Editors’ note: This story was written for an UNY reading in collaboration with the American Folk Art Museum’s exhibition “COMPASS: Folk Art in Four Directions” at the South Street Seaport Museum.
In my dream, a rubber-faced man is rapping at my ribcage like he’s looking for the hollow spot in a plaster wall, like there’s a hidden door somewhere below my sternum waiting to crack open at his knock. Then I wake up and the voice becomes my uncle’s. It’s like this every first Saturday, and every time it happens, I always swear that next time I’ll convince Mara to let me sleep over at her house, but four weeks later, Mara and me are either not talking to each other again or I’m not watching the calendar, and it takes my uncle’s voice coming up through the vent to remind me that another month has passed and that me and my mom are still here.
My uncle is a dentist. Not the kind that people go out of their way to see. The kind that people go to because he’s in the neighborhood and takes their insurance. There’s nothing technically wrong with him. His breath doesn’t stink, and he’s not rough. He’ll give you gas if you ask for it, and if you need Novacaine he always waits, tapping your gums until they’re all numbed up. But I know that I wouldn’t go to see him if he wasn’t my uncle. When he tells me to open, when he scrapes at my teeth, even when he raises up the chair so I can spit, his–I don’t know–enjoyment of it all rises off of him like the smell of something left out to rot. It’s different from the way a normal dentist might like fixing something that’s broken, or helping someone to not be in pain. The whole time I’m sitting in that chair, my uncle is smirking at me with his own perfect teeth, and it’s impossible not to feel like there’s some hungry part of him, deep inside, feeding off the fact that I have to be sitting there at all.
When it’s just me and my Mom in front room, sometimes I’ll turn the television up so he can’t hear us through his bedroom door. “Not much longer,” my Mom will promise, and I know she means it. She’s been working double-shifts for the past six months and we could move out right now if we wanted to stick around here, but Mom wants to make a new start in a new neighborhood, and that is fine with me. Mara has started wearing acrylic nails that have a little silhouette of that trucker girl on them, like each of her fingernails wishes it was a mudflap on a semi, and I’m getting pretty tired of watching her shoplift tubes of Special FX Hot Tamale from the lipstick display at Imperial Drugs. When we were little, me and Mara used to pretend we were horses with wings. We’d practice flying by jumping between her father’s recliner and the orange bean bag chair, moving the bean bag a little further away each time and swearing that as soon as we really figured out how to do it we’d take off for China or California or her Aunt Sheri’s house, depending on how ambitious we were feeling. I gave up on that before she did, so I suppose it’s only fair that she’s stopped hanging around the art room with me after school in order to hang around the gym while basketball team does four-on-three fastbreak drills, looking like she’d be more interested in something one-on-one.
I know I should feel grateful. When Mom had to leave Larry in a hurry, things would have been a lot worse if my uncle hadn’t let us stay with him, but it didn’t take long for me to figure out he wasn’t doing it out of kindness. I never met my grandfather, but I know that even while he helped my Mom with her acting classes, he wouldn’t give my uncle a cent for college and told everyone he knew that his son was a chump for not following him into a union job.
Before we moved in, I only saw my uncle for a check-up twice a year and once at Christmas.He would always tell me and my Mom what terrible teeth I had, how without a dentist in the family my mouth would have bankrupted my Mom by the time I was 10. Whenever he said this, his upper lip would tighten, and the whole thing would raise up like he was Cujo. It took me a long time to realize that was the way he smiled. He must have trained himself to do it. It’s like he’s raising a curtain on his whole upper jaw. His face is kind of small and his eyes are beady and too close together, but his teeth could belong to a movie star.
My Mom says she loves him and I believe her. When my Mom and my uncle stand side by side, no one would guess that they’re related and I think that’s part of it. The summer after she graduated from high school, my Mom got scouted when she was shopping with some girlfriends and after that she was in a few magazine ads and got some work as an extra on “All My Children.” For the past six months, I’ve been helping her to do all the cooking and cleaning, and my uncle watches us like its primetime TV. Between that and my Mom’s double-shifts, she’s pretty tired by the end of the day, which means that on most Friday nights it’s just me sitting alone on my uncle’s animal-print couch, watching The Wild Record Collection on public access.
Mara’s taste in fingernails may be seriously questionable, but I am forever grateful to her for introducing me to this show. It’s hard for me to explain why I love it so much. It’s basically two guys making stuffed animals dance to old records on their crappy couch. One of them is almost always holding a small stuffed polar bear, and the other is usually holding a bird, and they just bounce them up and down on the couch cushions in time to the music, with the record album leaning against the sofa back behind them. I’ve seen it stoned with Mara, which is her favorite way to watch it, but I like it best when all I am is tired. Something about that show makes me feel like I’m little again and lying beside my Mom on her bed while she tells me a bedtime story. I think if those dancing animals were on every night instead of once a week, I wouldn’t spend so much time worrying about the future.
It was a song from a Beach Boys album called Smile that made me think of it. All of the sudden, I pictured my uncle’s face in my head and I knew. I didn’t even wait for the bear and the bird to stop dancing. I got right up and went over to my uncle’s bedroom door. In the same way that my uncle leaves his dishes on the table and his empty potato chip bags on the sofa and his underwear on the floor of the bathroom for us to clean up, he never bothers to lock. “Open,” I said really soft as I turned the knob. I walked in a few steps and then waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark, until I could see him in his bed, off in slumberland. When I moved closer, I understood how he felt, lording it over all those patients lying in his chair. There was a water glass on his bedside table, and there were those perfect teeth of his, floating inside like a piece of something that had been pickled and dissected for third period biology.
I didn’t mind the sound of my footsteps on the floorboards as I made my way over. I think part of me wanted him to wake up so I could see the look on his face. But he kept on snoring, even when I took the glass in my hand and jiggled it so that those perfect movie star teeth of his rattled against the sides. Without his teeth, his mouth was this sunk-in thing, like his face was collapsing in slow motion. Without his teeth, I could picture the kid he must have been, with that small face of his and those ugly eyes too close together, and for a minute I considered putting the glass back on the table. But that feeling didn’t last long.
-Dentures, Dead Horse Bay, Nicole Haroutunian.
-Tooth Trade Sign, Artist unidentified, Probably New England, c. 1850–1880. Paint on wood with metal. 26 x 12 1/4 x 11 1/4 in. American Folk Art Museum, gift of Kristina Barbara Johnson, 1983.8.1
-Pair of Scrimshaw Teeth: Children Watching Sailboats on Pond and Family Generations Artist unidentified Nantucket, Massachusetts
1840–1860 Sperm whale teeth Children: 5 5/8 x 2 1/4 x 1 1/2 in. Family: 5 1/2 x 2 3/16 x 1 1/2 in. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York
Myla Goldberg is the author of the bestselling first novel, Bee Season, which was a New York Times Notable Book for 2000, winner of the Borders New Voices Prize, and a finalist for the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award, the NYPL Young Lions award, and the Barnes & Noble Discover award. It has been adapted to film and widely translated. Her second novel Wickett’s Remedy grew out of her fascination with the 1918 influenza epidemic. Her third novel, The False Friend, concerns a woman trying to untangle a 20-year-old memory and explores the complexities of moral judgment, the fallibility of memory, and the adults that children become. Myla’s short stories have appeared in Harpers and Failbetter, among other places. Her book reviews have appeared in the New York Times and Bookforum. In addition to her novels, she has written an essay collection and a children’s book. She sings and plays accordion and banjo in the Brooklyn art-punk band, The Walking Hellos. She writes and teaches in Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband and their two daughters.