The Ohio Hat

The height of summer, stifling heat, a stiff east wind. Sand and dust blew through the streets of the Amsterdam suburb. The schools were closed, and in the parks, office workers in shirt sleeves lay panting in the shade of rustling trees, while ducks slept under overhanging bushes by the ponds. A prolonged heat wave had slackened the usual, syrup-slow pace of the bedroom community to complete stasis.

One afternoon, I was sent as a substitute to the home of a Mr. Handigman. His regular home care aide was on vacation. Sluggish and sweaty after a morning of hard work elsewhere, I searched for the house number in a deserted street with a name like a medieval castle. I rang the doorbell of a ground-floor home with blinds and curtains drawn over the windows, as if the people who lived there were away on a round-the-world trip. For a long time, it remained deathly quiet, and I felt a first glimmer of hope that Mr. Handigman would not come to the door and I would have the afternoon off. For propriety’s sake, I rang the doorbell again, peering inside through a round pane of glass. Then I heard vague noises, clattering, soft cries, life. After a minute or two of fiddling with the lock, the door was opened by a small, gaunt man with sunken features and a gray goatee. He wore a thick Norwegian cable-knit sweater over a cotton lumberjack shirt and black corduroy pants. His balding head was covered with a red winter hat, the kind ice skaters wear during long-distance tours. White letters on the hat spelled out OHIO.

I introduced myself. The man very softly mumbled something I couldn’t make out, while staring past me with a glazed expression. The heat in the dimly lit house was well in excess of the temperature outside, and since there was no wind, the atmosphere was extremely stuffy and oppressive.

“Are you Mr. Handigman?”

He grunted a toneless “Yes” and led me into the kitchen.

My supervisor, Wittop, had given me a few instructions. The first thing I had to do was throw away the spoiled meals-on-wheels trays when he wasn’t looking. That was easier than I had expected. Handigman was not especially sharp. My presence and my words seemed to make no impression on him whatsoever.

“So, your regular aide is on vacation?”

“Mwww,” Handigman replied flatly. He did not know her name, or what she normally did around the house.

The second thing I had to do was make a grocery list and go to the store. As I casually snuck his half-eaten frozen dinners into the huge metal trash can next to the fridge, he gazed fixedly at the almost empty bottle of Napoleon brandy in the bottle rack. In the deserted square down the street, I went into a liquor store and bought him a new bottle, along with a few extra-large bottles of cola. That was all Handigman needed, aside from a few odds and ends and five packs of filterless Caballero cigarettes.

When I returned, he was most interested in the brandy. An inordinately large glass beer mug was turned upside down on the drying rack, bearing the faded red slogan, “I’ve given up plenty.” In this mug, he slowly and very deliberately mixed a formidable cocktail. After setting the mug on the tray of his rolling walker, he shuffled out of the kitchen, keeping his eyes on the floor.

I followed him to the living room, where the curtains were closed. Here and there, bright sunlight seeped in through the gaps. Cigarette butts had left burn holes in the furniture and carpets. A dented bronze plaque over one door read, “Suriname Independent 1975.” The walls were decorated with tropical paintings of Sumatran volcanoes in toxic colors. The bright, festive mood of these pictures was negated by the cracks in the sagging canvas. Dusty cobwebs hung from the slumping frames. Unsteadily, he let go of the walker and sank into a deep chair. I noticed a placemat from the Home Care Congratulations Service, an outlying branch of our organization I’d never heard of before. It sounded like a fun job. Handigman leaned forward and examined the empty squares of a half-completed puzzle in the Cryptic Crossword Superbook. I sat down on the couch, thinking, so, the silent type.

“Aren’t you hot in here?” I asked.

Handigman sucked on the Caballero in his long, thin fingers. “No.” In fact, he was cold, he said. He reluctantly gave me permission to open a couple of curtains.

“It’s like a greenhouse in here.”

He picked up the remote control and turned on the local news channel. A series of short items from various Amsterdam locations was being broadcast on a loop. Something about pickpockets, an obscure demonstration, gays at a party flirting with policemen through a fence, and other news bulletins of that kind, over and over, at a deafening volume. However hard I tried, I couldn’t strike up a conversation. Handigman was deaf to my words and consistently avoided my eyes, so I had to shout for attention. He responded to my questions in monosyllables: “Yes,” “No,” “Oh,” and so on. When he spoke, his voice was soft and expressionless, but always courteous, with a faint Indonesian accent. His face wore a serious expression at all times—his repertoire did not stretch to a smile, let alone a hearty roar of laughter.

To find out what else I was supposed to do that afternoon, I checked the home care logbook. I explained my plans to him and asked him where the supplies were kept. Staring into space, he replied that he had no idea. Then he put out his cigarette, rose heavily to his feet, and rolled his walker into the bedroom, a shabby corner set off from the living room by a glass partition and empty except for the bed. He placed his mug by the headboard; so far, he had not taken even one sip. In astonishment, I watched his slow yet purposeful actions. Apparently, our conversation had left him so exhausted that he’d decided to crawl into bed. He turned over the blankets and lay down, fully clothed, on his back, his head on the pillow, still wearing the red hat. Then he pulled the covers over him, laid his arms flat at his sides in the threadbare sleeves of his sweater, and shut his eyes. His thin-lipped mouth dropped open, a black hole. He was playing dead.

“So I guess you’re really tired, if you’re going to bed now?” I shouted.

“Yeah.”

“Umm . . . would you mind if I opened a window and changed the channel? They keep repeating the same stories. It's getting a little annoying.”

Not a peep.

I went to the kitchen to fill a bucket of water for the windows. If he didn't give a rat’s ass what I did, then I might as well wash the windows in the backyard. That would give me a pretext to escape the suffocating interior of the house and spend a half hour in the fresh air. It was hot, and the sun was beating down on the glass, but anything was better than hanging around indoors until five o’clock.

When I came back out of the kitchen with the bucket and some rags, Handigman was on his way from the bed to the TV to pick a new channel himself. He aimed the remote at the screen like a revolver and pressed a random series of buttons. A cacophony of programs rushed by. I got the impression I had no say in this decision. Handigman seemed completely absorbed in channel surfing.

I opened the back door and stepped out into the overgrown yard. A few moments later, as I was removing a year’s worth of cobwebs and insect droppings from the windows and frames, I heard the distorted, strident, poorly dubbed voices of an American infomercial. “Hey, Jack, look what I’m doing to your beautiful brand-new car now. Ha ha ha. You see this nail, Jack? Feel this, Jack, feel how sharp it is. Now, I can see you're worried, Jack, and so’s your wife Darlene. You just can’t believe it. I'm gonna take this nail right here, Jack, and make a huge scratch across the door. Ha ha ha. D’you wanna stop me, Jack? Do you dare?” The product was auto body finish that provided “high-level protection.” I peered inside through the sheer curtains. Handigman had returned to bed and assumed the corpse pose.

I dragged out the work in the garden as long as I could. Unfortunately, there were only three windows. I gave the woodwork and the box for the awning a thorough cleaning, but eventually there was nothing to do but go back inside. Jack, Darlene, and Bob, the salesman, were jabbering at an improbable speed about Bob's plans for Jack's new car, surrounded by a giggly audience crying "Ooh" and "No!" The infomercial went on for at least twenty minutes and then started over again.

I picked up a discolored dust cloth and started wiping the objects in the room: a table lamp with a cracked base, a wooden sculpture of a falconer with an ashtray on his head, a stone workhorse, a once-painted egg cup in the shape of a French gendarme with the slogan “I love Paris.” The remote control was gone.

After I had dusted the neglected souvenirs and paintings, I killed some time in a side room–the paper room. Many years of old newspapers and advertising brochures lay neatly stacked on rows of chairs against the walls. The paper collection was monitored by the hat rack, a plastic faux-wood stag’s head by the door. The antlers of this imitation hunting trophy were fractured in several places and held together by yellowed, desiccated strips of tape.

The TV wailed like a child in distress. It didn't seem to bother Handigman. He lay motionless on the bed, his pointed nose rising into the air. I passed by the bed from time to time to check whether he was still alive. Only after long, careful surveillance could I make out the slight motion of his chest.

Vacuuming. If he could ignore the din of the TV, then I might as well put the vacuum cleaner through its paces. While vacuuming around and under the bed I found the lost remote. Handigman’s bony hands lay on the sheets, palms down, his white fingertips ever so lightly touching the woolen cover. The remote control had slid out of his right hand and fallen in between two folds of fabric. The vacuum cleaner drowned out some of the noise of the commercial, but not enough. By this time, Bob had been wearing down Jack and Darlene for so long that they agreed to scratch their car with the nail themselves, as the audience cheered them on. Afterwards, Bob demonstrated his product, dumbfounding the crowd with its restorative powers.

A terrific tension was building up inside me. It felt like I was losing my mind. Once I had dusted the entire house and put the vacuum cleaner away in the paper room, I returned to where Handigman lay, determined to talk him into giving me the remote.

“Mr. Handigman! Hello! Are you sleeping?” No response. “Mr. Handigman! Hello! It’s me, your home care aide.”

He lifted his eyes, looking bewildered. I asked for the remote control. It took a moment for the meaning of my words to sink in. “That thing there, next to your hand,” I clarified. He mumbled something and shut his eyes again. I gave up on him and focused on the TV, but in my agitation, I accidentally pressed the wrong buttons. One by one, all the channels went blank. I was horrified. One of the few scraps of information I had extracted from Handigman was that he had a son somewhere in town who rarely visited, and he hardly ever saw anybody else. He watched television “a lot” because that was “all he had.” And now I had broken his TV.

My T-shirt was drenched with sweat; my arms trembled in disbelief. For a full half-hour, in rising panic, I tried out countless combinations of buttons on the remote, and poked and tugged at every part of the television itself that resembled a button, dial, or switch, but nothing helped. The TV was down for the count. Snow and static filled every channel—different varieties of snow and static, yes, but nothing like a picture, except for a blurred image on 34, shooting across the screen at irregular intervals, of an Italian cartoon with shrill, dubbed children’s voices. A thought flashed through my mind: this couldn't be what Handigman meant by watching TV, this is too awful. Like a thief in the night, I rifled through drawers in search of a manual. I searched the entire TV for secret compartments with emergency systems for setting channels by hand. I spent long minutes scrutinizing the remote, but the meaning of the symbols eluded me, and I finally gave up. For an instant I considered saying nothing to Mr. Handigman, who was still flat on his back in the bedroom, oblivious to the catastrophe. After all, I was only a substitute. There was a good chance I would never set foot in that house again. “No, that’s not OK,” I told myself sternly as I mopped the floor. “You have to let him know.”

I woke him up and told him I had deleted the TV channels. The news made no impression at all. He closed his eyes and continued his corpse routine. But apparently, the message gradually sank in, because a little while later, as I was mopping the front hall, I noticed him returning to life. He threw the covers back and went to his chair, picked up the remote, and tried out a few channels.

“It’s not working, Mr. Handigman,” I shouted. “All the channels are gone.”

He paid no attention and started banging the remote on the inlaid tiles of the coffee table. The hollow, gloomy thumping filled the house. Then he punched the buttons feverishly, repeating, “I don't get it. There’s no color. I don’t get it, there’s no color.”

I tried to make him see that there was nothing wrong with the remote control, that I was responsible, that he should blame me and not the black firearm in his hand.

“It’s broken, there’s no color,” was all he would say. He went on hammering on the edge of the table.

“No color? There’s no picture at all, just snow, interference. It’s my fault.” I pleaded with him. “It’s my fault. Please, be angry at me.”

Handigman went over to the TV and started pawing at it and giving it half-hearted slaps.

“No, no, the TV’s fine. The channels are gone.” Was I getting through to him? He returned to his chair and lit a Caballero. Then he turned up the volume on the static, flipped through the channels to no avail, shook the remote, examined it briefly, and slammed it on the table again. He went on that way until five o’clock. Howling storms of snow and static tore through the accursed house. I almost passed out from the heat and the unbearable tension exuded by the wordless man. He felt no anger, it seemed, only a mulish bafflement. His voice was still flat and muted, his sentences short. He avoided any eye contact. When the time came for me to leave, I asked him whether he knew anyone who could repair the TV. Handigman mumbled something about his son.

The proverb “Speech is silver; silence is golden” doesn’t apply to everyone. There are some people who could stand to talk less, that’s certainly true, but there are others you’d rather see loosen their lips.

A week later, I was instructed to go back to Handigman’s house. The television was still out of order. His son had been busy, I learned, but would stop by “soon.”

“What have you been doing all this time?” I asked.

“Resting.”

He was wearing the same clothes as the week before, and again it was dark and swelteringly hot in the house. His routine was also identical. I started the afternoon by going out for a new bottle of brandy. As long as he limited himself to one bottle a week, the alcohol was more or less compatible with his health care regimen—and what else did he have? He mixed his drink, rolled over to his bed, laid himself out, and stayed there for the rest of the afternoon, while I went about my work in silence.

It was especially unpleasant to dust, vacuum, or wash the area around the bed. Was Handigman sleeping, or was he awake? Was he following my every move, or was he in a semi-comatose state? What if he imitated a corpse so successfully that he actually died? The bathroom was next to the bedroom, and the door between the two rooms would not shut, because of the hoses from the washing machine. It was a small, sparsely furnished space, slightly run-down, and resembled the bathrooms of clients whose aides help them with their showers: hospital-like, but not quite as clean or tidy. Anything not strictly necessary had been removed. All that was left on the sink was a drinking glass, white with calcium, and a washing mitt, stiffened by use. As I cleaned the sink, my back was in line with the foot of the bed. In the cracked, stained mirror I could see, over my shoulder, the OHIO hat. I just couldn’t get used to it.

It would be an exaggeration to call the bathroom grimy, but on the other hand, it was far from spotless. Thick gray cobwebs stretched between the rubber hoses attached to the washing machine and dryer. I crouched to remove them with a dust rag. While doing so, I endeavored with all my might to turn my thoughts to far lands and regions. This worked so well that I momentarily forgot the man in bed behind me. Uzbekistan. Cox’s Bazar. Shanghai. Frunze. Saint Helena. I saw camels in desert landscapes, nomads in Adidas tracksuits, bobbing ships with peeling paint at dock, seas at sunset, women with aquiline noses strolling through cooking fumes from roadside stalls, lonesome, grassy hills, seagulls, the silhouette of a weather-worn tree on a cliff, a shady slope, telegraph poles receding toward the horizon.

I was standing up to rinse out the dirty rag when my eyes were drawn to something in the mirror. Handigman was sitting bolt upright, his arms extended stiffly in front of him, like a man resurrected, but with his eyes closed. I was so startled that I knocked the glass off the sink. The crash sent shards skittering across the granite floor. Handigman remained in that position for a while before pulling off the sheets and rising from bed like a sleepwalker. He grasped the handles of the walker and drifted out of the room. I followed him in surprise. He was headed for the toilet. After doing his business, he returned to his usual position without saying a word.

Seven days later, I was sent back to Handigman’s house again. No one else had been there in the meantime, except for the meals-on-wheels delivery people. The television had yet to be repaired. A friend, after hearing my horror stories of the Handigman House and the impact its owner’s behavior had on me, had advised me to talk to him about it. “Hold him responsible,” she said. “Tell him how uncomfortable his silence makes you feel. Say, ‘Wouldn’t you like to have a nice chat?’ or ‘Why won’t you talk to me? It’s frustrating for me when you’re so distant and unresponsive.’ Confront him about it. Maybe he doesn’t realize how unhappy you are when he ignores you.”

I had my reservations. Good conversation tends to emerge spontaneously. Forcing it is as difficult as creating artificial life. I imagined telling Handigman, “We need to talk.” It seemed unlikely that he would agree.

“But at least you’ll have cleared the air,” my friend insisted, and she added, “You have to learn to be more confrontational.”

The third broiling hot afternoon was like the first two. There was no denying that Handigman’s habits were taking their toll on me; I could feel the tension mounting. My only wish was to get away from him and his house as quickly as possible. I worked like a demon in the hope that time would go faster.

And I never would have raised the issue, if Handigman hadn’t tried to tip me at the end of the afternoon. I had cleaned his house in silence, smoked a cigarette in the garden, and washed the floor around the bed. At four-thirty, I decided I'd had enough. I dearly hoped his regular aide would be back home soon. I could have grabbed my backpack and left the house without saying goodbye, but I felt I should let him know I was leaving. Diffidently, I knelt at the foot of the bed. Handigman seemed deader than ever. In the cavern of his mouth, I saw the pale glint of a yellow tooth. Gray hairs sprouted from his long nostrils. He lay in solemn repose, his palms upturned, his fingers barely curved. His nails had not been clipped since who knows when. A few strands of tobacco hung from his white goatee.

“Hey, Mr. Handigman. I’ve finished my work. I’m leaving now.”

He lifted his eyelids. His dull gray eyes stared without expression. In the gray of his irises, dark patches wandered like clouds.

“All done, Mr. Handigman. I’m going home.”

“Oh.” Suddenly, something came to life inside him. He lifted one arm and reached for the tray on his walker, which was parked next to his nightstand. Next to the untouched brandy & Coke and an old wristwatch lay a crumpled ten-guilder bill. Even though I’d disabled his television, he was evidently pleased with my work and wanted to reward me. He took the bill in his hand and offered it to me. “Here. This is for you.”

“No, Sir, thank you kindly, but I can’t accept it.”

“No?” He looked disappointed.

“Give that to your regular aide when she comes back.”

“You don’t want it?”

“No. I appreciate the thought but I can’t accept money,” I said, in a fit of integrity.

“No?” he repeated, poking his arm in my direction.

“No. Hey, your TV’s still not working, is it?”

“No.”

“Your son hasn’t come by?”

“No.”

“But he will?”

“Yes.”

My eye was caught by two enlarged color photos on the otherwise bare wall, one of a woman in a colorful floral dress laughing, the other of children playing happily in a garden. That woman was dead; those children had left the house; that life was over. I hesitated, but decided to speak my mind: “Mr. Handigman, you're so quiet, you don’t say a word. It really gets on my nerves.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.”

A pained look, a kind of remorse, passed over his face.

“Aren’t you ever in the mood to just talk?”

“No.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.

Very softly, he added, “That’s because I’m not so fond of conversation.”

“Not at all?”

“No.”

“You’ve lost interest in conversation?”

“Yes.”

“But Mr. Handigman,” I blurted in dismay, “have you lost all interest in life?”

He flinched then, a slight, involuntary response. “No, no,” he reassured me. I looked at him skeptically. “I’m still interested in life, just not in conversation,” he explained. Then he said, “This is for you,” and tried once again to press the money into my hand.

"De muts Ohio" © Anton Valens. By arrangement with Atlas Contact. Translation  © 2014 David McKay. All rights reserved.