Everyone likes a good story Read The Wooden Button
The Wooden Button
Copyright © 2020 George J Donahue. All rights reserved.
Forward Each year around this time I look around and see that even the smallest thing takes on a whole new meaning. A Squirrel hurries back and forth and buries acorns in the ground, only to forget where he had placed them. A flurry of the season’s first snowflakes is a delight to young children as they put on their warm mittens and oversized snow boots. The smell of hot chocolate in the kitchen fills your nose as you come in from the cold winter air. Even something as simple as a wooden button could change the meaning of a man’s life minutes before the dawning of Christmas Day. I close with this Christmas story inspired by a man’s wish and the strange power of The Wooden button.
The Farmer’s Almanac predicted that the winter of this year was going to be bad. As I was trudging through six inches of freshly fallen snow this early morning in December, I was beginning to believe it. My lawyer’s office was only about ½ mile from my home and I needed the fresh air. I had a choice of digging out my old 17 year old Cutlass Supreme from the driveway with my trusty aluminum shovel or take the half mile walk.
I shook my head as I wrapped on the glass window of his office. Arthur lowered the newspaper paper with a half fold and waved me in. Great manners he had, waving his client’s in as he sat in his father’s dark green leather chair. It must be nice to inherit your father’s law firm…
“Joe! Come in and have a seat! I was just going over your papers.”
In the fifth decade of my life, I never thought I would finally finish getting a divorce from my wife of 10 years. It wasn’t a bitter decision. Our marriage hit a fork in the road, so we both chose different forks.
I hung my overcoat on the coat tree in the front office hallway and carefully stepped over the piles of legal documents on Arthur’s floor. The only chair that wasn’t piled with papers was occupied by an extremely overweight Tabby cat.
The cat appeared not wanting to give up her spot, until a paperclip bounced off the back off the chair.
“Arthur, you continue torturing your cat with elastic and a paperclip eh?”
Arthur let out a deep laugh and gestured to the now empty chair,
“Sit down, Joe. The court papers are final so you are now a free man.”
He tossed me an envelope with the court letter. I spent a few minutes reading them and everything appeared in order.
A free man...
“So Joe, I have been thinking about what you wanted me to find for you.”
“A tall order, Joe. A tall order. So you and your friend, is it Mary?”
“Yes, Arthur. Mary is her name, for the hundredth time…”
“Oh yes, Mary and Joe. No wait… Joe and Mary. Oh yes… Joseph and Mary. It just sounds so familiar this time of year.”
“Knock it off Arthur! Did you find it?”
Arthur walked over to the wall safe with his back toward me. He tilted his head back, reading glasses on the tip of his nose, he turned the tumbler. He reached in and pulled out a bulky yellowed envelope.
“Joe, I did a lot of searching and digging. I think I found the place for you. It is almost exactly what you wanted.”
He held out the envelope toward me and pulled it back as he sat down.
“Now are you sure you don’t want to invest in an Inn?”
“Arthur! Knock it off! I am not going to buy an Inn and call it Mary and Joseph’s Room at the Inn! I said I wanted to invest in a bed and breakfast. I want an out of the way place. Not an Inn.”
“No room at the Inn. I can see the sign in my mind…”
He pulled out the paperwork from the envelope.
“Ok Joe. Let’s get down to business. The lottery ticket’s net worth that you gave me after taxes is about $1.2 million dollars. With my cut as your legal advisor, of course. I haven’t found a Bed and Breakfast worth investing but I did find this…”
He held up an old black and white photograph of a diner, with a small house behind it circled in red pencil.
I snatched the photograph out of his hand. I studied it carefully. The diner was sleek and shiny. Some old cars from the 50’s were parked in front of it on the gravel drive. I could make out the neon sign on the top of it with a magnifying glass that Arthur handed me.
“An old diner... Where is it?”
“Joe, not only the diner, the farmhouse behind it on the hill and 3 acres of land comes with the deal. I knew it would spark your interest.”
Well, Mary is a great cook and we both thought of looking for something after my divorce. A diner within walking distance from a house would be less work and maybe down the road the farmhouse could be made into a bed and breakfast using the diner for the guest’s meals
After 30 years, I was getting tired of my 9 to 5 job at the sweater factory and wanted to do something else with the rest of my life instead of being a worker and making sure the buttons on the sweaters would not fall off the garment.
“How much will it cost, Arthur?”
“Well, before we talk about the cost, I think you need to go out and have a look at it and decide if you want it. I can’t go with you and Mary can’t either. This is a solo deal. You have to decide on your own.”
I studied the photograph while Arthur talked and talked.
I had so many questions.
“Where is it? Is it open? Does it pull in enough money to take care of itself?”
“Well, the diner was originally in some town in New Hampshire called Rural and when they built the highway near the town, hardly anyone visits Rural, hardly anyone. “
Then some old lady millionaire built a college up there and the diner’s original owner sold it when her disabled son became dean of the college.”
“Then where is the diner located now?”
“It was relocated to a place called Bellingway, somewhere off of route 126 near the Rhode Island border. The town hasn’t been on the road map since the eighties. They say it’s easy to get to, but hard to find.”
I was beginning to fall in love with the idea just by looking at the old picture. I could imagine the history behind the place.
“Joe, this diamond in the rough pulls in enough money to let you retire from your job, move into the house with Mary and call it a day.”
He tossed me the diner’s financial statement of the last 4 years.
“Easy to get to, but hard find?”
“There’s a catch, Joe. You have to go look at it Christmas Eve and sign the papers before Christmas Day. You also have to keep the cook Sam and the waitress Ella on the payroll. It is all part of the package deal.”
I looked at the picture again and studied the farmhouse with the wrap around porch. A trail of smoke was visible coming out of the chimney.
“Joe, the house needs work and there is no electricity. An honest farmhouse from the past you have right there. This is a rare precious gem. “
I paced Arthur’s office with the photograph in my hand. Not a Bed and Breakfast but it looked like a place for me to retire and 3 acres of land?
“Let me talk with Mary about it.”
“Solo, Joe. You have to decide on your own. “
“Easy to get to, but hard to find, eh?”
“Yes Joe, easy to get to, but hard to find. It is about a 2 hour drive in good weather and you already have 8 inches of snow on the ground. What will it be, Joe?”
I picked up the envelope from Arthur’s desk. Arthur stood up and pulled his dark woolen coat off of the coat rack. His Burberry scarf hung unevenly under the collar. He handed me my coat.
“Well Joe, you best be digging out your car for your trip. I’m closing up early today.”
“Why is that, Arthur?”
“Joe, it is Christmas Eve! You have to go look at the diner tonight!”
“Nice Arthur. You tell me at the last minute?”
I slid my arms into my jacket and dropped the envelope on the floor. Some of the papers fell out. Something round rolled across the rug and landed at Arthur’s feet. Arthur picked it up and tossed it to me.
“Don’t loose that, Joe. You need to show that to the cook at the diner.”
I held it up. It was an old wooden button. It was brown and black with four holes in it and a small piece of silver thread.
All the years at the sweater factory, I had never seen a button like this before.
“Arthur, is this some kind of a joke?”
“No, Joe. You have to give the button to the Sam the cook or he and the waitress will not talk to you about the diner. Remember, you will be a stranger to them. It is part of the deal.”
A strange deal this is! It is Christmas Eve with snowstorm that is just covering everything in white.
I shook Arthur’s hand, put the button in my wallet and headed out front door.
From a distance, Arthur yelled out,
“Don’t loose the button! Remember: Easy to get to, but hard to find.”
By the time I finished digging out my old Cutlass, it was after noon time. Just then, the town plow heaved up a wall of salty dirty snow at the end of the driveway. I picked up my shovel again and started digging.
By 2 pm I was filling my gas tank and watching the rest of the cars slide on the slushy roads. I figured with a full tank my trusty Cutlass would have some added weight for traction and get me to Bellingway, a town no longer on the map.
The Massachusetts Turnpike, route 90, was kept pretty clear almost to the pavement. With only one lane cleared, the volume was pretty light. Everyone is usually where they are supposed to be on Christmas Eve in a snowstorm, except daring fools like me, snow plows and tractor trailers.
By 3:30 I was on route 495 passing signs to Medway and other towns I never heard of. My wipers were getting caked with snow and icing up.
The tractor trailers who dared to pass me at 50 miles per hour heaved chunks of salty sandy slush on my pathetic overtaxed wipers. The passenger wiper finally gave out from the weight of the wet snow.
As I approached Exit 18, the feeble sun had parted ways and my headlights focused on the falling snow. I almost lost control of my car as I drove off the exit ramp and right onto Hartford Ave. I had the old map from the envelope Arthur had given me laid out on the passenger seat and the dome light on so I could figure out where I was supposed to turn.
Funny, that map had the town of Bellingway printed on it.
With my eyes on the map and not on the road ahead of me, I slid off the road and down an embankment until I came to a hard sudden stop, slamming my head into the windshield. In my world seatbelts are not an option.
When I came to, the snow stopped and my one working wiper groaned back and forth. I was expecting the trunk of a pine tree crushed against the car but there was nothing.
I climbed out of my car and fell into the snow. With my face next to the bottom of the rear wheel well, I could see a tree stump had caught the rear axle and pierced the gas tank. I scrambled and grabbed the envelope and map from the front seat as the smell of leaking gas filled my nostrils.
I could hear running water in the distance and stumbled down the embankment toward the sound. The snow stopped and the sky had finally cleared a bit.
In time, I reached a small brook crusted with clear ice along its banks and began to follow the icy water.
It was getting very cold out.
I saw no one and heard nothing except the trickling water in the brook. The cold wind was cracking branches above me and knocking snow in big chunks onto the ground with a thud.
“Easy to get to, but hard to find.”
I said aloud.
Damn right. Hard to find.
After what seemed like hours, I could hear music. It was an old Patsy Cline song. I could hear someone singing along with it. I followed the sound.
The brook disappeared under an old stone bridge. I climbed up the embankment and there was an unplowed road. A rusted sign with a few bullet holes in it said ‘Welcome to Bellingway’.
The music was louder and it was a different song. Rosemary Clooney.
Across the road two old cars and a pickup truck covered with snow were parked under an eerie blue light. A neon light of a diner!
I made my way to the diner, past the pickup truck and stood outside staring at the neon sign.
This must be a different diner. The one in the old black and white photograph was called ‘The Blue Plate’. This one had a different name altogether.
The farmhouse was behind the diner on a small hill.
I opened the door of the diner and could smell eggs and bacon and coffee. In the corner sat an old jukebox. There was an older couple slowly dancing to the Rosemary Clooney song, oblivious that I had walked in.
As I closed the door, on the wall I saw the same photograph that Arthur had given me of the ‘Blue Plate’ diner screwed onto the wall in dusty grease covered wooden frame.
“What do you want?”
The tall cook from behind the counter yelled out.
“Sam! Is that anyway to talk to a payin’ customer?”
A small short woman in a blue checkerboard apron yelled out.
“You are a payin’ customer, aint ya mister?”
I looked at her name tag.
“Ah yes, I am, Eleanor.”
“Call me Ella. Everybody else calls me Ella.”
I pulled out my wallet to show her that I have some money. The button fell onto the black and white square linoleum floor.
The music in the jukebox stopped.
Ella picked up the wooden button and held it in the air.
“Hey Sam! He’s got the button!”
The older couple who were dancing stopped to see what Ella held up.
Ella grabbed me by the arm and handed me the button back.
“Go over to the counter and show this to Sam. Then ask him to whip you up some home made hash and eggs. I’ll put a fresh pot of coffee on. This will be a long night.”
I felt like I slid back into time. The older couple sat down together in their booth and waved at me quietly. I waved back as I handed Sam the button.
He looked at it and threw it back.
“Ya, so you got the button. You think you are the only stranger that walked in here with that stupid, stupid button?”
He picked up two eggs with one hand and cracked them open over the grease laden grille. As the eggs started to sizzle he continued rambling.
“Ah, all of you city people find this place by accident. You have no idea! You don’t know nuthin about this place. You don’t even know how you got here, huh? Shut up and don’t say nuthin now. I’m busy cookin here.”
Ella snapped back.
“Where’s your manners! At Sam & Ella’s Diner we always have good manners with our customers!”
I grinned. Sam & Ella’s. I said it fast to myself...
She whispered in my ear,
“Don’t mind Sam. Inside he’s the nicest guy in the world and makes the best food. If it wasn’t Christmas Eve, you be waitin’ outside with 20 other regulars.”
Ella put her hand out toward me,
“Can I see it again?”
“Ella! Wait on your customers and forget that stupid button!”
“Hush up, Sam!”
I handed her the button. She looked at it carefully for a few minutes. I saw that Sam had placed a plate at the counter with two eggs over easy and a pile of corned beef hash.
“Can I show the kids?”
She looked in the direction of the old couple. The man had his arm around the woman’s shoulder and was buttoning her mint green sweater.
They looked so happy and in love.
“Sure. You can show… the kids.”
She grabbed a pot of coffee off the burner and pushed me toward the counter.
“Go have you’re eggs while they are hot. You will love Sam’s hash.”
As I walked over to the round stool at the counter, Ella sat down at the couple’s booth and showed them the button. I took a sip of coffee.
“Hey Sam, I wanted to ask you a few questions about the diner and the…”
“Shut up city man and eat while it is hot! We have all night, ok?”
As he turned his back on me, I could smell the corn beef. I put a forkful in my mouth and it was wonderful! I glanced out the window and could see the farmhouse lit up under the moonlit sky.
“Who lives in that house Sam?”
“Nobody lives there! No more stupid question! Why are you city people so stupid sometimes?”
After my second mouthful of the hash, I realized that it tasted so good, it didn’t matter what Sam said or called me anymore.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and the old couple stood there. The old man extended his hand out to me and with a gleam in his eyes he shook my hand.
The woman stared at me with steely blue eyes and smiled.
“It was nice to meet you Joe. I hope you make the right decision. I hope to see more of you.”
As I shook the mans hand, the old woman kissed me on the cheek and whispered to me,
“This is my favorite green sweater Joe. You made it a long time ago.”
As the couple turned and headed out the door I yelled out,
“How did you know my name? I didn’t make a sweater for you, did I?”
The old man stood outside holding the door open, the woman turned back,
“Yes you did, Joe. It was the last sweater you made in the sweater factory.”
The last sweater I made? Does she know something that I don’t know?
Ella waved goodbye to them as they drove away in an old black Pontiac. She switched off the blue neon sign and locked the door. She sat down next to me and poured a cup of coffee.
“Ella, how do they know me?”
Sam slammed his open hand on the counter,
“Give me the button stupid man! You don’t know nuthin, do you?”
I handed him the button and looked at Ella.
“Joe, you know who they are. Think. Think very hard about their faces. What they wore. You know who they are…”
I closed my eyes and tried to think. The woman looked familiar somehow. But the man. I just could not place him. He did sport a mustache like the one I have.
“Stupid, stupid man you are, Joe. You don’t know nuthin.”
“Sam. Now stop it! Give him back the button. He will remember.”
I stood up with the button in my hand and walked over to the window. I could see the farmhouse and the glow of a fireplace inside. I couldn’t decide if I wanted the diner, along with Sam and Ella and the farmhouse. It was a strange and curious deal handed to me on Christmas Eve.
I know Mary would want to be here with me and she would fall in love with the house and the diner.
“Sam, I thought you said nobody lived in the farmhouse.”
“Stupid, stupid man. You don’t know, do you?”
“Sam! That’s enough! Joe needs to make a decision. It is almost midnight. Now leave him alone!”
I walked over and stared out the window at the farmhouse and thought about what it would be to retire here with Mary.
I swore that I saw the old woman looking out the farmhouse window at me…
Ella stood behind me and Sam quietly joined us. We looked out the window. The hum of an old electric clock was the only sound in the diner.
“Think Joe. It is almost midnight and you have to decide.”
20 years later…
At the top of the hill in the farmhouse, the old man sat near the fireplace in an overstuffed brown leather chair stirring the embers with a fire poker.
He saw that his wife was staring out the window looking at the diner near the bottom of the hill.
“Mary. What are you looking at?”
She walked over and helped the old man from his chair. She handed him his wooden cane. Arm in arm they shuffled over to the window and looked down the hill in the direction of the diner,
“Joe, look in the window of the diner. It is that young man we met at the diner tonight. Do you remember him, Joe?”
The old man was staring out the window. He pulled out his handkerchief and cleaned his glasses to have a better look.
Then he turned to Mary,
“I am not sure Mary. I don’t remember.”
“That is ok, Joe.”
She rubbed his neck. She could see Joe was flustered that he could not remember.
“You know Joe, you asked me to marry you in that diner when you bought it and the farmhouse over twenty years ago.”
They faced each other and he buttoned her mint green sweater. She kissed him on the cheek.
“I like that green sweater on you, Mary. I always did.”
“You made it for me a long time ago Joe, when you worked at the sweater factory. It was the last sweater you made before you retired. Do you remember?”
Joe shook his head.
She looked at the front of his brown cardigan sweater; she carefully pushed a piece of loose thread back into place. She shook her head.
“Joseph, you lost another button. Maybe the young man we met tonight in the diner found the missing wooden button for you?”
Joseph and Mary put there arms around each other and stared out the window at the diner. It was midnight and the lights inside the diner finally went dark.
The old Seth Thomas wooden mantle clock Joe gave Mary many years ago chimed 12 times.
Joe put his arms around Mary’s waist and stared into her blue gray eyes.
“Mary, its Christmas Day. Merry Christmas.”
He kissed her.
Mary whispered in his ear,
“Merry Christmas, Joe.”
They could hear church bells in the village far away ringing on this very special Christmas day.