FICTION FINALIST: The Hat Salesman

 

The Hat Salesman takes a breath before continuing.

That’s when she says:

“Look, you’ve got this whole Woody Allen thing going. I’m sure it works okay for you. Sad puppy dog charm. The witty, self-deprecating repartee, thinning red hair, all of it screaming for a Diane Keaton. Here it is. I can assure you there isn’t an ounce of Diane Keaton in me. Hit the road, Woody.”

We were sitting at the bar in one of those chain lounges that litter airport concourses with the promise of overpriced drinks and salty snacks you nurse while you wait. There isn’t a more lonely, sterile environment in the world—late enough no one else is at the bar. Stragglers hunched over a few tables. I’d heard the Woody Allen comparison before. She was right. After him I was probably crown prince of the what-the-hell pity-fuck. Stick with your strengths, I always say, even if they’re someone else’s.

Okay? That was an understatement. It worked well enough I might have been a registered charity with one hundred percent of the donations going straight to my cause. If the other guys had my success rate there wouldn’t be an abused pet or a starving child left anywhere in the world. I’d been pitied on three continents—in cars, restrooms, hotels, motels and once, in a funeral parlor on a stainless steel embalming table.

“Yeah, la-dee-da, la-dee-da,” I say. “Maybe you’re Soon-Yi.”

She was Asian and tall enough her legs reached from the barstool to the gray industrial-strength carpeting.

“I’m much taller than Woody,” I say. “You’re older than Soon-Yi. How about we just give it a little longer? Maybe Mia Farrow will show up. That will be your chance to say it was all a mistake. Everyone likes a good scene in a public place.”

“Soon-Yi is Korean. I’m Vietnamese. Half.”

In my world that counted as progress.

“Which half?” I ask.

“The best half. The only half. My mother.”

“I have a mother,” I say.

“Good for you. Is she going bald, too?”

I was no longer making progress. There is a thin line between contempt and pity. I took my drink to a table. She came over a few minutes later. If I thought an apology was coming, I was wrong.

“Your mother’s dead, isn’t she?” she says.

“No,” I say, not asking her to sit. “She’s alive. Bald. But alive. How about yours?”

“Dead,” she says. “With a full head of hair.”

“I sell hats,” I say.

“Weird,” she says. “I’m a hair dealer.”

We were both telling the truth. Two people telling the truth in an airport lounge? Stranger things have happened in airport lounges. I just can’t think of any. She traveled a lot, mostly to poor countries with good hair. I traveled some, not a lot. The recent hipster trend for hats had created an opportunity in what had been a dying industry. I didn’t wear hats much, unless I was on a sales call.

The Hat Salesman looks up at the sky for a moment before returning his gaze to the older gentleman seated on a porch swing in front of him.

“Excuse me,” the salesman says. “I have to say that’s a fine Panama hat you’re wearing. It caught my eye all the way from the road. A quality hat, perhaps a little worn. Maybe still years of use left. Perfect for these warm summer days. Cooler than this old fedora of mine—Where was I? Hair? Hats? Oh, yes. Her father.”

Her father met her mother when he was stationed in Southeast Asia during the Viet Nam War. She had three older sisters. I never had sex with her, not that night or any night during the eight years we knew each other, five of those married. I asked her to marry me that night, though technically it was morning. No flight for me. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was home. There just wasn’t any reason to be there. She was home too, but on her way out. She missed her flight standing next to my table talking nonstop for two hours. The bar closed. The concourse emptied except for a couple of sleepy guys dragging a vacuum around. She talked all night. Progress. I could say for the record I spent the night with her. It was literally a one-night stand.

In the morning she took another flight. I saw her off. During the night she told me lots of stories, some of them pretty damn funny—like the time she was in Guatemala with a bag of hair she was grading. Yes, there are several grades of hair. A guy grabs her bag, not her purse, and runs off down the street. She just kept walking. Nothing she could do. Up the street she sees him and he’s looking into the bag. He’s crying. I guess that one isn’t so funny. Maybe you had to hear her tell it, though she wasn’t laughing. She had a way with stories.

The gentleman in the Panama hat asks, “You proposed to her after one night of talking?”

“I was half-serious,” answers the Hat Salesman and shrugs. He smiles briefly before returning to his story.

She says, “No, I won’t marry you. I’ll give you this, though, you shut-up real nice. Sell lots of hats, Woody. Don’t ever try to contact me.”

I didn’t. I couldn’t. She never told me her name. I didn’t tell her mine.

A week or two later I heard her voice in a crowded Starbucks on Jefferson Street in downtown Portland, Oregon. The other side of the country on the west coast. The place was packed with maybe close to fifty people having a hundred conversations—the conversations they have with each other and the conversations they have with themselves because the person they’re talking to isn’t listening or can’t hear them because they’re on their cell phones. I stepped in, took one look at the crowd and the line, and turned around. She wasn’t close by or shouting. She was telling the counter person she wanted a piece of ice in her cup to cool the coffee a little. Hell, I couldn’t even see her, not really. I’m not even sure I would have recognized her. Just her voice floating above the noise like it belonged up there.

She got her coffee and headed for the door and walked right past me without a nod or a word. I stood there a moment and waited for her to get away safely down the street. When I came out she was leaning against the building, cool and detached, one black high-heeled boot against the brick wall like she was demonstrating proper deportment for prostitutes.

Except traveling for work we were never apart after that, though we were never actually together either, not in any way most people would call together. I gave up trying to be adorable. I didn’t want anything from her that came wrapped up in pity. Not from her. She didn’t want anything from me except to be next to her and care about what she had to say knowing it was never going to lead to sex. Not even holding hands or a kiss. She never said, Don’t touch me. No need. There was just something in her voice. Just like I knew she wasn’t a lesbian. She wasn’t cold either. She was the warmest person I have ever known. Well, maybe not warm, but genuine. You had to hear it. Every time she spoke to me I heard it. Everyday stuff. Bring a coat. I bought you a new tube of toothpaste. Close the door. Do you want another Diet Coke?

Don’t get the wrong impression. I talked. A lot. When I did, she listened. Mostly questions, though. Most people talk to get something or just hear the sound of their own voices. I fell in love with questions. Then I fell in love with answers. When she paused to think about how she was going to answer that small moment was as close to a kiss as we ever had.

I had a key to her apartment. She had a key to mine. We’d been seeing each other for over two years by then. One day she asked me to follow her into her bedroom. She had a single bed. Right next to it was another single bed with a nightstand between them.

“I’d like you to sleep here,” she said. “Please?”

I stretched out on the bed and closed my eyes while she sat on her bed and painted her toenails and told me about how she loved old television comedies like I Love Lucy and The Donna Reed Show. She loved them but they made her cry. She didn’t say why they made her cry and I didn’t ask. No need to ask.

“No double beds,” she said. “No queens. No kings. Only singles or twins. That’s why everyone was so well rested. That’s the secret to all that goddamned ’50s television happiness. A good night’s sleep.”

Of course, I had an idea why she didn’t want me to touch her. When something isn’t spoken of for long enough it gets said in the only way it can, like how astronomers can’t see certain planets yet know their size and exactly where they are by how the other planets react. The planet I never saw was her father. She never spoke of him. I met two of her sisters. A third committed suicide while still a teenager. They never spoke of him. In the history of their childhoods their father had been cut out of their stories as cleanly as if they had used a razor blade. All that remained was his terrible gravity and the wobbly orbits of the planets he left behind.

After a year of sleeping next to each other and living together I asked her to marry me again. She said no.

I didn’t ask her why. I knew why, or thought I did. I didn’t care. If all I ever got was her voice that was enough for me. It wasn’t as if she was cheating on me when she talked to other people. When she talked to me she talked to me. Nobody in the world heard her voice the way I did. Keep the sex manuals, big breasts and tight asses, skin like a milky runway and the warm lips on the neck at night. Don’t think I didn’t want them. In this life we want a lot of things that get in the way of what we have.

The next day she asked me why I wanted to marry her. I knew my answer was going to be the key to a Yes, or a No. Did I tell her I loved her? That she needed me? We belonged together? I settled on Why not? Except that wasn’t what I said. There were a thousand reasons why not and not one good logical reason why we should.

“When that guy stole your hair,” I asked, “why do you suppose he was crying?”

“I know why he was crying. Do you?”

“I do,” I said. “That’s why I want us to get married.”

That man never wanted her purse. He wanted the hair. There was something about the hair. Maybe it belonged to someone he loved and he couldn’t bear to think of it on someone else’s head. Hair survives longer than any other part of the human body. Even fingernails. Not many people know that. There is a lot of hair in the world and it seems to me, I’m just guessing here, imagining that same hair, the hair you’d know anywhere by its smell or touch, that hair on a stranger’s head is—well, something almost inconceivably weird and sad. Taking someone’s hair?

We got married two days later. Quick civil ceremony. No rings. She insisted. “A barbaric tradition. Symbols of oppression,” she said.

Nothing changed. Years ago a friend told me women get married hoping the man will change after marriage. Men get married assuming the woman will never change. Unhappiness is all about expectations. I didn’t have any. She didn’t either. Hats and hair. Beds side-by-side. Her talking. Me listening.

Our first year together I still hung out my pity-fuck sign and got the same steady return on my investment. I just assumed she wouldn’t care. When we got married I still assumed she didn’t care. Maybe she didn’t. The problem was I had begun to care. She didn’t ask me to stop screwing around. I did, though, and the first two years were torture.

One night we were in our beds in the dark. Sometimes she would fall asleep right in the middle of a sentence. The darkness would cradle her incomplete thought like a promise. Her breathing became regular and once in a while she’d snort just before she fell completely asleep. I was waiting for that snort—that little bit of punctuation that signaled the end of our day.

“You need to,” she said.

“Need to what?”

As usual, she didn’t waste time talking around a subject. “Stick your penis into something female. Or male, for that matter. Kiss. Touch skin.”

“How do you know I’m not?”

She didn’t answer.

“Is that what you want me to do?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “The sooner the—”

Then came the snort. She couldn’t hear me. Maybe she didn’t need to. I listened to her breathing for a long time and my body ached to get under the covers next to her. No physical contact. Just be closer. Maybe find out what her warm breath felt like on my shoulder.

When I got up she was in the kitchen making breakfast, or that’s what I thought. She’d been up for a while. I’d heard her banging around the apartment. She was systematically taking things out of the cabinets and lining it all up in straight rows on the countertops. Several minutes went by while I sat at the table and watched her. The odd thing was, she was still wearing her nightgown. All of her nightgowns reached her ankles and buttoned all the way up her neck. This one was white. The winter sunlight pierced the kitchen window and her brown body glowed beneath the flimsy fabric. In all the time we’d been together I’d only glimpsed her in a nightgown on her way to or from bed. Neither one of us said anything. I didn’t know it then, but that morning was the opening stutter of a long good-bye.

I watched her for a few minutes. Over the years I had trained myself to ignore her body. How much window-shopping could a poor man do? The combination of the nightgown and the feminine contours beneath it, a country I would never know, and the morning sunlight and the fresh memory of her instructions the night before—I might have been weeping—all that training undone in a heartbeat.

She turned to face me and I was about to apologize. Except she didn’t see me. She must have seen something or someone but it wasn’t me. She was sleepwalking. She sleepwalked right out of the kitchen and back into bed. I followed her and stood in the bedroom doorway for a long time watching her sleep.

Not long after that I decided to end my self-imposed celibacy. It didn’t take long. My flight got grounded in Kansas City so I decided to rent a car and drive to St. Louis. Along the way I managed to slam my right index finger in the door. The woman was a night nurse in one of those urgent care centers. The hour it took to X-ray, bandage and splint my finger was all I needed. She was laughing and kissing my finger and calling me Poor Baby in fun. Her shift ended at midnight. We had a late-night breakfast and by three a.m. we were rolling around on the sofa at her place.

There is no use describing her because I can’t remember much anyway. Nice looking—around forty and newly divorced. What’s important is what happened. I remember there was a fair amount of giggling and fumbling in the low light while I maneuvered the condom. No easy task, I discovered, with a splinted index finger. She was ready. I was ready. Her legs were parted and our hips poised. Her eyes were closed.

At that moment the nurse says, “Fuck me, big boy. Fuck me silly.”

Right then, I mean right then, my erection disappeared. I glanced down to see what in the hell had happened. All that remained between my legs was a wrinkled little mushroom wearing a flesh-colored beret.

She opened her eyes and looked at me, then down. “Oh,” was all she said.

We talked awhile. She was nice about it. I didn’t have much to say. She asked me if she had done something wrong. Was it something she’d said? I said no. People say all kinds of things during sex. I’d been called every name but my own. I’d even been called by a woman’s name a few times. Nothing had ever fazed me. Later, though, I knew it had been something she said. Not the something exactly, but the sound of her voice saying that something, which could have been anything, though I admit ‘Fuck me silly’ was a first. After that I was more determined than ever to succeed. Eventually I did, though it felt less like success and more like a suicide mission to win a war I no longer cared about.

What I cared about was getting home. I didn’t even go to St. Louis. I returned to Kansas City and took the first plane back. I wanted my wife’s voice in my ears and nothing else would do. Though it was the middle of the night when I got into bed, we talked until dawn.

She shouldn’t have even been home that night. I’d forgotten she was supposed to be in Micronesia where some of the islanders are rumored to have the strongest and most beautiful hair in the world. She got as far as Australia and turned back because of a typhoon in the Marshall Islands. She was just falling asleep when I dragged myself in from Missouri. Good luck. I needed her to be there and she was.

She didn’t walk in her sleep again for several months. Once she began again, though, her sleepwalking became a more or less regular occurrence. I should have mentioned it to her sooner than I did. It might have made a difference if I had. It just didn’t seem important or particularly dangerous. I was selfish. Especially when she began talking as she wandered, mostly nonsense. More than that, though, sometimes she would hold out her fingertips and lightly touch my face as she spoke. One night I awoke to find her sitting next to me on the edge of my bed. She was humming. The way my heart was beating you would have thought it was Christmas. Harmless, really.

Lots of people walk in their sleep. Most people don’t travel all over the world. I had to tell her. I was planning to tell her, just so she would take precautions to be safe when she was traveling. Someone might hurt her, or take advantage of her when she was asleep. It never occurred to me that the greatest danger we both faced was at home.

I had gotten up to go to the bathroom. She brushed by me in the hallway, small and warm, her chin tilted upward with a half-smile on her lips. She paused and seemed to lean slightly toward me. I knew she was asleep. What would it matter? I hesitated, reached out toward her, stopped, reached out again, my fingers hovering near the tiny ivory buttons of her nightgown. She didn’t move. My hands were shaking. What if she awoke?

One by one I unfastened the buttons around her throat and her nightgown opened. I knew what I was doing was wrong. I did it anyway. She didn’t resist. I almost convinced myself she wanted this as much as I did. Her nightgown slipped over her shoulders and fell to the floor. I was like a child overcome with curiosity over some precariously balanced and fragile decoration, uncontrollably drawn to touch, marveling at her hips and exposed breasts, my breath held, risking everything. Maybe, just one small kiss. Would I, could I, stop there? I told myself I could. At the same time I was frightened that maybe I couldn’t stop.

Where the words came from I will never know. There they were, as clearly as if the Missouri nurse was there in the hallway shouting them into my ear. ‘Fuck me, big boy. Fuck me silly.’

I ran outside in my underwear and sat on the back staircase under the stars until the sub-freezing cold hardened the tears on my face. The heart might want what the heart wants, but does that mean the heart deserves to have it at any cost?

When I came back inside she was standing naked in the living room happily mumbling gibberish. I was as careful as a damned surgeon putting the nightgown back on without touching her body with my cold fingers. Whether I was numb with cold or fear I couldn’t tell you. Both I guess. I was lucky she stood more or less still while I re-dressed her.

Afterward she wandered from room to room while I followed a safe distance behind. Eventually she returned to her bed. I was safe. She was safe. But what about the next time, and the time after? I had to tell her about the sleepwalking to protect her from the most dangerous man in her life—her husband.

She took the news well, thinking at first that I was joking. Briefly I considered telling her what I had done the night before. Also what I might have done. I had a terrible urge to confess my unforgivable and predictable weakness which, in that moment, had seemed like the temptation to cheat on my wife with my wife, though it was actually, and I knew this was true in my heart, a form of rape. If I hadn’t stopped I doubt I could have ever forgiven myself. I didn’t confess.

She called her gynecologist immediately and made an appointment. That she called her gynecologist for sleepwalking made me wonder if she had suspicions.

I asked her, “Why a gynecologist?”

Her answer was simple. “She’s the only doctor I’ve ever had.”

Within a week that had changed. She had more doctors than we could count. Brain cancer. Maybe if I had mentioned the sleepwalking when it first began we might have caught it in time. I don’t like thinking about that. I do, though.

‘Treatment options are limited.’ How many times did we hear that? It had metastasized. Inoperable. There was radiology and chemo. She lost her hair, of course, followed by her ability to grasp, then to walk, to swallow, to taste, to see. For almost a year it seemed as if God was walking through her shrinking body turning off the lights as He went until, finally, she lost the ability to speak. The end did not come suddenly, but it still seemed that way to me. She died a few days after losing her speech.

They let me spend some time in the room with her body. I wanted to kiss her good-bye. I almost did. I leaned over her and then I wondered, Why should I do something in death we never did in life? Instead, I sat down in the chair next to her bed and listened to all the voice messages she had left on my cell phone in the past. One after the other, over and over until the nurse told me I had to leave. I left, but I kept playing the messages for months—especially at night.

I usually chose the longest message, one she had left about having to be escorted by soldiers after taking the hair of some village women in the Philippines. I turned on the speaker and propped the phone up on her pillow. She said she wanted to quit her job. Yes, the people needed the money, good money, she paid, but it didn’t matter anymore. It wasn’t worth the pain just so some little celebrity bitch could have real hair extensions. She ended the message by saying she was converting to the religion of hats. “I miss you,” she said. “Home soon.”

By the time she returned she had reconsidered quitting. The hair didn’t just go to the wealthy and celebrities. It also went to make wigs for women suffering from alopecia totalis, a disease that makes all the body hair fall out. And, of course, the usual cancer treatments. But she had grown to hate it. I believe she would have quit her job pretty soon anyway.

Then one day the messages disappeared. Every damn one of them. I knew I hadn’t erased them. I thought they would be on my phone forever. I was wrong. The bastard cellular companies don’t tell you there is a fixed time archived messages remain on your phone. No matter how many times you re-save them, one day they are just gone. Again and again I was told that I must have accidentally erased them.

The Hat Salesman sits on the top stair of the porch. He is silent for a few moments. “I ask you, my friend, do you think I would have erased them by accident? Not a chance, right?”

The Hat Salesman doesn’t wait for the man in the Panama hat to answer.

Nothing you can do, they said. You should have recorded them onto something else, they said. Yeah, thanks, I said. I pleaded with whatever customer service person I was pleading with at the time until he or she finally hung up.

Then the worst happened. That night I awoke from a dream in which I could no longer remember her voice. It was just a bad dream—except the following morning I couldn’t remember her voice. That is when she really died for me.

I gave up for a long time. What could I do? Then by accident I happened to hear about a top-secret listening complex somewhere right here in the hills of West Virginia where every human voice is recorded, catalogued, and stored. We have terrorists to thank for it. A guy I met on the red-eye to Atlanta told me about it.

He looked like a trilby man to me, which is a kind of cut-down fedora, though he wasn’t wearing a hat. Casually fastidious. The kind made famous for a while by the British actor David Niven. And the character actor Ray Walston.

“Either of those two names ring any bells for you?”

The man in the Panama hat nods at the Hat Salesman but says nothing.

The salesman says, “No? It isn’t important.”

The popular view is a person’s choice of hat makes a bold statement. That’s not my take. I think the right hat hints at the head beneath it. It suggests. It whispers.

The Hat Salesman reaches out and asks if he might examine the man’s Panama hat. The man reluctantly complies.

“Like this well-worn Panama of yours,” says the salesman. The Hat Salesman

continues holding the hat. He runs his fingers slowly around the sweatband. “This hat tells me you’re a man of substance. Thoughtful. Patient. My opinion.”

Like I said, this guy looked like he should be wearing a trilby, though my guess was he’s like most people these days, they don’t know enough about themselves to choose the right hat.

We were both awake while everyone else slept. I struck up a quiet conversation. He said he was a Voice Engineer.

“What’s that?” I asked.

When he told me what he did for a living I said, “I don’t believe you. Come on? Even Australian Aborigines?”

“Yes,” he said. “And Palestinians, Estonians. Every language and dialect. Grunts. Moans. Laughter. Even the first cry of every baby born since seven months, thirteen hours, and twenty-two seconds after the first jet hit the Twin Towers. People crying, making love, dying. I’m not joking,” the trilby said.

“I’m not good at math,” I said, not believing a word. “Hats are my thing. But that must be billions of voices.”

“Trillions,” he said. “Multiple subject samples. Each one described and labeled and catalogued for reference and instantaneous retrieval.”

“How is that possible?”

He gave me a proud, smug grin. “The whole world is a microphone now.”

“Bullshit,” I said. “If that’s true you wouldn’t be telling me.”

“Tell you what?” he said.

For weeks I thought about his work and the mysterious facility he mentioned. I knew what I had to do. He had given me hope.

These days I just travel West Virginia selling hats. Business isn’t what it used to be. I’m not complaining. Lynchburg, Coalton, Charleston, Blacksburg, Bluefield, Roanoke, Princess. You name it. People think I’m just a hat salesman. But now it’s really more of a hobby to cover expenses. If that secret voice repository is here in West Virginia I’ll find it. I’ll keep searching until every man, woman, and child in this state wears a hat. Sometimes I go door-to-door, though I’m really a wholesaler. Means the folks I sell to get a huge discount. That’s what I’m doing today way out here in the country on this beautiful summer afternoon.

The Hat Salesman returns the Panama hat to its owner. “Where does this road lead? Never mind. It doesn’t matter. It will be a whole new ball game when I locate the place. That’s when the real work will begin, first to gain access and then—I don’t want to think about it.

The Hat Salesman stands and gestures that he would like to sit on the swing next to the man in Panama hat. He sits down next to the man and pushes the brim of his fedora up above his forehead.

“You know,” says the salesman, “you’re the only person I’ve ever told my story to—the story of her and me. You seem like the sort who might appreciate it. You know the value of wearing the right hat. You understand. That old Panama hat of yours says a lot about you. It tells me you know things, things most people might not even notice. Do you? Am I close? Help me, if you can. Please? I’m all ears.”

 

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