John Malkovich’s head lives upstairs.
After midnight, every night, invariably he plays with his collection of buttons.
He has them of all shapes and colours. Some green and others honey orange, yellow, blue, bluish or bluer, flaming red or burgundy, or red like the blood of an ox. There are black and white ones, also black ones and white ones, pale ones, almost-translucent ones, the-membranes-of-a-frog ones, ones with geometric acetate lace. Some are polished to a sheen and others have rather dotty dots. There are some striped like the zebra and some of fabric, of coffee and milk, hot chocolate and clove and a pile of marshmallows. Curly walnut and filled with raspberry jam. Turquoise with ruby, chryselephantine embroidery, Flemish lace. Droplet of amber in a sunny frill of taffeta in yellow and orange. Curt cotton crimping. And round, squared, oval, triangular, rectangular, trapezoidal, shaped like diamonds, like cat’s eyes, spiralled and trebled, dark galaxies, black holes like the flared nostrils of building administrators downtown. Like cornets, or cinnamon logs. Some resemble cherries, all with stalks and lightning bolts, or fireworks, or what remains after tea. The fluff of stuff, too, and of wine and ink. Buttons like the Christmas dreams of a little boy and buttons like the end-of-year nightmares of my grandfather. Buttons that are not buttons: buttons that are nuzzles and buttons that are promises of new buttons.
And indeed every one of them, at three am or at four, will drop in unison from the hand of John’s head to the floor of the room that is immediately above ours.
Sounding rat-at tat, and rat-at it tit, as collected buttons sound when they are manhandled and they drop to the parquet owing to the negligence of bad neighbours, rolling on their edges like ships in a whirlpool, one after the other, in fantasy cascade, John’s buttons fall down to us at two am or at three.
Doubtless, John’s head buys some of them in town. But the vast majority must beordered on request, for there are so many rare kinds of buttons as I have never seen pierced through New Yorker buttonholes. My wife and I have counted them one by one and by baker’s dozens. We’ve tirelessly counted. We’ve memorised them, every single one, assigning them a singular identity that makes them unique intheir encounter with the floor of John’s apartment. Each button corresponds to a specific star in the sky that serves as its signature. That way we can remember which we have already heard drop, this night or some other, by only keeping our eyes firmly pointed upwards and outwards.
We suppose John’s head must keep a similar inventory for the number of buttons dropped against the floor of his apartment always corresponds to the number of stars appearing in the sky at any given time; that is, two thousand six hundred and fifty-three, give or take four. This neighbourly accord makes things easier for all involved. When John calls it a day, one has only to turn like an old sailor to that vast expanse of punctured blackness to know where one is in the general ledger.
Finally, the buttons repeat, but not before the small hours on the hundredth eighty-second or eighty-third night, depending on the average number of stars visible. We therefore calculate with good certainty some four hundred and eighty-three thousand, seven hundred and one specimens, at least. A generous collection indeed!
But sometimes it is complicated to know if a button corresponds to another already dropped and therefore the series is about to repeat or if it’s just a button whose effect against the floor has varied for who knows what reason. Perhaps its trajectory downward at nine point eighty-one meters per second squared has suffered alteration due to some intruding body in John’s head’s room. Perhaps muffled by some foreign, furry object at the foot of John’s bed a button loses its identity; perhaps rerouted by some stray louse off a cat’s back, or a flying mote of dead skin and human hair, a button is cast into dark corners. In such cases, one can only depend on a sharpened ear and the discipline with which one intently listens in with absolute sustained concentration. Nonetheless, buttons do occasionally disappear.
For good measure, my wife and I attend always together to the inventory hosted by John’s head. Each of us keeping a redundancy logbook even when we know its contents well by heart. Logbooks have singular weight and dimensions that speak only to those who write in them; inks are compounds whose distinctive hues are recognised in the half-light only by he who lovingly drew them up into ready pens. Purplish-brown with bluish head notes; charcoal blacks that dry to shipping yard leads; that sort of thing. It is easy to meddle with one’s recollections through anticipation. One cannot be overly careful in these matters. What is very well certain is we take such precautions as to minimise human error to a zero point two per cent, according to calculation. And at the end of the week, once the more tedious tasks are finished, we get together in a downtown café, my wife and I, and compare each other’s notes. This makes us enormously happy. But never so much so as when John’s head adds a new button to our collection.
He seldom remembers to save it for the very end of the series when he adds it to the inventory; that is, he will usually drop it against the apartment floor as soon as it’s in his hand. John’s head is so like a small boy! One can hardly reproach his enthusiasm. Of course he wishes to hear at once the clinking of so much geometric joy against the apartment floor, and so he should.Hugh, let him be, says my wife. And we both tenderly nuzzle each other’s eyes. Fortunately, John’s head is so much like her; it’s a joy to watch them both grow among the buttons as in a field of chance delights,and my love for them grows as well.
When a new button enters into circulation, there is no time to waste. We have rehearsed to the inch. The moment we perceive a novel sound, the first thing we do is govern our excitement; then, we corroborate the discovery with each other. However, it is seldom necessary: our inevitable silly faces give the thing away. All the same, we do corroborate, because it is important to maintain objectivity in such cases, not give in to agitation if in vain, that sort of thing. As soon as the data confirm there has been an increase in the general population, we exceptionally break the dyad and one of us throws any old rag over our heads and we race down to the concierge’s booth, where the doorman sleeps with his thumb on the latch. Has there been any special delivery to apartment ten-oh-two b? We inquire. More often than not, the good old man, half asleep, understands nothing. Come on, man! We implore. I said, has there been a delivery? Or are you aware of any change in John’s head? For instance, I don’t know—a smug smile, a glint in the eye… Whatever, my good man! Sir, ma’am, if you please—go back to sleep! Says the satrap.
Now we have no other choice but to calm ourselves down. We finish the inventory however we can and when the birds break the spell with their ruthless trills we engage ourselves in the task of inventing that new button.
To invent a new button one must allow every possibility of form, size and colour to flow freely onto the plate. Does it have four or two holes, or is it of that coquettish kind that proudly wears a shank in its back? One gathers notes from previous years to aid in the long task ahead. We apply ourselves spurred by the promise of finding that unique button, which round or squared, over-dramatically big and burgeoning or small and humble, red or green or blue or honeyed orange, feeds our collection.
One must understand that inventing a button is no small feat. If all buttons were the same, or even alike, what a sad inventory ours would be. We revel in their variety! For each new button we procure ourselves, John’s head and us, another head some other place dreams one more button into existence. When dreaming heads lay down on pillows buttons come in through the ears and couple in the innermost buttonholes of man and so new buttons are begot and born and myriad anxious open buttonholes receive them. On the shirts of schoolchildren they love each other in the mornings, early, before the first bell rings; and in the grey suits of office workers, in any meeting and in the subway or while waving down a cab; in politicians’ pockets they love each other unceasingly, it is a well-known fact; and on the button flies of lovers they have extremely good fun. Sometimes, buttons are inclined to changing partners and then we have to undo our pyjamas and start all over. Other times, buttons refuse to collaborate: they’re difficult or too rough and buttonholes reject them, or they hide on the wrong side of clothing and saleswomen are forced to put them on sale, and then their mirth is rotund.
The life of buttons is one of eternal merrymaking but it is not itself eternal. Buttons also break or crack or dull, lose an eye, two, decline, sag, hang sadly from a single thread. Some buttons tire and detach from skirts and concierges sweep them under skirting boards. Occasionally, buttons will retire from life and sit by the fire on the cardigans of pleasant old women. Otherwise, if they are lucky enough to be beautiful or very rare, they are treasured and kept in warm wicker sewing boxes smelling of aniseed and clove.
Buttons inventoried in a magnificent collection, where the memory of the buttons that have been and the echoes they have made in our rooms begin to build—what a task is ours! And yetsoon the first din of the city accumulates over the echoes and claims us for more urgent affairs. We begin to cool and stiffen: the three of us, the arduous task ever growing, the buttons.
It’s uncertain if we will always be able to return to them. Come to think of it, it’s a miracle the buttons drop on us to begin with. But it’s not convenient to speculate over the possibility of a world without buttons of all forms and all colours. In this sense, the more urgent affairs are paramount because they mollify brains and then the unkindness of uncertainties disappears and so we don’t have to ask ourselves if tonight every other button might be our last. It is in part a relief the day is here to distract us, then. Of course, during the day it is mostly unnecessary to think, but when night falls brains are given to flights of fancy and then buttons are very like the heads that dream them.
When it darkens and my wife and I wash the teacups and gather the cake crumbs on the dishes we’re apt to think how terrible it’d be to face the night without a single button left to inventory or indeed a world without buttons: shirts perpetually tucked for dear life and pants flapping in the wind. O, the zipper’s biting tyranny! That last button left to imagine: its sound as it hits the parquet upstairs, the melancholy way its echo will become part of the amalgam of the centuries. A button so perfect it imagines itself. So magnificent it fabricates its own roundness, its angularity. It dreams its dimensions and concocts its colours. The definitive button—and, then, haberdashery nothingness.
Teas finished in a rush, night flowing softly in, one finds house lamps turn on almost by themselves. Then, we nuzzle each other’s eyes and go for our logbooks. We make sure we have them well at hand as we await that first clink.
Perhaps there’s no end to buttons, she says. And I tell her she has a good heart.