A week before Thanksgiving, I arrived home after work to find a coat tree standing in my front yard. It was positioned between my driveway and the largest tree in the yard. I didn’t notice the coat tree until after I’d gotten out of my car. That evening was cloudy, and I hadn’t left my porch lights on. I flinched when I caught sight of it. Cold, gunmetal gray with rubber-tipped prongs and feet that resemble small bicycle handles, the coat tree was in perfect condition. How did it get there? Who put it there? Why? What does it mean? These mysteries still haunt me weeks later.
After noticing the coat tree, I gave it a wide berth as I made my way into the house. My arms were full, my mind was occupied by other things. I wasn’t ready to process the implications of an errant piece of accent furniture in my front yard. Who among us is ever really prepared for something like this? After locking the door behind me, I formed a plan. Obviously, I couldn’t stay in the house that night. I grabbed a toothbrush, a bag of Hot Hickory Almonds, and the framed picture of my grandparent’s house, and left. Before getting in the car, I cautiously approached the coat tree. A sliver of paper was wedged in between the six metal rods that comprised the coat tree. I didn’t touch it.
“So a coat rack was in your front yard, huh?” asked my friend John. I’d arrived fifteen minutes earlier to his house, raving, afraid, and having trouble conveying the importance of what was happening to me. But finally, he seemed to be starting to understand what I was saying.
“Coat tree,” I corrected.
“What’s the difference?”
“Don’t be an a—hole, John. A coat rack is something that hangs on a wall. This was free standing.”
After a pause, John asked, “Could you call it a standing coat rack?”
“Goddamn it, no! Coat tree. Coat tree! In my yard, John. What am I going to do?”
“I don’t know man.” He paused again. “Maybe it was a hat rack.”
“Hat tree. And no, it wasn’t. It’s for coats. I’m so screwed. Do you think your wife will fix waffles in the morning?”
“Umm, you can’t stay here tonight. Not after last time. I’m sorry.”
After leaving John’s house, it occurred to me that perhaps his obtuse refusal to understand my plight was a bit too convenient. Was he behind the coat tree’s placement? I called other friends, trying to find a place to stay the night. Most of them don’t answer their phones after 8 PM. Something about parenting makes them sleepy. The friends I did reach refused to provide shelter. Eileen pretended to not know who I was. Again. My parents refused to buy me a plane ticket home. Conspiracy. I was on my own. And so, I did the unexpected. I returned home. I parked my car in front of my neighbor’s yard and waited. I slept very little that night.
Despite barely sleeping in my car, I awoke with a new perspective. Had I been hasty to blame my friends and family? Perhaps the coat tree had blown into my yard naturally. We’ve all seen photos of tumble-coat-trees and tumble-hat-trees blowing across Oklahoma during the Great Depression. Sure, stricter regulations governing tailors and haberdasheries have made tumble-coat-trees much more rare, but they still happen. And of course, as most of you know, my uncle was killed during the Great Louisville Umbrella Stand Storm of 1974, so I’m no stranger to these phenomena. And yet, the coat tree was standing upright, and on the leeward side of the tree. More investigation was needed.
I combed the yard, looking for clues. Between the coat tree and the tree tree, I found a wrapper from a Swisher Sweets cigar. Frat boys! Fat frat boys! But wait, that could also indicate Eileen and her partner in crime, Smooch. I’d done nothing to warrant this level of retaliation from either group, so the wrapper was almost certainly planted to throw me off the trail. This went deeper than some random prank by drunk college boys or drunk mid-30s women.
I then noticed the scrap of paper still tucked into the rack (tree, damn it). I removed it. It was more fabric than paper, certainly machine washable. The top was cut off. On the paper were two columns of that crazy jibber-jabber that passes for language amongst the foreign types. Vulgewicht, Peso imbottitura, Peso del relleno, Fyllvekt, Waga, ç·é‡é‡, Poids garnissage, æ€»é‡é‡, Totalvaegt, ÐžÐ±Ñ‰Ð¸Ð¹ Ð²ÐµÑ. I am multilingual, but only with units of weight or volume, which turned our to be fortunate in this case.
The columns consisted of various translations for “filling weight” (20 oz.) and “total weight” (30 oz). A coat tree that can only hold 30 ounces of coat? Sure, Austin winters are mild. But even the most cold tolerant transplant employs many more coat-ounces over the course of the season. Of course, I switched to metric coats back in 2005 (thought I might go skiing in Europe). Above the “30 oz” in “total weight” column was 840 g. But 30 ounces converts to 850 grams, not 840 grams. Lies. Deceit. Misdirection. The scrap of paper posed more questions than it answered. Someone was toying with me. Russian Mafia? Chinese Mafia? Flemish Mafia? Pink Mafia? Or an even more insidious organization?
Who has issues with me? Who has coat issues with me? My mother. She abhors clutter of any sort. Coats are a constant source of contention when I visit my parents in the winter. I like to put my coats on the backs of chairs, on the backs of couches, or across banisters. You see, I plan to wear them again, maybe the very next time I step outside. But Linda would have me go to a closet, procure a hanger, and neatly hang my outerwear. That’s too time consuming. And so, we have strife. She also seethes over the knowledge that every chair in my own kitchen likely has a jacket thrown over it from November until April. This coat tree could very well be a warning. She’s probably a member of the Syndicate of Fastidious Mothers, able to order a “hit” to whip her sloppy son into shape from thousands of miles away. But a coat tree? No.
My childhood home was short on closet space, and we had a coat tree. My mother hated it, especially because her sloppy son often carelessly knocked her coat onto the floor when heedlessly throwing his own coat onto the tree. In her subsequent homes, she’s made sure to build in ample coat closet space. And she knows that I have a coat closet, which I actually use occasionally. (After five or so jackets and pullovers are strewn about my house, I’ll hang them all in the closet, and start again.) So my mother would never encourage the use of a coat tree. If she’d ordered the hit, then I’d have come home to a tree filled with coat hanger impaled squirrels, which she hates as much as clutter.
Perhaps you saw my ad on Craigslist, seeking more information? No responses. The reward posters I put up all over town? Nothing but hoax responses. The Fox 7 On Your Side investigative report? Made me look fat and no leads materialized. (Generic Onion headline for all local news investigative report/consumer advocate segments: Area Dumbass Gets Gypped.)
I still don’t know what the coat tree means. Was it a gift or a warning? An inspiration or an omen? Should I rethink my entire life? Should I leave Austin and move to Palau and run a beach bar and never worry about coats, jackets, or pullovers again? Perhaps frost my hair too (always a good option)? The coat tree, unused and unadorned, is now in the middle of my garage. I’ve thought about throwing a coat or a pullover on it. I can’t not think about how my outerwear would look on it. But the more I look at it and the more I think about it, the more disturbed I get. Maybe it is for hats.