In the third grade, everyone met at Hal Benny’s house after school. Hal had a pool that wasn’t above ground and parents that worked, so it was like us kids ruled the backyard. It was like we ruled the whole house, for that matter, on the account of the only person there to watch us was Hal’s grandpa. We called him Peepaw.
Peepaw had a small mop of grey hair the color of volcanic ash on the front of his head followed by a crown speckled with liver spots. Most of the time, he sat in a lawn chair by the big sliding glass windows that looked out onto the pool and slept. Hal used to tell us all the time his Peepaw’s last tooth was a magic tooth.
“I saw him open a beer can with it!” Hal said.
“I saw him open a can of beans!” Hal’s younger brother Cal said.
“Keep quiet!” we said, in unison. Boys younger than us couldn’t be taken seriously in our grown-up conversations.
We started to quiz Hal on the tooth’s magical properties. Was it like a saw? Was it a shark’s tooth? Why did he keep just one tooth?
“Wait a second. How do you know its magic?” Bernie asked, skeptical as usual.
“He told me!” Hal said.
Well that settled it. When you’re nine, the wisdom of adults is enough to convince you of anything. The tooth could do other magical things too: it doubled as a radio, it shined like a crystal ball to show the future, it sang “Hallelujah” in four different languages, it could whistle in a tone only the dog could hear. We were consumed with intrigue.
“We should take it!” Merritt said.
There was a hush, then sideways smiles. All we needed was Hal’s approval. He thought it over. “Okay here’s what we do,” he said at last. “In the garage are pliers we can use just like the dentist does. But we have to be real quiet when we go into Peepaw’s room.”
Cal whimpered a bit and his voice trailed off as he said to his older brother, “Hal, I don’t think this is such a good idea. What if dad finds out…?”
“Cal, I think it’s time for a diaper change,” I said and everyone laughed. Cal frowned and resigned to being our accomplice. There was only one question left: who would be the brave knight to attempt this feat, a third grader’s Excalibur nestled in Peepaw’s gums?
Everyone hesitated as the question arose. Well nine year olds have their own sense of fairness, doled out not by a judge and jury, but a simple rhyme that can just as easily determine who is “it” or who will talk to teacher when a kid gets hurt on the playground because of some game that has gone too far:
Eeny meeny miny mo,
Catch a tiger by the toe,
If he hollers, let him go,
My mother said to pick the very best one and you are
It was me, I was it. At first I thought about asking for a recount, but held fast. Hal, Cal, Bernie, Merritt, everyone looked relieved but at the same time worried. It’s strange to see those emotions twisted into a tornado on the faces of your peers.
I started walking to the garage. Hal showed me where the pliers were and I grabbed them and started towards Peepaw’s room. Everyone followed a step behind and imitated me, tip-toeing to the door.
There was a slow creak as it opened. Excruciating. Every second was so long when I got inside, behind Peepaw, time didn’t seem to trickle on from one moment to the next but whine on and on without end. The others stayed at the door. Peepaw was not a tall man and his chair sank low, but I still needed something to prop me up to the height of his head, which was tilted back with a mouth wide open and that yellow-golden tooth pointing almost to the ceiling. (It did look glorious in his pink gum—imperfect with a crack that started at the crown, like the last nugget during the California gold rush.)
Near the bathroom door was a metallic and shining cylinder with a hole in the middle and a vaguely foul odor. Looking back, I realize it was a bedpan but it must have been recently cleaned or rarely used otherwise I probably would have gone running from the room upon smelling it. I took the cylinder over next to Peepaw’s lawn chair and planted my feet on either side of the hole. I took one last look at my buddies for comfort. They were terrified; Cal looked on the verge of tears.
I think my palms were sweating but I’m not sure. That seems like it would be the natural reaction to such a situation. I brought the pliers up slowly; I must possess the precision of a surgeon, the courage of a soldier. I opened them and wrapped them around the tooth. I heard Cal behind me, getting louder and louder and saying, “Hal, Hal, stop him, Hal, stop him!”
Peepaw stirred. I took the pliers down quietly. The unmistakable odor of old people rose up from him—the stale air that must be a mixture of death and constipation. I didn’t hear the gasps behind me, but I felt them on my neck. I brought the pliers up again.
Suddenly, there were feet slapping tile in the hallway behind me where everyone stood. I looked back and Cal was gone, everyone scowling in his direction. Peepaw was awake now and I was caught, red-handed. Everyone else made a dash to a safe part of the house. I was frozen.
“Son, what are you doing?” Peepaw mumbled in a drowsy voice but I couldn’t think of an excuse. I was scared, and shaking. I stumbled off my makeshift stool and began to make my exit but he stopped me.
“Ah, I believe I understand now. Hal and Cal have been talking about my tooth, haven’t they?”
I shook my head slowly and then finally stammered over some words. “Why do you keep it, anyway?”
He laughed. “How many women would want to be with a man who is all gums and no teeth? It’s a sign of virility, son!” He kept laughing then gave me a more serious look. “And after all, it does possess certain…supernatural powers. Why don’t you close that door and I’ll prove it to you.”
I ran to the door, slammed it shut and came back. Peepaw was looking at me so intently, I was positive I was the only one that existed. He took his right pointer, touched the tooth, made it wobble a bit in its socket. I saw his left hand sliding up his back; he brought it forward in a surreptitious manner and then clearly exchanged something with his right hand. In a lame attempt he tried to make it look as if a dollar bill were appearing from behind his “magical” tooth. Maybe he sensed that I was not impressed, so he tried again, and again and again, becoming more frustrated with each attempt.
“Oh screw it. I’m not as good as I used to be. Son, I’ll give this dollar bill if you run and tell my grandsons and all your little friends about the amazing properties of my tooth.”
Peepaw shattered much more than he knew in that moment. For a kid, it was like being in orbit with all of your fantastical ideas and then having to make a crash landing on earth, where everything was real and nothing was the way you wished it to be. I walked out of the room, shoulders slumped. I took one last look at Peepaw, maybe to catch him and his tooth performing their magic in private, but he was already asleep.
The boys stood outside, back by the pool, back at our origin. They were all wide-eyed and wondering what the punishment had been. He didn’t punish me, I told them.
“Did you get to see him use the tooth?” Merritt asked. I opened my mouth to answer, but I looked around and noticed all of the boys were still wide-eyed in anticipation. They wanted a fantastic story, not a world-shattering one. They wanted to believe in magic, so they did.
The world isn’t so cruel if you don’t believe it is. I told them how Peepaw had made a dollar appear from behind the tooth, made it disappear and reappear, even let me listen to the tooth broadcast “Country Road” by John Denver like a tiny FM transmitter. They smiled and gasped. I felt better, like my imagination was flying high above the ground with theirs again. But I knew mine flew a little lower.