“Sock Hat Samurai” by Melissa Wiley
He said, “Hello, Miss Melissa,” after he said, “Goodbye, Miss Ellen,” when I felt my rib cage flatten into a fence because I was just another Miss, his new name for every woman who walked into his coffee shop without a full-grown beard. So as Miss Ellen turned coughing toward the door, I smiled, saying, “Howdy, Mister,” when he told me he’d lost his hat that morning in the snow. So I pretended to cough, a little more like Miss Ellen than perhaps I ought, and told him I was sorry though I was not. Because I thought maybe it was time he lost something too.
He had worn that gray patchworked paperboy a year or more now, and I was glad the wind had picked it off his head. But he loved that hat, he said while scratching his chin, asking what he could do me for. Then wanting to stop this talk of love, of things buried in snow or hiding hair forbidden to touch, I said the time for sock hats was drawing nigh.
“A sock hat, what?” he asked. When I explained it was a swath of cotton fitting like a sock around your head. That a brown or green or ochre one wouldn’t fly off like his other come a sudden torrent. That socks weren’t just for feet anymore. That all good samurai wore them beneath their helmets, the better to warm their ears. That wearing one was the closest to being a samurai you could come filling cardboard cups to the brim. When he laughed, almost a little too loud, because I’m a fairly funny girl. And because we both knew he was never going to wear a sock on his head. That he would return to the same patch of grass where he had lost his other and wait for the snow to melt.
Then he asked, “For real, what can I get you?” So I said a cup of lavender white tea please and a toasted PB&J sliced in fours. But some other Miss Somebodies had eaten all the sandwiches, so I palmed a limey apple with the one hand I’d ungloved then tossed it high in the air as I dared, asking when he was going to start stocking pork chops. Because I may not be hungry enough to eat a horse but I’d give some pony meat a shot. Then I caught the apple with the hand still sheathed within its glove, with tips I’d painted pink where my nails were naked underneath. And he smiled, because he and I both agreed: Apples are a boring fruit falling far and farther from their trees. Apple trees being too long of shorthand for too many Eves with too few fig leaves to be quite real. Apples growing as far deep down in the good brown ground as turnips for all I knew. This one without a stem, just to prove the point.
So I looked around the shop and saw the other Misses and Misters had taken all the seats. When he followed my eyes then said there was an open table in a corner behind the wall. And I nodded, saying, “Okey dokes! That’s the place for me.” Then sat taking a book from my purse I’d rather not have read, because it had an ersatz postage stamp for a cover and stamps are almost as boring as apples.
So I yawned loud as a lion within a sepia savannah and stood to pour some milk in my tea, milk dispersed in three different cartons with three percentages of fat he’d returned to the refrigerator now that the shop was due to close. He asked what kind I wanted when I rolled my eyes back as far as they would go, because he knew I was above that business, that I took everything as straight and whole as it could come. “You’re a farm girl, that’s right,” he said, and I shook my head like, “Don’t you forget it, lover boy.” Though I haven’t been a farm girl for 15 years.
He asked if our farm had had any dairy cows, and I looked at him like, “Sure, I’ll play world’s stupidest question, but just because you’re cute.” But I only said no and coughed again, though I had yet to catch a cold. Then I offered that my dad had felt up his share of Holsteins when he was a boy. And my granddad before him and plenty of dads and granddads before that. All expending heaping portions of their lives with fingers wrapped around teats pink as raspberries with engorgement of blood. Then my dad had sold the poor squeezed dears once his hands got tired, and mine were soft as pillow slips.
“It’s hard on the hands, no joke?” he asked, pouring whole milk into my cup. “You bet it’s hard,” I shot back, though I’ve never milked a cow in my life. “Then 6 am and 6 pm every day of the week. No weekend rendezvous to water parks with slides slippery as birth canals.” When he said, “Really?” Like you could just milk a cow when you pleased and its udders wouldn’t explode with unpasteurized cream. Just the kind of logic you’d expect of a samurai not wearing his sock hat.
So I cocked my hip, a bow poised to make its arrow fire, and clarified: Female mammals produce milk to feed their young, not fill cereal bowls or cool anyone’s coffee or tea. Adding that the whole industry is one antic, Machiavellian maneuver and the cows get very little say. That to keep the trick going you have to milk at 12-hour intervals, no waterslide stops. “A trick, huh?” he said, raising an eyebrow, when I shouted, “It’s all a trick! The biggest one there is,” while bending down to pick up a stray straw rapper and baring some décolletage. Then I stood up sighing, saying he served his tea too hot. And he nodded like, “You’re telling me,” concurring milk took the edge off while pouring a little more than he might.
Seeing the steam rise from my cup in plumes primed to scald a uvula ready to keep wagging, I leaned my elbows on the counter and blew a cool blanket of air over tea cup’s top, saying, “I know I tell you too many stories, more than you want to hear.” When he waved his wrist in a wide, elastic ellipse, saying, “Tell me another, please.”
So I said my dad died in the same bed in the same bedroom with the same peacock walls in which he was born. That he fell unconscious for the last time while I sat squeezing my knees on the rug at his side, confessing I’d pretended to be a psychic chicken at recess when I was 9 years old. That I’d predicted my teacher would die and she was killed in a car crash three months later. Then, starting to bawk as I once was wont during the Pledge of Allegiance, his snore became a chainsaw crank that stopped cranking forever nine hours later.
I said that when my dad lost his hair to chemo, he wore a paperboy hat similar to the one he’d lost this morning. That it looked pretty silly too.
Then I sat down again at my table and pretended to read my book, until the pretending became too hard, even behind a wall without another Miss with another cough to fake. Where there was nothing to stare at except the spider-print wallpaper, which was not much better than drinking tea in a barn with a sheaf of napkins nearby. So I stood and zipped my coat and walked to the counter to say goodbye, with my regrets regarding the chapeau. When he shook his head like an ox under harness, grunting what a darn good hat it was. Saying he could wash it over and over and it never lost its shape. So I asked where he got it, and he said his wife had bought it at Kohl’s. When I thought, “There’s that perfect wife buying that perfect hat from Kohl’s again.” Now eight hours buried in a pile of snow. A little too perfect to be believed. Like his wife was some species of apple. The kind that hasn’t existed since the Garden of Eden, though. The kind that grows on trees, still with stems and all.
So I unzipped my coat and told him ten years ago at Boston Market I gave a woman $20 for a $5 dinner and she’d given me just $5 back. When I asked for the other $10, she crossed her arms into a Celtic knot, saying no way, sister, I couldn’t fool her. Like this was some kind of trick. Like I was just about to milk her and give up waterslides for good. I told him I’d cried myself a little river of volumizing mascara into my cheesy mashed potatoes because it was $10 I couldn’t afford to lose. But standing on a barren corner half an hour later, I watched a $10 bill waft gently within a slightly less gentle eddy of air. Then seeing no one else chasing it, I chased after it myself, pocketing it in an alleyway behind a purple couch propped sideways behind a dumpster with stickers of daisies stuck to its side. And I never ate at Boston Market again.
Then he smiled and said, “Thanks, I needed that story today.” And I waved goodbye, putting shoulder into it until my shoulder popped, thinking I had needed to tell him more. Should he need a certain Miss to think of when he found what he had lost.
Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicago flying her sailboat-shaped kite at close haul. Her creative nonfiction appears in Storyacious, Beetroot Journal, Lowestoft Chronicle, Tin House Open Bar, Great Lakes Review, and elsewhere. When not camping out on the Island of Misfit Toys, you can find her hula hooping at the odd surfer-space party.