Novel excerpt: in which Marjorie buys a hat
Here, for a little while at least, is an excerpt from my unpublished novel that won the Fiction category in a contest sponsored by the Inland Northwest Christian Writers. (No firm title for the novel yet. Suggestions?)
(Backstory: Chicago, 1925. Marjorie, feeling pressured by her overbearing stepmother, Frances, to marry a man she’s not sure she loves, is at the Marshall Field department store on a mission to purchase bridesmaid gifts. After an unsatisfactory visit to the bridal department, she gets distracted. Richard is her fiance. Jack is her former beau, killed in France during the Great War.)
I stepped off the elevator like Alice through the looking glass. Before me lay rows of hats of every description: cloches, derbies, boaters, riding hats. I admired a soft brown felt hat with a jaunty feather, perched on a mannequin’s stylish head. Brown was my usual choice, a practical nondescript color, but the feather gave it an extra kick.
A saleswoman floated forth.
“Good afternoon, miss. Have you been helped?”
“Just looking. ”
This clerk looked different from those presiding over the bridal department, where I’d just spent a harrowing half hour. For one thing, she was younger, closer to my own age. Her plain black dress was form-fitting and startlingly short, almost revealing her knees. She wore her shiny dark hair in a stylish chin-length bob (“chopped off like a boy’s,” Frances would have sneered), along with charcoal pencil around her dark eyes, two spots of rouge, and dark red lipstick. Against all the strong colors, her skin looked alarmingly white. She might have looked almost ghoulish, if she weren’t so pretty.
She smiled. “What lovely blue eyes you have. I have the perfect thing for you. Please take a seat.”
I did as I was told. Knowing I wasn’t likely to make a purchase, I hesitated to waste her time. On the other hand, the department wasn’t busy. It would be fun to try on a few things.
The clerk, whose name tag read “D. Rodgers,” produced a fashionable cloche in a stunning shade of brilliant yellow, trimmed with a sophisticated navy grosgrain ribbon. I removed my own hat and set it on my lap. She handed me the cloche and I gingerly placed it on my head.
“No, not like that. You wear it like down, like this.” She grabbed the cloche on each side and firmly tugged it down until it rested low on my forehead, shading my eyes. “There. That’s better. What do you think?”
I gazed at the three-way mirror. I almost didn’t recognize the chic, stylish woman who looked back. I examined my head from all angles. “It’s lovely,” I admitted.
“Amazing what a difference the right chapeau can make,” Miss Rodgers exclaimed. “Just look what it does for your coloring.” My complexion did indeed look brighter—at least what I could see of it beneath the lowered brim. “It’s a darling hat,” she continued. “And so classy. You know what the great fashion designer Coco Chanel says: ‘A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.’ ”
I hadn’t known, but I didn’t think stodgy Kerryville was ready for both classy and fabulous. Reluctantly I pulled off the cloche and smoothed my flyaway hair. “It might be a little too fashionable. I live in a small town, you see.”
“Well, someone has to set the fashion standard.”
I doubted I’d be setting a standard in Kerryville anytime soon, for fashion or anything else. “I love it, but the brown suede would be more practical.”
“Oh, piffle” she scoffed. “Brown makes you fade into the woodwork. I should think you’d be tired of it and want a change.”
If she only knew how much I wanted a change—and not just of my hat. I glanced down at my old hat, which was looking sorrier by the minute.
But canary yellow! In such a daring, modern style. Every head on Main Street would swivel my way if I wore a hat like that. Did I dare?
The clerk sensed my waffling and winked at me in the mirror. “Come on, doll,” she coaxed. “Live a little.”
“Miss, may we have your help?” called a voice from a small clutch of ladies gathered around a display of wide-brimmed hats.
“I’ll be with you in a moment,” Miss Rodgers caroled back. Under her breath she murmured, “Meat packers’ wives.” I glanced at the women. “How can you tell?”
“By their hats, of course.” Impressed, I looked harder but couldn’t see any difference between these women’s hats and a hundred others. Miss Rodgers shrugged. “You work with hats long enough, you get to know the differences. Will you excuse me a moment?
As Miss Rodgers sailed off to attend to the customers, I checked the price tag on the yellow cloche and swallowed hard. It would take all the money I’d earmarked for bridesmaids’ gifts to buy it.
Yet it was such a darling hat . . . a smart, summery, sunshiny hat. A sophisticated city hat, infused with the power to transform even me into a sophisticated city girl. When would I ever find one like it again? Certainly not in Kerryville.
Suddenly Frances’ voice popped into my head. Yellow is such an impractical color, Marjorie. You’ll never be able to keep it clean. And how can you see where you’re going, with a brim that low? Isn’t that style a little bold for you?
That settled my decision. “I’ll take it,” I blurted when Miss Rodgers returned.
“Now you’re cooking with gas!” She cocked her head and gently grasped the thick coil of hair pinned at the nape of my neck, weighing it in her hand “If I may make a suggestion, this style of hat would look even nicer if your hair were bobbed. There’s a beauty salon upstairs that’ll fix you right up.”
I recoiled. “Oh, no. My fiancé says girls who bob their hair look like . . . well, let’s just say he wouldn’t approve. This hat will be about as much ‘modern’ as he can stand.”
Miss Rodgers smirked. “Oh, men don’t know what they like. They’re so confused. I had a beau who insisted he preferred women with ‘natural’ faces—none of that cosmetic artifice for him, no siree. Then when I showed up without any lipstick on, he asked if I had the flu.” She laughed. “We’ll wrap this up and get you on your way. Unless, of course, you’d like to see more hats. We have an adorable little sailor number, just the thing for yachting.”
“I’d better not,” I said. “I’ve done enough damage to my budget as it is. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to wear it home.”
“Why, sure, doll,” she agreed. “I’ll wrap up your old one. Maybe you can donate it to some worthy cause.” I set the Darling Yellow Hat on my head and tugged it down the way she’d shown me. “Like this?”
“Like that.” She grinned. “Perfect. Now you look like someone who’s ready for an adventure.”
As I walked down the street in the Darling Yellow Hat, I did indeed feel like having an adventure, but I couldn’t think of anything particularly adventurous to do with little money left. I wound up at the Art Institute, viewing an exhibit of eighteenth-century lace. At closing time, I found a theater showing a film version of La Bohème, starring John Gilbert and Lillian Gish. It would be ages before this new release reached the Orpheum, and nothing could induce me to pass up a John Gilbert movie.
Two hours later, though, I rather wished I had, as the classic story of tragic love in Paris’ Latin Quarter cast a pall over the lovely evening. I left the theater with a hollow yearning in my heart I couldn’t name. As I walked back to Miss Brownlee’s through the warm purple twilight, it occurred to me maybe I ought to avoid watching movies set in France. They made me think too much of Jack.
Before bed I scribbled a few lines to Richard on a postcard I’d bought at the Art Institute. Richard wasn’t a big fan of art, but I thought he might find this one amusing. It had a dog on it; he liked dogs. I did my best to drum up enthusiasm for going home to Kerryville, and to think happy thoughts of marital bliss.
But later that night, the face haunting my dreams belonged not to Richard, but to the young man who never came home.