The coat never made much sense in California. It was double-breasted, with the two rows of buttons, padded in the chest and shoulders, and it sort of had tails, a little slit in the back, but it was still a workingman’s coat, made of thick black wool. Lucas Hansen wore it because his father had worn it in Norway. It became Lucas’ trademark, and when Lucas died, his son John wanted the coat, but his widow Ida kept it to remember her husband. John and Ida argued about it, and it turned out it was life and death for both of them, but it came out different for each one.
This was all before the Santa Clarita Valley incorporated, when people said Newhall or Saugus or Valencia like they were real cities or at least towns. People still do, I guess, especially if they live in Valencia, which is a little nicer. Ida Hansen lived near the edge of Saugus and Valencia. Lucas had put a gate in the back fence that opened into the wash, and my parents did the same next door, but the wash is all built up now. The Methodist church across Bouquet Canyon Road is built up now too. They made it two stories with a row of upstairs windows, almost Presbyterian, but that came after Ida’s time.
Ida wasn’t a regular churchgoer. Santa Clarita, back then, didn’t have a Lutheran church, and a Methodist church, for Ida, hardly counted as church at all. Of course, that made it extra important for her to get to church Christmas morning. I knew all the Hansens, but I know this story mostly because I was friendly with Darla, the woman who drove out from Sylmar and took Ida shopping or whatever. She used to sit Ida on a stool at the kitchen sink and wash her hair when it got wispy and greasy. Darla looked after Ida for money while Darla’s mother died alone in the Dominican Republic. That could make you dislike a person, but Darla took care of Ida like she wanted to do for her mother, and I guess she loved her. She was there Christmas Eve, helping Ida lay out clothes for the morning service.
They put out the coat since this was the season you almost wanted a coat like that, and Ida would feel a little bit like Lucas was in church with her. Darla said John came by for his presents, a check and a Christmas sweater, and he saw the coat and started right up. He said how about if she kept the sweater and finally gave him the coat. He said he had nothing from his father, like he hadn’t driven there in Lucas’ Ford Super Camper, with the long wheelbase so you couldn’t hardly turn. Darla said she was this close to saying something, but she just kept getting coffee ready for morning. Coffeemakers didn’t have built-in timers then, but Darla measured out the grounds. She said Ida had this worry she would somehow be late.
The rest of it, Ida told Darla on Christmas Day, and some of it Darla saw. Ida woke up sometime that night and it was too quiet, and she got up and saw the clock had stopped. It was an old pendulum clock that needed winding every few days, and that was one thing even Darla had forgotten to do. So Ida woke up and didn’t know what time it was, and she went outside in her housedress because you could open that back gate and look across Bouquet at the church. It was dark, but she remembered going to church in the dark on Christmas morning in Norway, and the church windows were lit, the one or two windows they had when the church was just one story. Ida put on her clothes and her husband’s coat, and she went.
The service was just starting when she arrived, and the congregation looked respectable for California. Santa Clarita is not exactly Berkeley, but even here, even back then, people didn’t have the same ideas about dressing for church that Ida had learned in Möllergarten as a girl. But this time they did.
Ida sat down and they sang the first hymn. Later, she was too shook up to remember which hymn it was, but she probably liked it well enough. Ida was always the first to admit Methodists had good hymns. Afterwards, though, she noticed how quiet everyone was. Lutherans can be quiet too, I imagine, but Ida told Darla, in that service, there was no fidgeting at all. No coughing. No sniffling, and that year, half of Valencia and three quarters of Saugus had the flu. Pretty soon, someone sat down in the pew behind her and tapped her on the shoulder, and she looked, and it was Lucas.
People always want to know every word of Ida’s conversation with her dead husband, but Darla only knew Lucas had told her, “All these people are dead, and when they find out you’re alive, they’ll go for you. Put the coat over your shoulders, but don’t put your arms through the sleeves, and walk out right now.” So Ida did that, and some of them chased her. One, or more than one, grabbed her by the coat at the door, but she just sort of walked out of the coat and tottered home. Then she phoned for the time—I don’t think they have that anymore—and it was half past twelve or so, and then she knew she had gone to a midnight service for the dead.
Darla was there again Christmas Day, and she knew the whole story by the time John showed up, angry and wearing the coat. He said, “Want to guess where I got this? Penny Barton saw it lying on the ground this morning before church.” He said he was keeping the coat because next time, Ida might lose it for good. No one tried to tell him Ida had only done what Lucas told her. John wasn’t the sort to believe that. He lived on an ungraded lot up Sierra Highway, in a trailer without hookups, but he thought he was educated, and he was born over here; that’s the main difference. Ida said he was probably right, and he should keep the coat. That surprised him, Darla said, and he seemed to wish he’d been nicer. He stayed for dinner and said he had a present for Ida at home, and they found it in his trailer, one of those Precious Moments figures, wrapped and everything. It’s nice that it ended like that.
After dinner, it was dark, and Darla said, “John, take the coat like your mom says, but don’t wear it yet.” Somehow, she knew they’d be looking for it.
John laughed, in a good mood for once, and said, “Winter don’t last in California. This may be my only chance!” He went out, and Darla closed the door behind him and stood there with her hand on the knob. They heard him yell, and Darla opened the door right away, but he was gone. So Ida lost the coat, but she had the Super Camper back, not that she could drive that thing. After that, she remembered her son and husband both by never wearing a coat again. That wasn’t hard for her, living in California after growing up in Norway, especially since she only lived about two more years.
Darla is eighty-eight now and going strong, living in those senior apartments where the wash used to be, right behind the Hansens’ fence. She gets cold like old people do and puts on a coat whenever it gets below eighty degrees. It doesn’t seem to bother her.
T. S. McAdams
T. S. McAdams took more than two decades to earn an MFA from the University of Washington; this may or may not be a record. His fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Santa Monica Review, Pembroke, Exposition Review, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Pacifica, and other fine magazines near you.
Artwork: Laura Makabresku