Melissa Ostrom's essay "Buttoned" appears in Issue No. 53: Shelter.
DO YOU KNOW the house on Barrett? Olive green and ancient, it sits squat on a corner lot, the roof a mild pitch, not good for snow country, not sharp enough to shrug off winter. It’s a two-story, but barely, as if fixed in a crouch and hunkered to handle blows. It shakes with the traffic strumming off Washington Bridge and overlooks the entrance to the hospital, so there’s always a chance, if you live in that house, that you might glance out the window and catch a moment of medical drama—severed pinky, busted leg, quickening contractions, a stroke. The house itself is a troubled heart. Its walls poorly sieve the sirens. And the inside: buildups, constrictions.
To feel at ease in this particular location, you must first get younger, say nine or ten. It can’t be your house, but your grandparents’, just down the road from Evan’s Skateland, where your mom and dad drop you off on Saturdays so you can roll around on a polished rink for three hours. The house smells delicious, like caldo verde, and sweet bread, and the dish your grandmother calls mul: fried peppers and linguiça, threaded with egg. It is good to be a child in this house, even if a pealing ambulance startles you and the picture of Jesus holding a thorny heart disturbs you and you’re not allowed to fool around in the living room. Plastic sheathes the couch and chairs, individually wraps them, like vacuum-sealed meats.
There are butterscotch candies in the glass bowl by the rosary beads. One tree out back, every September, gives us pears, pears, pears. On Friday nights, Grandma spends an hour combing and twisting strands of your hair around strips of rags, then lets you rest your tortured scalp on her pillow, lets you curl up against her rump, your hand in her hair—long, black, beautifully loose hair. In the morning, she makes you coffee, milky and sweet. When you ask nicely, Grandpa rolls up his sleeve and presents his tattoo. He flexes his bicep and shakes the hula girl’s breasts. You note that Grandpa always smells like pomade and beer, and you don’t mention it. When you hear him get angry and shout at your grandma or Dad, you slink into Grandma’s room, play with the button collection, and wait until things settle down. You know what to do. After all, you hear shouts at home. A glass or pan gets thrown; curses hurled. Mom leaves for a few days, comes back, starts over.
Grandma’s big glass jar holds hundreds of buttons—old, old buttons. You pour them out on the candlewick spread and separate them: bone and brass and cloth and wood. If the bellows are still springing up the steep stairs, you divide the buttons further: flat, shank, toggle, pearl.
You wonder about the clothes that lost them. About the people who wore the clothes.
Melissa Ostrom is the author of The Beloved Wild (Feiwel & Friends, March 2018), a Junior Library Guild book and an Amelia Bloomer Award selection, and the YA novel Unleaving (Feiwel & Friends, March 2019). Her stories have appeared in The Florida Review, Fourteen Hills, Juked, and Passages North, among other journals, and her flash “Ruinous Finality” was selected for The Best Small Fictions 2019. She teaches at Genesee Community College and lives with her husband and children in Holley, New York. Learn more at www.melissaostrom.com or find Melissa Ostrom on Twitter @melostrom.
Read the other poems, stories, and art from Ruminate's Issue 53: Shelter.
Illustration by Scott Laumann for Ruminate.
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