This short story was written as a submission in a writing contest in a literature magazine. It wasn’t selected as one of the winners, and so now I am free to use it for my own purposes. The story is mostly true with names and some details changed.
“They saw you coming,” I said when I saw the size of the shopping back my brother was carrying.
“Yes they did,” he said slowly, still reviewing the receipt. Then, pointing back to his friend he added, “but I think they’re going to sucker him out of even more cash than they did with me.”
Ben and my brother had been best friends for years and this September shopping trip had become a kind of ritual. Besides going back to school, the impending end of the harvest would free Ben up to pursue his new love, golf. As my brother and I waited on the park-style bench in the mall hallway outside the store, Ben was trying to decide between a few different hats.
Is he getting a golf hat because he’s playing golf or because Tiger Woods has made golf clothes cool? I asked my brother.
He reached into his bag and said, “I think he’s only getting on because I got one.”
My brother put his new hat on and wasn’t surprised or offended when I laughed. It was the kind of hat where the fabric reaches out from the back of the head to the tip of the brim.
“You know you look like an old man, right?”
“I’d rather look like an old man than Gilligan here,” he said, pointing at the store entrance.
Ben was walking proudly toward us wearing a soft, two-coloured canvas hat. My brother laughed at him, and Ben laughed too. They were always laughing with each other, and I rarely knew why. It could have been because neither of them had ever owned any type of hat other than a baseball cap, or it could simply have been because each of them thought that the other person had chosen a silly looking hat. I laughed too, but not in uncontrollable fits like they were doing.
Looking at the two of them in their new headgear, I couldn’t help but notice the contrast. It was almost as if they had chosen their hats to draw attention to it. Ben was a chubby guy and the soft hat draped gently over the curvature of his round face. My brother, on the other hand, was a skinny guy with a thin face, and his hat with its rigid brim jutting out from the sides. But the longer I looked at Ben and his new hat, the more I wondered if it would look good on me. I interrupted their chuckle-fest to see if I could try his hat on. When it didn’t fit, I went into the store to see if they had one in my size.
I was already suspicious that my brother and Ben’s purchases were motivated by something other than their sense of fashion. Once inside the store, I got to see what was probably another deciding factor. The sales associate was as pretty as she was helpful, and thirty-five dollars later, I probably couldn’t claim immunity to her charms either.
The three of us walked together to my brother’s car and threw our new found treasures in his trunk. As I climbed diligently into the back seat of the car without being asked, I caught a familiar look in Ben’s face. I knew what he was thinking. He couldn’t understand how I, as the older brother, could live in a world where my younger brother owned a car and I didn’t. He also didn’t get why someone would want to go to university, so if he couldn’t grapple with the financial implications of my choice, I cut him some slack.
The next stop after the big city shopping mall was the coffee shop in our town. The regular cast of characters has assembled and while we sat inside with a few people exchanging stories, there was a big group of guys outside talking about engine modifications or stereo equipment upgrades for their cars and comparing what their vehicles could do now. Everyone got a kick out of the way Ben and my brother looked in their new hats. I left mine in the car on purpose. The group could have shot the breeze long into the night, but more than one of us still had to be back at the farm at seven the next morning, so we all went home at a reasonable time.
We had met Ben at the coffee shop on our way to the mall, so his car was still waiting for him when we got back and my brother and I continued home without him, this time with me in the front seat. We were almost home when my brother remembered something. The way he began, it seemed like it was going to be fairly important.
“Listen,” he said. “Dad’s going to ask you how much you paid for your hat, so do everyone a favour and knock it down a few notches.”
I was fully expecting to show off what I had bought. Long after they stopped paying for our back-to-school purchases, mom and dad still wanted to see what we bought. Growing up as immigrants, I think our parents appreciated the joy of getting new things. There was a community pride element as well, and they wouldn’t want us to embarrass them with our clothing choices either. Mom and dad were pretty good though at letting us spend our money as we wanted.
“Why would dad care what I paid?” I asked as we approached the house.
“I spent twenty dollars on a Red Wings hat last year,” he said before pushing the front door open, “trust me.”
Both of my parents were more interested in the toaster oven I bought for my apartment than they were in my hat. Inevitably though, my father did ask.
“How much you guys pay for hats like that?”
My brother was the first to answer, “I think it was a little over ten bucks.”
That certainly was down a few notches. I remembered seeing the price tag on his, and it was at least ten dollars more than mine.
“How about you?” my dad asked, looking at me. My brother gave me a simple nod.
“I paid about the same as him,” I said casually.
Given my brother’s warning, I wasn’t sure what to expect next. My decisions had stirred my father’s anger more than once, but this wasn’t one of those times. He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t disappointed and he wasn’t even perplexed. He was amused, very amused.
When he was done laughing, he said, “Goodness sakes, the day I would spend that kind of money for a hat.” He shook his head and flicked his tongue in disbelief.
My brother and I smiled at each other as our father listed off the various hats in his collection and how little he had paid for each of them. For some he had paid a dollar, or even two, and many had been given to him. Neither of us dared to say it, but my brother and I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing any of those hats in public. A few years later that style of hat would be fashionable, people would call them trucker hats, not farmer hats like we called them. Even with popular culture on their side, we refused to wear them.
“That blue one I have in the garage on top of the table saw is a little thicker, so I can wear it when it’s a little colder, and I think I paid three dollars for that one,” he conceded.
“See, if you want a decent hat, you have to pay a little more for it,” I said, trying to build some common ground.
“But ten bucks! Golly!”
Our father had taught us the value of a day’s work, he had drilled into us the importance of finishing what we started, and he had even made it clear to us over and over again that often when we were fighting, the fact that we were fighting was a greater sin than whatever it was we were fighting about. That night we let him have a few laughs at our expense, but I think we were all wondering what he had taught us about money.