"ON FEBRUARY TWENTY-SIXTH AT 9:04 AM, YOU FAILED TO PUSH THE BUTTON."

Yes.

"PLEASE IDENTIFY YOURSELF."

Hello, my name is Joe.

That's what my nametag says, anyway:

HELLO

my name is

JOE

My full name is Joellyn Lund but people around here just call me Joe, and I'm fine with that.

"PLEASE EXPLAIN YOUR FAILURE TO PUSH THE BUTTON."

I guess that would start with Howard Hartford.

"CONTINUE."

Apart from having a name you can't say three times fast, Howard Hartford was possibly the most circumspect man alive He was a heterosexual white male of middling height and weight with hair that was neither brown nor blond and eyes that were neither blue nor brown.

He woke up every morning at 6:25 AM, ate two slices of whole wheat toast (no butter) and drank ten ounces of coffee (black) while reading four pages of the local newspaper before driving to the button factory, where he worked as First Assistant Manager of Button-Pushing Operations.

He clocked in every day at precisely 8:58 AM so that he would be at his station by 9:00 AM. At 9:00 AM sharp, Howard was responsible for directing me to push the red button with my right hand.

At 9:04 AM, Howard was responsible for directing me to push the blue button with my left hand.

So he did.

Howard oversaw the button-pushing activities of a staff of fifteen employees. He directed us to push the correct buttons in the correct sequence at the correct times for three and a half hours. He took a one-hour lunch break, during which he ingested one tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread (no celery) and one can of seltzer (unflavored). He would complete one crossword puzzle. He resumed his button-pushing-instructions for three and a half more hours.

At precisely 5:02 PM, he returned to his car and drove back to his apartment, where he ingested one Salisbury Steak Dinner (low sodium) and another can of seltzer (unflavored) while reading the remainder of the newspaper. Then he showered, arranged his clothes for the next day, and went to bed at 10:25 PM.

But then, yesterday evening, while he was eating his Salisbury Steak Dinner, the telephone rang.

The last time the phone rang during dinner, it had been a woman conducting a survey for female denture cream users over 50. She had asked to speak to his wife. It made him feel uneasy, and possibly lonely.

He picked up the phone.

"Uncle Howard?" asked the tinny child's voice that came from the phone. "It's Molly, your niece?"

He recalled that his brother, Hubert, had brought a small child to a family gathering on several occasions. He generally avoided small children as they had always seemed unsanitary.

He suspected this "Molly" must be the same child. "Ah, yes," he said. "What is it? I'm eating dinner, you know. This is highly unorthodox."

"I don't know what unorthowhat is," said the voice that came from the phone. "Um. Uncle Howard. I'm doing school project about careers."

"Hm?" said Howard.

"Careers," said the voice. "Jobs. You know?"

"Mhm," said Howard.

"Can I ask you some questions?" asked the voice. "Daddy says you work at the button factory. That sounds neat!"

"It is," Howard replied. "Very neat. We have high ratings for excellent sanitary conditions. What questions?"

"Okay," said the voice. "Um. What do you do at your job?"

Howard proceeded to tell the voice about how he arrived every day at 8:58 AM and spent three and a half hours making sure we all pushed the right buttons in the right order. He told the voice about his lunch and the crossword puzzle, and then about the subsequent three and a half hours of button-pushing.

"Do you have a favorite button?" asked the voice.

"Hm." Howard thought about it. "No."

"What happens when you push the buttons?"

"I don't push the buttons," Howard clarified. "I tell other people to push the buttons."

"Oh," said the voice. "What happens then?"

"Then I tell them to push the other buttons," Howard answered impatiently. He thought he had made this all very clear.

"Um. No," said the voice. "Like...what happens? What happens if you don't push the buttons?"

"But I don't push the buttons," said Howard.

The voice that came from the phone was quiet for a moment. "I mean, what would happen if nobody pushed the button?"

Howard didn't know.

"Hello?" asked the voice. "Uncle Howard? Are you there?"

"I don't know," said Howard. And he hung up.

Howard barely slept that night. He tossed and turned and wondered about the buttons. What if someone pushed the wrong button, in the wrong order? What if none of the buttons were pushed at all? It filled him with a dread panic.

And that is why, on February Twenty-Fifth, Howard Hartford was late to work for the first time in his life.

He clocked in at 9:02.

The mood on the factory floor was tense. I had pushed the red button with my right hand at the correct time, but I nearly pushed the green button with my left elbow instead of my left knee.

At 12:28 PM, just before Howard's lunch break, there was a squeal from the loudspeaker on the factory floor.

"HOWARD HARTFORD PLEASE REPORT TO ROOM 403 B FOR IMMEDIATE DISCIPLINARY ACTION."

Howard did not like that his schedule had been disrupted for the third time in two days. Instead of going to the cafeteria to eat his tuna and seltzer and do his crossword puzzle, he went to Room 403 B.

He was greeted by a man he had never seen before. "Howard Hartford?" asked the man. The man wore a grey suit with a grey tie that exactly matched the shade of his grey hair and grey eyes. Even his skin was a little grey.

"That's me."

"I'm Bob. Vice President of Operations," said the grey man. He held out a greyish hand.

Howard shook it.

"I must say, until today, your work has been impeccable. But you arrived late this morning. Is everything all right at home, Howard?" asked Bob.

"Well, yes," said Howard. "It's just...something's been troubling me."

Bob smiled a greyish smile. "Is there anything I can help with?"

"Maybe," said Howard. "I just...I want to know what happens if nobody pushes the buttons."

"Pardon?" asked Bob.

"What happens?" repeated Howard. "If nobody pushes the buttons?"

I don't know what happened next. All I know is that at 1:03 PM, Howard came into the cafeteria, and for the first time, he sat down with the rest of us. He ordered a bologna sandwich with mustard and American cheese on white bread, and told us the story I've just told you.

We went back to work. We pushed the buttons as usual. Howard told me to push the purple button with my head and he told me to push the orange button with my nose. So I did.

But at 4:58 PM, the loudspeaker squealed again.

"HOWARD HARTFORD PLEASE REPORT TO ROOM 403 B FOR IMMEDIATE DISCIPLINARY ACTION."

When I left work at 5:05 PM, Howard's car was still in the lot.

After dinner, I looked up his number. I called his house. The phone rang and rang. No one answered.

Today, when I got to work, Howard's car was in the lot, in the same spot as the day before.

I clocked in at 8:59 AM. Howard wasn't there yet.

At 9:00 AM, I pushed the red button with my right hand.

9:01. Bill pushed the magenta button with his left foot.

9:02. Aurelia pushed the striped button with her right knee.

9:03. Gordon pushed the brown button with his nose.

Howard was still not there. But his car was. I wondered what had happened to him, whether he had even left Room 403 B.

There was only one way to find out.

It was 9:04 AM. I did not push the button with my left hand.

"ON FEBRUARY TWENTY-SIXTH AT 9:04 AM, YOU FAILED TO PUSH THE BUTTON."