THE HAT: A Tale from the End of the World Bar & Pizzeria

 Published in the Mountain Gazette, Sept./Oct. 2005


            Howard Jones – better known as Hojo – tended to enter bars as though he expected trouble.  Whether that expectation was based on experience, or the experiences based on the expectation – that’s shrouded in history. But he came through doors in a definite way, and then he stood there, both inviting and casually dismissing the same intense scrutiny he was giving the place.

            And so the ranch hand came into the End of the World Bar and Grill late one afternoon, to find among the usual set of barflies and afternoon retirees and loafers under scrutiny, like a hybrid rose among nature's daisies, Allyson Dawson, the big, beautiful, useless woman he'd met by chance up the Lost River two weeks earlier, on her big, beautiful, useless thoroughbred horse.

            And she waved at him. Uh-oh, he thought – not because she'd waved, but because of the way she'd waved: a discrete little three-finger thing that no one was supposed to see, except that of course everyone did because she was the kind of woman everyone more or less looked at most of the time even though or maybe because she was just sitting there saying nothing.... But most specifically, it was seen by the stocky guy across the table from her, back to the door, who had been telling some kind of story to a politely distant Jackson Piedmont, owner of the End of the World Bar and Pizzeria, standing across the table from him.

            When he saw the wave, the stocky guy cranked around in his chair: a florid beefy face under a really ridiculous big tall white Stetson.  Hojo met and shed his stare like all the others, and the guy turned back to his one-sided conversation.

            Passing the table on his way to the bar, Hojo glanced at Allyson Dawson and touched his hat brim. "Miz Dawson. How are you?"

            "Fine, thanks, Mr. Jones. And you?"

            "Well enough, I guess." And he would have moved on to the bar, but she stopped him with a raised hand.

            "You haven't met my husband, I don't think," she said to Hojo. And turning to the beefy guy, she said, "Tom, this is Mr. Jones . . . Howard, isn't it?" Hojo nodded. "He works for Mike Shaughnessy. Howard, this is my husband Tom Dawson."

            "Hojo, actually," said Hojo – knowing even as he felt the man's hand close around his fingers that he should have been ready for it. But he kept a straight face while the guy tried to crush his knuckles to powder. When Dawson let go of his fingers, Hojo shook them delicately.

            "Whoo-ee," he said. And was rewarded with chuckles and snickers from the bar behind him.

            "So how do you two know each other?" Tom Dawson asked his wife.

            Allyson Dawson looked at Hojo.

            "Well," said Hojo, removing his battered old black hat and mussing his fingers through his hair, "I was out doggin some strays down for Mike Shaughnessy a while back, and – Miz Dawson here was out riding. On Ahab." He looked at her, then looked back at Dawson. "She helped me bring the cows in, and we talked some."

            Dawson looked at his wife. She smiled and opened her hands. "I don't think I helped much. In fact, I think I got in the way."

            "No worse'n anybody else, first time behind cows," said Hojo. "First time I rode on a drive – I was about twelve, I guess –”

            "You wanta sit down, cowboy?" Dawson interrupted, sitting back down himself.

            "Well, sure, if you don't mind," said Hojo – glancing at Piedmont, then glancing away because of all the warnings Piedmont's face was generating. He sat down, and put his hat carefully on the table in front of him. "Anyway – first thing out, a little calf broke from the herd, and I went after it – I was gonna show everybody what a good hand I was. I guess I'd chased it half to death afore another cowboy caught me. Told me you didn't chase calves so long as their mama was in the herd; when she called, that calf'd come back from half way around the world." He gave Allyson his lopsided grin. "I felt dumber'n a dog chasin its tail. Everybody's got to learn."

            "Well – sounds like fun," Dawson said. "Me, I don't ride much anymore – they don't leave the stumps high enough for me to get up on a horse. But – Mr. Jones, is it? You want to join us here for a drink? We're celebrating." He turned toward Piedmont. "Hey, Jackson – can we get the cowboy here something to drink!"

            "Oh, that's okay," said Hojo. "I don't – "

            "Hey!" said Dawson. "Like I said, we're celebrating – right, Allyson? And like the man said, 'When I drink, everybody drinks!'"

            "'And when I pay – ?'" Hojo started.

            "' – everybody pays!'" Dawson guffawed like that old mouldie was actually funny. "But not today, cowboy; today I pay!"

            Piedmont was standing. "So what'll it be, Mister Jones?" he asked, the perfect host, giving Hojo a heavy flat watch-your-ass stare.

            "Well," said Hojo, "since Mr. Dawson's being so kind, give me a shot of that Black Jack." He turned to Dawson. "That’s special occasion stuff, so I do thank you."

            "Well, hell – bring him a double, Jackson! And give all these other people what they need too."

            Piedmont went off toward the bar with a last warning look at Hojo.

            "Actually," Hojo said to Dawson, "I'd sooner be called 'Hojo,' or maybe 'Mr. Jones,' instead of 'cowboy'."

            "No problem," said Dawson. "No pro-blem-o."

            "So what're we celebratin today?"

            "Just the most progressive and business-minded set of county commissioners I've ever encountered in Colorado."

            "Uh – what county's this?" Hojo asked.

            Piedmont returned with drinks for the table.

            "This county! El Dorado County: they approved our subdivision plan this afternoon."

            "For the Harlan Ranch," Allyson put in.

            "Well," said Hojo, suddenly feeling older than he was, and more tired.

            "So let's drink to that – to your county commissioners!" He raised his glass. "C'mon, cow – Jones."

            So Hojo lifted his glass – a single shot, he noticed. "Here's to this here county," he said, before Dawson could start. "The land of the free, where a man is still free to do any damfool thing he wants!" He tossed back half the shot – wanting to save a little for sipping.

            "Well," said Dawson. "That's a way of putting it, I guess."

            "Cheers," said Allyson.

            "Jackson!" Dawson called. "Better bring us some more here. You're good for another, ain't you, cowboy?"

            Hojo shrugged, looked at Allyson.

            "You been a cowboy for a long time, then – what's that name? – Ho – ho . . ."

            "Hoho's good enough for me," said Hojo. "I'm a jolly type of guy."

            Piedmont was as his elbow, setting down another shot; Hojo didn't look at him, knowing he was getting the glacial glare.

            "Well, Hoho – "

            "Hojo, dear," said Allyson.

            "Well," said Dawson, "I bet that's the same hat you've been wearin since you started cowboying, isn't it?" He reached across the table where Hojo had set it down, to pick it up, but, without seeming to hurry, Hojo got to it first, picked it up, rolled it around thoughtfully in hands. Dawson pulled his hand back.

            "It's a good hat," Hojo said. "A damned good hat. I got a prettier one to home, o'course. Sort of like yours." Hojo looked at Dawson's tall white Stetson for just a few second longer than necessary. "Sort of like it. But this one. . . ." He touched the brim. "This one is more an old friend than just a hat. We've seen some times together."

            "I got to admit," Dawson said, "it has got class. It looks like every cow in the West must've walked on it . . . or worse. It's a real hat."

            "Yeah," said Hojo. "'Course only the best Stetsons'll hold up like this one has. Stetson's Pro Line. That'n you got – is it a Pro Line?"

            "A what?"

            "Pro Line. That's the line of hats they make ‘specially for cowboys. You know, plain workin pokes like me that just want somethin that'll hold up."

            "Well," said Dawson, taking off the big hat and turning it in his hands, "it was the most expensive damn hat in the store; I guess it oughta be the best line."

            "Depends on where you bought it," said Hojo. "There's stores in the city – even down the road in El Dorado Junction – that cater to . . . you know. A certain kind of cowboy, not necessarily your real cowboy. They'll take your money, sure. But . . . well, if it's a Pro Line, it's got a special mark in a certain place under the band. . . ." He reached across the table. "Here: lemme show you – "

            And before Dawson really realized what was happening, he had in fact handed Hojo his hat. He immediately reached out reflexively to get it back, then let his hand drop; it fell on an ashtray, which he pulled toward him and, as if to excuse the whole gesture, he took out a pack of cigarettes and was starting to light one until Allyson Dawson touched his arm and pointed to a “No-Smoking Section” sign on the wall. “Then why the goddam ashtrays,” he muttered irritably and put the pack away as she patted his arm.

            While he was thus occupied, Hojo was flipping out the hatband of the big white Stetson, and turning it around and around in his hands – the hat looking like a chamberpot with wings at that point.

            He looked up. "I don't see the mark," he said to Dawson, carefully folding the hatband back in. "That don't mean it's not a good hat, o'course. What'd you pay for it – thirty-five, forty bucks?"

            "Ah – about that, I guess. Yeah." Dawson shot a look at Allyson, who gave him a sweet smile in return. "I don't remember. I just had them put it on my bill – What in the hell are you doing!"

            Hojo was wadding up the new white hat. Crumpling it into a big felt ball in his hands. "Breakin it in,” he explained patiently. “You got to do this." He shook out the wad of felt, slapped it hard against his thigh a few times. "I mean, my god, man, you don't want to go around wearin somethin that looks like it just come out of the goddam box, do you?"

            He pulled the wad of felt into a cylinder and ran it back and forth on the table like a rolling pin. "Think of old man Harlan, whose place you’re subdividing,” he said conversationally. “C'n you imagine him comin into a place like this wearin a goddam hat that looked like it just come out of the goddam box?"

            "My new hat," said Dawson, watching like one mesmerized as Hojo shook out the felt again.

            The room was quiet. Hojo felt Piedmont standing behind him. But he was done with the hat: he quickly poked it back into a semblance of its original shape and flipped it out on the table.

            "Well, you got to admit," he said, "that's a little better now. You was admirin mine; now you got one that only needs a little honest sweat in it to be right up there. You could hurry that along, o'course, by pissin in it tonight – 'scuse me, Miz Dawson – and lettin it set overnight, then dryin it in the sun. That gives it – what'a'ya call it – a nice bookay. Like old wine. But I'll leave that up to you."

            Dawson still wasn't listening; he was trying to pinch, pat, and otherwise finagle his hat back into its former shape.

            "I think it's a real improvement," said Allyson Dawson conversationally. "Don't you, Tom?"

            He gave her a fairly poisonous look.

            Hojo drained his glass, and set it back on the table with a polite but distinct thump. "Good," he said. "Very good stuff." He stood up and stretched in a leisurely way. "Well," he said. "Thanks for the drink, Mr. Dawson. Nice to meet you and nice to see you again, Miz Dawson." And he ambled toward the door.

            Dawson ignored his leaving. He put the hat back on his head, looked at his wife as one might look at a mirror. "There," he said to her. "How's that?"

            "A little lumpy," she said. "But it definitely does have more class."