Buttons

While reaching out his wrinkled index finger, Frank Goldstein, sixty-two, briefly pondered Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. At this specific moment in time, he was both for and against it. Human beings must have evolved from some sort of simian species; what else could account for the amount of hair growing from his knuckles? On the other hand, genetic mutations occurred to give an organism the best means of survival. What thing could threaten the continuation of mankind that would warrant the need for hairy knuckles as a deterrent? He didn’t even want to think about the hair on his toes or in his ears.

Frank’s redundantly mutated finger needed a button to push, the lift button in fact. He lived on the sixth floor of an apartment building in Brooklyn which overlooked many other apartment buildings in Brooklyn. He and his wife, Seraphina, bought the apartment in the 1970s. Although she was colour blind, Seraphina believed she had an eye for art and considered herself an interior decorator. She had updated the look of their apartment every few months until she was killed in July of 1986 in a car accident. She thought the light was green; it was red. To honour her memory, Frank had kept the apartments aesthetic for the past twenty-seven years, no matter how much he disliked the object d’art she fashioned out of slinkies and Rubik’s cubes. Wherever he turned in his home, Seraphina was there; that comforted him.

Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, the thought of her made his left thumb reach for the wedding band on his ring finger, but it wasn’t there. He had it professionally cleaned once a year and he had to pick it up from the jewellers that afternoon.

He pressed the down button to call the lift. The button responded by turning on a tiny light bulb beneath its plastic casing. Above the lift, Frank watched the numbers light up signalling the lift’s ascent to his floor.

1…

Frank took a step back from the doors to allow any would-be passengers ample room to disembark. So many times he encountered people wanting to enter the elevator as soon as the doors opened, blocking the escapees. Common courtesy was not so common anymore.

2…

He noticed a single thread of frayed carpet which rebelled against internment with its brothers and sisters and was sticking up from the floor in front of the lift; the twisted weave seemed set to sprout as soon as the spring rains arrived.

3…

A young gentleman walked down the hall towards the elevators. He wore dark blue jeans, turned up above the ankle, and brown leather lace-ups with no socks. Frank wondered why people didn’t wear socks with fully enclosed shoes. A shoe with the lamentable inhabitant of a sockless foot is open to an unpleasant accumulation of foot odour and will likely seek revenge by inflicting blisters on the back of the heel and the side of the big toe. Frank gleefully wiggled his toes in his socks in his shoes. All was well.

4…

The young gentleman’s t-shirt pleaded for someone to ‘Save Ferris’. Frank had not heard of anyone called Ferris on the news who needed saving so perhaps wearing the poor person’s plight on a t-shirt was a good way to get his story out to the masses. Frank wondered if there were any messages he could wear on his clothing to educate those around him—the potholes in the street outside took forever to get filled by the local council. From his chest pocket, Frank took out a brown leather notepad, whose edges spoke of frequent attention, and a pencil the size of his thumb. He opened the pad, flipped to a clean page and wrote:

Save Ferris

T-shirt

Potholes?

He would discuss these points with his friends later at the deli. He put the pencil and pad back in his pocket.

The young gentleman walked to the elevator panel and pressed the already pressed button. At that precise moment, the lift arrived and its doors beckoned. The young gentleman smiled and gestured with his arm to invite Frank inside. Frank was perplexed. Why press the button at all? The lift was clearly on its way up and the light on the panel was lit. Did the young gentleman think Frank was incapable of pressing the button by himself?

Frank walked inside the lift ahead of the young gentleman and pressed the ‘G’ button which lit the bulb beneath its plastic casing just like its predecessor. Less than a breath later, the young gentleman pressed the ‘G’ button and then smiled at Frank. Irritated, Frank faced towards the doors to avoid eye contact and the accompanying threat of small talk. He procured the pencil and pad from his pocket, flipped to the same page and wrote:

BUTTONS

The elevator doors opened on the ground floor and a well-worn, middle aged woman with a scarf the colour of her flushed cheeks rushed inside almost knocking Frank over. He shook his head, straightened his shirt, and sighed.

As Frank stepped out the front entrance of the building, he put a black fedora on his head in a practiced manner. He followed the words of his teenage idol, Dean Martin—a hat’s not a hat ‘til it’s tilted—and pushed it up from the side. The noon day sun was blocked by the angle of the brim and cast a welcomed shadow over his eyes.

“Good morning, Frank.”

“Good morning, Frank.”

The apartment building’s gardener was also called Frank and although that joke had worn off about six years ago, the two grown men still faked a chuckle every day for the sake of the other. The gardener was on his knees surrounded by nasturtiums; he waved his trowel at Frank and started singing to his crop in an animated tenor, “La donna é mobile….” Frank Goldstein waved back and began to whistle, taking the tune with him on his walk. Thanks to Verdi, the annoyance from earlier had melted away.

The street was always busy at lunch time. Messengers on bicycles darted in and out of traffic like minnows. Yellow cabs stalked their prey like sharks. Frank adjusted the tempo of his whistle to accompany the measured dook, dook, dook of the walk signal on the corner.

He tried not to think about his hairy knuckles as his finger pressed the walk signal button. A moment later, another finger pressed the button. This finger was pale and thin. Its short, gnawed-at nail was speckled with the remnants of a glittery, golden polish. The owner of which frenetically tapped the fingers of her other hand against the side of her thigh in an impossible rhythm. Her blue eyes, drowning in yesterday’s eyeliner, studied the creases in her sneakers which were held together with decomposing layers of silver duct tape.

Was this a coincidence? Was he no longer qualified to press a button on his own? Had this girl not seen that he had just pressed the walk signal mere moments before she did? Frank was about to question her about the button pushing…

“Wh—”

… but the dook, dook, dook altered its tempo and she crossed the street.

At the local deli, Frank sat at his regular table on the footpath with his friends. The smells of coffee and fresh bread beckoned passers-by with their siren song. The three men each had their own newspapers and read them at the same time. From above, the scene looked like an elaborate Busby Berkley musical number, complete with synchronised page-turning and a rhythmic removal of the Arts section.

Frank put down the paper and pulled out his notepad; the other two performed a well-rehearsed eye-roll.

“Does anyone know anyone called Ferris?” he said. “He needs saving? I haven’t heard about him on the news but if people are wearing his name on their t-shirts then maybe it’s important. Should we start writing things on our clothes that need attention? What about that pothole that has taken forever to be filled?”

“The Government won’t fix potholes, they’re in cahoots with the god-damned insurance companies,” said Gino. Gino was a few conspiracies away from lining his apartment walls with tinfoil.

“I wonder if there’s anything about him in today’s paper,” said Abe, his mouth filled with a cream-cheese bagel.

“Nope, nothing,” said Frank.

“Maybe it’s a conspiracy,” Gino leant forward in his chair, “they don’t just put that sorta stuff in the paper y’know. If you want, I know a guy who can find stuff out, y’know, that sorta stuff.”

“Pfft. Kids these days,” said Abe after swallowing, “they’ll put anything on t-shirts. Stupid hippies, they don’t know bupkis.”

“And another thing, it’s like I can’t press buttons on my own all of a sudden,” said Frank. He put his notepad back in his pocket; it had done its duty for the day.

“Whaddya mean?” said Abe.

“You done somethin’ to your fingers or somethin’?” said Gino.

Three and a half minutes later, Gino and Abe had every detail of Frank’s encounter with button re-pusher-ers. Although neither of them would have had the same reaction to the events, they empathised with Frank who had a penchant for over-analysing trivial happenings.

A little later, Frank’s empty coffee cup clinked when it was reunited with its matching saucer. He dabbed the sides of his mouth with a napkin, folded it into quarters, and slipped it under the plate. He stood up and pulled his shirt down to smooth out any wrinkles.

“I’m off, gents. I have to run some errands.”

“Why do people gotta run errands? Why can’t people walk errands?” said Gino.

“What are you, Jeremy Shinefield all of a sudden?” asked Abe.

“Who on earth is Jeremy Shinefield? And what does he have to do with Frank’s errands?” asked Gino.

“He’s that comedian from that show, Shinefield or something,” said Abe. Frank took this as his cue, waved, and headed towards the jewellery store. As he walked, he put on his hat. He could still hear his two friends arguing.

“You mean JERRY SEINFELD? Did you live under a rock durin’ the nineties or somethin’?” said Gino.

“Ugh, I give up,” said Abe.

“Who cares if anyone runs or walks anyway…?” The increase in distance made Gino’s voice blend in amongst the post-lunch concerto of Brooklyn.

Two blocks down from the deli was Ephraim Levy’s jewellery store. Ephraim was Seraphina’s second cousin and always took great care with Frank’s wedding ring. Frank believed that Ephraim was the origin for the stereotypical Jewish jeweller, complete with all the stereotypically Jewish jeweller trimmings. He traded in precious stones and because of that, he had a tight security system.

The front door was steel, two inches thick. Frank enjoyed watching newcomers open the door with their usual door-opening effort, but the weight of Ephraim’s door always took a bit extra. “That is one heavy door,” they’d say, every time.

There was a short old lady approaching Ephraim’s shop. Her walking cane, which had a tack in the bottom, tik, tik, tikked, with each step. The tiks got closer. Ephraim’s security system also included a video camera mounted outside the front of the shop, pointed towards the doorway. This enabled him to be choosey about whom he let in. He was not fond of riff-raff. The short, old lady with the cane had reached the entry just as Frank pushed the button.

Ding ding.

Frank was mentally preparing himself to hold open the door for her after the bzzzz click of the latch had sounded. He thought she would appreciate that. The lady held up her cane, pointed it at the button, and pushed it.

Ding ding.

Frank stood there for a moment, incredulous at what had just occurred, “I just pushed the button,” said Frank. She smiled blankly and nodded. “You saw me push the button. Why did you press the button again?” Frank pressed for an answer. Ephraim had not yet opened the door. Impatient, Frank pushed the button again.

Ding ding.

Quickly, the cane was raised again.

Ding ding.

Frank began to question his mental faculties. What was going on today? Was he not competent anymore to press buttons on his own? Was this old lady more qualified than him? Just what department deems someone inept at button pushing and takes away their button pushing privileges anyway?

Ding ding.

Ding ding.

Frank leered over the old lady’s lack of height. He took a deep breath and unleashed all of his pent-up, button-pushing exasperation.

Ephraim Levy had been in the bathroom in the back when he heard the frantic ding, ding, dinging from the front door. “Shaddup, shaddup, you meshugeners!” he yelled, zipping up his fly. He thought it might be a bunch of kids so he checked the live footage from his video camera. However, the screen showed a strange series of events, none of which he could hear as the camera had no audio.

His second cousin, Frank Goldstein, was towering over a short, old lady who kept pressing the button over and over again with her cane. Frank too, was pressing the button and yelling at the same time. He then took the cane from the lady’s aging hands, snapped it over his knee like a twig, and held the pieces over his head like an attacking native. Mouth agape, Ephraim pressed his button to release the door.

Bzzzz click.

The sound snapped Frank back to reality. The old lady struggled with the door; Frank held it open for her. Inside the shop, there was a thick silence. The old lady looked as if nothing had happened. Frank placed the pieces of snapped cane on the glass display case, and took off is hat.

Ephraim was first to speak, “Frank?”

Frank counted to ten, then turned to the old lady, “I will pay for the cane. I just need to go to the bank.” He put on his hat and tugged on the heavy door.

She grinned back and said, “I like pushing buttons.”

“You don’t say,” Frank replied through clenched teeth.

That morning, Edith Haltwhistle, who should have retired from her bank-teller duties ten years ago, accidentally put in her husband’s corrective lenses instead of her own. She was near-sighted; her husband was far-sighted. Edith thought there was something strange with her vision on her way to work that morning but attributed the fuzziness to a lack of caffeine. By that afternoon, Edith had a headache. She saw a few customers waiting in line and pretended to do paperwork so she wouldn’t have to serve anyone. Frank was next.

“Next please,” announced Edith’s co-worker Stephanie, summoning Frank to her booth. Stephanie’s curly, ponytail bounced when she smiled. When Seraphina was her age, her ponytail did the same thing. Frank liked talking with Stephanie; she was his favourite bank teller and the main reason why he had not embraced online banking. While she processed his request, Frank began to tell her the troubles he’d had. She was a good listener. He enthusiastically acted out the button-pressing scene from earlier.

At that moment, Edith looked over to the man standing at her neighbour’s booth. Her head pounded and her vision was blurry. She was as certain as certain could be, Officer, that the man at the next booth had two guns in his hands and was pointing them right at young Stephanie.

Her years of training kicked in. With one hand, she pressed the panic button, and with the other, she fumbled for her pendant of St Matthew which had lodged itself in her cleavage. The patron saint of bankers had never let her down before. Her headache binged on the noise from the alarm.

An unknown amount of time passed when Frank found himself lying in a hospital bed. The remnants of a morphine injection gliding through Frank’s veins made it difficult to recall how he ended up there. The sound of the bank’s metal, anti-theft shield crashing down and the searing pain in his index fingers seemed part of an undreamed dream. The opiate gave the sensation that he was soaking in a warm bath.

Someone called out, “Buttons!” It was him.

On the wall to the right of him, lit by a bulb beneath a plastic casing, were x-rays of two hands. Puzzled, he looked at his hands wondering if the x-rays were his. He then noticed someone had strapped splints to his two index fingers. The splints were held together with a strategy of strapping tape and bandages. Frank was in a state of perpetual pointing.

Gino walked in the room first, “You done somethin’ to your fingers or somethin’?” His ability to state the obvious was a superpower.

Abe followed with a bunch of flowers. “I know they’re lilies and you’re not dead but they were all they had downstairs.” He held them out to Frank before realising the error of his ways. “Oops, sorry ‘bout that. I’ll just put them here.” The flowers lay at Frank’s feet. The plastic wrapping crinkled when he moved his toes.

“I got your ring from Ephraim too,” said Gino who thought twice about handing it over. “Did you get beat up by an old lady or somethin’?”

“You’ve managed to break both your fingers in exactly the same place; that takes skill.” Doctor Emile Burkendorf glided into the room and over to Frank’s bed with a clip board and a smile. “You’re going to have to take things easy for a while.” His German accent made Frank intrinsically uneasy.

“No more button pushing, huh?” said Gino.

“Uh-huh. You gentlemen can take Mister Goldstein home now if you wish.” Doctor Burkendorf gave Gino a prescription. Abe plucked it out of Gino’s hands and put it in his own pocket. Gino had a thing about pharmaceutical companies. The good doctor continued, “Two of them every six hours with food and he’ll be right as rain.”

“When can I get these splints off?” asked Frank. “Come back in two weeks, we’ll do another x-ray and see how they’re healing,” said Doctor Burkendorf. An orderly came in with a wheelchair and positioned it next to the bed. He clacked the brakes in place with his sensible shoes.

“My legs are fine,” said Frank, starting to get up.

“Hospital policy,” said the orderly for the twenty-seventh time that day.

Gino collected Frank’s belongings—his wallet, a half-completed withdrawal slip from the bank, his pocket book, and pencil—and followed behind the procession to the lift.

One of the wheels on the wheelchair was a little flat so Frank rolled along on a slight angle. He caught the eye of a blonde Betty Paige in blue scrubs. He winked; she faked a smile.

Behind him, the orderly’s breath warmed the back of Frank’s neck in a steady regularity. The morphine started to fade; Frank could feel his fingers begin to throb in time with his heartbeat.

Like Dorothy and her posse, the quartet traveled along a yellow line on the floor that indicated the path to the lift. The wheelchair stopped and the brakes clacked. Thanks to the bandages, Frank could no longer see the hair on his knuckles as he reached out his swaddled index finger to press the button to call the lift. But alas, Frank could not lean forward enough to touch the lift button from where he was sitting. Abe and Gino knew better than to push the button so they took a discreet step back. A heavy sigh escaped Frank’s chest, he then tilted his head back to address the clean-scented orderly behind him.

“Would you mind?”

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