Button Work

My life could have been different but it wasn’t. On the day I blame for the rest of my life, on the day I sprawled beside a barbed-wire fence line, undulating wildly in pain, my skirt flipped easily over my head, the weather was of course impeccable. The Horse I Haven’t Named had bitten off my pinkie. It sounded like teeth crunching through a fresh wet carrot, but felt like nothing at all at first. Above me, the sky was sheeted with a translucent layer of blue, like gauze, or cheesecloth. Just before I fainted I heard the sound of the horse’s jaw working its way through the finger, swallowing it. I dreamed I was watching myself through the eyes of that mare, while I writhed on the ground, a rather ridiculous and pornographic flash of spread legs as my skirt tore on the strands of wire left by the fence line, a steady pulse of blood scattering into the pasture from my claw. That is all I remember of that afternoon.

I woke in the hospital a day later, my hand wrapped in clumsy napkins. This was before the beeps and machines filled the hospitals with white noise. I could hear the screams of childbirth from a woman down the hall. In the bed beside me, a man was fondling himself and staring at me with large wet eyes. When the man sat up in bed, I screamed for a nurse. When the nurse came, the man in the bed feigned sleep. The nurse, who I remember as having a large overbite and thick black glasses, rolled her eyes and asked me to be quiet. A black man ran past the doorway with an armload of glass vials, chased by a string of elderly doctors. The pitter patter of his footfalls ended in a sudden shattering of glass. I heard one of the doctors call for the nurse. Before she left, she looked back at my bed, said, “You see what you’ve done?”

Until that day, I had been relatively injury free. I hadn’t a scar on my body, though I had participated in dangerous, even grueling, labor for much of my young life at a button factory in Marlborough, Kentucky. I can’t remember these days what the name of that hospital was, the same way I can’t remember if they shot the horse who stole my finger, or if that is merely that nightmare I’ve had. Today, though, while I bring in the groceries from Food Lots!, I see the house has been ruined.

I am telling this story because I don’t know why today is important to my parrot. What memory is he reliving that has caused him to ceremoniously tear all of the plumage – the blazing red and metallic blue down – from his proud chest? He looks too much like the frozen chicken in the freezer for me to bear. He has grown silent. I say, “Hello, my pretty one.” But he looks away. I say, “What have you done to yourself my love?” and he only shifts his weight from leg to leg on the kitchen counter. He only rubs his curved beak against the windowpane, a noise he knows I disapprove of. He only rearranges the pile of feathers he’s torn from himself into a colorful pyramid.

His name is Lukas, after my first love, a boy of twenty who entered the Keepsake Button Mill nearly forty five years ago and kissed the back of my neck while I stood before the button press. I felt the electricity in my wrists of all places, and when I awoke from the cool sensation of his lips on the thin brown hairs at the base of my neck the machine was smoking, a bell was ringing. I’d left the heated stamper down too long and ruined 256 identical faux abalone shell buttons.

When I was fired, Lukas came into my house with a catfish. It was the largest fish I had ever seen. He said it was still alive, that he’d cook it for me if I could find it in my heart to forgive him. I said, You get out. Goodbye, I said. I meant it. But he didn’t run or anything. I knew we’d been in love, but I was angry. Lukas hade the widest face of any man I’d ever known. The bones of his jaw were strong in their geometry. The fish wiggled his tail a bit, and I told this boy he better put the fish back in the water, but he left it right there. My daddy came home and saw the fish swimming, almost dead, cutting slow circles in the bathtub. He wanted to know where it came from. I never ever told him the truth about that fish, and when I got my job back at Keepsake, I swore I’d never speak to Lukas again. My boss took me in his office, sat me down on my fist day back.

“Fiona, you know what a danger these machines are. What’s this I hear about a boy? A boy who visits you here?”

“Um.”

“A boy who kisses you at the stamping press?”

“I’ve gotten rid of him,” I’d said.

But I hadn’t. It was a time when I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I had thought to myself, but each time Lukas would be around I felt as though there were so many things I had to tell him about that I couldn’t bear to silence myself. Goodbye, I said to myself each time he came near. He would begin to speak to me, Goodbye, I would say. He would reach out to touch me like he had at Keepsakes. Don’t, I would say. These refusals became candor, became our relationship, the way that my parents’ relationship had collapsed into a series of meaningless gestures before my mother finally left with our neighbor, a man with an impossible pelt of hair like he’d soaked himself in corn syrup and rolled through a barbershop, a man who told my mother that he could get her on TV in California, and this was when that mattered, when it didn’t mean dirty movies, and he did get her on an episode of Leave it to Beaver, but she was in the background, facing the other direction, and all I can remember of her is a dark bun of hair, the outline of thin shoulders. My father pushing his face up to the image of her turned away from him. My father hugging the television set.

My little Lukas bird stares at the window in the dark tonight. Birds cannot see through glass without thinking that it isn’t there, the way we can. It seems kind of a nice idea that if a material has one property, like clarity, then a bird can ignore its existence entirely. If something is wet, then, a bird will simply infer that the puddle is water. But what if it is gasoline? I am not so sure about this theory yet.

On the phone, my friend Grace tells me that a bird like Lukas, an Amazonian Macaw, will usually only pluck his feathers if he is ready to mate, and his partner refuses him.

“It’s like those monks who burn themselves when they don’t like wars and such,” Grace says.

“But who could he be wanting?” I ask.

“Self-immolation,” Grace says. “Those monks. A pity. Keep the bird warm, he’ll need that.

Tonight he sleeps in my bed with me, a first. For a while, he cannot find a comfortable position, and pulls at my hair with his beak. I hold up my hand for him to rest on, and when I do, I notice how with my pinkie missing, his claw looks just like mine.

“Look,” I tell him. “We’re the same.”

Lukas closes his eyes. I think he dreams of the jungle. Here comes that dream again. A man holds fast to the reins, thin as silk, while she bucks and flails against his grip. It is obvious that the man who holds the gun in the background is my father, though he never held a gun in real life. At the precise moment he fires, the moment my vision has focused precisely on the white heat of the sun reflected in the eyes of the mare, I wake up. I think, night-mare. How ridiculous. I think, if something has one property, say mare-ness, then I am as stupid as a bird to grant it all the other properties of mare-ness.

But Lukas is not in the bed with me. I can hear him in the kitchen, and when I find him, he is once again at the window. On the ground, outside, an indigo bunting is sprawled on the green lawn. I have never seen a brighter blue, the iridescence of her feathers, the one’s that tore away from her body when she flew into the window spread out in a haphazard circle around her. Lukas looks at me, says “Goodbye,” and waves his foot, four fingers, just like a person.

In a month I will have gathered all of that dead bird’s feathers from my lawn, and glued them to a ceramic bird I will buy at the Hallmark Greeting Card store. At night, while I lay in bed trying to remember where my father and mother met, while I drift off and wait for that horse to die, my bird will lean his head on the sculpture and tell her she is a good bird. And it will come to me, surely, where they first set eyes on each other. Norma Olivia Walgren met Winifield Sprague Harrison in 1933 at the River Gardens, a dance hall at the Torrent Horse Farm in Forsythe, Kentucky.

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