The Idaho Jacket
Prism International (Spring, 1973)
Roll of Honor, Best American Short Stories 1974
RICHARD, realize one thing: I am beginning to wear the Idaho jacket comfortably now. Perhaps I'm not wearing it as comfortably as you would have, had genetics not played its tricks on us all and given the second son, and not the first, the bulky characteristics of the father. To Buck, I gather, biology remains so much scientific claptrap and when he gave you the jacket he did so knowing it was not your size. But you had asked for the jacket as a kid, the story goes, and so when you turned twenty-one, Buck gave it to you. And I have no quarrel with any of this past history, Richard, not even as I wear the jacket today. Frankly for a long time I did not understand why you gave me the jacket, particularly with the gesture by which it became mine. Not understanding, I was unable to wear the jacket comfortably. I wore it, yes, but rather with the self-consciousness with which a timid boy will wear a Halloween costume. That soon may be history, too.
I'm as ignorant about Idaho as I ever was. The memories I have before Mother took me with her to Los Angeles remain vague, like those hazy events subsequent to an accident which one experiences while conscious but later cannot recall. I cannot say whether or not I thought it was strange to be going on a long trip without you and Buck. Mother must have answered satisfactorily whatever questions I asked, for my mind unleashes no ghosts of a home and boyhood lost in Idaho. To tell the truth, I have no memory of the Idaho jacket before references to it began to appear in your letters.
When did we begin to correspond? By the time I was a teenager your letters had become my text, a text wiser than the dull books I was expected to read at school. Well, I shudder to think what Dr. Jefferson would make of that remark! Mother, God rest her soul, retained one idiosyncrasy which irritated me to the very moment of her death her addiction to psychoanalysis. I must have told you what her last words to me were. "Tell Dr. Jefferson I have no more repressions." If I didn't know better, I'd think she said that for my benefit, hoping to get a grin out of me before passing away. Richard, something is grossly unethical about the way that headshrinker catered to Mother's obsession to be "normal." We all know she was a bit mad madness was a large part of her charm, wasn't it? She was very kind. Eccentric and unpredictable, yes, but kind to the end. Could her last words have been for me after all?
At any rate, your letters have always meant something special to me. When so much space in them came to anticipate your twenty-first birthday, the day on which you'd receive Buck's jacket, I found myself growing excited with you. I was excited even though none of your reasons for wanting the jacket made sense to me. You wrote me so many stories about your northern Idaho, the land, and about something called "the high lonesome" and how the Idaho jacket was part of each, but not once did you say that you wanted the jacket simply because it had belonged to Buck. Reading your tales, I decided you were an incurable romantic. But my fingers were crossed for you all the same.
Then you mailed me a photograph and in it you were wearing a green and black plaid jacket several sizes too large for you. Buck's Idaho jacket, I presumed. I put the photograph in my wallet, often taking it out to look at it. Do you see a physical resemblance between us? I fail to. Nonetheless the photograph, whatever lack of family similarity it documented, brought me closer to you. Looking at it, I began to want more and more to see you, I should say to meet you, to sit across the room from you, to talk to you, Richard. To talk to you. I don't know why I felt this way about you but didn't have the same strong desire to get to know Buck. I'm sure Dr. Jefferson could come up with something! Well, he wouldn't necessarily be right. I just know I wanted very much to meet you. I wanted to know my brother. But although I was fourteen, and older in many ways, when alone with Mother I couldn't bring myself to broach the subject of a visit. I don't know why.
I feel foolish admitting this. It should have been easy to visit. Do you know how far it is to Orofino from Los Angeles? Something over a thousand miles. Then why did we all wait until Mother died before meeting? We essentially were strangers, you, Buck and I. If Mother hadn't willed to be buried in Orofino, would we remain strangers today? What was holding us back from each other?
So Mother died and I took her home to Idaho. What do we ever know about death, Richard? Or even about dying? So many questions! The coffin was on the train, fortunately out of my sight, and I thought a lot about death on the trip north, thought about it while drinking myself into maudlin reverie. Death happens to each of us, we decide, but can this really be the end of our journey? I doubt that my young man's theories about this will last out middle age. Well, I'm not sure I have any theories.
I drank my way to Idaho. And because I was drunk when the train pulled into Orofino, I can't recall whether you were wearing the jacket at the station or not. To tell the truth, I have only a fuzzy recollection of events up to and including the funeral. Too much happened at once for all of us, I think you would agree. Mother was dead; we were meeting. Vaguely I recall that you and Buck shared my anxiety drink for drink. What a sorry lot we must have been for the relatives, husband and two sons staggering under liquor instead of under a more dignified grief. I met lots of relatives at the funeral, didn't I?
I do remember the poker game. It began two or three days after we buried her, I think, at the instigation of Buck's Indian friend, Gib Hill. You must realize, Richard, what a city boy I am and that the trip to bury Mother provided the occasion for my first encounter with shall I call it the wilderness? The funeral seems longer ago than a year, doubtless because so much of its presence was drowned in sorrow, in liquored mourning for Mother. Yet there may be no more dignified way to suffer, Richard. There may be no dignified way to suffer at all.
I'm a city boy and the poker game fits right into the romantic Idaho landscape. When I set Orofino against Los Angeles, I can't comprehend Buck's complaints that Idaho is getting too "civilized," that Idaho isn't the same country in which he grew up, that the hills have been stripped of timber. To my eye, the hills around Orofino are covered with more trees than I could find in all of Southern California. And the Clearwater River is getting polluted, Buck complained, and yet the Clearwater is, yes, the clearest river I've ever seen. Too many people moving in? Into Orofino! How many could even find it on a map? For me, Richard, to enter Orofino was to step into a page from the journal of Lewis and Clark.
And as if towering trees, as if foaming rivers and a vast unpopulated landscape weren't enough, you had to show me Indians and poker games! For a while, cynically, I thought the whole affair was a sham. Indians, hard-drinking lumberjacks, two-day poker games it was all part of a skit you had arranged to impress your city boy of a brother. What is it the cowboys say in the westerns? "Let's pull one on the dude," or something close.
Endings have a way of defining what passed before them, and of course I have no doubts about events now, not about those events I can recall. We were at home, two or three days after the funeral, drinking coffee at last although it was well into evening. I felt out of place, the son who was a stranger, who didn't know his father or his brother. I wanted to know you both, certainly, and had stayed over in order to get to know you. But so far I remained a stranger and I was worried, the way things were going, that I'd return to Los Angeles one.
Then Gib Hill arrived. His appearance was reason enough to doubt the authenticity of what followed. Los Angeles is the home of the world's weirdest sects, Richard, and Gib's attire reminded me of one of the many costumes a native comes to accept as being part of Southern California's natural landscape. Gib, by dressing the way he did, gave himself away: he was not a "real person." Add together the black cowboy hat, with a red rose in its band; the dark glasses, never removed; the fringed jacket, the faded jeans and the wide black belt with its silver dollar buckle; the black cowboy boots, winged with red eagles on its sides add them together and you have an actor, a ham, a mere surrogate of an "authentic personality": a Marlon Brando motorcycle-riding cowboy. This judgment was Mother's legacy to me: that damned analyst's point of view!
"Poker game is hatching at The Lumberman's," Gib told Buck. Well, at least The Lumberman's was authentic, I had learned that. Buck had owned the bar and hotel in the forties and Mother, those old Idaho stories went, had dealt black jack there. My mother? The old photographs and stories aside, the woman who raised me in Los Angeles, the woman who gave what little money she could spare to an analyst because she wanted to be "normal," this woman was different from your card-dealer. Yet not as different as I used to think.
We followed Gib to The Lumberman's, where at a back table the poker chips were already up for sale. You were wearing the Idaho jacket, I recall, and its cuffs dropped to your knuckles. The men sitting at the bar were kidding you about the jacket's not fitting as soon as we entered, and I gathered it was an old joke between you. As a matter of fact, you did look a little silly in the jacket. It is one thing for a boy to stomp around the house in his father's slippers, quite another for an adult to do something very nearly the same. You must have been 25 then, for I had just turned 21. And yet our ages seemed to be reversed, Richard, and I acted like the more mature brother. You answered one old man's kidding by picking him up and carrying him around the room on your shoulders while the others laughed and hooted. To be honest, I was embarrassed. Embarrassed for us both, perhaps.
Buck bought into the game and you wanted in, too, but when you learned that I didnt know how to play poker (I still can see your disbelief), you stayed out, despite my objections, in order to keep me company. We took a table near the game and began what turned into a marathon of drinking. Or at least it was a marathon for some of you.
The poker game intrigued me from the beginning. It was played so theatrically, like a scene in the lowest grade western, which only increased my doubts about the authenticity of the entire affair. Talk about cool characters, the likes of Paul Newman or Steve McQueen! Buck and Gib seemed to be having a contest to see who could push forward the most chips with the least concern. I expected to see money change hands, yes, but I did not expect to see poker pots worth hundreds of dollars. I did not watch in awe for long: I concluded that the game was a sham, just as I had suspected. No one except Hollywood actors can bet a hundred dollars on two pair (I've since played poker myself, Richard) without a flutter of emotion. At any moment I expected the fraud to get the best of Buck, Gib and the others, at which time they would break into hysterics, the joke revealed and on me. I watched the game silently, waiting for the punch line.
You had warned me that poker games at The Lumberman's had been known to run for days on end but I doubted this, too, since I doubted the legitimacy of the game itself. But the game went on, while the bar filled with boisterous spectators who looked as though they were willing to wait for the outcome, no matter how long it took. By the time I drank myself into drowsiness it must have been three in the morning by then the game's end was nowhere in sight. Perhaps I then decided that the punch line was more subtle, that the laughing at me wouldn't begin until morning. You excused yourself to talk to the bartender and returned with a key: we had rooms upstairs. "You're sleeping in Nellie's old room," you told me, grinning. "Nellie was the best looking whore on this side of the Clearwater." Nellie, the prostitute, of course. Of course, Richard. I'm sure I shook my head. You were carrying the joke too far, making it much too melodramatic.
In the morning the game was still in progress. No one had dropped out, though it was evident by the distribution of chips around the table that Buck and Gib were winning. Many spectators had retired. Buck waved as I entered the room. I went to the bar, where soon you joined me. We drank "red dogs," beer with tomato juice in it. After several drinks, you suggested breakfast.
On full stomachs we hiked through the hills behind Orofino. Once, when we had to crawl through a barbed-wire fence, I warned that we might be trespassing. You laughed and went on. You led me to a place with the improbable name of Crazy Man's Gulch, a hollow to which (the story went) Buck escaped as a young man whenever the "high lonesome" got the best of him. I listened as though to a foreign language as you went on to tell me about the gallon jug of whiskey that accompanied him, about the Idaho jacket that was his bed, about the young wife (our mother) left behind. When I suggested that perhaps Buck needed psychiatric help more than Mother ever did, you said, "Hell, we're all nuts. Only Buck likes being crazy. Relishes it." I was not prepared to believe you, Richard. There is no Crazy Man's Gulch in Los Angeles and gallon jugs are filled with Gallo or Italian Swiss Colony. Young wives left behind commit adultery.
Returning after the hike, we began drinking again. The poker game went on, and spectators returned in large numbers, watching with an enthusiasm more proper to a horse race. Slowly players began to drop out, as much from exhaustion as from lack of funds, until only three were left, Buck and Gib included.
Buck was the first of the three to hit a losing streak. After dinner he asked you, "How much money you got?"
"A hundred. Maybe more."
I looked for a sign that you were kidding. But you weren't, for soon you passed him the money.
"Give me the jacket," Buck said.
You took it off and handed it to him.
Richard, what was I supposed to make of all this? Although by then I was beginning to believe that the game was legitimate, only legitimacy being able to sustain itself to the very brink of boredom, as I watched you take off the jacket I found myself with doubts all over again. As before, the scene was lifted from the worst western I could imagine the passing of the rabbit's foot, the lucky silver dollar, the magic spur, after which the winning streak would follow. Buck put on the jacket and kidded Gib, "Watch out, redskin, I'm wearing the luckiest coat in Idaho." Gib said, "Deal." Was I supposed to believe such dialogue? We don't have similar melodrama in Los Angeles.
Your own reaction puzzled me. You seemed offended that Buck wanted to wear the jacket. Was he an Indian giver, was that it? For Christ's sake, Richard, enough was enough! That's why I begged my departure and went upstairs. You were carrying the joke too far. If you wanted your dude, you were going to have to come upstairs to catch him.
And later, hearing the knock on the door, I prepared for the punch line. Finally! You stood in the doorway, carrying a bottle of whiskey and looking morose.
"Buck dropped out," you told me. "He lost big." Was this the last parcel of bait? Who was hiding in the hallway?
You came in, sat on the bed, opened the bottle and drank from it. I turned down a swig. No Hollywood gestures for me.
"How much is losing big?" I asked.
"He lost what cash we had between us. Big enough. He lost in the jacket, that's what surprises me. He always bragged about never losing in the jacket."
Who could miss this melodramatic springing of the trap? I waited silently and soon there was another knock on the door. Buck let himself in.
"Here's your jacket," he said and tossed the Idaho jacket into your lap. He stopped just inside the doorway, looking ill at ease. You handed him the bottle, he drank.
"What's the matter with you two?" he finally asked. "I'm the guy who lost the silver, I'm the one who should look gloomy. Smile, why don't you?" He turned and walked away.
"Where's he going?"
You replied with an expression that said, Don't you know? Then you remembered that Buck and I were strangers.
"He's going down to get drunk. Gib won, so Gib buys the drinks." You stood up, carrying the jacket. "You coming?"
"Downstairs?" I could hear the festivity below.
"You don't think Buck came all the way up here just to give me the jacket, do you? He wants us down there to amuse him so he doesn't have to think about losing."
I said, "He took Mother's death hard, didn't he?"
You shrugged. "He's got losing to worry about now."
Without further word you tossed me the jacket. I followed you downstairs, Richard, where we would conclude our last drunk together, but it wasn't until the next afternoon, while I was packing, that you explained to me that the gesture of tossing me the Idaho jacket had meant it was mine.
IM LEARNING TO WEAR the jacket comfortably. Other coats appear on campus letterman's sweaters, Army fatigue jackets, leather jackets but none rivals the Idaho jacket. It's been in every whorehouse and drunk tank in northern Idaho, Buck claims. Is it then too romantic to insist that the jacket is special?
I've changed since wearing the jacket, Richard, that's what I must make clear. Take today, for example. I stopped on my way home from campus to watch the construction that is going on down the block. Another high-rise apartment building is going up, something quick to meet the demands of increasing enrollment, and all day long the clamor and rumble of construction makes studying impossible. Passing by on the way home, I sometimes stop to watch.
Putting up an apartment building is a rather straightforward procedure, I think, one without your Idaho melodrama. There is no mystery about what is going on, even if to a casual observer the purposes of the workmen appear to be random. There are blueprints and guidelines and specifications to follow, and everything is figured out ahead of time on paper.
I'm not sure why I stopped to watch today, or any other day for that matter. I think the building going up is ugly.
But today as I was watching, a middle-aged man joined me. He was a businessman by appearance, or perhaps a professor since we were so close to campus. He watched the men drive nails, a crane lift boards, workers scan blueprints and then he said, but not really to me, "Terrible." He seemed embarrassed to have attracted my attention and, perhaps for this reason, he quickly added, "I'm afraid I'm old-fashioned. I prefer the old homes that used to be here. But you can't argue with progress, can you?" he laughed. And he went along his way, whistling.
I don't know, Richard. I get scared. Is it normal to be twenty-two and scared? Shouldn't I be charging out into the world, lance confidently poised, eager and willing to carve out my niche of stability? I graduate this year! Sometimes I wish the Idaho jacket fitted me like it fits you. I'd hunch myself down into it and hide.
Am I making any sense? I can't think of "sense" without thinking of Dr. Jefferson and his kind of sense. I abhor it, Richard. I'd rather be scared. I'd rather be mad! Today, as the man departed whistling, I turned to the rising building and looked at it as I had never looked at it before. "Terrible," he had said, but so what? Who among us had any control of its going up?
But what if I took control? Not by myself really, for I'm quite sure I can't explain it rationally that if I hadn't been wearing the Idaho jacket, I'd never have done what I did next. Somehow wearing the jacket justified what followed.
The construction area, of course, is fenced off. A number of doors provide entrances into the working area but above each of them is a sign which reads, DANGER AREA! CLOSED TO PUBLIC. NO ADMITTANCE. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. In the evening, after the workmen go home, children climb the fence and play in the area but during the day both adults and children heed the warning. I always have. But today, Richard, I didn't.
I entered one of the plywood doors and began to traverse the corner of the lot, which would bring me to another door exiting onto the street near my apartment. I bothered no one and entered no area where a board might have fallen on my head, or where I was in any danger whatsoever. I merely walked across the corner of the lot, where building material was stacked, then exited and crossed the street to go home.
A workman was shouting at me before I was thirty feet onto the property. "Hey! This is a limited area!" Others quickly picked up the protest, "This area's off limits!" "Get on the other side of the fence!" "Can't you read the signs?" I walked on my way without turning around and soon heard a voice behind me, which was getting closer. It wasn't until I was out of the area and crossing the street that the workman caught up. He yelled, "What's the big idea?" I turned, found him standing in the plywood doorway just behind me, smiled and nodded. Then I went on my way, Richard, turning up the collar of the Idaho jacket as I left.
Already my imagination is running wild, and this small incident expands into the following:
I was walking across the lot under a shower of boards and debris, walking under cranes which swung their metal necks menacingly above me, passing by jackhammers which tore the ground from my feet and steamrollers which tried to make me a corner of a parking lot, I was walking through it all, Richard, and I kept walking, walked through it all in the Idaho jacket, through all the bellowing workmen and protesting machines, the clamor and rumble, the violated signs screaming DANGER AREA!, I continued home without a glance behind me, without a remark, I continued nonchalantly on my way.
Do I have the family madness, Richard? Is this the beginning?