Fall 2010, Volume 9

Fiction by Julie Domonkos

The Hat

My lover is coming soon. He said four o’clock, he could leave the office early, but I never really know when he will knock on my door. I wonder sometimes just how disposable he thinks I am. You can tell someone you love them a hundred times and still see the shadow of their replacement right behind them. I’ve done that myself.

I am wearing the hat. I put it on an hour ago. I will answer his knock wearing it and he will look up at it and smile. His smile will say you’re silly, and you’re strange, and I don’t really like the hat. Take off the hat. Take off everything. And then I will.

The hat is a bowler, black and velvet. It is a very good hat. Expensive. It’s hard to find such a quality hat nowadays. I tell Jack it was my grandfather’s hat. That I took it out of his closet the day of his funeral, without asking anyone for permission. My grandmother must have noticed, I said, because I wore it the rest of the day. I wore it through the somber reception in her house, the lunch meats going brown while the gin bottles continually tipped. I wore it after the funeral guests had left, through the discussion my grandmother had with her children around the kitchen table, coffee cups and whiskey glasses clutched tight. I tell Jack I had it on the whole time my mother sat there not drinking her coffee and let her share of my grandfather’s money get taken away from her by her three brothers, who said they would take over his business and take care of the family. That part of what I told Jack was true.

I was seventeen then. A long time ago. I never got to art school because Mom never got taken care of. But I make a living as a bartender and when I get home at three o’clock in the morning I wet my palette and I paint until dawn. I almost always wear my hat when I paint.

Jack’s wife is beautiful. He showed me her picture, and the faces of his children, although I hadn’t asked. I would like to paint his wife. I wonder how I could arrange that. What a surprise it would be, for Jack to walk into my apartment and see a portrait of his wife coming to life. I would paint her wild and open, because at that point he’d be going right back to her. I’ll have to think about how I could meet her accidentally. I like to be more creative when I end these things, because it gets boring after awhile.

My hat hasn’t lost any of its texture or form. It is dark like the other side of milkiness, like negative cream. It is so black it looks furry, the way the night sky looks beyond the aura of a bright moon. I like to stroke it, my open palm slowly moving over the subtle arcs of its curved surface, my fingers dipping into the moat of the rim. I can paint a perfect circle because I have studied those curves.

It’s been six months since I met Jack. Sitting at my bar, in the basement of a dingy downtown brownstone. He was with three other guys from work, all suits. Asking for the best scotch in the house. I had to laugh. I gave them Bushmills and no one said anything. Two hours they sat there as the bar filled and then emptied with happy hourers. I like that time in the bar. You watch the crowd headed home wind down, and then there’s a lull before the nighttime partiers start coming in. You have time to sneak a cigarette and a drink for yourself. I only ever have one drink. I’ve seen too much from the other side of the bar. I’ve watched people give away gold watches and silk scarves and their bodies and souls to people they just met because they had too much to drink. I think about how drunk I would have to be to give away my hat. Not much scares me but that thought does.

Jack’s buddies left and he stayed and I knew right away he stayed to talk to me. I thought, why not, it’s been awhile. I poured him the good scotch he asked for at the beginning and I gave him my number. He was wearing his wedding ring so we didn’t have to have a discussion about what we were thinking of doing. The next day he came to my apartment during his lunch hour and stayed until I had to leave for the bar.

Jack is smart and funny and a good lover. All lovers are cruel to each other but he keeps it within limits. He never started hinting around about what his life might have been like if he hadn’t married his wife. That’s when things take a turn, that’s when the good-bye picture starts painting itself on the wall. I think he really loves his family. I don’t know why he’s fucking me and I don’t ask. It doesn’t matter to me.

Once after making love Jack told me sometimes I taste like copper pennies. I teased him and said he should know, he’s a money guy. But I know it happens once a month, when my body is shedding its iron, every month for all these years, and now I’m almost forty. How much iron do you have? When does it deplete itself? When will I give out?

I told Jack the story about my grandfather as a young man. How he came to New York from Hungary and got a job in men’s clothing. How the first fine item he could afford to purchase for himself, discounted because he was in the business, was the hat. He traveled all over the eastern states selling men’s suits and shirts and accessories. But when he came home to New York it was to the little settlements of Hungarian immigrants, still making their stuffed cabbages and blood sausages, everything tinted paprika red. He was surrounded by extended family dedicated to finding him a Hungarian wife who held onto the values of the old country.

It was my grandmother Mary they chose for him. A sweet sixteen-year-old who worked in her parents’ boardinghouse. She spoke no English. She was shy and very religious. She had a pretty face. My grandfather, though, was in love with someone else.

My grandfather was in love with a girl from a rich family in Baltimore, who he met when he was showing his clothing line to her father in his office. Sylvia happened to be there, waiting to be taken out to lunch. Sylvia’s father, in a moment of awkward courtesy that he must have come to regret deeply, took my grandfather to lunch with them. After two hours over Dover sole and martinis for the men, and a thousand loaded glances passing silently over the table, my grandfather passed a secret note to Sylvia with his address. They wrote to each other for months, while my grandfather also courted my Hungarian grandmother to keep his family members happy.

I asked Jack to imagine their reaction when Sylvia’s parents discovered her cache of love letters from the poor immigrant Hungarian clothing salesman. When we laughed together I knew Jack was thinking about what he would do if one of his boarding school daughters pulled something like that on him. Then I told Jack about how, after my grandfather received the angry letter from Sylvia’s father, he went to the local pub and sat alone for hours deciding whether to drive to Baltimore and fight for the woman he loved, or whether to marry the girl whose family considered him a good catch. I told Jack how my grandfather’s big mistake was to make this decision inside, where he had to take off the hat. If he had kept the hat on, I said, he would have made a different decision and had a happier life.

Jack never asked me how I know this story. He just listened, lying next to me in a semi-daze after hours of sex, probably feeling like I was singing a lullaby. Of course I don’t know all of this. I never heard it from my poor grandmother, who never knew she wasn’t loved first by her husband. Or from my mother, who adored her father. I heard the part that I know from my father. He used to take my grandfather out for a beer once in awhile and my grandfather would talk. And since a bartender never tells the secrets that are spilled by the people on the other side of the bar, my father knew he could tell me. Or maybe he was trying to tell me something else. If he was, I guess I didn’t get the message.

Jack and I are almost done. I will miss him. We won’t stay in touch. If sex isn’t holding people like us together, there’s nothing else to do it. I will always be very fond of Jack.

Jack’s not here yet and I’m still wearing the hat. I like the fact that Jack will always think of me with the hat. He’ll think about how it belonged to my grandfather. It didn’t though, it’s not really that old. The hat belonged to my husband. He loved the hat, so I made sure I kept it when he left. He had packed it and when he wasn’t looking I took it out of his duffel and threw it under the bed. He was in a hurry so he wasn’t paying much attention. I like to think about how he must have cursed me when he got wherever he was going and knew I had taken the hat. How he must have berated himself for not paying more attention. Yes, he should have paid more attention. But I feel it was an even trade. He walked away with my love, and I walked away with the thing he loved best. Ever since he left, for all these years, I put the hat on whenever I need to make a big decision.

I don’t feel at all guilty for painting the hat into the stories I have told Jack about my grandfather. That’s what painters do. What difference does it make that he doesn’t know the truth? In a few weeks, maybe even by tomorrow, I will just be a story painted in Jack’s head. A story in Jack’s head, wearing a bowler hat.


BIO: Julie Domonkos has dedicated the majority of her twenty-year legal career to the advocacy of victims of domestic violence. She previously served as Executive Director of My Sisters' Place, Westchester County's leading domestic violence services and advocacy organization. She was a past chair of the Domestic Violence Task Force of The Association of the Bar of the City of New York and the cofounder and cochair of the Lawyers Committee Against Domestic Violence. In 2003 she received the New Rochelle Women of Excellence Award.

After attending the Basic Craft of Fiction class at NYU in 2006, she was invited by Susie Mee into her private writing workshop, which she still attends. She is coeditor of and contributor to the Lawyer's Manual on Domestic Violence, published by the Appellate Division, First Department.

New work is forthcoming in The Talon Mag.