by Bob Levy
The hat. His hat. Benjamin recognized the green cap the instant he saw it. "Hey," he heard himself calling out. "Hey." Reflexive, this shout, reflexive as a kneecap having just been dinged. "Hey there, hey you." This from the front porch of his Old Greenwich Connecticut five-bedroom Colonial. This without any consideration to how un-Old-Greenwich-like behavior of this sort would be regarded by any neighbors about. "You," he was calling now, even louder. "Yes, you. That hat you're wearing, that cap, it's mine."
The trash collector, a tall and slender young man, a man with the slouch of one who does not give a damn, shrugged a sly smile, a pair of light eyes flashing up from beneath the ball cap's bright orange brim. "Was yours maybe," he called up from Greenleaf Way, from the foot of Benjamin's driveway, while in the act of hoisting one of two brown rubber trash cans. "'Cause the way it works in situations like this, you toss something out—and this here cap, for sure it was tossed—it becomes what you call in your 'public domain.'" The young man possessed the cocksureness of city street-corners, a curious blend with the verbal twang of cowboy philosopher. He went on with his work, emptying Benjamin's second can into the rear of the immense yellow truck with "Seaboard Sanitation" in red letters on its side.
"Not so," said the forty-five year old Benjamin, as down the long stone walkway he strode, warrior-executive in that stride, a stride he had elevated to a high polish over the years. A stride which announced a discussion of some consequence was about to take place. "I do a good deal of work with attorneys, you know. A good deal." (This an out and out lie, the first of several Benjamin would stoop to in the days to come.) "And that's something else entirely," he went on, "your 'public domain.' Entirely different." In truth, Benjamin Miller knew little or nothing of the law, the disagreeable task of dealing with attorneys left to his partner in the advertising agency Miller & Devine.
"Well, whatever the hell you call it," grinned the collector, "this here old ball cap, it's mine." And after two piercing whistles from the young man signaled the truck to move on, the collector started on his way, the truck trundling beneath the arbor of old Connecticut maples.
But even as it did another thought, wonderfully liberating, occurred to Benjamin. This garbage man, this wise-mouthed kid with his cap, there was no reason to believe he, Benjamin, would ever have to see him again. The kid might just be filling in for the regular trash-man (though Benjamin could not have said who that "regular" man might be—the paper delivery boy, the postman, these were recurring characters in the world of Julia, his wife.) This little encounter of a moment ago, this skirmish, it might well have been a today-only situation. And if that were the case, Benjamin might never have to look at the damned ball cap again. And if no cap, then no reminder of Ivy. And if he weren't constantly reminded of that woman, his life could return to the tranquil, if not terribly interesting, day to day it had been.... But, as though he had taken a blow to the stomach, the thought, the image, of Ivy Springer caused Benjamin Miller to suck in his breath.
And now it was five days later, a bleak Friday morning, the same Old Greenwich driveway. Benjamin Miller was about to open the door to his Volvo and start for the rail station, when around the corner of Greenleaf and Briarwood Way roared the bright yellow Seaboard, on its running board, as though on a float in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the young trash collector. And once again sporting Benjamin's orange-brimmed cap.
Easy does it, thought Benjamin. Easy, man. Easy. Do nothing to put the kid on the defensive, force him to say "no" just out of spite. And so today Benjamin smiled. He knew it was a smile easy to see through (though certainly not by this collector of trash). Benjamin smiled, held up an open hand, and, once the truck had come to a stop, strolled over. "When you toss something out," he said, "you have the right to think it's 'good-bye.' I mean, really, the last thing you expect is to ever see it again."
"Or expect to see it looking so fine," said the young man as he flipped off the cap, his hair, black and shiny (unwashed, Benjamin would just bet, unwashed hair in his—Benjamin's—cap), falling over the collar of his blue denim shirt. And as Benjamin searched for just the right response (unfortunately there was none), the young man began to run a finger slowly, possessively, along the cap's inside sweatband.
Jesus, thought Benjamin. Then again, Easy does it. Easy, easy. It would, he decided, be a simple matter to reach out at that moment and make a grab for the cap. Grab the cap, and in one, two, three steps (in his youth Benjamin had been something of an athlete, a sprinter in fact), swing open the door to the Volvo and slide in behind the wheel, the door closing behind him with a Volvo's solid ka-thunk And Benjamin imagined himself celebrating in court (not that he thought it would come to that), the magistrate having judged the cap to be his. The white "M" on its peak—"M" for Miller, for God's sake—all the proof that Benjamin would need. The collector was wearing two or three days' black stubble. An appropriate yet ominous addition to his previous roguish appearance, this morning his grin even more salacious. No mistake to call it a smirk. "Like this sucker was made just for me," he was saying now, popping it back onto his head, the cap now safely away from Benjamin's clutches.
"I want it back," said Benjamin with a nod, sober and fatherly, earnest, the nod underscoring his absolute commitment to its return. "Really, I do."
The collector—his eyes red and puffy from, Benjamin decided, a too-late-night session of drinking—shook his head side to side. The name "JIMMY" was stitched to the breast pocket of his gray-bibbed uniform. Not a "James." But a "Jimmy." A "Jimmy" for Christ's sake was causing Benjamin all this grief.
"Ten dollars," said Benjamin. "Ten dollars cash and you can take yourself downtown and pick up another one." But as he reached around and into his back pocket Benjamin thought, What the hell. Why haggle? Go for fifteen. And as he slid out a crisp bill he said, "Make it twenty."
The collector, this "Jimmy," incredible, but he shook his head once again, his oily hair brushing his shirt collar. "Sorry, man. But no way." And with Benjamin, mouth and billfold open, still standing in his driveway, the collector announced, "Gotta go," and the young man loped after the truck, the green cap perched jauntily to one side of his head.
Benjamin shoved the twenty deep into the pocket of his trousers. Then he kicked at the left front tire of the Volvo and, after returning to the house, telephoned City Hall.
The cap was not one Benjamin had purchased. It had in fact been injected into his life four months earlier, without invitation, without warning. There it had sat in his Manhattan office, the green cap, perched at the center of his desk—as at home there as the photos of wife, Julia, and the boys—when Benjamin returned from a late lunch. The cap's white "M" appeared to smile up at him from among his accustomed stack of tiresome memoranda and contracts, that day the proposal to Velo-Gear, a letter of agreement with John Wagner Shoes. Pinned to the cap's peak was a small note card that read, "Thanks." Just that. "Thanks." The note unsigned.
He telephoned Julia (she had likely come to the city and, between Saks and Bergdorf's, had stopped up for a moment), though Benjamin couldn't imagine what his wife might be thanking him for. "Not me," said his wife, and Benjamin detected a ring of suspicion in her voice. "Nor I," said Norma, his secretary. Then Norma placed the cap squarely onto his head and took a step back, studying him as though he were a piece of art hung in a gallery. "But it's definitely you. I mean, with it on you're so much...younger. Boy-like even, if you know what I mean. I don't know...somehow fresh. That's it. That's the word for it. Fresh."
And Benjamin did feel fresh, did feel younger. No sooner had he placed the cap on his head than an unmistakable lightness, a confident nonchalance washed over him. He was Benjamin Miller at twenty-two again, half of what had once been a marijuana joint dangling from his hand. And alone in his office, the magical cap on head, the now forty-five year old Benjamin would push back his chair, place his feet on desk, and gaze up to the brim's orange underside. And in those late afternoon moments, the office door closed and latched, Benjamin Miller would became younger still, now a schoolboy of twelve, dawdling away a rainy afternoon on the front porch of his parents' home. Gazing up at the roof's overhang, as he jotted those clever phrases, those turns of a word, which had always come to him so quickly, so naturally. This finessing of language which, ten years later, would result in his being so well paid, creating classic advertisements for radio and TV, print ads for magazines.
But that was then: the Benjamin Miller in his twenties, then thirties. Today, Benjamin's value to Miller & Devine was no longer this artistry. Today he was the celebrity partner, the wooer of major new clients, the partner who courted young copywriters and artists away from competing agencies. The partner who authorized budgets. Administered company policy, insurance, and profit-sharing plans. "I couldn't come up with an ad campaign if my life depended on it," he would say, always with that touch of sadness he hoped would prompt his listener to challenge the statement—though none ever did. But on the very afternoon he discovered the cap, its brim pulled down to just above the bridge of his nose, Benjamin began running through his most celebrated campaigns (looking back instead of forward something he'd been doing more with each passing year). But that day, the Day of the Cap, instead of mourning the talented young man he'd once been, Benjamin assured himself, "And I could do it again."
There had been his radio campaign for Kodak film processing. Film processing advertised on the radio? Industry people had thought him insane. But in Benjamin's script a father returning home hears squeals of delight from inside his house, as his children go through the Kodak-processed photos of their recent visit to Disneyland. Benjamin's award-winning tagline: "Photos so good you can hear them." Then came the print ad for the Porsche Targa convertible. An ad in which no car was shown: not a fender, no steering wheel or shift knob. No car, and no posing young woman "to die for." Simply the word TARGA in large red letters across the page, below which was a face. The face of a handsome young man, his brown hair fashionably long and blown by the wind straight back from his face. Ecstatic that face, a face at the very top of its game. A face—not coincidentally—very much like Benjamin's. And as he ran through this list of campaigns, as he tugged at the brim of his new cap, he was reminded of veteran baseball pitchers, veterans brought back up from the minors for one final shot at the big time.
And then, then came the afternoon, some three days following the cap's first appearance, that an uncommonly absent-minded Benjamin wore his gift outside his personal office, wore it as he strode down the long hallway and into a planning session with the agency's copywriters, the young off-the-wall dreamers with model trains in their offices and wind-up fire-engines on their shelves. And oh my, what a difference that cap seemed to make; the "creatives" claimed that, at last, at long last, Benjamin had allowed himself to actually hear, hear and appreciate, what they'd been saying for so long. More than that, they claimed Benjamin had actually contributed to their presentations, improved them, made them more "cutting edge." "Don't ever want to see you without that cap on your head," said Hugh Delaney, Art Director. "Don't leave home without it," chimed Bea Wallace, Account Executive assigned to Chicago's Dearborn Fashions.
Yes, of course, there was more than a bit of butt-kissing in these platitudes from his staff, these claims of a Benjamin Miller reborn. That said, it was also a fact that, since the cap's impromptu arrival, Miller & Devine had begun to sign the kind of accounts Benjamin had not thought possible. Velo Sports Gear. Harmona Jackets and Slacks. Products whose campaigns would require a significant shift away from the agency's more traditional approaches. The storyboards for these firms' ads were sexy, the language spare, their tone irreverent but somehow compelling. Scenes of handsome young men in athletic club locker rooms, in company boardrooms, on the white deck of a schooner; smart-talking, confident, attractive young men. The copy for these campaigns composed by someone who knew precisely the way that men think. More important, campaigns composed by someone who knew how men hoped to sound.
Early the following Monday, Benjamin's front doorbell chimed.
"The boss," the young trash collector began, "he tells me you phoned City Hall." He was slouched against Benjamin's front-door jamb, in his hand the green cap twirling slowly like a hustler's gold chain. Benjamin drew a deep breath. At the foot of the walk stood a second collector, a round-bellied black man. He was staring up at the house, arms folded across his chest.
"It was wrong..." stammered Benjamin. "Absolutely.. the wrong thing to do." And Benjamin meant it. He had never thought of himself as the kind of man to turn to someone else—in this case a Greenwich City Councilman—to fight a battle that was his. "And my calling City Hall, if it got you in any trouble..."
"No trouble," said the collector, now twirling the cap on his left index finger, its brim whizzing by Benjamin's face. "No trouble at all."
"So then," said Benjamin, more hopeful than certain, "You're giving it back?"
The collector, in what had become an irritating habit, shook his head. "No sir. No way."
Benjamin, what little self-control he still had failing him, felt the warm rush of blood to his face. "The cap's special, God damn it...." Just as suddenly, he stopped, drew a breath, and began counting to three. But at "two," and in a tone that hinted at things sacred, he said, "You know, the cap was a gift from my wife. My wife. She had to search all over town till she found just the right one."
At last. The collector actually seemed to have been touched.
"Now, my wife," but the young man was laughing now, "she'd have gotten me a hat would have made me look like an old man, something with a floppy brim all around, something to keep the girls from getting a good look at her man." He ran a hand through his black hair, brushing it back from his forehead. "You're one lucky fella, Mr. Miller. That's your name, right? Miller? Having yourself a wife who'd pick out a hat like this here. And so pretty, your wife, if you don't mind me sayin'. Pretty. And always with that big 'hello' if she's out front when we come by. Small woman, am I right? Small, with red hair?"
Benjamin nodded. His mind, however, was elsewhere. What would Julia think when the trash collectors congratulated her on her taste in caps?
"So," the collector went on. "Why don't you go ask your wife the name of the shop she picked this one up. Because once I pick up a new one—hey, I might even get myself two—I'll give this here back to you."
"My wife died." And so there would be no mistaking what he said, he continued, "She's dead." But had he, Benjamin Miller, had he actually said that, had he sunk to this level? Jeeeez. And over what? A ball cap? Of course Julia had not died. Because there Julia was, only a moment before, sipping fresh-squeezed orange juice in their kitchen, staring out through the French doors to their garden. Pensively staring out at the garden, so it had seemed. As though she were troubled. Yes. Pensive, troubled, but certainly, certainly not dead. And his saying, "She died," in no way should this be taken to imply that he was harboring a wish that she would die. Just the same, Benjamin despised himself for having said it. But not enough to stop himself from adding, "I just don't want to be reminded of her. And seeing you twice a week in that cap...."
The collector was squinting, as though questioning, Had Benjamin just said what he thought he'd heard? This quickly followed by his turning his back and calling out to the round-bellied black man, "A minute, Augie. Okay?" And when the trash collector turned back, he was rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, an eagerness, a boyish mischief in his eyes. "Your wife ain't dead," he announced, and announced with absolute certainty, as though it were he who'd just seen Julia at the garden's French doors. "Because if she was dead, Augie and me we'd have seen signs. Always do. Never fails. Fancy baskets from fruit. Boxes from chocolates. Old dried out flowers. Stuff that people send or bring over whenever somebody dies. Shit like that, it would've been stacked up this high in your trash."
"How much?" said Benjamin, refraining from either explanation or apology (after all, what words could undo what he'd just said?), stepping out onto the front porch, the door closing behind him. "Name your price," he said. "Name it."
But as Benjamin was stepping forward, the collector was already taking one giant step back. The abrupt stepping back of one not wishing to be touched, a man doing what he could to avoid another man's disease. "Now me, maybe I'm nothin' but a garbage man, mister. And you, you've got yourself this here big old house. But saying your wife's dead when she ain't ...."
"How much?" Benjamin called after the collector who was already hurrying back down the front path. "Just tell me how much is the God-damned cap worth?"
Bob Levy's fiction has appeared in a number of publications, including Other Voices, Cottonwood, Flashpoint, and The MacGuffin. His prize-winning stories include "Three Stories" (1998 Short Fiction Award from New Millennium Writings), "Cloak and Dagger" (Kansas University's 2001 Langston Hughes Award), and "When the Dodgers Meant Brooklyn" (1998 Lone Mountain Short Fiction Award). His collection, When the Dodgers Meant Brooklyn, was a 1998 finalist in both the Mid List Press First Series Award for Short Fiction and the Ohio State Sandstone Prize.