The reader is introduced to Colin’s brother, Ross, when he’s wearing both hats, cutting the lawn in front of the school, one of the hats being a floppy pink strawhat that his mother wore in the garden.
He is viewed through the window, Colin and his work-mates on one side of the glass, the principal making inquiries about Ross which hint to Colin that they’re not entirely satisfied with the way that Ross is responding to his job as school caretaker.
The word ‘caretaker’ is a stretch, for although Ross does report to the janitor, if anyone is a caretaker it is Colin, taking care of Ross, watching over him, whether from a window or some other vantage point.
“Ross was not retarded. He had kept up with his age group in school. His mother said he was a genius of the mechanical kind. Nobody else would go that far.”
Colin feels the weight of this responsibility, far more than Ross feels the weight of two hats upon his head.
But though Colin feels his brother to be a burden, that is not openly expressed until the end of the story.
First, in fact, it is the lessening of that weight that is expressed, when Colin considers how he felt when he realized that Glenna (now his wife) had accepted Ross to be, simply, Ross.
“He had felt as if from now on Ross could stop being a secret weight on him; he would have someone to share Ross with. He had never counted Sylvia.”
Sylvia is Ross’ and Colin’s mother, but she does not appear to recognize the secret weight that Colin carries.
In fact, she delights in repeating family stories that she finds entertaining but which Colin (and, eventually, Glenna) finds horrifying, encapsulating the moments in which Ross’ unpredictability translates most directly into Colin’s increased sense of responsibility.
This echoes Beryl’s repetition of the horrifying situation that Marietta endured, orchestrated by their mother, which Beryl finds simply hilarious, in “The Progress of Love”.
And, indeed, there is talk of progress in “Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux”. Colin is ever aware of markers of it, or something like it.
“A sign, Colin thought. He didn’t know what of – just a sign that Ross was farther along the way that Ross was going.”
But it’s possible — even likely — that there is no progress to see, perhaps even none to be had. Not in this town, not for Colin.
Nancy, who has been brought in to teach French, who is new to the town, offers the reader a perspective on this which Colin finds odd, but which might, in fact, reveal another layer of truth.
For “she had an odd way of talking about this town. She talked about it as if it were a substance, a lump, as if the people in it were all glued together, and as if the lump had – for her – peculiar and usually discouraging characteristics.”
Not an environment which encourages growth and change. And, yet, Glenna offers something else to Colin. It’s not named, not in his mind, nor for the reader, but he recognizes something desirable in her capacity to imagine a future.
“She had placed the furniture they hadn’t yet bought; she had chosen the colors in accordance with a northern or southern exposure, morning or evening light. Glenna could hold in her mind an orderly succession of rooms, an arrangement that was ordained, harmonious, and, by her, completely understood.”
Not only has Glenna directly lessened the weight that Colin has felt bearing on him as Ross’ brother and protector, but she exists as a possibility of another way to go, not the way that Ross was going, but a way of change and promise.
“A problem wouldn’t just thrust itself on Glenna, and throw her into doubts and agonies. Solutions were waiting like a succession of rooms. There was a way she would see of dealing with things without talking or thinking about them.”
Colin puts his faith in this, believes that “all her daily patience and sweetness wouldn’t alter that way, or touch it.”
And there’s the rub. For Colin knows, and the readers knows, that something about the way that Glenna and Colin have decided to follow stands in contrast with the patience and sweetness that she outwardly exhibits towards Ross.
There is darkness here. But it is, really, only a different kind of darkness.
On one hand, it seems horrifying. But, on the other hand, so was this scene from Colin’s youth:
“He wasn’t thinking of throwing himself into the river or of anything else he might be next, or of how his life would progress from this moment. Such progress seemed not only unnecessary but impossible. His life had split open, and nothing had to be figured out anymore.”
There, as a boy, he neither spoke nor thought about things, because he had no choice but to accept the responsibility of being his brother’s caretaker. But this made him ill.
“Colin felt dizzy, and sick with the force of things coming back to life, the chaos and emotion. It was as painful as fiery blood pushing into frozen parts of your body.”
Here, in “Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux”, he follows a similar model, but quietly awaits the reality of the succession of rooms.
And, what do you think?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work to date. She is one of my MRE authors. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story. This story is the third in The Progress of Love, with next Thursday reserved for “Miles City, Montana”.