OLD BLUE HAT
By Scott Michael Atkinson
(Originally published in MidAmerica)
Look, I didn’t mean to steal the hat. I mean, yeah, I took it on purpose, but it’s not like I thought of it as stealing, okay? I just thought of it as…I don’t what I thought of it as.
What I do know is the next day I was in the parking lot of the union hall—Local 659—which was empty except for a few other cars. I thought maybe they were there from the day before, left by people who didn’t want to drive home. I hoped that was the case. I hoped the place was empty. I thought I might just drop the hat on the little cement entranceway, maybe kick some snow on it so it looked like it had been dropped there the day before on accident. That seemed better than the original plan, the plan I’d driven there with, which involved hoping I’d find some nice old lady behind a desk somewhere inside who would believe me when I told her I must have picked it up by mistake. Then she would put it in a lost and found box and that would fix everything. But it was a stupid story, even to tell an old lady, and it seemed even more stupid when I pictured myself saying it out loud. I mumble a lot and look down when I talk. And besides, who would believe you picked up a hat like that by accident?
I was probably over-thinking the whole thing, but I’d never stolen anything before and I felt bad, like Dad watched me do it from wherever he was, making that face he always made when I used to mess up. But like I said, at the time it didn’t feel like stealing. It had just been left there, almost like it was left for someone. And why not me?
The invitation to the Fisher Body reunion had been for my dad, obviously, just like half the crap I got in the mail. General Motors, it seemed, along with the U.S. Postal Service, didn’t realize that Rod Gutierrez was dead. Two years now. No one knew they had the wrong Rodney. They always called him Rod, but I’ve always been Rodney—which sounds like something you’d call a kid, even though he was the one with the nickname.
I didn’t tell Shelly I was going to the reunion. I wasn’t even sure why I was going. I never worked in the shop and the only time I’d been in there was on a take-your-kid to work day with Dad. I wish I remembered more of it. He always said I’d have a job there waiting for me if I wanted, but he never sounded real happy about it. Then he died. And then the shops died.
I pretty much farted around after that and for a while no one said anything, but then even I started to feel like I needed to get my shit together. Not that I’d be completely broke. I had an offer from a local pizza place to start doing deliveries, but the idea of slinging pizzas just made me feel worse. One of the guys there told me it wasn’t bad money, and Shelly was all ecstatic about it—not about the money, just that she thought it would make me feel better. She kept saying she was proud of me and things like, “See, I told you you could get a job.” I told her thanks, though, because I don’t want her to stop being so sweet.
On the day of the reunion I told her I was playing poker with some of my buddies from high school, which I still do sometimes, so she believed me. See? The whole day was a mistake. I tell one lie to my wife and then I start stealing things. I needed to get rid of the damn thing, if I could. Really, I was lucky she believed me, because I play poker less these days. My friends all have jobs and want to play for more money. “Real money,” they call it. Lately they’ve been wanting to play for twenty dollars at least. Shelly wouldn’t tell me no if I asked—I know it’s not that much money—but it feels wrong to gamble her money away, even twenty dollars of it. Our money is what she’d say if I said this to her, but it doesn’t feel like our money, or our apartment, or our anything. The only thing that feels like both of ours is the little baby on the way. I didn’t see that one coming. Not that it’s a bad thing; I just didn’t expect to be a husband, let alone a dad this soon. I did expect to be able to afford to be, though.
My biggest fear once I got to the reunion was that somebody would call me out. I pictured someone checking IDs at the door and throwing me out, calling me a faker or a liar. I also saw them maybe welcoming me like family, like a nephew or something. Rod’s son. They would tell me stuff about my dad I didn’t know, and then maybe one of them would say they had a cousin or somebody who worked at the UPS place loading trucks or making hotdogs at Koegel’s. I’d applied both places, and had heard especially good things about Koegel’s. It was factory work, and good money, and it’s not like people were going to stop buying hot dogs any time soon. Sometimes I thought it was funny that I was praying to come home smelling like wieners every day but was so embarrassed to come home smelling like pepperoni. But then it really wasn’t funny, especially since the pizza place was the only one that called me back.
But no one at the union hall asked me for an ID or anything. I just walked in, like everybody else. It looked like a family reunion, just not my family. I felt invisible next to the long tables filled with people laughing and potluck food and cans of pop and beer. The only thing people said to me was “excuse me” when I was in their way, and I’m kind of a big guy, so I get in the way a lot.
At first I thought I’d just leave. I even walked outside. But then I thought I didn’t want to go home this soon and have to tell Shelly another lie, so I just stood there.
“Hey, I know that hat,” I heard someone say. I was wearing a Redwings hat, so I thought they were talking to me. But the guy who said it, an older black man walking up to the entrance, wasn’t talking to me. He was talking to the younger white guy who was leaning over the steel railing and smoking a cigarette. He smiled back at the guy with the cigarette still in his lips.
I’d noticed his hat when I came outside but didn’t think much of it. Some people just wear weird hats. It was blue and had a short bill, and the cloth top stretched back all the way to his neck. The older guy pulled one just like it out of his back pocket and put it on and they both laughed. I laughed too, but I didn’t know why. I figured they must have worked together, but then they asked each other their names.
I tried to figure how old the young guy was. He didn’t look that much older than me, but I was born the year Fisher Body closed—Dad always said that whenever he talked about getting transferred—so he had to be a lot older. I thought maybe I’d ask them about the hat, since I was standing right there, but I didn’t have to because this other guy showed up. He was definitely about my age and he reminded me of a guy I used to work with in high school. I remembered that guy because he was the one who asked me what I was going to do after I graduated, and when I told him probably take a year off and then go into the shop he didn’t even look at me. He just said, “that’s cool.” I didn’t get that what he was really asking me was what college I was going to.
This guy had a nice coat like Shelly always wanted me to wear and a tag around his neck that said The Flint Journal. He asked the guys about the hat.
“This is what the welders and painters wore,” the older guy told him. He turned around to show him the back. “This one’s been keepin’ me warm since ’sixty-seven.”
“We all had them,” the younger guy said. “You just grabbed ’em. I worked on the line but I had to hide all the rock star hair I used to have back then.” They all laughed, even the reporter, like they all remembered or something.
“Yup, that’s how it used to be,” the older guy said. “You see someone with one of these, you know where they worked.”
That was when I said something like excuse me and went inside. I got a plate of food and no one said anything, and I saw that the beer at the bar was free. I don’t really like beer but I felt like I needed one. Then I decided I needed another. And another. Then I just sat there, my face feeling all warm and watching the people hug and talk. There was a group nearby and they were all talking about how they used to stay after their shifts and play cards all night. They kept laughing like crazy. They talked about the time that this happened or that happened. After a while I left, and that was when I saw the hat, just sitting there on an empty table by the door. Just sitting there. You just grabbed ’em, I heard the guy say again, and so that’s what I did. Then I walked out the door and got in my car and concentrated on keeping it between the lines all the way home.
When I was sitting in my car the next day outside the hall, I worked the thing over in my hands. I thought it would have been thicker, and maybe it had been, many years ago, before the canvas was soft and worn down. There were small burn holes in it that reminded me of tiny cigarette burns, but these had come from the hot metal of a factory that now sat frozen somewhere. I never even tried it on.
When I got out of my car and was walking up to the entrance, I could hear voices inside, and when I got to the door it sprang open right when I reached for it and it hit me in the nose. The cold made it sting even more and then some guy was asking me if I was okay.
“Yeah,” I said, which didn’t feel true, but I’m always telling people I’m okay.
“Didn’t expect anybody to be out here. I’m sorry,” he said again. I looked at him and didn’t recognize him. Then we just stood there until he thought of what to say next. “Hey, you still got one of them hats too?” He laughed. “I got two of them. Left one up here yesterday. That’s why I came up here, but they don’t have it.”
“This, um … I mean, this one isn’t mine. I think I grabbed it by mistake. Maybe it’s yours.” I gave it to him.
He looked at it. “Yup. That’s it.”
I grabbed my nose again. It hurt like hell.
Then he said, “You know what? Why don’t you take this one? Like I said, I got another one at home. I got two, and I don’t really need two. And they don’t have yours inside. I asked. You take this, then if yours ever turns up, I can take it.”
I thought maybe he felt sorry for me. I let go of my nose.
“No, I couldn’t. I mean, that’s okay.”
“You sure?” He held out the hat to me.
I thought about taking it then. It wouldn’t be stealing now. I thought of going home and showing it to Shelly. I thought about how the older guy had said how warm it was, and I thought maybe I would wear it on my deliveries, and every now and then someone would recognize it as I handed them their pizza and we would laugh and talk about the way things used to be, before it all changed.