Smiles Are Not Silly Things

What a smile Father had! Perfectly shaped, deep like a dish. How it sparkled like a bangle in the sun. Marianne admired her father’s smile, and would often think of things to do or say to make him smile, just so she could see it again. She’d walk on her hands and sing “Daisy Spring”, a song she made up. It was a silly song, but it made Father smile. Goodness gracious how Father smiled—he’d take his one-for-the-record beamer in hand and affix it to the center of his forehead. There it shined like a brilliant trinket, decorating his face.              

At five years old, Marianne asked her father when she would get her own smile to place on her own forehead. Father responded with a bit of nervousness, attaching a wiggly line for a worry winkle between his brows, then ordered Marianne into the kitchen to help Mother with dinner. Marianne did as she was told, but still the smile question dogged her. So after the carrots were chopped, and the potatoes smashed and mashed, and the onions diced and fried (Blanquette de Veau required this), Marianne turned to her Mother and said, “Mother, when oh when will I finally get my very own smile to place on my very own forehead?” 

It seemed, or at least to this five-year-old it seemed, that Mother pretended not to hear. Marianne repeated the question, and still no answer. A third inquest and Mother simply turned to Marianne and ordered her back to the living room, from where she came, because Father was probably lonely and in need of company.

Let us set the record straight: five-year-olds are not stupid. They know when they’re being had. Marianne figured something was up.

The next time Marianne brought up the smile question was in the living room where the family had gathered for afternoon conversation. The elegant and formidable room, with its overstuffed chairs and heavy drapery, and its high ceiling and magnificent fireplace, lent itself to polite and cheerful chit-chat. But Marianne had no use for polite and cheerful chit-chat. “I want to talk to you about something serious,” she said. The room grew still, very still. “I’m going to school next month,” she continued, “first time ever.”

“Yes, dear, it’s a big step,” said Mother.

“We’re happy for you, dear,” said Father.

“I’m not happy, but even if I were happy, how could I possibly show it?” Good question. But oftentimes a good question clears a room. Father got up to leave, but Marianne stared him down, then Mother got up to leave. “Where are you going, Mother?” Mother couldn’t say, so she returned to her chair, sinking low into the cushions, wishing to disappear.

“I’ve got a dress and fine leather shoes to go with that dress, but guess what I don’t have to go with my pretty dress?” What a bright child! Another good question. Mother and Father were just about to leave again, when Marianne blurted out the answer: “I don’t have a smile to go with my pretty dress.” She uncapped a vial of plain water for teardrops and began dousing her face all over.  Both parents knew then that the obvious could no longer be avoided. It was time to answer the smile question in earnest.

Rising from his chair, Father sat beside his daughter on the sofa, and holding her close said,  “Marianne, smiles are silly things, a mere facial ornament, inconsequential, fleeting, even under right conditions. One could live a perfectly good and happy life without a perfectly good and happy smile.”

“What’s your point, Father?”

“The point is . . . “

“Yes, Father.”

“You were born without a smile; that is, you will never have a smile; that is, we consulted with every doctor; that is, nothing can be done.” As he spoke, one could see the wiggly line of worry wrinkle above his even brows quiver. 

“Oh, that’s just great,” said Marianne, standing up. She shoved the vial of plain water for teardrops back inside her pocket and pulled out a double-jagged line for rage. She slapped the thing on her forehead and there it beat red like the heart of a mad dragon.

“Look here,” said Mother, “think of all the facial expressions and letters that you do have.” Mother began counting on her fingers those expressions and letters that Marianne had at her immediate disposal.  She counted frown, grimace, scowl, sneer, smirk, wiggly lines for worry wrinkles (more than one because there were so many worries in life), double-jagged line for rage, O for stunned, D for determination, droopy B for boredom—

“Stop, Mother, I’m begging you. I need a smile, a smile is what I need, not a smirk, not a grimace, not a scowl. How can I wear a pretty dress without a smile? How do I make a friend without a smile? How do I even say hello without a smile?”

There goes those cursed good questions again, hard hitting, insightful, unrelenting. Oh, why can’t she just shut up?

Now Father had his own question. He turned to his daughter and said, “Marianne, would I ever lie to you?”

“No, Father, you would never lie.” This was true. Father never did lie to Marianne. It would take a few more years, and then it would become a habit of his.

“Listen to me, dear daughter. You will go to school in September in a pretty dress. Children will marvel at your fine leather shoes. You will be happy and make many friends. You will discover for yourself that a smile is quite unnecessary. One could live a perfectly good and happy life without a perfectly good and happy smile.” Marianne believed her father. There was no reason not to. And yet, something turned inside Marianne’s stomach, something unknown and very awful.

Ah, first grade! What a time for fun. And the learning, the learning one gets: alphabets and numbers and spelling bees and clean hands and good manners. In the afternoon classmates sat in a circle on the floor and sang songs, while their teacher banged out cords on the piano. Marianne observed that each child had his or her very own smile, and that all smiles were exactly alike: bright yellow quarter-moons. For her part, Marianne would place on her forehead a straight black line gathered at the center for a smirk and smirked. The children noticed, of course they noticed, so did their teacher, but no one said a word. No one whispered, or pointed, or shunned. Children are good like that, and stay good for some time, perhaps to third grade, at least, and then everything changes after that, which is what happened.

The problem is that a smirk is no substitute for a smile. Smirks grate on nerves. Smirks irritate stomachs. Why even the saints in heaven grow weary of smirks. And by third grade Marianne had overplayed her hand. She was forever smirking. You say Hello, she smirks. You say Good-bye, she smirks. You say Want to go to a skating party, she smirks.

The first sign of trouble began one day at recess in the playground. Ah yes, the playground, that stomping ground for roving thugs. The children were standing together in tight circles, bundled up in quilted coats and snow jackets, with scarves like ribbons tied about their necks, and wide lovely quarter-moons plastered to their foreheads. On that day someone turned to Marianne and said, “Marianne, are you just going to stand there with no expression at all on your face?”

“Of course not,” said Marianne. She then produced from her pocket a straight black line gathered at the center for a smirk and affixed it to her cheek. So far, so good.

Not so fast!

This was third grade, remember?

Not first.

Not second.

Eddie Havoc, a kind-hearted boy with good study habits, until recently, didn’t think it right to substitute a smirk for a smile, and even said so. Marianne quickly pointed out that she had worn her smirk in place of a smile for two years straight, and no one had ever said a word. “What’s changed?” she said.

“I’ve changed,” said Eddie Havoc. He then placed a straight black line hooked at one end for a sneer and sneered. Marianne didn’t think much of this incident, but that next day at recess Eddie Havoc wouldn’t give it up. And this time the other children piled on.             

“This is what a smile is supposed to look like,” said a boy, holding up his own for everyone to see. His own smile dangled and flashed like a blade of steel.

Then someone else said, “The reason you smirk instead of smile is because you’ve got an attitude.”

“What attitude,” Marianne said.  She really didn’t know.

“That attitude,” said someone else and pointed to her fine leather shoes.  All eyes shifted to Marianne’s feet, to her Wimbles. In case you didn’t know, and how could you, Wimbles are fine leather shoes trimmed with lamb fleece, scented and dyed blueberry blue. She owned one in every color; that is, one in every fruit: banana ripe, peach patch, mango riot, kiwi fun, cantaloupe corral. And there were others too, all certified.

By now the children had replaced their lovely wide smiles with a straight black line hooked at one end for a sneer. They sneered.  How much did those cost seemed to be on everyone’s mind, and Marianne knew it.  “Give me a break,” she said, reading their minds, “How should I know what anything costs?  I’m only in third grade for goodness sake. Besides, you’ve always marveled at my fine leather shoes. What’s changed?”

“We’ve changed!” shouted back the children. 

Then Eddie Havoc removed the straight black line hooked at one end for a sneer and replaced it with a black double-jagged line for rage, and on seeing this,  all the children did the same.  He pressed forward, determined to have his say, and getting up close, said to Marianne, rather hissed, spraying his venom all over, “Rich.” That’s all he said: rich. The children didn’t know what to make of this allegation even though they knew what rich meant and even though they knew that Marianne was in fact rich. (Her father owned Bicklewood Fine Leather Shoes & Fine Accessories in town.) But until now no one had the nerve to say it to her face. Holy great humiliating insult, what’s next?  You’re too clumsy for jump rope? Your mother’s a goat? You’ve got monkey breath?

Is there no end to mindless cruelty?

No, when in third grade there is no end to mindless cruelty.

The children closed in, each forehead ablazed with a red double-jagged line for rage. Marianne swallowed the knot in her throat. Her stomach turned. She then did what she always did at such moments: she doused her face with plain water for teardrops. This drove Eddie Havoc mad, so he stomped on her right toe, scuffing up her fine leather blueberry blue Wimble. He was just about to knock her to the ground when—

A bell rang, signaling the end of recess. And it’s a good thing too—don’t you know—because in another minute or so Marianne would have gotten her rump kicked-in.

On Saturday after a casual lunch of coconut kumquats with dill-green sauce and after the family had settled in the great room before the fire to drink quince-berry tea, Marianne decided then and there to ask—after two years—another good question.

“Why didn’t you tell me we were rich?”

“I beg pardon,” Father said, patting his lips dry. He nearly swallowed his napkin.

“You never told me we were rich,” said Marianne, raising her voice, puffing up her chest like an indignant blowfish.

“We didn’t think it was necessary,” said Mother. “Who else eats coconut kumquats with dill-green sauce?”

“How should I know what other people eat? How should I know how other people live?”

“My dear Marianne,” chimed in Father, rather gently, “rich is a good thing.” He was tiptoeing now.

 “My classmates don’t think so.”

 “How do they even know you’re rich?” Mother was truly confused.

 “Because of these,” said Marianne, pointing to her Wimbles, certified. 

 “Oh, that would give it away, wouldn’t it,” said Father, relieved for some reason, but no one knew why.

 “They also don’t like my smirk. It’s no substitute for a smile.”             

“Try something else,” said Mother. “Why not an upside down U for a frown turned upright?”

“Be serious, Mother.”

“Well, that’s what I would do.”

Father set aside his quince-berry tea and studied his daughter’s wide, freckled face. He then said, “A smile is a ridiculous convention, favored by frauds and politicians and stupid people who watch too much television and don’t know any better. Smiles will get you nowhere in life. Smiles are silly things.”

“That’s what you always say, but you smile all the time,” said Marianne, “so does Mother. You two are always smiling behind my back. You think I don’t know. Mother’s proud of her smile. She takes her smile out every night and paints it red with lipstick. She sings to it. She talks to it. You’re so plump, she says, so firm, so lady-like, and yet so corporate. She credits her very fine smile for her very fine promotion last month. Don’t you, Mother?” Mother squirmed. She meant to say something, but stammered, then sheepishly placed a bright red squiggly line for embarrassment on her left cheek.

“And you, Father, are just as bad,” Marianne said. “You’re always smiling, smiling to this one and that, to neighbors and customers. It must be nice. I wish I could smile just once.” She held up a vial of plain water for teardrops and began splashing her face all over. Her chest heaved, her shoulders quivered. 

Holy impasse! What to do?

Then Father, man of action, stood up and, reaching deep inside his pocket, pulled out his overly bright, irrepressible, one-for-the record, winning smile. He held it up with two fingers as he would a fish. “I’ll say it again, Marianne, smiles are silly things. One can live a perfectly good and happy life without a perfectly good and happy smile. I will prove this once and for all and destroy my very own one-for-the-record.”

“Does that mean you’re going to the Beasley Wax Hill Society Dinner tonight without your smile, dear?” Mother wanted to know; after all, she was going with him.

“I most certainly am,” said Father. Holy great certitude! This man doesn’t wobble.

“You needn’t do this for me,” said Marianne, as she sprinkled more plain water on her face.

“Oh, but I must,” he said. He held up his vivacious smile for both his wife and daughter to see, an odd thing indeed, because one’s happy lips, toothless and without a face to go with it, hangs loose like a worm, but Father’s smile, dangling in midair, glistened like a goldfish. Anyway, he dropped his one-and-only to the floor and stomped on it several times, trouncing it into the plush carpet with his over-sized Brown & Weinstein loafer. “That’s that,” he said, dusting off his hands as if he had just buried something. 

Mother replaced the bright red squiggly line for embarrassment with an upside down U for frown, then got up and walked out. Father followed Mother upstairs into their bedroom. The door closed, an argument erupted in muffled tones. Marianne listened on the other side, but her parents spoke as if into their socks, and because of this, she failed to recognize one English sentence. 

But holy great reconciliation! Less than three hours later Mother and Father descended the wide open staircase, holding hands, swanked in their evening finest. Mother wore a blue-teal Evelyn Yg gown, a single rather large rose hung at the waist, the size of a cabbage head, her red hair done up in a bun, crown-like, and studded with tiny gem balloons. Father presented himself in a black Hooper-Wiggins tuxedo, the lapel trimmed in satin, finely pressed, permeated still with that just-out-of-the-box crisp scent.  His fluffy white bowtie concealed his thin giraffe neck, and lent an aristocratic flair to his overall demeanor.

But it was still creepy, creepy like blue soup.

Mother and Father looked like two undertakers in want of business. Their long thin faces drawn down, utterly cheerless, devoid of a smile, and in its place, a straight black line for no emotion at all loomed darkly on their foreheads.

“Are you sure you want to go to the Beasley Wax Hill Society Dinner like that?” Marianne wanted to know.  “People might think you’re strange.” Father knelt beside his little girl, holding her face close to his. “Your mother and I must prove once and for all,” he said, “that a good and happy life does not depend on a good and happy smile. If not, then you will always see yourself as a victim, and that, my dear, will ruin your life.” He placed a capital D for Determination on his left cheek and then, reaching for Mother’s elbow, whisked her out the front door. “Don’t forget the citrus soufflé,” Mother called back, “and don’t forget that we love you.”

They loved her, no doubt. Theirs was no small sacrifice: going to the Beasley Wax Hill Society Dinner without one’s smile would be like going to the village hairdresser without one’s head. Why bother? And yet, Father had insisted.

Marianne began sorting through her collection of expressions and letters to find something suitable to express gratitude when— 

Holy great change of mind!

Right then the doorknob clicked and the front door opened, slowly, by itself, or maybe by a ghost. Marianne dashed for cover, under the dining room table, peering out from behind a tablecloth, holding down a cold scream, when all of a sudden a head appeared, and attached to that head a neck, a thin giraffe-like neck, swathed in a fluffy bowtie, and after the fluffy bowtie a body, a body dressed in a black Hooper-Wiggins tuxedo. Holy great no mystery here! It was Father. He slipped back inside the house, closing the door behind himself, careful not to make a sound. But why would a grown man in a seemingly good marriage sneak back inside his very own house?

He scanned the wide open staircase, up and down, perched his chin forward and listened, listened most carefully, then apparently convinced that he was all alone, disappeared into the living room. On his return Marianne could see that the D for Determination on his left cheek was gone, so too the straight black line for no emotion at all, and instead, centered high on his forehead, above his trimmed brows, for all his snobby friends to see, his one-for-the-record vivacious smile––the very same smile that only hours before he had trounced into the carpet with his overly priced Brown & Weinstein loafer.

Father would take his one-and-only to the Beasley Wax Hill Society Dinner, after all. Mother would go with him, her own deeply red and wildly successful, lady-like and yet so corporate smile fashioned high on her own forehead, beckoning to all her fancy friends.

 Marianne closed her eyes.

Father lied.

What to think?

What to feel?

Sorting through her stack of expressions and letters, like a cheap deck of playing cards, Marianne could not decide on any single expression or letter. She felt so many ways at once. She doused her face with plain water for teardrops, but still, in the end, felt so unexpressed.

That next morning, Mother sat before the open fire, dousing her face with plain water for teardrops, and tried to explain: “Your father was happy to go to the Beasley Wax Hill Society Dinner without his smile. I refused.” She splashed her face again, blotting up the cold drops with a balled-up tissue. “I knew Mr. Tiddle would be there, and the Tiddle contract was at stake. Good heavens, I must secure the Tiddle contract. Don’t you want another pair of Wimbles, Marianne?”

“Only to get my rump kicked-in, no thanks.” The upside down U for frown on Marianne’s forehead flashed red. She then said, “I’m never going back to school, no, never again. A good and happy life does depend on a good and happy smile. We all know it. School will make little difference.”

Suddenly Father stood up and removed from his pocket his one-for-the-record beamer. It sat upright in the palm of his hand. He admired the pleasant creature with bittersweet awe. He wished to smile at his own smile, but that would be impossible. Instead, he turned to Mother and somehow she knew what this meant. She produced her own ruby red, corporate beauty, and both parents walked over to the open hearth and dropped their smiles into the quiet blue flame. A flare-up at first, and then the pair of happy lips, hissing and writhing, dissolved into glowing blobs and then quite suddenly vaporized into nothingness. “Now you will see for yourself,” said Father, turning to Marianne, “that smiles are quite unnecessary. One can live a perfectly good and happy life—oh forget it—you know the rest, we’ll prove it this time.” 

Holy great stupidity!

Her parents knew—almost from the start—that they had made a terrible mistake, a mistake based on an idiotic premise. Smiles never were, nor will they ever be, silly things. How naïve! Smiles are essential. Even humdrum everyday tasks require a smile on one’s forehead, or cheek, or chin, or somewhere, anywhere, for goodness sake. Try serving a plate of muffins to your friend without a smile somewhere upright on your face and see if he eats it. He’ll think you put something in it, something unsavory, like poison. Offer that same friend a present, see if he opens it. He’ll think it’s a bomb and throw it back in your face. Ka-boom! Not the present, but your friendship has just blown up. Now call your dog, see if he comes. He’ll piddle on your rosebush instead. And without his one-for-the-record, Father couldn’t sell so much as a discounted shoe lace, or a nail nipper, or even last year’s flats.

“What’s happened to your smile, Mr. Bicklewood,” said one customer.

“Haven’t you heard? Smiles are silly things.”

The customer just looked at him, and then walked out the door, never to return.

Not long after, Father revised his business plan. He discounted prices, rearranged displays, placed ads in the local newspaper, distributed coupons, piped music into the street with subliminal messages – buy shoes, buy shoes, buy shoes—whispering in between the notes, and still there were no takers. Not one. The cash register lost its ring, the doorbell its jingle. Then it occurred to Father, too late, that a smile engenders trust and without a smile there is no trust, and without trust there is no sale. Two months later Father closed shop and sat home after that in a bathrobe. 

Mother fared no better. She never did secure the Tiddle contract. She had tried in vain to substitute her corporate red beauty with an upside down U for frown turned upright for a smile. Good luck! The night before her business meeting, she messaged the faux smile supple, plumping it up, painting it a ruby red, and then affixing it to the middle of her forehead. But that next day Mr. Tiddle didn’t know what to make of that thing on Mother’s forehead. It’s not a smile, it’s not a frown, I don’t know what it is; I better run. So he fled, leaving Mother alone at her desk, staring down at the thick white contract, unsigned and now useless. After that debacle, Mother agreed under duress to take an extended vacation—not to the beach, not to the city, not to the lake, but instead, to her home, and in particular, to her bed, that’s right— to her bed, that popular refuge for depressives, where she hid beneath the covers, dousing her face with vials of plain, cold water for teardrops.  

Now the Bicklewoods gathered at the dinner table, bent over plates of twice—cooked potato mush, seasoned with turkey gizzards and hog nails. Once Marianne refused to eat the mess on her plate, but Father warned her that if she did not eat the mess on her plate, then she would get no mess for dessert.             

Where’s the bottom?

There came a rumor, the kind people like: the Bicklewoods were going broke. It started with the vicious children in the playground. One keen observer had noticed that Marianne’s Wimbles were not certified, but instead second-rate imitations.

“What are those?” said the keen observer, pointing to Marianne’s feet.

“They’re Wimbles,” said Marianne, her voice aquiver.   

“Where’s the sticker?” said another.

Marianne pretended not to hear the question, a trick she learned from someplace else, but good questions often prevail, and Eddie Havoc asked the question again.

“Where’s the certifying sticker?”

“There is none,” said Marianne. (She wanted to die just then.)

 The smile on Eddie Havoc’s forehead tightened into a measured grin, dark and wicked. He then said, “You’re broke!” The children jumped with excitement, slapping yellow quarter-moons on their foreheads. Then Eddie Havoc placed a large capital H for hatred on his cheek and pushed Marianne to the ground. She got up, brushing the dirt and gravel from her dress, but another boy tripped her down again. 

Sometimes wealth is the offense, at other times it’s poverty.

Marianne reached into her pocket, fingering through the tangled mess of letters and expressions: capital letters and lower-case letters, straight lines and crooked lines, squiggly lines and jagged lines, and deeper still, a vial of plain water for teardrops.  She doused her face all over, but then Eddie Havoc snatched the vial away.

“Give it back,” she said, in a near whisper.

But instead he poured the remaining drops to the ground, and smashed the plastic vial underfoot. Marianne hollered, not quite, something else, unfamiliar: a sniffle, a moan, a grumble, rising from somewhere inside, not her pocket, not her stomach, not her throat, not her head, but someplace else, deep and mysterious.

“Look at that,” someone said. 

Marianne touched her face, warm water trickled down her cheeks, small miracles, tasty drops, salting her lips. What’s this? The children fell silent, panicked and confused. They turned to Eddie who by then had replaced his smile with a bold S for stunned. All the children were stunned.

“Do you have water in your head?” Eddie said. Marianne didn’t think so, and yet tears gave way to more tears: mist to drizzle, trickle to drops. ”I’m leaking,” she said. The children, no longer stunned, were now in the grip of something else, something uneasy and intense. They turned to Eddie again and watched as he removed the S for stunned from his chin and replaced it with a zigzagged red line for fear. “You better run,” he said. “She might blow!” Everyone screamed and ran away like flying dogs, up the front steps, through the double-glass doors, disappearing from view, every single one.

Marianne, suddenly alone, stood in the playground, her eyes flushed with tears, trickling down, gaining force, and then an onslaught of heavy fierce drops drenched her face, soaked the front of her dress. She felt numb, but then an idea broke through….               

She ran home.

And found Father sitting alone before a smoldering fire, hopeless in a bathrobe in the middle of the day. When he turned, Marianne recognized his despair; wiggly lines for worry wrinkles marred his forehead. The upside down U for frown on his cheek had aged gray along with his face and had become, like his nose and his mouth, a permanent feature. “Why aren’t you at school,” he asked.

“You won’t believe it,” she said, ignoring his question. “I cried on my own today, tears like plain water from somewhere inside.’’ Her upbeat tone confused Father. 

“Don’t you get it,” she said, with a trace of exasperation. 

He just looked at her. 

“If I can cry on my own, then I can smile on my own.” She stood before him, rather proud, and slowly, deliberately willed the corners of her mouth upward and, as night follows day, the center in between dipped below and behold a saucer plate, no a quarter-moon, no a curl of lemon peel, no it’s a smile—don’t you know—it’s a smile.

Dropping to his knees, Father held his daughter’s face with both hands and said, “Smile again, Marianne.”  And she did. Marianne smiled on her own, without a string. The wiggly lines for worry wrinkles fell from Father’s face, and the upside down U for frown righted itself. 

“Now it’s your turn,” she said.

Father didn’t understand.

“It’s your turn, Father.”

He closed his eyes, concentrated, then willed the corners of his mouth upward, but only his eyebrows twitched. He tried again and his ears wiggled. A third time and his nostrils quivered.  “It’s no use,” he said, sinking into his chair.

“Try again, Father.”

“I can’t”

“You must.”

“I can’t, child. Go on, live your life and forget me.”

“Father, you and I now know that a good and happy life does depend on a good and happy smile. Smile, Father, I’m begging you.”

Father closed his eyes and concentrated. His eyebrows twitched; his ears wiggled; his nostrils quivered. Then movement, the corners of his mouth pinched upward, and the middle in between loosened below. Behold a smile, a bona fide smile. Father smiled. And so did Marianne. They ran upstairs to show Mother their smiles, wide, bright, expectant smiles, with teeth sparkling through on the other side.

In the spring all three Bicklewoods attended the Beasley Wax Hill Society dinner—oh, and the stares, the delightful stares! Marianne would often remember that night and smile, an exhilarating smile, hopeful and brave, defiant and eternal, rising from some place mysterious, rising from some place real.

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