“We didn’t come, brother,” Robert said. “We’re … just here now. Like guests who have already taken their seats but, miraculously, what they ordered is already on the table, hot and steaming.”
“We appeared, Paul.”
“Like a vision?” Paul laughed, but it was an insecure laugh. He couldn’t get that ripped piece of clothing out of his mind. There was the staccato of a woodpecker hitting a tree. It had the quality of speech. “But to whom? There’s no one. Is it a vision when there’s no visionary?”
“How do you know no one’s watching us?”
“What is our message in that case?”
“Maybe we are the message, but we’re not supposed to know what the message means. Fact is we’re here.”
“Fact is we don’t belong here, Robert.”
“You don’t know that. What if we do belong here? What if we have been in the wrong place all along, and now, all of a sudden, this place opened up?”
“Like a new location for a restaurant?”
Robert sadly shook his head. Fact was that they both didn’t understand what was happening to them. Fact was that whenever Robert felt something, a presence, something not to be named, Paul felt compelled to ridicule that moment, taking it away from him. That was a reason for punching him.
“What would you make of that?” he said. “A place … suddenly opening up for us?”
“I would make of that …” Paul stopped, surprised, then said, “Maybe it makes us gods. Gods with no worshippers, left to our own devices.” He hesitated. “Or are the top hats the worshippers? Do they worship us? Or are they the gods and we’re supposed to worship them?”
Robert felt the strong urge for a clear-cut faith. His restaurants, worker’s waterholes turned food temples, offered pricey organic gourmet meals, and whoever questioned that was free to eat elsewhere.
“It’s … mysterious,” he said. “Maybe we should leave it at that.”
That was when Paul became aware of the shiny, polished surface on the ground behind him. A tiny skating rink with two white top hats obliviously skating. That much Paul could see from the corner of his eyes. He sensed that there was something underneath it. Something so terrible it made you lose your mind when you knew it, something so crucial it ate you alive when you didn’t.
“I punched you,” Robert said, “because you betrayed me with my wife.”
More than ever Paul wished he could move—and put his hand on Robert’s arm. He now remembered clearly why Robert had punched him. He had stood up for Johan, one of Robert’s waiters, whom Robert had fired so heartlessly. Robert must have experienced that as betrayal.
“Robert, you don’t have a wife,” Paul said.
“Maybe here I do,” Robert pondered. “We don’t know where we are. We don’t know how we got here. We’re just … here.”
Paul nodded. “It has all started at Manchester.”
“Your restaurant, of course. Don’t you see … what’s written on the barrel, the arrow underneath it! Let’s go there, fix everything, Robert, before it’s too late. Johan … he needs his job.”
Robert cinched, filled the wood with angry silence. There was the feathery rustling of the leaves, the demanding howling of the wind.
“Why not?” Paul insisted. “Why are you so hard on him? Yes, he screwed you by not showing up, but wasn’t he genuinely sorry when he did, ready to make up for it? He panicked. His girlfriend is pregnant. Give him another chance. Show some heart, brother.”
“Why can we speak here, Paul,” Robert said after a while, “while we can’t move anymore?”
“Maybe so we can articulate our fears?”
“The top hats,” Robert said. “I remember now. It has nothing to do with Johan. We were having lunch, at Manchester. Then Pentagrass showed up. The painter who occasionally eats here. With two bowler hats and the suits his wife had tailored—the ones we’re wearing now. Remember?”
Paul nodded. “He told us to put the hats on, and ---”
Then, suddenly, the world opened up. Paul, terrified, looked around. There was still nothing where he was standing, poking with the handle of an umbrella or a cane. But suddenly, he was afraid that if he wouldn’t stop he would find something—a piece of torn clothing he would instantly recognize as belonging to Clara or Selma’s dress. He dropped the handle and swirled around, announcing agitatedly, “I have to hurry—take better care of my daughters. Let’s go, brother, while we can!”
But Robert shook his head. “I do belong here, Paul. I’ve never felt that way before. I’m sorry I have punched you—did I really? And did I really fire Johan? Tell him he can go back. Tell him to take care of the restaurants and report to you until I’m back. If that’s okay with you, of course.”
Paul nodded. “It is. Of course, it is, Robert.”
They hugged, carefully first, then filled with fire. One stayed, the other left. One became the keeper of the White Top Hats, the other followed the Trail of White Top Hats. They were both happy, in their own ways. They were brothers. Their names were Robert and Paul.