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The Wrong Coat

by Jeffrey Greene

Part 1 appears in this issue.


“I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but it would be a waste of your time and mine if we were anything but completely honest with each other.”

“Well, I’m not a liar, if that’s what you’re implying.”

“Good, because nothing in the human face shouts louder than a lie. There’s an old saying in my profession, attributed to Constance Guilford, the greatest metoposcopist of the modern age: ‘People cover their sexual organs, which reveal nothing, and expose their faces, which reveal everything’.”

“Oh, I must memorize that one,” she said sarcastically. “Where did you learn this stuff, anyway?”

“I attended the Pacific Institute. It’s a small private college in San Francisco, founded by Miss Guilford in 1894.”

“Never heard of it. Or her,” she said, immediately regretting her rude, vengeful tone.

“She was a remarkable person, if little known outside her field. But let’s move on, shall we? You’re husband still works full-time, is that right?”

“Yes,” she replied, now more angry at herself than at him. “He’s a medical researcher at NIH. Loves his job — I wish I’d known what that felt like — and will probably hold on to it until they escort him off the property.”

“And since your retirement, you’re a housewife again, correct?”

She smiled thinly. “’Wife at home’ would be more accurate.”

“Uh-huh,” he said, jotting down a quick note. “And what kind of research does your husband do?”

“Cancer. He’s rather famous in his field. He writes articles, leads seminars, lectures, even does rounds with oncology interns once a month. Quite the busy academic.”

“So he’s away a good deal of the time?”

“Well, no more than he has to be. There are out-of-town medical conferences, of course, but I usually travel with him.”

“What does he look like?”

“Well... he’s a young fifty-five. Still has his hair, which he’s rather vain about. He’s tall, slender, and I’m not the only one who thinks he’s handsome. He likes golf and tennis and is pretty good at both. He’s an amateur musician, a supportive father, he’s witty, loves conversation, the theater, traveling, good food and wine. He’s very social for a scientist, occasionally committing me to parties I’d just as soon skip. But that’s a minor quibble. He’s a gifted man, what else can I say?”

“And you’ve been married since you were both quite young, correct?”

“Thirty-one years.”

“I see. So, you have three grown children, a house in the Bethesda suburbs, material prosperity, and at long last, time to yourself. You like to read, cook, garden, go to plays and concerts, study Spanish, and when the mood strikes you, give a party or go to one. All this you’ve generously volunteered.

“You’ve also stated that you and your husband eat out once or twice a week, and it’s likely that during one of these outings you lost a valuable coat, or rather, the second-hand fairies exchanged it for one of lesser quality. You didn’t become aware of the switch for at least a month, and when you did, your husband... what? Promised to buy you another one?”

She shook her head in bemusement. “You’re really stuck on my lost coat, aren’t you? Yes, he said he’d buy me another one. But I still don’t see what this has to do with metoposcopy.”

“If you’ll bear with me just a little longer. When I misplace something, I try to retrace my movements until I recall the last place I had it in my hand. In your case a month had elapsed before you noticed the switch, but you’ve stated that the coat had both monetary and sentimental value. In your place, I would have tried to narrow down the possible sites where I’d lost it, then called and asked if a leather coat had been returned. I assume you did that?”

“Of course I did. Nobody remembered a coat being returned. But that wouldn’t mean much if the woman — or man — who got mine decided to keep it, would it?”

“True. But the odds would favor it being returned, don’t you think? And another thing: What about those numbered claim tickets the attendant trades you for your coat, which is designed to prevent just the sort of mix-up that you think happened here? I suppose what I’m getting at is: are you absolutely sure you lost the coat at a restaurant?”

Janet stared uneasily at him. “Well, to be honest, no, I’m not positive. Since the day I found the wrong coat in my closet, this voice in the back of my mind keeps telling me I would have noticed the coarser texture of the leather as soon as I put it on.”

“Might you have been — forgive me — too intoxicated to notice?”

“No, two drinks is my limit.”

“Can you think of anywhere else you might have left it?”

“Well, we went to a party in late January, but it was cold in the house that night, and I’m sure I didn’t take my coat off all evening. That’s the last time I remember wearing the brown leather coat.”

While they were talking, he had disassembled his pen and begun rolling the pieces around his desk like a child playing with toy cars. “Well, we know one thing for certain, don’t we?” he said, without looking up. “You found the wrong coat in your closet. Which raises another, much more important question: How far are you willing to go to find out where your coat went?”

She watched him warily. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“I’ll try to clarify,” he said. “Coats get lost every day. An overheated child on the playground takes off his coat during a soccer match, and there it is in the grass the next day, getting rained on. No mystery there. Your lost coat story may be just as innocuous; maybe not. But I will tell you this, Mrs. Leahy: I got a definite read for self-deception as soon as you mentioned the coat. Which is why I’ve been pressing you for details.” He opened his desk drawer, swept the pieces of his pen into it, then pulled out a fresh one and began fiddling with it.

“Self-deception? How could you possibly know that?” she asked, getting angry again but trying to keep it in check.

“I spent nine years learning how,” he replied. “My old professor used to say, ‘If you want to keep a secret, wear a mask.’”

“Oh, that’s beautiful,” she said. “So now I’m keeping secrets from myself.”

He got up from his chair, came around and sat on the edge of his desk, looking down at her with his hollow, sleep-deprived gaze. “That’s about the size of it,” he said.

“You know, I think I’m beginning to understand what’s going on here,” she said. “I’m a little slow, but I’m getting it now.”

“And what might that be?” he asked.

“How you run your little game. While pretending to read my face — which is such a crock if you think about it — you plant a seed of doubt in my mind and then nurture it. Make me believe something funny is going on behind my back, and I’ll keep coming back for more ‘readings.’ Isn’t that how it works, Mr. Tjader?”

He rubbed his tired eyes. “No, Mrs. Leahy, that isn’t how it works. But I understand your skepticism. A metoposcopist is bound by his own kind of Hippocratic Oath: to read faces with complete objectivity and report the results, however painful or unpleasant. So I’m going to run something up the flagpole and apologize in advance if it offends you.

“In a cold reading, I always look for an opening in the client’s defenses, which in your case was the lost coat. Even under my preliminary probing, the explanation for how the coats got switched doesn’t hold up. Yet you accepted it without question, as did your husband. I suggest that each of you had your own disingenuous reasons for doing that.

“Your husband had a vested interest in selling — or at least strongly seconding — the coatroom explanation. It kept your attention focused away from the place where you actually found the stranger’s coat: in your own closet. And maybe because it was too painful to consider the alternative — that the owner of said coat may have been at your home when the switch occurred — you held on to the notion of the careless coatroom attendant like grim death.”

“All right, that’s it,” she said, furiously grabbing her purse and standing up. “This is worse than slander; this is character assassination of a man you don’t even know.”

He pressed on, undeterred. “But doubt intrudes, doesn’t it, Mrs. Leahy? When was the last time you were out of town without your husband? Wasn’t it about the same time you lost your coat?”

“How dare you!” she said, her voice trembling with anger. “How dare you insult me and my husband with your filthy-minded accusations. If you think I’m paying you a penny to be treated like this...” She started for the door.

“Mrs. Leahy,” he said, very quietly.

She stopped, her hand on the doorknob, her heart pounding uncomfortably.

“It probably happened like this: he brought her home on a cold night when you were out of town, somebody he’d met from work or at one of his lectures. A younger woman. Maybe it wasn’t their first time, maybe the affair had progressed to the point where taking chances excited them. She took off her leather coat and hung it next to yours in the hall closet. Afterward, she was too happy or too drunk to notice that she’d put on your coat instead of hers. He didn’t notice the mistake, but when you discovered her coat in place of yours, your husband kept his cool and let you provide the explanation. Kind of fits, doesn’t it?”

“But what if it isn’t true?” she managed to say, her voice breaking.

“You wouldn’t have come here if it wasn’t true.”

“How am I supposed to live with this?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t advise you. It’s outside my province.”

“You’re not sorry. You love it,” she said bitterly. Then, seeing his face redden, she added: “I didn’t mean that.”

“Yes, you did,” he said with a fading smile. “And you’re right. But at least metoposcopy allows me to have some connection with other people, which is something I’ve never done very well on my own. Most people don’t realize how naked their faces are. The terrible things I see every day on the street, the subway, in the mirror...”

He picked up her clipboard, scribbled his signature and handed her the bill. “Goodbye, Mrs. Leahy. Please forgive me for upsetting you.”

She nodded without turning around, daubing at her eyes with a handkerchief, then opened the door and went out, closing it behind her. To her surprise the waiting room was now full. “Will you be needing a return appointment?” the secretary asked, giving her a sympathetic look over her reading glasses.

“No, thank you.” She wrote a check for the bill, then retrieved the coat and fled the building.

It felt even colder on the street now, and the harsh wind watered her eyes as she turned into it and started for the Metro. On the subway, sobbing openly now, seeing with the clarity of someone standing at the window Charles and whoever he’d picked up screwing in their bed, Janet felt a welcome surge of anger and, oblivious to the stares of the other riders, she stood up and shrugged off the hated coat, intending in spite of the cold to abandon it on the subway. But as she hurried off the car toward the escalator, a helpful young woman, her fresh, unlined face aglow with her good deed, caught up with her and pressed the coat into her unwilling hands.

Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey Greene

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