The Traveling Hat
The Hat is accustomed to airplanes by now. Even more accustomed, perhaps, than some of the other passengers who are hesitantly tightening their seatbelts, checking and double-checking that their cell phones will remain severed from the internet for the duration of the flight. Some clench their teeth and appear as though they might vomit, and others are busying themselves perusing the “About Today’s Flight” pamphlet located in the pocket of the seat in front of them.
Not the Old Man, though. The Hat’s companion has already shut his eyes and pulled the Hat over them. His hands are crossed on the zenith of his stomach and he is reclining with the stature of a lazy dog. The plane hasn’t even taken off, yet the Hat can tell that its partner is fast asleep.
The Hat is quite fashionable, and it knows this. Made of cocoa-colored fur felt, it sports the round eye of a clipped peacock feather that stands out against the Hat’s plain backdrop and compliments its owner’s eyes.
They are returning from Peru; heading home to Florida for a week or two before beginning their next excursion.
Well, home for the Old Man, anyway. The Hat was hand crafted in France and for a very long time in the beginning of his life, sat in the display window of a streetside shop until the Old Man arrived, about 7 years ago.
The Hat saw him outside of the window first. He was walking alone, a long brown overcoat billowing like a cape behind him, when the Hat first spotted him. A shiny balding area carved out almost the exact silhouette of Alaska in the center of his head. It was obvious by his expression of bewilderment and the curiosity in his ocean-blue eyes that the Old Man was a foreigner.
7 years ago, the Hat regarded foreigners with disdain. It was made in France, it was sold in France, and it wanted to be worn in France. When the Old Man looked directly at the Hat and turned from the street and into the shop, the Hat felt a prickle of panic and hoped the man did not go in for it.
“Hello, can I help you?” The shopkeeper barely looked up from register as the bells indicating an arrival of a customer jingled.
“Yes, please,” said the Old Man in broken French. “I would like to try on this hat-” he pointed at the Hat - “right here.”
And so the Hat was lifted down from its mannequin and gently placed upon the top of the Old Man’s head, so that it shielded the bald spot completely. As soon as the Hat settled, it knew that it had been designed specifically for this very skull, for this very bald spot. The Hat could tell that the Old Man knew it, too.
The shopkeeper led the Old Man and the Hat to a full-length mirror hanging on the storeroom door at the back of the boutique, and the Hat admired, for the first in what would be many times to come, how well its feather complimented the Old Man’s eyes.
“Well, what do you think?” said the Old Man. He reached up and tipped the Hat slightly, so that it lay diagonally across the Old Man’s forehead. It was right at this moment, exactly, that the Hat noticed something else in the Old Man’s eyes. Something that the blueness, the awe, and the smile obscured so well; something the Hat couldn’t even place.
“You look excellent, Monsieur,” the shopkeeper said, ushering the Old Man to the register. The Old Man smiled a bit and shook his head at the shopkeeper.
“I was talking to the hat,” he said, taking out his wallet.
The Hat left the shop with a new perspective from a new height from on top of the mountain that was this man.
The Hat began its first of many excursions and explorations of the world in which it was birthed. Its partner took it to Sacre Coeur, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower. Magnificent, monumental, masterpieces dominating the skies of France. Amazing as it was, the Hat decided that it didn’t need such splendor, that even the street outside its shop had felt magical when experienced from the center and not viewed from the window.
Almost a week later, the Hat perched atop the Old Man, clinging tightly, surrounded by the unfamiliar sights and sounds of the airport. The air smelled stale. No trace of the breezy aromas of France, of fresh bread tinged with ashes of cigarette smoke.
The Hat felt queasy as the plane tilted its nose to the heavens, and was trepidatious throughout the trip. It felt itself flinch with every spike of turbulence. It failed to see the purpose of such a boxy contraption and was puzzled to see almost every seat filled with people. The Old Man sat it on his lap with a hand laid protectively over its felt top, pinky finger just brushing the barbs of its feather.
When the plane landed, though, the Hat met a world entirely foreign. Instead of the stout oak trees it was so used to, thin and spindly palm trees stretched towards the sky. The air outside of the airplane was cloudy, yet warm and inviting.
“Welcome to Florida,” the Old Man said, dismounting the aircraft. “Welcome home.”
They entered the building and crossed through the gates. Not long after, the Old Man stood on a tedious line, passport held firmly at his side. The Hat admired its surroundings. This airport was not necessarily better than France’s, rather, it was different. A child restlessly waiting behind the Old Man tugged at her mother’s skirt and pointed at the Hat. A surge of pride coursed through it. The woman bent down to reach for her daughter’s hand, whispering that it wasn’t polite to point, but the Old Man smiled at her.
“Do you like my hat?” he said. “I got it in France. I think it’s fantastic, don’t you?”
Happily, the girl nodded. The mother looked sheepishly up at the Old Man.
“I thank you,” the Old Man continued. “It is not every day I am complimented by a lovely young lady such as yourself.”
The child giggled, and the mother smiled at him. The Old Man turned to face the front of the line. His eyes rested on a slideshow of travel destinations advertised on the wall. It flickered to the intricate, monochrome tundra of Alaska -- “Been there,” whispered the Old Man, -- the artistically arid Grand Canyon -- “Let’s go there next,” -- and the sprawling city of New York, lights as loud as a casino flashing on the tops of skyscrapers. Upon seeing this, the Old Man hesitated in his commentary, then said, almost wistfully, “Someday.”
Since then they have been companions, exploring every nook and cranny of the world together for all of 7 years. They have been everywhere -- Canada, Thailand, Japan, Ireland, and Mexico, to name a few -- and each time, they have been together. The Old Man never set foot on an airplane without his Hat and in return, the Hat had never fit anyone else who tried it on quite as well.
The jolt of the plane hitting the runway rouses the Hat. It is aware, again, of its companion’s breathing, light and gentle like ocean waves on low tide. He is still asleep, even the intercom buzzes to life and the captain announces the details of the landing in a monotone. Smartly dressed flight attendants stride up and down the aisles collecting trash as the plane is taxied to the terminal.
“Excuse me, sir?” A flight attendant with black hair tucked into a tight bun stops at the Old Man’s seat and kneels over the Hat. “Sir, we’ve landed.” The Old Man remains silent. His head was resting crookedly on his shoulder, and a thin stream of drool, as fine and delicate as lace, stains his chin. With increasing unease, the Hat realizes that the Old Man’s heartbeat was shallower than his breaths. The barbs on the tip of the Hat’s feather begin to tingle with apprehension. The attendant taps the Old Man lightly on his shoulder, and then again with rising alarm.
The tingle in the Hat’s peacock eye spreads down to the rest of the felt, setting it on fire. It can feel its senses dull; its concept of time and surrounding events nullifying. It can only feel fire. The agonizing pain of igniting and burning.
Heads, nearby, shift their focus from accumulating their baggage to the Old Man.
Her muffled voice, her, “Sir? Sir! Help, please! He’s...he’s unconscious!”
More heads, more eyes, more whispers.
Fire, burning, pain, fear
“Call an ambulance! Stop the plane! Hurry!”
The plane stops, the emergency escape door opens, uniformed healers surging in.
The loudspeaker: “Everyone, please remain calm and stay in your seats for a few moments longer to give the medics a clear passage.”
How long ago was it? When did the Old Man transition from peaceful slumber to restless darkness? How much time did the Hat spend completely unaware of his plight?
The Old Man is put on a stretcher. Rolled out of the plane. Breathing, barely. Beating, weakly. Someone lays the Hat across his chest. The emergency exit slams behind them, and the Hat leaves the aircraft. Something it has done a dozen times before, but never has it left through the Red-Lever Door.
The Hat leaves the plane with a new perspective from a new low from on the sagging chest that was this man.
The hospital is cliche, as hospitals generally tend to be. It is white, and sickeningly spotless. Equipment is carefully stored and catalogued by height, name, and color. The Old Man’s room is a medley of medicine and machines with wires crisscrossed around each other and connected to monitors. The Hat rests at the foot of the Old Man’s cot, its dark fabric an ugly dark stain in the pristine backdrop.
The heart attack is over, but the professionals are not expecting much recovery. They don’t say it out loud, but the Hat could tell from the careful way the nurse attaches the IV and checks his heart, the sorrowful glances at the Old Man’s prostrate figure that they do not have high hopes for the Old Man. The nurses come in in the morning to change the IV, leaving without a word as if death is contagious. The Hat feels its every stitch standing on edge, sensing the man’s heart beat, making sure he is safe, at least for now. Even if the heartbeat peters out, though, the Hat doesn’t know what it can do to help. Finally, after uselessly lying on the foot of the bed for eons, it hears footsteps outside, and voices approaching.
“-my father! I haven’t seen him in 7 years, and I get a call yesterday saying he had a heart attack!”
The Old Man’s eyelids flutter open, displaying cloudy eyes. His lips twitch, but he is too weak to speak. The door slams open.
“Dad! Oh, my God!” A young man passes the nurse into the room to the Old Man’s bed and kneels, clutching his father’s limp hand. “Holy-- you’re so cold!”
“Jonathan…?” the Old Man whispers, squeezing the Young Man’s fingers. “I knew I’d...see you…again.” The nurse, who had been approaching the bed to intervene, stopped in place, unsure of what to do, before deciding to allow their reunion and wait outside.
“Dad, where have you been all of these years? I couldn’t get a hold of you!”
“Angry?” the Young Man snorts. “Sure I was, at first, but that was -- that was 7 years ago!”
“Oh…” the Old Man smiles. “I guess it was.”
The Young Man opens his mouth, closes it, and opens it to speak again. “Aren’t you...angry?”
“I never was. I was...shocked. As soon as I left I...I regretted it.”
“Where did you go?” The Young Man’s voice is weaker now. The charge of adrenaline he received upon entering the room was leaking like helium from a balloon.
“I ran.” The Old Man closed his eyes again. “I ran everywhere that wasn’t New York. Anywhere I knew I wouldn’t see you. I was scared, Jonathan. I was scared, and I’m sorry.
“I went to Alaska first. I wanted cold that would hurt more than leaving did, you see. I remember it so clearly. My first vacation alone.” He closes his eyes, remembering. “Then, France. See this hat, Jonathan?” Jonathan reaches over the Old Man to lift the Hat up by its brim and inspect its well-worn fabric.
“This one?” The Old Man cracks open his eye and gives a slight nod.
“I got that for you,” he continues. “I missed you already, barely a month later. I bought you this and promised myself that I would give it to you.” He smiles. “That was 7 years ago. I’m sorry if it’s not...still in mint condition.”
Pressed against the Young Man’s chest, the Hat can feel his racing heartbeat. A droplet of water soaks into its felt.
“Thanks, Dad. I love it.”
“Take it. And stop crying, son. I haven’t seen you in--” he coughs, “--years, and I don’t want to see you cry now.” The Young Man inhales deeply, slowly, and offers his father a meek grin. “That’s better.”
The nurse reenters the room and taps the Young Man on the shoulder. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave now, Mr. Wren. The patient needs his rest. You are of course, welcome to come back tomorrow, during visiting hours.” The Young Man stands up and extends his hand to deposit the Hat back on the bed.
“Keep the Hat,” the Old Man says. “It’s yours.” The Young Man nodded and brought the Hat to his chest. The nurse ushers him towards the door.
“Jonathan.” The Young Man turns. “Give Harvey my best, and tell him I’m sorry for missing the wedding.”
The Young Man beamed. “You remember my husband’s name?”
The Old Man’s eyes are already closed. Quietly, the Young Man sighs and is almost in the hallway before the Old Man speaks again.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Dad.”
Outside of the hospital, the Hat rests on the Young Man’s head for the first time. It marvels at how well it fits, and it suddenly realizes that the Old Man’s head is exactly the same as his son’s, down to the Alaska-shaped bald spot in the center. It’s set on the Young Man’s head like a key in a lock, having left the hands of its keeper to find its true purpose.
The Hat leaves the hospital with a new perspective from the uneven slope of the Young Man’s bobbing head.