Coat Hooks

Angela Woodward


I just cleaned the soap dish, which should have been clean already, since all that dirtied it was soap. I derided myself even as I was in the middle of scrubbing it with the scratchy side of the sponge, but I'm not a person to leave a job undone halfway through. I had to go on, despite my self-mockery. I don't treat myself as I wish to be treated, but the way my brothers and sisters treated me, with suspicion and fury. This brings to mind a bigger shame, my absorption in coat hooks.

 I never would have thought about coat hooks, but my new house was so nice when I moved in. Someone had painted all the walls white, and the trim a glossier, whiter white. This painter person had not slopped and dribbled, like I would have, but gotten everything neat and sharp. This must have been done by a professional, I thought, and took myself down to the level of an amateur and a failure. The walls were too good for me. I couldn't hang a painting or stick up photos of my children. I couldn't dot the walls with shelves to hold rocks and railroad spikes or the pottery bowl I'd salvaged from my mother. The best use of this house would be to keep it empty and expecting. Anything I did to it, any mark of my presence, only degraded it. I slipped my shoes off and tiptoed over the gleaming floors barefoot. I hung my coat in the closet so I wouldn't see the folded mess of my outer garment once I shed it. I sat on my one chair and breathed the air I now somehow owned, if it didn't so clearly own me.

Eventually I had to move all the way in, bringing all my crap with me. I lost the momentum that had propelled me out of the entryway down the hall to the coat closet, and took to leaving my coat on a chair. Then, sitting in another chair, I'd see how I'd masked that first chair with the lump of coat. So unfair. I needed coat hooks, but given the pristine condition of the walls, I hesitated about knocking one in myself. I had a whole bag of brass coat hooks I had carefully unscrewed from the hall of the old house. These had been good enough for my former life, but not now.

I'd hardly noticed them before, but now coat hooks snagged me wherever I went. They pouted and winked at me out of photos and in the furnishings aisle of Office Max. They robed themselves in the patina of their materials, either solid and worn or chintzy and unassuming. A woman in San Francisco showed off two huge baroque curlicues jutting out of the wall at the foot of her stairs. From one hung her coat that was more like a tapestry, fur and silk and wool all rolled into one. I browsed the antique mall, and found one elegant brass limb, with lovely knobs for coat and scarf. But it didn't have a mate, and I couldn't hang just the one hook, or mismatch it with some sort of similar but inferior other. I had spent decades not thinking about coat hooks, and only now did I realize that people carved them in the shape of dragonflies and lion's heads, made folding boards into which the hooks disappeared when not in use, salvaged them from Dutch ruins, lathed them out of pure white ash or maple. Hours drained into my screen as coat hooks cast in Bali flashed by me, along with the two-pronged elephant (one hook over the other) and the right-left ones just like the ones I already owned, but better. I admired the lilt of their arms, pined for the ones hammered heroically into barn wood boards or set flush into mounts that picked up geometric shadows in the long light of five o'clock. Evenings unspooled where I could have been sitting on my chair looking at those shadows on the floor, but I was instead still undecided and bereft.

My favorites came from a merchant in Belgium. His hooks had been gleaned from the houses of his dead relatives. They looked down from the walls with a sad, sour, self-satisfied plumpness, their lines just right in their compromise of ornateness with utility. I wanted to hit that spot of everyday beauty, where coming into the house and hanging up my coat would be an encounter with this elegant creature. "I'm at your service, darling," my Belgian coat hook would say, and take my garment, and then go back to reading some mystery or philosophy. I would be afraid to offer the lovely Belgian hooks my thrift store windbreaker, or the wool coat I slept in one terrible night. I was so cold with the shock of my lover leaving me that I couldn't take it off. I sat on the sofa wrapped in this ungainly plaid, cocooned in paralysis. My heartbreak then still saddens me, but the coat hook would have mocked me for it. You think you're so special? Everyone falls for these handsome cheaters, it would say.

Eventually the suave brass hooks from Ghent got blitzed by the Austrians. Artists lent their names to these hooks, and they couldn't be purchased in sets or lots but had to be bid for against anonymous others. These masterpieces offered, one over the other, a slight arch, like an apostrophe reversed. Their strong, solid construction balanced the hesitancy of their curve. Their masculine lines, almost nautical, cried out to be contrasted with flimsy silk slips. Piles of lingerie might fall to the floor underneath them, the ecstasy these hooks called up too strong for any precise arcing of clothing over them. The Austrian hooks, so elegant and expensive, would have been perfect for my house the way it was, before I moved into it. They radiated prosperity and something that goes with it, not money itself but the freedom to choose what money should buy, the ability to wait for months or years before alighting on the perfect choice. The Austrian coat hooks would have come with their own professional installer, who would leave powder and hand prints on the wall that I wouldn't be allowed to disturb. The Austrian coat hooks cost more than all my coats put together; even all the coats I'd had in my entire life wouldn't equal the price of one of these deities.

Now you see me, in that terrible nylon JC Penney parka handed down from my sister, or in that tweed thing I got at the Elks Club sale that lasted me nine winters in Chicago. I'm nothing, a wage-earner, a scheming grasper. I shiver and sweat, and weigh myself down with trivialities. That coat hook wrote a novel, rode horses, sang arias while walking to the library, went boating, wore a gardenia in his lapel. He balanced a tennis racket on his palm, planted a hazel tree. Women ran up to him in the street, compelled by the sight of his wrists.