Hat in the House ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Luster Gilman was from one of the poorest families in town. He had six brothers and sisters and he always wore overalls or hand-me-downs from his older brothers. He was small for his age, had intense brown eyes like a little fox and a hit-or-miss haircut given to him by his often-drunk father. All the Gilman boys had the same haircut, usually with a bloody knick or two.
I liked Luster because there was nobody else like him. He was funny in a way that nobody else was and he didn’t mind making fun of the teacher, Miss Meeks, behind her back when she lifted her fat arms above her head and showed the tops of her stockings. He could walk like her and he even claimed to have seen her smoking one time. He said she held the cigarette like she thought she was Lana Turner, which, of course, she wasn’t.
When Luster began to grow tiny horns on his head, he called my attention to them on the playground one morning at recess. They were little nubs about the size of baby beans.
“Now, why in the world would I be growing horns?” he asked.
“Maybe it’s not horns,” I said. “Maybe it’s something else.”
“I don’t know. Warts.”
“Did you ever know of anybody to grow warts like horns?” he asked.
“Can’t say I have,” I said.
“What can I do about it?”
“Comb your hair over them.”
“It’s too short. Do you know how long it would take to grow my hair long enough to cover them?”
“Well, wear a hat until your hair grows out,” I said.
The next day Luster wore a French beret to school. It suited him somehow and nobody seemed to notice it much, but I knew Miss Meeks wouldn’t let it alone. About the middle of the morning, during arithmetic, she stopped what she was doing and looked around the room.
“Does anybody know what a gentleman is?” she asked.
After a moment of thought, somebody said, “A person who lights your cigarette and opens your beer for you?”
“Well, yes,” Miss Meeks said, “but there’s more to it than that.”
“Somebody who opens the door for a lady?” somebody else said.
“Yes, but these are things a gentleman does, not what a gentleman is.”
“A gentleman is a man who abides by all the rules of behavior and who thinks of others before the thinks of himself,” Latrice Laflamme said, eager, as always, to set us straight.
“Very good, Latrice!” Miss Meeks said. “Now can somebody tell me what is the opposite of a gentleman?”
“A lady?” somebody said.
“Yes, but we can go farther than that,” Miss Meeks said. “A person who isn’t a gentleman is a selfish person. A lout. Does anybody know what a lout is?”
“No, a lout is a person who flaunts the rules of polite society and does things that nobody else does just because he thinks he has a right to do them. A lout is a person who. Wears his hat in the house!
She pointed to Luster Gilman with a flourish and everybody turned and looked at him.
“Go hang the hat in the cloakroom, Luster,” Miss Meeks said.
“I said take off the hat and go hang it up.”
When Luster came back from the cloakroom, minus the beret, everybody was laughing at him and pointing. Miss Meeks just let them go wild for a few minutes before settling them down again to arithmetic.
After school that day I waited to have a word with Miss Meeks as she was leaving.
“Miss Meeks,” I said. “Luster had on that hat for a reason.”
“What? What hat?”
“The hat you made him take off.”
“Nobody has a hat on in the house for a reason,” she said.
“He’s growing horns and he was trying to cover them up to keep people from seeing them and laughing at him.”
“He’s growing horns?” she said, staring at me with her frog-like eyes. “Why would he be growing horns?”
“He doesn’t know why.”
“Evolution seems to have taken a strange turn with him,” she said.
“So you’ll let him wear the hat in class?” I asked.
“Absolutely not! If I let him wear a hat in the classroom, others will want special privileges for themselves. We can’t let that kind of thing get started. There are rules, you know.”
When Luster’s horns grew to be about an eighth of an inch long, everybody started noticing them. He tried to cover them up with his lank, sandy-colored hair, but they still stood out like nipples on a boar hog. People began calling him names like goat boy, nipple head, and the little devil.
After a few days of teasing, ribbing, and name-calling, Luster was sick of the whole thing.
“I’m going to take a knife and gouge them out,” he said.
“That’d hurt too much and they might grow back,” I said.
“I wish I was dead.”
“There’s worse things than growing horns.”
“I don’t know. Having two heads.”
“I’m going to run away,” he said.
“Someplace where horns are appreciated and other people have them besides me.”
I wasn’t surprised when Luster disappeared. He was there and then he wasn’t. Everybody thought he had been kidnapped or murdered. Volunteers searched for him in the woods. They dragged the rivers but, of course, found no trace of him.
Luster’s mother and father were in the newspaper and on TV. They were both suspected at first of doing away with Luster but were eventually cleared. I had to believe they were secretly relieved they had one less child to take care of.
In a few months people stopped talking about Luster and moved on to something else. If most people chose to believe he was dead, I believed he was alive somewhere, laughing at the colossal joke he had played on the world.
Twenty-five years later I had escaped the small town and was living in the city. One evening I was at the library, thinking about absolutely nothing, when I noticed a man sitting at a table looking at me. I looked at him, looked away, and then looked back. Something about him was terribly familiar.
He stood up and, as he came toward me, I knew it was Luster Gilman as a grown man. The same fox-like eyes, small nose and ears. I couldn’t tell if he still had the horns because if they were there his hair covered them up.
“I think I know you,” he said.
“You’re Luster Gilman,” I said.
“Everybody thought you were dead.”
“Where were you?”
“If I told you, you probably wouldn’t believe me,” he said.
“Is it that fantastic?”
He looked over his shoulder. “I can’t talk here,” he said. “I only have a minute. Give me your phone number and I’ll call you in a few days.”
I wrote my address and phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to him and he was gone.
I waited for Luster Gilman to call me but he never did. Not in a few days. Not ever. I tried to find him but there was no trace of him in the phone listings or anyplace else. I even consulted a private investigator but he came up with nothing.
Had Luster Gilman as a man even existed? Had I imagined seeing him at the library because there was a part of me that needed an answer to what happened to him? Was my seeing him just another one of his impish jokes? Maybe I would have to wait another twenty-five years to find out. There had to be an answer somewhere.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp