“Persimmon, Teeth and Boys” by Steve Berman from Red Caps: New Fairy Tales for Out of the Ordinary Readers (Lethe Press, 2014).
Right off, I was in love with the title of this piece. It’s one of those combinations of words that become earworms, reverberating endlessly through your skull. And then to read it and find such a funky, crazy, sweet love story….
In the past, Cecil has dated girls and thought of himself as straight, but ever since slim, quick-witted and brave Bergen Gold arrived at their school, he can think of no one else. He isn’t sure why he feels compelled to volunteer to help out on a project Bergen is working on, or to go to great lengths to make a contribution that will impress the other boy, but he is at least aware that he is.
His actions have unintended consequences, creating a situation where Bergen has a run-in with the school bully and ends up in the hospital. Cecil blames himself for not acting but I don’t see what he could have done to prevent that outcome. At any rate, he pockets a grisly souvenir from the fight – one of Bergen’s teeth, knocked free by a well-aimed kick. That night he puts it under his pillow. What follows is one of the best depictions I’ve ever read of the dream state. (The line “You know we’ll have to break this” and the action following it? Perfect.)
First, the magical Mr. Ouris appears. Right after he is described there’s an illustration that is my favorite in the book to that point. Dear god almighty I wish that when I was a child someone had re-written the tooth fairy like this, as sarcastic and devious and devoid of wings and a dress. But then again, alas, this story is aimed at young adults and the young at heart, not toddlers.
The banter between Cecil and Mr. Ouris unfolds a nice argument about not wanting to be pinned down by labels, and also about the way in which labels are used to ostracize, even amongst groups of “outsiders”. This thread is continued later in a discussion between Cecil and Bergen. It made me think of a cartoon I’ve cherished for years, which depicts two flower children walking down the street. One, obviously upset, says to the other, “I just don’t understand why you won’t conform to the prevailing standards of non-conformity.”
The fact that the bully gets a slap on the wrist for his actions of course implicitly condones them, and it’s nice when we see justice served. (The fact that I would’ve cheered a re-enactment of the ending of Carrie must mean I’m not very spiritually-evolved.) I like that before the playing field is leveled we’re shown that the attack on Bergen has had a negative impact on Cecil’s sense of self. I like that there’s an actual spelled out moral to the story. It is, after all, a fairy tale.
One final thought. I feel sure that Cecil is a math and science nerd and that the class he’s heading to at the story’s opening is one on Bell’s Inequality because this tale somehow illustrates that theorem. I tried, but could not make that leap. However, I love stories that cause you to stop and consult various dictionaries or watch YouTube videos on Quantam Physics. My husband says I am alone in this. I know I’m not.