Jul. 24, 2013

The Russian Greatcoat

by Theodore Deppe

While my children swim off the breakwater,
while my wife sleeps beside me in the sun,
I recall how you once said you knew
a sure way to paradise or hell.
Years ago, you stood on the Covington bridge,
demanded I throw my coat into the Ohio—
my five dollar "Russian greatcoat,"
my "Dostoevsky coat," with no explanations,
simply because you asked.

From that height, the man-sized coat fell
in slow motion, floated briefly,
one sinking arm bent at the elbow.
At first, I evade the question when my wife asks
as if just thinking of you were an act of betrayal.
The cigarette I shared with you above the river.
Our entrance into the city, your thin black coat
around both our shoulders. Sometimes I can go
weeks without remembering.

"The Russian Greatcoat" by Theodore Deppe, from Cape Clear: New and Selected Poems. © Salmon Poetry, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of mystery novelist John D. MacDonald (books by this author), born in Sharon, Pennsylvania (1916). He's famous for his novels featuring Travis McGee, a beach-bum detective who lives on a houseboat that he won in a poker game.

MacDonald started reading when he was a kid, after he almost died of scarlet fever. He spent a year in bed. He read all the books in the library. He served in the Army during World War II, and he entertained his wife by writing her little stories in his letters, one of which she liked so much that she typed it up and sent it to the magazine Story, where it was published.

John D. MacDonald had four months of severance pay when he came home from the Army, and he spent those four months writing seven days a week, 14 hours a day. By the end of the year, he was making a living selling short stories to pulp fiction magazines.

He used his mystery novels to criticize what he called American junk culture: fast food, bad TV, and suburban development. He said, "I am wary of a lot of things, such as ... time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants ... pageants, progress, and manifest destiny."

It's the birthday of Zelda Fitzgerald, born Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama (1900) (books by this author). She met F. Scott Fitzgerald at one of the military dances where he was stationed in Montgomery. He stood out from the crowd, wearing his Brooks Brothers uniform and his cream-colored boots. Zelda said, "He smelled like new goods." He told her that she looked like the heroine in the novel he was writing.

They went on their first date on this day, her birthday, in 1918. Years later, in a letter to Scott, she wrote: "The night you gave me my birthday party ... you were a young Lieutenant and I was a fragrant phantom, wasn't I? And it was a radiant night, a night of soft conspiracy and the trees agreed that it was all going to be for the best."

It's the birthday of aviator Amelia Earhart, born in Atchison, Kansas, in 1897. She was the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic (in 1932). She also flew solo on the longer flight from Hawaii to California — the first person to manage that hazardous route (in 1935). Then, in 1937, she set out to fly around the world. After making it more than two-thirds of the way, she disappeared in the central Pacific, somewhere near the international dateline.

It's the birthday of poet Robert Graves (books by this author), born in London in 1895. His passion was poetry, but he wrote novels to support himself and said: "Prose books are the show dogs I breed and sell to support my cat." He wrote historical novels such as I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1934), as well as his memoir about WWI, Goodbye to All That (1929).

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