The Jaunty Hat

ROBERT  BOUCHERON

One April morning, as sunlight pierced through clouds that raced overhead, Nora spotted the hat in a shop window. Woven of straw, with a rounded crown and a brim as thin as the rings of Saturn, the hat called to her. A satin ribbon banded the crown, lilac or violet, a colour that changed in the changing light. The ribbon trailed behind in a carefree way. The mannequin had nothing on its mind.

That morning, Nora’s lover had admitted he had met a younger woman. Several times. In fact, the affair had gone on for months.

“Against my will. I never meant to hide it. Each time was the last, I thought naively, and I tried to break it off. Now that the thing is out in the open, I will handle it better.”

At last, fully dressed, with his hair slicked back, he made eyes like a puppy.

“May I see you again?”

Nora had answered in scarcely more than a murmur, a voice that breathed despair but allowed no further discussion.

“You needn’t bother.”

She entered the shop. The shopkeeper was a woman the same age as herself, quick and eager, with eyes that glittered in expectation.

“Of course, you may try on the hat in the window. It arrived yesterday in a shipment for spring. Isn’t it sweet? I unpacked it at once and swapped it in the window for a black felt number more appropriate for winter—or a funeral!”

With the agility of an acrobat, the shopkeeper reached in the window display, whisked the hat from the mannequin’s bald head, and offered it with a flourish. On Nora’s head of hair, which had always been fair and was slowly fading, the straw hat felt as light as a feather.

“It looks like it was meant to be.” The shopkeeper sighed with satisfaction. “You are clearly a woman who can carry off a hat. Would you like to have it boxed?”

“I’ll wear it out of the shop.” Nora knew she must keep it on. An article of clothing—especially a hat—needs long and intimate contact with its owner to belong to that person.

“Very well. Enjoy!”

For the next hour, as Nora walked on the busy street, doing errands both needful and purely frivolous, faces lit up. They were male and female, the first with a hint of sexual interest, the second tinged with envy. The hat was a complete success! Surprised and pleased by her own reflection in plate glass windows, animated by the wind and bursts of sunlight, Nora decided the jaunty hat was an impulse purchase well worth the price.

A gust of wind tore off the hat, which sailed up in the sky. The ribbon fluttered, lilac in azure, and Nora’s heart leaped after. As it rose ever higher and farther downstream, pursuit was out of the question.

Whipped by the wind, Nora retreated to her apartment. Her eyes watered. It was too bad to lose both a lover and a hat in the same morning.
Some minutes later, the hat returned to earth in another part of town, where a young woman found it lodged in a hedge.

“It looks brand new,” Mira said to no one, “fresh from the shop. It must have blown away. I don’t often wear a hat, and this one is smarter than I would ever buy. But it’s free, so I’ll take it. I can always replace that ghastly ribbon.”
Mira plucked the hat from privet hedge and jammed it on her head, which the woven straw strained to accommodate. After its wild ride through the sky, the ribbon hung limply over the brim, which was slightly uneven. Still, the hat made the young woman feel lucky. It was good to be alive on a morning like this.

“You never know what you might find,” she said. Mira had a habit of talking to herself, or to anyone half-inclined to listen.

Her lover phoned.

“Can you meet me for lunch? Spur of the moment—I just want to see you.”
They met at a café in the center, a place where people were sure to notice. She liked being seen in public with a man who was handsome and reasonably attentive, a man who dressed for a job in a bank, a young man who clearly was on the way up. He was charming as always, though he seemed distracted. He stared at the hat.

“It looks like the sort of thing Nora would favor.”

“Oh!” Mira was annoyed. “Why did you have to mention her?”

Mira went to the ladies, as he paid the check. She took off the hat to adjust her face, which took more than a moment. She left in a rush and forgot the hat, which hung on a peg.

Another woman repaired to the temple of convenience. She took a fancy to the hat, which she claimed as a reward for lottery tickets that had never paid a dime. Brazenly, she wore it as she exited the café, only to lose it to the wind a minute later.

In this fashion, during the course of the day, the hat passed from owner to owner—a girl in a jumper walking home from school, an elderly lady with a miniature dog on a silver leash, a housekeeper in a hotel uniform, and a woman carrying a stack of books, which she was loath to abandon to chase the hat. The ribbon came loose and flew away, the crown was dented, and the brim lost its shape.

No longer jaunty, the hat presented itself to Nora, out for an evening stroll. The sun sank in a clear blue sky, and the wind died down at last. Likewise, after a day of regret, she had achieved a sense of calm. She passed a straw-colored lump impaled on the spike of a fence, like the head of an executed traitor.

“How odd,” she thought. “It reminds me of something I cared for once.”

Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia. His academic degrees are B. A. 1974, Harvard University, and M. Arch. 1978, Yale University. His stories, essays, poems and reviews appear in Bangalore Review, Bloodstone Review, Conclave, Digital Americana, Gravel, Grey Sparrow Journal, Lowestoft Chronicle, Milo Review, NewPages, North Dakota Quarterly, Origami Journal, Poydras Review, Sheepshead Review, Short Fiction, The Tishman Review.

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