Critical Thought: Toothbrush

I think Literature should make you feel something. That something can be awe for the elaborate craftsmanship of Calvino or Borges, or it can be grief at the loss of a beloved character (Gus McCrae, anyone?), or it can be, to use Walker Percy's description of A Confederacy of Dunces, “a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.” Or it can be Huck Finn tearing up his letter and all the implications of that act, or the joy of Whitman and Melville, or the Halloween-candy-gorge of J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer, or Lewis Carroll's puns, or Odysseus’ rage when he discovers Penelope's suitors, or Jesus’ empathy as he says to the adulteress, "Go, and sin no more," or the moment when Frankenstein’s monster thinks What am I?, or all the unfilled potential of Kawabata's truncated palm-of-the-hand stories, or the non-stop seat-of-your-pants tour-de-force dystopian post-apocalyptic historical thrill ride that is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Whatever it is, you’ve got to feel it. Everyone, no matter what age, gets excited by the words “Once upon a time.” Even Joyce opened a novel with those words. Joyce!

Nicholas T. Brown earned an MFA from the University of Houston, where he was a Donald Barthelme fellow in 2007. He also loves basketball, and is the official Houston area amateur 3-point champ the past two years. He has a dog named Seven and a cat named Mrs. Mia Wallace.

The New Toothbrush

I noticed my toothbrush needed to be replaced. It was still serviceable, but some of its bristles had gone limp, and it had lost the usual strength and vigor one wants from a toothbrush. So I went to the supermarket and purchased the exact same toothbrush, same brand and model, same green color. I didn’t throw away the old one, but placed it in a drawer.

This new toothbrush was excellent. All the old vigor had returned. I was crisp, refreshed. The bristles cleaned the deepest pockets of my mouth. It gave me a new strength to face the day.

Around that time I began dating a beautiful dark-haired woman. As the relationship progressed, I found myself spending more and more nights at her apartment across town. In the mornings I needed a toothbrush. The woman offered to share hers, and I accepted on more than one occasion, but it was not a habit I wanted to form. Kissing a lover’s lips is one thing—sharing semi-digested food particles is another.

Thus I took my old toothbrush, which I had stashed away, and brought it to the woman’s apartment. There it stayed, something for me to use two or three times a week, usually on weekends, when I stayed over.

But this dark-haired woman was entrancing, and two nights a week became four nights a week, sometimes even five, so that I would find mail overflowing from my box when I returned home, and my apartment developed the shut-up smell of a room rarely-used. I now stayed at her place more often than I stayed at my own. Without meaning to, I had gone back to using that old, worthless toothbrush!

But something occurred to me. That old toothbrush, which, despite its many flaws, still got the essential job done, was the exact same model as the new toothbrush. That meant that someday, no matter how fresh and sharp it seemed now, the new toothbrush would become like the old one: weak, limp, still serviceable, but not desired.

Unless I kept that from happening. So I began to carry the old toothbrush around with me, in a little leather pouch designed especially for toothbrushes, so that I could use it no matter where I spent the night. I placed the new toothbrush away in a drawer. That way it would stay fresh and sharp. Someday, or course, I would have to dispose of the old one and use the new one. But I wanted to delay that day as long as possible.

All of this I did unbeknownst to the dark-haired woman, who eventually became my wife. When we moved in together I hid the new toothbrush in the bottom of an old shoe and kept using the old one. One night, as I brushed my teeth, she commented on its rattiness. We had been married several months by then and the toothbrush had been grinded away to nearly nothing. That toothbrush is awful, she said. No wonder you’re complaining of toothaches.

The next day she bought me a new toothbrush—the exact same model, same color green. She snatched the old one from my hand and threw it away. I stood in the bathroom alone, staring at the new new one, still wrapped in plastic. Quickly I went to the closet, and removed the old new one from my shoe. I slid the new new one in its place.

When my wife returned, I was already brushing. All the memories came back to me. The strength, the vigor. The cleansing of hidden spots. The overall feeling it gave me, the confidence it instilled.

My wife will never know. I will use this toothbrush as long as I can, until it becomes like the old one, a step away from dust. When she buys me a new one I will switch it for the one in the shoe. It will be my secret. I will use these toothbrushes as long as possible. There will always be a toothbrush to fall back on. The generations of my toothbrushes will be endless.

by Nicholas T. Brown