Hats and Ghosts

A moving story of hats, ghosts, photos, memories, affections and Italy.

When he thought about it in the morning, after he rose to the golden streaks of a rising sun, he decided it certainly had been a strange evening. Maybe it was the Verdicchio di Metalica, grapes harvested in the hills west of the Adriatic sea in Le Marche, bottled in 2014. A good year but the wine was a bit old to expect the best balance of citrus and herbs. The night was dark in the depth of winter. He considered his mortality and Sarnano’s history where he lived.

Coming from Canada to Italy, he carried the necessary and personal; clothes, paintings, books, favorite cooking utensils, down parkas and insulated boots suitable for the arctic winters of Vermont and Montreal. He brought them in overloaded suitcases; objects important and movable. They were reminders. A great many boxes were given away and the furniture sold. The years became memories.

On a table in his apartment rested a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera, a bequest from the widow of a friend who had died of exhaustion and cancer in a New York hospital ward, beds separated by curtains that failed to contain anguish and the sound of pain.

He recalled the camera’s click from the previous night, sure he had not pressed the shutter release, looked through the view finder or set the exposure. It was an old camera used for portraits and landscapes. He must have imagined that the lens focused and the counter moved; soft sounds, a hoarse whisper.

Three hats hung on a coat rack at the entrance of his flat in the centro storico, a long shallow flight of stairs up from the cortile off XX Settembre. They shared the stand with windbreakers, hooded coats and walking sticks, ignored for a year and catching the morning light. He used one when the wind was strong and the rain came from the south, turning over neighbors’ plants in the narrow lanes that existed since Leonardo Da Vinci was a boy outside Florence.

Hats of ghosts
The three hats on the coat rack. Photo courtesy of the author.

This winter evening, by accident or design, he looked at the hats and realized that they were part of life’s calendar. After dinner and glasses of wine, he carried them to the dining table. He had never done that before. Putting the oldest on, he swept the brim between his thumb and first finger, feeling the texture, the way they did in Astaire’s romantic movies. The hat was felt and his thumb left an impression. The label said Maysap, a brand from 1800 in Ulm, Germany. He called the company in Germany and was told that the records were lost in the war. The man in the shop, the man that might have known, retired 40 years earlier. He was dead now, knowledge in a wood coffin at the municipal cemetery.

The man who purchased the hat and gave it to me was my uncle, a child in the year 1905. At five, he ran with others down Potemkin’s granite steps in Odessa, steerage to New York and Liberty’s Island. A long life waited.

The camera clicked and the film advanced.

The second hat was from Abercrombie and Fitch’s, the factory on South Street, New York in 1892 where square rigged sailing ships docked and fish were traded for a hundred years before the market stalls became a parking lot and condos. The hat was deep green and rigid, formed in a press operated by an Irish, Italian or Jew. Whoever was cheap, willing to work the hours. My father received it as a gift when he graduated from a university that had a quotas for Hebrews and blacks. A leather band circled the crown’s base, stitched proud. There is a corroded horseshoe buckle on the headband. The hat says class and wealth, pretension, qualities he hated. My father never wore it. He dispatched it to the closet in the bathroom, but he would not throw away history or a gift. It came to me.

The camera clicked and the film advanced.

The third hat was his wife’s, a Tilley Endurable, finest in all the world, insured against loss, guaranteed forever, won’t shrink, made in Canada of heavy cotton duck. With a four page owner’s manual and a pocket to inscribe your name. If an elephant swallowed it and excreted, you got a new one. She purchased it for sailing and he wore it now. It shows still a stain from cheap plonk, American Cabernet Sauvignon, spilled in Maine. She died, the hat came to Italy, finding peace in the shadows.

The camera clicked and the film advanced.

He poured a glass of wine, held the hats, putting one on after the other, tilting them to the side for the mirror’s approval. To see if he could feel the past, the people. He closed his eyes, saw them in the flower’s bloom, their presence moving into him, gentle and smiling. The man who fled the Cossack slaughter for the new world beyond a thousand horizons, the intellectual tormented by responsibility, depression and world’s war, the woman with the future in her eyes and caring’s halo.

He wondered how he had wandered into time different from his own, what his uncle and father would have thought of the Italian village named after the veterans of Augustus when Christ lived in Judea, instead of high rise buildings and electric cars with hood ornaments and computer chips. He saw his uncle staring at Liberty’s statue, father on the 20th Century Limited Express to Chicago, his wife at an oak door behind lions guarding her home in Montreal.

Was wine the secret that allowed him to enter and be attached to the past? Were hats the portal’s key code? Would it vanish at dusk, a meteor in Sol’s fire? He looked at the empty glass, returned the hats to the rack, went to bed and tried to sleep.

A month later, he went into Sarnano’s historic center, took photos with the Rolleiflex and walked the exposed film to the photography store across his favorite cafe. They told him it would be five days to process, the results might disappoint. The darkroom was not used to negatives on a spool. Everything was digital now. They took his money.

A week later after shopping for groceries at the Coal supermercato with his Maremmano puppy, he picked up the prints and returned on cobblestones to the apartment. He made carbonara and had two bottles from Moretti’s beer and ice factory.

There was no hurry. He washed the dishes, read his mail, smoked a meerschaum pipe filled with aromatic Virginia tobacco, made Amaretto coffee in the moka pot, added cane sugar, chocolate dust and fortified the drink with grappa. He listened to Yo Yo Ma play Ennio Morricone’s film scores. Then he opened the envelope and saw pictures he had never taken.

Confused, his hands shaking, the images were clear, figures real. They were alive as ever they had been, color in their faces and clothes fresh, eyes sparkling, silent. He began to cry, accepting what reason would not explain. His uncle relaxed on the sofa holding an expensive cigar, wearing a purple smoking jacket, silk lapels and a throat scarf, above the calm Atlantic in a Florida penthouse across from an upscale shopping center. Early years to the rhythm of success, penthouse above the doorman attended entrance and polished marble, every visitor greeted with Sir, door held, head bowed. He smiled, the joke’s triumph, continents and oceans from the shtetl; strawberries, cream and bananas, every morning. The saber, hate and horsemen were gone.

He saw his father working at his desk in a small advertising company in Chicago on Erie Street, sliding doors between offices, the furniture 1950’s veneer. There were ads on the walls to record victories, energy and failure, disgust for clients who thought they knew better and wanted to bed the voice over actresses. He made the daily drive north to a Jewish suburb with exclusive country clubs, the state of the art ghetto’s deceptive promise, deep fried shrimp from the Waukegan Greek’s diner that offered cocktail sauce in fluted paper cups, the pungent gratifying heat of horseradish. In the evening on television we watched the House Un-American Activities Committee, the lawyer who said “ have you no sense of decency, sir?” My sister spoke on the phone with the twisted cord.

His wife of the Tilley hat, moving with grace. Her scene long and private in the garden, on the boat and preparing meals, cleaning house and walking the dog. He never appreciated how she shepherded him through the bad times, protected them from the mistakes of life. Mouthing his gratitude, he put the photos down. If he stepped into that world, could he leave and return to his own? How would he choose? He put the hats in the bedroom, knowing he should destroy the camera.

Months later he took them out once more. The images were different. No longer his uncle looking over the ocean, father in the office, wife at home. Now they were in final days, the accented immigrant dead, naked and embarrassed in the bath after a heart attack, father slumped on a plastic chair, his 103rd birthday, candles burning on puddled white frosting, my wife at the hospital in a private room after the second aneurysm that would kill her.

Somehow the ancient town where Etruscans and Picentes walked figured in this, along with carved pipes of arabs, Romans and courtiers, the paintings of wooden ships sailing to Indian ports and rusting on harbour’s reefs, antiquarian books after Gutenberg’s century. He was the intruding audience, seeing stop motion stage sets built and painted, actors on their marks, waiting for a cue, the pit ensemble and up curtain. Centuries folded into each other, age layered steel in Japanese blades, sharp, flexible and forever.

The warm cloudless days chased one another, the town busy with festivals and visitors. One night in the Piazza Perfetti there was a concert featuring cello and clarinet and full orchestra under strings of light. Distant dogs accompanied them in chorus. He heard the music through open windows in the apartment and it pleased him.

He polished the camera’s leather case and removed the film, stiff brushed the hats and wrapped them in paper, carefully putting everything in an overnight bag. They went into the corner’s cupboard. He was afraid to handle them and they would stay alone, unattended. He said a prayer for ghosts.