“The Biographer’s Hat”, by Cynthia Ozick

From his briefcase, he took out a fountain pen and a yellow notepad. “Well, let’s go.”

There was iron in his request. He looked at the hat on his chair as if confirming his will. As if the hat, and the fur-collared coat on the shower rod, and even the fountain pen, would keep him rooted until he got what he wanted. As if he intended to cheer me on until I surrendered. The only way to get rid of him was to nod.

I was nineteen, I told him, when I enrolled in a messy seminar at the New School on Twelfth Street, presided over by a middle-aged man dressed like a bum wearing a hat. The class was listed as Victorian Prose and Verse. He explained that he was a pretender, an impostor. Basically, he said, he was a bard, a minstrel, a reciter who sold himself for money, mostly to high schools and women’s lunch clubs, wherever they wanted. The new school was a lucky improvement. He admitted he had no such thing as a fancy degree. The course name was a trick. His Victorians were biased towards fantasy, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter and Oscar Wilde, with lots of doctored fairy tales. Even “The Thousand and One Nights”, the unredacted edition. Right away, he let us know he wasn’t serious. And, apart from the theatre, neither do I.

At the end he promised to send a refund.

I could hear the reluctance in my chatter. Why do I have to give in to this invader? Why was I driven to continue, was it the force of the biographer‘s stubbornness, or of the hat? Its surface exuded faint autumnal smoke, like distant leaves on fire.

The real lure was the Village, I said. Nothing about the Victorian era interested me. I was attracted by the lingering breaths of the old bohemian. Edna St. Vincent Millay had lived in the village, and Hart Crane and EE Cummings. And Eugene O’Neill! If you looked out of a certain window in Emanuel Teller’s second-floor classroom, you could sometimes see, in a window opposite, the ghost of Wystan Auden walking around in carpeted slippers. Meanwhile, I imagined myself in the small performance hall in nearby Bleecker Street – one day, and soon, I was going to be Lavinia in “Mourning Becomes Electra”. I was well prepared. What was I if not an ardent disciple of Stanislavski—emotion gathered in the tumult?

The fountain pen sped rapidly over the yellow sheet. I followed the movement of the biographer’s broad flat palm, the protruding knuckles, the gnarled fingers.

“It is his ?” I asked. “The pen? His wife gave you that too?

He ignored it. “Listen here,” he finally said, and I saw him glance at the hat on the chair again. “The man is dead, but he is alive in his belongings, what he was holding, what he was wearing. There’s more tragedy in that box than you’d get from a dozen operas, and God only knows what happened in that box…”

It was a short but serious speech, clearly rehearsed. It was clear that he intended to use it for all of his interviews.

He pushed me to continue. “Has it ever been in the dumps, have you ever seen anything like that?” There had to be suspicions, you were there, you could understand this kind of thing, suicides don’t come out of nowhere…”

” He was not the Emanuel Teller then, I said.

“He must have come up with something of his own, one of his own riffs. With him, it was modernism to hell, and people still take him for nothing but a stand-up. My God, this man was an original, a artist—”

An artist? The biographer was wrong. A generation had aged since the New School fired Emanuel Teller. His semester was stripped of his course credit. He had admitted outright that he was an impostor. He was only a showman and a scavenger; he picked up, piecemeal, this and that from the old legends and bawdy jokes. He had made his mark with the story of the two fighting cities, Alef and Zed, one inhabited by sages, the other by dunces. He had stolen it from the Norse. From rusty folklore he hacked wedding swindlers and jesters, and from these rags of nonsense he made new nonsense. He wore his Chamber of Insight on late-night TV shows with their audience of millions and popular platforms everywhere, revealing, he said, the visions and messages she delivered, all displaying an amber vial of what he called his “elixir”. He was, in fact, an unremarkable ventriloquist with a cowboy hat. The insight chamber was his Charlie McCarthy.

To the biographer, I said, “I told you everything I know.”

“You did me no good, and I took two buses to come here. And, by the way, with the weather, can you help me with a taxi? I may not have enough money.

He demanded his coat, shook off the fur (I was sure no animals had been sacrificed) and ran down the stairs.

For the next few days, I left the hat where he had placed it, on this chair, and walked around it with some caution, as if it was important to stay away. I saw no reason to remove it, and where would I keep it? He would miss it soon enough, even if it was impossible to predict when he might get it back: better have it close at hand. It was an annoyance. I was learning not to distract myself from it, and I didn’t need the chair it occupied; I rarely had visitors, and then there were other chairs.

But after several weeks, the biographer had not returned, and there was only the inescapable presence of the hat. While spending an evening there, I happened to notice a noticeable wilting – a shallow pit was forming in the crown. It had sunk only slightly; after all this time, it still wasn’t completely dry. Apparently the humidity had started to affect him. Dust lay along the edge like gray salt. It had taken the form of a mouth without a tongue, but when I passed by a few days later, it looked more like an eye: a dead eye without a pupil. It was alarming: it was the biographer’s hat, but wasn’t it also Emanuel Teller’s hat, and hadn’t I, quite by chance, become his keeper? I was almost ready to believe that it had been deliberately abandoned. Yet why wouldn’t the biographer be in a hurry to get it back? He had, after all, referred to it as some sort of talisman. I was beginning to dislike the hat, even blame myself. The property of a dead man, an intruder. I decided to ban him. Why does she have to attract my reluctant attention, day after day? Often, seeing how, little by little, it was going to crumble, the crown sagging more and more, the misshapen edge peeping, I wanted to crush it. Yet I couldn’t get rid of it; it wasn’t for me to get rid of.

And I knew what I had to do. I wrapped the hat in a plastic bag from the grocery store, then in two or three more plastic bags, and found a place for it in the back of a cupboard, among some old shoes that I never wore. more but that I wasn’t ready to throw away, and an ironing board that the polyester boom had thwarted, and a faded canvas crib that the previous tenant had abandoned. The hat was well imprisoned.

About Cody E. Vaughn

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