I remember thinking, Am I being mugged by someone’s great-great-grandmother?
She was ancient. Her hands looked so brittle and frail, but they hooked me with the weight of an anchor. I stumbled to catch myself, terrified that I might crash-land and crush this geriatric street pirate.
I said, “Whoaaaaaa there, little lady!” like some cartoon cowboy trying to calm a wild horse. “Whoa-ho! Ho! Ho-o-o-o!”
Twenty people went by. Some on foot, others in cars. They gawked or laughed or accused me—
“Hey, leave that old woman alone, creep!”
—and then they disappeared. Hit-and-run do-gooders.
She clung to me, this ancient lady, holding on for dear life. As though a tornado might carry her away if she let go. Her brawny-brittle fingertips dug holes into my leather jacket.
“Oh Vincent,” she croaked, head smooshed against my shoulder. “I found you!”
I told her she was mistaken, that I didn’t know her, that my name was not Vincent. But she challenged me with the softest croon:
“Vincent… My Vincent.”
And it struck me that she might actually be talking to the jacket. My new leather jacket, a thrifty antique purchased not five minutes earlier. I knew this for sure when she swapped her hook grip for a tender caress along the seams and creases.
It was all the jacket’s doing — hypnotizing this old woman to ambush me. If the sight of her fondling my shoulder and chest was so offensive to the hit-and-run do-gooders, let them blame the jacket:
Leather Devil! Get your tanned hide away from that old woman! I’d stop you myself if I didn’t have this bag of hot tacos to get home. Ope! Here's my turn. You’re lucky, jacket!
…and the day had been so average up to then…
I was visiting St. Louis with friends, and we had spent all afternoon walking the length of Cherokee Street, a novel neighborhood made up of curious shops, tattoo parlors, and record stores. We ate lunch at The Soothsayer — a tavern with an actual fortune-teller who predicted, “You will meet a stranger…” Which blew my mind until I remembered that everyone I meet is a stranger first.
We lapped the neighborhood twice more to walk off one too many beer flights. Then we went shopping.
I found the leather jacket in a retro boutique called Vintage Cutthroat. We almost missed it. The boutique was practically invisible, its door crammed between two dominating display windows — one for a local cat rescue, and the other for a place that sold dead flowers. Inside was a mixed bag of fashions, men’s and women’s, all used but not used up. There was still life in every old thread.
My friends disappeared into fitting rooms with a pair of fluffy tuxedos. They wanted me to play along, goading me into green formal wear.
“Come on!” they poked.
“Try on a tux!” they prodded.
I only had eyes for leather.
The jacket looked like the one Brad Pitt wore in “Fight Club”, except it was golden brown rather than shiny red. Scented layers of cologne and perfume broke through its moth-ball shell. Permanent creases surrounded the elbow. It was worn, but not thin. Someone took good care of it. Somebody loved it.
I wanted to love it, too.
The jacket fit perfectly, and I spent a moment twisting in front of the mirror, standing tall, thinking thin, sucking in. I felt a lump in the leather, a knot the size of a bottle cap poking my left rib, something old stuck in the inner pocket. My hand dove for it, like a gunman reaching for a hidden snub-nose revolver. But all I found was a hole in the pocket lining.
“You look dangerous,” said a throaty voice.
I turned around spotting the shopkeeper, a thin woman with fire-engine hair. A lengthy tattoo snaked up one arm and disappeared beneath her shirtsleeve. She was petting a cat at the counter and smiling halfway.
“Dangerous?” I asked.
“And kinda hot,” she said, shrugging. Her voice was only halfway sincere, much like her smile. But halfway was far enough.
“Oh, you’re good,” I said. “I’ll take it. Can I wear it out?”
“Doubtful. It’s been around for ages.”
I laughed even though I didn’t get it right away.
While digging for cash in my wallet, a pair of thick tortoiseshell sunglasses caught my eye at the counter. A sun glint from a passing car made the lenses sparkle. They were tinted the same golden brown as the jacket.
“I see what you’re thinking,” the shopkeeper told me. “And you’re correct. They go together.”
I tried them on and posed like the Fonz. “What do you think?”
Her answer lived somewhere between truth and sarcasm. “I think if you were any more perfect, I’d quit this racket to be your fanatic.”
I smiled and added the shades to my tally. What else could I have done? Sixty-three bucks for near perfection. What a bargain!
“Where do you get all your…” I gestured around the store. “…this? Your stock?”
“Oh, people leave their stuff behind.” Her cash drawer sprang and rang with a lingering bell. “Sometimes it ends up here. For people like you.”
My eyebrow stretched skyward. “You mean gullible.”
“Let’s say flexible, yeah?” She gave me a thumbs-up. “A man with fluid style.”
The shopkeeper scratched at her snaking tattoo. Closer now, I could tell it was a swirling black river with crows on the riverbanks. Her skin twitched as she took my cash, muscles flexing. If I weren’t a man of reason, I’d say it looked like one of the tattoo crows snapped its beak shut.
“Cool ink.” I didn’t have any tattoos yet and felt stupid saying “ink” like I knew anything about it. “Who did it?”
“Someone around here,” she said, slamming her drawer. Thinking about it. “I can’t remember. I think her name was Calliope? Or maybe it was … Steve.”
Behind me, my friends jumped out of the fitting room in their fluffy tuxes. They reenacted a scene from “Dumb and Dumber” — truly living the parts.
The shopkeeper nodded in their direction. “Classy friends.”
“Oh, I have no idea who they are,” I lied, then awkwardly tapped the counter when the shopkeeper had nothing else to say.
My body scooted for the door. The shopkeeper reached out to stop me, and I quickly spooled through a list of cheesy come-ons. I couldn’t find the nerve to use any.
She looked me up and down, then nodded and said, “Perfect.”
“What?” I asked.
She gave me a final thumbs-up. “Have a nice day.”
And our exchange of goods and words ended.
I left Vintage Cutthroat looking dangerous and practically flawless (if you can believe the word of a palmy fashion dealer). It was October, but still a tad warm for leather. So I unbuttoned my dress shirt — the first three from the top down — to let some air in.
This jacket traveled across time to rest on my shoulders. No way was I gonna take it off.
I saw my reflection in the window of a zombie-themed coffee shop called Reanimation Brew. It gaped at me — my reflection. I stopped to gape back. The shock was akin to seeing yourself for the first time in a Halloween costume. Hey, get a load of me. I’m a sexy anthropologist. I’m a smutty tax attorney. I’m a voluptuous batting coach. Only this time, I was just a guy out of time. Open shirt, hairy chest, leather jacket, gaudy glasses. A new man. A stranger.
“Nice to meet you,” I told my reflection. “That fortune-teller was right.”
My friends kept on walking. They were quite a ways ahead of me before I realized was alone.
Behind me, the ancient woman walked by. I could see her reflection next to mine, clashing with the zombie window art. She passed me, looked, stopped, stared — not a person, at first, just age and wrinkles and silver hair, wrapped in a black trench coat with a poofy, droopy collar. She opened her mouth and whispered.
And then she charged, driving my thoughts to that whole “Am-I-being-mugged-by-someone’s-great-great-grandmother” thing.
I went, “Ope!” as she crashed and hooked and clung and croaked a stranger’s name.
“Oh, Vincent. I found you!”
Shock and fluster made me laugh. Raw humanity was nothing but a joke back then. I said, “You got the wrong idea, lady. I don’t know you. I’m not Vincent.”
I looked for hidden cameras in parked vans, in open windows, in clusters of sidewalk amblers. My arms stretched wide — Okay, tricksters, you got me!
Nothing. No sign of a prank. Just hit-and-run do-gooders.
She crooned, “Vincent… My Vincent,” while caressing my leather jacket.
Something happened then. (As if this whole thing wasn’t something already?)
Something familiar struck me. Some scent drifting off this woman’s poofy collar made me take a second look, a third look. Glance by glance, she came into focus. A second ago, she was just some old castoff, a charging reflection in a coffee shop window. Now, she was something to appreciate, a living, breathing person with thoughts and hope and pain. I saw not age but soul, no wrinkles but a thousand stories bookmarked across her cheeks and fingertips.
Did I recognize her? No. And yet…
My flustered smile made a U-turn, my callous laughter long gone. I folded my arms around this stranger and gently squeezed, damn the honkers and whistlers on Cherokee Street. This included my friends, who doubled back to goggle from a safe distance, slack-jawed.
Motorists honked as they rolled by. A pedestrian told me, “That’s not cool,” before sashaying into a button store.
And the woman, this ancient lady in black, said, “Don’t be mad, Vincent.”
I felt an odd sensation of silence where it didn’t belong. A second of broken rhythm, like a drummer missing a beat.
This had no effect on the woman, who smiled and responded to the silence, “For holding you in the street in front of all these people, of course. I had to.”
The whole city suddenly gave up its clatter for another second. I felt a sudden impulse to call the woman Mary and to say something cutesy and playful. Old words belonging to someone else. I swallowed them back.
And after the silence, she said, “Well, what did you expect, Vincent? You left half your outline in our mattress. How can I make the bed now? You need to come home and fill in the other half.”
The urge to speak nearly broke my will. I wouldn’t call it possession exactly, more like a movie you’ve seen a hundred times that you can’t help quoting out loud when it’s on. The words were clear now, but my tongue folded over to keep from saying them:
But if I don’t go to work, we won’t have a bed.
She didn’t need to hear me speak. She knew what came next, for this was all playback. “Oh well. One less chore for the mornings.”
My clamped lips went, “Mm-mmmm-mmmm-mm-mm-mmmmmm-mmmm.”
She looked up into my tinted tortoiseshell eyes, delighted, understanding every Mmm. “See? One more reason to come home, now. Rest up, Vincent. Newlyweds have a grace period, anyway.”
My turn. I fought it. I fought so hard a teardrop escaped past my glasses and rolled down my cheek. Nonsense spilled from my mouth to her ear.
After the gibberish, she said, “Why no, Vincent, I think it was in Harper’s.”
This fight could not go on. My will expired. I relaxed and surrendered, thinking, Damn you, leather jacket! And then instantly took the curse back.
Because what came next reminded me of being a child at the peak of a monstrous water slide — being terrified to drop down the dark tube, but then thrilled by the rush towards the ending splash. It was exhilarating.
My voice turned singsong with someone else's words. “Mary, Mary, drinking sherry!”
She gasped with a kittenish twist. Who, me?
I took Mary’s hand in mine and wrapped an arm around her waist. “The most I can offer till dinnertime is a waltz.” And we danced on the sidewalk in a crowd of passersby.
I saw a flash of sunlight. The street filled up with cars that belonged in old photographs. People stopped whistling and laughing at us, all replaced by suits and hippies and mods that were going about their business, all marching this way and that, giving us nothing more than amused smiles.
Mary’s face lost about nine-hundred of its storied wrinkles. She laughed and said, “I left a present for you in a pocket.”
“Which?” I let Vincent ask.
“I’ll never tell. But if you find it, you’ll never forget me.”
“You’d never let me. You’ve become impossible to forget.” Vincent checked his watch, which had gone missing. He didn’t notice. “Oh well. Five more seconds, Mary, Mary.”
She reached up for Vincent’s tortoiseshell sunglasses. “Well then, at least let me see your eyes before you shuffle off for our daily bread.”
We were spinning when Mary pulled off Vincent’s shades.
The spell (that’s what I’ll call … that’s all it could’ve been) broke instantly.
The lady in black stepped away from me, looking at my face with dismay. “Oh my,” she said. “You’re not there anymore. You’ve gone away.”
My head swam from someone else’s waltz and words. I looked around, seeing modern cars and goggling friends. I looked back at the lady in black. I felt guilt and shame, having stolen her intimate secret — a private moment meant to stay a memory.
I said, “I—I’m so sorry, Mary.”
“For what?” she asked. She blinked away her reverie, a thousand and one stories folding her cheeks. She smiled, glowing. “Do we know each other?”
“We just met,” I said, not sure what else would cover it.
My sunglasses were still in Mary’s hand. She flinched at them. “Oh, I see. You must have dropped these.” She handed them over, then pointed at my golden brown leather jacket. “My husband had a coat just like that.”
I couldn’t think of what to say, but it didn’t matter. Mary didn’t give me the chance to say anything. She smiled once more — “Nice to have met you” — and walked away.
But I never forgot her. Because, that night, I found her present in Vincent’s pocket.
I was alone in my hotel room with my new leather jacket. The moth-ball smell was already thinning, but the layers of cologne and perfume remained. I recognized Mary’s scent, the same one drifting up from the poofy, droopy collar of her black trench coat. It was still there, still tethered to Vincent’s jacket after all these years.
I poked a finger through that hole in the inner pocket, being careful not to enlarge the rip. At the bottom of the lining I found the lump, the bottle-cap knot that had poked my rib. It was an old wad of paper, balled up and brittle from its interment. I unfolded the delicate paper with a surgeon’s steady hand. It opened up in the shape of a Valentine heart — a wrinkled heart.
There were words written in pen, faded and smudged but still legible. It read:
“Now, even when we’re apart, you’ll always have my heart. Your Mary.”
The alchemy of twelve words turned vintage clothing into an obsession.
I spent years searching for more “spells” and playback possessions. I visited every thrift store and retro boutique, feeling for lumps in every shirt pocket, in every coat lining. I am the keeper of past lives and memories. A wishful voyeur of old secrets. How many experiences can be stitched into fabric with time? How can I unlock them? I wish to be transported again. And again.
No luck. Not yet.
Return trips to Vintage Cutthroat all ended in disappointment. The red-headed shopkeeper with the black-river tattoo was no longer there. (“Who?” new cashiers would ask me. “Buddy, you just described everyone in the neighborhood.”) But to this day, I still visit Cherokee Street in Vincent’s leather jacket, with his tortoiseshell sunglasses over my eyes, hoping for another brush with Mary.
I imagine it will come in due time.
I imagine it will be me who is old and crinkled. I will see a young woman walking out of a strange boutique wearing Mary’s black trench coat. I will catch a familiar perfume floating off the poofy, droopy collar. I will stop and whisper, “Mary?”
And then I will run to her. I will hold out Mary’s wrinkled heart, which I have encased in glass, and I will shout, “Oh, Mary. I found you!”
And she will say, “You’ve got the wrong idea, old man. I don’t know you. I’m not Mary.”
But, if I’m lucky (and if the coats still remember), she will take pity on me and she will hold me. And we will waltz in someone else’s memory, in a time long past.