The Man in Dick Van Dyke's Hat
Alan was a broken soul wandering through life without purpose until his Uncle Paul told him a strange, fantastical story about the man in Dick Van Dyke’s hat. The man was a deranged, demonic carnival barker traveling the world in search of broken and damaged souls to entrap in their own private nightmares. Alan was a perfect target. Could he escape the man’s cotton candy nightmare and possibly save others?
The Man in Dick Van Dyke’s Hat
By Mark A. Nobles
The man leaned against the Knights of Pythias Building in downtown Fort Worth and seemed oblivious and invisible to the bustle about him.
Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t invisible, he was there all right. It’s just he and each and everyone else walking by was encased in their own personal bubble. All unaware of each other.
The man was in bad need of a shave and his clothes had seen a lot of miles. He wasn’t dirty so much as unkempt. He was dressed like he had two part time jobs, one as a circus ringmaster and the other a maître d’ at a restaurant where the prices are not printed on the menu. He wore a tattered, battered and torn straw hat that once belonged to Dick Van Dyke. Everyone’s seen it. It was the one Van Dyke wore in Mary Poppins. Not one like it, the very same hat. The man and Van Dyke had been friends at one time.
But that is a different story.
This is my Uncle Paul’s story. Great Uncle Paul to be genealogically precise. He was my maternal grandmother’s brother in law.
Uncle Paul was my favorite uncle. He looked out for me. He was about the only male relative I had who spent much time with me. It was Uncle Paul who taught me how to tie my shoes. He showed me how to kick a ball. Most importantly, he answered my boyhood questions.
My father was absent most of my childhood and my grandfather, I called him Da-dad, was, well, a man of few words. Da-dad spoke in concise, blunt sentences, most of which were either declarative or imperative.
Uncle Paul was career Army and did four tours in Vietnam. The first two tours he was ordered to go. The last two tours he volunteered.
On the day before Uncle Paul was to leave for his fourth tour. Aunt Nita was pissed. For weeks I had heard her and my mom talking about Uncle Paul leaving. Aunt Nita was worried and scared. She did not want him to go. She did not understand why he kept volunteering to go back.
It was 1967 and young men were avoiding the draft by heading over the border to Canada in droves and most career Army personnel were hunting cushy, safe deployments stateside. Meanwhile, Uncle Paul had already been in combat three times and returned from each tour without a scratch. Aunt Nita felt Uncle Paul was pressing his luck.
This was a time when the news, radio and TV broadcast daily death and casualty tolls. Film of the carnage was shown every afternoon and evening, promptly at 5 and 10 pm. There were signs of protest everywhere and the legitimacy and winnability of the whole war was being called into question.
I didn’t understand the political or social ramifications. I was six at the time. I just knew my mom and Aunt Nita were concerned about the safety and life of my Uncle Paul.
It was a Sunday afternoon and everyone was outside eating barbeque and drinking beer. I was inside Aunt Nita and Uncle Paul’s singlewide mobile home out near Pelican Bay, morosely playing with my little green army men. Uncle Paul came inside and sat down on the rug next to me.
“What you got going on there?” he asked.
“Just playin’,” I replied.
“You seem off your feed. You barely ate and I’ve seen you put away half a side of beef as a snack.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I’m just not hungry, I guess.”
“Something on your mind?” Uncle Paul looked me in the eyes and would not let go.
“I heard that one of these times you are going to the war and not coming home.”
Uncle Paul sighed and looked at the ceiling. When he returned his gaze to me he reached down and grabbed one of my little green army men; the one frozen in a running crouch with his carbine clutched across his chest. “You see this fellow?” He asked me.
I had the little green army men broken into two groups facing off against each other. Uncle Paul placed the running soldier behind the line of the group closest to me, running away from the fight. “If there is ever trouble over there, this will be me,” he said.
“So if I were to get hurt, it’ll be here.” He tapped the little green army man three times on his butt. I covered my mouth and giggled again. Butt jokes are funniest when you are six.
“You understand, now?” Asked Uncle Paul. He set the green army man back on the floor but still running away.
“Want to come out and get some potato salad? I saved you some.”
“You bet.” I scooped up the little green army men, placed them in my cigar box and ran outside with my Uncle Paul to fill that hollow leg my mom said I had with potato salad and brisket.
Years later Uncle Paul and Aunt Nita still lived in the mobile home park near Pelican Bay. The singlewide had been replaced with a double wide sometime in the mid 1980s. Aunt Nita had developed dementia.
One time she almost burned down the trailer by placing her purse on the stove and turning on the burner. She thought she was boiling water for tea. Another time she had gone to get cigarettes at the 7/11 on Jacksboro highway and wound up on a lonesome Farm to Market road in Parker County.
I didn’t go out to see them as much as I should. Hell, truth be told, I hadn’t gone out there in years, definitely not since Aunt Nita had begun to slip. My mom finally shamed me for my negligence so I made the trip out late one Saturday afternoon in the fall.
It was a sad, mustard yellow sunshine afternoon. Aunt Nita was completely separated from the here and now but was mostly listless and sat in her recliner. At least that made it easier for Uncle Paul to look after her. Uncle Paul’s jet black pompadour had turned silver but was still a solid 3 to 4 inches tall. I made a pretense of communicating with Aunt Nita and then Uncle Paul and I went outside to sit in the metal, seashell backed patio chairs. The chairs had been on that patio since the singlewide days and at one time had been a festive bright orange but most of the color had drained away.
”What have you been up to lately?” Asked Uncle Paul.
“Working, traveling quite a bit.”
“Your mom says you’ve hooked up with some older woman. She strongly disapproves.”
“I bet she voiced more than strong disapproval.”
We both chuckled. My mom was married to a sailor for years and the joke was she likely taught him more than a few new cuss words. I grabbed two beers from an ice chest, handed one to Uncle Paul and then plopped myself down next to him. We popped the tops and continued talking.
“But that’s good you’re traveling, getting out more. You spent a long time hiding out at your mom’s. It’s good you are getting back out in the world.”
Uncle Paul was referring to my dark years. In college, a group of friends and I had made a beer run late one night and hit and killed a man on the drive home. It had been dark, we were all drunk and I was driving too fast. He came into the headlights out of nowhere and just stepped into the road. The collision killed him instantly.
I heard the sound of his bag of bones hitting the fender, then the hood, then the windshield, then the pow, pow, pow as he rolled over the roof of the car every time I closed my eyes. Even to blink.
The police eventually ruled it a suicide. The man purposefully stepped in front of my car. They found a note in his jean’s pocket.
I had spent the next three years contemplating why he picked me to end his life. I had dropped out of school and moved back in with my mom. Lots of therapy and a little prescribed and self-medication later I was finally getting my mind right. Driving from the south side of Fort Worth all the way out to Pelican Bay was one of the longer drives I had made behind the wheel and on my own.
The visions were slowly getting sorted and stored away.
“I’m still making bad decisions, but they’re my decisions,” I said.
“You’re young. Bad decisions are all you know how to make at your age.”
Uncle Paul sat in his chair, picking at the rust on the armrest. “Things that can’t be unseen are the most difficult to describe,” he said.
I looked at him blankly. I had no idea what he was talking about or what he meant.
When Uncle Paul saw my puzzled gaze, his look turned a little sheepish. “Some things can be hard to live with is what I mean. They’re like women, you know? Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.”
“Oh, believe me, I’m doing my damnedest to live without these,” I said. “I’m sure in Vietnam you saw way more and way worse than I have, Uncle Paul. But you managed. I will too. Eventually.” I hung my head, trying to find a way to change the subject.
I didn’t want to talk about the accident, years of therapy and what I considered to be wasted time flailing aimlessly trying to get back my sanity. I didn’t want to talk about Aunt Nita. It seemed I didn’t want to talk about anything in the here and now.
I looked at the rusted 1969 El Camino languishing on cinder blocks in the yard. If I had known anything, anything at all about cars, I would have asked about the restoration project even though I knew he hadn’t turned a wrench on it in over a decade. Work had stopped after Uncle Paul’s oldest son died in a head on coming home from working the third shift at the bomber plant.
One way to tell how long someone had lived in Fort Worth was by what they called the aircraft plant that sat right next to Carswell Air Force Base. If they called it GD or General Dynamics, they were newbies. The old timers still called it the bomber plant and some even still referred to it as Convair or Plant Number Four.
“There is something you need to know,” Uncle Paul said, looking down to his lap. He fidgeted in his chair a bit. “I’m glad you came out today. I’ve been thinking a lot about you. This is gonna sound funny, but… Well, but, I’m afraid for you.” It was like it took all the strength he could muster to say that last sentence. I was touched he was worried about me but puzzled as to why he would be afraid.
It crossed my mind that maybe Aunt Nita wasn’t the only one in the double wide with a touch of dementia.
“Uncle Paul, I’m fine. I just need to chase these ghosts or learn to live with them. Lock them up somewhere in my head.”
I know. Lord, I know. But that’s my fear. I believe you can come to terms with what you have seen. You’ve put in a lot of work sorting things through. I just don’t ever want that work to be undone.”
“I don’t understand.”
Uncle Paul looked around the yard as if he was afraid we were being watched. It was midday on a Tuesday during the spring. The adults in the trailer park were at work and the kids were in school. The place was a redneck ghost town.
“You likely will think I’m crazy but that don’t matter. All you have to do is remember what I tell you. Just remember.” He looked me dead in the eyes. He was serious as a heart attack.
“I’m listening,” I said.
Uncle Paul continued to stare me down.
“And I promise I’ll remember,” I said.
Uncle Paul took a breath and held it. It was as if he was mustering his strength again. Collecting and organizing his thoughts.
“I want to tell you a story you are going to have a hard time believing. But every word is true.”
He picked on the armrest rust some more, took a quick pull on his beer and dove in. “It was 1973 and I had gone downtown to pay a ticket I had gotten on Jacksboro Highway. I was walking back to my car, the sidewalk was empty, as far as I can remember, when all of a sudden, he was standing right in front of me.” Uncle Paul paused to let his memory catch up to his words.
“Who was in front of you?” I asked.
“I don’t know who he was. I don’t know what he was.” Uncle Paul’s almost golden brown eyes hazed over like the memories he was conjuring were cataracts.
“He looked kind of like a Traveler, but I don’t think he was. His breath smelled like moth balls, spoiled milk, and fear.”
Uncle Paul wrinkled his brow as if he had to wrangle his thoughts before he could continue. He stopped picking at the rust and clenched his fist.
“We were standing there on the sidewalk. Face to face, less than 12 inches from nose to nose. His eyes were lightening blue with silver flecks.” He paused again re-seeing those eyes in his mind. “Those flecks looked like West Texas stars and they floated and swirled in the blue like flecks in a softly shaken snow globe.” He paused again reliving the memory.
“ ‘Want to see something interesting?’ The man said to me. ‘It won’t cost you a dime. Only your time.’ He said, like a barker at a carnival.”
Uncle Paul was lost in the memory now. I was confused as hell but didn’t want to shake the spell.
“Well, I knew he was telling a lie. Like I said, he looked like a Traveler or a carnival barker and carnies and Travelers always have their hands in your pockets but I had already been to the courthouse and they had taken every dime I had, so when he turned and started to walk down the alley, I followed. I admit he had my curiosity up.” Uncle Paul drained his can of beer and shot me a glance to see if I was maybe thinking he was crazy. What he saw in my eyes was love, concern, and confusion. He looked a little relieved and continued.
I got up, went over to the cooler and fetched him another beer. Just like the old days when I was a kid.
“Thank you, son.” He took the can, popped the top and continued talking. “We walked about halfway down the alley and stopped in front of this little wall of cotton candy. Now, I know how this sounds but it’s true. It is all true.” Uncle Paul paused for effect.
He leaned towards me and pointed his beer can hand at me to emphasize his point. “It was goddamn cotton candy because he pinched off a corner and ate it. It was just floating there. Goddamn cotton candy. The pink kind.”
I laughed, then he laughed. I was hanging on to every word. I had questions. Shit tons of questions, but I didn’t want to stop the flow.
“I stood in front of the cotton candy, right next to this guy and all a sudden images started to appear inside the cotton candy. Murky at first. Just floating, slowly taking form. It’ll sound weird, but hell, this whole thing sounds weird, but the images weren’t really coming from inside the cotton candy. They were coming from inside my head. They were my images or rather, my memories. Memories I had long since buried. But I didn’t see them in my head like a memory; I didn’t see them until they appeared in the cotton candy. It was like they were being projected from inside my head, onto or into the cotton candy. They were images I had forgotten. Images I had locked away in order to keep my sanity. Suddenly they were released and projected and I had to re-watch them. Relive them to put it more accurately.”
Tears began to journey down Uncle Paul’s cheeks. We weren’t laughing anymore. Uncle Paul sat in his chair and mildly shook. Sweat formed on his forehead and cheeks, mixing with the tears and rolled down to his jawline.
The story, as they say, had taken a turn.
Uncle Paul wasn’t in that back alley with the strange, carnival dude any longer. He was back in Vietnam. “It isn’t the gore and violence that unnerves you. Maybe for some people it is but it never was for me. It is the possibilities and all the consequences of all the possibilities. It gets in your head and eats it like termites gnawing on wood.”
Uncle Paul paused to gather his thoughts. I wasn’t sure he was talking to me anymore.
“In any case, something happened different with me in that alley. Wires got crossed. A monkey wrench got thrown into the works. I don’t know but I do know something went wrong.” Uncle Paul thought hard for a beat or two.
“Maybe gremlins.” He looked at me hoping to see some sliver of understanding. Then, I think he decided he didn’t care if I understood. Just saying what he had to say was enough. His eyes darted downward.
“Gremlins are real, you know.” He said with authority. “Ask most anyone who’s been in combat. On second thought, don’t bother because they won’t tell you unless they know you’ve been in combat.”
“Are you talking gremlins like that Twilight Zone with William Shatner?”
“The Captain Kirk guy?”
“Exactly, yes. That story is real. It has to be. I think maybe that narrator guy…”
“Rod Serling,” I interrupted.
“Did he serve in combat?”
“I’m not sure.” Uncle Paul looked disappointed. Then he continued.
“I bet he did because I think he’s met the man, too, like me, because a lot of those stories he writes are real, or could be real. Only difference is he’s making money off it, I’m just tortured by nightmares.”
“Why did you go to Vietnam so many times when you didn’t have to?”
“I fucking hated it. You have to understand that first. I fucking hated the whole situation.” I had never heard Uncle Paul utter the F word. This was almost as unsettling to me as the rest of his story.
“But it was something I had to do. They were sending children unprepared over to Nam to be slaughtered. Pure and simple. Running around in the forest in Georgia does not prepare you for being dropped in the jungle. They could have at least kissed them before screwing them over. I was older. I had been there before. I knew how to survive. I went back to try and bring at least a few of them back home with me. It seemed the decent thing to do. Sometimes you need to worry about more than just your own ass.”
Uncle Paul grunted and grabbed his head. I didn’t know if it was from pain or frustration.
“But, like I was saying. Something went wrong. I think I was only supposed to remember the visions of Vietnam. But I remembered more. I remember the man.
Uncle Paul went silent. We sat there motionless. Two men in rusted metal chairs staring off into space. Uncle Paul shivered from the inside out. I had never seen such determination on a person’s face. Slowly his eyes dried and cleared.
Uncle Paul was fighting another war and just like in Vietnam, he came back. Maybe he didn’t come back as whole as when he left, but he came back.
“I love Nita,” he said. “Maybe love her more than is likely healthy. I love that woman to the point of worship. And she loves me or loved me when she had all her mind. I know that. And loving, trusting a man was hard for her.”
When Uncle Paul and Aunt Nita married it was the second marriage for both of them. I never knew anything about Uncle Paul’s first marriage and there were only whispers about Aunt Nita’s. But the whispers were not good.
Her first husband was an abusive drunk. Aunt Nita was young and in the 50’s divorce was not a good, Christian option. She stuck it out until she was sent to the hospital one too many times.
“I’ve seen bad things. Things I cannot, things the man won’t let me forget. But that’s all right. When all is said and done, if all I’ve accomplished in this life was love that woman in there.” He gestured with his beer hand back to the mobile home. “Spent a lifetime loving her the way she deserves to be loved. Well, I have fulfilled my purpose. Watching her die is hard but she is dying knowing she is loved. She may not know much else but she knows she is loved. I believe that. She will die knowing she is loved.”
Uncle Paul looked at me and waited until I met his stare. “And I love you. I was there as much as I could be for you. I want you to know that.”
“I know, Uncle Paul.”
“It is important to me that you know that. It is also important you know about the man. He’s still out there. I feel a connection somehow.”
Uncle Paul continued to stare at me dead on. Searching my eyes for understanding and love. He found them, no problem.
“I think this is it. He shows you the past, the horrible parts of the past. And the thing is no one lives in the now. There is no now. You live constantly moving into the next moment, never knowing what comes next. I don’t think anyone knows what comes next, not even the man. That is why he wants to make sure you remember the past because that’s all he or anyone knows. He can’t show you the future because there is no guaranteed future. The future just unfolds and it just ends when it ends. Your only impact, the only part of you that carries on into the future is your past. What you have made and built with the time allotted.”
Uncle Paul drained his beer in one long draw.
“I loved a woman. Pure and true. I loved you and tried to teach you what little usefulness I know. And maybe. Maybe by going back all those times to Vietnam, I at least extended a few more futures. I didn’t save lives, you can’t save lives because every life ends when it ends. But maybe, and that’s the scary part, because maybe I didn’t, but maybe I allowed a few lives to stretch on longer. Allowed them the opportunity to serve their purpose.”
“If that is all I managed to do with my time, that is good enough for me. But there is one last thing. You need to believe the man is still out there. He looks for people like you. People with buried memories. You have to be aware of him. Know that and don’t let him do to you what he did to me.”
We didn’t talk much after Uncle Paul told me about the man in Dick Van Dyke’s hat. We drank a few more beers, I went and said goodbye to Aunt Nita and drove home.
Aunt Nita died a few months later. Uncle Paul followed almost a year after. The family said he died of loneliness and a broken heart. I knew better.
I spent a few years kicking around Fort Worth taking meaningless jobs and looking over my shoulder for the man. I felt his presences a few times. Once walking down Exchange Avenue on a Sunday morning I broke out in a cold sweat and my spine physically shivered. Another time, standing in front of the Caravan of Dreams smoking a cigarette, I almost thought I saw him. But he didn’t show himself. If he was there at all.
I finally decided to live this way was bullshit. I went looking for the man. I soon learned you don’t see the man, he sees you. So I searched for the broken souls who had seen his cotton candy. Turns out there are a lot of them and when you know what to look for, they are easy to find.
I’ve been on six of the seven continents. I’ve talked to bus drivers, actors, housemaids, presidents, poets and coalminers. I’ve heard a lot of horrifying stories. I don’t think you can put the genie back in the bottle but a shared experience is a balm of sorts.
When the man in Dick Van Dyke’s hat feels my presence in a place he leaves. He leaves before he is ready. That is my purpose.
Thank you for reading ‘The Man in Dick Van Dyke’s hat.’ This story will be included in Metaphor in a Hat Volume 1 coming in 2018. Keep an eye on my Amazon writer’s page for more stories.
An important part of the writing process is reader feedback. Please let me know what you think by writing a review on Amazon.com or contacting me personally on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Flyin-Shoes-Films. If you liked the story, please tell your friends, and if you didn’t, well, let’s just keep that to ourselves.
I would like to thank James Coffelt for his beautiful cover illustration. You can see more of his work at jimmicorey.com.
Happy reading and beware of back alleys!