The Toothbrush Incident
That night, Alfred’s toothbrush started talking to him.
“Excuse me, please, but do not stick me in there.”
Alfred blinked. Sure, it had been a strange day, what with The Incident and all, but this, this was just not happening. And it wasn’t, of course. Echo from the TV, that’s what that was. His ears were still hurting a bit from earlier and he just hadn’t heard right. Old creaky house, a TV, noisy neighborhood, take your pick.
So he squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head like you do when mosquitoes are about, and continued reaching for the toothbrush, but it twisted away from his hand, the bristles splitting in a clean horizontal part as it said quite clearly, “I said. Do not stick me in there.”
“What?” Alfred said, and that’s when he thought, So this is it, I’ve finally gone around the bend, I’m talking to my toothbrush. He didn’t feel any different than he usually did: still the same Alfred, just a little light in the head now, which was perfectly understandable considering that his dental equipment had suddenly developed the power of speech.
“You’ve ears, yes? Don’t make me repeat myself.” The toothbrush’s head had cocked itself sideways, a note of irritation in its voice.
For a moment Alfred wondered if reasoning with the toothbrush was in order — he needed to make sure his teeth were clean, after all, and his mother was known to check the dampness of the brush and the level of the toothpaste in the tube, resembling as she did the Nazis that Spindlemann was fond of referring to in gym class. But he eliminated reason because a) the toothbrush’s body language suggested combativeness and b) toothbrushes, by the way, don’t talk.
Unfortunately, Alfred was stuck in the bathroom with the one toothbrush in the world that didn’t know that. “So what am I supposed to do, then?” he asked. It was like the world was twisting out of his grasp.
The toothbrush’s head cocked back into place. It looked less peeved now. “Not my department. I’m retired.”
“You can’t retire,” Alfred argued, sailing headlong into the thirtieth second of this surreal conversation, wheee! “You’re a toothbrush.”
“Things change,” the toothbrush said smugly, and went silent. Alfred ceded defeat and went to bed without brushing his teeth, figuring that a good night’s rest would be best for all concerned. It had just been one of those days.
By the next morning, Alfred had managed to wipe his mental slate clean. When he reached for the toothbrush it didn’t harangue him or try to dance out of the way, and on the bus to school he busily downgraded the previous evening’s incident from “television echo” to “leftover dream fragment,” with the possibility of further demotion to “delusion.”
“Delusion,” Spindlemann trumpeted, pulling back on his bow and sending his arrow sailing high over the target. Alfred was merely trying to keep out of his way, wondering which sadist thought it was a good idea to hand a bow and arrow to a pie-faced madman like Spindlemann.
“That’s what I’m saying,” Alfred said, switching places with Spindlemann and trying not to notice the glare from the gym teacher. “Just a dream or something.”
“Yeah, you’re not all that crazy.” Spindlemann scratched the back of his head and looked at the rest of the students in the class, lined neatly up and plunking arrows with various degrees of success into their respective targets. “They are, for going along with all this Nazi crap, but us, we’re certifiably okie-dokie.”
Spindlemann was obsessed with Nazis. The gym teachers, he claimed, were all Nazis. English teachers, probably. Math teachers, definitely. The principal? Stupid question. Spindlemann landed in detention often, most recently for trying unsuccessfully to pick the lock of Debbie McGrath’s locker with a stolen hairpin, a hairpin which was, at the time of its theft, still very much in use atop Mrs. Kannister’s head. He would sit glowering at his desk and, instead of doing his homework or otherwise using the time constructively, would write up the lyrics of Horst Wessel Lied and hand them to the offending detention officer while goose-stepping out the door. Only one person thought Spindlemann was hilarious, and that was Spindlemann; Alfred liked him because he was, for all his faults, fiercely loyal; beyond that, see: “principle of diminishing returns.”
But Spindlemann didn’t have real problems, Alfred thought as he lined up and fired; his dental equipment had not developed loquacious habits.
“By the way, you have to help me after class,” Spindlemann stage-whispered as he took back the bow.
“Yes! Come on.”
“Absolutely yes. This time it will work.”
“No, it won’t, and this time I’ll get detention too.”
“Great. Then you can see the Nazis for yourself.”
“I will not help you break into her locker. Forget it.”
“Come on! I have to be prepared. When Debbie McGrath opens her locker on the big day I’m gonna get the marching band to be there, hitting a big crescendo, whoosh, ba-dump, ta-daaaaa!”
Alfred was about to ask, “What big day?” and then he remembered the Valentine’s Day decorations splattered like a massacre all over the cafeteria, and resolved then and there that he would not aid Spindlemann in his doomed quest, not any more.
Besides, he thought, taking the bow from Spindlemann and lining up to fire again, he had other problems. Like household products that had grown opinionated. Alfred decided then and there that he’d just dreamed it all, that everything from the previous day had been a bad, ugly dream. But he had to revise that decision later that night when the toothbrush waved back and forth in the plastic cup next to the sink, quite haughtily at that, and pronounced that there would be no more brushing, that the dental floss would strike and the toothpaste would picket. Alfred went to bed that night thinking, with a sinking feeling, that sleep may not be the solution after all.
Two weeks went by and Alfred had not touched his toothbrush. His mother, miraculously, had not noticed, consumed as she was by other things. In order to give his mouth the semblance of cleanliness he dutifully swished mouthwash morning and night, the mouthwash having escaped whatever curse had afflicted its odontophobic cousin. Aside from the verbose bathroom residents, Alfred was relieved to find that he felt otherwise normal. No giant bugs crawled up walls. No hissy voices in his head telling him to bring a large, sharp knife to homeroom. It seemed to be an isolated incident, a recurring dream that was really, really convincing.
The issue with the toothbrush, however, was far from his mind when more pressing matters arose, in this case, Debbie McGrath’s legs.
Their Social Studies teacher had paired them up, via a lottery whose impartiality was hotly contested, to work on a presentation about Italy. (Spindlemann had screeched with jealousy when Alfred revealed who he’d been teamed up with, and threatened him with double castration should he lay a finger on his one true love. “I’m serious. You lay a finger on her, your balls will be emancipated!” “Spindlemann, you’ve never spoken to her once in your entire life.” “So?”)
But the legs, the legs complicated things. She had folded them under herself in a curvy double-L shape while sitting on the floor, angrily coloring in the three colors of Italy’s flag and twisting one sandy-blonde strand of hair around a finger, and Alfred felt the world twisting away again. They were just… fascinating. Alfred had never found himself staring at someone’s legs before. They were smooth and straight, curving in a sweet tan arc from inside the running shorts she wore in utter defiance of the cold weather, terminating in two sneaker-clad feet, a green toad smiling out from the tops of each ankle sock.
Debbie McGrath was on the track team, and sometimes outran the 8th graders that she would herself become in less than a year’s time, a feat which made some of the 8th grade girls’ faces screw up, like they’d accidentally swallowed spoiled orange juice. Alfred did not exactly move in the same circles as she and knew it to be an exercise in futility to even tease himself with the possibilities, but as gears shifted in his head, something that used to be hibernating cracking its jaws open and yawning wide, hope flooded in. You just never knew.
But then he caught himself and wrenched his gaze back towards his textbook, because Debbie McGrath might catch him staring and word might get out that he was perv or something and if that happened, he might as well jump off a cliff.
In fact, the memory of the legs carried him through the rest of the day, and it was only when the pencil on his desk rolled away from his grasp that he remembered there were other problems to be dealt with.
It rolled upwards; that was the giveaway. Alfred was sitting at his desk, lamp alight, focusing on his homework as he did every night, and when he reached for his pencil it rolled up away from his desk, sliding up the spine of his dictionary, and wobbling upright atop the thesaurus.
“You, too?” Alfred asked.
“Yes, me, too,” said the pencil. That was the same night that the dental floss tied itself to the sink in protest and the toothpaste hid atop the medicine cabinet, complaining about the dust. The toothbrush sat in its place and glared at the mouthwash, hissing “Scab!” Alfred went to bed early.
“You’re nuts,” Spindlemann said grumpily, poking at his pimento-cheese sandwich with a straw. Alfred had tried to explain to him that the lottery devised by Mrs. Kannister for the pairings involved scrambling names in a hat and since Alfred sat at the back of the room, cheating was difficult, if not impossible. Spindlemann, however, was in love, and therefore logic did not apply. That Alfred and Debbie McGrath were managing to collaborate on the Italy project without actually saying anything to each another, relaying only information strictly limited to the project itself, mattered even less.
Alfred tried once to expand the scope of the conversation.
“Did you know that opera basically originated in Italy?” he asked Debbie, trying not to stare this time at her legs, which, unfortunately, were hidden under the desk. She grunted a noncommittal response.
“Some people call it the language of love,” he said, but she twisted in her chair and asked Rhonda, sitting behind her, what time the game was starting that night and if she could get a ride, so he gave up and resolved he’d let Spindlemann deal with the whole amour thing.
“I’m telling you,” he said now, sitting across from Spindlemann in the cafeteria, “first it was the toothbrush and then it was the dental floss and now, the pencils. It’s scary.”
“Nuts. Get your head examined.”
“Oh, give it a rest, will you?”
“If I help you break into her locker, will you leave me alone about it?”
Spindlemann was going to be no help whatsoever. Alfred considered his options. There was the school counselor. But if anyone saw him going in there they’d think he was nuts and after that he might as well jump off a cliff. Mrs. Kannister didn’t like to listen to anyone, least of all her own students, and the principal was just out of the question. He’d have to start at the beginning, with The Incident, and that didn’t thrill him at all.
And Spindlemann had burned him before, too. If he wasn’t careful he was going to end up embarrassed again. Spindlemann had told Joey Corigliano about the time Alfred had tried to peek into the ventilation grate that was outside the girls’ locker room, and he’d almost succeeded in seeing he wasn’t sure what when the gym teacher made his Aryan ancestors proud by catching him in the act and making him write “I will not voyeur” one hundred times on notebook paper, not realizing until later that night when he looked it up in the dictionary that a) “voyeur” was not a verb and b) he now knew the definition of two words, “voyeur” and “irony.” Joey Corigliano had told Dante Bellson and Dante Bellson had told Corey Glass and Corey Glass told everyone, because that’s what the Corey Glasses of the world do, they tell everyone.
Alfred resolved then and there that he’d be fine, he just needed to focus, that everything would get better soon. But that evening, the fork on the dinner table poked him, intentionally. The afternoon after that, the screen door on the back porch told him he could go out through the window if he wanted to get outside. The afternoon after that, the mailbox called him names when he got off the bus. Things were not getting any better.
The Incident was thus. He’d come home from school as normal. The whole entire day, in fact, had been blessedly, blissfully normal, a day you slid through like you were on a water slide. Coming in the door, he noticed there was one shoe sitting on the steps leading to the upstairs, one which he did not recognize, a flat-soled grey tennis shoe with blue plastic trim like cake icing.
He took a right turn through the kitchen, a left across the dining room and was about to head down to the basement when motion caught his eye and he turned to see a man he didn’t recognize, wearing a black T-shirt with the words “I AM MY OWN WORST ENEMY” emblazoned on it in large white block letters, maroon-and-white polka-dot boxers and one dirt-stained white sock, staring at him from the doorway of his mother’s bedroom, his mother on the bed behind him, not fully dressed, both of them giving him a stunned, hostile look that made Alfred feel like he was completely unwelcome in the house he had lived his entire life in.
So since the water slide routine had worked so far, Alfred didn’t break stride. He proceeded down to the basement, where he spent the next half an hour trying not to listen to the voices above him, voices that began with sharp, precise notes, a trumpet and a bassoon dancing back and forth until they reached a howling crescendo, the front door finally slamming shut, ta-daaa!
By that point Alfred’s ears were hurting, a little from the noise but mostly from his fingers jabbing deep into his ear sockets, and he didn’t even hear his mother calling down the basement stairs for him to come up to the living room for a talk. He did hear, actually, but he didn’t, either, and eventually the basement door clocked closed and he was left in the damp cool darkness alone, which was all he’d wanted in the first place.
Three days before Valentine’s Day, Alfred’s backpack had tightened against his arms and slithered atop his head like a slug, the front pocket telling him, in a deep Darth Vader voice, that he was retiring. (“I… am tired… of this revolting livelihood,” it said.) Alfred tried not to attract attention as he threw it out the window of the school bus, but the driver, unfortunately, saw him do it, braked the bus to a screeching stop and invited him, in no uncertain terms, to rediscover the joy of bipedal transportation.
Two days before Valentine’s Day, the grate on Alfred’s locker turned into a slanty face and laughed at him when he tried to spin the combination and get his books out for that day’s classes.
“I need my math book,” Alfred said.
“No, you don’t. You’re failing anyway,” said the locker.
“If you don’t give me my book, I’ll fail even more.”
“I’m not helping you any more. Your coat is always dirty and smells like cigarettes.”
“I can’t help that. Mom smokes.”
“I’m not listening. La, la-la, la-la,” the locker sang.
On the day before Valentine’s Day, Alfred woke up and discovered that his dresser drawer had vomited his clothes all over the floor. His favorite jeans had disappeared and most of his underwear was huddled atop the ceiling fan. They screeched in fear when he tried to reach for them, so he wore sandals, despite the cold, and as he walked to school he thought that things had gotten very bad indeed, and that he really, really needed to talk to someone, to get some help.
So it was with great surprise and anxiety that he found himself spilling his guts later that day not to a trusted, sane, adult figure of authority and control, but to Debbie McGrath.
How it happened was thus: Spindlemann was out “sick” that day, preparing, no doubt, for the big day. The Italy presentation had come and gone, and both he and Debbie had managed to get through the whole thing without involving the use of actual conversation. They got a B-minus because, the teacher said, some of the artwork they’d submitted was incorrect.
Alfred, of course, did not mention that the artwork was not his fault. He didn’t think it prudent. So it was with the words “B-minus” ringing in both their heads that they found each other after school, marooned with none of their respective friends in sight on a bench in the school courtyard, waiting for the late bus to come.
Debbie sat down next to him on the bench and huffed out a breath, a little too loudly, Alfred thought, like she was resigning herself to her fate, determined to make the best of it. At first he tried to act like he hadn’t noticed she was there, but there was no one else around and there wasn’t anything else to do but glance at her fearfully.
“B-minus?” she said, more to the bench than to him. “I think that’s just bogus.”
“Yeah,” he said, shock spreading through him with glowing warmth, surprised than an opinion, rather than a fact, had been directed towards him, and him alone.
“I mean, we worked our asses off, and what? B-minus?” She snorted air again, this time in the general direction of the Social Studies classroom.
“I thought you did a great job on the artwork,” Alfred said. She rolled her eyes.
“I got the colors wrong. On the flag. That’s what it was, I guess, ’cause we got a B-minus. But you’re nice to say so.”
Alfred shrugged. “I thought you did a nice job,” and it was then that he felt like he and Debbie were sitting on escalators going different directions, her up, him down, and the three-foot-seven-inches of space between them was more like three miles, and growing by the second. But onward he pressed.
“Spindlemann did Germany in his class and he got a C-plus, but that’s probably because he’s a freak and tried to eat the chalkboard or something.”
Debbie McGrath laughed, a crystalline peal that splashed and sparkled behind Alfred’s eyes, and at that point he knew that he was safe here, that everything was going to be fine.
“That freak. He’s your friend?”
“Yeah.” Should he defend Spindlemann? “He’s nice to me, though. He talks a lot but sometimes he listens. Which is, uhm. Nice.”
Somewhere a screech of laughter could be heard. She glanced around, moving too quickly, hope flushing through her face, but she didn’t see anyone she knew and Alfred, watching, saw the mask of resignation retake its position.
“My mom cheated on my dad.” It was out before he even realized it. It had started in his mouth as “Do you have any pets?” but somewhere along the line the escalator broke and it came out all wrong.
Debbie’s eyes widened, her mouth falling open. She looked just as surprised as he felt, all twisty, like he was rolling down a hill in winter and gathering up snow and turning into a giant snowball that would roll over his house, the school, everything in its path and tumble off the edge of the world and fall, fall, fall forever.
“I came home after school one day and there was a guy in her room wearing this T-shirt and one sock and polka-dot boxers and my mom was in her underwear. Then they screamed at each other and he left and my dad found out and he left too. He was out of town for a business something and I guess my mom told him and they screamed about it for a while, and then he came in my room when he thought I was asleep and sat on the edge of my bed for a while and then he got up and closed the door behind him and I haven’t seen him since then, and that was five weeks and four days ago.”
“Wow.” He didn’t even have to look at her to know she’d rather be in the library, in the class, in a dentist’s chair getting a tooth yanked out than be sitting on this bench with him. But the words kept coming and he couldn’t stop, wheee!
“Then my toothbrush started talking to me. I always brush my teeth at night before I go to bed and my toothbrush started talking. Then it was everything else. My fork bit me. The back screen door locked itself and wouldn’t let me out. My backpack. My locker. I’m afraid to get out of bed every morning because there’s no telling what’s gonna mutiny next. My bed, probably. Then I’ll really be screwed.”
Alfred barked sudden laughter, and as he did the tangled knot in his stomach came apart and warm light flooded into his head and he felt better than he had in a while.
Then he looked at Debbie McGrath and realized he knew the definition to another word. “Folly.” A bunched-up thundercloud of horror and disgust where her face should have been. He knew this was it, that his life was over, he might as well jump off a cliff, because the words would seep into every brick, every doorway, every ear and every head, because that’s what the Debbie McGraths of the world to, they tell everyone.
Walking home, he stopped in a corner café that he’d been to many times. Other than the Valentine’s Day decorations it was as it always was. Wood furniture with cheap plastic cushions held in place by thumbtacks; barstools that screeched and wobbled unsteadily when you swung around in them; the air filled with sweat and grease and the smell of food cooked and sliced and prepared and served and eaten, over and over again, more times than could ever be counted, and it was all so ordinary and familiar that for a second things almost went twisty again, but he steadied himself, finished his peach milkshake and walked the rest of the way home.
His mother, staring glass-eyed at the TV when he walked in, mumbled something about cleaning up his room. He was so tired when he fell into bed that night that it didn’t even occur to him to take off his shoes. He was halfway to school the next morning when he realized that his toothbrush had been silent and his fork had cooperated and the screen door had let him out without complaining, but he was still so exhausted that it didn’t really seem to matter, that they’d be back to their usual tricks before long.
It was only when he got inside the school and saw the crowd gathered around Debbie McGrath’s locker that Alfred remembered that it was Spindlemann’s big day.
At lunch later that day, Spindlemann thumped a hand against his forehead, moaning “Stupid arrows… stupid arrows…” Alfred shook his head, looking at his friend, and laughed, straight from the bottom of his stomach, laughing like he hadn’t in a long time.
Debbie’s locker door was bent inwards, two dozen or more grey pockmarks scarring the metal’s surface. Spindlemann had snuck in the previous evening, hijacked a bow and arrow from the gym supply room and had taken aim. But the hollow-shafted arrow he’d bought especially for the big day had caromed repeatedly off the locker door, its expensive decorative gold tip bashed beyond reasonable recognition.
Alfred laughed and laughed.
Spindlemann, by this point beside himself with lovesick rage, took the arrow and shoved it through the grate of the locker, remembering, of course, the second it left his fingertips that he hadn’t slid the note inside the shaft. At this point he really lost his mind and tried yanking the locker open, punching and kicking and denting it even further, and when the metal stubbornly refused to give he revised his plan and scrawled “I FREAKING LOVE YOU DEBBIE!!” in red spray paint across the surface and ran for his life, forgetting to even deposit the note that proclaimed his love, which was the whole point of the plan to begin with.
Alfred laughed and laughed and laughed.
Debbie, of course, clearly thought he was the culprit, and Social Studies class was atwitter with coded gestures and meaningful glances between Debbie and Rhonda and the rest of her cadre. Alfred just shook his head and smiled. After all, his toothbrush had spearheaded an uprising. His clothes had declared war. His house had become a battle zone. But he thought about how Debbie’s locker door looked and he felt the exact same way. Dented, but holding up.
And so he laughed and laughed, and laughed some more. He wondered if the toothbrush would talk again that night, but he doubted it, even though he knew that it had probably never spoken to him to begin with. He had heard it, actually, but he hadn’t, either, and that’s just the way it was. Life was just strange sometimes.