BUTTON TIN
by Aholaah Arzah


Although she had not in years sewn even so much as a loose button back on the straining lapel of a winter coat, it was not inconceivable that she might yet have occasion to do so. And as it really required so very little energy or skill to accomplish this small task, it seemed prudent that she keep the thread and needles handy in the drawer of the old end table beside her favorite chair. This convenient location and a tendency to somewhat obsessive forethought had created an accumulation of other items in the drawer; tweezers and dental floss, pens and nail polish, a fork, a spoon, paper clips and cotton balls. The contents of the drawer were representative of a larger archiving of sorts. The closet of her small studio apartment was lined with large plastic utility bins. Somewhere within those bins were more spools of thread and packets of needles and small containers of buttons, held in further reserve. Destined to soon join them was a tin of buttons she intended to scavenge from the most recent of her clients, an older woman who required a caregiver because if left to her own devices she might set the kitchen on fire.

The new client was so ingrained in all her behaviors and actions that each day she repeated them in almost exactly the same order. Although she didn’t care at all for the inevitable outcome; an ever-present caregiver such as the young woman, the older woman had lost an appreciation for cause and effect and if unattended would set thick and glistening bacon strips in a cast iron skillet and flip the little burner knob to high before wandering away with her sloshing cup of coffee to sit and gaze out the windows of her third-floor condo at the bay. It was the young woman’s job to follow along, lowering the temperature and tending the sizzling strips to a crisp golden hue, which she did with an appreciative attention, acquiring a strip or two for herself. She then coaxed the old woman to the small table on the lanai, where with her coffee replenished and the breeze from the bay dislocating the thin silver threads of her hair, the old woman would begin the serial narration of her life. The stories were always the same, told in the same order, almost word for word as far as the caregiver could discern and although the younger woman should have been able to recite them herself, she had heard them so often, she had soon stopped listening when she realized the recitations did not require her participation or even her attention. This time could be used to drift among the fragmented passing thoughts of her own life.

Sometimes, while the old woman talked, the young woman would sort through the kitchen cupboards, marveling at thirty-year-old tins of dry mustard and antique boxes of baking soda before dropping them with an oddly satisfying thunk into the garbage can. She found that she derived a distinct pleasure from sifting through the detritus of someone else’s life and eliminating the unnecessary details. There was a sense of satisfaction derived from the clean shelves and the tidy containers. Also, there were among the faded herbs and spices the occasional treasures; interesting old bottles, a tiny crystal salt shaker with a blackened silver cap, small forgotten items, abandoned to the dust of dead insects and powdery residue of spices, easily slipped into a pocket and carried away without much thought, almost as a reflex. Once the essential kitchen clean-up was completed, the dishes all washed and put away, all the surfaces clean and still, she resituated the older woman in the living room where she would sit gazing out at the water, idly fingering her left ear as though puzzled by a missing earring.

The bathroom was an enclave of partially full bottles in such abundance and varying levels of emptiness that the young woman imagined if lined up along the edge of the sink, one could with sharp raps from the hard-plastic head of a toothbrush create a viscous melody from shampoos and mouthwashes. From time to time in those imagined melodies a refrain of melancholy troubled her in its repetitious insistence. She found some relief in selecting a few of the bottles with the lowest levels to accompany the crusty remains of the spice tins in the trash can. But it was only a temporary easing, new toiletries arrived almost daily.

The older woman lived with her adult daughter, who although blind and no spring chicken herself, the caregiver had been told, still worked a traditional 9 to 5 and traveled about in the world via taxis and buses, into drugstores and grocery markets navigating by the tapping and swinging of her cane, apparently collecting replenishments for items which were actually quite well-stocked in the condo. The younger woman never saw her. The daughter was already gone before she arrived in the morning and presumably returned home after the caregiver had left for the day. She had also been warned that the daughter had a drinking problem but it appeared to her that it was actually the older woman who enjoyed the more than occasional drink as there were liquor bottles placed in odd locations about the condo, whisky on the bookshelf and vodka behind a chair in the living room, amaretto on the lanai and spiced rum next to a fern on top of the entertainment console, all readily visible to anyone walking into the room but located where the daughter in her typical movements throughout their home might be unlikely to encounter them.

One of the less pleasant of the daily routines was the obligatory trip down the hall to the daughter’s bedroom. The old woman would push open the door and wave her elegantly thin and vein laced hands about insisting that the dreadful mess and clutter be cleaned and organized. The young woman would run the feather duster over the surfaces of piles of Braille books and audio cassettes and insinuate its feathery tips between the collection of items on the daughter’s dresser; brushes and hair clips, colognes and face creams, while gently explaining yet again that the daughter depended on things being exactly where she had left them, that the young woman really could not move them about or they would be lost to her. The old lady would shrilly insist and the young woman would reluctantly agree, escorting her back to her chair and very likely a surreptitious nip from one of the bottles, while the young woman lingered in the bedroom smoothing the already well-made bed and lining up the corners of the stacks of cassettes without actually relocating anything, everything always precisely in the same location. Later when she rejoined the older woman she would be directed to follow her down the hall to her own bedroom where she would wait while the older woman pulled open the top drawer of her dresser and sorted through a collection of crisp floral handkerchiefs. After some consideration, she would make a selection and press it upon the young woman as a peace offering which the young woman accepted graciously and then slid back into the drawer later. The young woman preferred the one with purple pansies on a pale green background and as if intuiting this the older woman chose it again and again. 

It was on one of these occasions that the young woman noticed the chocolate tin in the rear of the drawer. She had once, as a child, been given an entire tin of the very same chocolates by a friend of her mother’s, a woman whose spare rooms they were occupying during another of their transitional periods. The young woman had never in her life since felt as rich as she had when she ran her fingers through the depth of bright foil-wrapped candies. Her mother’s friend ran a hair salon out of the front of her house. Evenings after it closed the girl the young woman had been then, cleaned the surfaces of the mirrors and wavy glass partitions for the pleasure of inhabiting the empty salon, the plants all watered, the magazines ordered. She also routinely pried loose a few of the quarters and occasionally a dollar bill from a heavy square metal bank into which her mother’s friend stuffed her daily tips.

     The next time the young woman was ordered to clean the daughter’s room she simply agreed and escorted the old woman back to her chair. The young woman then slipped into the older woman’s room and slid the dresser drawer open. It seemed doubtful that the older woman would miss a chocolate or two from the tin assuming there were at least a handful or more left inside. When she lifted the tin from the drawer she heard the musical sluicing of many small disks. She was instantly enthralled. She couldn’t have explained the strange fascination buttons held for her, what coin they represented. She had her own collections at her apartment and loved to sift through the buttons from time to time. Some of the buttons had their own little tales attached to them although none of the tales were actually factual. She had forgotten the origin of most of the buttons but the retelling of their imagined stories to herself again and again as she sorted through them had created a validity, a certain kind of history. One of her favorite constructed memories involved the small yellow duck buttons from a sweater knitted for her by her grandmother. This would be the grandmother who kept her hands occupied with her cigarettes until she was eighty and never knitted anything more than her brow over the activities of the neighbors she spied on. The young woman began sorting through the old woman’s button tin each day purloining an unusual few to add to her collection. They would not be missed and very likely dispatched en masse one day to the donation box of a thrift store benefiting the otherwise unemployable. One day she kept the pansy handkerchief. Then it began to seem a waste to be depositing so many partial bottles of this and that into the trash when on her meager wages, she could scarcely afford to pay rent so she slid them one or two at a time into her bag. A bar of soap and a roll of toilet paper, a stick of butter, a canned ham.

The button tin continued to yield unexpected treasures; two carved ivory buttons, three very tarnished silver thimbles and a heavy length of greenish-bronze colored chain that the young woman suspected might be gold. The young woman was amazed at such casual disregard for things of value. In her own spare life, growing up, everything had always been counted and considered for potential resale in times of crisis. She grew up in rentals, furnished with trash and wore the same ill-fitting clothes until they disintegrated. She lived now, as an adult, in a construction of objects deemed worthless; whatever could be scavenged curbside or retrieved from dumpsters, the indifferent largesse of people she would never know. She had fashioned a sort of philosophy concerning cast-offs, the virtue of using and re-using the items that already existed in the world, of skimming the slightly tainted cream from the abandoned excesses of others. Now the philosophy seemed to have evolved to embrace nudging a few unappreciated items loose from their tenuous ownership. The old woman and her almost mythical daughter had more than they needed. The old woman drifted through the ghosts of previous days and the daughter through a world of grays and shifts of fog. The young woman provided what they needed, a kind of direction and simplification. Although hardly an exchange that would be recognized, much less appreciated by most of the audience, it almost always felt to the young woman, if she happened to consider it, like a fair enough exchange.

The young woman began to bring a large backpack with her to facilitate the transfer of the gleaned household excesses and redundancies from their elevated perch in the condo. Incognito the items traveled the number seven bus route through the dingy noisy heart of the city where they passed those perfectly groomed people striding by in their impeccable clothes and those people standing in the steam of heating grates in dirty layers of stale clothing with their palms outstretched. Occasionally in her comings and goings, the young woman met one of the neighbors in the elevator or the parking garage. Initially, they behaved as though she were invisible. Gradually, however, they began to slide their eyes over her and dart a quick grimace in her direction and then after some time to nod or smile and eventually to greet her as if she had always been there. And she had become accustomed to being there. There were moments during the day when she stood gazing out at the water, holding an antique teacup in her warm palms, when the routines of the older woman’s life seemed the only construct of her life. She had trouble while watering the potted plants on the lanai remembering the previous evening in her own apartment as though that aspect of her existence was a dissipating dream.

A distant relative of the older woman arrived unexpectedly for a visit and sat for a while on the lanai with her while she narrated her early childhood on a farm in Nebraska. The visitor sat smoking cigarette after cigarette watching the curls of smoke appear to superimpose themselves over the wind lifted white caps on the water. When the caregiver joined them and drew from her pocket a red leather cigarette case studded with gold balls the visitor’s eyes snagged a moment on it and the faintest of frowns ceased the area between her eyes and then with the slightest of shrugs she turned back to the water as though whatever she had thought was after all nothing of consequence.
One morning when she arrived the caregiver found a note, presumably from the daughter, detailing instructions for utilizing the debit card enclosed in the envelope for household needs. The daughter was headed out of town on some sort of extended business trip and expected the caregiver to live in during her absence. The note was not very detailed and the handwriting difficult to read. After a momentary flare of alarm mixed with indignation, the caregiver found that the idea was not that unappealing.

Removed from the last vestiges of her life apart, the caretaker settled into the condo. Now she traveled about in buses and taxis to purchase groceries and household items, judiciously determining the need for replenishment. She began to work on a few projects in the condo, brightening the rooms with fresh flowers and new vibrant throw pillows and rugs. She purchased a small antique trolley at the flea market for what she believed was a reasonable price and arranged all the liquor bottles on it complete with some lovely old glassware and an ice bucket which she would fill precisely at 5 pm each evening and empty at nine when the older woman went to bed. They companionably watched the sunset over the water to the ethereal music of ice tinkling in a good crystal. She developed an extraordinary patience in regard to the evening personal care and toileting of the older woman wondering how the daughter had managed. The patience evolved into something akin to affection and in response the older woman would lay her frail hand on the caregiver’s arm and then her chin, sometimes tilting the younger woman face towards hers and gazing with an uncommon focus into her eyes before gently patting her cheek.

From time to time the caregiver would pause and remember that she had another life out there but that space and its furnishings seemed so remote and warehoused as though her entire shabby apartment and shabby former life were stored in a huge plastic container put aside for contingency.

About the Author:

Aholaah Arzah received her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard. Her poems, essays, short fictions, and visuals have appeared in a variety of publications including; Quarter After Eight, Crab Creek Review, elimae, Paper Tape, The Bellingham Review, Literary Orphans, Moon City Review, Typishly, and ARC. Her essay “Ring Cycle” received Longshot Magazine’s feature award. She lives in Port Townsend, Washington.

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