Wednesday, June 3, 2009

While we worked in the kitchen, Alfrida talked to me about celebrities--actors, even minor movie stars, who had made stage appearances in the city where she lived. In a lowered voice broken by wildly disrespectful laughter, she told me rumors about their bad behavior, the private scandals that had never made it into the magazines. She mentioned queers, artificial bosoms, household triangles--all things I had found hints of in my reading but felt giddy to hear about, even at third or fourth hand, in real life.
Alfrida's teeth always got my attention, so that, even during these confidential recitals, I sometimes lost track of what was being said. Her front teeth were all of a slightly different color, no two alike. Some tended toward shades of dark ivory; others were opalescent, shadowed with lilac, and gave out fish-flashes of silver rims, occasionally a gleam of gold. People's teeth then seldom made such a solid, handsome show as they do now--unless they were false--but Alfrida's were unusual in their individuality, clear separation, and size. When Alfrida let out some jibe that was especially, knowingly outrageous, they seemed to leap to the fore like jolly spear fighters.
"She always did have trouble with her teeth," the aunts said. "She had that abscess, remember--the poison went all through her body."
How like them, I thought, to pick on any weakness in a superior person, to zoom in on any physical distress.
"Why doesn't she just have them all out and be done with it?" they said.
"Likely she couldn't afford it," my grandmother said, surprising everybody, as she sometimes did, by showing that she had been keeping up with a conversation all along.
And surprising me with the new, everyday sort of light this shone on Alfrida's life. I had believed that Alfrida was rich, at least in comparison with the rest of the family. She lived in an apartment--I had never seen it, but to me that fact conveyed at least the idea of a very civilized life--and she wore clothes that were not homemade, and her shoes were not Oxfords like the shoes of practically all the other grownup women I knew; they were sandals made of bright strips of plastic. It was hard to know whether my grandmother was simply living in the past, when getting your teeth done was the solemn, crowning expense of a lifetime, or whether she really knew things about Alfrida's life that I would not have guesseed.

--Family Furnishings, Alice Munro (2001)



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