The Wrong Coat
by Jeffrey Greene
After a spring-like February, it blew cold again in March, which was when Janet Leahy realized that the brown leather coat in the hall closet wasn’t hers. Its nearly identical color and fit had deceived her, but this one had a wool border on the bottom and hers had only wool cuffs and collar. Probably some restaurant coat room attendant’s mistake, and one she could have lived with had the coat been of comparable quality. But it wasn’t; oh, a decent enough department store label, but nothing like the hand-made Italian coat she’d lost, a gift from her husband Charles on her fifty-third birthday.
The time lag between losing it and realizing her loss was considerable, however, and although she called several restaurants, no one seemed to remember a brown leather coat being returned. Charles, whose equanimity over the loss of his expensive present both relieved and irritated her, advised her to forget about it, promising to buy her a new one on her next birthday. As much as it pained her, she had to agree. Wherever she’d lost the coat, it was probably long gone by now.
While going through the coat’s pockets she found a business card. “Stephen Tjader, Licensed Metoposcopist,” she read, stumbling over the unfamiliar word. Under the name was a local phone number and office hours. She had an unabridged dictionary in the house, and was rather surprised to find an entry: “Metoposcopy: the study of physiognomy; the art of trying to judge the character of men by their features.” She’d heard of chiropractic, homeopathy, aromatherapy, but a professional reader of faces? Why would anyone pay a stranger to stare at his face and make dubious judgments about his character?
Still, she was curious and, since her retirement from the civil service, she had the time to indulge in solitary whims, so the morning after discovering the strange coat in her closet she picked up the phone and dialed the office of Stephen Tjader, Licensed Metoposcopist.
It was answered on the first ring. “Stephen Tjader’s office.”
“Hello. I’d like to make an appointment.”
“All right. Is this a return appointment?”
“No, I’m a new patient.”
“Actually, ‘client’ is the term we prefer. Metoposcopy has only a tenuous connection to the health professions. May I ask who referred you?”
She hesitated. “Someone I met at a party gave me Mr. Tjader’s card.”
“Okay. Well then, Ms...?”
“Leahy. Janet Leahy.”
“Would this Friday at eleven a.m. be all right?”
“That’s fine. And what is the fee for a first-time visit?”
“We charge eighty-five dollars for the initial visit, what we call a ‘cold reading’. We ask that you pay at the time of service, since metoposcopy is not covered by insurance.”
“I’d be amazed if it were. Do you need anything else?”
“I’ll ask you to fill out a brief form when you come in. Now, just so you understand: metoposcopy is neither psychology nor fortune-telling. Mr. Tjader reads faces, using subtle markers none of us can hide and his own intuitive powers, and what he sees he reports to each client during the twenty to thirty-minute session. Some of our clients have found the experience salutary; others, cathartic. So, that’s my little disclaimer. Do you still wish to make the appointment?”
“Yes I do,” she said, more curious than ever.
“We’ll see you on Friday, then.”
She liked the secretary’s soft-sell approach, but had the distinct impression that as far as the office of Stephen Tjader was concerned, if she didn’t truly want to be ‘read,’ they didn’t want her wasting their time. Still, eighty-five dollars was a rather pricey whim, and she had already decided not to mention her little adventure to Charles until it was over, thus circumventing his probable objections and, what was always worse, his ridicule.
It was cold and blustery on Friday and since her wool coat was at the dry cleaners she wore the brown leather coat. She took the Metro downtown, then walked the six chilly blocks to the address, keeping a protective hand on her beret. The office of Stephen Tjader was on the ninth floor of an anonymous office building on M Street that seemed to rent mostly to lawyers and accountants.
A slender, gray-haired woman seated behind a high wooden counter smiled at her as she entered the deserted waiting room. “Ms. Leahy? Hi. If you’ll just sign in and then fill this out for me.”
Most of the information requested was routine personal data, but several blank lines were provided to answer the question, “What motivated your visit?” She decided she had nothing to lose by telling the truth and wrote, “Idle curiosity.” She returned the clipboard to the secretary, and as it was quite warm in the waiting room, took off the coat and hung it in the closet.
A moment later the secretary came out and led her back to the consulting room. “Mr. Tjader will see you shortly,” she said, then closed the door and left her alone.
The austere, windowless room bore no resemblance either to a medical exam room or a psychologist’s office. Except for a padded swivel chair behind a desk devoid of paper, photographs, or clutter of any kind, the only place for her to sit was a straight-backed wooden chair with arms. She sat down and checked her makeup. Unlike the sub-tropical waiting room, there didn’t seem to be any heat in here, and she was beginning to think the whole idea was a mistake when the door opened and Stephen Tjader walked in.
He was holding her clipboard and so intently reading the information she’d provided that he barely glanced at her as he said a quick hello and shook her hand. As a first impression this struck her as appallingly rude, but she had already decided to take things as they came and to keep her face as neutral and mask-like as possible.
He was a short, pale, stocky man in his late thirties, dressed in a buttoned-up gray suit and a blue tie, his balding head thrust forward at a shoe-studying angle from his burly, sloping shoulders. He sat down, leaned forward and covered his big dark eyes with one hand as if to shade them from the overhead light, which seemed too dim to her.
“So, Mrs. Leahy. What are you curious about?” he asked, a trace of banter in his soft, weary voice.
“Metoposcopy,” she replied. “I’d never heard of it before this week. You probably get a lot of people like me coming for the same reason.” She smiled, trying to make eye contact with him.
“Actually, most of my clients are through word of mouth,” he said, managing to avoid her eyes. “You told my office manager that you heard about me from someone at a party. If you don’t mind my asking, how did the conversation come around to metoposcopy?”
Janet smiled. “Well, to be honest, I made that up. I found your card in the pocket of a leather coat in my closet. A coat that wasn’t mine, oddly enough. Mine is missing and presumed lost.”
“No kidding,” he said, arching his furry brows. “Any idea how you lost it?”
“Well, I went to put on my brown leather coat the other day and found a cheaper double in its place. My husband and I go out to eat fairly often, so my best guess is that it got switched by some coat room attendant a month or so ago, and it looked so much like mine I didn’t notice. I guess whoever the other coat belongs to had either consulted you or was thinking about it.”
“Hm-hm, hm-hm. And was it a shabby old coat, or...?”
“No, just well broken-in, like mine was. But alas, not as good quality. Mine was a birthday gift from my husband a couple years back.”
He nodded as he made more notes. “Okay,” he said, looking up. “I like to begin the reading without the distraction of the client’s gaze. Would you mind closing your eyes for just a few moments?”
She complied, feeling a bit silly but determined to keep a straight face.
“Thank you. This won’t take long.”
She heard the click of a ball-point pen, then a long silence, followed by the amplified scratch of writing. He rose from his chair and told her to open her eyes. Compulsively clicking the pen, he walked around behind her and leaned against the wall while he made more notes. He moved several more times, looking at her face from different vantages and always finding more to write about. Finally he sat down and looked directly at her for the first time. There were deep, bruised circles under his eyes, as if he hadn’t slept in days.
“Am I allowed to know what you’re writing there?” she asked.
“Of course. As we talk I’m noting changes in your facial muscles, your lips, eyebrows, the angle you hold your head, your hairstyle, the pupils of your eyes and their slight dilations and contractions, your tone of voice, etc. There’s a whole array of markers we all reveal in conversation, which allows the trained observer to make certain generalizations about character and personality. But that’s all they are, Mrs. Leahy, generalizations. I’m not a mind-reader.”
“Well, I’d be inclined to think you were a mind-reader if you make all these ‘generalizations’ inside of thirty minutes,” she said, smiling skeptically.
“Actually, there are three categories of readings,” he replied. “The cold reading is the most superficial, what can be learned in under thirty minutes. Then there’s the In-Depth Interview, which can take as little as ninety minutes or as long as half a day. Corporations often send executive applicants to me for the In-Depth Interview.
“Finally, there’s the Complete Evaluation, during which the metoposcopist becomes a guest of the client, observing him both at work and at home for a period of about two weeks. I do these infrequently, but some of my clients at this level have included political parties seeking a profile of a potential candidate, applicants for jobs in Intelligence, and government appointments carrying a high security clearance. At any of the three levels, my policy is one of strictest confidentiality. Unless you sign a waiver beforehand, nothing you tell me leaves this room.”
“That’s reassuring,” she said. “But if you’re anticipating something scandalous or compromising, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.”
“I don’t anticipate, Mrs. Leahy. I just look and listen.”
“And what is my face telling you so far?”
“Well, these are just preliminary observations, but I would say you’re a little restless and impatient by nature. Comfortable with your social position and, if not quite pushy, certainly used to getting your own way, though much too well-bred to throw fits when you don’t. You’ve always been flirtatious, but your hard-earned self-esteem is currently under siege by the resentment, vanity and obsessive self-consciousness that have been plaguing you since your youth began to wane.
“Your religious faith, what little you had, has long since evaporated, leaving both mystification and envy for your friends who still possess it and a self-pitying nostalgia for your own lost certitude. You tend to be truthful to others but often lie to yourself. You love your husband very much but doubt his love for you and chastise yourself for the jealousy you feel whenever he’s away. You’re lonely and frightened a good deal of the time, though it’s not so much death you fear as desertion.”
“Now I see why you call this a cold reading,” she said, laughing and shaking her head as if trying to clear it after a blow, deeply hurt and offended but struggling to keep her temper.
Copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey Greene