That Certain Smile
As a child, the one enduring wonder of my world, the wonder that preceded and outlasted the Great Pyramid at Giza, Mount Everest or the Grand Canyon, was my grandmother's teeth. They came out.
Before bed, she covered her mouth with her palm, as if stifling a yawn, and then, with a little jut of her jaw, she slipped the false teeth from her gums. Their sudden appearance, free of the body, was more astounding to me than a magician producing a coin from behind a boy's ear. In my understanding, teeth were permanently attached. My grandmother did not flaunt her prestidigitation, like a stage magician ostentatiously displaying a pigeon, a rabbit or an undismembered assistant. She palmed her teeth and tried to hide them.
I was determined to learn her occult secrets, though, like many feminine wonders, they hung somewhere between magic and hygiene. From the moment dinner was over and the dishes were washed, dried and shelved, I kept an eye on her. When she clomped upstairs to her bedroom, I allowed a decent minute or two to pass before I slipped up behind her. She wasn't the only one whose scrutiny I had to avoid. My mother believed it was rude to stare at what she called other people's deformities, which were of course precisely the things I wanted to stare at -- the one-armed man at the laundromat being only one point of contention between us. Anybody could stare at men with two hands or women with symmetrical faces, and I had. Now I was eager to widen my horizons. But my mother was prepared to support her don't-stare precept with the systematic and forceful application of her hand to the side of my face. The knowledge was worth the cost, but that did not mean I was in a hurry to pay it.
While I lay on my bed, listening, Grandmomma dropped her teeth in a glass of water, slipped in a cleaning tablet and then, in her nightdress, trundled to the bathroom. As soon as the door locked behind her, I sneaked into the bedroom she shared with my youngest brother, and stared at bubbles threading through the pink sets of artificial uppers and lowers. Fascinated by those long strands of minute bubbles rising through the faux flesh of artificial gums, I gazed into the bedside glass as if it were a snow globe -- but better. In Grandmomma's glass, bubbles slipped, skittered and careered through the removable teeth of their own chemical volition.
The bubbles, my mother said, swept food particles from between the yellowish teeth. Though I looked closely, I never actually saw a bubble capture a fleck of meat. It would be a wonderful way to bathe, it seemed to me -- millions of soda-pop bubbles fizzing grime from every nook and fold of my body, prickling my flesh and tickling me.
When my grandmother opened the bathroom door, releasing the steam from her bath, I turned and pretended to be concerned with my little brother. Had he said his prayers? Was he tucked in tight?
If my brother wasn't in bed yet, I picked up my grandmother's romance novel and pretended to care about the love life of, say, nurse Nancy Cardiff, new to Baycliff City General from who-knows-where. Reserved, perhaps haughty, Nancy was the one RN impervious to the charms of brooding Dr. Reeves, himself possessed of a mysterious past. But like all the nurses, Nancy could see the sorrow in Dr. Reeves's dark, flashing eyes. The price of my deceit was high: Grandmomma sometimes read passages of the book to me.
Polident's "effervescing solution" ("with Poli-Vescent Power!") was more satisfying than my toys -- more satisfying, for instance, than the frogman I ordered from Kellogg's. To activate him, you packed baking soda in one compartment of his torso and poured vinegar in the other. When the two came into contact, something marvelous was supposed to happen. But whatever was supposed to happen never did. I imagined him scooting through the bathtub and then surging heroically upstream against the current of grayish water flowing toward the drain. Outside of my imagination and in the actual tub, he simply sank to the bottom of his porcelain ocean and belched a couple of sorry bubbles out of his spine.
I could hardly wait till I had false teeth of my own. False teeth would solve the problem of brushing. To an 8-year-old boy with the metabolic rate of a vole and the attention span of a dragonfly, two minutes standing at the mirror moving the stupid brush up and down, back and forth, tooth by tooth by tooth seemed like a month scraping barnacles off a dry-docked aircraft carrier. Bored, I wandered around the house swiping at my teeth.
"What's your toothbrush doing in the kitchen cupboard?" my mother bellowed up the stairs. "Come get your darn toothbrush out of your brother's sock drawer!" Sometimes she was amused: "When I was vacuuming the sofa, I found your old toothbrush under the cushions." Sometimes she was bemused: "How in the world did you leave your toothbrush in your coat pocket?"
I was married and in my early twenties before I was cured of wandering around while brushing. One Sunday afternoon, as we were making love, my wife screeched, kicked the sheets into the air, clawed around beneath herself and came up holding my damp toothbrush.
It would be much easier and more efficient, I thought at 8, if I could, instead of scrubbing them, simply remove my teeth every night and drop them in a glass with a cleansing tablet. Without teeth filling my mouth, I'd sleep as soundly as Grandmomma. Cheeks deflated and her lips collapsed against her gums, Grandmomma, asleep, looked so profoundly near to the tranquility of death that I sometimes wondered if she had slipped over the divide.