Julie hummed a tune as she turned the key in the lock and opened the door. She was greeted by bins of yarn, shelves of books, a wall of drawers containing buttons, and the store cat, named Worsted.
“Rawr.” said Worsted, meaning: “I’m hungry, feed me now!”
“Good morning sunshine.” replied Julie, going straight to the back kitchen to drop her luncheon salad into the fridge, start the coffee maker, then give Worsted fresh water and some kibble. After doing the necessary clean up on the litter box, Julie settled in with her coffee to put together her notions order for the salesman coming that day.
“We’ll need more shawl pins.” Julie thought out loud to Worsted. “The weather is so nice people will want to wear their shawls. And I must order more of the matte-black buttons.” Julie continued down the list, ordering more needles and other items for a good half hour. People had no idea how much work went into running a yarn store, but Julie didn’t mind. She loved what she did and she loved her customers. People were what kept a business alive and Julie knew she was lucky to have such a great location that drew in a diverse clientele.
At ten o’clock, Julie opened the store and was greeted by a couple of regulars, come in for a morning’s stitch and bitch.
“Hi Roxanne. Good morning Kelly. How are you ladies today?” asked Julie.
“I am loving this weather!” exclaimed Kelly, as she bent over to give Worsted a pat. Kelly was a university student who liked to drop in for a chat and a coffee on her way to class.
“Not so good myself,” replied Roxanne. “The sun makes my skin act up, and those noisy birds woke me up too early this morning. But I’m getting on now. I don’t know how many more springs I’ll be around to see.”
Julie and Kelly exchanged a glance, before offering sympathy and support to Roxanne. The older woman had a heart of gold, but a crotchety nature hid it from most.
A bit later, two out-of-towners dropped in, saying they’d heard good things about the store. Julie was happy to hear that and gave them a brief tour of the store layout before leaving them to browse.
Just then, the button guy walked in. Julie didn’t know his name so that’s what she called him. Kelly and Roxanne were deep in discussion about short rows, but the two out-of-towners watched the button guy. He wore tailored trousers and a soft grey collared shirt, open at the neck, with the sleeves rolled up on this warm morning. Button guy went immediately to the buttons and straight to the drawer containing the matte-black buttons. He took out one button and went to the cash to pay.
Julie smiled at him, but couldn’t catch his eye. “Will that be all?”
“I’m placing an order today for more of these buttons. Perhaps you’d like to buy in bulk? I’ll give you a discount.”
“No thanks.” Button guy held out his money.
After he’d gone, one of the women from out-of-town spoke up. “That guy knew exactly what he wanted.”
“He should,” grumbled Roxanne. “He buys the same button every day.”
“Yeah.” Kelly piped up “It’s his thing.”
Julie smiled. “I actually just put in an order for more of those buttons today. He’s been doing this for over a year now.”
“But why?” asked the other lady.
“I think he has a compulsion,” answered Kelly, who had taken some psychology courses in first year. “It could be OCD, or maybe he has something like pica and eats them.”
Roxanne scoffed. “He’s just nuts.”
“The banana bread of life would be pretty boring without some nuts,” mused Julie.
Julie was tired. It had been a full day. Her feet were aching, she felt dirty, hungry and just done in. The store had been swept, the shelves faced and neatened. Her last task was to feed Worsted, and then she could head home to her own dinner.
Julie shook the container with the kibble. “Worsted?” Shake, shake. “Worsted? Where are you kitty? It`s dinner time.”
But there was no answering meow. No thump of soft paws as Worsted jumped down from a high perch. Julie did a quick scan of the store, and Worsted wasn`t in any of his usual hiding spots. Julie`s stomach did a quick flip. Opening the front door of the store, Julie called for Worsted again, but no answer. She went to the back and performed the same ritual, again with no results. Now she was beginning to feel sick.
Worsted had come to her as a small kitten. She found him in the alley behind the store, licking up foam from an empty latte cup, covered in ants. The small creature was starving and so pitiful. Julie had cleaned him, fed him and did all that was necessary for him at the vet`s. And in return, Worsted had become her buddy.
Julie locked up the store. With the kibble container in her hand she headed out to look for her friend. Customers knew not to let Worsted out the front door, so the most likely culprit was the notions salesman who had delivered her order that day. He came in the back door, through the alley.
A half hour later, Julie still hadn`t found Worsted. She had searched the alley behind the store and was now across the street, looking under the wooden steps of the artist`s supply shop, thinking that perhaps he had taken refuge under there. And that’s when she heard it: a cat’s meow, sounding like a world of complaint.
Julie called, waited, and heard it again. She looked up and there in an old maple tree was the sleek grey body of Worsted. He was flat down on a branch, his tail twitching with nerves and fear.
“Oh, Worsted! You scared me!” Julie exclaimed with relief. But then she started to worry. How was she going to get the cat down? Calling the fire department seemed such a cliché.
“Maybe I can help?” Julie heard a man’s voice ask.
It was the button guy carrying a ladder. Julie’s mind buzzed with questions, but she was too concerned about Worsted to ask. Instead she just stepped aside as the button guy put the ladder against the tree branch and climbed up to get the cat.
Worsted would have none of it. He hissed and swiped out with his paw at the hand that was to deliver him from his perch. Button guy rolled down his sleeves and tried again.
“Be careful!” Shouted Julie as Worsted inched away and button guy was forced to lean way over to grasp Worsted. She jumped forward to steady the ladder just as button guy’s foot slipped from the tread. Worsted wriggled and button guy was forced to jump to the pavement to keep his grip on the animal. His landing was awkward and he grunted with pain, but his gentle hands held Worsted firmly.
Julie scooped the cat from his arms with exclamations of thanks to the button guy and reproach to Worsted.
“Are you okay?” Julie asked as the button guy sat upon the curb.
“Not quite. I think I sprained my ankle.”
“Just sit tight there.” Julie said. “Let me put Worsted back in the shop and I’ll come back to help you.”
“OK” said the button guy. His face had gone pale.
Even going as fast as she could, it was a few minutes before Julie returned. But button guy was still sitting there, the ladder still propped against the tree.
Julie felt that this was a moment where some very important questions could be answered. She took a deep breath and let it out.
“I can’t thank you enough. I owe you big time. What is your name?”
“Well Tom, are you hurt bad?”
“Yeah, pretty bad. I can’t stand on it. Maybe it’s broken.”
“We have to get you to the hospital. I’ll call us a cab.” Julie got on her cell phone. When she finished with the cab company, she asked “Do you have your OHIP card with you?”
“It’s up in my apartment. I live over Art Stop.” Tom had left the door unlocked, so he gave Julie directions to his apartment and the location of his wallet and keys.
Julie climbed the stairs as fast as her heels would allow. Her fingers tingled as she turned the knob that would open the door. She felt like Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, about to unveil the secret of the century, the answer to the question: What did he DO with those buttons?
Opening the door, Julie stepped into the entrance way, from which she could see a little galley of a kitchen and a bedroom beyond. She walked forward, looked to her right and gasped. The wall at the far end of the apartment, the one that spanned the whole back of the building, was two-thirds covered with matte-black buttons. But that’s not what made Julie gasp. The buttons weren’t just covering the wall; they were carefully placed to form an image. It looked like a stippled ink drawing and it was breathtaking.
Julie quickly took her cell phone from her purse and snapped a picture. Then she grabbed Tom’s wallet from the kitchen counter, his keys from the hook by the door, locked the apartment and scurried back down the stairs.
The cab was already waiting when she arrived, and she handed Tom his keys and his wallet. Julie insisted on coming with Tom to the hospital, given that it was her cat that caused the injury. Plus she just had to ask.
“So, I couldn’t help but notice your wall."
“Yeah.” Tom was quiet and wouldn’t look at her.
“She’s beautiful. Who is she?” Julie showed Tom the image on her cell. It was the face of an old woman. She was smiling, which brought up the laugh lines in her eyes and the wrinkles in her cheeks.
“You shouldn’t have taken a picture. But yeah, she is beautiful. It almost looks like a real photo on this tiny screen.” Tom took the phone from Julie and studied the image for a moment. Then he swiped the screen to delete the picture and handed the phone back to Julie.
They rode in silence the rest of the way to the hospital.
“So, why don’t you tell me about the lady on your wall?” Julie finally asked, as much to keep awake by this point as for curiosity’s sake.
Tom sighed, and shrugged his shoulders. “She’s my Nona, and more than that. She raised me from when I was just three, after my parents split. She got sick and died last year.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry Tom.”
“Every day since, I buy a button to remember her by and I add it to the picture. She always wore a black coat and it had buttons just like the ones at your store.”
“That’s sweet.” Julie smiled. “But I don’t understand. It must take forever to make a picture one button at a time.”
“Sure. And it must take forever to knit a sock one stitch at a time.” Tom waved at Julie’s knitting. “Everything worth doing is done one little bit at a time.”
Understanding dawned for Julie. “And it’s just how we live our lives.”
“Right,” said Tom. “One button at a time.”
This story is based on an anecdote I read on Kristie's blog and she kindly encouraged me to write it.