Here is a short story by, New Jersey author, Sean Fitts:
“The Man with the Panama Hat”
They never see him flip the pages, the man who wears a Panama hat, but he arrives each day with a new book. He doesn’t say much, so they tell me, but they have heard him speak. One of them had approached him one day, in his normal spot in the corner of the café, and asked him how he was. He had answered that he was troubled. When asked to elaborate, he’d replied, people have no faith in God because they cannot see Him, yet they put their faith in what they don’t see every day. Their organs.
They think he is Hispanic because of his dark tan, but they have never heard him speak Spanish. Language doesn’t always reflect blood, of course. I’d once known a man who had been born in France, lived there until he was six, but only spoke English, not recalling even a simple greeting in his mother-tongue.
They say he refuses to sit anywhere but in the corner. The corner is always his spot. Why he sits there, they do not know. One of them hypothesizes that the air conditioning vent, situated just above his head, keeps him at the right temperature. Cold.
The man with the Panama hat, they regard as an intellectual, a modern-day Marcus Aurelius, Shakespeare, and Jesus of Nazareth brewed together. He appears to read avidly and can make a single espresso last for three hours. Patience is a virtue, they remind me when they tell me how slowly he drinks his coffee. After three hours, he leaves. Not having turned a single page and not having made conversation with anyone unless approached first.
He adjusts his hat often. And when he sits, he has a regal posture. They say he may have been a prince in his home country. I tell them his home country may very well be this one. Last week, they saw his eyes penetrating an open copy of The Count of Monte Cristo and took it as a sign of his past nobility. He only fed their notions further by showing up the next day with a paperback of The Baron in the Trees. They say his hat must remind him of his old crown.
I had asked them some time ago if they thought the man with the Panama hat to be a lonely man. They said, he is beyond loneliness. I don’t know if I believe that.
What is his name, I had asked as well. But they were only able to stare blankly at me, as the man with the Panama hat stares at his books. Some days, they argue he is nameless. But have any of you asked him for his name, I’d wondered aloud. They’d said they do not dare.
He is enigmatic. In the three hours he spends at the café, he never uses the restroom. And he sits with his right leg crossed over his left knee. When they’d divulged this information, I’d told them his posture did not sound particularly regal. But they replied without hesitation that his stoic motionlessness is what constitutes his regality.
His shirts and pants are always pressed, all pleats accentuated and all wrinkles nonexistent. They tell me that they believe his wardrobe to be costly. But his shoes, they say, are travel-worn. The soles are bald of any grips. The toes are scuffed from stubbing. And the laces are frayed from a never-ending cycle of tying and untying. Does he wear socks? They cannot say. If he does, they are ankle socks, hidden somewhere within the shoe.
They know so much about him, I cannot help but ask, do you think the man studies you the way you study him? Perhaps he goes home to friends or family and confides in them the quirks and regularities of you folk, you who are all there when he is there, each day, for the full three hours, sitting in your normal spots, sipping your daily coffees? But they say no, that would be preposterous.
When asked to comment about the work, Mr. Fitts called his story “an examination of humanity’s inherent need to stare.” The story plays on the group’s need to study the man with the Panama hat and their inability to believe that anyone else may be doing the same to them. “We all make up stories,” Mr. Fitts explained to me, “even when we are not writing them down.”