The Purple Jacket
By Nancy Bourne
Dede Fulton woke to fog so dense she couldn’t see the trees outside her window. As she reached for the jeans that swung in a baggy lump from the doorknob, she heard Allen out front calling, “Hey, Gray Cat, where’d you hide your babies?” Her tender boy. If there were kittens, she wanted to see them too. No, she wanted to watch Allen finding them, holding them. Her sweet ten-year-old. Slamming the screen door behind her, Dede picked her way across the cluttered front yard, side stepping dog poop and bicycles. She found her son with his five-year-old sister Lacy in the field that stretched between their house and the country road, a road that led, after many twists and turns, to the Pacific Ocean.
“Look, Mama,” Lacy hollered, holding up a silky blue nightgown. She twirled around, wisps of blue swinging from her skinny arms.
“Where did that come from?” Dede asked.
“From a bush. Look!” she said, pointing.
A child’s pink sundress with a raspberry print lay on the damp grass. A small red bathing suit dangled from a fence post. As the fog cleared, the green field came alive with reds and blues, yellows and purples. There were dresses and panties and jackets. All new, not faded and patched. Clothes Dede could never afford. Clothes she secretly coveted for her little girl.
“Somebody left me a whole bunch of beautiful clothes,” Lacy shouted, racing from one to the other.
Dede held up the sundress and watched the printed raspberries flutter in the wind. “It’s so pretty,” she whispered.
“Somebody must have lost them,” Allen said, picking up a stuffed kangaroo.
But they’re on our property now, Dede thought.
“This fits perfect,” Lacy breathed, slipping her arms into the sleeves of a purple jacket. “It’s from my secret fairy godmother.”
“Don’t be a ditz,” said her brother.
“I’ll go get your dad,” Dede said.
Back in the house Dede wound her arms around her husband’s neck and kissed him full on the mouth.
“You’ll never believe what’s lying around out there in our field,” she said, grinning up into his narrow face and twisting his long brown hair into a pony tail. Ron was her man, long and thin and brainy. She belonged to him and even after eleven years of living together, she still couldn’t keep her hands off him. Now she watched him wriggle his feet into black scratched up boots, pull a maroon knitted hat on his head and slam the door behind them.
As they approached the carpet of color spread all over the field, Ron whistled. “Well, I’ll be damned. Somebody’s mighty generous.” He winked at his daughter. “Don’t just stand there, Lacy-girl. Pick ‘em up.”
“You think that’s okay?” Allen asked.
“They’re on our property,” Ron said. “Go get a laundry basket.”
Allen frowned and looked at his mother.
“You heard your father,” she said.
Lacy began to gather her treasures, holding them up, one by one, smoothing out wrinkles, folding them into several sloppy stacks.
“What’d I say, Allen?” Ron’s voice was sharp.
Later that afternoon, Dede looked up from picking blackberries out of a plastic bucket to see a man’s face peering in the kitchen window.
“Ron,” she called. “Better go out front. We got company.”
“Where’re the dogs?” he growled.
“Out back. Tied up.”
“Get Growler and bring him in the house. We might need him if that man tries to come inside.”
Dede returned from the backyard with a German Shepherd on a tight leash to find Ron standing on the unpainted front porch with a tall man in khaki trousers and shiny leather boots.
“You lost?” Ron asked.
“Hello,” the man said, reaching out to shake the hand that Ron failed to offer. “I’m Stewart Dunning. My family is camping in that State Park up the road.” He smiled down at a small girl with red hair and large green eyes, who was tugging at his leg. “This is Nora,” he said. “I hate to bother you, but we’re looking for her suitcase. It fell off the roof of our car last night and we’ve been driving up and down this road all morning looking for it. We stopped here because that little girl out there in your yard is wearing a jacket just like my daughter’s.”
Ron scratched the back of his neck. “A suitcase, you say?”
Dunning nodded. “A child’s plastic suitcase, with a broken zipper.”
“Can’t say as I have. Nope. No suitcase.” He turned to Dede.
“Me neither,” she said. At least she didn’t have to lie.
“That girl out there has my jacket.” Nora pointed to the yard.
The German shepherd lowered its head in the direction of Dunning and growled.
“Have you got my dresses and my bathing suit and my kangaroo?” Nora’s voice trembled. “They fell off the car roof last night.”
“It was dark,” her father explained. “We didn’t discover that the suitcase was gone until we got to camp.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” Ron said.
Suddenly Lacy came racing up to the house. The purple jacket now had a damp brown stain on the front.
“That’s my jacket,” Nora cried out. “She messed it all up.”
“It’s my jacket.” Lacy’s voice was defiant. “I got it fair and square.”
Dunning raised his eyebrows and turned back to a woman, who was coming up the path from the car. “That sure looks like my daughter’s jacket,” the woman said.
For just a moment, Dede felt a kind of relief. They could give the clothes to these folks, no questions asked. No snooping around. But the fierce frown on her husband’s face stopped her.
“Maybe it looks like your daughter’s jacket,” Ron said. “But that jacket rightfully belongs to my daughter.”
“Could I please see it?” Dunning asked.
“No. Now I’m asking you politely, get off my land.”
“Could I at least look around? Nora’s clothes may be somewhere close.”
“Maybe you didn’t hear me,” Ron hissed. “This is private land.”
Dunning took one look at Growler, who was tugging at its leash and snarling, and turned to leave.
But Nora didn’t budge. “Give me back my jacket,” she cried. As she reached out toward Lacy, the German shepherd leaped at her arm. Dede yanked it back just as Dunning grabbed his screaming daughter and edged away from the dog, which was straining on its leash and barking madly.
Ron motioned with his head toward the back yard, where Growler’s barking had unleashed a deafening uproar. “Like I said, you need to leave. This dog’s gentle, but we got others.”
“Jesus!” Dunning muttered, hurrying his family to the car.
Ron laughed as the Toyota Prius sped off in a cloud of dust.
They’d met after 9/11 at an anti-war rally in San Francisco. For Dede, a senior at Fresno High School at the time, the destruction of the twin towers in New York seemed very far away. She’d come to the city with friends to check out the latest styles in the department stores on Union Square. But while trying to cross Market Street, she got hemmed in by hundreds of people, who were blocking traffic, chanting, waving signs in the air. She called out to her friends, but they were lost in the crowd. And then, a tall, thin young man with a pony tail grabbed her by the arm and handed her a poster with the slogan Not In Our Name splashed all over it in red. Before she knew what was happening, she was marching along beside him, calling out, “No More Wars.” When they reached Hermon Plaza, her new friend snaked his way through the crowd, pulling her behind him, until he reached the speaker’s platform and hopped up. Dede stared at the dozens of important looking people on the stage who were hugging him and smiling into his determined, angular face.
And then he was handed a microphone and began to speak in a deep melodious voice about all the good things his organization, Not In Our Name, stood for. Dede was too bewildered about Afghanistan and Iraq and Osama bin Laden to understand much of what he was saying. But standing there with all those people, staring up at the platform in the San Francisco sunshine, she fell in love.
Her new friend was a Berkeley drop out. And her parents hated him. Hated his ponytail and his politics and his pot. Hated him even more when their daughter, the first in the family to be accepted into a college, turned down the scholarship she had worked so hard for and moved in with him. First into a group house in the Mission, then to a dark little room of their own in Berkeley, and finally, when his animus against war had evolved into a disgust at all government, Ron moved her to a small house on two acres of land up in Mendocino, which he had inherited from a reclusive old aunt who favored him. Land far away from what he now called the corrupt, meddling society he had grown to abhor. Land where he could hide and harvest the crop that kept them in groceries. Dede loved it all, the hillsides of golden grass, the smell of the ocean, the deer that wandered their property, her children, so full of life. And Ron, who still excited her, even when some of his ideas left her puzzled, and occasionally uneasy.
“You think they’ll come back?” Dede asked Ron as she stood at the sink, sorting blackberries for jam.
“Nah,” he sneered, sprawling on a ladder-back chair, his boots propped up on the oil cloth covering the kitchen table. “It’s that same man from the school that came snooping ‘round our place last year. You remember.”
Dede nodded, even though she remembered the school district man as older and with a beard. Ron had shouted, “Get the fuck out of here,” and slammed the door in his face. It was the first time Ron’s behavior had actually alarmed her.
Now Ron laughed, popping berries in his mouth. “Old Growler took care of him.”
Allen sat down next to his father. “How d’you know that man’s from the school?”
“Who else comes snooping around here?” his father asked.
“Then how did those clothes get here?”
“Who knows? Maybe that school guy put them there himself as an excuse to come ‘round,” Ron answered. “But they’re Lacy’s now. That man was government for sure. Driving around this neck of the woods in that fancy car looking to put kids in that school of theirs. That little priss of a girl saw that purple jacket and made out it was hers just to give him cover to come nosing around.”
“Why does he care about me and Lacy going to his school?” Allen asked.
“I’ve told you a million times. It’s a conspiracy. They want to take away our God-given freedom and make everybody think like they do.” Ron walked over to Dede and put his arms around her. “You and your sister got the best education in the country with your mama’s home schooling.”
Dede smiled and pulled him close. She loved him, loved the feel of him, loved the way he was so clever. Lately his rampages against the government had startled her, but she agreed with him on home schooling. Actually, that had been her idea, not his, her contribution to Ron’s way of life. She knew the school people would never approve of her home schooling her children; she’d only finished high school, nothing further. But she made no apology for that; she’d always been a whiz at math and she’d read plenty of books. Of course, there was a lot she didn’t know. But she’d figure out some way to learn it. Meanwhile, the children were such smart little things, Allen especially, and she loved it when Ron told her it was all her doing.
“Come look,” Lacy called from the living room. Spread out over the rocking chair, the cracked Naugahyde sofa, the oak table, and the faded rug was a patchwork of shorts and dresses and tee-shirts and nightgowns, all different colors.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she breathed.
“Sure is,” her father said. “But you best put those things in your chest of drawers before somebody else tries to claim ‘em.”
“What if they come back and search all over the house and find them?” Allen said.
“Stop that crazy talk,” his father scolded. “Lacy found these things on our property and that’s the end of it. And if you see those people again, let the dogs loose. Okay? Can’t have the government interfering with my family.”
Dede bent over the blackberries, whispering, don’t come back. Please don’t come back.
The next morning Dede saw a plump young woman in Khaki slacks climb out of a jeep and walk up the gravel path toward the house. Her dark hair was pulled back in a messy bun and she was holding a clipboard.
“Ron,” Dede called. “Looks like trouble.”
“Get Growler,” he yelled as he yanked open the front window. When Dede returned with the dog, Ron called out to the woman, “What’s your business?” His voice was almost drowned out by frantic barking.
The woman stopped short. “I’m from the Park Service,” she called out. “I’d like to talk to you.”
“We got a complaint about some clothes that might have landed in your yard.”
“As you can see, there’re no clothes here, lady. And since this is private property, I advise you to get yourself off it.”
“Don’t threaten me,” she said. “This is a friendly inquiry. Now come out of there like a sensible man and talk to me.”
“No ma’am. Now get, before the dogs are let out. Government’s got no right to come on our land.”
Dede watched the woman pull a cell phone from her pocket.
“Okay,” Ron yelled. “You asked for it.”
He nodded to Dede.
“Let him go,” he demanded.
Growler came tearing out the front door, snarling and barking. The woman made a dash for her jeep, yelling into the phone.
Without thinking, Dede raced out into the yard, screaming, “Yield!” The dog pulled back, snapping and moaning.
“Now get out of here,” Ron growled to the park ranger, as he joined his wife. “And don’t come back. Or next time we won’t call him off.”
The ranger backed her way to the jeep, her eyes fixed on the dog, and sped off in a roar.
“What’d you do that for?” Ron hissed at Dede when they had returned to the house.
“I’m just trying to protect us,” she answered. “Suppose the dog had hurt her? We’d have the cops all over us and we sure don’t want that.”
“You didn’t need to go running out like that. I’d have stopped him. I just wanted to scare her.”
“Well, I think you did. I just worry she’ll come back with the cops breathing down our neck.”
“Nah. She won’t be back.”
“Suppose she does though and starts searching the place. We’ve got more to worry about than a bunch of clothes.” She pointed to the basement door.
“I got the law on my side,” Ron said. “This is private property. They got no cause for a search warrant.”
“What’d that lady want?” Allen asked.
“Meddling. Just government meddling,” Ron said.
“Was it about those clothes?”
“Just an excuse to mess with us.”
“But those clothes aren’t ours,” Allen said, keeping a distance.
Ron laughed. “They are now.”
Dede woke the next morning to frantic barking. She found her husband in the living room, staring out the front door, a deer rifle in his hand. Out the window she could see five patrol cars, arranged in a semi-circle in the deserted yard in front of the house.
“Oh my God,” she moaned. “Put the gun down, honey. Please. You’re going to get us all killed.”
“Come on, you scum,” Ron whispered under his breath, ignoring her. “One step outside that car and...”
Dede rushed to the children’s bedroom. She found them huddled together on Allen’s mattress. He was holding Lacy, whose sobbing had left a dark damp spot on her brother’s gray sweatshirt. Dede knelt in front of them, took their warm sticky hands in hers and forced a smile.
“Everything’s all right,” she said. “Your dad’s having an argument with some people out there, but we’ll work it out.”
“They won’t take my clothes, will they?” Lacy asked.
Allen started to cry. “Are we going to jail?”
“Of course not. You two stay here,” Dede said. I’m going back out there with your dad and we’re going to settle this thing. So don’t worry, sweet things.”
As she returned to the living room, Dede heard a voice bellowing over a loud speaker. “Mr. Fulton, please come out of your house. We want to talk to you. We will not hurt you.”
Dede came up close behind her husband put her arms around his waist. “You have to go out there, honey,” she said, her voice shaky. “Just talk to them.”
“They got no cause,” Ron said, pushing her away.
“Listen to me,” she pleaded. “Please. You’re right, honey. This is our property. The government has no right to intrude.”
“But if you don’t go out there and talk nice to them, they’ll storm in here. And you know what will happen.”
“Not a chance, woman. Leave me alone.”
Dede’s voice wavered. “Ron, what’s happened to you?”
For at least five minutes, the yard was silent. Then the voice over the loud speaker repeated: “Mr. Fulton, please...”
As if in answer, Ron aimed his rifle at one of the patrol cars. Allen appeared at the bedroom door. “Here, Daddy,” he pleaded, holding out the purple jacket.
“Put the gun down, Ron,” Dede said in a low voice.
“Cool it,” he said. “Look, I won’t kill the sons of bitches; I just want to scare ‘em. Otherwise, they’ll come running in here, swarming all over the house, then take us in for stealing those clothes. Next thing you know, the kids will be in foster care.”
Lacy ran into the room, her face white.
“Stop that talk, Ron,” Dede said as she pressed her daughter close to her chest. “Don’t worry, baby,” she said. “Nobody’s taking you anywhere.”
After another interminable silence, a sheriff’s deputy slowly opened the car door and squatted behind it.
“Mr. Fulton, please...“
An explosion of barking and howling drowned out the speaker. The deputy jumped back into the car as the dogs leaped against the windows, slobbering, pounding the glass with heavy paws.
“Give them the clothes,” Dede yelled. “Just give them the god dammed clothes.”
“Shut up,” Ron snapped.
“Go back to your room,” Dede whispered to the children. “I need to get your dad calmed down.”
After what seemed like an hour, all five cars began to inch slowly toward the house, red lights flashing in the sunny, scruffy yard, drawing the semi-circle tighter. The dogs dropped back off the cars, avoiding the moving wheels, but barking madly. The voice on the loudspeaker continued to call for Ron to come out of the house unarmed.
Another hour passed as Dede hugged the frightened children, whispering that it would be all right, that nobody would be hurt, while begging her husband to put down his gun and talk to the deputies.
“Just give them the clothes,” Dede was pleading. “Think about the children.”
“That’s exactly the point,” he spat out. “They want to take my children and turn them into government robots. Now, get out of my way.”
“You don’t get it,” Dede said. “We can’t have the sheriff’s people in here.” She pointed to the basement door. “I’m scared they’ll find more than clothes.”
All of a sudden, the door of one of the patrol cars opened and a deputy stepped out holding a pistol in front of him.
Out the window, Dede glimpsed a flash of purple just as the report from Ron’s rifle shook the room. Then she was pushing Ron out of the way, running out the front door.
“Stop!” Ron yelled.
“Shoot me then,” she hollered as she raced across the front porch into the yard and threw herself on the ground. There was so much blood, blood on the gray sweatshirt, on the sparse grass, on Dede’s hands as she hugged the limp body tight against her.
Deputies poured out of the cars. One of them raced to the mother crouched on the ground, her body shaking. He gently pulled the boy’s thin white arm out from the tangle of mother and son and pressed the wrist with his finger. The eyes were open, blood trickled from the delicate nose.
Then Ron was running out of the house, his face white, screaming, “You fucking sons of bitches.”
The deputies quickly circled him, their guns leveled at his chest. “Drop that,” one of them said, pointing to the rifle clutched in Ron’s hand.
“You killed him,” Ron screamed and lifted the rifle. But the deputies were too fast for him; they knocked the rifle out of his hand and twisted his arms behind him. Surrounded by deputies, his wrists in handcuffs, Ron stared at the vacant face of his child, locked in Dede’s arms.
“What’s he doing here?” he moaned. “He’s supposed to be in the house. He isn’t supposed to be...”
Dede glared at him. “Here,” she said, pulling the purple jacket from her son’s hand and holding it up. “Allen was trying to...” but she couldn’t continue. The sound of Ron’s howling drowned out any thought she might have. A howling, long, loud, high pitched-- not quite human.