Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat

Stuart W. Mentha | 26/06/2011

He had an addictive personality, but the fact that he was aware of it didn’t help him get over it. At least Bob Thompson wasn’t addicted to anything dangerous. He didn’t smoke, drink, in fact it was a long time since he last had sex. Instead, Bob was addicted to something that only harmed his pocket. You see, Bob Thompson was a hoarder. He couldn’t help it. He just loved a bargain. Even if it was a metal detector that he would never use, a fur cape that he would never wear, or a packet of old stamps from Costa Rica - if it was a bargain he had to have it. It gave him a warm buzz to come home on a Sunday morning from the local market and lay out the spoils on the kitchen table. One particular Sunday he came home beaming like a warrior returning from a triumphant hunt. He had bought a new hat, but it wasn’t just any hat. He put it on and danced around the lounge room like a five year old on his birthday.

“Look at this Eric!” said Bob to his son. “It’s a leopard-skin pill-box hat!”

Eric was 12 years old. He was a bright young boy, with brown hair, a few scattered freckles on his cheeks, and an overall sunny disposition. He looked like a smaller version of his dad. He liked music, but didn’t really get what all the fuss was about. Not yet anyway. He was more interested in playing cricket and learning how to stay up on his new skateboard for more than 10 seconds. So in reply to his dad he didn’t say a word. He just shrugged and fell lazily into the comfy chair in the corner of the lounge.

“This will explain everything!” said Bob.

He skipped over to the stereo and opened the cupboard next to it jam packed with his vinyl records. They weren’t sorted in any kind of logical way, so it took a few minutes to find Bob Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat”. He didn’t remember what album it was on at first but soon found the song listed on the dusty back cover of Blonde on Blonde. It’s the one with the blurry picture of Dylan. The song was obscure but Bob had always remembered it. What he liked especially about the lyrics was the idea of the pill-box hat being “brand new”. It sent shivers up Bob’s spine just thinking about it. Every time he listened to that song he chuckled. He felt that he understood the character. He was a part of her world. He knew her trials and tribulations, and he was pretty sure that whomever that song was written about would understand him too. They both obviously felt the same rush after buying something new. He couldn’t believe that what he now had on his head was the very kind of object that Dylan wrote about. It made the song seem so much closer, so much more “real”.

Eric would often tell off his dad for being a “dag”. The truth was however, that although Eric would never admit it, he secretly admired his dad for the way he danced like no one was watching. However, it didn’t make his dancing any less horrendous. There was the jiving, twisting, and the hopping to and fro, but to Eric, the worst of all was the way he closed his eyes and started to “feel” the music. He reminded Eric of a three-legged frog. All the pain of the past: the divorce, the court hearing, the broken family room window - all that shit was forgotten about. At least, for the time that Bob danced with a leopard-skin pill-box hat on his head, balancing just as Dylan suggested, “like a mattress on a bottle of wine”. Bob now felt that he understood that simile. It had never really made sense before.

Eric loved his dad. He loved him for taking care of him when he had a terrible cold, for killing the snake in the grass near the wood pile, but most of all he loved him just for being dad. As he watched his father strutting his stuff and trying to convince Eric to dance with him, he started to worry that he was a dag for accepting that his father was a dag. And after all, a “dag” means a piece of shit hanging off the tail of a sheep. It’s not a good thing to be. It’s definitely not “cool”. His dad was certainly eccentric. None of his friends had a father who was a “visual artist”. All of his friends’ dads were plumbers, or roofers, or land surveyors – they were normal. When his friends were around he was always a bit nervous showing them around the house. The word cluttered was an understatement; there were bits and pieces everywhere. His father had a fear of empty space. Yet, his friends assured Eric that they thought it was pretty cool. Even the dancing and the bad Pavarotti impersonations – to them it was funny, in a good way. Their dads just sat in front of the television drinking beer watching the cricket. That particular thought reminded Eric of the current test match being played in England. He got up from the chair and went out into the backyard to practice his batting technique against the garage wall, (just like the legendary Sir. Donald Bradman did with a stick and a golf ball). But Eric wasn’t very good at it.

Now, Bob was a very intelligent man, he was no fool but he was however deaf in his left ear. He had been that way ever since his ex-wife (Eric’s mum) hit Bob over the side of the head with a fry pan. If people didn’t know him, they would sometimes think that Bob was a bit thick, slow, or something in between, but it was only because they were speaking in the wrong ear. How did Caesar deal with this Bob wondered? According to Shakespeare, he was deaf in one ear. Were his servants and council always on the one side of him? It painted an interesting picture of a lopsided senate in his head. On top of this, Bob had a notoriously bad memory. He was an artist, so he would remember things that he saw but rarely the things that he heard. This combination of a bad memory and his loss of hearing made it very difficult for Bob to revise his already impaired knowledge of song lyrics. Whilst in the midst of his dancing he would turn and twist, and at times his left ear would be closer to the stereo, sometimes his right. Therefore, when he sang along he would often be forced to make up his own lyrics that didn’t really make sense. For instance, when he listened to the Rolling Stones he would yell out something about the blackened walls, but Mick Jagger never said he wanted the walls painted black, only the door. Likewise, Bob would sing along to The Fureys' "Green Fields of France" about the grave of Willie McBride “in a field of yellow flowers” but the Fureys' sang only about the fields being green. Still, it brought a tear to Bob’s eye every time he misheard it. Another one was “the ship rolled on wild white crests”, but again Neil Diamond uttered no such words. Eric was quite aware of his dad’s habit of getting the lyrics wrong. His personal favourite was the time he heard his dad singing, “the imp got in the dough again”. It just didn’t make sense. He had to look up what an imp was.

When Eric returned inside, he brought with him the mixed up scent of sweat, leather, and wood. Then he saw something that he had never seen before. His dad was dancing with his eyes closed, slowly from side to side, like at a fancy ball with an imaginary partner in his arms. Once again he was “feeling” the music. Eric watched for what felt like a whole minute but was probably only twenty seconds. He couldn’t compute the situation. His dad had always assured him that he wasn’t lonely. So many questions ran through his mind. It was rare that his dad showed sadness. Bob felt that he was being watched. He felt it on the back of his neck. He looked up and saw his son staring at him wide-eyed.

Bob smiled kindly. He stopped dancing.

“What do you say we kick around the footy mate?” he said.
Eric smiled back. “Okay dad.”

Much to Eric’s chagrin, Bob still wore the hat as they kicked around the footy in the park. Yet, passers-by didn’t actually notice the hat. Bob wore it with such a casual attitude that no one picked up on it being anything unusual. It did in fact suit him. What passers-by did notice however, and quite quickly, was that Eric and Bob shared the same lack of co-ordination. It was an endearing sight to watch two three-legged frogs attempt to kick a football back and forth. Meanwhile, a mother magpie was also watching from her nest. This was “swooping season”, the time when magpies defend their hatchlings by swooping down on potential predators. It is a time when only cyclists are safe, and although it’s tempting to wear a helmet even when not on a bike, it would certainly be the epitome of “dagginess”, and in that respect would most definitely trump even the most outrageous hat. Perhaps on this day, the magpie was defending her nest as usual. Or perhaps the magpie was envious of a man wearing a beautiful hat. Eric would always wonder. Neither he nor anyone else he knew had ever seen what was about to happen. Magpies are known for their love of shiny objects, but not necessarily their love of high fashion. Yet, sure enough, it swooped down and plucked the most prized possession off the top of Bob’s head.

The bird stole his hat.

Eric expected his dad to get angry, but he didn’t. They watched the magpie swoop back up into the trees with the hat in it’s beak. It hopped triumphantly back along the branch into it's nest. Perhaps it wanted the hat for a comfy lining for it's chicks. Whatever the reason, it didn’t just sing, it cackled. It was as if it was laughing at them. Bob made the same chuckle as when he was listening to Dylan’s song. He smiled and looked down at a curious Eric.

“Such is life!” Bob said.

There was a moment of silence in which Eric looked at his dad looking fondly up into the trees where he had caught the last glimpse of leopard-skin. In that moment he felt a deeper respect for his dad than he had ever felt before.

“I love you pop!” he said, but Bob didn’t hear him. So Eric stepped in front of his dad and hugged him.

He didn’t need to say it again.

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