Q: Why’d you do it?
A: My aunt was mad as a hatter, always trying to give us hats despite our assurances as to the impracticality of such an arrangement. We would say “Aunt Susan, we have so many hats already!” We would say “our closets are already so full of hats!” We would go over for supper after mass and she would present each family member with a bowler hat. I would shake my head at Aunt Susan and tell her “I do not bowl. Among us, only Danny bowls, and quite poorly. So poorly does Danny bowl that professional gear seems unlikely to affect much of a difference in terms of improvement considering he’s but an amateur: only bowling on Friday nights with his friends and some girls from the high school.” They would go into the woods then go bowling then go back into the woods then push aside the low-lying branches sticking out from oak trees at inconvenient angles in the morning––communicating dissatisfaction in their gaits––and I would shake my head at Danny and tell him “this is what you get for sleeping in the woods! We are a resourceful species, beds are what we use nowadays!” Then I would lecture on the topic of personal indulgence as a means of coping––something which I was as of yet unfamiliar (at that time, obviously)––and say something like “you have got to practice more regularly if you ever want to improve yourself. Practice might not make perfect but you cannot bowl forever, you cannot retreat into the woods forever. Someday there will be a wife and she will resist the indulgence of such a conciliatory gesture and, besides, do you really want to become known as a bowler to your future children?” until he moved north and I no longer knew if he continued to bowl. So we would instead stick to sports and the weather when he called home asking how everyone was doing (but really inquiring as to our financial circumstances so that he might solicit a loan).
In terms of motive, Aunt Susan once interrupted a dinner party hosted by my father at the behest of the Economics department of a prestigious institution whose name escapes me for some celebratory event or other. A political consultant of some repute, my father had been enjoying an unprecedented level of visibility at this time and was wont to see the momentum of his hierarchical ascension through the latest institution stymied by a trivial family dispute. It is eminently reasonable to fear the intentions of those who wield familiarity as one might a large blanket, I have found, since a large blanket can be thrown over someone’s head so as to blind them (as Aunt Susan can now attest) in addition to being employed according to the more traditional uses of a blanket (many of which are perfectly innocuous, I imagine) such as to protect skirts and trousers from grass stains during a picnic, or to keep bare feet warm during these chilly winters.
So it must have troubled my father greatly to find his sister-in-law knocking on the front door as if the key to the garage were not taped to the floorboard of her truck, complimenting our decor as if she had not critiqued the tenets of my work in unflattering tones on numerous occasions preceding this unexpected intrusion. She introduced herself as a certain Madame Bovary representing the French department and warned that she had a surprise in store for us, which is when a walkie-talkie was retrieved from beneath her Panama hat, and in came our Aunt Susan’s best friends Mable and Helga carrying an armful of beret hats between them, to say nothing of the other three arms full of hats.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face. It was an angry look because he was angry. He said, “the French department might fall victim to the cheap rhetorical ploys and naively juvenile fashion sense of the leftist element but the Economics department is committed to preserving the interests of our nation’s most prized institutions, of which the federal government certainly reigns supreme, and so I must politely decline this offering on behalf of all those in the building who consider Economics a science.”
This roused a faint cheer, undoubtedly from the Economics faculty in attendance and perhaps a preeminently drunk wife or two. I have found in my travels to the eastern part of the country during that period when my formal education was said to be complete and yet no respectable firm would even deign to hire me (presumably on account of the irregularities and improprieties uncovered by the special prosecutor tasked with investigating my mother’s death following the anonymously-sourced reports leaked to the press of which you are surely aware, having called on me, today) that its study is hardly held to the same rigor as even psychology––yet another field in its infancy but one recognized as such––and that few non self-described economists share an unbridled or even measured confidence in the methodology central to the identity of the Neoclassical school, at the present. Just look at Milton Friedman! Just look at Alan Greenspan! Discredited, the lot of them!
Still, as they departed a couple hours later, I spotted more than a few of the academics rifling through our garbage in order to get at the beret hats. There are many sorts of vices and many sorts of hats, after all, and bald men seem to be a bit less picky when it comes to the mechanism by which they shield their shame. On the next occasion a bald man shares your company––perhaps at a dinner party like the one hitherto described––take note of his hat and I guarantee that there is a reasonable chance it merits the adjective peculiar. Perhaps balding women fall prey to a similar lack of discernment when it comes to hat selection, though I really cannot say for I do not know a single bald woman (unfortunately). But there were many bald men in the economics department, then. There are always so many bald economists. Just look at Milton Friedman! Just look at Alan Greenspan! Bald, the lot of them! This I know with as much certainty as I now remonstrate that the straw responsible for finally breaking the camel’s back vis-à-vis Aunt Susan being mad as a hatter (which is not an original formulation, for I had seen her described thusly in black ink on a loose page slinking from a vaguely medical-looking file I glimpsed one sunny Saturday afternoon in my father’s study as he tended to his beloved garden after the threat she posed to his career had been alleviated to the satisfaction of all relevant parties) was when she hosted an elaborate Arabian Nights-themed Christmas brunch.
Aunt Susan had what one might call vision when it came to channeling her playfulness in forums conducive to such displays. The gifting of hat-wear for instance. The throwing of parties for another. Whereas I might be seen as a copyist, an impersonator willing to replicate another’s sombre tone to stage the retelling of what happened to Aunt Susan with an appropriate sense of the dramatic without flirting with histrionics . . . whereas I might see fit to borrow a particular idiom to describe Aunt Susan in appropriately intriguing terms in my confession’s opening sentence to say nothing of my repeated reliance on the colloquialism throughout this testimony (for I do believe we are speaking on record, just now, given the presence of this tape recorder and that partition of glass into which I cannot see and this set of handcuffs placed perhaps a bit too snuggly around these wrists) my Aunt betrayed no such reliance on others. Once chosen, she would dedicate herself entirely to the selected aesthetic, in this case an all-consuming embrace of North Africa as depicted three hundred years ago. So it came as no surprise when she somehow arranged for a pair of camels to be brought to her backyard for the brunch and even ordered a pair of custom novelty fez hats to sit atop their strangely-shaped skulls. You are undoubtedly familiar with their odd form, for even if you have neglected to personally make the acquaintance of a camel––unlike myself given my incrimination in Aunt Susan’s elaborate Arabian Nights-themed Christmas brunch––you have, in all likelihood, seen their outlandish heads in National Geographic or in a feature film or even in a zoo should you be of a temperament amenable to spending time in such a grotesque place.
While the caterers refused to heed Aunt Susan’s entreaties to refrain from utilizing mobile devices while costumed––caring not that their behavior jeopardized the degree to which Aunt Susan’s elaborate Arabian Nights-themed Christmas brunch was interpreted by her peers as historically accurate or narratively compelling––the most damning mistake of the whole enterprise (apart from, weeks later, attending to Aunt Susan before securing the combination to the safe hidden behind a false wall in her guest bedroom; such an inventive place to choose for concealment, Aunt Susan always subverting expectations with that creative ingenuity of hers!) became readily apparent shortly after Uncle Remus inadvertently triggered the ambient music curated specifically for the occasion with a finger pressing a button with a little scalene triangle, slightly fading from all previous instances of pressing. The naturally secreted oils providing a lubricant aided by friction in gradually abrading signs of the button’s original message, of the button’s original intent. Even now, recounting a story only recently deemed suitable for public consumption by the appropriate authorities (and despite the magnitude of the impression left on my malleable nature in its aftermath) there are gaps in what is known.
I really don’t know why I did it, sir. I can’t exactly explain why. I’m not sure anyone really knows why they do what they do. These are the limits of our language. Why do you question me in this way? There is always another question, always another suspect to question with as many questions as you can imagine. You can imagine suspect after suspect sitting in this very chair, surely. You can imagine the moments and weeks and years spent in this way, you always repeating yourself, always arresting the same criminal for the same crime, for the same unspeakable reasons. You can imagine all this, imagine your retirement and replacement by another representative of the law questioning the same suspect with the same questions and on and on and yet here you remain, scribbling your little notes in your little notebook waiting for your little life to end. You sicken me. Your question sickens me. Your timing sickens me. Had you at all investigated Aunt Susan’s Arabian Nights-themed Christmas brunch a decade ago, perhaps I need not be so oblique in my efforts to grant the closure you so desperately crave. Perhaps I would not have done it at all. You buffoon. You ignoramus. Everything might have been different.
Perhaps Aunt Susan’s custom order was congenitally flawed in accounting for the essential disjuncture between the shape of a human head and the shape of a camel’s. Perhaps the store itself had sullied its reputation as a reliable source of novelty hats, eroding confidence in the promises communicated through the advertising campaign so omnipresent in the town in which we resided at the time before our exile that they––the novelty hat store––had never been found negligent in manufacturing hats contrary to customer specifications (by a court of law in fine print, of course).
Perhaps the camels themselves ought not escape blame for losing composure as they did, comporting themselves as if they’d never previously heard Arabian disco music. Less beholden to difficulties stemming from identifying sources of blame––for could we really be expected to disregard the natural human inclination, after coming across some grave tragedy, to satiate our need for vindication of some sort and for punishment of some sort lest we find ourselves struggling to reject the idle thought that, well, forces fueled by the collective are immune from such scrutiny or condemnation––is noting in the plainest language possible what is beyond all doubt or reproach: namely that the novelty fez hats slipped down from the ears on which they were perched, completely blinding the animals.
That no matter how many of us in attendance swung clubs at their heads or jumped onto the humps of the camels, each hump straddled by the lower body of a male or female seeking to tame the unruly humps, to tame the unruly camels in trying to pry off the hats with hands––tools surely better equipped for the sort of fine motor skill necessary in extracting the headgear than the baseball bats and cricket bats and golf clubs and pool cues––those camels just did not take kindly to being manhandled in such a fashion and proceeded to destroy just about everything, spilling the punchbowl all over my mother’s beautiful white dress as a sort of redress. The one she had promised to pass down to me upon her death. Which had long induced a complicated assortment of desires within myself because on one hand I loved my mother but on the other hand there was no wedding ring. And I naturally preferred to inherit the dress sooner rather than later so as to snap up an eligible mate before the biological processes perpetually at work inside my body rendered the generation of offspring an impossibility (or at least our culture’s so-called romcoms have conditioned me to believe such a thing). And besides, Aunt Susan never married and look at what happened to her! Listen to what happened to her!
The camels slowly made their way into downtown, wrecking power lines and telephone poles along the way, even tearing through the novelty hat store. This was the catalyst for my notion to transfer the beautiful white dress into my possession without alerting the authorities or otherwise endangering the social customs which bind man, woman, and child. Probably. Or so I think. But Aunt Susan would have executed my plan quite differently and with far less success. She could never seem to manage her affairs with the quiet dignity expected of someone from our social station––what with her artistic vision––and we were quite optimistic about how the use of the household closets might radically improve the quality of life for all of us within the home, at least by the metrics we used to gauge such a things.
And so we had Aunt Susan institutionalized on the basis that she sought to brainwash the animal kingdom into mass revolt for the reclaiming of Earth from us humans. The camel episode framed as but the initial battle, the initial imprecation. So we threw all the hats she had given us over the years into a huge pyre my father started in our backyard with the remnants of the berets. The other townspeople––mesmerized by the distorting nature of the flames––contributed their own hats too. Danny’s old friends––the ones who still lingered around the periphery of town, anyway––briefly left the woods to observe the burgeoning flames. They danced around halfheartedly for a while before retreating back into darkness as the fire died out.
It was then that I contemplated running into the woods after them because I too needed a diversion in order to sustain myself in the long term I had realized by this point. And bowling need not always carry the stigma traditionally reserved for it I had decided (knowing that things could not persist in this way without the therapeutic release granted by some such act, a compulsion eventually sated by my mother’s murder, of course). For I felt untethered from the aspects of modern life I had been conditioned to consider with only a severe seriousness. Unmoored and living the solitary life I had chosen for myself, how I regretted my sanctimony in criticizing Danny’s fondness for bowling when I recalled my poisoning our parents against him, realizing as I did soon after that I suffered from the same weakness. That I suffered from the same silent desperation to make myself understood but natural incapacity to do so. This is what it means to be human.
It was only then that I remembered I had just burned the bowler hat Aunt Susan had given me after Sunday mass all those years ago. And so it was only then that I understood that I would never be allowed to bowl, that yet another door had soundlessly shut behind me. Reflecting upon all I had learned from the exploits hitherto described in my statement, it was only then, sir, that I realized I could no longer wait, that the dress would have to be mine, that I could affect its relocation with far greater care and far fewer loose ends than had been the case when I had helped facilitate Aunt Susan’s institutionalization, to answer your question.
Samuel Rafael Barber has an MFA from the University of Arizona and an MA in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from DIAGRAM, Fanzine, Green Mountains Review, Puerto del Sol, Yalobusha Review, and elsewhere. According to life expectancy tables, he will live another 57.2 years. For now, you can find him at www.samuelrafaelbarber.com and somewhere within a certain American city