Eleanor’s hair was always in pincurls: tiny black buns swirled through with streaks of white fastened with bobby pins close to the base of her skull. A single pink spongy curler contained the few hairs that constituted her bangs, creating a sort of duckbill protruding from her hairline. Eleanor smoked long, thin, brown cigarettes that she mashed, half-smoked, into an olive-green metal bowl affixed to long, thin, olive-green metal stand. When my mother sat in Eleanor and Harold’s driveway, her gleaming white Salem 100 butts—smoked to the quick—nestled awkwardly into a pile of brown.
Harold was a mechanic. He worked out of his garage, which smelled so strongly of oil and stale smoke that I felt it might explode at any moment. A glossy calendar featuring curiously enthusiastic blonde women (reading a book, or straddling a motorcycle) in very little clothing hung on the wall, higher than my eyeline, but low enough for me to see if I stood on tiptoes. Once, alone in the garage, I moved close to the calendar. I noticed a clear plastic overlay, curling at the edges, and after looking over my shoulder twice, lifted it. Miss September’s clothing peeled up and away from her pink limbs, revealing a pelvis adorned with a strip of what I figured was pubic hair, and two shiny breasts that seemed to smile psychotically at me like a deranged woman I had once seen at the mall. I dropped the overlay like it was on fire, looked over my shoulder again, and casually strode to the other side of the garage to inspect what I suspected was a car engine leaning against a pile of uncut two-by-fours.
Eleanor drove a 1978 VW beetle, sunshine yellow. It was always parked outside of Eleanor and Harold’s yellow-brown house on Quaker Road, just around the corner from our house on Roanoke Road. From the rear window, a bumper sticker proclaimed: You Bet Your Dupa I’m Polish. My sister and I loved that car, and when we begged my mother to trade in her puke-green Ford Granada for one, she’d sigh and say, “It is a cute car,” then exhale toward the closed windows in our living room. When I asked my mother what “dupa” meant, and she explained that it was the same thing we called “fanny”, but in Polish.
For whatever reason, every time I had a loose tooth, my mother would send me to Eleanor’s house. I’d have been complaining for weeks, jiggling an incisor with my tongue every waking minute, trying to loose the tooth from its stubborn root. Once in a while, I’d taste the metallic rush of blood when I’d managed to rip away one of the dead tooth tendons, simultaneously revolted and stimulated by the taste of my own blood. After two days of complaints, my mother would scream, “Let me look at it!” and I’d wail and cry and run away, knowing that if I’d let her anywhere near my mouth, she would have ripped it out of my head, causing me excruciating pain and suffering. After this display, I knew I’d either have to get it out myself or be sent to Quaker Road to deal with Eleanor.
I must have been 11. I’d been wailing over a loose tooth for a few days. After dinner, my mother had commanded, “Go over to Eleanor’s so she can look at that tooth.” I protested, citing the inconvenience of the after-dinner hour. “What if she’s busy?”
“She’s not busy,” my mother stated. After some thought, I agreed to go—I had the brilliant notion that Eleanor, a neighbor, would never inflict harm on a girl of 11 that wasn’t hers. I’d be safer with her than with my mother, who was clearly sick of my whining. So I trudged out of our dead end, took a meandering right onto Quaker Road, pushing and pulling at the nearly-ejected tooth the entire way. When I skulked up Eleanor and Harold’s driveway, my heart raced as I tried to talk the tooth into breaking off: Come on! Get out! Just break off already!
But it hung there, stubborn as a stain.
Eleanor and Harold’s doorbell was illuminated with orange light. When I pressed it, I could hear a deafening BONG BONG from where I stood. I flushed with embarrassment for interrupting whatever Harold and Eleanor did at 7 o’clock at night. Thirty seconds later, Eleanor opened her heavy door decorated with a mustard yellow valance. Her curler was firmly in place, a freshly lit cigarette smoldered between the index and middle fingers of her right hand. She wore a polyester sleeveless shift with a pattern of repeating ovals—brown, beige, brown, beige.
“Megan! Hello!” She said this as if she had been expecting me.
“Um, hi, Eleanor.”
“Hi Megan!” Harold called out jovially from an unseen room. The din of a television enveloped my name.
“Hi Harold!” I screamed.
Eleanor opened the door all the way. “I hear you have a loose tooth. Come on in!”
I walked into her kitchen, a foreign and oppressively beige place. An overhead florescent light cast a greenish hue over the room. I stammered, “Well, my tooth has been bothering me for a while, so my mom thought I should come over here so you could take a look at it.” As the words escaped my mouth, I knew I was in for it—Eleanor was going to rip that tooth out.
I stood there, Eleanor’s bulk hovering over me, her mouth a smile but her eyes all business. I opened my jaw against itself and jiggled the tooth with my tongue for effect. She peered into my mouth. “Ahhh. Yeah. That needs to come out.” She rested her cigarette in a small yellow dish on the counter.
“Uh huh.” My mouth was still agape. My heart still pounding.
In a flash, Eleanor reached her surprisingly nimble fingers into my mouth, clamped on the doomed tooth with her forefinger and thumb, and yanked.
It was over. An acute sense of freedom cloaked my body as my tongue frantically prodded the space between two shockingly secure teeth. Eleanor wrapped the tooth in a shred of paper towel she ripped from a wooden paper towel holder adorned with mushroom decals. She bent down and handed it to me, smiling. “Put this under your pillow tonight for the Tooth Fairy. Now go on. Say hello to your mother for me.”
“Ok!” I was out the door, running toward my house which was darkening to midnight blue in the last shreds of September light. I heard Eleanor and Harold’s door bang shut as I rounded the corner onto Roanoke. Visions of quarters were in my eyes, the tooth no longer part of me, but a foreign object wrapped in paper in my hand. A foreign object worth exactly fifty cents.