TWO days ago the mercury in San Francisco reached 102 degrees, the hottest day on record for any time of the year. No one was fooled. A temperature like that in late fall was a grand gesture, like the last aria of a diva who knows she must sing straight into a swoon. Summer never gives up gracefully in California: Earth tremors and heat waves attend its passing, and people take note of the occasion by going about their business. In a late autumn heat wave you will find people on the beach; you will also find them shopping for winter coats, as my son Nathaniel and I did this morning. Buying a winter coat in a heat wave is something like throwing a gauntlet down on top of a gauntlet. Nature is your jousting partner, a sly old courtier with a long lance: before the match he smiles a beatific smile, sunny and warm, to reassure you that nothing serious will occur. You are not deceived. You suspect that behind his cheerful visage lurks a keen love of frost, loud noises in crisp air, icy mornings, the anarchy of fallen leaves. He is testing you: How well can you see behind his well-practiced smile? You see well enough: You have no intention of wearing shorts and a T-shirt to this jousting match.
A winter coat is a serious matter. Because of the expense if nothing else, it ought to last for several seasons, and this longevity makes it the haberdasher's equivalent of a court attendant. Last spring, my winter coat of nine years mysteriously disappeared. The coat and I had traveled across the United States together and halfway around the world. We had weathered a few triumphs and a few personal crises in the kind of gnawing cold that quickly becomes an unwelcome companion.
Now, standing in the hall closet, absorbed in these recollections, I began to grow a little cobwebby, like a man who has been telling himself such an old story that he has forgotten the ending. Fortunately, Nathaniel distracted me in his usual helpful way by laughing - not at me, as it turned out, although his timing was impeccable: Nothing dispels nostalgia like laughter. I turned to find him waving a book in the general direction of my knee. The book was ``Autumn Days,'' which he has enjoyed ever since we bought it for him at the height of summer. His passion for books is striking, since he is scarcely 14 months old, and when he waves a book at one's knee it means that he expects a story without delay. We sat down together. As we turned the pages he pointed out his favorite characters (not all people, of course): the orange Big Wheel tricycle and the yellow wagon, the little boy carrying an armful of apples, the boys and girls in coats on a hayride, the horses. I felt chilly. It was time for some fresh air and new armor.
We drove to a local Sierra outfitter's shop, where pumpkin-colored signs proclaimed a sale. Surrounded by down vests, down jackets, dome tents, and zero-degree sleeping bags, we might well have been in the armory of knights who prided themselves on besting Nature in every frosty joust. Still, as people jostled each other and squeezed into too-small sizes or dwarfed themselves in coats as rotund as spacesuits, it became clear that Nature still had a few tricks to play. The room heated up with the press of the crowd, until once again I had the image of my jousting partner's smiling face: This was all a pleasant farce. Summer would never end. What could I have been thinking, to come in search of a winter coat?
I laughed: The exit began to look appealing. But as I maneuvered Nathaniel in his stroller among the rows of garments and the tides of people, passing sudden snags of customers somewhat less expertly than Mark Twain navigated his steamboat on the Mississippi, I nearly ran into a large electric fan, which caught me in its draft as a large truck catches a passing motorcycle and shakes it. I sucked in my breath. ``Ooof!'' said Nathaniel, turning to look at me while pointing forward. His hair swept back from his forehead, tracking the sudden wind. Cool air! Autumn! My jousting partner had lowered his visor, and now in the press of this Indian summer crowd I made my way back to a rack with coats my size. I found a medium blue one - a cool color, like fall. It fit well, it had a hood, and it was rainproof. Nathaniel watched closely, and when I seemed settled on it he threw his pacifier at me, which invariably means that he is pleased.
Outside, on our way back to the car, I thought I felt the heat relent a little: what had lasted for so many months was passing. That was all right with me. ``Let the match begin,'' I said, as Nathaniel, my loyal second, toasted me with his bottle of apple juice.