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The Fedora Kid
by Richard Stanford
2019-01-26 11:51:22
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fedore01He took dead aim naturally without thinking about it under the bright sunlight, without considering alternatives.  His left eye was focused, steady, his long fingers held the rifle loosely, straight and true.  From the dilapidated barn behind the house he could hear his grandfather talking to the chickens while he fed them.  There was a dew on the grass and it cooled his feet.  He loved this moment – the day was hot, he swam in the lake, then he took aim at the tip of the artillery shell and waited for the breeze to ease.  There had to be a name for this kind of feeling.  He knew he wanted to feel it again.  He brushed the trigger with his finger, awaiting the explosion but not rushing it.  Slowly he crooked his finger, the distance seemed forever, held his breath, holding his right arm motionless.  Finally, it exploded.  For the instant, he only saw black.

“Louis, come for your breakfast, dear,” his grandmother called out from the smell of fresh coffee.

A direct hit blew off the tip of the casing with the piercing sting of metal.  His grandfather heard it and was proud.  He coughed.  He spat.  He came out of the barn and saw Louis setting up for another shot.

“Wait a minute,” said Grandpa.  Louis lowered the rifle with a sigh and turned to see Grandpa going into the house.  He heard Grandma say something about breakfast and Grandpa barking back something like “in a minute”.  Grandpa came out with his Agfa box camera.  “Do that again,” he said.

“I need another shell,” said Louis.  He walked to the two rows of upright artillery shell casings that stood guard along the driveway.  Louis felt it looked more like a landing strip for a biplane.  But he knew they represented what was fired at his Grandpa and the cough was the mustard gas. When the war was over, he’d brought them home from ordinance and laid out this epitaph. Grandpa would be pleased to see his grandson blow off each of the tips but it would never calm the coughing. Louis picked up one of the bombs and cradled it in his arms as if it were a baby, a steel baby weighing thirty pounds.  He placed it on the tree stump.  He picked up the rifle, tucked the butt into his shoulder and took aim.

“Perfect,” said Grandpa. “Don’t shoot yet.”  Grandpa turned away, coughed twice, his lungs heaving, spat out, then aimed the camera at Louis.  “Steady,” and snapped the picture.

fedore02Eleven years later Louis was living on Masson Street in the Rosemount district of Montréal.  He had just bought his first car, a Ford Model A, with the money he’d made in the Royal Bank robbery.  He was working his way up.  His partner, Riley Madden, felt otherwise.  “You have no class.  Everything’s in the look and you have none.  You should get a fedora or you won’t get nowhere.”

To prove his point, Riley took a picture of Louis next to his Model A.  He made Louis prop his leg up on the running board so that it would lower his shoulder just enough to have the reflection of the back of his head in the door window.  It clearly showed a bald spot.  Riley hated baldness.  If it wasn’t covered up, he’d have to find another partner.  That would be tough because punks like Louis were hard to find. He was a good shot.  After taking the snapshot, Riley took Louis to Borsalino Hats on St.Clément Street.

Louis didn’t think Borsalino looked like much of a place to sell hats.  He followed Riley into a grey factory building.  He heard the grind of a hundred sewing machines coming from the open windows three floors above.  A locomotive roared away along the tracks next to the building, spewing another layer of black smoke.

“Are you turning me in?” asked Louis.

 “I’ve thought of it,” said Riley.

They entered the glassed storefront.  Louis could hear a constant muffled drone.  The store was all class: hundreds of hats of all shapes and colours were on display on dark mahogany shelves set into the walls.  The mahogany shined brilliant, like dark glass. The lighting was subdued in the mood of a speakeasy.  Louis could smell the sweet aroma of wood polish.

Luke and Riley knew each other well enough to hug.  Riley told him what he needed.  Luke nodded, looking Louis over like he was a potential meal.  Luke approached Louis with his two fingers directed to his eyes.  “The stare is too hard.”

Luke turned and walked slowly along the rows of shelves, pausing at the fedoras.  He was not going to pull out a dozen and try each on.  He would select the one hat, the one chance and that would be it.  Louis watched Luke walk to the far end of the store, shaking his head impatiently. “I have no time for this.”

Riley shot Louis a look.  “Or you got it or you ain’t.”

Luke stopped, pulled out a dark fedora, and held it in his hand as if it were floating.  He glanced at Louis, then back to the hat, then back to Louis.  “You’re making me nervous.  It’s not a crown,” said Louis.

“This fedora will change you,” said Luke.  He placed the fedora gently on Louis’ head, giving it a cheeky tilt to Louis’ right.  The fedora had a gentle curve of the brim to the front and a perfect valley of the centre dent.  Louis raised his hand and touched the warm texture of the felt and the silkiness of the grosgrain ribbon binding the base of the crown.

Yes.  He did feel different.  Now the hat could hide the lowering of his gaze, making him seem more mysterious.  “He’ll take it,” said Riley, flipping out several bills from his roll.
“Don’t I have a say in this?” said Louis.  Luke looked at Riley, took the money, shook his head and walked away.

It took a while for Louis to develop the mystery.  He tried the fedora at a tilt for a few days then he tried it straight with the brim over both eyes.  But he could never see anything without having to raise his head.  At least with the tilt he was able to keep an eye on things with his left eye.  It was fortunate for him he did that otherwise he would not have seen Esther come into the bank, stride through the employees’ gate and take up her position at the last teller’s grill in the row.  He continued filling out the form request to open an account.  He took his time, writing each letter slowly, thinking about questions being asked of him, looking up at each point to follow the movements of the tellers to the vault, the manager’s exit for lunch, the return of the loan manager from a meeting, the number of clients who came in and out, and the advancing of the clock.  Talking to the teller, asking stupid questions and maybe getting up enough nerve to flirt a little bit, see if she had a wedding ring on her finger, would give him more time to feel the ebb and flow of the place.

The fedora worked but Esther was an easy mark.  By the weekend he had an afternoon date with her – a walk on Mount Royal.  Louis made sure to bring Riley along with his girlfriend.  He knew he couldn’t keep the conversation going by himself and he needed Riley around to keep the all facts straight.  But when Riley insisted on taking a photograph of Louis with Esther, he was angry.  He whispered in Riley’s ear, “That could be evidence, you idiot.”  “Don’t worry about it. This’ll make her feel like a real girlfriend. Then she’ll tell you anything you want to know.”   
fedore03It was the last photograph Riley ever took of Esther.  There were dark circles around Louis’ eyes, made harsher by the sunless day. Louis sat next to her at the end of the bench, their bodies creating the effect of the bench tilting.  Louis looked like a man who had just come from a funeral.

“Do you ever take off your hat?” she asked with a wry smile.

“Sometimes.  If I’m sitting in a restaurant I will.”

“What about a church?”

“I don’t go to churches anymore.”

“You mean, you used to?”

“When I was a kid.  But I never listened much to what was being said.  I was always staring at the stained glass windows.  You know, St. George slaying the dragon, stuff like that.”

“I wouldn’t know.  We don’t have that kind of thing in a synagogue.”

“What? You mean you’re a Jew?”

“Smile pretty for the camera,” said Riley.  He snapped the shot. Esther got up and walked away without a word. Louis took a toffee candy from the bag next to him on the bench and chewed hard into it.

“So, did you get anything out of her?” asked Riley. 

“Yeah, the bank opens at 10.”

There was no time to waste, insisted Riley.  Five minutes to ten the following morning the sun was blazing.  Riley parked in front of the City and District Savings Bank on Ste. Catherine.  Louis on the passenger side breathed heavily, unable to draw enough air into his burning lungs.  Even with the sunlight shining directly through the windshield he was cold and he had to piss.  “Not now,” whispered Riley. “You gotta to learn to hold it.”  If he focused on the cold, Louis hoped the fear would pass, that his entire energy would make him warm again. 

They lifted their bandanas over their noses and lowered their fedoras.  The moment the manager unlocked the front door they pushed him back, Louis swung the rifle out from under his coat and pointed it at his head.  The manager didn’t need any prompting to know what was happening.  Riley ran ahead swinging his pistol back and forth, and shouting, “You all know what this is.  Stay where you are and this will all go real fast.” 

Louis pushed the manager to the centre of the bank and told him to get down on the floor.  The manager obeyed.  Louis raised the rifle and pointed it directly at the last teller in the line.  He didn’t see her.  He didn’t see her searing eyes.  He saw an upright artillery shell.  Everything shifted into slow motion: Riley jumping over the counter, opening the money tills, stuffing bills into a case. There was no sound.  Her eyes never left Louis’.  The rifle remained trained on her forehead.  Would he shoot the artillery shell? Was she pressing the button?  Would he shoot her for walking away on him, never giving him a chance?  He finally felt warm.  The sunrays streaming through the stained glass windows enveloped him in a warm glow.  He began to sweat. “C’mon, c’mon,” said Riley tugging at his arm. “It’s done.”  Louis held his aim.  He smelled coffee. He heard the clucking of chickens. He felt the sunlight. He focused his left eye.  His finger rested on the trigger.

“Get in, get in!  Fuckin’ idiot! What you doin’ in there!?” Riley screamed as he accelerated through the intersection on a red.  “You definitely ain’t got it, kid.  Let me fill you in…” he turned the steering wheel fast and sharp, “….when you got the money you don’t hang around to fuck the teller!  What’s that on your collar? Blood?”

“Why don’t you shut up,” said Louis staring out the window as the street sped by. He had never seen a look like that, a look with the intensity of a shot.

They ran after the robbery.  In separate directions but they ran and ran and ran.  Train, Toronto, bus, Windsor, walk, Detroit, bus, Thunder Bay, walk all of Thunder Bay, train, Winnipeg, bus, Brandon, train, Chicago, bus, taxi, bus, train, Toronto.  There was not a day that Louis awoke when he did not have to think about being on the run, where to go to next, how he would get there, how low over his eyes he would tilt the fedora without looking suspicious or walking into a door. There was not a day that Louis awoke when he did not think of her eyes.  But he couldn’t go back to Montréal - not yet.  He carried around his cut of the robbery - $20,000 - that he couldn’t spend freely for fear of attracting attention which is exactly what he did when he posed for a newspaper photographer covering a story of the construction of a sub-division in Scarborough.  Louis figured he wouldn’t attract attention if he worked for money rather than spend it, so he got himself a job as a carpenter on the site.  It also stopped the running.  With a Speed Graphic camera the photographer framed the fedora perfectly tilted in line with the skeleton of the roof in the background.
fedore04Det.-Sgt. Segal made it his business to have newspapers from across the country delivered to his desk every morning.  Newspapers were a more reliable source of information than any police network – they told stories of everything, innocently, without even realizing the image of the carpenter was a complete lie. And Segal knew it. He had him.

It was a humid summer day.  Louis was laying a roof on a bungalow in the sub-division, with no camera to record the sweat pouring from his back and down his forehead into his eyes.  Each time he wiped away the sweat, his vision was more perverted, the waves of heat creating a panorama of Mars.  He saw what looked like an exclamation mark coming towards him.  It came into focus with a determined stride in high heels and a skirt.  Louis jumped town from the roof and ran to her, falling into her embrace and her lips.

“I never thought you’d answer my letter,” he said.

“Normally I wouldn’t.  You’re a lousy writer. No, it was the thrill of it. I never felt anything like that before.  Then I almost burst out laughing.”

“Laughing? That’s how much I scared you?”

“No, you didn’t scare me.  It was your nosebleed.  Do you do that when you make love, too?”

About two minutes later she found out.  They ran off to an unfinished bare bungalow in the middle of the dirt desert and tore each other apart on the hot bare floor in the unrelenting heat while the blood dripped from his nose and onto her breasts. 

Detective Segal waited behind a skeleton bungalow down the dirt strip.  He tilted his fedora over his eyes to shield them from the frying rays.  The wind polished his nose and coloured it lilac.  He looked around the parched desolation where harsh colours had been spat on the surface and realized why his partner didn’t want to back him up: leave the breathing streets of Montréal for this?  Segal could have had the local detachment pick up Louis but Segal had a curiosity about this one, a sense of mission for the answer.  He now had the answer right there in that bungalow.

The other tellers in the bank had seen it all: the steady aim on Esther, the blood dripping from under the bandana.  She was the only one who wouldn’t talk; she claimed she was traumatized by the whole experience and couldn’t re-live it.  Segal would have to wait.  So he did and he watched her, and waited.  He packed his overnight bag the moment the photograph was published in the newspaper.  His hunch was right – she led Segal right to him.  Now he waited again, prepared to give Louis one last taste because he wasn’t going to do 6 to 10 for robbery but 15 to life for attempted murder.  Louis wasn’t even going to see the sky for a very long time.  When Louis walked out he was in such a state of tranquility that Segal felt he was handcuffing a ballet dancer.

fedore05As Louis was driven away he looked back at Esther standing in front of the bungalow holding his fedora.  It was crushed flat.  They had used it as a pillow.

Riley spent six years as Louis’s cellmate in St. Vincent-de-Paul Penitentiary.  He was sentenced to 10 years for armed robbery and he was released early for good behavior.

“Good behavior,” said Louis. “You beat the shit out of three guys in here.  It’s a joke.”

“Like I said, kid.  Or you got it or you ain’t.  And you ain’t.  So long.”

Louis was five years away from finishing his 15 year stretch when he got a letter from Esther from PaloAlto,California.  Inside was a photograph of their son, Charles.  Esther had taught him how to shoot in the harsh summer sunlight.  Louis placed the photo upright on his book shelf.  He could see his son take dead aim naturally without thinking about it.

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