Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Church of Lost Hats Sample

Chapter 13
                   The Era of a Hat

     The hat was grey with a tartan of red and black.  It was worn, like an old sofa at a student apartment.  Its owner was Arnold Pethweather.  Arnold read more literature than theology, but he managed to keep up in class.  He liked to read in pubs and bars, and he always wore the plaid cap as he buried himself in books.  It was better than studying in his apartment with its distasteful palette of teetering ashtrays, empty whiskey bottles, stray beer cans, rotting food, and personal drafts of dubious quality.  Arnold preferred the neighborhood pubs where he often hoisted his joy and grief, but he always brought his books and wore the newsboy hat.  The only time he didn’t wear his hat was when he had lost it.  This had happened three times in five years since his original purchase of the hat for eleven dollars as a freshman at UC Berkeley.
     Arnold sat at the bar trying to make eye contact with the woman seated next to him.  He lowered his cap as he read, pulling neurotically on his smelly headgear.  It was the kind of cap a grandfather would wear were it in better condition.  Sometimes he would get catcalls from passing drunks in big trucks.
     Nice hat, geek.”
     Arnold would sometimes wave or pretend he was retarded to make them feel guilty for their less than genuine approbations.
     “Have you ever read Sherwood Anderson?” he asked the woman out of the blue. 
He had never really learned how to talk to women.  Some of his friends thought it was simply the hat he wore.  It all starts at the top.  A fish rots from his head.  Nick was sure it was the hat that alienated the fairer sex. 
The undergraduate looked pensively at Arnold.
     “No, I haven’t.” 
She returned to her beer, but glanced at Arnold using the mirror behind the bar.  At least the hat made him look harmless.
     Anderson inspired Hemingway and Faulkner.  He started the train, you know.” 
What the hell was he talking about?  What train?  He wanted to hit on her, but everything he said drove women away.  She seemed intent on returning to the conversation that she was having with her hatless blonde counterpart with the fraternity shirt. 
     “I don’t like Hemingway,” she said without turning to Arnold.  “It’s all about war.”
     “Funny how that is.  Perhaps he was trying to understand a personal experience.  Have you heard of World War I?”
     He was crashing and burning, filled with the usual self loathing.  She ignored the question and ordered an ale.  Her companion, who had yet to honor Arnold with even a look, doubled the order.  She physically turned away, twisting in her seat, away from the guy in the hat.  Arnold appraised her seated rear in the all too clear body language.  She wore faded levis and a Cal sweatshirt.  She wore glasses with wire rims, and Arnold loved girls with glasses.  The librarian look drove him nuts.  She and her blonde Adonis were talking about a recent fraternity party.  Arnold felt out of place, but he had a million theories about Hemingway, baseball, boxers and briefs, female orgasm, sperm motility, and the ancient Hindu spirituality of the genitals.  He just didn’t have an audience.  Arnold was spiraling down, and determined not to drink alone anymore.  He lit a cigarette and returned to Sherwood Anderson with a sigh.  Patrons at the bar were watching a baseball game, and the San Francisco Giants were having another macabre season at Candlestick, a cursed park if there ever was one.  Maybe if Arnold’s team would have a winning season, or build a new baseball stadium, his own romantic fortunes might change as well.
     Baseball fans and numerologists hold much in common, and Arnold read the sports page like others read their horoscopes, or get Tarot readings.  Arnold would trade his life as a graduate student in divinity for that of the ballplayer in a heartbeat.  Pethweather had a theory: that all great athletic moments come from a lack of self-awareness, a total presence in the moment.  This could only be accomplished by the total elimination of irony in the mind of the participant.  But there was no way to prove the theory.
     Arnold had suffered with the Giants since childhood, and the Giants never seemed to hold onto their good players over the years.  They had murdered Arnold’s hope in 1987 when they lost the pennant to the St. Louis Cardinals; then the 1989 season and the dramatic series with the Chicago Cubs which led, of course, to natural disaster, the disremption of Arnold’s chronic boyhood with the earthquake during the World Series with the Oakland A’s on his birthday.  So it was with a growing self loathing that he watched his Giants fall behind to the Atlanta Braves. 
Spring felt like hell.  Maybe it was too much booze.  A lot was on his mind, including the worn grey hat itself.  He had been parted from the hat on three occasions.  The first time was his sophomore year when he was reading Emily Dickinson with an apocalyptic vision of timeless romance with the poet, and his actual girlfriend Anne Marie Pescalini.
     “I wish you wouldn’t wear the hat,” Anne Marie told her boyfriend of two months.  Two months with the same girl was an eternity for the man with the hat.
     “I like this hat,” Arnold said.  “It oozes character.”
     “It oozes stale beer.”
     They spent most of their time in her apartment as they avoided the dank and oppressive converted garage that he shared with Nick Geary and Carl Bean, a slovenly pothead from Los Angeles.  Bean slept during the day, except on very rare occasions of class attendance.  He awoke in the afternoon to blow a few tubes and order a vegetarian pizza.  Bean loved Arnold’s cap and the timeless character it gave Arnold.  In Bean’s hazy dream world of euphoria and lethargy, Arnold was like a black and white film character, a throwback to the era of world wars.  He had a most dapper and yet rumpled despair.  Anne Marie found Bean pathetic, but she could talk to Geary, even though she didn’t trust him.  She could see him undressing her with his eyes. 
     Arnold thought their relationship good, but, in truth, he had all the objectivity of a retriever chasing a stick whenever and wherever it was thrown.  She would insult him, his hat, his religion, his love of Papa Hemingway, and he began to resent her.  Her sharp tongue was getting more and more frequent.  Her critical spark initially attracted him.  But Pethweather had lost track of himself, and he leaned into Anne Marie’s house of mirrors in exchange for bedroom pleasures.  Eventually they insulted each other just to get in touch with their feelings. 
     “I feel like you want me to change.  To be fixed, and not hang around with the boys anymore,” Arnold said, trying hard to be serious. 
Did people talk so much about relationships a hundred years ago?  Was there a time when we weren’t from Mars or Venus, but just from Earth?
     “All you do is read and drink.  And hang out with your friends,” Anne Marie responded. 
     “Those are my hobbies.  I’m finally getting good at them.”
     “Your friends are losers, and Bean is a misfit.”
     “Bean is a fine poet and guitarist.”
     “Only when he’s high.  There’s nothing more pathetic than the collegiate surrender to marijuana.  It turns guys into zombies.  One second a person has academic interests, the next he thinks comic books are serious literature.  Or that the Frisbee really defies the laws of physics.”
     “Why should I want to be with you?  You’re moody all the time, then you get upset that I don’t want to have coffee or get an ice cream or see a movie.  Lighten up.  You’re always bashing me and my friends.  I’m really sick of it.”
     It was at that moment that he spied his beloved cap in her closet, next to a peg that held her ties, and further discussion of their relationship was arrested.  Forever, as things turned out.  The hat surely clarified his thinking.  Arnold was not the most organized of college men, and he had only vaguely felt the absence of the hat for the last week.  He often lost it in his apartment for weeks at a time, but it always seemed to surface.  Bean sometimes wore the hat, but his books were off limits to Bean and his dubious habits. 
     “Don’t mess with them.”
     “Dude, no problem.”
     He had first felt the absence of his hat on the Friday afternoon before the argument with Anne Marie when Geary had ordered a batting practice session.  The hat was used in all of Arnold’s sporting endeavors, with the exception of boxing.  Nick Geary had a fat curveball of which he was unduly proud, and Arnold imagined the shots he would launch as he searched for his English style headgear in the couch, and among Bean’s discarded pizza boxes and books.  Finally he grabbed Geary’s New York Mets hat, and he didn’t hit Nick’s curveball like usual.  He had felt the haunting presence of irony and its curse of self-awareness.
     As he recognized the missing hat in Anne Marie’s closet, anger flooded his lobes.  He rose from the bed of recent pleasure, and crossed the room with a strident air.  The last occasion of sex is always a surprise.  That’s all she wrote.  He pulled the old hat down on his head, snug and tight, after the ignominy of exile. 
Anger at the heinous theft became fused with Arnold’s comic streak, and his mouth was off.
     “I celebrate the independence of the male spirit.  I shall not be bound by convention or taste or girlish waste.  Blessed Anne Marie, this hat is my flag of freedom and character, doom and comedy.”
     “Every word is a dagger.  I hope you’re entertained, Arnold.  You look like such a dork.”
     “Your critique is no longer required.  It is Bean that I love.  And Geary too.  The lads who love me well.  A tribe of dorks.”
     “I don’t have to listen to this shit,” she said to her now orbiting boyfriend.
     “Indeed, your attention is no longer required.  I ask for your leave and forwarding address; I possess the cap and its calm redress.  I shall not kiss your hand on this fair night.”
     Anne Marie winced as she started to laugh; her studious housemate peeked in from the hallway.  Arnold glanced at her as Anne Marie sprang for the hat.  The cat for the hat.  She took a swipe, and Arnold scarcely kept his hat free from her feline athleticism.  She scratched his cheek, and drew blood, as he ducked away.  He danced away giggling and ran for the kitchen with Anne Marie in hot pursuit.  Arnold ripped open the sliding glass door to the second floor balcony.  What kind of finale was before him?  He moved onto the balcony to find out. 
Sue Festor, the studious roommate and a onetime date of Arnold’s, followed him with Anne Marie.  He teetered at the edge as he stared down at the street.  He turned to the erstwhile female companions for his final scene.
     “The love is dead.  Long live love.”
     He climbed over the railing and jumped from the balcony, falling seven feet to the roof of a Chinese restaurant.  He tumbled to his knees and rolled down the roof before stopping his fall at the rain gutters.  Hanging there on the edge, he looked down for a moment at the concrete sidewalk.  Would this be grandly comic or tragic as a broken ankle?  Arnold never knew in the middle of his antics.  Would Anne Marie have to call an ambulance?  Would he have to marry her because she would ride to the hospital with him?  Arnold knew fate to be a tricky bitch.  Would she take his idiot away forever as the siren yowled its feminine truth to Arnold once and for all?  It was a ten foot drop from the roof, and Arnold swung his lanky frame from the creaky rain guard until he hung holding on.  He let go and dropped as he heard Anne Marie’s final goodbye.
     Arnold turned to his audience from the balcony.  The women stood on the balcony like Juliet and her nurse.  He doffed his cap with a grand sweep of his hat for the ladies.  He marched down the street with a military tread, thinking of where Carl Bean might be at this hour.

     The memory of the heinous theft and heroic recovery of the hat made Arnold smile years later as he sat in the pub.  The gale of nostalgia was blowing.  Four years later he still had the cap.  He was still in school, reading big books and writing small stories that would never be published.  Getting drunk, feeling lightheaded with another cigarette.  The Giants would never catch up.  Perhaps it was simply the effect of baseball.  Could any sport generate nostalgia like baseball?
“That’s an interesting hat,” said the female with the glasses and the frat boy. 
The air of snobbery was gone.  So was the frat boy.
     “Do you like it?  Most women don’t.” 
     “It’s interesting.  How long have you worn it?” 
She was beginning to seem genuinely pleasant to Arnold.  She must be drunk, Arnold considered.  She was smiling at the right moments, easing him into her light.  Just a little snatch of flattery could steal Arnold’s heart.  He thought she was the last person who would like his hat.
     “On and off for five years.”
     “What do you mean on and off?  Do you not wear it for all occasions?”
     “It is suitable for every occasion, excluding divine worship.  But due to the hazards of my lifestyle and spiritual duty, I have lost my beloved cap several times.  It always comes back to tell me how I’ve changed.  In the head.”
     “May I have a cigarette?”
     Arnold waved her habit on.  Any ideas of leaving had disappeared.
     “Is the hat magical?”
     “No.  It works within the grand laws of nature.  It measures change.”
     She drew nicely on her filtered Camel and blew a stream above the bar as she ran her fingers along her pint of ale.
     “Is it a sad hat?”
     “It tells the truth; it is not sad by nature.  It can be funny, and it smells of chaos.”
     “What’s your name?”
     “Those are nice names,” she smiled.
     “Unless we’re lying.”
     “Or crazy.  Tell me a story about the hat.”
     “I will tell you about the second time I lost the hat.  It was my graduation night from college.  I didn’t go to the ceremony.  I was to receive an award for my prowess with the modern poem, but I found the prospect of relatives and college hoopla too depressing.  The recent issue of middle America.  I was drinking whiskey shots in my humble pad with a friend from work who had just turned thirty.  We delivered each other from all sober conduct and howled together as one lone wolf.”
     “You got messed up.”
     “Completely.  Reason took leave.  My friend Nick Geary showed up, and we ended up wrestling in our boxers.  Greco-Roman in our manly showing.  I had Geary all but pinned to mother earth when he reached his index finger into my chattering mouth and pulled my lips out sideways like a madman.  He laughed, wildly, at my tragic disfigurement and pulled all the more. 
It was clear his mind was lost.  Nobody home.”
     “What did you do?”
     “I grabbed him by the throat and squeezed with my titan’s grip until he couldn’t breathe.  He was wearing a crucifix, and, while choking him, the crucifix came off in my hands.  I held it to his face and said, ‘fear no evil.’  Nicholas focused his delirious eyes on our slain lord’s body and replied, ‘mommy and daddy are one.’  And we stopped, delivered by our savior once more, holding each other like understanding lovers, coming to sweet rest.  After a few moments, my face returned, more or less, to normal.  I’m not boring you, am I?”
     “Oh no.  Could I bum another smoke?”
     He lit Margaret’s second smoke with his lighter as she struggled with a match.
     “So how did the boxing go?”
     “You lost your hat wrestling?”
     “Geary lost his cross.  I kept it.  He wanted me to; as a symbol of the divine intervention in our violence that could have disfigured me permanently, or cut his mortal coil.  We went out after we had calmed to meet his cousin from Amherst.  Her name was Euclid.”
     “And she stole your hat because it reminded her of her dead father.  Or grandfather.”
     “That was not what happened.”
     “What did do with the cousin?  Did you sleep with her?”
     “No.  Evidently I was ill-behaved.  The blackout boy.  I think I might have tried to kiss her, or touch her inappropriately about the posterior and midriff.  I remember being in grave error, as far as gentlemanly conduct.  I woke up at a park.  Clothed but hatless.  I found the cross in my pocket as I was staggering home like the Irish.”
     “How sad.  I mean for your sense of memory.  What happened next?”
     “Geary came by three months later before he left to move to New York City.  Said he had the hat in his car.  He’s studying to be a priest.”
     How perverse.”
     “Yes, he is surely unfit for the call.”
     “How about the cousin?” she asked.
     Euclid got married to some West Point stud and lives in Germany with twin girls and her Sergeant Rock.  Captain Rock,” Arnold corrected.  “But the hat reminds me that glorious goodbye to college.  At least as an undergrad.”
     “What did you study?”
     “English and Religion.”
     “Do you write stories, like the one about the hat?”
     “Yes, I do.  But my characters are hipcats, too cool for a dorky cap like this job.”
     “Well, it was nice talking to you,” Margaret said as she gathered her things for a vague appointment with time.
     “Indeed, dear Margaret.”
     “Don’t ever lose the hat.”
     Arnold nodded and smiled.  He stroked his red stubble as she walked into the blinding sunlight.  Arnold stared at the empty seat where Margaret had been.  Human presence is so full and yet fleeting.  He ordered another cold one as his mind wandered back to baseball.  During his story about the hat, the Giants had taken the lead: 7-6 and still swinging away in the bottom of the eighth. 
He had been full of words before speaking to the girl with the glasses, but he was now empty and satisfied with the turns of conversation in the outpouring of the hat.  He had once left the hat at Fenway Park, he remembered.  It had been so hot.  But he had remembered it and gone back to the bleachers.  The hat was retrieved among the plastic beer cups under the seats.  Fenway was a sweet park. 
     Arnold looked at the man seated next to him.  He was puffing on a hand-rolled Drum cigarette.  There was a seal on the tobacco pouch: “Break seal gently.”  The message made Arnold smile as he drained his amber.  He left a tip and touched his cap to the bartender to salute him gently. 
The sun was bright after the barroom, and he lowered his cap to shade his vision.
     Nice hat,” said a homeless man. 
He held a cup with stray coinage.  He was bearded, and his face was dirty.
     “That’s a nice hat,” he repeated.
     “Here,” said Arnold.  “Take it.  It has served me well.”
     “Thanks, dude.  It’s classic.”  He tried it on as Arnold smiled at him.
     “Outstanding,” said Arnold, and the bum smiled back.
     Arnold turned off Shattuck and onto Delaware Street.  He stopped at a shop window and stared at his own hatless reflection.  He stood before Nick’s Hat Shop on Delaware.  After checking the contents of his wallet, Arnold entered the shop to start a new chapter in his life.  The game was on the radio, and the Giants were wrapping up a win by the score of 8-7, a good omen for the home team or just another lazy day at the park.  Arnold bought a black beret in the women’s section.  He wondered what Margaret’s last name was.  She would look good in his new hat.

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