Back | Next

The Button

I was down to my last clean white shirt, and it was missing a button — the third one down from the collar, and I hadn’t a moment to decide what to do about it. I would be late if I didn’t just put the shirt on and go. If the missing button had been one lower, I would have had to expend a lot of energy keeping my belly covered, but as it was I thought maybe I could fool Edna Bloomfield. You did not attend a cello consultation with Ms. Bloomfield looking sloppy.

We’d been playing for a few minutes when I noticed she was looking at my chest. Oh, no, I thought.

“You’ve lost a button,” she said.

And at just that moment, I made my great mistake. I looked down and then back up smiling helplessly. “You’re right. I hadn’t noticed. It must have fallen off on my way over.”

She put down her bow and stood up. “Or after you arrived!” The panic in her voice frightened me, and I got up too. What could the matter be? It was just a button.

“Ludwig is allergic to plastic!” she said.

Ludwig was not like any parrot I’d ever seen, but what else would you call a big colorful bird like that? He stood on a perch across the room looking at us. Huge and green and blue and red with a hard black nut-cracking beak, he was probably as long as my arm from head to tail.

Had he flown around since I’d gotten there? I wouldn’t have paid any attention to the bird unless he landed on me, which he almost never did when I was at my cello. He knew that knocked me off my concentration. But he often landed on Ms. Bloomfield’s shoulder while she was playing. Ms. Bloomfield who looked so frail in her thin yellow and white dresses and lace shawls was a dynamo when she came to the cello. She would settle herself behind the instrument and then launch herself into the music, and she would become the music, and sometimes it would get to be too much for Ludwig, who would glide across the room and land on her shoulder and open his great blue and green wings and fan the music my way. It was a magnificent sight.

When I first came to her, I was tremendously surprised when the big bird lifted off his perch and flew around the room and landed on a curtain rod above the big picture window, then swooped down to land on my shoulder. He flew around a lot that first day. Getting to know me, Ms. Bloomfield had said.

He may have been playing on the floor, too. It was not unreasonable for Ms. Bloomfield to worry the bird might have found a button dropped from my shirt.

I shouldn’t have lied about it. I’d thought she would buy my story about the button falling off on the way over, and that would be that, but now that I had lied, I couldn’t backtrack and tell her there had never been a button at all. I couldn’t just say, “Wait a minute. I misspoke. I’m sorry. It was my last shirt and the button was already missing when I put it on.” She would think I didn’t care about Ludwig and that I didn’t want to crawl around on the floor looking for my button. She would think my precious time at the cello with her was more important than some dumb bird. She’d think that I thought she was just a silly old woman with a parrot. All of those things she might think were actually true, but not really true, not so simply true, not true at all unless you had a lot of time to explain the extenuating circumstances.

“We’ve got to find that button.” She stowed her bow and leaned her cello against the piano.

I hesitated for a moment, but then I put my bow and cello aside, too. Here was another chance to stop this. I could say, “Hey, wait a minute! I now realize that I put this shirt on by mistake. I remember seeing the missing button when I did the laundry and I’d meant to put it in the pile of stuff for the seamstress, but I must have forgotten and just put it on this morning.”

The moment passed, and I said nothing. It was too late. That bit about the seamstress was probably going too far anyway. I didn’t even know if there were still people you could get to sew on buttons.

“Let’s start back at the front door,” she said, “and work our way into the music room.”

Ludwig took off and soared around the room and landed on the carpet between the two chairs we had just been occupying.

“Oh, no!” Ms. Bloomfield said.

She ran at the bird. You might have thought she was trying to take flight herself the way she was waving her arms and making scary shoo shoo noises. Just before she got to Ludwig, he lifted leisurely into the air and flew up to the curtain rod where he hung upside down looking at us.

“Do you think he found it?” Ms. Bloomfield asked.

“No,” I said. “I mean, I don’t know.”

“Well, let’s start here since he seems interested in this spot. He can detect plastic from a great distance.” She got down on her hands and knees.

I watched her for a moment and then got down on the floor, too.

“We must go over every square inch with our hands,” she said. This close I noticed a faint smell of peppermint coming from her. “You work the East hemisphere, and I’ll work the West.” She turned away from me and moved along combing the carpet with her fingers.

I was surprised to see that the bottoms of her black shoes were a light tan color. Had I thought she would polish the soles of her shoes? This was a little shocking like learning a secret I was never meant to know. I moved away patting my hands against the carpet as if I were looking for the button that couldn’t be there.

What was I going to do? Even if I told her the truth now, and even if she believed me, she’d think I was a complete fool. I had learned so much from her, and I could feel myself right on the edge of something transcendental. It would be the kind of breakthrough you get maybe once in a lifetime and forever after talk about it as the time you stepped out of the darkness and suddenly the cello made total sense. The facts of the matter (whatever those facts were) would be so simple. You’d wonder why you hadn’t seen this on your own. But you’d be grateful there was such a wonderful source as Ms. Bloomfield to show you the way up from merely perfect to a higher level. Unless she never called you again because of the stupid button.

I cringed at the thought of my friends asking how the Bloomfield consultations were going. They would sense my weakness. I would look away. My face might get a little red. They would be all over me like piranha on a bleeding cow. I would probably just drop dead before I admitted that Ms. Bloomfield had decided I didn’t have what it takes after all.

I worked the carpet around our chairs and about halfway to the big window where Ludwig still hung upside down watching us.

Wait a minute! I could pull off another button and claim it was the lost one. I could pull out my shirt a little. Yes, like that, and yank the button off. Not so easy, but wait here it comes, no, twist twist twist. Twist. Twist! Yes, here it is.

Something landed on my head and I yelped and ducked like it wasn’t already too late. Ludwig had come down to see what I’d found.

“What’s going on over there?” Ms. Bloomfield asked.

“It’s just Ludwig,” I said. “He’s come to help.”

My next remark was going to be, “Hey, look I found the button.” But Ludwig toppled off my head and fell onto the carpet and didn’t get up again.

Dead. Surely dead. The parrot was dead, and I was holding the murdering button in my hand. No, that wasn’t right. The button would prove I didn’t kill Ludwig. I stood up with my back to Ms. Bloomfield so I could tuck in my shirt.

Why now? Why had the parrot died today? Well, the real question was why had I chosen to lie about the button today?

And I had miscalculated in my latest scheme. Instead of getting a button far down the shirt, I’d gotten the one right below the original missing one. I couldn’t tuck my shirt in far enough to conceal the fact that I was now missing two buttons, one of which I was holding in my hand. Maybe I could pull my pants way up? Well, maybe if I’d been some kind of gym freak instead of a guy who sat around all day massaging a cello.

It absolutely could not have been my fault that Ludwig was dead, but Ms. Bloomfield would never believe that.

She came up to my side and looked down at my shirt and then up at me. She looked confused and then disappointed, and then the color drained from her face, and she cried “Ludwig” and dropped to her knees and picked up the bird and cradled it.

Back | Next