Beany never thought of herself as a rule breaker because she wasn’t a rule follower. A lot of rules were needed for someone to be a follower. Beany didn’t have rules in her life— maybe some, but they were more like expectations— so she abided by them. She ate what was on her plate, picked up after herself, and finished her homework.
Today, Beany’s mom made a rule.
Beany knew it was a rule because her mom didn’t use any of the usual buttering-up techniques: “Do you know what would make me happy…?” Or, “If you have time, could you please…but only if you have time.” She and her mom, Mary, walked down to the creek at the end of their two-acre property. Mary kissed her forehead, as usual, and out popped the rule.
“Don’t talk to the man in the bowler hat.”
Her mom crossed the small footbridge and hiked up the woodchip path to the restaurant where she worked. Beany watched until the trees appeared to swallow her mom, then her gaze shifted to the empty wooden bench on the other side of the creek where the man ate his lunch and dinner— weather permitting.
The man in the bowler hat was one of the first discoveries Beany made after she and her mom moved into their house two years ago.
“Mom, there’s a man wearing a bowler hat…”
“I know,” Mary said.
“No, listen,” Beany said. “He’s wearing a trench coat and a red tie and a bowler hat, and hanging from the hat is a big green apple. The apple is so ginormous you can’t see his face!”
“I know,” Mary said. “He’s the chef’s brother. He plays piano at the restaurant. He’s not our concern.”
End of discussion, until today— the first day of Beany’s summer vacation— which was going to be the best ever in her ten-year-old life because her mom finally agreed to let Beany stay home without a babysitter.
“What are you afraid of?” Beany said. “You think the neighbor’s scarecrow is going to beat me to death? I know how to dial 911. You can text me every five minutes. And if I really need you, I can run from here to the restaurant in like twenty minutes.”
“Have I ever told you you’re too mature to be my daughter?” Mary said.
Super freedom was all Beany could think about, until today’s bowler hat left hook. She tried to forget about the man with the dangling apple in his face, but then, she wondered if her mom said what she said to create the opposite effect. Lawyers did that all the time on TV. They mention the information that isn’t allowed, so the judge has to tell the jury to “disregard that last statement.” But nobody can un-hear what they heard, and that logic became the reason Beany decided she needed to talk to the man in the bowler hat— to discover her mom’s secret agenda.
Beany wanted to question the man in the bowler hat as soon as possible, but she knew there were two kinds of people in the world: people who like to be alone, and people who don’t.
Because the man in the bowler hat always ate by himself, it was safe to assume he was part of the first category. Since Beany belonged to the same category, she knew she needed to come up with a plan to become as much a part of the bowler hat man’s life as the bench he sat on, so he didn’t get scared off.
Step one: she spied on him to nail down his mealtimes. Step two: either before or near the end of his meal, Beany played kickball with the trees down by the creek. Stone skipping was added a few days later. Step three: Beany spent time reading before one of the bowler hat man’s meals, but as soon as he showed up she left; it was vital for the man to think she wasn’t the least bit interested in him. Step four: she played by the creek in the morning then ate lunch when the bowler hat man ate his. Beany read while eating in order to peer at him over the top of her book.
The Bowler Hat Man carried his lunch in a picnic basket like the one Dorothy used in Oz. The basket belonged to his mother; he’d taken possession of it and the bowler hat, which had belonged to his mother’s haberdasher uncle, as soon as she died. The basket and hat were reminders of a simpler, happier time— not to say he was unhappy, and yet, he was wary about life.
Routine calmed him, so he ate a roast beef sandwich on a hard roll, plus a slice of pie, and drank a bottle of water every day for lunch and dinner. Breakfast was a fried egg atop a scrambled egg, rye toast and coffee with a splash of cream— real cream, not milk. Along with his meal, like the girl on the other side of the creek, he brought a book.
Beany was amazed he was able to eat and read without taking his hat off or holding the apple to one side.
By the time the neighbor’s corn was knee-high— just in time for the upcoming Fourth of July celebration— Beany believed the time was ripe. She gobbled down her lunch before the man finished his sandwich and picked up her soccer ball. The water level was low enough to expose most of the creek’s boulders, so Beany accidently-on-purpose kicked the ball into the water where it got wedged between a trio of boulders.
“Oops,” Beany said, with the exact amount of volume to cause someone, who wasn’t deeply engrossed in an activity, to look up. She removed her sneakers and waded into the chilly creek.
The boulders where the ball was wedged placed Beany diagonally to the man’s right. She held the wet ball against her tee shirt then selected the biggest boulder in the trio to perch on— perching was all she was able to do given the boulder’s jutting-sloping nature.
The bowler hat man rolled the foil sandwich wrapper into a ball and put it inside the basket then removed the take out container of pie. He set the container on his lap and opened the lid.
“You know, I can see you, right?” Beany said.
The bowler hat man broke the crust of the pie off and ate it first like he always did.
“I thought I’d tell you because when I was little,” Beany said, “my mom and me used to play hide and seek, and in the beginning I put my hands over my face because I thought if I couldn’t see her, she couldn’t see me.” Beany cocked her head to the right and left to see if she might get a glimpse of his face— nope. “Is that what you think? Do you think because the apple hides your face you’re invisible?”
Francis, who was called the Bowler Hat Man whenever he played the piano, smiled behind his apple because the question and the girl’s reasoning made sense. She was not a typical kid. Ordinary kids didn’t spend two weeks maneuvering into spitting distance of him. They called him names as soon as they saw him, and the meaner kids ran up to him and spat on his Oxfords.
He didn’t know the girl, but already liked her. Unfortunately, liking her was the sticky point because the real question wasn’t about invisibility— nonsense. What he needed to decide tout de suite— as his mom used to say— was whether or not he was willing to open himself up; getting shut down was painful.
Francis finished eating the piecrust and shifted his head, so the girl was completely blocked by the apple hanging from his hat before he answered.
“Of course not.”
Beany almost slipped off the boulder. “Good answer.”
“You were expecting something different?”
“I don’t think I expected anything. My mom told me not to talk to you.”
Francis stopped short of taking the first bite of blueberry pie. “Mary said that?”
“You know my mom?”
“We work in the same restaurant.”
“Yeah,” Beany said, “but it sounds like you know her.”
“I know all the employees because in addition to playing the piano, I keep the books and write the checks. My brother’s a master chef, but numbers make him crazy.”
“Then you don’t know her.”
“Not in the biblical sense, no.”
“I know what that means,” Beany said.
“I’m sure you do,” Francis said. He held up the takeout container. “Pie?”
The sharing of the pie turned Beany and the Bowler Hat Man into mealtime companions and friends— the first real friend either of them had in years. Beany thought their relationship was like having a pen pal, only better. For Francis, their friendship allowed him to explore the wonders of connecting within safe boundaries.
Perhaps because she’d already broken the one rule in her life, boundaries never occurred to Beany. Plus, real friends shared everything, so she offered to show him her mom’s artwork.
The invitation to see Mary’s paintings gave Francis the kind of thrill he experienced when he watched a romance develop in a movie. The elation he felt for the onscreen characters reminded him of the love he used to share with his mom— it wasn’t romantic; he wasn’t twisted— whenever they were together, he felt a fullness of joy he was never able to recapture after her death.
He was also nervous because the invite wasn’t from Mary. Francis encountered several artists in his thirty-odd years of life. They were all temperamental and never wanted to show what they were working on until exactly the “right” moment. He didn’t understand. Playing the piano was his art, and he never minded practicing in front of people. He worked out rough spots in new pieces all the time while the restaurant staff was setting up or breaking down.
When he picked up his dinner, Mary was waiting for an order. He thought about mentioning Beany’s invitation, then chickened out. Francis didn’t want to get the girl in trouble, and he also wanted to satisfy his curiosity.
“Come on, we’ll eat later,” Beany said, as she waved from the middle of the footbridge. “What took you so long?”
“Technically, I’m early,” Francis said. “What’s the rush?”
Beany fanned her face with both hands. “I don’t know. Maybe because it’s the Fourth of July, and I’m all stirred up about the fireworks. The blue ones are my favorite. I hope they send up lots of blue ones.” She skipped ahead then turned around to talk and walk backwards toward the house. “And I’m really excited about showing you my mom’s paintings. They’re not like anything you’ve ever seen before, just like you’re not someone I’ve ever seen before.”
According to Beany, her house used to belong to a chicken farmer. The building was a long, large rectangle divided in half lengthwise. One side was the residence; the other was Mary’s studio and gallery. Beany told Francis to leave his dinner on the picnic table, and they entered the right side of the remodeled chicken coop.
It was a dark entryway because it was under the loft where Mary painted. But once Francis stepped out from under the loft, he was awash with light thanks to the skylight over the gallery.
Beany opened her arms and walked backwards down the center of the room. “Tada!”
Francis didn’t know where to start. At least a dozen paintings hung on both of the long walls. Smaller pieces were displayed on various sized white cubes throughout the space. Each painting depicted a scene Degas might capture, but the figures, although dressed like humans, were animals, insects or fish: antelope ballerinas, spider clowns, and shark bank tellers.
“My dad was a sperm donor.”
The non sequitur made the Bowler Hat Man twitch, and the apple bonked him in the nose. He turned to find Beany.
“Up here,” she said, from the loft.
When he looked up the apple fell to the side of his face. Their eyes met. Beany smiled. Francis looked down.
“Your mom was artificially inseminated?”
“No. She likes sex. She said she had a lot of sex, but all the guys were jerks, and she dumped them. Except the last jerk, who dumped her when he found out about me.”
Francis picked up a small picture of a butterfly hatcheck girl. “Are you sad about that?”
“Can’t miss what you didn’t have,” Beany said. “But I don’t think she would dump you.”
He placed the picture back on the cube. “Why?”
“You’re the only person she ever painted that isn’t an animal.”
The nervous feeling from earlier returned. Francis was trespassing. He’d been invited, but he was a thirty-odd man with a ten-year-old girl without her mother’s permission. Being here was wrong on so many levels.
“Come on up,” Beany said. “I’ll show you.”
Francis touched the knot of his red tie and climbed the stairs. The painting was of Francis playing the piano in the restaurant with his bowler hat and apple securely in place.
“When my mom was in college, one of her art teachers was also a Cherokee Medicine Man. He taught her about spirit animals. Ever since then she paints the spirit animal she sees in the person she’s painting.”
“Except for me,” Francis said.
“I think the apple confuses her.”
The Bowler Hat Man loved the way the girl’s mind worked. She was sure of everything she said without being arrogant or a know-it-all. She was who she was like his mom used to be, only better— stronger— Beany would never drown herself. Francis shuddered and closed his eyes to hold back the rising tears.
The day his mother walked into the Kishwaukee River with stones in her apron pockets was much like today— hot enough for people to say, “It’s not the heat. It’s the humidity.” And the green of summer was at its peak. Francis, age fourteen at the time, was with the search party who found her.
In daily life, his mom wore a veiled hat to hide a nasty childhood scar.
“Very few people want to know the real you, Francis,” she said. “They only want to acknowledge the part of you that helps them be their phony selves. You must protect yourself from their influence.”
His mom wasn’t wearing the hat when the search team found her, but her apron had come loose and gotten wrapped around her head. Francis believed the accidental shroud was a blessing, preserving his mother’s privacy even in death.
Beany slipped her hand into his and squeezed, then leaned her head against his arm. Francis’s sorrow lifted.
“I think it’s a good likeness, don’t you?” she said.
They stood hand in hand for a few moments, then Beany went down the stairs.
Francis followed. “Why did your mom name you after a legume?”
Beany jumped over the last three steps and spun round to face him. “I’m not. Me and my mom like watching old cartoons like Rocky and Bullwinkle. My favorite oldie is Beany and Cecil. We used to act out those shows, and she started calling me Beany. My real name is Esmeralda. It’s a mouthful.”
“I like it,” Francis said.
“Thanks.” Beany looked toward the entryway and uttered a low, “uh-oh,” then with a higher pitch than usual, “Hey, Mom. I thought you were working until closing.”
The Bowler Hat Man did not move and prayed for his apple to stop swinging, as if its stillness would prevent him from being seen.
“I was,” Mary said. “Except the hostess overbooked the staff. I volunteered to leave, so we could watch the fireworks together.”
“Cool,” Beany said.
“I texted you, but apparently you were preoccupied.”
The Bowler Hat Man felt Mary’s eyes drill into the back of his neck. He finished his descent, turned to face her, and was never more grateful for the apple in front of his face.
“I wanted to show my friend your paintings because I knew he’d appreciate them,” Beany said.
“Your friend?” Mary said.
“I know what you said, but…”
“Go to your room.”
The command stung— Beany never got punished; she and her mom found compromises. Beany looked at Francis.
He returned her gaze from the corner of his left eye. The pain he saw clawed his heart. He wanted to find the perfect combination of words to erase the tension and right the wrong of the moment, but words were never his strength. In front of the piano, he might be able to dip into the precise concerto or sonata to clear the air, but he was out of his element. All he could think to do was reach for Beany’s hand to return her kindness.
“Don’t touch my daughter.”
Beany ran from the room.
The Bowler Hat Man wanted to run, too.
Mary wished she had stayed at work.
The last thing Mary wanted was to yell at Beany. They were simpatico. Their life was simple and emotionally uncomplicated because they kept to themselves. Mary knew she couldn’t shelter Beany from heartache, but she hoped to teach her daughter how to avoid the mistakes she’d made. To be successful, she needed to avoid any further mistakes, which was why she didn’t want her daughter hanging out with the Bowler Hat Man. Her rule for Beany was a way of keeping herself on track because from the day she started working at the restaurant, Mary had felt the magical pull of the Bowler Hat Man.
“You’d better go,” she said. “You’ll be late for the evening shift.”
On his way out, Francis paused when his shoulder aligned with Mary’s. He looked at her from the corner of his eye. She turned her head enough to do the same. Her pain appeared deeper than Beany’s.
“I’m sorry for causing trouble,” he said.
Mary turned away, and Francis left.
Neither mother or daughter nor the Bowler Hat Man watched the fireworks that night, although they all separately listened to the bombs of color— heavy on the blue— bursting overhead. The worst part of the night, for all of them, was the realization of how much they individually missed the collective “Ahs” of the crowd when a spectacular light show painted the sky.
Beany also discovered that it was possible to miss what she didn’t have— not the sperm donor dad that was ridiculous. But she did long for what she never had— the traditional family unit.
Mary planned to rehire the babysitter then decided the silence in the house was more than enough punishment for both of them. She considered quitting the restaurant, but her income from the art sales wasn’t enough to support both of them. Screwing up, again, made her wonder if her life would ever run smoothly.
Francis wasn’t a conversationalist, but the tension at the restaurant when he and Mary were in the same room was horrible. He never noticed how much he looked forward to the “hello’s,” “thank-you’s,” and “How’s your day going?” offerings Mary provided whenever they crossed paths in the kitchen, or she picked up her check. He also ached for the non sequitur conversations he enjoyed with Beany. The girl hadn’t returned to the creek since July fourth.
Two weeks into the world of silence, Beany was fed up with the isolation and her self-imposed moping. She stormed up to her mom’s studio, took a picture of the Bowler Hat Man painting, and printed it out.
When Francis went down to the creek for lunch, he found an envelope with his name on it taped to the bench. At the bottom of the photo, inside the envelope, was a message from Beany: I think the apple confuses her.
The next morning, after completing his bookkeeping for the restaurant, Francis walked down to the creek, crossed the bridge and marched up to Beany’s door. He knocked three times. Beany answered tout de suite, and as soon as she opened the door, he turned his hat around so the apple dangled in the back; her face lit up.
Francis held out his hand, “I need your help.”
Beany slapped her hand into his, and they marched and skipped back to the restaurant. The hostess did a double take when they came through the front entrance. Francis asked for a table for two, then excused himself for a minute.
After ushering Beany to a table in her mother’s section, the hostess went to the kitchen to forewarn Mary.
To say, the news flustered the waitress was an understatement. Mary, who could carry four full dinner plates without a tray sloshed a bowl of soup as she gathered the appetizers for table eight. Questions raced through her mind, while she cleaned up the spill and refilled the bowl. She finished loading table eight’s order and entered the dining room. She spotted Beany at table three, but there was no sign of the Bowler Hat Man, which rattled her. The entire time Mary served her customers, she feared he might sneak up behind her.
After she returned the serving tray to the kitchen, Mary retrieved a bottle of sparkling water from the cooler— it was the only bottled water she ever saw the Bowler Hat Man drink— and headed to her daughter’s table.
Mary wanted to be mad at Beany, but the anger she felt two weeks ago was nowhere to be found. What took its place, as soon as she saw Beany with her friend, was a sense of pride. Yes, Beany had disobeyed Mary— twice now— but not because she was acting out. Beany went against Mary’s wishes because she wanted to make up her own mind about the Bowler Hat Man. And, in turn, he appeared to have made up his mind about Beany. They were friends determined to face all odds, especially Mary.
She said hello to Beany and filled her water glass, but when she turned to fill the Bowler Hat Man’s glass, she froze. Francis smiled then pointed in the direction of his piano.
In the corner, behind the baby grand was a coatrack. On the coatrack was the Bowler Hat Man’s trench coat and hat with the apple dangling below it. Mary turned back to Beany and her friend.
“Beany and I,” Francis said, “were wondering if you’d like to spend your next day off with us?”
“Please,” Beany said.
Mary looked at her daughter and the former Bowler Hat Man, then she filled his water glass and smiled. “Sounds like an opportunity that can’t be missed.”