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THE COAT by Sheldon Birnie

“Hell yes,” Dave answered when his cousin Lisa asked if he’d like to see something weird.

Dave followed Lisa off the deck and back to where the cars were parked as the sun was sinking in the west, cutting through the trees in brilliant bars of gold. Down by the lake, children shrieked and splashed in the late afternoon heat. He was sick of answering his family’s questions about his dumb job and why his girlfriend, Sandy, hadn’t made the trip out because they’d “sure like to meet her.” Something weird, whatever it was, was certainly a welcome change. 

 “Dave,” Lisa’s husband Rick said, glancing back as he rummaged through boxes of clothing in the back of their Golf with one hand. “Wait till you get a load of this…”

Rick and Lisa ran a vintage clothing store, and Rick had just finished a buying trip to the small town thrift shops in the area. Dave kept up with their latest finds on Instagram. While he could appreciate their taste, he didn’t quite understand how the market for such kitsch actually functioned profitably. But he certainly envied their ability to make a go of it. 

 “Here we go,” Rick put aside his beer and pulled out an old suitcase from beneath the mound of clothes. Carefully, he laid it down on the bed of dried pine needles that covered the rocky ground. Lisa and Dave leaned in to see as Rick popped open the brass clasps. A mosquito buzzed in Dave’s ear. 

Rick checked over his shoulder to see that nobody had drifted over from the deck. Out on the lake, a big engine whined. Then he opened the suitcase and delicately reached inside, pulling out a black fur coat.

“Feel it,” Rick said in a hushed voice, holding the coat out before him as though it were an offering. 

“What is it?” Dave asked, running the long, twisted strands of jet black hair between his fingers. It was soft, almost delicate, yet also thick and grainy. The lining was torn, the pelt cracked at the left shoulder.  The thing had to be a hundred years old. “Bear? Fuckin otter or something?”

“No,” Rick answered with a conspiratorial grin, brown eyes glinting. “Gorilla.”

The hairs on the sleeves danced in rays of sinking sunshine. Repellent as he felt a coat made from the skin of man’s closest evolutionary relation should have been, he was curiously, undeniably drawn to it. What would it be like, he wondered, to pull a gorilla’s skin over his own? 

“Can I try it on?” Dave said.

*

Later that night, Dave slept fitfully while his younger cousin Frank snored like a log on the bunk beneath him. In the morning, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d been dreaming, dreaming of gorillas in the damp city streets, their deep bellows and shrill cries echoing off the drab grey buildings. Dreaming he was one of them, proud, noble, and strong.

After returning home following the long weekend festivities, the dreams seemed to follow him. Dave also found himself thinking about the coat more and more as the days of summer flew by. Sitting in his car, in his office, chewing a sandwich at lunch, he thought of the weight of the coat on his shoulders, the way the hair glistened in the setting sunlight. How it felt between his fingers, so unexpectedly soft. 

When he and Sandy first saw each other after the long weekend, they spent the night fucking with vigor that left the both of them breathless and sweating, raw and exhausted.

“What’s gotten into you?” Sandy asked, red faced after their second round. Lately, if they did it at all they did it sporadically and in a desultory, mostly missionary manner. “You’re like a goddamn animal!”

“Dunno,” Dave panted, surprised himself at his own sustained virility. “Must have just really missed you, I guess?”

Yet as he lay next to Sandy, raw, spent and slipping towards sleep after their third round, Dave suspected the uncharacteristic verve he displayed had something to do with the dreams he’d been having where he was a silverback gorilla roaring into the darkness. 

That it had something to do with the coat.

*

 “Yo, careful with those clasps there, Davey,” Rick said.

Startled, Dave realized he had begun to finger the delicate, finely crafted clasps that ran down the front of the coat, from the neckline to the waist, slowly doing them up one by one. The coat fit surprisingly well, though a little tight across the shoulders, the arms perhaps an inch too short. Otherwise, it was perfect. Dave felt as though he could wear the coat forever, summer heat be damned.

“What’s something like this set you back?” he asked Rick.

“Hard to say,” Rick shrugged. “Got a super sweet deal. Estate sale outside of Detroit Lakes. Lady had no idea what it was. Goddamn, eh? Thing’s, like, basically fuckin priceless, right?”

Rick maintained that while it technically wasn’t illegal to buy the pelt of an endangered animal, had the lady who’d sold it to him known what it really was, she could have found herself in some hot water. 

“Don’t ask, don’t tell, man,” he’d said. “Fucked eh?”

Dave just nodded, lost in a misty day dream.

*

At work, Dave became increasingly distracted. When he was in front of the computer, he found himself drifting into Google searches, keywords: “gorilla + coats.” He’d wade through fashion op-eds decrying some celeb or another for sporting one to some event or other, animal rights sites calling for the heads of anyone who’d even think to buy or sell one, blogs extolling the virtues of faux fur over the real deal, whatever, so long as there were photos of the coats in question embedded in the post. 

Hours disappeared. He shuffled between work and home in a haze, thinking, coveting the coat. Evenings in his empty apartment it was more of the same. Dave stared at the blue screen as light faded from the summer sky outside, imagining how it would be to live within the gorilla’s skin, to live as a silverback among the misty mountains.

As August long weekend approached, Dave casually mentioned to Sandy that it might be fun to take a little day trip to the zoo. 

“Why?” Sandy scoffed. 

“Why not?” Dave suggested, feigning nonchalance. Of course, he hadn’t told her about the coat. He couldn’t exactly place or explain the fascination the coat held to himself, let alone to Sandy. Instead, he kept his budding obsession private. He wasn’t sure she’d understand. Then again, she hadn’t really seemed to notice, anyway. During the week, she was either working, at her parents, or out with her friends. The few hours they did spend together over the weekend mostly involved eating, sleeping, bickering and the occasional fuck. “When’s the last time you went to the zoo?”

Sandy had rolled her eyes, yet when Saturday morning came around they drove to the zoo. The day was a hot one, the air at the zoo humid and pungent. Dave and Sandy saw bears, wildcats, muskox, all manner of exotic rodents, and a tiger lolling in the shade. There were monkeys — zany macaques and bored chimps — but no gorillas. 

On the way home, after a lunch of chip truck burgers and fries, Sandy coyly suggested they pull over into a nearby park so they could make it, hot and heavy, in the backseat. 

“How about a bit of that jungle love?” she said.

But Dave just shook his head and kept driving.

“Not really in the mood,” he sulked.

*

Later that night, as Sandy lay sleeping while the oscillating fan moved the muggy air in the apartment around, Dave lay wide awake. Sure, they’d gotten it on, but the spark that had been there that first night back from the lake and those first few nights that had followed had already faded away. 

Hours later, when Dave finally fell into a fitful, sweaty sleep, he dreamed yet again of great apes and mountains shrouded in mist, of big guns blazing and the belching of a steam-engine chugging full throttle up a dark river. 

*

When Sandy left the next morning, back to her parents’ house, Dave shuffled into the shower, hoping a cool blast off would clear his muddy mind. Instead, he wondered if gorillas ever luxuriated in the midst of a tropical downpour. Did they enjoy the respite from the sweltering jungle heat? Or was it just another meaningless change in the weather they had no choice but to endure? Dave rubbed shampoo into his hair, thought about the soft, thick gorilla hair that had hung from his arms, the odd golden lock that caught the fading sunlight off the lake. 

He wondered if Rick still had the coat. 

Why, it occurred to Dave, don’t I just ask him?

A moment later, he sprang from the shower, leaving the cold water running. He grabbed his phone, scrolled madly through his contacts until he found Rick’s number. His wet thumb hovered over the screen. 

What would Rick and Lisa think of him, Dave worried fleetingly, obsessing over some dusty old coat? 

What did he care, though? Really. He only ever saw them once or twice a year, anyway. 

If he had the coat, what did he care what Rick or Lisa, or Sandy, or Simon or anybody, really thought of him? At the end of the day, he would be the king of the jungle, or as close to it as you could expect to become in muggy old Ottawa after 5 p.m. What does the noblest of beasts care for the opinions of others?

Not a goddamn bit. 

 Fuck it. Dave pressed the green call button.

“Dave?” Rick voice crackled after a couple rings. “What’s up my man?”

“That coat,” Dave said, stumbling over his words in haste. Shampoo ran down his face, burning his eyes. “The gorilla? I know you said you can’t, like, sell it or whatever. But I was hoping, maybe, we could, like, come to an arrangement or something?”

“Oh man,” Rick laughed. “That old thing? Sorry bud. No can do.”

“Why not?” Dave stammered. “I got some money. I’ll pay whatever.”

“No, no,” Rick continued. “It’s not that. I don’t have it anymore.”

“What?” Despite the swampy heat of his apartment, a chill ran up Dave’s back. “But you said, you know, you couldn’t sell it, or whatever. Right?”

“Didn’t sell it. Made a trade with a buddy of mine out west. He collects weird shit. Freaky stuff. Had him in mind when I first picked it up. Sorry man.”

Dave stood staring in his bathroom mirror. A pathetic, pale and mostly hairless monkey stared back at him. His bottom lip quivered. 

“Dave?” Rick’s tinny voice chimed from the forgotten phone in his hand. “You still there, buddy? Dave?”

Tears ran down Dave’s cheeks, softly at first, then following fits of wracking sobs. The tear had nothing to do with the shampoo in his eyes. Nothing whatsoever.

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