16 • Buttons
The old man motioned to the wooden chair and Will sat down. Joe dropped into his rocker and picked up a cookie. “Used to keep these around for the neighbor kids, ” he said, twisting the dark wafers apart. The frosting stayed on one side. “Back when they used to stop and see the Missus.”
“Oh yeah? When was that?”
Joe looked down into his lap. “Eight years.”
“Three months. Six days.”
Will took a cookie and broke it in half with his thumbs. He took a bite.
“What was her name, Joe?”
The two sat in silence. Archie walked to the side of Joe’s chair and rested his head on his knee.
“When I was a young man, I checked a poetry anthology out of the library to impress her so she’d go out with me. Had to read the thing to keep up the ruse, and before I knew it, I was hooked. ‘Course, by then, so was she. Every day for 47 years, Evelyn read me a poem over breakfast. ”
Joe winked at Will. He took the top off his coffee and dipped his cookie in halfway. Will considered the soggy crumbs collecting at the bottom of the cup and shifted in his seat.
“Poetry can be a peculiar gateway, Will. It can be a way into all kinds of things that don’t seem to have a way in, or that we don’t even know we want in.”
“I do read a little, Joe. I suspect you may be right. Especially about taking a guy into places he didn’t know he wanted to go.”
“Who do you read?”
“Well, the other morning I was reading Keats, at least until the book slid off the roof and nearly took out my landlady.”
“I never knew Keats to be a violent sort. He must have been provoked somehow. He made it up to her, I hope?”
“Flowers go a long way, Joe.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m not so well read. Billy Collins, Tony Hoagland. A little William Stafford, some Adrienne Rich. I read Neruda to practice my Spanish.”
“Ah, Neruda, I knew it. ” Joe nodded and smiled. “You are a man who can appreciate what a poet has to say about a woman’s breasts.”
Will pulled his shoulders in, feeling mildly exposed amidst the old man’s clutter.
“You tidied up a bit, Joe.”
“You noticed! Yes, I told you. I don’t like for things to get out of hand.” Joe looked around the living room, his face brightening at his accomplishment. “Say! Remember when I played the concertina for you?”
“Yes, of course. Very nice.”
Joe got up and walked to the book case. “Well, I kept it out. I’ve been playing every day. Feels so good to have her under my fingers again.”
He lifted the squeezebox out of the case and carried it to his chair. He began to play a tune and Will absentmindedly tapped his foot against the bare wood floor.
“Do you play an instrument, Will?”
“I don’t. Used to play in the band in Junior High, but it didn’t work out. Turns out I had a little trouble with rhythm.”
The old man held the concertina out to Will. “Here. Come on, you should have a try.”
Will waved his hands in front of him. “No, Joe. Really. That would be an awful thing for you to have to listen to. Your neighbors will probably call the police.”
“My neighbors? Nah. Midge wouldn’t mind.”
“You actually have a neighbor named Midge?”
“She’s a dancer. She’s used to loud music.”
Will laughed out loud. “Really, Joe. No. I don’t think so.”
Joe got up from his chair and stood in front of Will. “Put your coffee down, young man. You’re going to give this a try.” He set the concertina in Will’s lap, then took his hands and fed them through the end straps. “Like that. Now, just press your hands together and pull them back apart.”
Will was right. It sounded terrible. But Joe ignored the noise and Will’s protests. “Just keep going. In and out, in and out. You’ll get it.”
He heard Randy Dalbright’s voice hissing in his ear and cold spit running down his neck. But Joe was relentless. Will pulled and pressed, producing mournful, wailing sounds. “It’s no wonder they call them bellows, Joe, ” Will shouted over the racket coming from his midsection.
Joe waved him off. “You’re like a 17-year-old his first time in the back seat. Nobody’s going to mistake you for the World’s Greatest Lover. Let her show you where to put your hands.”
“The buttons will give you a different note when you push or draw. Let me show you.” Joe walked back to the book shelves and opened a second black leather case. “I told you I have three of these, right? They never get any attention anymore.” He pulled an ivory instrument from the blue velveteen and sat back down in his chair with it. “Watch me.”
“And keep playing.”
Joe started playing what sounded like a polka. Will didn’t know any polkas but he’d seen enough of the dancers at the county fair to believe they all sounded like the same song with different titles. Beer Barrel Polka. Pennsylvania Polka. Blue Skirt Polka. Then there were the polkas that were called waltzes but were still just plain old blue skirt polka-dotted polkas.
He watched Joe and tried to mimic his pushes and draws until they were almost in synch. Then he tried to match his fingering on the buttons to create different notes. He stretched out his fingers and felt along the tops of the smooth, rounded buttons on each end of the bellows. He was unsure about pressing them just yet, but traced his middle finger along the top of each, trying to settle into Joe’s pattern.
Will finally gave it a try, pressing his finger onto a button, then his thumb onto another, while he continued with the pushing and drawing with his hands. He winced at the sound but Joe hollered to him to keep playing, so he did, awkwardly.
Resigned that Joe would not let him stop, he leaned back in his chair and stretched his legs out in front of him. With his eyes closed, he walked his fingers from one button to the next, sometimes pressing down, sometimes enjoying the smooth feel under his fingertips. He began to relax.
Will didn’t realize Joe had stopped, lost in the movement of his fingers as he felt his way along the buttons.
“Will, ” Joe said. “Hey, Will.”
Will opened his eyes.
“Song’s over, ” Joe grinned.
“Oh yeah?” Will asked, holding his last draw. “Well. How’d we do?”
Joe laughed. “We did great, Will. You’re a natural. You should really think about getting yourself one of these. I could watch for one at auction. You could learn to play.”
“Oh, I’m not so sure about that. I think Pearl Jenkins might just throw me out of her house if I started wailing with this thing every night after dinner.”
“Is your Mrs. Jenkins so sorry as all of that? She can’t appreciate the sound of a gifted musician on his way to greatness?”
“No, no, ” said Will. “You’re right. She’d probably pick up marimba mallets or something and join me. I’m not sure which I’d feel worse about.”
Joe took a drink of his coffee and carried his concertina back to its case. Will leaned back in his chair, tipping the front legs off the ground. He laced his fingers behind his head, leaving the instrument resting quietly in his lap.
A tuft of padding fiber stuck up through a small tear in the upholstery as Joe eased himself back into his chair, bracing himself on the worn brown arms. He pointed at Will’s feet.
“All four wheels on the floor there, fella. Tip too far and you’ll be all over the floor.”
Will grinned and brought his chair forward. “My mom used to use that exact line. ‘All four wheels on the floor. You’ll fall and crack your head wide open.’”
“There’s that, too, ” Joe said. “Cracking your head on my floor would be an inconvenience to be sure. But I was more interested that you not break my chair. And my concertina would be smashed to bits.”
Will got up to put the instrument away.
“Your mother was unsuccessful in breaking you of the habit, though, I see.” Joe smiled.
“Well, I didn’t actually have the habit. Not then, anyway. She was always scolding my brother for it. Tom was the one always stretching the boundaries from the outside, seeing how far he could move them.”
“And you were sitting quiet and proper at the table, one hand in your lap, shoulders straight, and the pinkie of your other hand out while you sipped hot chocolate from a tea cup, rolling your eyes at such nonsense, I suppose?”
“Worse than that.” Will set the concertina into its case and snapped the latches shut with two loud clicks. “I’d most likely have been under the table, trying to make myself disappear behind one of the legs.”
“Is that so?” Joe said. He didn’t ask another question, or disagree, or change the subject. He just left “Is that so?” hanging in the air in such a way that Will felt he had no choice but to continue talking, and in such a way that he didn’t really mind at all.
“That is so, Joe.” He sat back down in his chair, all four legs on the floor. “I was one of those kids born with a guilty conscience. Didn’t matter who was in trouble, or with whom, or for what. I always figured it was me they were really after. Sometimes the anticipation was too much and I fessed up to things someone else had done, just to end the suspense.”
Will rubbed his hands together, alternating one after the other, and studied a knot in a wood plank on the floor. It looked like an eyeball staring back at him, the darkest part of the center like a dilated pupil, knowing, boring into his soul. Any moment he expected to hear a telltale tick-tocking from under the floor.
He looked at Joe. His eyes were much kinder than the floorboard. “Well now. I’m not quite sure at all how we got here. I’m not one to go opening my coat and exposing myself to innocent bystanders.”
Joe smiled. “I don’t mind, Will. I think you could say we’re friends. I’m happy for conversation between friends. Tell me. When did you finally decide it was okay to … tip your chair back?”
Will combed his fingers through the hair at the back of his neck. “Much later, Joe. Some days I’m still not sure it’s even okay to sit in the chair.”
He picked up his cup and put it to his mouth, tipping his head back to finish off the cup, even though he’d emptied it 10 minutes ago. “It’s been a good afternoon Joe, but I should be probably get moving along.” He stood and put his hands in his pockets.
Joe looked up from his chair, something in his eyes Will couldn’t identify. Sadness? Understanding? Curiosity? He got up and rested a hand on Will’s shoulder. “Sure you can’t stay a little longer? I know the coffee is gone, but I do have more cookies.”
“I really should get going, Joe. My partner is back at the office probably thinking I got trampled by a horse at the ranch.”
“Alright. Maybe you could let me know if you ever come through this way again? By now you should be able to find the place pretty easily.” He grinned.
Will laughed. “I should be. Doesn’t mean I would be.” He gripped Joe’s strong, rough hand. “But I’ll definitely call if I can sneak in a quick visit.”
The two walked out of the house together. Will went to his truck and waved to Joe, who stood smiling on the doorstep, as he drove off.
(to be continued)