Image by Brooke Bourgeois

Fiction The Patriotic Hat

Alec Niedenthal

At the end of her first life, Mrs. Cohen moved to Florida.

During her first days in the state she proclaimed the beauty of everything, while inwardly hating it. She was used to the aching distance between the things she said and the things she felt; it seemed to be how she was structured now. “I can’t believe we’re so close to the beach. It’s like a dream,” she said as her husband drove past all of the places to spend the money they didn’t have. There was a bar and grill, an Italian place, another bar and grill, a maternity shop called Mamma Mia!, a fenced-in lot with pictures promising condos.

She liked the beach but not this beach, which had the aura of a beer commercial that backfired, that made you want the beer even less than you did before the advertisement erupted onto your television, screaming about fun. 

When they arrived home, to their house which was a slightly differentiated replica of its neighbors, they went to their separate compartments, her husband to his television lair, and Mrs. Cohen to the little pea-gravel backyard with a glass of sauvignon blanc and a mind full of thoughts and images which felt unbearable, like a fire only the wine could put out. “I’m going out for my glass of wine,” she said, sliding open the door as her husband picked up the remote that felt to her sometimes like a kind of ideal or superior version of the penis, a penis which in effect did control reality, whereas the human penis only yearned for this dictatorial control over the course of things.  

A month ago, she was a bit tipsy and started to explain about the remote’s penis-like quality to her husband, but he misunderstood; Mrs. Cohen understood that this was the logic of their communication, that is, misunderstanding, a quiet misfiring, the prying open of holes in language. “That’s disgusting, Sharon,” he’d said, staring at the remote with the probably-straight man’s terror of wielding someone else’s penis. “How can you say something like that?”

Perhaps she hoped, then, that she could provoke him out of the place he was beginning to sink into.  

Soon the wine was done and she went inside, passing her husband, who was chuckling at a game show in which the losing contestants had to present naked pictures of themselves to the audience, the juicy details of which the television censored. 

She recognized, though her husband was laughing, that he wanted so badly to know what was behind the blurs in the pictures of the losing contestants. Laughter was a way of taking the sexual stimulation of the show and making it safe and acceptable. It was itself a blurring.

Mrs. Cohen prepared for bed, thinking — as she did increasingly these days — of the time she found her mother standing on a bridge at night, in the rain, staring into the river.      

 

Mrs. Cohen made a friend. 

His name was Richard, and like a certain subset of people their age in Florida, it was hard to tell whether he was a Jew: he had the first name and the demeanor, but his facial features were too rounded and his countenance too tan and hairless to draw any final conclusions. It was as if he had been cross-pollinated, interbred not on a genetic level but in the field of language and expression. “Oy vey!” he would say as they sat outside at the grocery store cafe where they met, or, “I’d like to give her tuchus a smack,” about a passing woman, but then one day he mentioned that his wife forced him to attend a Nazarene church, which, he complained, was “full of a bunch of losers with their tongues hanging out,” and the question of his ethnicity was thereby settled. 

Gradually she learned that he simply lived in a retirement community, surrounded by Jews, and had adopted their parlance like a stick bug disappearing into a twig, or a mantis blending in with the lawn.

Unlike her husband, Richard loved Donald Trump. “Trump is the man,” was his most common expression of delight regarding the president. But he could be more profound. “Of course, Trump does a lot of things I wouldn’t do,” he would say, wearing his American flag baseball cap and slowly drinking his third cappuccino of the day. He wore oversized sunglasses and, after two weeks of knowing him, Mrs. Cohen likewise began wearing hexagonal sunglasses that were too large for her face and too heavy on her nose. This was a more or less conscious act of mimicry; Richard had fun, and she wanted to have fun, too.

“But at the end of the day,” he went on, “Trump makes life enjoyable. I could be dead tomorrow. I’m sixty-nine years old.” He winked then, as he usually did when citing his age — it was almost a tic, this innuendo, and was barely visible behind his dark glasses. “I’m sixty-nine, Sharon. I don’t want to wake up to, ‘So-and-so passed the bill.’ Who cares about a bill. I want to wake up to the talking heads exploding on TV. I want to fall asleep to the Ivy Leaguers screaming because no one gives a shit about their opinions anymore. I want to have fun. I want to have a good time, and that’s what my president gives me. That’s what he gives me.”

 

Mrs. Cohen worked as a receptionist at the law firm of her husband’s only acquaintance in their new home: Yoni. Yoni was Israeli and seemed to hate her husband. “Husband got in trouble, huh?” he would tease, knowing very well that her husband was a felon who had spent six months in prison for real estate fraud and then the next six months on house arrest before they came to Florida. 

Or he would be more explicit: “How’s the jailbird?” and then he would sing an unidentifiable and mournful tune which, she guessed, was supposed to represent the anthem of a jailbird. “Da-da-da, da-da-da-da,” he intoned, closing the door to his office. His voice was surprisingly strong and so she didn’t mind it, and sometimes before bed Mrs. Cohen would even hear Yoni’s wordless refrain looping in her skull. 

Partly, she knew, Yoni’s teasing was a manifestation of joy at his continuing to dodge auditors, despite having only ever paid federal income taxes in the most nominal sense possible.

In any case, she was a receptionist whose job consisted mostly of telling people to whom Yoni owed money that he was at the gym — which was usually true. He wanted his creditors to know that he was capable of protecting himself “in case of an event,” as he phrased it.

More and more Mrs. Cohen spent time away from work. Yoni’s was a solo practice, and the answering service carried over to her smartphone, so she could tell Yoni’s enemies and occasionally his clients that he was off at Body Regime without leaving Richard’s table on the terrace outside of the wellness-based grocery store where they met.

One day, a Tuesday, Richard brought an extra American flag ball cap for her. Mrs. Cohen’s words and thoughts, or the feelings undergirding these thoughts, didn’t often cohere. But in this case, for the first time in a long while, they did. “Thank you, Richard. This is just lovely,” she said, already wearing it on her head, adjusting the fit; by default, it was set for the alien-like bulbosity of a man’s skull.

Someone had given her a gift.

They sat there wearing matching hats. 

“Do you like it?” he asked. “What do you think of it, Sharon?”

“Oh, I love it.” She struggled to place her feelings in the vast and, it seemed to her then, very disorderly system of language. “It’s just like yours.”

“I got it from the same place. I thought, ‘Maybe they’ll be sold out,’ so I called before going all the way out on the highway to make sure, and the girl said, ‘Oh, we’ve got those in,’ and lo and behold they had a whole wall of them,” he said, proudly narrating his purchase of the hat, which one might have thought from his tone had been a miraculous coincidence rather than a fairly routine purchase. But to Mrs. Cohen it was like a miracle. She felt its presence on her head like some sort of religious garment, connecting her to something larger — it signaled the possibility that her words and feelings, and her feelings and thoughts, could all meet and interweave. 

“I’m going in to get another cappuccino,” he said, already elevating himself from the chair, an inevitably successful and yet lengthy process. “Do you want one?” 

They stayed talking for about an hour, sipping cappuccinos. Usually, it was just Richard who talked, but today Mrs. Cohen felt it easy to add commentary here and there, disagreeing with him about the president at times, and at other times — such as when he said that Trump “knew what he was doing on the economy” — conceding that he had a point, though in the latter case, the issue was primarily that she didn’t know enough about what Richard meant to be able to argue against him. 

Objections to Richard’s multiple assertions that the state of the economy was “strong,” as if this were the only adjective that could possibly modify it, appeared to her briefly before being suppressed and forgotten. For instance, despite having a college degree and a decent amount of work experience across a span of thirty years, she eventually had to settle for a position answering phones for an Israeli gym addict who casually mocked her husband’s carceral record. It was the only job she could find that paid more than twelve dollars an hour with health benefits that wouldn’t eat up half her wages each week. But she couldn’t have said any of this, because she was still so grateful for the ball cap with its stars and stripes, its “USA” emblazoned on the brim.

Yet it was incredible to talk so long with someone, to feel one’s voice reach into one’s own thoughts and more often than not, simply say them: to give the thoughts to another’s comprehension and have them understood. 

 

Mrs. Cohen wore her hat home. It wasn’t that her husband disliked America, but his viewpoint on it had distinctly changed since the time he never referred to, as if by eliminating it in speech he could eliminate it in fact.

“What is that on your head?” he asked as she came in from work. “Is that an America hat?”

A lifelong conservative, Mr. Cohen had turned against his kind. Though he still couldn’t bring himself to support the other side — and in any case it didn’t matter in Florida, where felons couldn’t vote — he was a fan of anyone who could articulate the way that degeneracy, stupidity, and carnivalesque silliness had taken over his former party.

“Well, it’s a patriotic hat,” she said, entering the kitchen and moving around random objects — largely glasses and silverware — to try to sonically overpower her husband’s coming rush of pained, amputated words, but it was impossible. Since returning home from prison, his voice had been meeker and more broken, but not that meek, not that broken; he could still make himself heard.

“Are you one of those people now? Is that who you are, Sharon?” he yipped from the living room, where the television was telling him about the events of the day. “Are you one of these people — these, these — ” He was helpless to describe them. 

Aside from the game shows and reality shows that he relaxed to, her husband enjoyed a regular rotation of news programs that openly loathed Trump and his “minions,” as the shows’ hosts and guests termed them, as if the president were only comprehensible if they could turn him into something like a fantastical evil warlord. But when it came time to articulate his disdain for the president and his millions of followers, her husband’s voice caught on the endless and yet somehow far too narrow field of available catharses, the terrain of language too hollow for the shame he wanted to heap on them. “These — these — ” was where the invective ended that evening, and then he turned up the volume of the news, drowning out the possibility of his own speech.

Mrs. Cohen made dinner with the hat on, telling herself it was a functional hairnet and so actually fairly useful, and then she took it off to eat, her mother always having scolded people out of earshot — diners at restaurants in town; diners in the dining car of the train when they visited Philadelphia — her mother always having scolded people, that is, for keeping their headwear on while eating. 

When she went out for her evening glass of sauvignon blanc, to stare at the stars and let images move through her mind, she put the hat on again. 

She sat in an Adirondack chair and thought of her mother on the bridge.

In memory everything, and everyone, could live again. Mrs. Cohen felt that memory was a sort of heaven, a site of judgment and resurrection.

“Mom, what the hell are you doing out here?” she remembered asking. The rain struck her arm, the top of her head. This was a time when words and thoughts found each other and held on. She said what she meant, with the intensity it called for.

Her mom got in the car, wet and shivering but still prim. She said nothing and kept her purse in her lap: this detail would always remain with Mrs. Cohen, that her mother was quite possibly prepared to kill herself that night — her mother who was so taciturn in the months after Mrs. Cohen’s father left for another woman, a former friend of her mother’s from synagogue, Deborah the divorcée who lived less than a ten-minute walk away — that her mother was quite probably contemplating death on the bowed length of the pedestrian bridge and had nonetheless been carrying her handbag, forever the lady, even unto the motions and mental preparations for a suicide in the rain.

For decades Mrs. Cohen didn’t think of this, but then her husband emerged from jail — often she called it jail and not federal prison, like he was some petty criminal — he emerged from jail and hardly spoke to her. And so she began to remember the bridge, the climax of a specific type of silence. 

Though he spoke to the television sometimes. 

She would walk in the living room and find him saying, “That episode was great, thank you,” or, “You guys are too much, that’s a riot,” and the feeling this gave her was confusing, like she wanted to help him but was also more than a little frightened by the specter of whatever was happening in his brain, and so she would retreat to the bedroom and prepare for bed, into which eventually he too would silently crawl if he didn’t fall asleep on the sofa under her mother’s afghan — the television talking to him, the post-midnight infomercials or the familiar characters of a syndicated medical sitcom keeping watch over the somewhat tall unconscious felon who seemed less and less like a husband of over two decades and more like a mentally opaque roommate of several months.

After a while she finished the sauvignon blanc and discovered that her daughter, a human rights lawyer who now refused to speak to her father, was calling. She was too tired — her daughter talked for longer than ever now, as if condensing both parents into her mother alone. “Everything okay?” Mrs. Cohen texted. “Watching a movie with your father.” 

She did this sometimes, inventing situations of normalcy for her daughter’s benefit, in the hope, not yet realized, that it would carry over — that her daughter would ape the false sense of normalcy that Mrs. Cohen projected and begin talking to her father once again. 

Her husband was asleep with the light on, and after she turned it off, as she crept upstairs, she decided without articulating it to herself fully that she would sleep with the hat on, knowing that it was a terrible decision hair-wise. It reminded her of communicating with Richard: that she could speak and be understood. However, wearing a hat in bed turned out to be impractical in reality, because of how it constricted the skull. One needed a comfortable skull to sleep, just as one needed a comfortable everything else.

 

Over a period of weeks she began to understand that her husband was in a state which differed in depth and even in kind from his prior crises. Theoretically, because he was banned from real estate speculation for the next two decades, he was studying for the Florida bar exam, after not having practiced law since his thirties. In reality, he seemed to spend the majority of his time alone in front of screens, mostly either the television or the desktop computer but sometimes the tablet where he read the news he already knew about. He was increasingly unafraid of talking to the first of these — the television — in Mrs. Cohen’s presence.

It was only after her mother’s death that she began to think of, or allowed herself to think of, that trench of empty time after her father left for the divorcée across town, reducing by one — and perhaps more than one, given that the divorcée had a number of friends “on her side” — the number of Jewish ladies with whom her mother could truly communicate in their small Pennsylvania town. In any case, the farther she got from her mother’s departure from time and life, the more memories of this time recurred.   

Now it seemed to her that the period of her mother’s silence, which peaked on the bridge in the rain, was repeating itself — the reanimation of memory bled into life in the person of her husband. But no one can bear to rescue someone from the silence twice, and so Mrs. Cohen spent more and more time away from the house.  

She understood on a conceptual level, where things were fairly easy to repress, that she should help pull him out of the unnameable place into which he was sinking. But in terms of the sensory matters that at the moment drove her behavior, she wished to be near Richard on the terrace of the cafe of the wellness-based grocery store. The summit of pleasure was to speak and, in such speaking, brush against another consciousness. 

Sometimes she wore the patriotic hat backwards, as a kind of irreverent joke, and Richard would say something like, “Hip-hop, hippy to the hippity hop” as she walked up, while pretending to spin a record with one of his hands. 

He looked like a runaway from a psych ward, but in such moments she came closer to a framing of their relationship, which was that it might be romantic, even sexual, but it was a romance of her own thoughts and words and feelings: the coherence between them.

One Wednesday, hours after having left her husband still sleeping as the television continued its narcotic drone, she came to the terrace. 

Maybe she could like living here. Maybe, Mrs. Cohen imagined, she could meet Richard’s wife, the one who on Sundays pulled him out of his natural gravitation toward the terrace and into the mob of losers, as he referred to them, that made up the congregation of their Nazarene church.

She had the hat on backwards, but today there was no hippity-hop, no invisible disc-spinning. 

“Is something wrong?” she asked after grabbing her cappuccino.

He responded after a silence during which his facial expression twitched between several varieties of rage. “They’re trying to impeach the president,” he said. “Your people are trying to impeach the president for nothing. For a fucking phone call.”

She was confused. “Well, let’s talk about it,” she said, because he gave her confidence in language. “We can figure it out.”

“Doesn’t anyone want to have fun anymore? Jesus Christ, it’s like your party is a bunch of goddamn schoolmarms. They’re a bunch of nuns. They want to slap him across the wrists with a ruler. Everyone’s having fun at the fucking circus and then they come to shut it down. ‘Sorry, this is against fire code.’ Screw your fire code. We’re going to burn down the whole world if you keep this up.”

He seemed seriously perturbed, and as she sat there he talked less and less. Eventually he issued only fragments of sentences complaining about the Democratic Party, or “Democrat Party,” as he called it.

She drove to the office and finished work, which involved formatting and printing a stack of contract templates to convince herself she was useful, strenuously stapling these same contracts together, and then once asking Yoni if he needed anything, to which he grunted a reply that was less a negative answer to her question than a refusal of communication altogether.

That night, at the news of the impeachment, her husband was a bit more talkative than usual, particularly during dinner, at which he complimented her chicken. But still he fell asleep in front of the television as cable news repeated stories from earlier in the day, as if this were all night was for, an endless recapitulation of the time when everyone was awake.

 

The next day she wore her hat frontwards, but it was the same. All Richard did was complain about the now probable impeachment. Over the course of their coffee, he descended from an elaborate metaphor in which the Democrat Party was a fire department shutting down a town circus that all the citizens loved, to a series of repetitive semi-sentences which seemed intended to blame Mrs. Cohen specifically for the attempted political assassination of his president.

“These are your people, Sharon,” he said, holding the vertex of two fingers up to his lips, as if he wished he had a cigar. “These are your people, your people. Look at what they’re doing to him. Over a phone call. These are your fucking people and look at what they’re doing. Over a phone call. A phone call. A call.”

After an extended period of this, she began to wonder if he meant the Jews. Instead of pressing him, she left before the lunch hour was up.

As she got up to go, he seemed to grasp that something was wrong, and he glared up in his large glasses, white hair matted by the hat that matched hers. “Everything fine, Sharon?”

“Yes, Yoni just needs me back at the office,” she told him, pushing in her chair. Thus she felt her words and thoughts and feelings lose their coherence; there was no way she could frame what she felt in language. It felt like when she was a kid and the television screen would fill with snow and she would have to play with the rabbit ears until the picture returned, only now there were no rabbit ears, only a retired man on the terrace of a grocery store obsessively defending his president.

She left work early, telling Yoni that her husband was having an emergency, to which he replied, “Is the jailbird back to jail?”

Driving home, as the trees along the highway blew by, Mrs. Cohen was vaguely conscious that her relationship with Richard, or whatever it was, was at an end; she didn’t know what it meant yet, how it would decay over the days and weeks to come, how it would unfold into a future. He coincided mostly with her move to Florida, so she wasn’t entirely sure how it would feel without him, without that place and that time, that terrace, to look forward to; to have the anticipation of a near-daily future become suddenly a past, solid and impossible to move as a stone structure, until eventually it would come alive again as memory and image, recurring in the hours before sleep.

In this sense it was more the time she would miss, the anticipation of that hour or more, than Richard himself, who was sullied by now in her mind. 

When she walked in the door, her husband was happy. One of the news stations was on, the one that hated the president the most out of everyone, that reported almost nonstop on his corruption and various scandals, as if they were the primary source of struggle and suffering in the country. 

“It’s happening!” he yelled, his normally gray face lit up red, so he looked like some sort of blushing cadaver. “It’s happening! They’re closing in on him!”

“We have to celebrate!” he yelled, and he grabbed her hands and they danced in front of the television to the tune of the news. In her head she thought of Yoni’s jailbird song, which she reframed now as a hymn to her husband, a prayer that he would recover; and in her body she was pleased that, at least temporarily, he had. She tried not to think that this was only the symptom of a deeper addiction, that soon he would crash on the shores of disappointment and tunnel deeper into his friendship with the television, and she managed well enough to keep this understanding at bay for the length of their dancing, which was maybe three or four minutes. 

He dipped her and it felt lovely, reminding her of the last Bar Mitzvah they went to, the one at which he dipped her to “Brick House,” which was of course entirely the wrong song to dip someone to, and she remembered almost slipping on the parquet floor. But at the time it was exhilarating, to be dipped in this way, held in the air this way, his face debonair and charmed by his own capacity to dip. 

However, tonight when he dipped her, the hat, which she would have taken off in the car had she thought of it, fell on the floor. It slid under an armoire she had inherited from her mother, who had inherited it from hers.

Over the next several hours, after a surprising bout of actual sex and a late afternoon glass of wine together outside, the hat acquired the inertia typical of objects partly hidden under other objects. It sat there most of the night, until her husband picked it up off the floor and, happy once again to live in the country which had imprisoned him, loosened the strap and began to wear it. “Do I look like one of them?” he asked, laughing. During its time under the armoire the hat had attracted an impressive amount of dust, but Mrs. Cohen didn’t say anything.

Alec Niedenthal has published stories in The Baffler, The Brooklyn Rail, Fence, and other publications. He is completing a novel called The Patriotic Plot.

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