Sara Pritchard

Sara Pritchard is the author of the novel-in-stories, Crackpots; the linked-story collection, Lately; and most recently, the story collection Help Wanted: Female (Etruscan Press). She teaches in the Wilkes University low-residency creative writing MFA program.

Notes on Rudolph Nureyev's Hat

It was five degrees out today, and I wore my Russian pie hat. I ‌walked to The Hills market to buy a box of Cheez-its and a bottle of Mad Housewife wine.

Rudolph Nureyev, the great Russian danseur noble who defected from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, fancied a Persian lamb hat shaped like a thick wedge of pie. These triangular hats, which are peaked and fold flat, originated in Afghanistan and are sometimes called Cossack hats. They have been favorites of Muslim and Soviet leaders, and are worn throughout Pakistan. In Pakistan, the Persian lamb pie hat is known as a Jinnah cap. It is also known as a Karakul cap. Karakul is a kind of sheep.

Whatever you do, do not look up Karakul or Persian lamb on the Internet. It will make you sick. Those poor little lambs. I am very conflicted wearing my Persian lamb pie hat, but in spite of my ethical ambivalence, I wore it today. My head and ears were very warm. I was wearing Rudolph Nureyev’s hat.

When I was a child, one of my favorite songs was “The Whiffenpoof Song,” which my father taught my two brothers, my sister, and me to sing a capella.

Supposedly, when I was born in 1949—before the sex of a fetus could be determined by ultrasound and when my parents already had two sons and one daughter—when the obstetrician came into the waiting room and told my father, a choir director, that his wife had given birth to a baby girl, my father said, “Praise the Lord! An alto!”

The chorus of the “The Whiffenpoof Song,” a traditional Yale drinking song, goes like this:

We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way
Baa, baa, baa
We’re little black sheep who have gone astray
Baa, baa, baa
Gentleman songsters off on a spree
D___ed from here to eternity
Lord, have mercy on such as we
Baa, baa, baa

As the baby of the family, I got to sing the Baa baa baa part by myself. I sang with great gusto and tremendous feeling.

Because . . . during this same time (the early 1950s) when we sang “The Whiffenpoof Song,” we had a lamb. His name was Butchie. My affection for Butchie is what instilled in me the strong emotion to sing that Baa baa baa with such empathy. I loved Butchie. As the months passed, though, Butchie got bigger and bigger. He grew horns. One day he was no longer a lamb; he was a ram. He used to terrorize our little wire-haired fox terrier, Go-Jeff, who was very brave in his own way, as all terriers are, but who came to fear Butchie and would not go near him. Go-Jeff used to stand at the kitchen screen door, whimpering and shaking, staring out at the sheep pen as if Butchie was Grendel.

It doesn’t happen very often, but humans can grow horns, too. They’re called cutaneous horns. Rare as these cases are, cutaneous horns have been documented for quite some time. The first documented case appeared in the 16th century: in 1588, a Welsh woman, Margaret Gryffth, displayed a 9” horn from her forehead, like a unicorn. Cutaneous horns have been found on the head, scalp, nose, eyelid, ear, lip, chest, neck, shoulder, forearm, leg, hand, and penis.

One day our father told my sister and me that Butchie was getting married!!!! Butchie was loaded into my father’s 1952 Chevy C-50 pickup truck, and my sister, my mother, my father, and I (sitting on my mother’s lap) drove Butchie to a nearby farm. We met Butchie’s wife, Eunice. We (tearfully) said good-bye and wished Butchie and his wife well. My sister and I sang, “Here comes the bride / All step aside/ She is so beautiful / Here she comes / Baa baa baa.”

The next Sunday, we had mutton for dinner. As we were tucking in—mutton with mint jelly, mashed potatoes, and succotash—my brother Billy took a big bite of mutton and still holding his fork midair and chewing with his mouth open, he looked across the table at me, grinned, and said in a cheery voice, “Sally, we’re eatin’ Butchie!”

My mother slapped him on the side of his head with a tea towel. (My mother seemed to always have a tea towel in her hand.) “Don’t tell her things like that!” she chided.

But it was true. Sure enough, we were eating Butchie. And there was more. A yellow wool blanket with satin binding appeared and a sheepskin rug that Go-Jeff growled at.

In so many words I didn’t yet know, I declared myself a vegetarian. The only “meat” I would eat was Spam, which I thought was a vegetable because it came in a can.

When I was a teenager—in the 1960s—I had a crush on Rudolph Nureyev. I had magazine photos of him Scotch-taped to the wall above my bed. I didn’t know he was gay. Hell, nobody was gay back then, right? My friend Carolyn, who I met in graduate school—also had had a crush on Nureyev when she was a teenager. She always referred to him as “Rudy.” Her best friend, Emery, had a crush on Rudy, too (and also on Carolyn’s husband during her brief marriage). Crushes are so complicated. You can’t help them. You can’t make them go away.

Carolyn was a gifted pianist. So was Emery. They were neighbors. They grew up together. They met in nursery school and remained friends and neighbors for life. Emery lived alone with his father, who was a postman, and after his father died, Emery lived alone in the house down the street from Carolyn. When they were children, Carolyn and Emery took piano lessons together. They played duets. They loved walking together downtown to DeVincent’s music store and getting new sheet music. Carolyn went to Juilliard to study piano, but she only stayed a couple of weeks because she had an anxiety disorder and could not perform in public. She went back home and spent the rest of her life caring for her mother, Kitty, who was a socialite and a serious alcoholic.

Kitty used to be very beautiful. Every afternoon she got all dressed up in an exquisite dress from Darinka’s, silk stockings and heels, real (not costume) jewelry, and a fur stole. Emery liked to help her pick out her clothes. When Kitty was ready, Carolyn and Emery drove her to Lakeview Country Club. They stopped and picked up Kitty’s best friend, Ginny, who also dressed to the nines. Carolyn always drove. Kitty and Ginny sat in the back seat, and Emery rode shotgun.

At the country club, Kitty and Ginny sat at the same corner table every evening, looking very elegant with their Revlon cherries-in-the-snow lipstick, drinking martinis and smoking Virginia Slims cigarettes using cigarette holders. They flirted with the waiters and gossiped, while Carolyn and Emery sat in another corner far away, Carolyn eating a cheeseburger and drinking a coca-cola, and reading Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky while Emery drank highballs and flirted with the waiters.

When the two older women were snookered, Carolyn drove them home.

After Ginny had a stroke and moved to Pittsburgh to live with her daughter, then Kitty, who was in her eighties, still got dressed up every afternoon, only instead of going to the country club, she sat in a wing-back chair in the living room, with a black rotary phone on the table beside her. Carolyn made her mother a pitcher of martinis and dialed Ginny’s number in Pittsburgh, and the two elderly women sat in their finery, in their separate living rooms; they drank and smoked and gossiped. When the pitcher was empty, Carolyn put her mother to bed.

When Carolyn’s mother died, Carolyn (who was an only child) inherited her mother’s house and a good bit of money. She immediately emptied the furniture out of the master bedroom (which had been her mother’s) to make room for a Steinway grand piano. She and Emery went to New York City to pick out the piano, and while they were there, guess what: Sotheby’s was auctioning a collection of Rudolph Nureyev’s personal belongings!

Rudolph Nureyev died of complications from AIDS on January 6, 1992, shortly before Carolyn’s mother died from complications associated with alcoholism. Nureyev was fifty-three. Carolyn’s mother was ninety. Throughout his life, Nureyev had a passion for oriental kilim and Caucasian rugs and antique textiles, so many collectors of these flocked to the Sotheby’s auction. Nureyev is buried at the Russian orthodox cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, near Paris. His tomb is adorned with a tile mosaic of a draped full-size oriental carpet, a facsimile of one of his favorite rugs. As his coffin was lowered into the ground, music from the last act of Giselle was played by a live orchestra, and his ballet shoes were cast into the grave along with hundreds of white lilies.

Back to Sotheby’s: Carolyn and Emery were not interested in rugs or textiles. They wanted something really personal of Rudolph Nureyev’s. What Carolyn bought at auction that day at Sotheby’s was the blouse that Nureyev wore in one of his Paris performances of “Giselle,” and one of his hats . . . a Russian pie hat. The blouse of the finest linen, delicately embroidered—a peasant style with a deep-V neck and gathered sleeves, Carolyn had framed and gave to Emery, who hung it above his bed. It remained there, above Emery’s bed, until he died.

Rudolph Nureyev’s hat Carolyn gave to me.

Fifteen years after Emery’s death, the cause of his death remains a mystery. His broken body was found in his driveway one morning. He had fallen from a second-story balcony above the garage. But had he fallen? There was evidence of a struggle—overturned furniture, a broken railing—and rumors of extortion involving a handsome young stranger who preyed on older gay men, but after a very brief investigation, Emery’s death was ruled an accident.

The last time and place Emery was seen alive was in the wee hours of September 11, 2001. He was leaving a transvestite bar in downtown Morgantown, a bar called Vice-Versa, leaving with an unidentified young man. But, you see, when Emery’s body was found the next morning, it wasn’t just another day. It was 9-11, and America suddenly head bigger fish to fry. The death of one middle-aged gay man was small potatoes compared to what lurked in every corner: terrorists, turbans. ●

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