Fiction

THE TIN COAT

WINNER OF THIRD PRIZE IN MACLEAN’S SHORT STORY CONTEST

FRED SLOMAN February 15 1949
Fiction

THE TIN COAT

WINNER OF THIRD PRIZE IN MACLEAN’S SHORT STORY CONTEST

FRED SLOMAN February 15 1949

THE TIN COAT

FRED SLOMAN

IN THINKING over the whole thing long after, Margaret remembered vaguely something about a crackpot theorist who had once tried to show that no man lives to himself, that if there was fear in Japan, there would immediately be fear in Mexico and in Alaska. And if a physicist in Siam evolves a new equation into the fifth dimension, a mind in Paraguay and another in Russia would immediately evolve the same.

She did not bother to translate this truth into terms of her own—not as it concerned herself, her child, Susan, or her husband, Bill—or the little tin coat. She did not say to herself that a father can call to his kid from beyond the Rockies, and that living cells all over the world can become agitated as though all minds were but just branches of a master father mind. She did not think this specifically, either later or as she traveled east on the transcontinental with Susan—and the little tin coat.

If it hadn’t been for the tiny black spot on the white tablecloth she wouldn’t have left for Montreal —a spot about three millimetres in diameter.

“There’s a hundred and twenty-eight thousand cubic yards of hard rock to heave out, and by the holy-old-hell, she’s going to be done by March. Gad ! You ought to see those boys work ! There’s a Swede that . . .” and it was at that point that he put his lopsided pipe down and one tiny hot bit of tobacco rolled out and made the spot.

She didn’t notice that the guests were listening fascinated to the story of how the Swede had hooked his hoist to the rock and eased it up in the sludge just enough to save a man from under the treads, before machine and Swede and sludge had gone into the river to oblivion.

She did notice that as he held out the silver fork against the flower vase to illustrate how the Swede had hitched the hoist to the jutting rock, his shirt was the one with the little rust spot on the breast.

She had told him a dozen times not to wear that shirt. That rust spot had kept them twenty minutes late for Mrs. McAlpine’s dinner because he had stopped to help a Model T and a trailer loaded with bits of scrap iron.

WINNER OF THIRD PRIZE IN MACLEAN’S SHORT STORY CONTEST

Other men could smoke cigarettes, but he had to smoke that dirty old pipe that had the bowl burned halfway down.

Dinner had been a success and she knew it. It had sparkled in a way that other women of-her set would envy. They had talked of Picasso and of a book about a romance in an undertaker’s parlors, and everything had been perfect until the spot came on the tablecloth.

The forthright Marion Agnew had plumped her two elbows on the table and listened to talk about mud and rocks as if she were listening to Polonius or Herbert Tree, and Douglas Stewart’s long white fingers had plucked nervously at his lips in that funny mannerism of his one noticed in the awkward pause at rehearsal just before he changed a few bars for the bass viol or the second violins.

Her guests were polite and refined. And she was too refined in thought and word and deed, but in her anger only the crude words of her farm-bred grandmother came to her. “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

That was the trouble. She was married to a sow’s ear.

That burned spot on the white tablecloth was more important than the whole damned Fraser River.

THAT night, long long after the guests were gone, he had broken his pipe in two and dropped the pieces in the kitchen stove. He had torn his shirt from hem to collar and dropped it in the paper basket. He had gone out in the car and had slept with the men at the dam.

Next night they had meant to act just as though nothing had happened, but somehow they recalled the time he was in hospital and had been more concerned about what had happened to the camera

when he had fallen from the girder than about the bone sticking through the skin. And when Mike Townbray finally had found the battered camera in the runoff, he had made more fuss over the negative of the nine rivets and the holes for six more rivets than over the beautiful blue pastel flowers the Bridge Club had sent.

He was a sow’s ear.

Then she recalled the time he had put his arm around the little brazen brunette who had pretended to be frightened in the cable car at the ravine.

He blurted out indecently after, “But holy-oldhell! A man needs to touch a woman once in a while and feel something human under his hand instead of bits of wire and elastic tent canvas!”

After that there was no going back. It was all over. Most of all she hated that expression— holy-old-hell—it was so silly and so juvenile and so meaningless and so low.

They hadn’t quarreled about the division of the treasure of earth that they had piled up in eight years. There was evidence of moth and rust in it anyway. She could have the house and its contents and the car, and the estate agent could get her a good price.

She hadn’t mentioned Susan. A great fear had made her shudder and she kept assuring herself that always, or nearly always, the court gave the child to the mother.

Then he had added, “And you can have the kid too, I hope.”

AND thus it was that Susan and the mother were L in the sleek transcontinental, well on its way across Canada. The old warped and corrupted life had definitely ended.

She knew she had lost a rich eight years but she knew it with a resolution

Continued on page 39

The agents of faith can take strange forms. A rag doll dropped from a speeding train, perhaps, or a tired section hand seeing old visions in the snow

Continued from page 11

that is one of the finest attributes of man. She would “start again at the beginning and never breathe a word about her loss,” unquote!

There was delightful company on the train, superior people and sympathetic. The forty-six hours’ delay was really a fortunate thing, for it had given the club car passengers time to get intimately acquainted and to start a bridge tournament. The snowslide behind and the derailed train of wheat cars ahead blocked the train effectually, but the buffet service was excellent. Air service was grounded because of storms but the railway officials took a .handful of passengers past the wreck by handcar and work train . . . passengers such as the woman who was on her way to an injured husband and the doctor who was urgently needed in Toronto.

The club car folks really enjoyed the enforced imprisonment, but Susan tossed in her berth.

SUSAN might have been a problem.

With the perversity of the young, she had got the notion that they were going to visit grandma, “where there were cows,” and she chattered to everyone about the cows and grandma and

her daddy who had a jeep as well as a blue car. She liked riding in the jeep. It bumped.

An elderly man with a grey mustache opened his trunk in the baggage car and made a picture show of funny mice and cats and ducks for her. The train crew took her for walks up the cars and among the piles of express where a monkey was being shipped in his crate. Up at that end of the train Susan fell madly in love with a boy who couldn’t talk English but who had a yellow truck from the dime store, and as far as anyone knew he might also have things in his hair. Susan came back with orange juice on her dress and a smoke smudge on her eye and her hands were sticky.

Her mother handed her cards to the elderly grey man while she went to the washroom to make her daughter respectable again. The smudge on the eye reminded her of something indefinite on the other side of the mountains and the snowslide. Absentminded, and half under her breath as she rubbed at the smudge, she said holy-old-hell.

Susan danced from the washcloth and said, “Oh, mummy, you said daddy’s bad word!”

THAT night the train was on its way again but Susan tossed in her berth.

And as Margaret got up to see if

Susan was fevered, Bill’s rather generous assurance got into her head, “You can have the kid, I hope!”

Then as she tried to sleep the per-

sistent wheels over the angle bars

of the rails kept up a muffled rhythm of

“I hope; I hope; I hope.”

SHE HAD left a wire at the first telegraph station to advise Frank she would be forty-eight hours late at the Lancaster Arms. And she had wired the Lancaster Arms about extending her reservation. Frank would undoubtedly insist that she go and visit with him and his sister until she could make more permanent plans. Frank had always been the perfect man of distinction, and a week or two in Montreal would make her feel more able to go to grandma’s, where they would want her very much but where they were too old to understand the problems of modern living. With the shower of their love there would be a cloud, as if in their old-fashioned way they were thinking that when one makes a bed one lies in it. It would be better to spend a week or two with Frank and his sister. The muffled wheels of No. 2 racing eastward over the angle bars lulled her to sleep with I hope; I hope; I hope.

Then next day they lost the doll.

It was a rag doll that only faintly resembled a doll but it had been kissed a lot. It was one of Susan’s two pearls beyond all price. The other pearl was her tin coat. They lost the coat too.

Four days on a train in spite of care and courtesy, bridge tournaments and wonderful buffet service, gets confining and tedious to passengers age five. One might go with the brakeman to the express car and see the monkey in the crate, or to the forward car and see the Ukrainian boy with the yellow truck from Woolworths, but such diversions would not leave one with a decently clean dress to wear on arrival at the Lancaster Arms.

For fresh air Margaret had several times bundled Susan up in a warm coat and taken her out to the observation platform where she could watch the snow swirling up behind the speeding train and watch the telegraph poles race past and grow small.

On the fifth day Susan had become more and more fretful. After supper she had begged to go out on the “train veranda” and thatseemed a good idea to freshen up and sort of get an appetite for sleep. The major and the man with the grey mustache went, too, to see what the northern Ontario air feels like when the frost is 32 below. The conductor had advised them to shield their ears and noses.

That was how the tin coat got into the picture. The conductor was helping Susan wrap up her doll.

To avoid unnecessary and avoidable young grief when they w'ere packing back where there had been a home, Margaret had let Susan put the tin coat into the suitcase with her doll and her crayons and her sixteen bottle caps.

That tin coat had been a provocation to Margaret for a long time. It was a ghastly off-color red and Bill had bought it for Susan once when he had her out in the jeep and it had rained. He had snipped off some inches of sleeve and Tony, the cobbler, had neatly shoestitched the pliant waterproof leatherette. Because daddy always wore a leather jacket when he went to the construction camp, Susan had wanted one too, “a coat that was smooth like tin.”

She had been spanked once for putting on that tin coat over her dainty party dress and she had been spanked once for going out in the rain, hatless and with white shoes in the mud, but safe from all harm under her tin coat.

And yet when she was delirious with

measles and had cried to have her tin

coat over her the old doctor had said,

“Well, for lord’s sake, woman, let her

have it,” and Susan’s hot hands had

stroked the smooth cool stained leather-

ette.

AND NOW on the back veranda of . the transcontinental, as the major held Susan bundled in a big mink coat that belonged to the bishop’s wife, the tin coat and the doll it covered slipped from the bundled arms into the snow and night of thirty below. The great engine with never a pause hurried its sixteen cars eastward through the storm, all unaware that tragedy had boarded the rear end by the light of the green and red markers.

Nothing could possibly be done. Ontario has hundreds of miles of endless lakes and curves and rocks where no one lives. If the storm had not already whipped the little tin coat and doll across a frozen lake or into a ravine or tangled it in some stunted jackpine tree, the plow in the night would either cover it or tatter it to shreds.

Susan sobbed herself to tiredness and wakened to cry, “Daddy, daddy, daddy. Get my coat.”

Archie Shannon was concerned about the comfort of his passengers. Besides that, he had a child at home. Twentytwo miles farther on, when his train stopped for water, he climbed down and explained the tragedy to Archie Dechesne, night operator.

Shannon added, “The fool woman’s taking the kid east to get a new husband and the kid’s going to need that tin coat.”

The young operator said blankly that nothing could be done. He reported the transcontinental’s departure and then to pass the long endless night hours he gossiped over the phone with the dispatcher in his office at division.

Dispatcher in his office and operator at his bleak telegraph outpost agreed that nothing could be done about a tin coat in a storm twenty-two miles back in the bush.

North Bay was calling about a delayed shipment of cattle from Edmonton and a derailed car of sulphuric acid for Sudbury and the dispatcher went about his duties. Operator Dechesne at mile 87 piled more briquettes on his stove and jammed a bundle of waste under the door where the draught came in with the snow. There was nothing more to pass his order board for two hours. He started to read his detective story but gave it up.

He went to the frosted window, rubbed it, and noted that his thermometer now said 37 or 38 below. His watch said 1.04.

He returned to his chair.

He dozed. He dreamed of his Belgian bride, living now in a crowded room in Toronto. Eventually he would have enough seniority to move to a town job, and she and the baby could come and live with him in this Godforsaken land of storm and darkness and emptiness.

He pictured her at that moment bending over the basket on the chairs that was the baby’s bed. Maybe the baby had cried for a drink, or for the two o’clock feeding too soon. And all at once the baby was covered with a red tin coat.

The phone rang and Dechesne heard the dispatcher’s voice, “If you have a trackman that’s willing to go, you can flag down the westbound plow and see if we can get that bloody coat and doll.” The dispatcher was a gruff man and without sentiment., but he had a kid once who in a flash had grown up and got killed in the sky over the Mediterranean.

Dechesne at milepost 87 suddenly

jumped to put on his coat and muffler. As he opened the door the frost cut his eyes and there was a momentary blackout as the dry cold air struck his lungs.

At the bunkhouse thirty yards away three men were sleeping in a room that smelled of sweat and wet work clothes and oil and smoke.

They sat up fully clothed in their bunks and listened sullenly to Dechesne’s tale. They wouldn’t go unless they got an order to go. And it was a fool idea, for in the storm when you couldn’t even see the rails of the track, how in hell are you gonna see a kid’s coat!

But John, the man from Poland, the fellow who had been in jail a dozen times for being drunk and disorderly, the one who had smashed the face of the girl in Sudbury, came to Dechesne twenty minutes later and told him to stop the censored plow, as it came through, so that he could be dropped off in that stretch of track where the little tin coat had been dropped.

John was a man who had been beaten once with a rope for stealing beet tops and turnip peelings that stuck through the rack of an army garbage truck. That had been during the war in 1916. He’d had a wife and baby then, until he had been tied to a post to watch them die.

Susan’s tin coat had become a major matter.

TWO hours later Old John dropped from the tail of the slow-moving van. He sprawled in the snow; his signal lamp blacked out. The blinking red tail markers of the plow speeded up around the curve and after that there was just night and storm.

East, there were twenty-two miles to the nearest human. West, there were twenty-seven miles. North and south there were a thousand miles of empty bush and rock like a great dump pile tossed there when the world was made after the Engineers of Creation had finished Maryland and Wyoming and Saskatchewan.

John walked the plowed track to the rock cut, huddled down and put his lamp under his mackinaw coat and managed to light the tiny yellow flame. He noticed how quickly the plowed track was filling in. He noticed he had to limp. He swore.

A mile east he plodded and then back and a mile west. In the sheltered rock cuts he kicked through the snow on the leeward side from the wind. At the fills where the wind had a clear sweep so that his breath gagged, he took his flares down the embankment where the snow was waist-deep and looked along the tangle of tug-alders and jack pine. Several times he sat down by thick cedars. At age 57 some men are old.

Looking up, he could see stars through pauses in the snow swirl. He took handfuls of snow and rubbed it hard over his cheeks and eyes and felt the warmth of it.

His yellow flares would burn for ten minutes though the wind whipped the flame so that it was not much use. As the flare flickered out he would tear off the cap of another and continue his search.

In the long rock cut he saw bits of two wolves that a train had killed.

Crossing the trestle when he had to turn and gasp for breath, he saw a baby lying. He shook his head. His baby had died long ago in 1916.

About 4.30 a.m. the western express passed and John rammed his burning fusee in the snow lest the engineer think it was a signal. The warm lighted train and the subdued sleeping-car windows passed into the night. The engineer wondered who and what and how as his headlight for seven or eight seconds

showed him a muffled-up man standing waist-deep in the snow by the rightof-way.

John found it difficult to get from the snow that time and then he stumbled on the rail and sat for a minute watching the red lights fade down the long straight stretch. He had some difficulty in lighting his fusee. His leather mitts fumbled as he tried to hit the cap to start the flame. When it sputtered to brightness he dropped it and held out his arms, for instead of a ghastly white world of frost and snow it had lit up a little creek in Poland and there was a woman wearing a tiny cross on her white throat, sitting on a rock and dipping her bare feet in the water.

He lit another fusee and presently in the shelter of a rock cut found that the wind was much less furious. The stars were all clear now but they had long points on them and through the ice on his shaggy eyes the points had shifting rainbow colors and the stars were big as half dollars. He dropped a leather mitt and the double woolen mitts that were inside it and forgot to pick it up. He failed to notice that he was carrying his sputtering fusee in his naked hand or that the sputtering white metal sparks dropped on his naked wrist and work-hardened knuckles.

At grey dawn John had stumbled and fumbled in the snow for the fusee he had dropped. He just sat there and stared at a woman who had died many years ago.

Presently the woman stirred. She sat up and smiled at John. The soldiers with knives marching smartly up and down did not pause or notice. The woman walked right on and took her shawl and spread it over a baby that had died in the sun.

John gave a loud cry and started up. He stumbled to grasp the woman and the child and his arms closed on a red tin coat and a doll. Nothing else.

THE freight train coming up the long straight at dawn saw him sitting stupid and half-frozen and took him into the van. At once his face started to burn like fire and he cursed. They gave him whisky and they poured ice-cold water over his naked right hand, but he did not notice.

They took him to the division and reported to the dispatcher that they had found him half-frozen and babbling about a kid’s coat and a rag doll.

The general superintendent at North Bay took the wire and said crisply, “Get that coat to Montreal by plane by 4.10 today.” He barked just six crisp orders to six different men and then went about his job of binding a confederation from sea to sea with boxcars and passenger coaches.

PAST Ottawa, the nurse on the train had felt quite certain that Susan was in for scarlet fever. The child tossed in her berth. It would be well to see a doctor as soon as they got to Montreal.

The transcontinental had made up nearly six hours of its lost time and a taxi was waiting. As they were about to get in, a stationmaster and a porter and a conductor started paging Margaret and the platform amplifiers took up the work.

They handed her a tin coat of a ghastly off-color shade of red. Susan struggled from the nurse’s arms and put her face against the leatherette that was smooth like tin and said, “Daddy got it, daddy got it.”

“Lancaster Arms?” repeated the taximan as he shut the door.

Margaret was silent a noticeable number of seconds, and then said evenly, “No. Belvedere Hotel.”

That evening as Susan lay peacefully covered with a tin coat, hug-

ging a rag doll that only faintly resembled a doll, Margaret wrote out a note in advertisement form.

She addressed the envelope to Bill.

“Lonely but attractive woman with competence to go shares in a one-room shack would like to correspond with good-looking man age 31 on Dec. 16. Outdoor type preferred. Object matrimony. Address Belvedere Hotel, Avenue Maria de Grace.”

V She enclosed it in a parcel in which t were a pipe and a certain brand of tobacco and a new linen tablecloth in which she had used her lighter to burn a hole as large as a platter.

She asked that it go air mail. As the clerk at the desk weighed it for her he said: “That will come pretty high.” She crept into the bed with Susan and the tin coat and the rag doll. Montreal’s traffic down below beat out a repetitive “I hope, I hope, I hope.” ★