She sees a man crossing the street, to enter the cafe she left a few moments before. His beard is white, well-groomed, and accents his smile. His blue eyes twinkle below a fringe of hair the same white as the beard. Covering his head, is a jauntily angled black beret. Noting this she looks more carefully at his outfit. Black long-sleeved tee accessorized by a vest, worn open, slim-fitting jeans, shoes that may or may not be ankle-high, but have soft soles…these things she takes in while waiting at the light, and she decides he’s a writer, and French, unmarried, but probably involved. Happy. She imagines he sounds like Jaques Cousteau when he speaks. She never finds out.
She sees the old man every morning at another cafe. He, too, is bearded, but it’s a scraggly beard. Not dirty, just not tamed. He is painfully thin, and wears flannel in summer, the way the very old do, to keep the chill from his fragile bones. His cap is blue, a knit watch-cap, chosen for warmth, and security, not style. She already knows his story, even though the sum of their conversations is limited to those brief greetings that are common among people who are familiar, but not truly known. He is an active member of the local Quaker community, and lost his wife a few years back. Before then, they’d come in together. Now, the empty chair at his table is almost a tribute to the soul gone ahead.
She herself is a toddler on a warm beach, naked and berry-brown, the hat on HER head a red calico thing that might have been taken from a box of raisins. And then she’s older, and her eyes are shaded by a leather visor, just like her best friends, a winter cap, a velvet beret, a straw hat with a ribbon, a denim hat with flowers on the brim, a purple and green plaid “be-bop” cap. She looks at herself in memory’s mirror and smiles.
She watches the hero of the film appear, shadowed, then fighting, with his anachronistic fedora never falling to the ground. “It’s the hat that defines his character,” she thinks. And she’s proven right, for only someone reckless, daring, funny, romantic, can wear a fedora correctly. (She herself has two, one of which is forest green).
She flips through pictures of her family, sees her grandfather in a winter cap made of fur, something leftover from the army, sees him in summer in a fisherman’s hat. The latter makes her smile, and for a moment she smells tangy salt air, and suntan lotion, and newly-turned earth, and baking bread – his smells, his domain. Her grandfather, who means summer to her.
She sees people outside: the athlete in his baseball cap and jersey, the teenager with a baseball cap on backwards, the pair of women in Amish dresses and caps…
Is it the hat that defines character, really, or the character who defines the hat?