The boy in short pants and the bewhiskered old, soap-smelling man go to Mass. Many other people go to Mass as well, men and woman, and lots of them wear hats. The women’s hats sport sizable bows and elaborate flowers; some have veils that hang over the women’s faces. The men’s hats are simpler. They have short brims and dents on the top. Most have silk bands around the hats with small feathers tucked under one side of the band. When the women get into the church, they leave their hats on, but the men must take theirs off. It’s a church rule, and this is an old-fashioned church. Another old-fashioned rule is how the men must sit on one side of the church and the women on the other.
The boy can see other things inside the church other than hats: pictures of Jesus and Mary, candles, flowers, and fancy altar tables covered in white cloth with gold stitching. The priest even wears white- and gold-trimmed vestments, but none of these things interest the boy as much as the hats.
When the men in the congregation take their hats off, they place them under hooks that are mounted to the backs of the pews. The hooks are operated by brass buttons, and when the buttons are pushed, the hooks lift up, and the men put the brims of their hats beneath the hooks. When the buttons are released, the pressure between the hook and the pew holds the hat in place. Every spot on a pew where a man might sit has one of these hooks, and all of the men with hats hang their hats beneath. Otherwise, the men might put their hats on the pew seats, forget them, sit back, and crush their hats. The old man who brought the boy to Mass tacks his red-feathered felt hat under the hook in front of his seat. Even though the boy doesn’t have a hat, he can’t help but push the button in front of his seat, push it over and over. This upsets the old man and he sternly tells the boy to pay attention because the Mass has started.
The boy tries to pay attention, but there are lots of things happening and not much makes sense. There’s calling back and forth between the priest and congregation. There’s standing and sitting, more standing, more sitting. Eventually there’s kneeling too. When everyone kneels, the pale priest with pink cheeks makes incantations in a singsong voice and an altar boy rings a set of gold bells. Then the priest lifts a supersized communion host up in front of the congregation. The boy hardly notices. What he sees instead is how because of the kneeling, the old man’s belly has pushed up against the pew in front of them and has crushed the red-feathered hat. The boy wants to tell the old man what has happened, but the man’s eyes are closed, and his head is bowed over the pew like some kind of saint. Then the old man stands up, excuses himself, slips past the boy, walks to the aisle, and stands in line with the other men going to communion.
Because the boy isn’t old enough for communion, he can do little else but stare at the man’s crushed hat. He’s tempted to push the button, lift the hat from beneath the hook, and straighten it out. But what if the old man knew that the hat was crushed when he went to communion, and he’s tempting the boy to push the button? What if he’s tempting the boy to fix the hat? When the old man returns, he will want to know why the boy pushed the button and straightened out the hat. He’ll be angry and the boy will have to walk behind him on the way home.
The boy controls himself, looks up across the empty pews where the other men have been sitting, but the seats are now empty because most of the men are taking communion. The boy can see all of the buttonhooks and all of the hats under the hooks. So many men, the boy thinks, so many hats under buttons. Those hats might have gotten crushed too if the men hadn’t paid attention to their bellies when they were kneeling. Why hadn’t the bewhiskered old man paid attention to his belly?
The men who have taken communion return to their seats and kneel to pray. Their stooped backs in suit coats or white dress shirts cover up their hats. The old man returns to his seat too, and the boy hopes he will see that the hat has remained crushed and untouched, hopes the old man will recognize what tremendous restraint it took for the boy not to push the button and fix the hat. Can he even imagine how much torture this was to leave the button and hat alone? Before the old man kneels down, his eyes meet the boy’s eyes, and the boy indicates that the man should do something about the crushed hat. The old man ignores him, ignores both boy and hat. He kneels to pray, and the hat remains crushed.
When the Mass ends, the crowd begins to file down the aisle. Meanwhile, the old man pushes the hat button, lifts the hat, and without looking, holds it firmly around the brim with one hand while making a fist with the other and punching out the top. Then he removes his fist, turns the hat over, and with two pointing fingers, he returns the dent to the top. When the hat is fully restored, the old man holds it in front of him and stares at the altar. Putting his fingers to his forehead, he makes the sign of the cross, and takes a deep breath, as though having achieved some sense of relief. “You see there,” he says, to no one in particular, “Good as new.”
Mark Charney is a freelance writer and teacher whose work has appeared in such publications as Chesapeake Life, Read Short Fiction, and The Avenue. He has a degree in architecture and lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
© 2015, Mark Charney