Garrison Keeler read the poem below around lunch time on Thursday on public
radio. When he reads most anything, I suspect even a grocery list, I could get
lost, consumed in the story he tells. The reading flooded me with early
childhood memories of my morose fascination with my Papaw’s false teeth.
I vaguely recall the cup in Papaw Henry’s sterile bathroom in the 30’s arts and crafts white bungalow on Cottage Street in Maysville, Ky.
You know, the kind of house with a porch swing hovering over gray painted floorboards and a perfectly manicured lawn spread before it. I’m not proud to mention the black monkey looking boy statue holding a lantern flashing his pearly whites as he greets visitors. Inside the powder blue tiled bathroom, the fluorescent lighting on the dusty blue sink with separate Hot and Cold handles added an eerie glow to the shaped ceramic cup resembling a mouth with the words “chopper hopper” etched across it’s wide mouthed top in red.
At night, I’d spy Papaws teeth resting in the cup. The slippery pinkish red gums and white rows glistened submerged in a clear solution of some kind; I couldn’t smell exactly what, because the overwhelming pungent smell of the toilet cleanser which hung on a wire inside the rim to turn the bowl blue always overpowered any other possible odors in the washroom. I often thought of Frankenstein and how Papaw’s set would come in handy for the next body part constructed monster.
I imagined the frightening chops coming alive to talk to me. The perfect teeth would properly levitate as if in an invisible head above the cup to drippingly whisper, “True, you are just a very little girl. You’re probably afraid of me just like you are terribly afraid the nasty witch who lives in the gray shingled shed behind this house. That shed doesn’t just hold Papaw’s house paints, you know. How else could the sidewalks always be so clean if it isn’t the witch who rides her broom at the stroke of midnight across the moon, lands beside the pink climbing rose bush in the front yard in the pitch dark of the night, and sweeps her way back to the dingy white door to her shack with windows painted all black? She’s as old as she is scary. You’ve seen her raggedy gray shawl between the scratches for yourself. You might not want to get so close next time, or the hag might just pop open that door and snatch you in before your Mamaw finishes dead heading her Petunias.”
In the morning, the chopper hopper would be mysteriously empty, and I could not connect the dots that Papaw had the teeth now stuck in his head.
I watch myself as a bitty fair haired wisp of a four year old girl in the choppy home movies from the late 60’s toddling in the back yard yet standing clear of the gray shed and marveling as my Mamaw snaps up her blonde Chihuahua Petey by one front leg. There are no weeds in sight, only perfectly trimmed bushes, multitudes of fabulous flowers, a stone birdbath and retro metal wide backed lawn chairs I’d love to have today. Wouldn’t those be perfect under a bottle tree like the woman in Because of Winn Dixie?
Now onto the poem.
My eyes stung with tears as I listened to this woman’s story. Garrison mentioned The Great Depression beforehand which I know my grandparents suffered through, but I never understood to ask them about. Now it’s too late. So, I imagine this woman as a relative I’d never know living in a small rented cottage in Maysville, Ky in the 1930’s.
Poem: "False Teeth" by Patricia Dobler
from Collected Poems. © Autumn House Press.
Walking back to her sister's house,
woozy from relief and Novocain,
she nearly trips on the B&O tracks.
Then she sees it.
A $20 bill.
Folded between the ties,
pleated into a little fan,
as if arranged by whatever tooth fairy looks after30-year
old women who lose all their teeth.
When she walks into her sister's and grins,
she scares the baby— her swollen face,
the gums still bleeding,
her words clotted like the cries of an animal—
They think she's gone crazy with pain
until she holds up the money.
The men are laid off again,
but she can pay the dentist what he's owed,
she can buy false teeth.
They say, "For every child, a tooth,"
and this is a story for children whose
toothless mother lost and found
and came out even.