Lady takes a cursory look around the room; even without direct eye contact she can see the wrinkled faces and craning necks over the high back chairs, stretching toward her… She smiles apprehensively and backs away. She had no intention of making a spectacle of herself. She doesn’t know where that came from. But it did. She was compelled. It must have been the Muzak and the waiting.
“Good luck all” she says apologetically, slinging her bag around her shoulder.
“Hope Mr. Jones can find his way. I’d like to say it’s been a pleasure, but.” And she turns for the door. This is pointless, a hoax. Rude and effective. But, effective first. Fenton Jones is a genius.
She glides through the hallway letting the day’s events sift and fall through her head like fairy dust. She’s practically floating and mentally dims each peach sconce light as she retraces her steps. Out, out, out- with her invisible wand. It was upside down, this; something you can’t know until a thing’s done; to come in through the back door and know a secret first, that’s the ticket-like the way you cheat a maze.
She slips past Marla Beans who is still bent over the flowers, primping and poking- one way and the other; frowning and doting. Lady has the urge to grab the vase and slap the woman’s hands but doesn’t. She’s glad Miss Beans doesn’t notice her.
“Wait, Miss Lady.” Mr. Jenkins calls after her, catching up,
“How about a bite to eat? Or a coffee? I know a place.”
Lady looks him over. A ruddy faced man taller then she and much thinner. The “rats’ ass” man. No thank you kindly.
“I really must go. But thanks…” She wriggles out of his sight and discovers the rest room. The room is immense- the size of a bowling alley. My god. How many stalls in here? She says aloud. Her words echo.
“Forty, Ma’am.” Someone answers from behind a potted fern.
“That’s quite a lot for a building this size, don’t you think?”
She asks, not surprised that someone answered. Adding,
“Whoever you are…”
The man’s head appears out of the fronds. He’s wearing a baseball cap and green pea coat, wiping his hands on a paper towel.
“Name’s Fenton. I counted them myself when I came in. Forty stalls in all, hard to believe, and there’s a locked door down at the end.” He says, tossing a wad of wet paper into a basket.
“I guess this is unisex.” Lady’s voice is sour. So, this is Fenton the genius.
“You can leave now- if you’ve finished.” She says softening her tone, her confidence waning.
“No problem.” He says reaching for the door knob.
She watches him turn the handle but nothing happens. For a moment she’s distracted by the dark green wallpaper with giant orange poppies and long black stamens threaded through. She thinks Fenton blends in nicely with the paper and skitters to the far end of the stalls, against the wall. Mr. Jones wipes his hand on his pant leg and tries the knob again. It doesn’t budge. He turns and shrugs.
“Are you kidding me?” Lady drops her handbag and leans back. She cracks her gum and the sound is swallowed by the hum of the fluorescent lights. It’s like being in a tin can tapped with a fork. It makes her teeth hurt.
They stand looking at each other from across the room and the door opens.
“No!” Fenton Jones turns in disbelief as Mr. Jenkins saunters past, waving at Lady and pushing into a stall.
Lady laughs. “This is rid…” she starts, and then the door squeaks open and slams shut behind Delia May and Mrs. Leeds.
“Oh, hello dear.” Mrs. Leeds addresses Lady who is still leaning against the far wall- between the rows of stalls.
Lady simply nods. This is like a bad dream where nothing happens and you can’t wake up.
“Ah we having the meeting in heeya, Mr. Fenton?” Delia May asks, drifting to the sinks.
“And will you look at this wallpaper?” She glows, pulling a comb from her bag.
There’s a loud knock on the door from the outside.
“Who’s there?” Mr. Fenton is closest to the door.
“It’s Miss Beans! Let me in!” She’s yelling.
Fenton tries the knob again but it’s no go.
“Look here, Miss Beans, we’re locked in. Can’t you open it?”
The handle jiggles.
“It won’t turn. Maybe the tumblers have fallen.” Miss Beans shouts.
“It’s your tumblers that have fallen, Miss Beans” Lady can’t stop the words; the buzz-hum of the lights has made her mouth numb and uncooperative. She walks toward the door, her heels click clicking on the tiles. She checks her hair midway, by the sinks, with just a casual turn of the head. She feels good. Delia May gives a two finger wave into the mirror- applying eyeliner.
I’m going to be the head clerk. The thought plants itself in Lady’s head. The moment we leave this room, I’m going to speak to someone in charge. Oh that’s funny. She feels as bright and large as the poppies.
Fenton is seated near the door in the small lounge area with the overstuffed chairs and potted ferns. He wonders why they have these sitting areas in bathrooms- although, he guesses, if you’re waiting for the Pepto to kick in its useful. Or if you’re locked in. He checks his calendar for the next lecture date and place. He makes good money with no effort. It was a scheme derived quite by accident. Taking charge was taking charge of him. And it was working.
“Mr. Jones,” Lady sits beside him.
“Do you have a paper clip?” Her eyes scour a wooden table littered with magazines- they’re fanned out so you can read the titles; Paranormal, Edinburgh, Alfred Hitchcock, Ghost Hunters and Mad comic. How odd.
“What will you do with a paperclip? You can’t pick the lock with that.” He frowns but hands her a paperclip from his jacket pocket.
“I can and I will. It can be done with gum and a paperclip- go ahead and u-tube it.” She says confidently, loading her mouth with Doublemint sticks.
“There’s no Wi-Fi in here- or reception, I tried my phone already.” Fenton grunts into his chest, watching her chew out of the corner of his eye.
The smell of the mint gum makes him nauseas. He needs to throw water on his face.
The door is suddenly pummeled from the other side.
“Miss Beans?” Lady calls out.
A picture of the building labeled Johnson House circa 1810 falls from its hook on the wall and tumbles to the floor. It lands at Lady’s feet; she picks it up and holds it.
The pummeling gets louder and more intense. Now the pounding of a wrench on the pipes. Clanking, clanking. The lights flicker (how could they not?) and the faucets begin to drip.
“My word!” Delia May misses her eye and draws a black line straight down her cheek.
“What’s all the commotion?”
Suddenly the toilets flush. All of them. Mr. Jenkins bolts out of his stall, grabbing at his pants and buttoning up.
“What’s doing this?” He looks around for an explanation.
Lady looks at the picture in her lap- it’s a black and white photograph; a three story building, with lace curtained windows and faces that peer out. One of the faces winks at her from behind a curtain. She doesn’t notice right away but one of the windows is open and the curtain has blown inside; sucked in. The front door is wide open; also blown in by the wind. Lady strokes the frame and feels a rumbling at her feet. The bathroom begins to shake from its core; flushing toilets and dripping faucets echo throughout. A metallic drone of fluorescent tube lights hum and the black stamens race for the door. It blows open. By itself. Slammed against the orange poppies that wince and shrink back into the green.
“Here you go.” Lady sighs and hands Mr. Jones the paper clip.
“Don’t need it now.”
Mr. Jones shakes his head and his hat slips off rolling onto the tiles.
“These old houses are drafty.” Lady assures him and walks out.
She collects her thoughts and marches to the front desk where Marla Beans is waiting.
Marla Beans looks up and hands Lady the vase of mums and her badge.
Lady looks at the flowers, gives the vase a turn and gently sets them down. “There,” she smiles at Miss Beans and takes her place behind the desk.
The wind feels good on her neck, and the cold rush of air combing through her hair is refreshing. Mr. Jones’ hat comes spiraling into the street and is scooped up. It lands, teetering on a tree limb.
Marla Beans turns and looks up at the lace curtained window on the third floor. And waves goodbye.
One thought on “For Lack of a Hat Part II”
I always think that a good story raises more questions than it provides answers for, and this one, Laura, certainly does that. Though I’m not entirely sure what’s going on in your tale, I find its sense of mystique intriguing. I like how Lady is driven forward as if by destiny, to a place where all is “upside down,” how she steps into the role of one who “takes charge” seemingly against her own will–“something you can’t know until a thing’s done, to come in through the back door and know a secret first.” The lack of a hat at the start and the tumbling hat in the end seem apt bookends.