Fiction · 04/08/2020

Shopgirl

At the hat store, the clerks knew her name and reputation. She was Selena, the girl who liked hats. But she was also the girl whose father had named her for a lunar eclipse. She’d been coming by for years. The shop was beneath the apartment where she had been born, but Selena never asked to go upstairs. She just inspected the hats and occasionally glanced up.

Selena grew up believing her birthplace was eternal, but one day they told her the building was getting torn down. Sure enough, she arrived one afternoon to find the tall windows covered with newspaper. Fresh from a soccer game where she had missed the winning goal, she felt trapped outside her history, convinced fortune had eluded her a second time.

There was space between the papers and Selena pressed her face against the door. The clerks were gone. There was only a woman, stout and pretty, despite a crooked mouth. Selena knew her at once. Even though her father had destroyed the pictures, she had long ago found the woman online. She was famed for her hats, but Selena’s father was determined Selena think of the woman as something less. Today, looking into the shop, Selena saw only an aging shopgirl. No one had seen her in years. After Selena’s birth, she had moved away and had become a recluse, an artisan who preferred hats to the people who wore them. Now she was here, packing fedoras away.

Selena leaned in and the door swung open against her weight. A copper bell sang.

“We’re closed,” said Selena’s shopgirl.

“The door was open.”

“The door was unlocked,” the woman corrected. Her hair was short and she had a mole-speckled neck. Selena shuffled in place, trying to count the dots. The store was a wasteland. Bald mannequin heads and hat stands as bare as winter trees.

Selena didn’t want to leave. “I need a hat.”

“Go somewhere else.”

“Please. My dad’s losing his hair.” Selena could always get sympathy by tilting her eyebrows and making a moue with her mouth; her shopgirl never stood a chance.

“How big is the head?”

Selena estimated the size with her hands and her shopgirl slipped into the back, brushing aside a curtain that let Selena see stairs that led to the rooms where she had been born. She caught sight of herself in the mirror and scowled at the things that needed to be improved. Posture. Acne. Weight. She fixed what she could: when her shopgirl returned, Selena was straight and tall.

“You’re lucky these are unpacked.” The woman presented a stack of trilbys, each a different shade. “That’s rabbit hair felt. Once, it was how all trilbys were made.”

“The name comes from a book. Trilby was the heroine.”

“They teach you that in school?”

“My Dad. He thinks hats are kind of cool.”

Something creaked above them, a rasping sound as if the building was clearing its throat. Selena glanced skyward; the usual tenants, she knew, were already gone. She examined the trilby as she had been taught. Solid crown. Fine dark stitching. A tag bore her shopgirl’s name. She had probably sat for hours blocking the thing. Selena tried to imagine the sting in the eyes and the kink in the back. Maybe a few pins poking from that crooked mouth.

“You’ll need a box,” said her shopgirl and she turned to fetch one from a nearby shelf.

“They’re tearing this place down,” said Selena.

Condos. They call it progress, but I’m not convinced.” Her shopgirl packed the trilby and tied the box with a ribbon as blonde as her hair. She wore a golden band, tarnished with age and tight against the skin.

“Are you going to reopen somewhere?” asked Selena.

“Probably not. Hatmaking’s a dying art and I’m a dying artist.”

Selena turned white. “Are — are you sick?”

“The artist in me is dying. The rest will soldier on. You’re too young to understand.”

“I’m fourteen.”

“Are you really?” She examined Selena over her tiny nose. “I have a daughter your age.”

“Really? What’s her name?”

The dying artist bit her lip. “Jane,” she said.

Selena’s face clouded over, but she held everything in check, just like she had on the soccer field when she cost everyone the game.

“I don’t have a lot of money.”

“Give me what you have. Hatters can’t be choosers.”

Hatbox in hand, Selena was led to the door. Above, she heard another creak. She wanted to ask if it was the man her shopgirl had left Selena’s father for, the one she had run off with before Selena was even named. But her bravery didn’t come in time and then she was on the street. The deadbolt fell into place; she was outside her history once again.

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On the bus, Selena took out the trilby and tore away the tag. She tied that blonde ribbon into a new bow — a better one, she thought. When she came home, she found her father in the kitchen, scarecrow-lean and full of gray.

“Gramps is already at the hospital. Where have you been?”

Selena presented the box. “It’s for you. Until your hair grows back.”

Misty-eyed, he opened the gift and inspected the trilby, his thin hands turning over the hat just as she had in the shop. “Rabbit hair felt,” he smiled. “This took real talent. You can tell.”

With delight, he set the trilby atop his hairless head and his ailing face lightened as if plugged in. He looked so pleased that she decided not to tell him the hat had not been made by an aging shopgirl but rather a woman of skill. She maintained the lie even years later, long after her father’s hair returned. By then, they had torn down the hat store and called it progress, but the trilby was as flawless as ever, a relic of the past and of a talent Selena envied, one she continued to hope might someday be her own.

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Joel Fishbane is a novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. His short fiction has been widely published, most recently in Litbreak, the Roadrunner Review, and New England Review. His novel The Thunder of Giants is available from St. Martin’s Press.Visit www.joelfishbane.net.