“Comedy is Tragedy revisited.” – Phyllis Diller
It was the Fifties, the era of enforced happiness. The smile was the face of the moment and those who refused to conform were coerced into an obedient butterfly flutter of the lips or else denied their Bosco. War and Depression were a thing of the past. The A-Bomb gave way to the Baby Boom, and all of us new little lumps of life were expected to, Smile, brother, smile!, like they said in the Cigar commercial.
Mickey Mouse emoted it.
Pepsodent polished it.
Life Magazine promoted it.
Thanks to Kodak, the smile was plastered on America’s lips.
And nowhere was this veil of levity more avidly prized than in my household.
My parents, being newly minted Americans eager to please, turned joy into a credo.
Every morning at seven sharp my father led the family in vigorous lip exercises. Sulking, groaning, sniveling or any other signs of ill humor were strictly prohibited.
“Wiggle those ears! Life those lazy cheeks! Ventilate those nostrils!” he commanded. Being of a philosophical bent, my father devised a theory.
“Eight openings hath man,” said he, “eight portals of in- and e-gress: two eyes, two nostrils, two ears, a mouth, and a pupeck. (Women hath a ninth portal – but of this we will treat later.) Through the eyes man soaks up light and shadow, and there with the necessary dose of Vitamin D, shedding the excess in tears. Through the nostrils he inhales scents and smells, wherewith he satisfies and celebrates the animal in him. Through the ears he collects stirring rhythms. Through the pupeck he absorbs terrestrial vibrations, translating them into digestive spasms essential to the discharging of bodily waste. Canines consider it a second mouth. And through the mouth man takes in, not only nourishment, but also and above all air, the element in which we float, as fish do in water. The mouth is man’s primary portal – wherefore the lips double as gate and gatekeeper. Smiling keeps them fit and limber.”
In his spare time, my father compiled a compendium of speculative theories on the benefits of smiling.
So, for instance, Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, the 13th-century Spanish Kabalist, recommends that everyone, and the melancholic in particular, begin his day with a morning dose of merriment. The U-form – or in Hebrew, the half-shin shape – of the upwards turned lips acts as a spoon or dipper and is ideally shaped to scoop up the dew, which, according to Abulafia is particularly rich in godliness.
It is said that Saint Augustine, in his youth a hedonist and later an ascetic, perceived laughter to be the U-form of sacred intent, and, therefore, a state to be sought regularly, albeit sparingly, by man as a homage to his Maker.
And Meister Eckhart, the German mystic, who once reproached the clerics of the Sorbonne: “When I preached at Paris, I said – and dare I repeat it now – that with all their learning the men of Paris are not able to conceive that God is in the very least of his creatures – even in a fly!” – wrote in a little-known passage of his classic Buch der Gottlichen Trostung, that “the smiling man resembles the Godhead in that his upwards turned lips encompass the three points of the Holy Trinity.”
Even on his deathbed, my father insisted, King Solomon is supposed to have kept smiling, having ordered a bevy of naked virgins to tickle him into a blissful coma.
An impressionable child, I took my father’s message to heart. My mobile rubbery face kept any outward sign of inner discord hidden under the skin where no one could see it. My smile was a masterpiece of resilient cheeks and squelched emotion. Unlike Mona Lisa’s coy lip, my boyish beam was unambiguous and eminently marketable.
Snapped in passing by a consumer reporter at the fruit and vegetable counter of the local A&P, my smile became the model for Billy Boy Broccoli. The broccoli growers and the spinach growers were at odds. The latter relied on Popeye to promote their leafy green interests. For a brief moment in the sun, my smile offered serious competition, putting more broccoli spears than spinach on American dinner tables.
I became a child star overnight, appearing on the Mickey Mouse Club Show smiling up at a nubile bosomy Annette Funicello.
Norman Rockwell considered painting my portrait.
The broccoli growers even lobbied, albeit unsuccessfully, for a Billy Boy postage stamp.
I was scheduled to appear in vintage Dutch attire as a dapper dwarf among the jolly burgers on the next Dutch Masters Cigar commercial – “Step up to Dutch Masters and smile, brother, smile!”
But the glory was short lived. A pesticide scandal compelled green grocers to pull broccoli off the shelf. The spinach growers were quick to cast in on the bad press. In the very next episode, Popeye blew his stack at Olive Oyl for serving him broccoli instead of spinach for dinner. – “It’s poysernous don’tcha know!” piped Popeye.
Dutch Masters reneged on the deal. Norman Rockwell postponed the sitting indefinitely.
Broccoli growers ran scared.
The letter began: “We regret to inform you that due to a change in broccoli marketing strategy…” You can guess the rest. My cheeks never quite recuperated. It broke my father’s heart.
Then came the Sixties and the smile took a seditious turn, a squeal of protest spiked with psychedelic glee and framed with billowing locks and tinted spectacles. I practiced in the mirror but could never get it right. The look went disco in the Seventies, all dolled up in wide-collared polyester and striated with strobe lights, enhanced, reproduced and patented by Andy Warhol, whose blasé leer cornered the market.
Immured in my sulk, in the years that followed I forgot what lips were for.
Then a funny thing happened.
Riding home from work on the subway one afternoon at the end of a wearisome work week, all Fridayed out, as it were, I noticed the man seated opposite me, his face hidden, huddling behind a newspaper, folding his Times with crisp pleats into ever narrower vertical wedges, as my father liked to do, with a narrow-brimmed, nondescript gray felt hat of the kind my father favored. Sometimes the face on an old photograph, with an expression altogether inappropriate for the present, wafts forth out of the past and lodges on the shoulders of a modern man. Gripped by a sudden nostalgia, I longed for the wholesome sight of a good old-fashioned Fifties smile and felt certain the blocked felt and newsprint were harboring one. But how to get my man to let down his guard?
Presently, the train screeched round a hairpin curve and the headpiece tilted first into, then out of the turn, succumbed to the centrifugal force and tumbled to the floor, rolling in my direction.
“Your hat, Sir!” I said, reaching to retrieve it.
“Your hat!” I insisted, ramming the brim against the white knuckles that clasped the paper, which I only now fathomed was upside-down and trembling.
“Thank you, friend!” came the muffled reply as an afterthought in the wake of a wordless stream of sound, more echo than now.
He rose like a tall man falling. And like a secret grown sick of itself, like yesterday’s stale news, the paper fluttered and fell, revealing the absence of a face. No nose, no eyes. Holes instead. Flaps of skin where ears ought to hang, and in the middle, a horizontal slit twisting upwards into a contorted crescent.
He grabbed the hat and was gone in a flash.
The train must have stopped and started up again. I lost track.
Trying to shake the foolish grin that would not let go of my face, my eyes sought refuge in the impersonality of another train passing on a parallel track. Running express to my local, it came so close I could practically have reached out and touched the cold steel. Each train, in turn, slowed down and sped up, now losing, now gaining ground.
And just before the final split, a woman on the express looked up. I cannot now recall her hair or eye color, what she was wearing or whether she was particularly attractive – only that I was riveted by the intensity of her gaze. Had we been seated opposite each other in the same subway car we would both more than likely have averted eye contact after that, but the composite scramble of proximity and distance prevailed over inhibitions.
If seeing is believing, then surely they put fig leaves over the wrong body part!
An electric smile passed between us, generating a rush and a rise that tore me out of my seat and wrenched an involuntary yelp from my throat, which, only in putting my hand to my mouth, I was able, for propriety’s sake, to camouflage as a hiccup.
And when it had passed, when the trains pulled apart like screeching cats in heat on which someone had dumped a bucket of cold water, each streaking down its own dark alley, I slumped over, heart racing, choked with emotion.
All this transpired in the time it took to turn my head.
The sweetness still lingering in the curl of my lips. I looked up wondering what people must think. But the smile went out of fashion long ago. This is New York, and, of course, no one noticed.
Peter Wortsman's recent works include a travel memoir, Ghost Dance in Berlin (Travelers' Tales, 2013)--for which he won a 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY); a novel, Cold Earth Wanderers (Pelekinesis, 2014--a finalist for 2014 Foreword Reviews' Best Science Fiction Book of the Year--and an anthology which he selected, translated and edited, Tales of the German Imagination (Penguin Classics, UK, 2013). Forthcoming are a book of short fiction, Footprints in Wet Cement (Pelekinesis, 2017) and a translation, Konundrum, Selected Prose of Franz Kafka (Archipelago Books, 2016). He was a Holtzbrinck Fellow in 2010 at the American Academy in Berlin.