Ifs and Butters

I’ve had to remove a post, but have swapped in this story which is of a consistent mien, length, setting, characters, and author. Enjoy. mjt 10.06.19

Ifs and Butters

by Mitchell Toews

An energetic boy rides his tricycle along the sidewalk in a little red-knuckled town. The village is ringed by farm fields, combed in neat rows as if by God’s giant hand.

The boy travels daily in the summer along the main street of the little darp, seeing what he can see. He is allowed, by his mother, to cross the street and then carry on for two more blocks. That boundary gives him a passing view of several businesses and their activity and commerce. His daily route includes The Economy Grocery and Dry Goods, The Youngstown Jewellery Store, several small shops selling a variety of goods, a gas station and best of all, the Hartplatz Credit Union.

The credit union is a new building with large windows trimmed in aluminum. Low, shining and modern, it features polished stone of different colours, and newly poured and finished concrete steps. The sidewalk fronting the structure has been top-dressed with a broom in a wavy pattern and when the boy pedals his trike at top speed, the hard rubber tires make a pulsing sound across the striated brush marks. The boy also enjoys studying the detail in the sidewalk rectangles. Each one is bordered with a unique geometric pattern.

His grandmother, who has done research at the town’s brand new and still nearly empty library, tells him this is called a meander. “It’s a design that may have originated in faraway Greece, long ago,” Oma tells him, making him feel important as she tucks him in for a drowsy afternoon nap.

Early one morning, as he does every day, the boy turns on a boxy television set in the living room of the little square house where he lives. A motionless black and white test pattern fills the screen, silent but for an electric hum. Outside in the crab-apple tree, mourning doves announce the coming of day with their fluted song.

Next door, the boy’s father is already well beyond the ein and the zwei of his workday. His shirt is wet with sweat from his toil near the oven. The baker works less than a hundred yards from where the television mesmerizes his young son.

An hour later, Barkman Avenue comes more fully to life with the bright chirping of a children’s program on the TV and the bustling return of the baker, Hans Bütensieder.

“I’m late!” he shouts, rushing into the house. In full stride, he peels off the wet t-shirt, balls it up and—like a wrap-around hockey goal—tucks it into the corner of the laundry hamper. He tousles the boy’s hair as he hurries by, declaring, “I’m gonna see a man about a horse!” before closing the bathroom door with a click.

Minutes later he emerges clean-shaven and clad in a crisp, collared white shirt and white baker’s pants. A black belt encircles his waist like the equator line on a classroom globe.

“Off to the credit union, I see,” a pert woman says, her red head coming up from a kitchen table mounded beneath a blizzard of baker’s aprons. She sorts and folds, mid-laundry. Mugging for her husband, she wraps an apron around her neck, a faux Hepburn scarf of coarse cotton.

“Today’s the big day. I’ll be back with the money, honey!” he grins and accepts her quick peck, “For luck!” on his Aqua Velva cheek. She accents this affection with another—a whack on his fast departing backside.

The world lays out before them, these three and soon to be four, beneath the prairie sky. Their small bakeshop is booming. A loan from the local brethren will allow for modernization and expansion.

# # #

The quiet boardroom is another box, rectilinear and oppressively neat from its long wooden table, to its wall of cabinets, to its new tiled floor. It smells of plaster and Sherwin-Williams paint. More than that, the place smells like money. A framed dollar bill looks down from the wall like a coat-of-arms, Elizabeth Regina overseeing all. On the bill’s obverse, a heartland horizon—complete with grain elevator extant—graces the greenback.

A young man in a muted grey pinstripe suit begins the conversation. He cocks his thumb and points a Luger finger. “At which church are you a member, Mr. Bütensieder?”

The baker fusses with the loan application page in front of him as he composes his answer. He tries to align the page at a right angle to the table edge. “I do not attend, I’m not a member.”

“It’s traditional to have a pastor’s recommendation on the application,” says a second pinstriper from across the smooth expanse of cherrywood. “Not a formal requirement, mind you.”

A farm truck, manure spackled, backs away from the curb outside as if it has heard enough. It is rusted and the muffler has been missing for a while, Hans muses as he listens to its kettle drum exit. Things to do, places to be.

The third man across from Hans Bütensieder clears his throat. A large ledger book is open on the table before him. He pauses and gavels a loose fist on the tabletop lightly before he speaks. This is not a hand that has seen much sun, or gripped a shovel handle recently, or cinched tight a leather belt around a horse’s girth. The man’s skin is thin, so pale it appears bluish. “It’s not just a matter of collateral, Hans. Character, community standing, faith,” he pauses, hitches his shoulders and then continues after glancing at the two grey suits on his side of the table. “And of course, industry ratios, that type of thing—that’s what we look for,” he adds. The man, who is the Manager, the ultimate decision-maker, closes Bütensieder’s ledger. As he does so, the neat rows of blue numbers seem to protest—the zeros calling out in open-mouthed desperation.

# # #

The meeting ends. Bütensieder pauses in the sunshine outside of the building. The sidewalk’s chalky white concrete dazzles his eyes. He sets out, ledger in hand, leaving the meanders and their indirect windings behind him.

Plan B. Just have to see what old Heid will say. He seems like a straight shooter, for a Toronto banker. They call it the Royal Bank, but maybe they’ll take a real look at the numbers. Maybe they’ll see it my way, commoner or not.

Crossing the paved street, Bütensieder’s footfalls echo from the macadam to the masonry façade of the bank storefront. Manager Heid waves hello through the plate-glass as the baker approaches. Heid is a stout man with smile lines at the corners of his brown eyes. His suit jacket is off and his shirt cuffs are rolled in anticipation of the coming warmth of the day.

# # #

“So, the Royal Bank gave you the loan?” Peter Vogel says, looking down through his spectacles. “I bank there too, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know that. I thought… well, it just seemed more likely…” Bütensieder replies awkwardly, then stops talking.

The two men blow on their coffee, then sip. Vogel, the taller and the older of the two and in whose kitchen they sit, motions at brown buns and a bowl of raspberry jelly across the table. He arches an eyebrow.

“Spoa enn Not; Wann Dü waut hast, dann frat goot,” he says. “You know it? What that means?”

Bütensieder shrugs.

“Spare when in need; in good times, good feed.”

They sup coffee conversationally.

“You wait, Hans. You’ll do fine and then they’ll all line up for your business. You’ll get a better deal then too. Remember that and be kind, but still firm, when they show up.”

“Wäa aunhelt, dee jewennt,” Hans says. “Dad taught me that one.”

“That’s a good one. ‘You’ll win if you persist.’” Vogel nods and smiles at his wife who clinks at the sink in the brilliant kitchen, porcelain gleaming, chrome blintering. “Your dad, he wanted to start a new church. Way back. Didn’t go over so good. His vater, your Opa, he got kicked out! But that was some dirty business. They said his team’s bridles were too fancy. Now the grandsons of the guys what shunned him, they drive Cadillacs. That’s a real show pony!”

“A horse of a different colour,” Hans agrees.

“Ya, sure,” Vogel says with a wink. He taps his wedding band on the table. “But you know, maybe it don’t matter so much, where you have your loan. Maybe it’s the passage that counts, not just the destination. How we treat each other, how we relate—how we vetjeare, eh? If only we could all live in our village the way we used to—a shared pasture, shared water, shared labour. They forget that, those credit union guys. In fact, we all forget that, with everything so new and shiny these days. It’s distracting!” He stops speaking and peers at the refrigerator. “Annie, do we have any butter left?”

Mrs. Vogel pauses and clicks her tongue. She dries her hands on her apron and pulls down on the silver handle to unlatch the fridge door. Hans feels a puff of cool air on his arm.

With the blue butter dish now within reach on the kitchen table, Mr. Vogel regains his focus and goes on. “You think you were nervous about that meeting? Those guys were too, believe you me. Except maybe the boss. But him, you know—he cheats at crokinole, so…”

Mrs. Vogel giggles. The smell of fresh baking and perked coffee, the angled sun through the open window and the easy back-and-forth—partly English, partly Low German—makes the room a pleasant sanctuary.

“Here,” Mrs. Vogel says, pushing the buns closer to the two men. “If this and if that… Too many things to ponder for you men. Too many ifs. Like when I was a girl, and it was time to get up and go the barn, us kids would complain, “If only we didn’t have to milk the cows…” Then Opa would always say, ‘Wenn “wenn” nicht wäre, wäre Kuhscheiße Buttah!’”

Mr. Vogel translates, “If not for if, cow shit would be butter!” and sets the blue dish on the table in front of Hans with the faint ringing sound of glass-on-wood.

End

This story first ran in the exciting new literary magazine from Ball State University, Turnpike, May 2019.

2 thoughts on “Ifs and Butters

  1. MItchell –

    Always the evocative stories of the good and bad of times past.

    You made me think of a couple of incidents in the south. I ended up in Atlanta in 1969 from Portland OR for tedious reasons to be included in a memoir sometime. At that time, there were still faded signs of colored or white drinking fountains, block busting and concern about blacks wearing suits or wanting good jobs. I remember being asked about my religion in a job that I didn’t get.

    You and SFG have both pointed out problems with the simple good old days. One thing definitely better about the old days, is that we were younger.

    Thanks for the continuing glimpses of the past, good and bad.

  2. Thx Doug.

    Doug wrote: “One thing definitely better about the old days, is that we were younger.” Yes, and also something that was often a problem about the old days… Our youth.

    Regret is such a powerful force. Pushes us in a positive way to avoid repeating mistakes but can also waste our time and erode our spirit when we go back—over and over—to worry and pick at that same old sore spot. In my imagining, the MC in this story did not rest easy with the results that day, despite a good eventual outcome for him. He still felt buffaloed and would like the chance to change the chess pieces around and make things more the way he believes they should be. Bend the arc to justice.

    Mrs. Vogel knows best. Ride out this hurricane, do your best, then get ready for the next one with a clear mind. Like baseball, “Full head, empty bat. Empty head, full bat.”

    I find regret is a source for lots of my writing. My own regrets and also that of others close to me.

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