There’s No Home but There Is a Family
"The Overcoat" from Seven Stories by Gina Berriault, recommended by Peter Orner
Introduction by Peter Orner
I’ve tried to write about this story before, and each time, I’ve failed. I’m about to fail again. Maybe all stories can’t be written about without in some way diminishing them. The thing itself versus the thing talking about the thing.
I have many copies of Berriault’s Women in Their Beds, the collection where “The Overcoat” originally appeared. Whenever I’m in a used bookstore I buy Women in Their Beds again, the first edition pink hardcover (rarer) or the black paperback (more common) with the Antonio Mancini painting on the cover of a black-haired woman lying in bed, one breast half exposed. In one of these used paperbacks, some previous owner wrote, in pencil, a date before each story on the contents page, presumably corresponding to the day this person finished the piece. So it goes like this:
12/20/98 Women in Their Beds
1/1/99 Who Is It Who Can Tell Me Who I Am?
4/22/99 A Dream of Fair Women
4/22/ 99 Soul and Money
6/4/99 The Island of Ven
And so on…to “The Overcoat,” which this reader finished on 11/9/99. Notice the time between the stories, sometimes weeks, sometimes months. A Berriault story needs time to sink in and sink in. And isn’t there something beautiful about knowing the exact date a stranger finished a story?
Let me say here that the line on Berriault is always that she should be better known. That here is one of our very greatest story writers and so few people, etc., etc. But I’ve always believed that Berriault herself was too busy vanishing into her sentences to care much about whether she was known or not known. I may be wrong about this. Find me a writer without an ego. But there is something about the way Berriault inhabits her people that is so completely effacing.
There is no writer, there’s only Eli.
He’s thirty-two years old. He may be dying. He’s got a serious drug problem, or at least he had one in the past. He’s on a Trailways bus, on the way to Seattle to see his parents who he hasn’t seen in sixteen years. He wears a big overcoat. I should mention here that while Berriault deeply admired Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” this story is less a homage than doubling down. Gogol’s lonely clerk, in my memory of the story, didn’t have fucked up parents.
This is a story about grief and mourning in real-time with all the principals still alive. A son. A mother. A father. These people aren’t rich or fashionable or hip or witty or even all that tragic. They’re people who’ve had rough lives. As Berriault well knew, a lot of people have rough lives out there.
I’ve found that when I write about a story, I lose it, at least for a while. Not this time. This morning I stopped reading while Eli was still on the boat with his father and Myrna. He hasn’t left to find his mother yet. I’ll read the ending after I send this off. Some days, like today, the scene with Eli and his mother is too much. Look at me, Eli says to his mother who’s refusing. Look at me. Come across.
– Peter Orner
Author of Still No Word from You
There’s No Home but There Is a Family
“The Overcoat” by Gina Berriault
The overcoat was black and hung down to his ankles, the sleeves came down to his fingertips, and the weight of it was as much as two overcoats. It was given him by an old girlfriend who wasn’t his lover anymore but stayed around just to be his friend. She had chosen it out of a line of Goodwill coats because, since it had already lasted almost a century, it was the most durable and so the right one for his trip to Seattle, a city she imagined as always flooded by cataclysmic rains and cold as an execution dawn. His watch cap came down to his eyebrows.
On the Trailways bus the coat overlapped onto the next seat, and only when all other seats were occupied did a passenger dare to lift it and sit down, women apologetically, men bristling at the coat’s invasion of their territory. The coat was formidable. Inside it he was frail. His friend had filled a paper bag with delicatessen items, hoping to spare him the spectacle of himself at depot counters, hands shaking, coffee spilling, a sight for passengers hungrier for objects of ridicule than for their hamburgers and French fries. So he sat alone in the bus while it cooled under the low ceilings of concrete depots and out in lots under the winter sky, around it piles of wet lumber, cars without tires, shacks, a chained dog, and the café’s neon sign trembling in the mist.
On the last night, the bus plowed through roaring rain. Eli sat behind the driver. Panic might take hold of him any moment and he had to be near a door, even the door of this bus crawling along the ocean floor. No one sat beside him, and the voices of the passengers in the dark bus were like the faint chirps of birds about to be swept from their nest. In the glittering tumult of water beyond the swift arc of the windshield wiper, he was on his way to see his mother and his father, and panic over his sight of them and over their sight of him might wrench him out of his seat and lay him down in the aisle. He pressed his head against the cold glass and imagined escaping from the bus and from his parents, revived or destroyed out there in the icy deluge.
For three days he lay in a hotel room, unable to face the two he had come so far to see and whom he hadn’t seen in sixteen years, the age he’d been when he’d seen them last. They were already old when he was a kid, at least in his eyes, and now they seemed beyond age. The room was cold and clammy, but he could have sworn a steam radiator was on, hissing and sputtering. Then he figured an old man was sitting in a corner, watching over him, sniffling and sadly whistling. Until he took the noise by surprise and caught it coming from his own mouth, an attempt from sleep to give an account of himself.
Lying under the hotel’s army blanket and his overcoat, he wished he had waited until summer. But all waiting time was dangerous. The worst you could imagine always happened to you while you were waiting for better times. Winter was the best time for him, anyway. The overcoat was an impenetrable cover for his wasted body, for his arms lacerated by needles, scar on scar, like worms coming out, with the tattoos like road maps to show them the way. Even if it were summer he’d wear the overcoat. The sun would have to get even fiercer than in that story he’d read when he was a kid, about the sun and the wind betting each other which of them could take off the man’s coat, and the sun won. Then he’d take off his coat, he’d even take off his shirt, and his parents would see who’d been inside. They’d see Eli under the sun.
With his face bundled up in a yellow plaid muffler he’d found on the floor of the bus, he went by ferry and by more buses way out to the edge of this watery state, avoiding his mother by first visiting his father. Clumping in his navy surplus shoes down to the fishing boats riding the glacial gray sea, he was thrown off course by panic, by the presence of his father in one of those boats, and he zigzagged around the little town like an immense black beetle, blown across the ocean from its own region.
On the deck of his father’s boat he was instantly dizzied by the lift and fall and the jolting against the wharf, and he held to the rail of the steep steps down to the cabin, afraid he was going to be thrown onto his father, entangling them in another awful mishap.
“Eli. Eli here,” he said.
“Eli?” “That’s me,” he said.
Granite, his father had turned to granite. The man sitting on the bunk was gray, face gray, skimpy hair gray, the red net of broken capillaries become black flecks, and he didn’t move. The years had chiseled him down to nowhere near the size he’d been.
“Got arthritis,” his father said. The throat, could it catch arthritis, too? His voice was the high-pitched whisper of a woman struggling with a man, it was Eli’s mother’s voice, changed places. “Got it from the damn wet, took too many falls. Got it since you been gone.”
The Indian woman beside him shook tobacco from a pouch, rolled the cigarette, licked it closed, and never looked up. “You got it before he went,” she said, and to Eli, “How long you been gone? A couple weeks?”
“Sixteen years, more or less.”
“Eli’s my son,” his father said.
The Indian woman laughed. “I thought you were Louie. Got a boat next to ours. We been expecting him. Got to tell him his shortwave radio was stolen. Storm did some damage, too. You Harry’s son? He never told me. You a fisherman like your dad?”
“He’s smart,” his father said.
“Never got a kick out of seeing all those fishes flopping around in the net, fighting for their lives.”
“Eli always saw stuff that wasn’t going on,” his father said. “That kid never saw what was real. Did you?”
“Never did,” said Eli.
“You want to sit?” his father asked.
Eli sat on the bunk opposite them.
“That’s a big overcoat you got there,” his father said. “You prosperous?”
“I’m so prosperous I got a lot of parasites living off me.”
“They relatives of yours?” she asked.
“Anything living off you is a relative,” he said.
“I’m never going to live off you and you’re never going to live off me,” his father said.
“Right,” said Eli.
“You visit your mom?” the woman asked.
“Not yet. I don’t know where she is.”
“Nobody,” said his father, “could ever figure that out. A rest home for the time being. She lived too fast and hard, got to rest for a while. What a woman. A redhead. They burn up themselves.”
“What color’s your hair?” the woman asked.
Eli took off his watch cap.
“What happened to your hair? You’re kind of bald for a guy young as you.”
“That’s the way them punks wear their hair,” his father said.
“I’ve been sick, that’s why,” he said.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
“I got some beans left in the pan, would you like that?”
“Thanks. Can’t say,” he said.
The woman pushed herself up in stages, her weight giving her a hard time, like a penalty. She wore a mackinaw and men’s trousers and two pairs of thick socks, the holes in the top pair showing the socks underneath. Her breasts hung to her waist though she had no waist, but when she lifted her arms to light a hanging kerosene lamp he saw how gracefully she did it, her hands acting like a pretty girl’s. He could have fallen for her himself when he was sixteen.
On the narrow table between the bunks she set down a battered pan and a large spoon. He scooped up a few beans, found them too much to deal with, and put the spoon back in the pan.
“Guess I’m not hungry, thanks,” he said. “What I need is a place to sleep. Just for tonight. I used to sleep on this bunk when I was a kid.”
“It’s nice you remember,” she said. “Go ahead and lie down. See if you still fit,” his father said.
“I’ll wait ’til everybody’s in bed.”
“The army ever get you?” his father asked.
“Never got me, didn’t want me.”
“That’s good they didn’t want you,” she said.
“What’s wrong with the army?” his father said. “What the hell else did you do with your life?”
“You talk like his life is over,” the woman said. “He’s young. He’s just a little older than my boy Nate.” “I wrecked it,” Eli said. “You detected the secret of my life.”
“Well now you see you got sick,” his father said. “Could be you’re being punished for wrecking your life.”
“Could be,” Eli said.
“Go ahead and lie down,” his father said. “You look like you’re about to drop dead. What do the doctors say?”
“Just what you said.”
Eli lay down, wrapping his overcoat more closely around himself.
“You want me to take your shoes off?” she asked. “I got some extra socks, they’ll keep your feet warm.”
“No thanks, I’ll be fine,” he said, pulling his watch cap down over his ears and his eyes.
“We sleep aft,” she said. “If you need anything, just call. My name’s Myrna.”
Outside his cap things went dark. She must have snuffed out the lamp. He lay in his overcoat, drawing his legs up close against his hollow stomach. Then he imagined he was a boy again, home again in the house in Seattle, under covers in his own bed while his parents drank the night away, unprotected from them but protected by them from the dreadful world they said was out there. Then he thought about the strangers he’d met, out in that world. The ones who said Tell me about your parents, Eli, the ones who said they were there to help him. Smirky parole officers and smugfaced boy psychologists in leather jackets, jiving with him like a cellmate, and that female social worker in her short skirt, whose thighs he’d hope to open with the shining need for love in his eyes. In the morning of your life. That was the way she’d put it. It made him go weak in the head, he’d say anything she wanted him to say, and he’d blamed this old man on this rotting boat and he’d blamed his mother, wherever she was, for what had become of Eli. They had pried out his heart, those prying strangers, and the empty place left behind was where death got in. He knew this for a fact.
At dawn he was wakened by his shivering body. Out on the pier, the cold salt wind stiffened him, almost blinding him, so that he wound up a few times at the pier’s edges. When you look back, he’d heard, you’re turned into salt, and that’s what was happening to him. If he fell into the sea he’d disappear faster than he was bound to already.
For two days he wandered Seattle. Now that he was near to his mother he wanted to go on by. He had betrayed her, he had blamed her for Eli. Somebody was to blame and he didn’t know who. If his father was right, then Eli was to blame for what he’d done to himself, and proof was in the punishment. Once and for all, Eli was to blame.
They told him at the desk that his mother was ambulatory and could be anywhere. The old women in the rows of narrow beds, and the women in their chairs between the beds, hadn’t much left of womanness in them, but their power over him was intact. He went along before their pale faces staring out at the last puzzling details of the world, himself a detail, a cowering man in a long black overcoat, who might be their long-lost father, come to visit.
There she was, far down a corridor and out, and he followed her into a paved yard, walled in by brick and concrete. She put her hand to the wall to aid herself in open space, reached the bench and sat down, and her profile assured him he wasn’t mistaken.
“Mother, it’s Eli,” he said, taking off his watch cap.
She raised her eyes, and one eye was shrewdly narrowed and the other as purely open as a child’s, the blue almost as blue as ever.
“Eli,” he said. “Can I sit down?”
“Room enough for everybody.” He sat, and she paid him no attention.
The day was cold, but she had come out wearing only a sagging sweater, a skirt, pink socks, and sluffy shoes. From a pocket of her sweater she took a scrap of comb and began to comb her hair. The comb went cautiously through the tangle of flame-red and gray curls.
“Mother, I’m Eli,” he said. “Eli, your only child.”
“You’re right about that,” she said. “Had one and that was it. Well, no. Had another but lost it in the womb. Fell down or was pushed. Things come and go. I figure they go more often than they come. Not much came my way but I lost more than I had. If you see what I mean.”
“Mother, I wish I’d stayed around,” he said. “I wouldn’t let him hurt you anymore.”
“Who hurt me?”
“Oh, him? Once in a blue moon I get a postcard. One time he visited but I was ashamed of him. He walks like an old dog with something wrong in his hind end.”
“Mother, don’t be afraid to look at me.”
“I don’t see as good as I used to,” she explained. “In the past I used to read the teeniest print. When I was a girl, believe me, I was the smartest in my class. The best looking, too. It wasn’t just my red hair, it was more. I was wild to begin. That and my hair drove everybody wild. It’s contagious.”
“Look at me,” he begged. “Come across.”
She drew the sweater over her breasts and kept her arms crossed there. “We had ourselves an earthquake today. Did you feel it? Bricks fell down. We thought the whole damn place was coming down.”
“I wasn’t here.”
“Were you scared?”
“I wasn’t here.”
“Go on. I bet you were scared.”
“I died in it,” he said. If she wanted his company in her earthquake it was no trouble to oblige. It made no difference, afterwards, when or where you died, and it was easier to tell her he was already dead than tell her he was going to be soon, maybe even before he could get up from this bench.
Slowly she turned her head to take a close look at him, this man who had sat down beside her to belittle her with his lie. “You never died,” she said. “You’re alive as me. I saw to it. Nothing got by me. Awful things happen to boys out there. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, sure somebody was out to harm you that exact second. I’d yell, ‘Run, Eli, run! I’ll take care of this fiend!’ And that’s how I rescued you, every time.”
“You did. Every time,” he said.
Off in a corner, facing the wall, he covered his head with the overcoat and in that dark tent wept, baffled by them, by the woman over there on the bench, combing her hair again, and by the old man on the rocking boat. They were baffled by what had gone on in their lives and by what was going on now and by whatever was to go on, and this was all they had to offer him, Eli, come back to them, baffled enough by his own life.