From the unedited manuscript, herein lies the sixth chapter from The Breaking of Worlds I: The Wedge in the Doorway, my first novel. (Reformatted for web presentation). This is posted as much for your review as it is for your comment—good or bad.
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Wading into smothering sunshine, unbearable heat and humidity pour over me with sledgehammer weight. Sauntering to the car a dozen paces away leaves me miserable and dripping sweat.
The sooner air conditioning embraces me, the sooner I can feel more human and less a stuffed turkey broiled under an aluminum blanket. Groceries go in the back seat and Dave gets thrown in the front seat. After I press the button and the car comes to life, I sit back while the vents blow stagnant air. Hot and icky at first, sure, but it cools down quickly enough.
Sudden laughter explodes out of me. My strategic exit from Perenson’s may have come prematurely. I did not call my parents to check if they needed anything from Eli.
Will I be forced to go back inside for something? I hope not. I’ve had my fill of local culture and gab, thank you very much. I just want to get home and get to work.
The husky voice that answers my call proffers a simple “Hello?”
“Hey, Dad, how are you today?”
“Fair to middling. I’m not feelin’ swell is all.”
That shocks no one. Over the course of many years my father left the fast lane and nudged into the slow lane. Not surprisingly a great deal of the change comes from age and a body incapable of handling the scurrying about and heavy lifting it once coasted through with ease. A great deal of that stems from a hip injury from his college football days. It degenerates with time, worsens in heat, and does not take kindly to strenuous farm work. Thus he has his off days, increasingly as each year passes from the calendar.
This signifies a major reason King’s Hope became the focus of my relocation efforts. Beth’s job had kept us in Dallas, so divested of that fetter—albeit brutally—living nearer my parents became a huge desire. I want to take care of them as they get older.
My father continues, “But I’m still kickin’ and can’t grouse about it. What’re you up to today, son?”
“I’m at Perenson’s. I thought I’d call to see if you have a grocery list. If so, I can run by your place on my way home.”
Technically I cannot run by their place on my way home unless I start at their place. The Crichton Farm sits in the southeastern corner of town near the bayou while Carr Beholden lounges in the northwestern corner near the lake. Our homes park at polar opposite ends of King’s Hope. Nonetheless he knows my sentiment comes from the heart. I would travel to the ends of the world for them, even if only to deliver something as trivial as a cup of sugar.
“You’re already in your car, aren’t you? About to leave?” How I lovingly abhor that he knows me so well.
I stutter, “Um, no … Damn it, yes, I’m already in the car.” Then I laugh at the silliness of being caught and add, “I’m about to leave though.”
“Last minute thought, huh?” The faintest intimation of a chuckle follows that question.
“Yes, I’ve been caught being forgetful.”
We both laugh then. I am notorious for not forgetting, not big things or little things. My faux pas makes us chuckle because it happens so rarely.
When his chortle ends he shouts over his shoulder to my mother, “Honey? Dave’s up to Perenson’s and wants to know if we need somethin’.” Silence contains her response from somewhere in the house. His attention turns back to me. “Nope, we don’t need nothin’. She says she’s gettin’ groceries up to The Food Bin in the mornin’.”
“I thought I should check before I head home.”
“We appreciate it, son. By the way, your mom wants to know if you want to come over for dinner tonight. She said she’s makin’ Mexican food. Or maybe she said she would if you were comin’.”
He knows I love Mom’s cooking and thoroughly enjoy her twist on Latin American food, though calling it Mexican food does it an injustice. She prepares a selection of piquant dishes taken from a menagerie of favorite recipes. She has treated us to the delectable satisfaction of spicy chicken enchiladas, tortilla soup, aguachile made from fresh seafood and vegetables, beef and chicken and pork tamales, jalapeño black bean soup, and build-your-own tacos and burritos with bountiful garnishings. Each meal comes accompanied by fresh homemade ceviche and salsa. I regret that I must decline such a tempting offer.
“No, I can’t make it this evening, Dad. I’m finishing a book so I can send it to my agent in the morning. I’ll need most of the evening. I appreciate the offer though, and you’ll save some for me, right?”
“No promises, son,” he responds with a hearty laugh. “No promises at all. In fact, you best not count on it.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
“Because you know how the world works, that’s why. You’ll be by tomorrow then?”
“I’ll be there. I’ll call before I head over since I don’t know how late I’ll be this evening and don’t know how late I’ll start tomorrow. We’ll touch base when I’m functional.”
His smile clearly translates through the phone. “Sounds good. I’ll let your mother know to expect you tomorrow, and we’ll both want to hear about your latest.”
“It’s a deal,” I say, and then I add, “I’ll let you go. Enjoy your evening and don’t eat all the Mexican food!”
He chuckles before responding, “Don’t hold your breath. You take care of yourself and get that book done. We’ll see you tomorrow.
“I love you, son.
“I love you too, Dad. Give Mom my love.”
“Will do. Bye-bye now.”
I flip the phone shut and slip it into my pocket. Stu and Eli stand at the counter inside Perenson’s chatting as they watch me through the overly placarded windows. Despite feeling welcome and accepted in King’s Hope, I remain a curiosity with a successful public career while living in solitude in Texas’s Timbuktu. Being eyeballed does not bother me. Yet the two men in the convenience store have an atypical gravitas in their demeanor, and their collective gaze falls with solemn intensity.
“Mr. Hat!” I exclaim, reminded of the encounter as my mind equates that experience with Stu’s and Eli’s collective regard. And Stu’s reaction when asked about Mr. Hat …
Though my parents have owned land in King’s Hope since before my birth, we lived in Dallas until I graduated high school and moved out on my own. During those years we used the land for hunting and camping, a private vacation spot in the feral woods. We had few encounters with King’s Hope save to grab groceries or gas, to pass through to or from the state highway, to stop in from time to time at one of the restaurants, or to visit the hunting supply store.
Over those decades I saw Mr. Hat six times and never in close proximity, perhaps across the street as we fueled the car or along a road upon which we traveled. Yet the man intrigued me. I asked about him, pointing him out more than once, and in response an uncertain hush would envelop my parents. One of them would say something about that being the town hermit, or the town eccentric, or a vagabond, or some other vague and uncertain statement. Their responses on the subject of Mr. Hat represented confusion, maybe avoidance, possibly some of both. They did not know him and did not know how to answer my questions, that much seems clear.
If one considers his clothes, one would label Mr. Hat an anachronism, an old-fashioned goth in modern times. He dresses in black from head to toe. In fact, he always dresses in the same black clothes: an ebony fedora with stiff rolled brim and glossy ribbon, pressed cotton shirt and pants darker than night, ebony socks hidden inside polished wingtips that show no scuff or speck of dust, and a thick duster-length overcoat with wide lapels and a hem that dangles about his ankles. Were The Matrix filmed in 1900 or thereabouts, Mr. Hat’s ensemble would have debuted as Neo’s preferred outfit. And the weather does not change his clothes; he seems indifferent—No, he seems impervious to the temperature.
If one considers what little skin shows from beneath his excessive attire, one would label Mr. Hat an everlasting vampire. He has skin as smooth as a baby’s bottom, no blemish or wrinkle in evidence, with tone as pale as a baby’s bottom too, though not sickly but rather abnormally healthy, vital, young. His impeccable complexion indicates he has never seen sunlight.
If one considers the shape of the body beneath the concealing get-up, one would label Mr. Hat a healthy man. He stands six-feet-three-inches tall, same as me, and he has solidity under the cloak of his garb, neither fat nor thin, nether overweight nor undernourished. He has broad solid shoulders and straight posture. He weighs perhaps 180, maybe 185 pounds.
If one considers his face, one would label Mr. Hat an old soul with young features. Despite ageless skin making it difficult to judge years, he has a knowing face that centuries might impart to a person. His forehead broad, his brow firm, his cheekbones unpronounced and not too high, his chin marked with a cleft yet broad and strong, his ears close to the black hair on his head, his face remains unremarkable, an everyman’s face, at least until you look close enough to recognize wisdom lurks there, an old wisdom, something ancient. And he has the palest gray eyes, eyes that pierce to the quick yet enfold when he looks at you, engendering a sense of being seen and being understood.
If one considers his comings and goings, one would label Mr. Hat a teleporter, an apparition, a specter that takes shape and dissolves at will. I doubt anyone believes that, but he has a way of appearing and disappearing without notice. Amble by an empty alley and suddenly he steps out of it; drive by a deserted building and magically he strolls around the corner. There one minute and gone the next, I doubt anyone has ever seen him in a car or on a bike. He simply manifests and vanishes with the ease of a ninja.
But in every way, a consideration of Mr. Hat leads one to label him an enigma. Now having seen him up close and personal, spoken to him, he represents a greater mystery than ever before.
Since moving to King’s Hope four years ago, I have seen him as many times—six—as I did over the first thirty-plus years of my life. After today’s meeting and the fog of intervening years notwithstanding, my memories of him from childhood and the man seen today characterize the same period of time. Mr. Hat has not aged, and his clothes—if they are the same clothes—show not a scuff or wrinkle or the slightest bit of dirt.
He has fascinated me since the first time I saw him. During my early years I thought of him as The Man in Black, a secret agent working for some shadowy government organization, maybe good or bad, but definitely dangerous. A few years later he became The Crazy Man, a recluse who lived in a rundown shack in the woods and hunted children for sport. After that he became The Dark Ghost, a spirit cursed to haunt King’s Hope, the specter of a forgotten soul wrongfully killed in town and eternally damned to roam its streets seeking justice. In my adulthood he became a near obsession insofar as he remains so mystifying. He would make an interesting literary figure, but my interest goes beyond that. He’s so cool and eccentric and puzzling.
Having spoken to him today however—having been spoken to by him I should say, the world seems to hush in his presence. He has a mellifluous voice that carries a deep yet warm resonance, smooth and devoid of invasive or overbearing qualities. He could read the dinner menu and people would hear ageless wisdom.
Where he lives, where he comes from or where he goes, and what he does for a living remain unknown, at least to me. But everyone in King’s Hope stops breathing so they can listen to him speak. And Stu’s reaction to my question demonstrates how people respond to the mention of Mr. Hat—with a mix of apprehension and reverence. That throws fuel on the fire of my interest in the guy.
Obviously “Mr. Hat” is a pseudonym of some kind, though it would not surprise me to learn he thinks it his real name. Perhaps an eccentric, perhaps an irrational man roaming the world, he nevertheless fascinates and mesmerizes people.
But now … But after experiencing him personally, I know Mr. Hat does not originate from parents and does not have a name and does not live in the world we know. For like the disembodied coin-flipping voice in my nightmares, Mr. Hat tends to matters far beyond the ken of mortals. My eyes see what others see but my mind sees something else. Mr. Hat symbolizes something, an idea rather than a person, a shadow of knowledge we do not learn but nevertheless contain. Or at least that I contain.