years,’” quoting his doctor.

“Proper care does not include after-dinner speeches in a monkey suit.”

“Yes, well.” And the coat, the coat…

“The tuxedo…will do for a shroud.”

…the coat: she would haunt the Writers and Artists Thrift Shop until the thing appeared. She’d buy it and stash it in the Finnish chest; maybe in that relic the Old World would find repose. And if not, let it writhe. Love, love… “A shroud? Up yours,” snorted Sonya, startling him, making him smile. “I intend to keep you around. Darling, let’s have dinner out.”

She took his arm and led him to a new Italian place on East Twelfth, one which the courtly old gentleman in the fur-collared coat had never had a chance to patronize.