Suicide Note‎ > ‎Volume 1‎ > ‎

X. The Wolf Coat

When I lived in Boulder, Colorado, and was studying graduate economics at the University there, I had a humble job as a teaching assistant. As good luck would have it, they put me with a young professor named Paul Redacted. Close to my own age and without tenure, he was lean and tall and a lady killer. I got to know Paul at the Sink and Tulagi, student hangouts near the CU Campus on what was called “The Hill.” I was older than the other grad students. Far too long I had spun my wheels by broking real estate, teaching high school, and keeping bad company of the corporate kind just for the paychecks. So I never wrote the obligatory poem about being thirty. Paul was something of a Tom Cat, known more vulgarly as a cocksman, and politely as a womanizer. In his case, he was a friend of the student body as well.

Neither of us skied in spite of being on the front range of the Rockies. Skiing was the high-status pastime among young professors and students who could afford it. During a winter walk across the CU campus, one could always note a few crutches and occasional casts on a foot or an arm.   Instead, Paul and I shared the sport of chess. We met often across Student Union chessboards with a cup of coffee instead of a clock. He was a fast and accurate player, en evant, while I was the slow defender. He was the superior. I was better at stalemate than checkmate and occasionally played him to a draw. I even won a couple of those hundred games we played at the student union. When he got a Fulbright to India, I got a break. Promoted to Teaching Associate, I took over his introductory class. Further, he trusted me enough to let me live rent-free in his apartment during his academic year away. On an income of a graduate student, free rent amounted to a reprieve from poverty.  

Only three letters came from India that year. The first one complained of the heat in Madras and his cinderblock cell with a toilet. The cell served as his guest faculty room at his assigned university. It had one single dangling light bulb and bars on the window to keep out the monkeys. He would sweat a lot and the rats would eat the crotch of his pants overnight when he carelessly left them on the floor. For all of that, he was being treated well by the university faculty. He liked the students, but noted sourly the unreachable student body. I wondered how a Cocksman could take the long, long deprived months in a stark cell in Madras with only his hand for a girlfriend. The second letter, lingering with a hint of desperation, nevertheless had a patch of sunlight in it. He had made friends with a chess master, maybe not a grand one but a guru who knew many openings well. The guru had particularly taught Paul the King’s Gambit and enchanted him with half a dozen others. The third letter came around the vernal equinox and was a happy one. He was living with a third-grade school teacher he had known in Boulder, a knockout whom I remembered because she would sometimes come to his office on the Boulder campus. She had taken a one-semester leave to go to India and pose as his wife. She was introduced around as Mrs.   Redacted and had status enough to associate with faculty spouses. In private, she would dance naked in Paul’s cinderblock cell while singing Animal Crackers in My Soup. His third letter told me they had been traveling in India. He had bought a coat made of fur from a Himalayan wolf. I did not know there was such a wolf, but apparently there was now one less. The coat was on its way to America at his Boulder address. I would have to sign for it and pick the insured package up at the post office. After finally opening the box, I thought that maybe there was more than one less Himalayan wolf, for this coat would reach to Paul’s ankles and he was a six-footer plus.  

When Paul came back to Boulder, it was summer again. The wolf coat would not do for a while, and I forgot about it. The chess games started again with him. I expected the worse for me. He started at once to offer a king’s gambit. Instead, I had invented a bad opening sequence that could be easily beaten by a real chess player. I called it the Crab and used it only against duffers for they did not know any better. Expecting only to avoid the King’s gambit, I stuck to the Crab and was surprised that my former opponent no longer played chess spontaneously but kept thinking formerly. He lost to the Crab, which only fooled a duffer as a rule. After twenty straight defeats by me, he finally stopped thinking formerly and went back to his spontaneous attacking ways. By then I had improved enough to win my share of the games. We had many an hour across the board together that fall. When winter came, Paul introduced his wolf coat to our town. The coat had a distinct odor that caused dogs to follow him on the street. Young men in passing cars would blow the horn at him or shout bumper-sticker wit.

The incident I remember best about the wolf coat happened at the apartment of his school-teacher lover who had been his wife without portfolio in India. Now reduced again to Miss Redact, she lived on a second floor with a side entrance by way of outside wooden stairs. Paul came to call in the early night wearing the wolf coat that reached to his ankles. The teacher had a female cat called Lady Cat that ran free often and was stalked by an old alley-cat Tom that knew what he wanted. Finding Lady Cat on the sidewalk, Paul picked her up to return her home. At the foot of those outside wooden stairs, he saw at the top the old Tom patiently waiting. Paul rolled up the collar of the wolf coat and put Lady Cat on his head. He began walking up the stairs as six-foot of smelly wolf with Tom’s Lady as its head. The alley cat believed what he saw, leaped over the railing and bounced off the hood of a Buick. Tom was last seen running down the street and according to Miss Redact never came back.

My friend Paul did not get tenure at CU. I do not know whether it was the womanizing, but he said to me only that he had been done in by young fogies. He sold the wolf coat to a Canadian for a high price that astonished me. If such wolf coats are worth that, the poor Himalayan wolf is doomed. The last I heard of Paul he was at Yale.