2007 – Holly Hages Perrault – The Red Hat

Fiction selection from the 2007 issue

The Red Hat
by Holly Hages Perrault

I wish I knew where Judy Donovan lived so I could call and ask her forgiveness for something that happened a long time ago. If I could rewind the tape, I would erase what took place on that winter day when Judy saw the worst in me.

Judy and I were in the same grade and lived in the same neighborhood, but I thought of her as a sometimes friend. I played with her only if my other 5th grade friends were busy. Where they had vivid imaginations and energy, Judy was quiet and passive. They always seemed happy. Judy always seemed sad. Her fair hair and pale skin made her look sickly. She rarely initiated play for fear we would reject her, so she waited for us to include her.

What annoyed me about Judy was the way she clung to me. In our younger years she’d say, “You’re my best friend.” And I’d respond, “You are too,” even though I didn’t mean it. By the 4th grade when Judy asked, “Are we still best friends?” I wouldn’t answer. Instead I’d hide from her at recess. I started thinking of her as a bloodsucker, like the ones in the lake at camp that glide out of their rock houses and clamp onto you when you’re swimming by. But you don’t feel them. You come out of the water and see something dark and flat like a leaf stuck to your toe. When you bend down to pick it off, it hunches up into a fat finger and wiggles deeper into your skin. That’s when you see its red underside and start screaming until a counselor comes running with tweezers, yanks it out, and dumps salt over it. Then, grateful to have your toe back and shivering in your towel, you and your friends circle the thrashing bloodsucker. You watch it curl and straighten until it lies still in its white grave.

Something else about Judy that bothered me was her house. I didn’t feel free to make noise there because it was so quiet. The only sound came from the ticking and bonging of a grandfather clock by the front door. Her mother was quiet too. She was a larger version of Judy. Blonde curls sprang out from her head and gave her a puzzled look. As though she were waiting for an answer to some question. Her face was the color of unbaked dough, and she never smiled. Like the clock that marked time in the hallway, Mrs. Donovan marked time in the living room. Knitting. No matter what season I went into that house, she was sitting in the same chair creating a world out of wool in her lap. Her fingers flew. It amazed me that she could carry on a conversation with us without ever looking down. Those same hands had knit the red hat that Judy wore this winter. It was the dumbest hat I had ever seen. It had ears. They stuck straight up like antennas. Judy wore the hat pulled down over her eyebrows. She looked like a rabbit with a sunburn.

The ritual at Judy’s house never varied. Mrs. Donovan would train her watery blue eyes on me and look me up and down several times. Then she looked at Judy as though she were comparing us. Next she would ask how my mother was. Occasionally she wanted to know where my mother had bought me a particular shirt or skirt. I usually mentioned the one clothing store in town where all the mothers shopped, and she would nod. The only time I ever saw her animated was when I reported that a certain sweater had come from Boston.

“Really?” she asked, looking startled. Her fingers moved faster over the wool. “My, aren’t you fortunate.”

Then she would lose interest in me and return to her knitting. I never understood why Mrs. Donovan asked me about my clothes. None of the other mothers were interested in what I wore. When Judy and I were upstairs in her bedroom with the door closed, I often wondered if Mrs. Donovan were listening to our conversation. Every so often I caught glimpses of Judy’s father and brother moving silently in and out of the house, but they never spoke with me.

On this particular winter day our group of five girls who always walked to and from school together had plenty of play on the trek home. Snow had been falling all week, and the boundaries of the neighborhoods we walked through had disappeared. The world was a white heaven that needed angels, so for the first mile we decorated the front lawn of every house with snow angels. We lay down and swept our arms and legs through snow as soft as our own beds. We sculpted angel after angel. In the lightly falling snow, our tongues lapped a different kind of sweet than the Tootsie Pops gathering lint in our pockets.

We didn’t stop to make snowmen because by the time we had finished our angels, we were walking snowmen. Snow clung to us. We were saturated with snow. Even Judy was transformed by play that didn’t require an invitation. Like the rest of us, she found happiness that afternoon by surrendering to snow.

At the start of the second mile, our friends who lived at the bottom of the hill left us. It was four o’clock when Judy, Nancy, and I, began our trudge up the hill. The white landscape was taking on a silver tint. Snow-wrapped trees threw long blue shadows across the neighborhood.

Nancy and I were chattering about boys, a new preoccupation in our lives. We giggled about which boys we thought were cute, our yardstick being how silly they were. Judy didn’t take part in the conversation because none of the boys paid her any attention. But Nancy’s bubbly personality was a magnet for both boys and girls. Her blue eyes and dimples were the model for the dolls that lined the bedroom shelves of all the girls. Lately she and I had begun wearing the same outfits. We were at a stage where we wanted all our clothes store-bought and nothing home-made. This day we had on identical blue wool caps dangling white pompoms. I liked seeing a reflection of myself in Nancy.

We were approaching Nancy’s house, when I heard Judy’s voice. I turned to see her shadow tight against mine. I had almost forgotten she was walking with us. She was asking Nancy to play the next afternoon. What was she doing? She knew Nancy was more my friend than hers. I willed Nancy to make up an excuse so that I could play with her instead, but Nancy didn’t. She accepted Judy’s invitation with a smile. Judy smiled back, her face lit with adoration. Her nose was running, and one of the ears on her red hat was bent. It flapped when she moved. It seemed to be mocking me. She looked ridiculous but happy. I was the only one not smiling.

Right then I yelled “Keep away!” and grabbed the upright ear on Judy’s hat. I plucked it off her head and threw it to Nancy. We often did this with Judy’s hat. She was never able to reach it because we were taller and quicker than she was. That was part of the fun . All she could do was jump from one to the other and plead, “Come on you guys.” She was good-natured about it because it was one of the few ways she could join our games. We would continue flinging the hat until we tired of this play and tossed it back to her.

But today was different. Today she had a bad cold and had been sniffling on the way home. Snow was falling heavily now. The minute I pulled the hat off her head, she surprised me by starting to cry.

Maybe what set me off was seeing her wipe her runny nose on her snow-crusted mitten again and again. Maybe it was the tears streaming down her face. It struck me that she was breaking some unwritten rule for being a good sport. Or maybe it was what had happened at school that afternoon.

Our teacher was as affected by the arrival of a snowfall as we were. She could feel our restlessness., but her motives were different from ours. We were eager to play. Miss Walsh had a class to control. Short, stout, and stone-faced, she disciplined unprepared students by shaming them.

We were nearing the end of the vocabulary lesson when Miss Walsh asked who knew the meaning of foam. Almost everyone’s hands shot up including Judy’s. The room was a thicket of outstretched arms. I didn’t raise mine. The word was too easy. Miss Walsh pointed to a scenic calendar hanging at the back of the room and ordered Judy to find the foam. I turned to the picture, an ocean ruffled by whitecaps and spewing foam onto a rocky shore. Distant sailboats leaned into the wind under a mass of cumulus clouds.

As a smiling Judy headed to the picture, I thought about playing King of the Mountain after school and pictured which boys I wanted to topple me down the hill. Miss Walsh’s angry voice interrupted my daydream.

“Foam, Judith, foam,“ she boomed. I turned to see Judy, her smile wilting, her finger on the swelling waves. At Miss Walsh’s scolding, she moved her finger to the clouds. Several students snickered. “Sit down,” commanded Miss Walsh. Lowering her head, Judy scurried to her seat and folded her hands.

Her heels clacking, Miss Walsh marched down the aisle and stood in front of Judy’s desk.. She didn’t lecture or yell. Her menacing stance and grim face were terror enough. With one leg anchored, she pushed off and began to rock over Judy’s desk. Her squeaking shoes did not disguise the sound of crying. The ritual didn’t last long, but it darkened an already grey afternoon. I was too afraid of Miss Walsh to feel anger, so I blamed Judy for letting herself be bullied.

Whatever it was that caused me to snatch her hat, I decided she was never getting it back. I twisted those rabbit ears and rolled the hat into a tight ball with some weight to it. Then I took aim and pitched it up into the nearest tree. On the first throw the hat landed in the crook of the lowest branch too high for us to reach. Only a giant could have retrieved it. Balanced on the arm of the snow-bound tree, the red hat was the only spot of color in our white world.

Judy started crying hard. The pink rims of her pale blue eyes deepened to red as she stood looking up the tree and sobbing. Her blonde curls hung in dark wet strings and her red nose ran unchecked. “My mother’s gonna kill me,” she cried. “That was my birthday present.”

I thought of her quiet mother in her silent house and couldn’t imagine her killing anybody. I didn’t feel right about losing Judy’s birthday present, but nobody was wearing handmade clothes anymore. And nobody wore wool hats with ears. So I was doing her a favor even if she couldn’t see it that way.

Still crying and without saying goodbye, Judy ran home. I wasn’t prepared for that reaction. It made me uneasy. Still, I reasoned, it was only a hat. Her mother could always knit another one.

Nancy and I stood in front of her house and continued our cute boys discussion as lights came on in the surrounding houses. A few cars passed, their headlights illuminating the falling snow. Fathers on their way home from work. Tires crunched the snow-packed road. Dropping temperatures iced the snow- covered lawns, and under the lights they looked washed with gold. I didn’t pay any attention to the car that pulled up beside us until I heard brakes squealing and the sharp blast of a horn.

I turned to face the Donovan station wagon. Judy’s mother was hunched over the wheel. She rolled down the window and pushed her head out. The quiet Mrs. Donovan was in a rage. Her pale face was ablaze, and her watery blue eyes were the color of ink. Judy sat in the front seat with her head down.

Like a monster exhaling fire, Mrs. Donovan roared at Nancy and me. For a minute I confused her with Miss Walsh, but Mrs. Donovan’s anger was far worse. I heard unconnected words…you girls …spoiled …Boston. None of it made sense. My heart was leaping. Nancy and I stood paralyzed while Mrs. Donovan’s thunderous voice clapped over us. I was afraid she might open the door and jump out. Maybe Judy was not exaggerating about her mother’s fury. Maybe she was capable of killing someone.

When the car screeched off, I felt relieved, but I was shaking. I was also worried about repercussions. And my gut feeling was right. Mrs. Donovan called both my mother and the school. So not only was I reprimanded at home that night, but after class the next day Miss Walsh delivered a stern lecture on good behavior to the four of us from Judy’s neighborhood.

After that day Judy stopped walking and playing with us. Her mother drove her to and from school. She rarely spoke to us and always looked sad. I stopped seeing her a few years later because we attended different schools.

I didn’t think of her again until I was a senior in college. It was a late afternoon during winter term, and I had finished studying for the day. I walked through a gentle snowfall to my mailbox where I found a letter from home. As I hiked up the hill to my dorm, I began reading. When I reached the crest, I saw the words Mrs. Donovan’s death. I stopped and dropped my book bag. Judy came home for the weekend and discovered her mother’s body hanging at the top of the stairs. I stared at my mother’s words discovered her mother’s body .

I picture Judy going into the quiet house that I knew so well from my childhood. She drops her suitcase in the kitchen. Eager to talk to her mother, she walks into the living room. She is smiling. In the chair where her mother sits she sees balls of yarn stuck with knitting needles. She calls for her mother, but she hears only the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hallway. Where can her mother be? The station wagon is in the driveway. She heads for the stairwell and listens. It’s too quiet even for Judy’s hushed house. She mounts the stairs and freezes on the landing. She forces herself to look up and sees a dark shadow looming above her.

Now I was forced to see what Judy saw. Like a photograph emerging with perfect clarity from developing solution, the Mrs. Donovan I was too young to know came into sharp focus. Not the Mrs. Donovan whose final act was the worst cruelty Judy would suffer; not the fierce woman who raged at me for my mistreatment of her daughter. But the quiet Mrs. Donovan who rarely left her living room; the unsmiling woman who studied me to see if Judy measured up; the woman who asked how my mother was so that she could gauge how she was; the woman who wasn’t sure of the answers and one day stopped seeking them.

The snow had stopped. The world was hushed. I looked up to see the sun suspended like a red ball over the distant hills. It was the only spot of color in the snow-shrouded landscape.

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