“Straw Hats” by Zac Jones

Zac Jones, 2016 PSP participant, Jaimy Gordon and Stu Dybek workshop

Zac Jones has lived his whole life in Michigan, raised in Jackson and graduated Western Michigan University with a bachelor’s in Creative Writing.  He participated twice in the Prague Summer Program for Writers during his college career.  He currently works as a roundsmen at a restaurant in Ann Arbor, covering everything from sautée to waiting tables.  He lives in Ypsilanti, MI.

Innocence flies not just in the face of experience but in that of desire, and I believe this is a story that reflects that.  I first workshopped this with Jaimy Gordon during my second year with the Prague Summer Program, and afterward she told me, “This is nearly there… I don’t know why you’re not publishing.”  Which came both as a surprise and a bit of a slap to me: she was probably the first person to put the responsibility squarely on my shoulders, and in some small way it was also comforting to have the approval of someone whose work I respected.  I have submitted this, with little tweaks here and there, over the last two years but it hasn’t quite stuck anywhere yet, which I think may in the end be for the best: when I heard the PSP was starting Meluzína, my immediate instinct was to send this back in hopes that it would become a part of the program that has become such a prominent influence on who I am as a writer and indeed as a person.

Straw Hats

It was the hot kind of day when even the statue of Colonel Foster was said to bow its head in the sun.  Just beyond the sun’s reach sat Montana Sam, bare tanned feet resting on the banister of Monty’s Meat Market, with the spicy scent of jerky and sausage drifting through the screens of the open doors and windows, pushed out by the fans within.  It was too hot to bother running the asthmatic air conditioner, and flies buzzed drunkenly against the screens.

The boys rode their bikes down to Monty’s on days like these because Montana Sam, sometimes, might be in the giving mood and buy them a round of root beers from the cooler by the front counter.  They materialized out of the day, from the hills or the fields, somewhere beyond where the heat writhed over the asphalt of Main Street like a nest of snakes, whizzing past the park where Colonel Foster cooked slowly.  They skidded to a stop, and propped their dust-covered bikes against the lattice sides of Monty’s porch, then clomped up the steps to harass the man who dozed there under his straw hat.

“Hey, Sam!” and, “Montana!” and, “How’s it today?” rang around him as he stirred.

“Boys,” he said, sitting up and tucking his feet into a pair of flip-flops.  He cleared his throat and adjusted the cannula plugged into his nostrils.  He reached between the chair and the railing to adjust something on his oxygen tank.

“Hey, Sam,” Carter said.  “What’s up?”

“Just kickin’ back,” Sam said.  “Thinking about the big sky.”

They had all heard of the big sky before, but they let the man go on anyway; it might spur his generosity.

Sam cleared his throat again.  “Out there in the West, the sky opens wide and keeps time still, and it sits on the rim of the horizon like a bowl’a blue porcelain.  On a clear day the sun’d get lost in that big wide sky sometimes.  Sometimes you’d get lost yourself.  When there were clouds you’d watch ‘em roll off somewhere, didn’t matter where, ‘cause at high noon there was no north nor south nor east nor west, it was all just wide open and you’d wanna fall into it.”

“Were there birds?” one boy asked.

“Sure… but never at high noon.  The day got still, like today, and nobody or nothin’ moved ‘cause it was holy-like and it’d be a crime to leave your shadows behind.”

The boys looked across the street as if on cue; sure enough, there were crows along the crest of the roofs, on the wires, but none seemed to move.

They listened to Sam for a few minutes, hoping the moment would come when he would say, “Well, boys—” but his mind was on the blue skies above Montana, and their hope slipped off and evaporated in the heat.  The other boys went in to get their own root beers, but Carter stayed so the man wouldn’t be alone in the afternoon.

When they had gathered again on the porch, Sam said, “Boys, there were fires out there sometimes, and you could see it burning on the horizon like a second sun.  Sometimes it was north and sometimes it was south…”  The boys envisioned a land where two suns glowed, where men took to burning lines across the brush to keep the land from scorching.  They looked out on the street, where the windows of Mae’s Diner blazed white with reflected light.  One sun was bad enough.

After another few minutes of listening the boys danced the dance of impatience and Sam nodded.  “Y’all better get on, then.”

“Bye, Sam.”  “Seeya, Sam.”  “Later.”  They picked up their bikes and rode back to where they’d come from.

The next day the sun again beat down with its soft tyranny.  The boys gathered in the stillness of Hardy’s hay barn, listening to a tractor trundle somewhere far afield as a sourceless chaff drifted on the air, until Hunter arrived, pulling up short on his bike and letting it tumble in the dust.  He held his head as he ran, and only up close, out of the glint of summer, did the others see why: he had a straw hat on his head.

“What’s on your head?” Carter asked.

“It’s Sam’s hat,” Hunter said, sweating and red with triumph.

“How’d you get Montana’s hat?” they all wanted to know.

“I took it off his back porch,” Hunter said.  “He was sleeping in his rocking chair when I went to get Mom’s pan back and he had his hat sitting on the floor by his chair.  So I snuck up real slow and took it and ran.”

“…What about the pan?” someone asked.

“Huh?  Forget about it!”  They laughed.  “C’mon,” Hunter said.  They rode their bikes, cutting squiggly lines through the grass.  They stopped by the tree in Hardy’s field, an old magnolia thick with twisting branches and shade.  The hay had been baled the week before and the bales were all rolled up in webbing like giant cinnabuns, and one had been dropped in the shade of the old tree.

Hunter climbed atop and slapped the hat on his head.  “Now listen, y’all,” he intoned, trying to invoke Montana.  “This here’s the wide sky I been tellin’ y’all ‘bout.  It’s all big an’ blue an’ stuff.  I hauled it in, freight, with me from Montana.”

“That’s not Montana!” John said.  “Lemme try.”  The two switched places, and John put on the straw hat.  “You all—”

No!” the boys blatted at him, and laughed.  They booed him down from the bale as Hunter tossed a dirt clod.  John jumped down with a heavy wump.  Carter took up the hat and climbed onto the bale.

He dropped his voice low as it could go.  “Listen, boys,” he said, looking from just under the rim of the hat.  “Out there there’s a whole other sky y’all know nothin’ about.  It’s great an’ wide and keeps time in its watch…  At high noon everything just sits still on the land, shadows and sun and all that.”

“That’s Montana!” Riley said.

“He’s got it!” John said.

Carter grinned.  “That sky opens up on clear days, boys, an’ you’d swear you were lookin’ down, not up, and feelin’ like you’re fallin—”

“Yeah, well,” Hunter cut in.  “I took the hat, so it’s mine.”

“He’s just goofin’,” one of the boys said.

“Give it back!” Hunter yelled.  Carter didn’t move, so the other boy tried to climb up after him.  Carter stomped his feet where Hunter tried to grab the sides, until, fed up, Hunter said, “C’mon, guys.”  The three moved to the uphill side and started to rock the bale.

“Quit it!” Carter yelled.

“Give it back, then!”

The bale rocked, threatening to tip, until Carter lost his balance and fell to the side.  He held the hat as he fell, and clutched it to his chest as his back hit the ground.  It wasn’t a long fall, but the earth was firm and took the wind from him in a throaty wuhf.

Hunter tried to snatch the hat back, but Carter held on.  They struggled; the other two didn’t want to get involved in whatever this was as dirt sprayed around them and Hunter tugged on the brim of the hat.  They exchanged curses until they heard a rapid snapping and Hunter fell away with a plat of woven straw in his hands.  Carter looked down to the ragged edge where part of the brim had been.

As he scuttled back the boys stared with eyes wide at what was left of the hat.

“Here,” Hunter spat, thrusting the ripping toward him.  “You ruin everything, Carter.”  He threw the bit of weaving at Carter.  “C’mon, guys,” Hunter said in the lower register of disgust.  He tipped Carter’s bike over as he collected his own, kicked some dirt on it, and the other two followed after him, glancing uneasily over their shoulders until they were moving too fast to look back.

Carter sat on the bale for a while, fondling the broken hat in his lap and trying to think of what to do.  The straws were tightly woven, faded to the color of white gold, and the brim was almost smooth.  Except where it had ripped, where the edge was now jagged.  Carter picked at the odd ends and began pulling them apart.  He could never take it back to Sam.  When it was dismantled completely he dropped the stiff, lasagna-wavy straws in the dirt and spread them around with his toe.  He stuffed the plat deep in his cargo pocket, folded in half, where it pushed back gently against his thigh.  He picked up his bike, dusted off the seat, and rode away.

Carter pushed his bike through the heat, in no hurry.  He turned past the statue of Colonel Foster and glided to a stop in the dirt in front of Monty’s.  He leaned his bike against the lattice of the front porch and plodded up the steps, head hung low.

“Mr. Montana…”

“Since when any of you call me ‘Mister?’”  The man looked up from a bundle of stiff new straw as he took a handful and rattled it in a loose fist.  He sniffed and thumbed the stubble on his upper lip.  “You seen my hat, Carter?”

The boy winced.  He shook his head.

“Mm.  Wind must’a caught it up and carried it off.”  Sam had no hat on, and for the first time Carter realized how colorful the man’s eyes were, like the aquamarine of the Coke glasses in Mae’s Diner.  He was strikingly young, with smooth cheeks and only faint wrinkles and a clarion, mischievous glint in his eye.  Younger than Carter had always imagined, with the oxygen tank and all.  Sam asked, “Where your friends at?”

“Probably at Hunter’s.”  Carter slid down the railing and plopped his butt on the porch.

“Why aren’t you with ‘em?”

“We got in a fight,” Carter said.  He sat Indian-style.

“What about?”

He hesitated, grazing his fingers over his pocket.  “Idunno,” he mumbled.  “Stupid stuff.”

Sam cleared his throat, sniffed, and adjusted something on his tank; Carter eyed him as he did.  Sam tapped a nail against the tank and asked, “I ever tell you how I came to have my trusty sidekick here?”

“No, sir.”

Sam chuckled a little.  “Sir, he says…  Jeez, kid.  When you want soda it’s all, ‘Sam! Mon-tana!’  What’s gotten into you?”  He smiled to himself, folding straws over each other in his lap.  Then he said, “Well anyway, I used to fight them fires I told you boys about, out in Montana.  Mean sons-a-guns, they were, hot as dragon spit.  Well, one time I went to clear some houses, make sure everyone’d gotten out, got caught behind the burn line.  I was running blind and hacking away with my Pulaski—that’s like a fire axe—and ran right through some burning ivy.  Singed my lungs.”  The straws rattled faintly in his lap.  Sam grunted.  “Lucky I ain’t blind.  Lucky I ain’t dead.”

Carter could see it all in his head: the man, the inferno.  But he couldn’t tell the man that for a moment earlier in the day he had seen the world as Sam saw it, with the great smiling sky.  He sat with Sam through the quiet hours of the afternoon as the man wove first the crown, then the brim, until they came together straw by straw.

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