Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Hat Trick by Jan Wiezorek

Jan Wiezorek's slightly surreal story about a duo selling hats to tourists and dog walkers on a sunny Saturday in the suburbs of Chicago

Swallowed alive / Swallowed whole / Gone but not forgotten… were the painted purple words he read on one solid, square-cut quarried block within the stepped, lakefront retaining wall at Dog Beach. From there Jayson could lick his index finger, raise it, and feel which way the wind blew. But he asked Allie, who believed she was being punished for her ambition, to do it. Jayson had a seven-foot pole in each hand, with a pack of hats clamped up and down the length, all because hats make the man, mother always said, but they can make the woman, too. Allie demonstrated that, in her white sailor's cap, looking like she had wandered off the chorus line of Anything Goes to take a breath of unseasonably mild springtime air.

The wet southerly section of Allie's finger would bring a down-that-a-way walk on the earthen path; the cool north side pointed out the flocked snowball blossoms, suggesting a curvaceous wedding trail; or, focusing straight ahead, the two of them could pop into the drink, that mysterious easterly route that Maben Rice, 1966-2005, took, his memory kept alive by a marker, a public-art epitaph that his friends made to highlight the man and the spot were Lake Michigan swallowed him alive and whole. This point was popular with the dog crowd, owners who slung balls out onto the water, as eager retrievers nabbed them and paddled ashore.

"Let's go west because we've gone east as far as the lake," Allie said, "and we went about as fur as we can go," she added, giggling now like a character out of Oklahoma! To Jayson's logical mind - the kind of brain matter that he darn well knew he possessed - westerly seemed reasonable, but for Allie's earlier insistence that they both go home. West, after all, was facing homeward, making it suspect in Jayson's mind. But west they went, nonetheless, with Jayson giving in to Allie's dimple.

For the current investigation Jayson requested that Allie, the girl next door, choose a bit of ground for him, a place to hawk the hats, ripe from the pole on a sunny Saturday. Perhaps a plain or a rolling hill with a vista to attract tourists.

She was catchy in her white cotton suit, and she found a sexy spot. Jayson knew she would. Walking west, Westgate to the beach and beyond the underpass, was a bench, paces away from the meeting of three pathways and a gander from the neighborhood gardens, still unkempt and unplanted.

The wood bench, painted green with age-old chips, was the perfect place for sales, at the confluence of people, by an entrance; a place to sit and sell, shaded by cottonwood buds, an intersection, three-way, the easy way to barter or buy for the customer - and a comfortable, profitable, and logical setting for a business. It was Jayson's own understanding of simple reasoning that made him successful, and here his logical mind, hatless, covered in black wavy hair, was at play once again.

At play to show off hats, more for their style than utility, Jayson had arranged his thrift-store purchases along two poles for carrying ease. The hanging clamps, each with a hat, were distributed along the pole, offering an exquisite display. Utility in the cowboy and large Mexican hats; fedoras and soft fur hats; hats for men, boys, and children; straw hats, helmets and military style, conductors' caps, and hats with initials, made of black beaver, satin-lined. Style in the silver stars on the crown; dark blue, golden brown, light chocolate, and slate. Trimmed in the front, "The Eton," plaid English summer caps with a button on the top, cotton. Mask caps, felt inside, holes for eyes and a slit for the mouth, sewed with a cross-shape seam for a tight fit against the skull.

"What's your pleasure, sir?" Jayson asked when the first customer approached, not stopping, as is to be expected right off, bending his neck only, quickening his pace past the poles, front, forward, march. No sale, some interest, he wrote onto his logical memory, and he tucked that inside his mental toolbox. Allie thought she would try wearing an engineer's hat and then a turban, pretending to be choosing between the two, with her tight figure placed against the opening to the underpass. If prospects were to walk toward the poles, they would spot the hats and associate them with Allie's feminine beauty.

A man with a leather jacket and black jeans stopped, but all he did was look at Allie in her white suit, forgetting to shop for a hat. He smiled at her, kept his hands in his pockets, and gave up without looking any further, not reflecting his own one-day growth in the hanging mirror that Jayson thought might break in this wind, whipping the hanging clips and keeping hats tipping, though still tethered. But he didn't leave. He grabbed the winter mask cap for fun, Jayson thought, and pulled it down the face, covering the personality and substituting it with urban threat. The man faced Allie, and his disguised mug pressed toward her with his fingers grabbing and his voice growling like a wicked warlock-thief. Unimpressed, Allie sat on the bench, avoiding a giant wood sliver on the seat, having long ended her masquerade as customer, ignoring the animated mask buyer, and resenting the entire project, preferring to have sold chocolate-chip cookies lakeside for her own profit.

The prospective customer, Allie's admirer, tore off the mask-like stocking cap and attempted to clip it back to the pole when an atypical wind gust trucked through the underpass, taking the buyer off guard and flinging the hat airborne. Jayson saw the headgear fly, the wind filling eye sockets and mouth slit, the open neck, and cross seam that landed upright upon the grass.

And there the mask was, ready for the yellow riding mower, its blade spinning within earshot, operated by Jake, the seated, bulky park district lawn worker in grass-colored shirt and pants, wearing a strapping belt that wrestled his waist and cinched his gut. With his glasses so dark, Jake failed to see the black mask in the grassy shade. The cross seam hit the gasoline-powered razor, spinning out like a black sock in a dryer, hurled through the air, as if shot from a skeet trap. The blade shredded the mask into a series of dark cotton swatches that flew in formation as far away as the first row of rectangular garden plots, into the distance.

Jayson, Allie, and the customer all looked westward. They saw a flurry of fuzzed-out fabric gain distance in the wind, powered by the twirling metal cutting edge. When the mask's patchy parts landed, the three observers all froze, and mower man Jake moved on, his machine taking the jaunty green and taming it, his dim vision blocking out all but the necessities of edging and alignment. Not good, Jayson said to himself, contemplating the situation.

Jayson thought it seemed futile to blame the city, the park district, or the worker for this calamity. It was the customer's error, but that man never fully committed to purchase the mask, so Jayson expected to absorb the cost and continue with his salesmanship. His logical mind clipped up and down over its memory chip until, in systematic fashion, it recovered mother's warning - "If you break it, it's sold" - and he wondered whether the prospect would appreciate this rule, which could remunerate the business on moving poles.

As much to ogle Allie as to buy another hat, the man grabbed a cowboy style, black, and tipped his hat to the young lady, who offered a nod and a wink. Jayson approached the cowboy.

"Sir, I'm Jayson, and this is my business, Hat Trick."

"So."

"So I'd like you to pay for the mask."

The man put his hands in his pockets and kept his boiler's steam in check. "What did I do?"

"One could argue that you were the last to touch the mask before its demise," Jayson said.

"Why don't you go piss off?" the man asked.

Keeping the parties calm, Allie stepped in close and gave the man a pert salute, her bust in formal presentation and her smile engaged. "Thinking you could buy me a hat, sir," she said to the man. He agreed, but only if Allie chose it and wore it in his presence. Jayson thought a sale was sufficient for now and concurred with the man's proposal, which was really Allie's clever ploy.

The fancy cowboy hat - that's the one Allie pulled from the pole to top her blonde self. The man offered twenty dollars, and Allie switched from sailor to cowgirl. "Hi, I'm Jerry," he said to her. She winked, and they bumped waists.

The yellow mower, with zero turn radius and front-end rotary blades, continued on its turnaround and traveled toward the three of them again at high speed, its motor liquid-cooled, with Jake, in headphones, saturated in an operator's daze.

Sometimes a man must do for himself, and Jayson was one who needed to do it, since Allie couldn't and Jerry wouldn't. Jayson decided lickety-split to earn the lost money from the severed mask, and he took action.

Jayson saw the park district worker, read the name "Jake" sewn on the green shirt, jumped onboard the mower, and straddled the machine, balancing his tail end against broad shoulders. Freaked-out Jake stopped and cut the motor, a Super TT. "What's with you, man?" Jake said, reaching, turning, standing, and pushing, one motion after the next. "Get off me."

"I will, but I need a twenty, Jake."

"We all need -"

"But I need a twenty, your twenty."

The situation appeared tense, with one bulk of logical man brain - bankrupt - set against another - boneheaded - facing the prospect of a third - bonkers - till it became a Mexican standoff, at which point Allie pulled on an appropriate sombrero and gathered all three men together.

"Fellas, I can manage this for you," she said. Jayson saw Allie sit on Jake's lap, but she also accepted a late-night date with Jerry, who walked alongside the cutting contraption, hands in his pockets, smiling at her and scowling at the driver's gut. Jayson continued onboard, selling from two poles, extending his arms outward from the back side of the mower, away from the blade rotation, attempting to over shout the motor, like a pied hat piper attracting buyers - mostly children, who dragged their parents along to see the wheeled spectacle on parade. No money was exchanged between Jake and Jayson, but the Hat Trick owner won such a crowd, waving and screaming as he did from the mower - with Allie lounging and howling on Jake's happy belly - that Jayson reached his business-plan goal and made three hat sales, one styled for a Robin Hood, another for a Paul Bunyan, and the third for a Pecos Bill.

They drove around the garden, through the underpass, and over to the Swallowed Alive, Swallowed Whole Memorial, where Jayson dismounted. Allie rolled off the tummy, and Jake and Jerry mocked each other until they were all aligned. It was Jerry and Allie, followed by Jake and Jayson. Even the mower machine was perpendicular to the shoreline, staged for a salute to the man lost in the swallowing drink.

Jayson took a hat and skimmed it along an aerial path, slicing its way out onto water. Witnesses reported it was a man's braided straw hat, with a high crown and a medium brim, its somber black ribbon rounding the shape.

A bounding golden retriever, fresh from sunning, took after the floating straw, ducked, headstrong against the waves, the proudest of breeds, and wore it all afternoon.

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