I shake my head, no,
for I’ve learned not to show pain.
At the school of dental hygiene
where Eubie got her diploma
they teach them not to be put off
by a wince or gathering tear
but to stay on the sensitive spot
and . . . “Festina lente” . . . be thorough.
I try to think of something else. . .
“P.C.,” the initials
on the dental unit in front of me.
These were Paula’s initials.
The Chapmans lived on Riverside Drive
obliquely across from the sign
for Spry. “Spry for Baking”
it said, and blinked off,
then on again. “For Frying.”
The apartment had wall-to-wall carpeting
and dark brown furniture waxed so it shone.
There was a cabinet with glass doors
full of objets d’art: an elephant
carved out of ivory, a wooden Russian doll.
There was an old wind-up Victrola
with hits from Broadway musicals
and “classics,” Gershwin and Tchaikovsky.
A bookcase held The Wandering Jew by Eugene Sue.
Mr. Chapman had studied for the Ph.D.
but universities wouldn’t hire a Jew
so instead he went into business.
“How are we doing?” says Eubie.
OK, I nod, fine.
I call her my Buchenwald Baby. . .
with her eyes of cornflower blue
that never look into mine
directly, but at some view
slightly to the right or to the left
as she travels with the cavitron.
“Oh my God,” said Paula,
“you aren’t even wearing a tie!”
She looked like a fairy princess
in a bright blue gown
that showed that her breasts
had budded, as Proust would say.
I was wearing a suit
but it was brown and tired.
And I had no tie. . .
I hadn’t thought it was required.
“He can wear one of your father’s,”
said Mrs. Chapman.
So we went to the prom after all
where Paula danced with everyone else.
As I stood by the wall drinking quantities
of pink lemonade out of paper cups
her laughter rang like a chime of bells.
I didn’t see her for years
while I was in the army.
Then we made up for lost time
at the movies, in the balcony. . .
on my sofa that converted into a bed. . . .
and under the trees—it was summer—
at night on Riverside Drive.
“Spry for Baking” said the sign
shining above the Palisades.
A barge with its warning lights
would be going up the Hudson. . .
the George Washington Bridge
gleaming in the moonlight
against the scudding clouds.
“That’s it,” said Paula. “There.”
“Are you all right?” says Eubie.
I nod. I’m not going to let on.
Though I brush after every meal,
when she gives me the paper cup
with the liquid that’s bright red
and bitter. . . and I have held it in my mouth
for thirty seconds, spat it out,
and rinsed with the mouthwash,
and she hands me the mirror,
there are always some traces
of the plaque that causes decay.
Mrs. Chapman didn’t approve of me.
It took me some time to catch on.
“He’s too,” she told Paula, “Bohemian.”
She was saving her precious daughter
for someone able to provide her
with the better things of life:
wall-to-wall carpeting and dark brown furniture.
Paula wanted to “be in the theater.”
So her mother packed her off
to some second-rate school in Boston
where they taught it. . .whatever it was.
Actors, I told her, weren’t people.
Like monkeys or parrots
they could repeat sounds and simulate feelings
but had none of their own.
“Don’t call me,” she said, “I’ll call you.”
She was as good as her word. . .
she called, twenty years later.
She had just “winged in” from the Coast
and was staying at a friend’s apartment
in Soho. There was a restaurant
right on the corner.
I recognized her at once
though she was wearing a pants suit
and big glasses with rhinestones
and the skin that used to look like
some marvelous tropical fruit
was sallow. . .and the glossy black hair
was still black, but lusterless like ink.
The expressions that used to be endearing. . .
fluttering her eyelashes,
touching her tongue to her top lip,
were like the moving eyelids and mouth
of a doll.
And the shop talk!
She kept dropping names
of people in Hollywood and Beverly Hills
I’d never heard of or wanted to.
I said as much. I could hear myself
sneering, like Diogenes in a washtub.
And what did I have to feel so
Where were my screen credits? Did I own a swimming pool?
More to the point. . .
Where was the novel I was going to write
that would put Proust in the shade?
The magic, as they say, was gone,
like a song that used to be on the hit parade.
But there is always a new song,
and some things never change.
Not long ago, visiting a friend
who lives on Riverside Drive
I saw that the sign for Spry
is still there, shining away.
“Spry for Baking.” It blinks off
and on again. . . “For Frying.”
Then the lights run around in a circle.