Calvin Hennick


Calvin Hennick’s stories, essays, and journalism have appeared in dozens of publications, including Bellevue Literary Review and The Boston Globe. He teaches writing at the Grub Street independent writing center and at UMass Boston, where he earned his MFA in fiction.

A Cowboy Cannot Be Without His Hat

I wake in the middle of the night with my son standing over me. He’s five years old, and he’s wearing his costume from last Halloween—cowboy boots, jeans, a holster, a fake leather vest, and a red neck scarf. Everything but the hat.

I blink to see his face better. I love to look at his face.

“My hat is missing,” he says.

“We’ll find it in the morning.”

But he just stands there, staring down at me.

“Do you want to sleep in here?” I ask him.

“A cowboy cannot be without his hat,” he says.

I get out of bed and take him to his room, careful not to wake my wife. She’s a nurse and has to get up an hour before I do, and I try to make sure she gets her sleep. I feed my son his breakfast each day and drop him off at school, and since he’s asleep by the time I get home from work, these mornings are our only time together during the week. Except now he’s started waking me up like this some nights. Last week I opened my eyes and saw him dancing at the foot of the bed in one of his mother’s dresses. A month ago he roared into my ear, and when I woke up he was on all fours, straddling my chest. He had a brown fleece blanket wrapped around his body, and he was wearing my fake fur hat. “I’m a lion,” he said, and then he pressed his head into my neck and made soft roaring sounds until he fell asleep on top of me.

We find the cowboy hat in the back of his closet, and he puts it on and practices his quick draw with the toy six-shooter my mother gave him. Each time he shoots, I clutch at my chest and pretend to die in the rocking chair. We didn’t let him take the gun trick-or-treating. I’m not even sure he should have it at home. But I hate telling him no. He’s so much more certain about everything than I am.

“I’m going to wear my cowboy clothes to school tomorrow,” he says, holstering his weapon.

“You’re not either,” I say.

“I can use the gun to protect everybody.”

“You’re definitely not bringing the gun.”

He cocks his head a little and looks at me, like he can’t tell if I’m being serious. “It’s just a toy.”

I let my eyes close, and half-asleep I wonder if school can really be so different now, so that a boy wearing a vest and a neck scarf to school would have nothing to fear from his peers. When I was in the first grade, I wore the jersey of the wrong sports team to school the first day, and a boy wearing the right one followed me around punching me in the arm during recess. He hit me in the same spot every day for the rest of the year, and the bruise turned purple and then yellow and then green as the months passed. “Just coldcock him,” my mother told me. “You don’t have a father, and you need to learn to stand up for yourself. Punch him in the nose.” But I never did.

I never fought anybody until I was in my late twenties. It wasn’t much of a fight. My wife and I had just started dating. A man pushed past her in a bar, spilled half his beer down her shirt, and said, “Watch it, cunt!” I pushed him in the chest and knocked him to the floor. He was drunk, and smaller than me, and the truth is I probably wouldn’t have touched him if he’d been big and sober. But he bounced right back up and came after me anyway, and his wedding ring sliced a gash into my cheek.

My wife drove me to the hospital and said if I ever did something like that again she’d stop seeing me.

Near morning, my son tires himself out, still wearing his cowboy clothes. I take off his hat and boots and lay him down on his bed over the covers. I sit back in the rocking chair and watch him, thinking about what he would look like going to school dressed like that. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe the other kids wouldn’t even care. I’m probably worrying over nothing.

The other fathers I see seem to have all the answers, even if their answers are wrong. They’re like grown-up five-year-olds, so certain about the world. I don’t have answers for anything. I have nothing to tell my son about what it means to be a man.


Over breakfast, we compromise. He can wear the boots and vest and kerchief, but not the hat or holster or gun.

I drop him off at school, and then I circle the block and park across the street from the playground where the kids play until it’s time to go inside. This is what I do when I have time before work starts. I sit and watch without him knowing.

My son lingers along the fence for a moment, the other kids bouncing around him like charged atoms. He starts to take a step forward, and then he stops himself. He bends down and opens his backpack, and I think for a moment that he’s brought the toy gun, and my hand goes to the door handle. But he doesn’t take anything out of the bag. Instead, he opens it up and takes off his vest and carefully folds it and puts it inside, and then does the same with the neck scarf. A tightness I hadn’t noticed in my chest loosens, and I pull out of my parking spot and begin to drive away.

At the light, I steal a glance over my shoulder. My son has joined a group of boys, and one of them—a big kid with a bowl cut—says something and gestures wildly, and my son’s face changes. His mouth is open, and he’s squinting, and from this distance I can’t tell whether he’s laughing or crying.

I don’t want to know which it is, because if I know, I won’t be able to help myself. I’ll park the car and get out and run to him, and it won’t make anything better.

If there’s a way to make things better, I don’t know it.

The light turns green, and I ease off the brake.