December 16, 2019

“The Man in the Iron Hat,” a Short Story by Audrey Kalman

“The Man in the Iron Hat,” a Short Story by Audrey Kalman

The hat was a marvel, like a chastity belt or a grate over an abandoned and dangerous well. The wide curve of its bowl fit the man’s head perfectly. The thick brim jutted over his eyes, hiding everything above the horizontal plane of his vision and much to either side. It was astonishing that something intended to be worn could be fashioned of a material so ancient, so dense and pebbly and so, well, iron age. Yet the hat seemed to him the most natural thing in the world. 

He didn’t wear it with pride but he didn’t resent it either. It simply was. He put it on every morning. It sat on his head through breakfast with his wife and children, through the tedious search for his briefcase, the train ride to the city, the day in the office, the ride home, drinks, dinner, TV, lovemaking—three times a week—until, just before he laid his head on the pillow, he slipped it off and set it on the bedside table, to be picked up again the next day.  

The hat wouldn’t have been such an easy part of his life if everyone he encountered hadn’t worn their own iron hats, including his wife and, now that they were school age, his children. The design of each was customized. His wife’s, for example, was squared off to accommodate her angular skull. His children, a boy and a girl, started with half-hats that sat more lightly on their heads and wouldn’t damage their developing necks. They would switch to adult versions when they reached puberty.  

Behatted, the man slid easily along the grooves of his life. Yet when his daughter received her first hat and asked “Daddy, why do I have to wear this thing?” he found himself unable to articulate any reason that would make sense to an adult, let alone a five-year-old. So he fell back on the parental answer of the ages.  

“Because I said so.” 

She persisted. “But why? Why do you say so?” 

He dug himself deeper into the pit of his ridiculous response. “Because that’s the way it is.” 

“But why?” 

As she grew, his daughter’s attitude grew along with her, and with her hat. Each year at the clinic, the technician would fit a new one, adjusting the calipers side to side, front to back, and jotting measurements in his little book. The man and his wife requested time off from their jobs to attend the hat fittings, time willingly granted because everyone understood and respected the gravity of this ritual. They sat together while the adjustments were calculated and a larger hat fashioned. The three of them would emerge to approving nods from other families in the waiting room admiring the new hat, which extended a few centimeters closer to his daughter’s brow than the previous one, covering more of her hair.  

With each passing year, it became clearer that his daughter was not falling in line. One morning, just before her thirteenth birthday, she refused to get out of bed. In an hour they were to visit the clinic for the fitting of her adult hat, a solemn but joyous occasion. Two years earlier, his son had passed this milestone with eager gravitas. 

On this morning, before he knew of his daughter’s defiance, the man rose early, slipped on his hat, and took extra care with his personal hygiene and dress. He stood before the full-length mirror on the back of the closet door admiring his clean-shaven cheeks, lubricated with pleasantly scented lotion, his shiny wing-tip shoes, and his still-slim figure kept in shape by regular visits to the gym—three times a week on days he wasn’t having sex with his wife. And the hat, familiar, protective, a marvel of human ingenuity fulfilling its purpose of keeping at bay every insurgent thought, every bad impulse, every dark humor of the human soul and allowing him to skate along the peaceful, harmonious, and easily traveled track of his life.  

Elsewhere in the house, however, life was not so harmonious. His son sat alone at the kitchen table. He would go to school while his sister and parents went for the hat fitting. The boy would celebrate with them tonight but today he had a test deemed more important than attending the fitting. There was no sign of the man’s wife and daughter.  

He found them in his daughter’s room. His wife sat on the edge of the bed with her palm against her daughter’s forehead as if checking for fever.  

“She won’t get up.” 

He suddenly remembered that long-ago day when he’d had to trot out the “because I said so,” which, despite its utility and alignment with the accepted approach to answering objections, had stirred a hidden pool of discomfort located beneath the man’s breastbone.  

He sat beside his wife and looked down at his daughter’s face. She didn’t appear ill. As always, seeing someone you knew hatless, even your own adolescent daughter, was slightly unsettling. The hair sticking up every which way, the brow rising wide and vulnerable over her mud-brown eyes, the way she seemed in that moment so animal, so much part of the earth and in thrall to the base instincts and desires the hat was meant to protect against.  

He would try tenderness first. Maybe she was only frightened. He’d heard some children feared switching to adult hats, feared the extra weight and the way the brim would shield their eyes. That’s probably all it was. He reached under the blanket for her hand.  

“What’s wrong, pumpkin?” He hadn’t used that endearment in years.  

He began to suspect it wasn’t fear but something more dire when she slithered her hand away from his, turned her wide, bare head to the wall and spat out her protest in a voice he had never heard from her. 

“I’m not going to the stupid appointment and I’m sure as shit not wearing that stupid hat.” 

* *  

She eventually agreed to continue wearing the child-size hat and thus spared her parents the mortification of their daughter appearing hatless in public. His wife rescheduled the fitting appointment for three weeks from that disastrous morning. Surely, they would be able to talk sense into her by then.  

And they tried. Oh, they tried. First, the man took her to her favorite ice-cream parlor. He ordered a super-chocolate four-scoop sundae to share. He was forced to eat most of it himself while she sat, lips sealed and eyes downcast. Her ears may have been sealed as well for all the good his reassurances did. He trotted out the all-your-friends-are-doing-it argument and the you’ll-be-so-unhappy-if-you-don’t argument and finally the card he had not wanted to play because it meant thinking of his little girl—his little girl!—as an adult woman, the you’ll-never-find-a-husband-if-you-don’t argument. All delivered to the lowered brim of her half-hat as she dragged a spoon through the soup of melting ice cream. 

The man felt at sea, navigating a situation he had never anticipated. Luckily, there were manuals for this sort of thing. From the local library, he checked out “Counseling Wayward Children: Six Steps to Bring Them Back.” Step Three suggested enlisting family members. He turned to his wife. She plied her arguments at the salon, where she took their wayward child for an afternoon of mother-daughter mani-pedis. The man knew the moment they returned, fingernails and toenails painted a subtle shade of pearl, that his wife had failed too, knew it from the defiant tilt of his daughter’s head under the now-too-small hat, from the way she stalked past him silently to her room.  

They tried recruiting her older brother to talk to her. “I’m sorry, Pop,” he said. “I don’t believe I’ll have any effect on her.”  

Finally, with only a day left before the rescheduled appointment, the man paced the dark living room. The book’s penultimate step, number five, was recommended only after all other persuasive methods had been tried. This was a grave step that might, for all its purported efficacy, result in emotional trauma to the child that could—although the manual didn’t phrase it quite this way or spell out the details of the consequences—alter her for life. But they had to escalate their efforts, to implement this final attempt at persuasion, which, please God, had to work or they’d be out of viable options.  

* *  

They went the next day, a Sunday, just the three of them. They left their son home. At sixteen he was old enough to stay alone and there was no reason to expose him to the depravity they were about to show her.  

The potentially life-altering effects of what they were about to do consumed the man’s mind as he drove the winding road through the mountains to the Settlement. On his mind, too, were visions of his daughter, like snippets spliced together for a movie trailer, of her tiny face contracted in anger as an infant, her toddler grin as she toppled an entire shelf of knick-knacks, her feet scuffing up dust as she rushed ahead during a childhood outing.  

And hadn’t he had moments during those carefree years before she got her first hat when the thought of covering up those sandy curls, of clapping down onto that wild and inquisitive head an object designed to keep her firmly on the track designated to her, was completely abhorrent? Hadn’t he buried his nose in those curls, run his fingers through them to her vulnerable nape, kissed the naked frontal lobe? 

The man shook his head now, only the slightest of movements so as not to tweak his neck under the heavy hat, and glanced in the rearview mirror. His daughter stared at the passing scenery like a sullen queen. There is nothing for me in this car, her face seemed to say. Maybe nothing for me out there, either.  

The man found himself blinking back tears as the car crested the plateau where the Settlement sprawled before them.  

* * 

The guide who greeted them at the gate was not much older than the man’s son. He must have grown up here, the man thought because they wouldn’t put a newbie in charge of greetings and tours. The guide directed the car to an expansive, empty parking lot and walked with them to a second, smaller gate. The man noticed that his wife averted her gaze from the guide’s bare head, where a bush of springy hair rose like a natural hat. But his daughter never took her eyes from him. 

It seemed so ordinary, like visiting the zoo or the nature preserve. The tours, the man had read in the manual, were the price the Settlers paid for being left in peace to pursue their wild and unhatted existence. They had only to stay away from everyone else, keep their barbaric ideas and pursuits to themselves, and give these scare-tours to young people who refused to be hatted at the proper time. It was sad to think of these Settlers—for they called it a Settlement and not a prison, though a prison it was, a lovely, bucolic one but a prison nonetheless—with nothing to protect them from the thoughts spilling out willy-nilly, contaminating and infecting and re-infecting them.  

Their first stop was a school. From outside it looked like any school, like the school his son and daughter attended. Yet inside this school there were no neat desks, no uniformed teacher leading the children through their drills, no rows of heads bowed beneath the weight of the first half-hats. Instead, there were bright round rugs, shelves overflowing with books, and corners filled with the kinds of toys most parents put away as soon as a child began school—blocks and trucks and dolls and easels pinned with papers full of colorful drips of paint representing nothing.  

The man watched his daughter’s face carefully. She maintained her impassive and disinterested expression. The man, on the other hand, began feeling things he had not experienced since childhood. That pool of discomfort stirred in his chest.  

They stopped at a café. Here there was no dispenser of paper numbers to keep track of who ought to be served next. No shiny coffee machine sterilized and descaled and polished each night to return it to its pristine state. No bland nutritious snacks slotted into gleaming glass cases. This café was a riot. A crowd of patrons elbowed one another to reach the counter. A proprietress took shouted orders and hustled her staff off to retrieve cups of murky brew from a tall blackened urn and to serve up ragged pastries and cakes, irregularly shaped cookies and sloppy flan, kuchen and pfeffernusse—treats reserved for only the most special occasions where he came from. Wisely, the guide did not usher them inside. They looked in from the doorway, close enough to smell burnt sugar and observe the chaos but not close enough to be swept up in it. Although maybe, the man thought, his daughter needed a bit of chaos to jostle her to her senses.  

Not until they arrived at the third location, an office building housing the Settlement’s newest corporation did the man begin to experience an alarming rumbling under his iron hat.  

“This facility just opened. They’re in the millinery business. That means”—the guide paused to pull the glass door open— “they make hats.” 

The building’s exterior was modest brick. But inside was an insurrection of color, the lobby walls decorated with hats of every hue, size, and shape. Vermillion and chartreuse and umber, violet and ultramarine. Square, round, oval. Tall and short, made of felt and velvet, tulle and corduroy, fleece and denim. But not a one made of iron.  

The man snuck a glance at his daughter’s face and saw, for the first time since this debacle began, a glimmer in her eyes.  

And the sounds! As they made their way past half-open doors labeled “Director of Creative Development” and “Chief Innovation Officer,” the man heard a sound he had never once heard in his own brown-and-gray office from behind any of the well-ordered desks aligned precisely with the walls.  

Laughter.  

The laughter followed them and reverberated under his hat. A mild panic hammered in the man’s chest. Wasn’t the hat supposed to protect against the contaminating impulses of other people, these possibly damaging ideas, sensations, emotions, and beliefs? And yet here he was, walking alongside his entranced daughter, infected by laughter. Even his wife seemed to be feeling something out of the ordinary.  

“Excuse me,” he said to the guide. “I have to ask. Is there some change you’ve made here to… to disable our hats?” 

The guide waited for a cascade of giggles to die down from the innovation room. “Of course not,” he said. “They’re functioning just as they always have.” 

* * 

According to the manual, the Settlement visit was supposed to scare kids straight within twenty-four hours, obviating the need for the final step. But his daughter remained as recalcitrant as ever. His wife rescheduled the fitting appointment yet again, pleading illness. They had to keep this one. The hat fitters did not look kindly on repeated rescheduling.  

At home, his daughter went hatless, though she agreed to wear her too-small hat in public. That wouldn’t work much longer. Anyone could see she was more woman now than girl with her widening hips, her breasts requiring a brassiere, her emerging cheekbones.  

The man sat in bed with the manual open on his knees. There it was: Step Six. The step no one wanted to have to take. The last, drastic, nothing-left-to-lose step. Just reading about it made him sweat.  

He handed the manual to his wife. “I can’t tell you about it. Read it for yourself.” 

He watched as she did, saw her skin blanch and her mouth go slack, her eyes widen and her fists clench.  

“I had no idea,” she whispered. “Did you?” 

“No.” 

She removed her hat. “I’ve been thinking.” 

“Thinking?” 

“She never does things by halves, does she?” Without waiting for acknowledgment, his wife gently lifted the man’s hat from his head and set it beside hers on the bedside table. “Let’s discuss our options.”  

* * 

In the end, they let her go. They told everyone she had run away.  

“She was always a wayward girl,” they explained. “A bad seed. We never could keep her on the path. We tried everything. We woke up one day and she was gone.” 

And their friends—their upstanding friends with newly behatted children on the paths to the best universities and the brightest futures—nodded in empathy, or sympathy, or whatever passed for such emotions because of course, the hats prevented them from having any idea of how the man and his wife felt.  

Late at night, when the man lay beside his wife trying to sleep, he would feel a tingle of energy crackling between their two minds and wonder how they had ever managed to fall in love from under their hats, and wonder further at the miracle that they turned out, hatless, to be so much alike. And as he stared at the ceiling, counting sheep, he thanked goodness for his own iron hat covering and encasing the wayward thoughts he increasingly entertained about his daughter, his admiration for her refusal to fit in, his awe at her singularity of purpose and her courage in defying her parents. He relived in his mind, and was glad the hat prevented anyone from sensing that he did, her final goodbye—for it would have to be final, since no contact was allowed with the Settlers for any reason other than to arrange a scare-tour—at the gate, where his daughter, hatless and smiling, pressed herself against him for longer than he would have expected and whispered so only he could hear. 

***

The Man in the Iron Hat

Audrey Kalman writes fiction with a dark edge about what goes awry when human connection is missing from our lives. Her most recent book, the short fiction collection “Tiny Shoes Dancing,” was shortlisted for the 2019 Rubery Book Award. She is the author of the novels “What Remains Unsaid“ and “Dance of Souls. “ Her story “The Bureau of Lost Earrings” was shortlisted for Pithead Chapel’s 2016 Larry Brown Short Story Award, and more than a dozen online and print journals have published her fiction and poetry. A member of the SF Peninsula Branch of the California Writers Club since 2011, she currently serves as branch president. She is seeking agency representation for her most recent novel and is at work on another.  This is her first feature on the Fictional Café.

#coming-of-age#family#hats#short story
2 comments
  • Kim McCormick says:

    This was such a unique story! The metaphor of a hat never occurred to me. A mask, yes, but a hat? Loved the symbolism and the truth of the father’s emotions when considering his “wayward” daughter. I would like to know what it was she whispered to him at the end. Was it, “Thank you, daddy!”, the logical answer. Or was it something like, “You can take yours off, too.”

    • Mike Mavilia Rochester says:

      Thanks for reading, Kim! Yes, I loved that detail at the end. It’s like a father/daughter secret we’ll never know.

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