To Clothe the Naked | Fiction | Chicago Reader

To Clothe the Naked 

There was a wind that afternoon; it came straight off the lake and brought the chill factor down to zero. When Deidrich turned onto Jackson and saw the beggar his first thought was of his own good fortune--to be employed, married to a wise woman, warmly housed, and the owner of several damned good winter coats.

The beggar, on the other hand, was almost naked. He wore tennis shoes but no socks, blue jeans that hung on his fleshless hips, and a dark knit sweater so worn you could see bare skin right through it. The beggar was a very light man. He looked as if he had been living beneath a rock. Deidrich tried to avoid him, but the man was agile.

"Mister," the beggar said.

"I've had a lot of bad luck. I was supposed to start work today, and then my car broke down. Now I got no way to get back home. I wonder if you could help me out with the train fare."

The story was so transparent it angered Deidrich. "You don't carry a wallet?" he cried, a mistake. The only way to deal with these beggars was to brush right by them. A single word, even eye contact, and you were lost.

"I told you," the man said, almost in irritation. "I've had a lot of bad luck! I left it on the dresser at home. It's my fault, OK? I forgot it, OK? I'm just asking you, as one white man to another, could you help me out?"

"I don't have any money," Deidrich said. He was on the verge of saying he had left his wallet at home too.

"For God's sake," the beggar replied. "Can't you see I'm freezing to death?"

This time he seemed to be telling the truth. Yes. Deidrich could see that. The beggar's skin was turning blue, his rotted teeth were chattering wildly. Just looking at him made Deidrich feel colder than he already was.

Deidrich checked the pockets of his overcoat before he took it off. They were empty except for a wad of Kleenex, several wrapped cough drops, and a pair of ticket stubs left over from last year's season at Orchestra Hall.

"Here," he said, handing the coat to the beggar. "I wouldn't want you to freeze."

For a moment he wondered who was more startled, himself or the beggar.

"Well, fuck you!" the beggar finally said. "I ask you for train fare and you give me a goddamn coat?"

"If that's the way you feel, give it back," Deidrich said angrily.

"Well, fuck you, again," the beggar said, backing off. "It's people like you that make me hate the whole human race."

Anger alone kept Deidrich warm until he reached the subway station. Once he was on the train, he realized he was the only passenger without a coat. He was bareheaded, coatless, and empty-handed. How odd he must look in a car filled with commuters.

He took one of the side seats by the door, facing a large sleepy man who took up a second seat with his packages. I gave a man my coat, he thought. My coat!

He had never done anything of the kind.

Deidrich lived a life that he would have described as complicated. Two marriages. Children he saw only occasionally. A wife who earned twice his income, and that was during his good years. The truth was, he only worked when the work came looking for him, which wasn't always. I make my own bed, he often told himself. My bed, and I like it.

At Jefferson Park he exited the train. Wind swept down the platform, icy and penetrating. He hadn't thought about how cold this platform could be when he gave his coat away. Now he would just have to grit his teeth and walk as fast as he could. There would be four blocks to go once he reached the street. Maybe he would run.

Richard Deidrich reached home at 4:15, a bit earlier than usual, that afternoon. He climbed one flight of stairs to his apartment, hoping his wife had not beaten him home. The last thing he wanted to do was to explain what had happened to his coat.

But the moment he opened the door he heard the television, and he knew that he would have to. Before he could plan his next move, she was in the living room and greeting him.

"I got away early," she said. "Where's your coat?"

"My coat," he said.

"Yes, your coat. Didn't you wear a coat?"

There had been a few words about coats this morning before she left the apartment. "Promise me," she had said. "Promise you'll wear your overcoat."

He had promised.

"Look," he said. "It's a long story."

"Tell it to me," she said.

"I like stories."

There was not a secret you could keep from a woman. In that respect, at least, they were all alike.

He followed her into the kitchen and waited while she poured him a cup of coffee. It was fresh and hot, just what he needed. He realized his teeth were chattering, his fingers numb.

"Now," said his wife, whose name was Mary Lee. "The story."

She sat down. She was a fine-looking woman, a year or two older than himself, and she had never had children. In some ways she had made him her child, or so he liked to joke. She did not find the joke all that funny, so he kept it pretty much to himself.

"It was stolen," he said. This seemed the safest line to follow. How would he ever explain to this practical woman something he could not explain to himself?

"Stolen! Where?"

One lie led to another. "I stopped for a cup of coffee."

"Where?"

"In that little place on Jackson."

"What little place?"

"You know. That little coffee shop."

"Well, how could anyone steal your coat?"

"I took it off..." he began. He was about to say he had hung it up, but he could not be sure that the coffee shop in question had a place to hang coats. "I went to the bathroom. Oh, this is so stupid."

She sat down and faced him. She had poured herself a cup of coffee and now sipped it thoughtfully. "Well, did you call the police?"

"For a coat?"

"Did you say anything to the manager?"

"Look." In spite of himself, Deidrich found he was on the verge of losing his temper. "I figure if anyone needs a coat that bad, let him have it."

She was not satisfied. "You never go into coffee shops. Not when you're alone. You always tell me you never do. Now suddenly you do."

Deidrich shrugged. "I guess I just can't be trusted."

Three more times that evening she repeated the same questions. Deidrich had once faced a prosecutor and the prosecutor had not been as painstaking. She kept working him for details about the coffee shop.

Who was behind the counter? Was it that older woman with the red hair? Was it a new person? She remembered that coffee shop. She didn't remember a bathroom, where was it at? In the back? Why hadn't he worn his coat into the bathroom? That would have made sense, wouldn't it?

In short, she knew he was lying.

But now, if he told the truth, she would think that a lie too.

In bed, after they had rolled over for the night, she brought it up again.

"Do they have a telephone in that coffee chop?"

"Telephone! I told you I wasn't going to call the police."

"But do they have a pay phone?"

"Of course not. No one has a pay phone anymore. Everybody uses cell phones."

"Everybody but you," she said.

She thinks I stopped somewhere to call Anna, he thought. The idea made him smile. Better she think what she thought than know he'd given away his own coat.

The next day when he went to the office he avoided Jackson Street. He was copyediting a book on real estate law, something he probably could have done at home if the client would only agree to it. The pay was good, however, and the demands were reasonable. The people he was working with knew little or nothing about the intricacies of the English language and were content to leave most decisions to him. They gave him his own cubicle and telephone and left him alone with the copy.

Shortly before noon he did receive a call from Anna, his first wife. The divorce was utterly final, but no, he did not hate her, and this was something he knew caused Mary Lee concern. Anna knew better than to call him at home except for emergencies.

"Mother wants me to bring the kids this weekend," she said.

"Oh, it's all right," he said. "I can see them some other time."

"That's what I thought, but I wanted to check with you."

The arrangements were casual and friendly. To be perfectly honest, Deidrich had grown away from his children as they had grown into adolescence. Now that Ricky was 13 and Jenna 11, about all they did together was go to a movie and stop for burgers. Later they would become close again. There was plenty of time for that.

Work on the book went well. He could see an end to it, and an end to the job within weeks. When he had finished the copy on his desk, he took it to Sandy, the young woman, not even 30, who was in charge of the project. "I'm out of here," he said. "Will you have anything for tomorrow?"

"I don't think so," said Sandy. "But if I do, can I call you?"

"You know the number."

Buttoning up his mackinaw, he checked the clock: 2 PM. He strolled out onto Wabash and turned toward Jackson. Maybe he would have a cup of coffee after all.

But when he passed the coffee shop he merely looked in the window and checked the layout. He had been mistaken. There were indeed hooks where customers might hang their coats, and there was a telephone by the cash register, although it was not a pay phone, not for public use. He could not see if there was a bathroom or not. Certainly he seemed to recall having used one there.

Suddenly he had no desire for coffee. He looked down Jackson, half expecting to see the beggar wearing his coat. He would avoid the man, if that happened. He would go so far as to walk on the opposite side of the street.

But the beggar was nowhere to be seen. Now that he thought of it, Deidrich could not recall ever having seen that man before.

On Saturday, Mary Lee insisted on driving him downtown to shop for a new coat. When he suggested the mall, she would not hear of it. "There's a sale at Carson's," she insisted. "We could knock around in the Loop."

They parked underground, wandered through both Carson's and Field's, and did not find a thing Deidrich wanted to put on his back. Overcoats, he insisted, were no longer necessary; they were heavy and cumbersome and you had to check them when you went to concerts. People did not dress in that old-fashioned formal way anymore.

He was just being stubborn, she insisted, but she finally gave in, gave in, in fact, so easily he was surprised. They walked down Wabash, stopped in at Tower, bought a budget CD of Brahms piano music, and then, almost before he realized it, she had him on Jackson.

"I could use a cup of coffee," she said.

"Oh, why don't we just go over to Bennigan's and have dinner?"

"All right," she said. "But I want coffee right now. Look. There's that little shop. Let's stop."

They settled into a booth. "OK," he said. "There's the bathroom. Do you want to go check it out?"

Now it was her turn to evade the truth. He smiled broadly. They both burst into laughter.

"All right," she said. "You win. I'll never mention that damn coat again."

This was a promise she could not keep. While they were sipping their coffee, who should walk by the window but the very beggar Deidrich had given his coat to. Wearing the coat.

"There it is!" she cried. "And there's the man who stole it!"

"Oh, come on," he said. "How can you know that?"

As if on cue, the beggar stopped and faced the window. They could both clearly see the top button she had replaced, slightly smaller than the others, slightly darker. No one will ever notice it, she had said. Now they both noticed it.

"It is our coat," she said evenly.

The man outside the window grimaced, at what or whom Deidrich could not tell. He thoroughly hated this beggar

who had caused so much trouble.

"Let him have the goddamn coat," he said.

"Richard," she said. "You can't just let people steal from you. I'm calling the police."

With that she rose and walked toward the cash register and the telephone that stood beside it. Deidrich caught her arm just in time.

"No," he said. "You will not call the police."

Even though he deliberately kept his voice to a whisper, it was as if every person in the coffee shop had heard him. He imagined their heads turning. He imagined the man outside the window breaking into a sudden grin. But he was looking only into his wife's eyes, and she was looking back at him in a way she had never looked at him before.

He drew her back toward the table. "He didn't steal it," he whispered. "I gave it to him."

It took several moments, and he had to repeat the story several times. He had to answer a dozen more questions, and he could see that she knew he was still concealing part of the truth. Which he was.

"What did he say when you gave him the coat," she finally asked.

"He thanked me," Deidrich lied. "Now, can we talk about something else."

Obviously this would have been best. It never once occurred to him that he might reasonably have been proud of his impulsive act of charity, or that she might reasonably have seen it in that light. Everything was confused now, and what she finally said was:

"You lied to me."

Twenty minutes and three cups of coffee later, they rose from their table with nothing settled. She excused herself and went to the ladies' room, and while she was in it he found himself irrationally relieved that it existed after all. When she came out her face was composed. She seemed to have settled something with herself.

"Are we still up for Bennigan's?"

A block east on Jackson, exactly as they turned the corner, they came face to face with the beggar in Deidrich's coat.

Deidrich felt his heart sink when the man approached.

"Folks," the beggar said. "I've had a lot of bad luck. I was supposed to start work today, and then my car broke down. Now I got no way to get back home. I wonder if you could help me out with the train fare."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Maine.

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