by Howard Cummins (refreshed/edited by Cynthia Cummins)
It was the first day of autumn when the package arrived. It contained a birthday present for Howard, whose three brothers waited with him by the mailbox at the top of the drive.
Nobody wanted to miss the important parcel from Montgomery Ward, and as the mail car pulled away with a scrape of roadside gravel, the boys opened the box right then and there under the crab apple tree that stood by the gate.
Inside, wrapped and folded in a double layer of tissue paper, was a reversible corduroy jacket. On one side were plush ridges of deep brown. On the other side was a light tan and khaki blend of water-repellent fabric. In the light flickering through the tree canopy, it looked like something a movie star would wear.
The stiff jacket was handsome yet utilitarian, with its broad-shouldered design, four outside pockets with metal snaps and two inside pockets with zippers. Love at first sight.
Howard, the birthday boy, wore it proudly from 8th grade to junior year, faithfully turning the coat inside out depending on the day’s weather. Next Jack, known to all as Sweet Thing – a name evocative of his kind face but belying his rapscallion nature – dusted off the jacket after three more years’ of fistfights to or from school. Finally Brownie, the youngest, wore the coat for three more years until he, too, graduated from high school.
The boys left Big Stone Gap, for the Navy or the Army. They left their mother, for college or to make new homes for themselves. The Winter Jacket was forgotten, except at holidays when, looking through a photo album, they would laugh at the different lives their jacket had led.
Here was Howard standing with a shovel by the horse corral, with the rain sliding off the coat and the end of his nose. Here was Jack grinning with his corduroy-clad arm around a giggling girl. Here was Brownie with his wrist bones showing, having grown one inch more than the jacket could cover.
They sold the farm decades later, and Howard walked sadly through the empty house one last time to make sure everything had been removed. In one bedroom, the closet door stood ajar and a slice of afternoon sun caught a glint of grommet. There, just inside the door, was a single forgotten something still hanging.
It was the Winter Jacket, hiding. Howard brought it into the full light of the empty bedroom, checked its pockets and felt the weary softness of the corduroy. It was as faded as the world he’d grown up in, as irretrievable as the era in which the house was built.
He hung the jacket back on the rod. Leaving it to rot and decay along with the dogwood and redbud and crab apple trees that bordered the sunny grape vineyard outside the window. Or so he would imagine in his later years.
He would remember how the beautiful autumn day had made it hard to say goodbye. He’d remember feeling the breeze from Powell Mountain washing into the valley and across his face. He would remember the sun playing among the yellow-tinged leaves of the trees. He would remember the screen door solemnly latching with its familiar creak and click.
He wished it had been an ugly day. It might have been easier to forget his childhood home, just as he and his brothers had forgotten the Winter Jacket. The happy memories cling tight. The melancholy binds and grips. Another autumn passes.
This story comes from my uncle and mentor, Howard Cummins. He writes a regular column for the The Post at The Coalfield Progress in Wise County, Virginia. I did a few edits as a gift on his recent birthday.