Let me tell you a story about a jacket.
It’s not all my story, and in fact, it originates somewhere that I’ve never been: Portland, Oregon.
Before we get there, though, I need to back up to somewhere I’ve spent far too much time: my hometown.
We weren’t a happy family; perhaps not an unhappy one. We had our moments, to be sure, a series of explosions – laughter, anger, whichever broke us through. Before I’d even turned eight, we had already fractured once; a few years later, we’d do it all over again. Eventually, the whole damn thing fell apart. And we were fine.
The first fracture came when my oldest brother, Mike, abruptly left home when I was in second grade. The subsequent fracturing event came a few years later with the exit of my second oldest brother, Steve, who left home under acrimonious circumstances when I was maybe nine or ten. To be honest, the timeline of those early years has always been jumbled in my mind. The mixture of my sheltered youth and a familial tendency to talk around the issues has left me spending my adult life indolently piecing together family history, like someone absentmindedly scratching a bug bite.
I suppose it must seem strange that a writer would be this incurious about his own past, but the truth is, it isn’t my past. Everything happened around me; I was a background extra in my own life up until college, and even then, really only a featured player.
So, what I know of Steve’s exit: I was the last one to speak to him before he left the house that final time. There were five kids, so my parents had opted to get us a second landline phone just for us (just for them); it was even listed in the phone book as the separate Teens’ Line. That night, my parents had gone out and gave instructions that Steve was not to use the phone, he being on punishment for one infraction or another. Nothing new there.
I was watching TV in the living room when I heard the kids’ line ringing in the den. Since the phone was never for me, I instinctively ignored it until I remembered my parents’ instructions. I rushed to the den just in time to find Steve answering the phone.
“You’re not supposed to use the phone,” I dutifully bleated.
“I know!” Steve snapped back. “No one else was answering it!”
That was it. I skulked back to the living room, then, some minutes later, I heard Steve leaving out the garage and that was the last I would see of him for years.
That could all be wrong. I don’t trust the details of my memory; I tend to conflate different events, sometimes years apart. It’s immaterial; this is how I remember it. The great irony – and power – of our past is that perception shapes memory, which then shapes perception. We’re all living a lie we told ourselves. This is mine.
My next memory of seeing Steve in person came many months later. He was standing on our porch, saying hello to my tearful mother who was welcoming him back home to Lawrence. He’d gotten heroin thin – emaciated, really – and was covered with piercings, a safety pin pincushion. Next to him stood the girlfriend of my oldest brother, Mike. She’d driven back with Steve from Flagstaff, Arizona, where my brothers had been living.
I don’t remember if Steve was wearing the jacket, though I suspect not. This jacket, which came to represent all the mysteries and allure of my brother’s time away from home, was a plain brown, polyester gas station attendant’s jacket, an ugly thing made all the more unsightly by large rips and frayed edges. Like Steve’s eyebrows, the thing was pierced through with a phalanx of safety pins, some of them functional, most just for aesthetics. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
After leaving home, but before meeting up with Mike in Arizona, Steve spent time in Portland, Oregon, living in a craphole (probably) and working in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant. Other than learning the basics of cooking from the restaurant’s chef, Steve’s main pastimes in Portland were poetry and drugs (I won’t pretend to know which ones; all of them?).
In Portland, where by law gas station attendants still pump your gas, Steve picked up the jacket. What really made this unassuming article of clothing pop, at least for me, was the one piece of personalization that my brother had attached: a yellow and orange fabric patch with the name “Mary” sewn in green letters over an orange heart. I had no idea who Mary was, but she was clearly perfect.
In fact, Mary was no one, but everyone. As Steve later explained, “Mary” was the stand-in name he used in his poetry when he was writing about a woman but didn’t want to use her real name. She was the all-encompassing focus of love and lust, hate and sorrow; she was all womankind.
So she came to represent to me.
My parents were permitting my brother to store some of his belongings at the family house, which is how I came to stumble across the Mary Jacket hanging up in a hallway closet. For a time, I would take it out just to put it on, and then slip it back on its hanger. As the months passed, though, and Steve made no indication that he intended to take it back, I began to wear the jacket out of the house, to my mother’s chagrin.
Steve didn’t mind me wearing it, but there was always an understanding that someday I’d return it to him. That never happened.
The jacket engulfed me. It must have been huge on Steve when he was at his thinnest, which is why I doubt he was actually wearing it that day he showed up on our porch. It didn’t matter, I loved it and wore it constantly. After losing a great deal of weight in a very short time as a teenager, I was slow to update my wardrobe so most of my clothes were baggy on me. The jacket fit my style (a term I use loosely).
People asked all the time who Mary was, or, sometimes with confusion regarding my long, feminine blond hair, if I was Mary. Some kids took to calling me Mary, presumably as an insult, but if it bothered me, it didn’t stop me from wearing the jacket every damn day.
Whatever reason Steve had for choosing Mary as his female catch-all, the name had an extra level of resonance for his youngest brother, a kid named Joseph who had been brought up in the Jesus in Wonderland orthodoxy of Evangelical Pentecostals. Everything was filtered through Bible stories and purported prophecy. Mary didn’t just represent some unknown love interest, she came to represent the unseen woman, the one that completed the equation: Joseph and Mary.
Perhaps I have a genetic predisposition to symbolism, or it’s just a product of my religious upbringing, but early on I developed an obsession with poetic symmetry in life, always looking for surreptitious indicators of deeper meaning or direction in the innocuous happenstance of life: a song playing on the radio with an oddly fitting lyric; the crash of thunder in a moment of doubt; a girl named Mary.
I wanted – needed – there to be signs of something grand ahead, because in the now, life was pretty miserable. Certainly, I was.
As high school ceded to college, I left much of my old life behind, including church friends and my faith, but the Mary Jacket stayed with me. From wear, the tears had grown into fluttering gashes with loose threads hanging from the edges that I routinely had to cut off with scissors. I’d repurposed some of the extra safety pins to hold the entire left side together, which otherwise flung open like a gaping mouth.
If the jacket had arrived in Kansas looking like a holdover from the 80s hardcore scene, I had managed to turn it into a homemade Halloween costume assembled by a disinterested stepmother. It had long ago ceased to be a jacket in any functional sense, almost more of a rag to throw over my shoulders like a cape. So be it, it was my cape.
When I packed up everything I owned for the move to Charlotte that would launch 10 Cities/10 Years, I stuffed the Mary Jacket in my boxes. Eventually, I gained enough sense to stop wearing the thing, but for sentimental purposes, the jacket remained with me for many moves. After a few years, realizing that sentiment wasn’t worth the extra money and effort it required to move every year, I unceremoniously discarded the jacket along with many other artifacts of a life I no longer lived.
Before I tossed the jacket –there was no hope of donating it, the thing was mostly safety pins by that point – I removed the Mary patch. That I still have.
Writers love symbols. Fiction, in particular, is buoyed by their potential. Properly deployed, one symbol can say more than ten pages of exposition; even poor writing can be given the façade of depth with some hasty symbolism. Then there are the great writers, like Fitzgerald, whose symbolism could captivate so thoroughly, he redefined the prosaic truth of the image itself. A green light is never just a green light.
Even though I no longer believe in higher powers or spiritual intercession in the natural world, I’m still taken with the way coincidences can imbue day-to-day life with literary flair. From time to time, it’s fun to indulge a flight of fancy, to impose meaning on the meaningless. It’s utter rubbish, but what isn’t? A writer has to think in symbols.
Names will always hold deeper meaning, like how hearing a particular name brings a rush of memories about an ex or a friend I haven’t thought of in years. I’m always tickled by couples with famous name pairings or when someone’s moniker takes on an ironic double meaning. To this day, “Mary” is freighted with unrealistic meaning. It’s a connection to a past that’s mostly been forgotten or blurred into unreliable memory, and yet also a suggestion of a future that could have been, probably never will. I hear the name, it triggers visions of a specific type of life with a wife and a house, a family, a place; stability.
Before anyone thinks, “Awwww,” I haven’t lost anything, only come to understand myself better. Like that shredded gas attendant’s jacket, that existence wouldn’t fit me now. It’d only split and unravel. I held onto that vision of my future for a lot longer than I should have because I wanted so much for there to be a plan, a destination. Not anymore. I don’t need a prophecy to tell me about my future; I make my own.
Traveling has stripped me of much of my sentimentality. I’ve gotten much better at letting go of my relics. On the verge of another major move, my biggest yet, I’m examining my possessions with a plan to unload it all. Holding on to mementos from the past doesn’t actually prolong the past. Baggage is a burden, and a crutch. Minimalism is both a necessity and incredibly freeing.
Still, I like to imagine someone found that old jacket in the trash, took it home, and sewed it back together. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the things we abandoned came to have a second life with someone else? Well, the past is always being written and rewritten. May all we leave behind be remembered as fondly as a ripped polyester jacket.