The hat is everything.
Crumpled leather the colour of a fisherman’s tan, it sits on its head in the middle of the cobblestone plaza. It is a great fisher of men, my hat. It sweeps up passing tourists and holds them before me, their jowls hanging loose like gasping catfish as I ply my trade. At the end of my performance, my hat pulls back its hooks in the form of jangling change.
It is customary to bow lavishly for the kids, give ’em a show, but it’s as much for my sake as theirs. Being a human statue isn’t like being a juggler. It’s a high risk profession. Your blood doesn’t flow right. Your heart, it turns out, relies on minute muscle movements to help propel blood around your body and if you remain perfectly still your fluids get sluggish. Veins get inflamed, muscles start to ache. Any normal job, you just lean on your other hip. Not me. Don’t move a muscle, Mr. Liberty.
That’s my gimmick. Bought a green suit from Value Village and painted my face with the kind of zinc you might have seen on a surfer’s nose back in the eighties. Lady Liberty carries a book commemorating Independence, but this is Canada, so the inscription on my cardboard replica reads JULY I, MDCCCLXVII. When a local notices this, they are often compelled to tip me. They tell themselves they’re being patriotic, but really it’s to show me they’re clever enough to spot the difference.
You’d think the torch would be a problem, but my arm only hurts for ten minutes and then it goes to sleep. I heard there was a yogi in India whose god told him to hold his left arm above his head. He did that for forty-three years until it shrivelled up and froze that way, but he said it brought him closer to God. I check my arm for shrivelling every night.
Sometimes I see a poser painting his face and wrapping himself in tin foil. Figure all it takes to be a human statue is the ability to remain perfectly still. This lasts for ten minutes, half an hour tops. Then the ache sets in.
The ache doesn’t bother me anymore. I tune it right out. I sing “Let It Be” by the Beatles in my head, over and over again like a mantra. I must have sung that song a hundred thousand times. I could quote you the lyrics two months after I die.
It feels like only fifteen minutes have gone by but it’s noon and the hat is starving. There’s a recession on, but honestly. I don’t ask much. The change from your pockets, the stuff you’re embarrassed to count out at the corner store. No need for a coin jar crowding the top of your dresser. Put it in the hat.
People flit by like schools of fish and the effect reminds me of Jimmy Wallace. Jimmy Wallace was an eleven year old in Nebraska who took a picture of the intersection outside his house every day at the exact same time until he was twenty-six. He compiled it into a montage that you can watch on YouTube. For nearly a third of the video, a young woman passes by on the other side of the street carrying an umbrella. Rain or shine, there she is — caught in a sunbeam, sheltering against the storm, picking her way through the snow.
Suddenly a single photo stretches out for seconds, a hiccup in the download, and there she is struggling with her umbrella. The street is more lake than asphalt, but awash in golden light. She’s caught in silhouette, mid-step, back hunched, hair falling in front of her eyes. A fly in amber. For that one moment it feels like you’re seeing right into her soul. And in the next picture she’s gone, never to return. Eaten up by the city.
A shout focuses my eyes and I realize that I haven’t bowed when a little girl dropped coins in the hat. I see the father with my peripheral vision. My peripheral vision is 20/20. I’ve got a sidelong glance Sherlock Holmes would envy.
He’s German from the accent, on the part of the tour where you’re encouraged to drop a few bills in the local shops, buy a sixty-five-dollar baseball cap. He’s angry but mute and indistinct. All I can hear is the way he deepens his voice when he pronounces certain vowels. I ignore him. He can’t touch the statue. There’s an unspoken agreement between performer and audience that holds him back even though he wants to slug me. Don’t touch the statue.
Still it’s nice to hear tourists talk, even to curse me out in a language I can’t understand. All locals ever talk about is the weather but the weather is always the same in Vancouver. Overcast with a chance of being pissed on. The sun isn’t out and I have no idea what time it is because I don’t wear a watch. The ticking hands would give me away.
A half-dozen bills sit on a bed of silver coin and my hat is bulging a little. It looks like a lot of money, but really it’s only fifty bucks or so, and this is a Saturday in July. Prime tourist season. A half-circle of cyclopean picture-takers stand around me; some get quite close for fancy shots or silly poses, but they never get closer than the hat. That’s the barrier. Stay out.
I resist the urge to empty my hat into the beat-up rucksack I brought with me. Instead I focus on the sound of the cement factory behind me. Ocean Cement Ltd. is a relic from when Grandville Island was an industrial zone under one of the city’s main arteries. Now they keep the land because it’s close enough to downtown that their trucks save precious fuel. The Merchant’s Association and the art school on the other side of the island have turned its fence into a technicolor yawn, but if I turn my head, I can still see the cement towers that rise beyond.
I do not turn my head.
Instead I concentrate on the sounds behind me. The repetitive drum beat of gas guzzlers cruising the parking lot, crossing paved-over railway tracks. The puttering of pleasure craft out in the bay. A flickering sizzle as the giant neon sign advertising the Market clicks on and off. This must be how the blind live. In that direction I am blind.
Ever been in a serious staring contest? It’s tough until your eyes dry out and then you’re home free. You need a third party to mediate if it goes this far — and it rarely does — because sometimes your vision gets so blurry you can’t see if your opponent blinks. You have to remember to dab yourself with a couple of drops of Visine when it’s over or you can damage your corneas when you blink.
The hat is gone and it is very dark. The giant neon sign has just gone out and a white-clad cook is tipping a trash receptacle into a blue bin. There aren’t any nightclubs on this side of the island, but I can hear the faint beat of eighties music, mostly thumping bass, from somewhere behind me.
I mourn the hat.
While I was singing “Let It Be” in my head, I let it go. Someone just took it. I wonder where people will put their coins, but then I remember my rucksack. It’s behind me in the land of the blind, but I sense it there. They’ll feed the bag instead of the hat.
The thumping stops a few hours before dawn breaks. I didn’t notice that it was time to go home and now it’s time to start work again. There is a persistent itch between my shoulder blades where a fold of the T-shirt I wear under my suit jacket is irritating my embarrassingly hairy back but I can’t itch because the first tourists have begun to show up and they check for that. Instead I slowly clench and unclench my deltoids. I can do this imperceptibly because my Value Village suit is three sizes too big.
I have come to the conclusion that I would have detected even the most cunning hat thief. My peripheral vision is 20/20. The hat has been eaten by the city.
The day is not fruitful without my hat. Confused tourists (too many for a Sunday, is it Saturday again?) walk up to me looking for my hat, but when it’s not there they look for a plaque. Maybe it’s a real statue, honey. Otherwise why would he be out here without a hat?
I miss my hat.
I’d like to buy another one, but the store across the way sells them for sixty-five dollars, and without a hat I can never earn that much. It’s the classic Catch-22. Briefly, I wonder if Joseph Heller had a hat, but then conclude that he would have made enough money from his books not to need one.
It is getting cold and amber leaves drift lazily across the cobblestones. A slight wind has dusted the bay with whitecaps and the tourists have become locals. We are in danger of getting pissed on and some of them wrestle with their umbrellas.
My eyes have long since dried out. I make a mental note to buy Visine. The city has become a blur and is transformed. The line of brake lights passing over a distant bridge is a pulsing red artery bringing nourishment to the city. Condo high-rises have become teeth and cars slosh between them like saliva. The city is slowly digesting them.
I begin to wonder if I am a man pretending to be a statue or a statue pretending to be man. Chuang Tzu was confronted with a similar problem when he dreamed that he was a butterfly and then awoke to find himself a man. Could it not be that he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man? He concluded that the question was irrelevant. When he was the man, he would live as a man, and when he was the butterfly, he would live as a butterfly.
I feel my arm again when it snows. The extra weight is almost too much to bear and I dearly want to shake it off but they check for that. Instead I think of that yogi with his arm in the air, shrivelled up like an atrophied erection. I wonder if his god ever came to him. I imagine him sitting cross-legged on a dirt floor, ribs shading a concave belly. The fingers of his right hand covered in saffron, a sparse dinner bowl discarded nearby. The muscles on his left side are steel cable, his shoulder a lump of granite, but his arm is a tiny, misshapen thing. He meditates well into the night. All the fires have gone out in the village, the dogs have ceased their barking, the distant ocean surf has stilled. And there, in that perfect silence, enlightenment comes. He smiles with crooked teeth, and it is like dawn stealing over the Ganges.
I promise myself that in forty-three years, when the ocean surf stills for me, I will allow myself to move the twenty-six muscles it takes to smile. When they check for that, as they always do, they will discover only an empty pedestal without a plaque. Nearby, I hope, they will find my crumpled leather hat.
A Clarion West graduate and recent first-place winner of Writers of the Future, Jordan Ellinger spends his days working in languages with exotic sounding names like C#, PHP and SQL, and his nights writing in the one he loves most: English.