My father saved his teeth by lying through them. Somewhere on the border between Russia and Poland, pines and rifles, in the nineteen-teens, he went off to the woods with two other boys to visit the village horses hidden there from soldiers, who would commandeer anything from anybody, but especially from Jews. The boys stopped to rest along the road and were spotted by youths in uniforms of the Polish army. Filthy Bolsheviks! one young man shouted at the boys, you’ve been spying on us.
No, said the first boy, and—Liar!—got a few teeth knocked out with a rifle butt. No, said the second, and—Liar!—likewise lost some mouth. Yes, said my father, thereby winning the hand of the princess, finding the key to the jeweled casket, keeping his brick self safe from huffing and puffing, and whatever other favorable outcomes occur on the third try. His teeth remained in his mouth, vertical, for seven more decades, and are probably with him to this day, horizontal, in a pine casket that by now has lost its walls and never possessed a lock.
The teeth when I knew them were yellow and tough, jostling in line like philosophers craning for a glimpse over the edge of mortality. Fibrous food stuck among them after the least bite, and my father applied toothpicks to the crannies. The dinner table in our house always included, at his end, the napkin holder, the brightly painted Polly Parrot with a beak that pried off bottle caps, and a miniature glass mug, souvenir of Kitchener, Canada, packed with standing toothpicks. He preferred the cylindrical kind, symmetrically beveled. He left a trail of them, split, greasy, blunted, on the kitchen linoleum and in the crevices of the armchair where he would sometimes fall asleep after dinner.
Once, when he was in his eighties, he despaired of clearing the crannies, and my mother had a hard time contemplating the mission. I volunteered to floss, certain that thread was better than his usual splintering lumber. He sat in front of me on a straight-backed chair, suddenly small and well-behaved, and, leaning over him, I tried to find the slightest chink that would let thread through. My fingers were half in his mouth, amid clots of chewed fiber and sinew. Was this a labor of love in the gullet of time? I gagged. Did I even know who this person was, who used to hold me in deep water at the beach and threaten to let go?
We walked down the main street of town one day—or have I conflated many days into one transparent morning in front of the A&P?—discussing the pointlessness of human existence. But people make good fertilizer, I offered, echoing an earlier opinion of his. No, he said, apparently having reconsidered. I notice when I pass cemeteries that the grass isn’t any greener there. As we turned back toward home, I was holding his left arm just above the elbow, and the steady, muffled flutter of his heart registered against the back of my hand. We were passing a chain-link fence I had climbed as a child to pick some dusky blue grapes out of the cobwebs behind a store—Mr. Willensky the dry-goods merchant’s, to be exact. I had torn my pants, then lied about the incident to my mother. I wondered if I would remember as vividly this systole and diastole against my dusky blue veins, the lubdub that seemed to be the rhythm of the world when it was only the stuttering motor of a human intruder.