[“The sign,” pointing.
“Out of business?”
… then something happens and her memory kicks itself out from underneath itself and all the stars of past nights become muddied floaters in the corner of her eye. Voyeur of inner stuff, eager sloths hanging from sills, with the magic of whatshisname’s awful nudity and the lack of intrigue in her own whatever. She sits or someone sits at the front desk, and the hippity-hoppety of a tenant’s daughter and the self-shuttered, back room superintendent manage the shades, the shutters, the screens, the glass, the inches of revealed animal designs identifying death and awaiting the dated heated cordless imagination to order-in some delivered help to weigh the Intrepid’s once-busy carcass.
When there is order, wands stir cups full of copper buttons, and the tailor divides the spoils with his scissors, her painting, by Jove, pecuniary foolishness, climbs wysteria vines and the big guy denounces his chores because someone else “can do ‘em better.”
I love buttons. I buy clothing for its buttons. I just buy buttons. When someone gifts me something with buttons, always with bland, plastic buttons, I remove them and replace them with nicer ones, gilded, enameled, decorated ones that I keep in jewelry boxes that line the surface of my bureau. Then I store the rejected buttons in Mason jars that I place in a closet in my bedroom – the only closet I have in my one bedroom, railroad apartment.
As much as I know about myself, this is the only weird trait I own. Otherwise, I’m normal. I have no sexual hang-up (although I didn’t like Will unbuttoning my blouses before we made love (in fact, I don’t like anyone unbuttoning or unfastening anything of mine)); I have a group of friends that I avoid and a collection of acquaintances that I avoid even more. My mother died of breast cancer when I was 13, but I have a living father, a physician who lives in a new condo in New Jersey with his girlfriend, a nurse in his practice, and a living brother who has his own brownstone in Cobble Hill. At 25 years old, I have a good job (not the profession one would assume of me with my BA in studio arts with a concentration in painting) and I volunteer at a soup kitchen on some Sunday mornings.
Or I think I’m just normal enough to pass as normal.
My little apartment is kept neat. I don’t have a cat or a goldfish. I’m organized. I dress well.
Aside from my brother, who often spied on me when we were kids, I don’t think anyone is particularly aware of my obsession with buttons, not even Will, and he kind of lives with me. Kind of. Part time. Ish.
I also love comic books, but everyone I know knows that about me, and everyone I know doesn’t entirely look at my love of comic books as a peculiar predilection not suited to a woman my age. Comic books are the part of me that I’m comfortable with people knowing about me.
[“What do you have?”
Up to now, as far as anyone could tell, Agnes behaved like an Agnes. In other words, she was like a nurse – the kind one who likes her job and never complains.
She was the only female doorman she had ever known. As a Bennington College graduate, Agnes couldn’t find a job that she liked; and after two years of doing things she didn’t like, she applied to the Service Union as a “doorman” and after just one interview and a week’s training course she was offered a job at an Upper East Side apartment building – a complex not unlike the one one thinks about when they think about Upper East Side apartment buildings.
Like any job she had ever had (waitress, lifeguard, interior painter, au pair, part time art teacher in a public middle school), she went about her business with a nonchalance not found in many New Yorkers – in other words, she was seriously aloof, or aloofly serious.
She worked under the stars that matched her lack of desperation; under the stars – albeit a few of them – that punched through the warmly lit night; and then under the last star and the whisper of a weekday morning… under a few good stars that never manage to complain to anyone.
Will, her kind-of live(d)-in boyfriend, didn’t like the fact that his girlfriend was a doorman.
She liked her job but liked her uniform more. She wore a loose-fitting, cotton/wool blend, navy blue suit with a thin gold rope embroidering both the sides of her pants and blazer with the shiniest, not standard issue, but ideally suited for her outfit, buttons most of her tenants had never seen – electroplated gold, shank buttons each with a different crown insignia; and underneath the blazer, she wore a white oxford shirt with vintage mother-of-pearl buttons that she found in an empty jar of baby food in a Vermont barn sale; platinum cufflinks (her prized possession (with her grandfather’s initials engraved upon their reflective, smooth surfaces)); and a dark blue tie held in place by a gold tie pin with a moonstone head.
My tenants like me and I mostly like them. She was a newer, kinder, calmer, sunnier face – and her body, her lithe, fit body, could still be admired under all that fabric by the dozen or so middle-aged husbands who perked up as soon as they saw her when they returned from work.
Sure, she was resigned, but her smile, her thin, cautious smile, made days seem more purposeful… and Will was smart enough to know this and know that others would know this.
So, when she returned home on Wednesday evening, Will was purposefully pouring a glass of red wine for her as he drank his cheap, canned beer. Agnes, whose easygoing personality – part whimsical, part ancient, part sedative taking neurotic – made it impossible for someone to want to confront her, seemed prepared.
“I want you to quit,” he said. He almost couldn’t believe he said it.
Agnes was unbuttoning her blouse. All of her bras were too big for her chest – but they didn’t make comfortable bras for her size and she felt required to wear one at work.
“I don’t want you to be a doorman.”
“Then what should I be?”
“You should be what you are…, an artist.”
“I’m not an artist. I studied art in college.”
“Then get a more suitable job.”
“How about this?” and Agnes sounded more direct and more stern than she had ever sounded before. “How about this? I remain a doorman and you keep doing what you do. I mean, what is it you do?”
“And what do you write? Stories? Enough. I’m keeping my job.”
The next morning, before walking out the door, she left $100 on the kitchen counter for Will.
She hoped he wouldn’t be there when she returned home.
[“Oreos? Oranges, English muffins…?"
"I’m looking for AAA batteries.”
“No, sorry. Out. Of. Business.”]
Agnes named one particular tenant, a 30-year-old who lived on the thirteenth floor with a rotating roster of night-spending girlfriends, “the Fucker.” Despite this, she was attracted to him. She couldn’t help herself. He was always impeccably dressed, always paying attention to the details, to his buttons.
Clubbing inner health with the back of her mind, she asked while undressing him: “What is this strand of human doing in this world?” Bent and humbled on the couch in front of the television, bent into deprecating enjoyment, a yesteryear of more than he has left to show. This journeyless flight makes men less man and health more lustful and wander more allowable – like the invalid torment of striking a wall with your fist and doing it again because it felt bad (various degrees of chalk and chalkboard, a RECKONING OF CLAMMOR AND ABUSE OF FINGERNAILS AND NAILS).
He had a career on Wall Street, no doubt, and his apartment was pointed to modify his inevitable successes,… all of them fitted into a neatly sewn slot on his breast.
Agnes would sleep with him… and in a fit of irrationality, Agnes, on her own terms and willfully, did sleep with him.
[“Did you ever sell bananas?”
Pent up in his old-fashioned ideas, Will, two years Agnes’ senior, and 15 pounds overweight, sat sucking on his beer bottle. Agnes sipped her wine and waited for a response.
He’s a pillow, she thought.
“And what now? Do I just wait? Return home to my parents and wait?” he asked.
“I can’t take this trip again,” Agnes said. “I really need this to be over now.”
“Why, because you became the man?” He emphasized man as if it were anathema.
“Not in this lifetime.”
She always knows, he thought, and he wanted to say something about her insane button affixation preoccupation, but he didn’t want to hurt her feelings.
[“Is your name Sophie? Did a woman named Sophie work here?”]
Today is the day before yesterday. I know this because my iPhone is telling me so and after yesterday being yesterday and the day before that a repeat of two days ago, I’m already acclimating to these new shifts and embracing the fact that I’ll have another day off tomorrow. Originally, I woke up at 5:30 to prepare for my day, this day being a Friday, and I still wake up because my alarm, a gong, bursts from my vibrating phone at 5:30 a.m. I don’t recall falling asleep yesterday, I mean, tomorrow. There is no sleep. But just in case the last days were a dream, I’m planning on going to work; and if this really is the Friday of the past and tomorrow is Thursday, I won’t go to work yesterday… there’s no reason to. Anyhow, next Thursday is payday, so I might as well go out for dinner tonight AND tomorrow night.
[He folded his wallet.
“Sorry I couldn’t help.”
She pulled down the gate.]
I’m wearing paint stained jeans today and a flannel t-shirt (with black, ebony (real ebony) buttons) – easy enough and without a concern for next week and my lack of a professional air – fuck it, I’m a tenured, full time door “woman,” I’m 25 years old, and I’ve been reading comic books on the couch of yesterday… I mean, later today, and Saturday too; although my second Saturday was a frenzy of What the fuck with the Fucker?
My boyfriend, now “ex,” I think, is gone. I know he wanted to see me before I went off to work yesterday; but it was too early to wake him especially considering the night before he stayed up packing his few belongings and complaining to his mother on the phone while I hid in the bedroom… Agnes is too focused on her stuff, but she said to herself, “He's just a jerk of all trades, a maxed-out myth of speculative options.” But she didn’t really say that. I said that.
She wasn’t sure if she was referring to Will or the tenant on the 13th floor.
[The days of these weeks are marked with red exes.
So he decided to check the days instead.]
Agnes replaced the buttons on her white oxford work shirt with ones from a Mason jar she kept in the closet.
Who’s the fool now?
[The days didn’t amount to much, but he kept searching, kept walking the lengths of these streets for the right store with the right products and the right face to smile into his very long face and the right voice to match the one he can’t seem to entirely recall.]
I wake up with my heart on the pillow. The only thing beating is my brain.
The madman comes, the dog barks, and Will wants to meet for drinks on Thursday. There is a party on Friday that he’ll also probably be attending, and her apartment building, not the one she’s doorman of, but this little four story building she lives in, shifts on its foundation, or that’s how it feels inside of her with this headache, this elevated heart rate, and the initial wooziness of the .5 mg of lorazepam she took to help her cope with the fact that she fucked the Fucker, the one with all the girls, of which she was one, and Will is living at his mother’s and still wanting to be friends… and grandma played the Daily News crossword and grandpa played doctor with too many women and dad was a doctor who played husband with too many women and mom hated her mom and ridiculed her for playing the Daily News crossword puzzle and Will is the answer to a prompt in a very easy puzzle 1. Ant. of won't and all is relaxed, not like rolling over in bed and waking at three o’clock to change a saturated tampon, because she was afraid of Toxic Shock Syndrome, but she didn’t have her period yet, and all is relaxed and calm and it’s coming though and should be here in a couple of days as a city bus explodes in the distance and soon, within a few hours, children will aim like dull bullets for their various modes of transportation to school and grandma never finished the crossword.
Before Will left he was writing stories about writing. He tried to show her a few pieces but they made no sense. I didn’t want to explain why I didn’t understand, so I latched onto a few words like “torque,” “sluggard,” and “akimbo,” and pinned them to my memory – forgetting already – as I made something to eat for both of us and contemplated what tomorrow would bring and whether or not I should have another glass of wine – our relationship was so much better after a few glasses of wine. Then the mornings came and anxiety set in. She blamed the sugars, she blamed her liver, her kidneys, her gallbladder, her lungs, her heart, her heart again, and her stomach but I never blamed my pain. Now, she’s blaming her pain, taking a passion flower tincture that doesn’t work and practicing a very loose vegan diet that included eggs, honey, and tuna making it a not very vegan diet at all.
Now a couple weeks removed and a few weeks more than that since he touched her, or since she let him touch her, and like everyone else after a bad relationship she wanted to partly kill him and partly screw him, but not with her own body, only her annoyance, only her anger… an anger that started out as a boredom.
[“Do you have______?” or “Can I buy______?”
She went to the building manager’s office this morning to collect her check so that she could pay the bills, bills that seemed higher than they were a few weeks ago even though she was pretty much paying for everything, so Will must’ve been paying for something. Ink cartridges, maybe. Melvin, the superintendent who fills one of two desks in the office, lords over the building while listening to 80s hair metal "Out on the streets that's where we'll meet you make the night I always cross the line well I'm remonstrated outdated I really want to be over-rated I'm a finder and I'm a keeper oh you're so condescending your goal is never ending cause baby we'll be at the drive-in in the old man's Ford behind the bushes till I'm screaming for more," the elevator music of hard rock; but he was not her boss. She answered directly to the co-op board chair, the widower, Mrs. Perretti. He handed her her windowed envelope and she knew exactly how much wasn’t in it. My father often missed my tuition payments and several times I had been threatened, by the administration, with a kind of campus deportation. I still don’t have my actual diploma and instead received blank card stock (that I later used for a lousy watercolor of the Hare Krishna Tree in Tompkins Square Park) because my father missed that very last payment. Sure, he made it months later, but Bennington never forwarded my "proof of purchase" and I never contacted Bennington, so I don't have a real diploma. Not being attached to a degree has been limiting (initially I wanted to say, “liberating,” but “limiting” came to mind first). If Karma does, in fact, have a role to play, the sooty fingerprint Melvin leaves on her envelope would be a kind of Anthrax.
No more Ativan.
There are Jews in Paris. My mother, father, brother and I celebrated Christmas with them a year before my mother died. Distant relatives of my mother’s, I think, who assimilated, kept their Semitic last names, adopted high Catholic holidays, and began smoking cigarettes at age ten (or earlier). I liked them and their smallness and largess – sharing everything, including their wine and cigarettes with me, a slip of a girl with burgeoning hips. Being 13 years old was easier in Paris than it was in Montclair, New Jersey. Everything that was awkward about me was charming – and I was 100% awkward.
Mrs. Perretti stepped into the morning spring and realized she was overdressed. Pressed for time, she handed her coat to Agnes. It was a green, woven Chanel blazer from the 50s with gold, French military buttons – real, antique naval buttons. The customary and oft repeated anchor and chain pressed boldly forward, and the words, canal de vieux, seemed intentional and directed towards some distant memory, some distant place. Old canal? Canal of old? In total, there were nine buttons on the jacket: four on the front, one each on each shoulder clasp, one for each cuff, and one securing the belt in the back.
Agnes had to have one of these buttons. And “had” really meant “will have.”
She began to hang the jacket in the little, parquet panel closet behind her desk, while searching for flaws in the button stitching. None could be found. Choosing a medallion would not be easy and a number of plots unfolded: The belt button would unfasten the belt into an awkward, left hanging tail; a shoulder straps would sloppily hang like a Brittany spaniel's ear; a cuff button would leave the jacket looking lopsided, drunk; so she settled on the bottom front one – the one least used of the four.
With the Leatherman she kept in her backpack, she cut the wool thread, clutched the jewel, and turned into the Fucker. Literally. If he had been watching her theft, he didn’t reveal it on his face. Instead he said, “Are you interested in drinks tomorrow night?” She knew that they would be at his place, not out – she imagined that all of his women were wined and dined in his perfectly appointed apartment. She declined in as flirty a manner as she could in her uniform, swimming in the seams, and said, “Rain check?” while pressing the anchor into her palm. She didn’t anticipate that there would be another rainy day, but she was to meet Will and she couldn’t afford to think less of herself than she already did at that moment – part thief, part drowning coquette, part breaker of hearts… all new roles.
When I was with my mother, people always said I looked like my father. When I was with my father, people never said I looked like my mother. This always hurt me. I wanted so badly to look like my mother.
Photos by Brian Philip Katz
An excerpt from, If Buttons Had Their Own Wills, Agnes Probably Wouldn’t Be So Obsessed with Them, a novel by Brian Philip Katz