The Hat Man may well be one of my first memories.

A shrink recently asked about the earliest things I could remember. Hanging other, far more vague fragments on a timeline of known events, I can say with clarity that I met him when I was about 2 1/2 years old.

I didn’t know he had a name until today.

In 1974, I lived in Springfield, Ark., and woke to see a man standing at the foot of my parents’ bed. It was about 10 p.m., likely a Friday night from other clues, and I had been put to bed alone at some point earlier in the evening.

I remember sensing someone’s presence and thinking it was Daddy, who was in the military at the time and due to return home in the next week. In my mind’s ear, I still can hear Mama and my aunt talking in the living room at the far end of the house.

No one else was home. We lived on a rural dirt road more than a mile from the nearest highway. The nearest neighbors were at least half a mile away.

The room was dim, but the man was far darker, simultaneously camouflaged and defined by shadow. Two indistinct red glints suggested his eyes. He stood there at length, still and silent, then suddenly fled.

He wore a caped trenchcoat and what I later came to recognize as a fedora. Neither of these was a common sight in rural Arkansas in the mid-’70s. Neither was anything I ever would see a relative wear. Neither was anything I would describe for anyone until today.

His stature matched the track for a pair of heavy gold-fabric curtains drawn shut on a single closed window. There was no hat stand or coat rack in the room — just a plain dresser and open door to my left, a lowboy dresser along the far wall, and the bed in which I lay. This was a standard Ranch-style bedroom framed by right angles and wood paneling, nothing to lend itself to tricks of light and shadow.

I don’t recall being frightened until he disappeared with a fleet shift to his left, at which point I screamed in terror and my aunt came to check on me. I remember her soapy scent as she hugged me, crying uncontrollably as I told her I saw a man I thought was Daddy, and pointing — over there, at the foot of the bed — to an absent figure darker in my mind than the dark corner in which he stood.

I learned that night the word “nightmare.”

For years afterward, well into my teens, I slept with a lamp on. And eventually forgot why. Then I saw him again early this morning, unexpectedly, in absolute aspect, and remembered.

Researching something called “shadow people” that I had found referenced in a childhood memories tangent on an exhausting and dated discussion board, his specter suddenly stood again before me in stark clarity — in a simple Google search, in an illustration so perfect I could have drawn it myself.

Who knew? I hadn’t thought about him in years. Now I can’t get him out of my mind.


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