beijing 3: the great wall of sticky rice

At 7 AM on Saturday, Justin and I are met by Wang Ping, our guide to a remote and wild section of the Great Wall known as Jiankou, about 200 kilometers and 3 hours from our hotel. Ping has brought a friend, an attractive young woman of an uncertain name. After asking her to pronounce her name twice and then spell it for me, I give up, blame the road noise, and write down “Angie???”

As we drive outward through the expansive Beijing suburbs, signs exhort us to “Don’t follow too clowsely.” Scattered chimneys from countless small factories attest to the ongoing lack of pollution controls, and belch thick clouds of off-white smoke that spreads out into a solid stripe lying low over the fields, a horizontal band of milky haze below the treetops.

The air has a smoky wood smell.

The major highways look just like the ones in California, though perhaps with fewer potholes. Similar signage, tollbooths, road construction. The main roads show evidence of a large labor pool: the medians are well groomed, manicured and planted with bright flowers.

Ping speaks English well, having learned from an American teacher, a 24 year old named Christine. He describes her thusly: “Christine is same as you are, with very big nose.”

“Oh,” I reply with a laugh. “You mean she was very beautiful!”

Getting to the Jiankou section of the Great Wall entails taking a series of ever smaller roads past rivers and countryside villages. Ping points out the resorts, which appear to be constantly under construction. Apparently this is a popular region to escape to on hot summer weekends.

As the roads narrow, we pass groups of people digging up the discolored but otherwise perfect bricks that line the road, replacing them with whiter versions of the same bricks. I suppose this is the Chinese equivalent of the Works Progress Administration back in the 1930’s in the U.S.: keep the people employed.

We wind through the mountains past corn-growing farming communities. Occasionally we are charged small tolls to pass through these villages, women and children moving makeshift barriers to let us through after being given the requisite small bills. Apart from corn, this forms a large part of the village income, and so is tolerated by the local authorities despite the signs we now see proclaiming “This section of the Great Wall is not open to the public.”

Apparently, the payment of the toll makes us private, not public. Ping explains that the signs were put there after the villages got sued by the family members of people who died. Hiking the wall. Where we’re going.

“Ah,” I say. “Perhaps you should have mentioned that earlier.”

“Don’t worry,” replies Ping. I wait for more words of reassurance, but he seems to have reached the end of that particular thought.

We reach a small village in the mountains at the literal end of the road, where Ping’s van is argued over by an insistent woman and a creaky old man, each of whom wants our business at their respective parking areas, e.g. flat bits of dirt not otherwise occupied by cut corn stalks. The woman is quicker and louder, and the old man loses out.

At 3600 feet, Jiankou is one of the most picturesque sections of the Great Wall, rising and falling hundreds of feet in successive sharp peaks. Just getting to the wall is a hellacious climb up a steep trail from our small village, and I’m thankful for the loan of a walking stick from Ping. It takes the four of us about 45 minutes to climb the switchback trail. When we reach the Wall from the northern side of what used to be Mongolia, we can see the village back down in the valley, a thousand feet below.

The Jiankou section of the Great Wall is not restored like other better known and well-supported tourist sections. This is the real wall, a majestic and crumbling 600 years of history, crawling its way up and down over sharp and close set peaks like a line of paint laid over crumpled tinfoil. Each peak along the long-vanished border has its guard tower, no matter how steep the approach.

The base of the wall remains solid, even where trees have taken route. Some portions of the wall are broad and heavily forested. Other spots are thin and bare, straddling knife-edge ridges in the mountains where you can stretch from side to side and take long looks down to the left and right.

In most places, the side walls preventing an accidental fall remain intact, the hard white joints between the stones still displaying the incredible staying power of the sticky rice used in the mortar. Rice does not grow in these mountains, and would have been carried from the south of China upriver by barge, then by cart, then by hand. Some of that rice ended up in the stomachs of the builders, and some ended up ground into powder and mixed with water, lime or egg white. The builders and their meals are long gone, but the once glutinous rice remains centuries later, fossilized and still incredibly strong.

In the frequent spots where the wall climbs sharply and clings to the sides of mountain peaks you can see gravity and time slowly winning out, turning stone steps into dense piles of rubble that we must climb. Some of the sections are nearly vertical, requiring us to heave ourselves upward from stone to stone or climb the outside edge of the wall and push ourselves up on the twisted roots of trees.

As my shoulder bag flops around in an attempt to send me spinning downward I am reminded that a “man purse” filled with water bottles is not the most stable thing to carry. Had I known in advance I’d be doing this climb, I would have brought a small backpack. And some hiking boots. Hey, at least I remembered a hat. Ping tells me I look like Indiana Jones.

He also suggests I take off my clothes and hike the Great Wall naked, saying the resulting movie would get a lot of attention.

“You mean the kind of attention where I get arrested, thrown into a Chinese prison and never get seen again?”

“Oh no, it would be no problem. You would be famous.”

“Hmm. I think you’re confused in your English. There’s a difference between famous and infamous. Angelina Jolie is famous. Me being arrested for hiking naked at the Great Wall—that would be infamous.”

I am, however, quite tempted to drop trou’ and hike a section in the all-together. I wonder how Ping, who has only met me a few hours ago, could possibly know me so well. I swear upon my future grave, which I’m thinking could be any moment now, that he brought this up entirely on his own.

In the end, discretion and my fear of the authorities wins out, and I tell Ping that if it weren’t for the presence of a coworker, particularly one with a fancy camera, I would have gone for it.

“You would be very famous on YouTube,” he insists.

“You’re confusing me with my brother,” I say. “A lot of people get us mixed up. He’s a YouTube star. I just get naked on mountaintops. But not, I think, today.” Luckily for all concerned, we drop the topic, I keep the trousers, and we all hike onward.

For the next six hours we play the part of Ming dynasty guards and march up and down the steep mountain passes to stop, panting, at each ruined guard tower. On the tallest of these peaks, the aptly named “The Eagle Flies Upward” (which it would need to do in order to avoid smashing into the vertical cliff face), I find cell phone reception from the distant village far below, and call my wife!

I tell M where I am so she can look it up on the Internet, totally forgetting until after I hang up that she will find, right before she tries to go to bed, that Jiankou is described as dangerous, hazardous, risky, wild, and crumbly. All true, which makes it a wonderful place to visit. But perhaps not the best place to surprise a loved one on the other side of the world.

“Okay, I’ll call you later if I survive the day. Sleep well, sweetheart, and pleasant dreams!”

Although there were plenty of other hikers, we didn’t see another Western face the entire day. Jiankou is a place for intrepid travelers only, and I was thankful that we had a good guide. Wang Ping can be contacted at his website,

http://www.greatwall-alternative.com/

where he confusingly refers to himself as Mr. Dereck, the name given to him by his expatriate English teacher Christine, she of the brown hair and the beautifully large nose that looks just like mine.

beijing 2: the caveman way

Using only a printed piece of paper showing the address in English and Chinese, a pocketful of cold, hard cash, and a caveman’s flair for wordless pointing and grunting, Justin, Steven and I share a taxi to the Adobe office. The driver isn’t familiar with the address, but in a city large enough for 17 million people that’s hardly surprising. He lets us off within a block and, grunting our thanks, we triangulate using the piece of paper (asking passersby and watching where they point and grunt) until we verify that we are heading toward the right set of buildings.

The Beijing Adobe office is as you’d expect: a clean, well-lit place of business. Multiple computers crammed into cubicles mark the spots where coding and testing happens. The occasional stuffed bunny brings a pinch of levity, though I sense that the Chinese do not treat their places of work as extensions of themselves like we do. The questions I am asked suggest that the China developers and testers are most curious about our team social events. I’m guessing there aren’t many picnics, Friday beer bashes or “wear all black and paint your fingernails like a goth zombie” days in the China office. They like the photographs the U.S. team shares with them.

We open a 22nd story window to let in some cool air—that’s something you don’t get to do in office towers back home. We’d be too distracted throwing paper airplanes out of skyscraper windows to get any work done. Down on the street I can see bicycles everywhere, but no bike lanes. The mortality rate must be crazy high, as biking here seems like a cross between a shooting gallery game and coal mining. If you don’t get hit by a bus you’ll wind up with black lung.

I’m pretty sure the Internet here is delivered a bit at a time by all those bikes. You can fit a lot of zeros and ones on a bicycle, though the smog creates digital wind resistance that slows down the throughput. At least, that’s what I think the IT guy was saying. His accent was a bit strong.

The management treats us to a fantastic lunch, ornate and overabundant, delaying tonight’s dinner by several hours while we attempt in vain to digest enough to compensate for several thousand additional calories. A gigantic Lazy Susan fills our table, dishes piled on like preschoolers on a playground roundabout. Thin roast duck skin, light and crispy. A bowl of jellyfish, more crunchy than gelatinous. Roast duck meat with vegetables and various dipping sauces, rolled up in paper-thin crepe wraps. Round mushrooms that look like roasted chestnuts penned up in a broccoli corral. Marinated cucumbers colored a deep, dark green. A fragrant bowl of soup broth filled with soft unidentifiables. Slices of goose liver pate. Commas and curlicues of crispy beef. Something that looks like a bird’s nest filled with multicolored jewels. A giant fish. A dozen or more dishes, each more interesting than the last.

I feel like a fat kielbasa stuck in the microwave and about to split lengthwise. I’ll have a lot of explaining to do to my scale when I get home, and those new pants are going to be angry. (I was going to say the new pants will be pissed, but I don’t want to piss my pants.)

We head back to our hotel as the sun sets. I revise yesterday’s statement about the smog: while it’s not visibly as thick as I’ve seen elsewhere, it’s relentless and turns the sky to slate. There’s an acrid quality that’s giving me a slight burning in my eyes and a sore throat. I’m thinking of having my tonsils removed. I could probably get that done here for under a hundred bucks. And get a suit tailored from whole cloth at the same time.

Our taxi scoots along in stop and go traffic as the sky turns to twilight. Groups of ornate kites flutter over the local parks like winged beasts out of mythology, like enormous and colorful dragonflies from Land of the Lost.

Pairs of pay phones mounted two to a pole give a standing salute every few hundred feet on the major thoroughfares. Pay phones! As if they’ve never heard of cell phones here. Each pair is shielded from the weather by two half globes at the top of the pole. A more charitable observer might describe them as the top of a Valentine’s heart, but to me they look like big orange buttocks, mooning us as we pass slowly by in our taxi.

Late that night we walk down dark and narrow alleyways to a restaurant not far from our hotel, where not a word of English is spoken except by the three of us. Various waitstaff talk rapid-fire to us in Chinese, and we manage to order and share a succession of marvelous and spicy dishes, each one unique and something we’ve not had before. Ordering is simple: we just point and grunt, the caveman way.

beijing 1: they smell like flowers

It’s a short line of sleepy, shuffling rather-be slumberers at 11:15 pm Sunday night in the Air China waiting line. LAX is a wishy-washy pile of an airport, closer to Lacks or Ex-LAX than to re-LAX. It’s taking five minutes a person to move the line ahead. China here I come, albeit slowly.

11:50. At the gate, and the plane won’t board for another hour and 20 mins. Damn. Arrived too early this time. Nothing to do, and little enough juice to do it with. Need to find an electrical outlet and juice up. Should buy a sandwich, water, bottle of coffee for morning: the essentials. Gotta get some currency as soon as the cash transmutation office opens at midnight. I’ll need small bills to hit the ground running at 5:30 Tuesday morning in Beijing.

1:25. I’ve boarded an Air China plane the size of Rhode Island, a fossilized 747 from the Ming dynasty. Hope they’ve changed the oil. They’re playing Silent Night over the speaker system at nearly subliminal volume. Sleep in heavenly peace, indeed. I sure hope so. The pharmacopia in my backpack will undoubtedly help.

Only a few minutes to go now before my row-mate and I are declared the winners. We are separated by an empty seat and have no row behind us, yet still recline. This impossible jetliner is nearly full, a flying Cruise Ship, a winged office tower of the skies.

Should have ordered the special meal. Peruvian goat clusters, Pygmy ham, jellied snake milk salad. I’ll probably sleep through food. The sandwich I crammed in my bag will be rank and spoiled by dawn’s early light. After all, we cross the date line and don’t land until Tuesday. Ahead and behind me the rows of seats stretch to an infinite vanishing point, as if you’d end up back in coach if you continued forward far enough, through business class, first class, double platinum ultra class. I can see the left side of the plane curving inward far ahead of me. Perhaps the plane is donut-shaped, and will roll all the way to China.

The giant airlock behind us grinds close with bank vault finality. Things are looking up. We win! We win! High fives and extra seating space all around. Adios, city of angels!

We taxi slowly with darkened cabin lights. A hush falls over the long body of the plane, and some passengers nod off. Those fuzzy voices from the speakers are probably telling us to turn off our iPhones now. But the voices are in Chinese, so it doesn’t count, so I keep blogging.

Yep. English now, fuzzy as a drive-through and no, there are no fries with that. See you later.

Ambien. Slept for 6 hours, then watched The Watchmen. Billy Crudup’s blue prothesis isn’t as impressive on such a tiny screen. Falling asleep briefly, I was shaken awake at 4:30 AM to open my window and watch our dark descent.

Fewer lights than expected, given the density of population.

I am in China.

It takes five minutes to deplane and go through customs, much faster to enter China than the US. The new wing of the international airport, built for the 2008 Olympics, is huge, and soaring, modern, beautiful. And nearly empty in the pre-dawn, an echoing cathedral to tourism.

It very silent here so far, and my phone is as disoriented as I am.

Walking through these Olympic caverns overhung by black skies, we are passed in the other direction by a phalanx of midnight-uniformed airport workers who descend a broad escalator four abreast, each wearing a sky-blue surgical mask. I am filled with confidence. Or germs.

In broken English, an elderly Chinese man asks me for directions. Oddly enough, I am able to give them. We are, after all, only going to baggage claim and the train won’t take us anywhere else.

5:45 AM at baggage claim.  Phone and email work as smooth as silk. Marci sounds like she’s standing next to me, whispering into my ear. A driver should have a sign for me. If not, I’ll look up the hotel website to get the address in Chinese.

5:50.  No problem. An attractive young woman met me just past the security zone and led me to an awaiting car.

We drive off toward the city. The sky is a deep blue with a hint of light around the corners. Trees planted thickly by the broad highway hide the landscape. Soon a concrete forest of new highrise apartment buildings rises above the fir tops.

The air shows early smog, but not as bad as the inversion I experienced in Delhi. It looks more like a light San Francisco marine layer misting. Luckily I am here in the fall, when the cool air keeps the pollution moving. Cranes everywhere testify to the pace of the construction economy. This is a place where the landscape changes quickly.

We arrive at The Opposite House, an amazing and very new hotel. Ultra modern. The room is so spotless and clean that I wouldn’t eat off the floor for fear of sullying it with my tongue.

A large cedar tub calls to me, siren-like, and I succumb to its still, warm embrace before meeting fellow travelers in the lobby.

Current theory based on several elevator trips at The Opposite House: successful young Chinese women are all cute and smell like flowers. Whereas I am large and smell like a wet dog.

Later modified theory after a groggy day of sightseeing: the average Chinese woman is not cute (same as the average human everywhere), and objects to being sniffed. But she can spit in your eye from ten feet away.

Everyone spits here. If the sidewalks were lined with spittoons the air would ring like hail on a tin roof.

Steven, Robert, Justin and I spend the day at the Summer Palace, a beautiful complex of palaces and Buddhist temples in the hills surrounding a lovely lake. There’s a lot of climbing and walking up sharp hills, and very little context in what we’re seeing. What’s with the venerated rocks? Vertical worm-eaten rock chimneys dot the palace grounds, as if x-marking the spots of a thousand ascensions to heaven. They sure like their piles of furrowed and twisted stone here. Signs on the barriers tell us to “Help Protect The Cultural Relics” and also “Help Protect The Railings.” No signs protect the signs, so they’re fair game. Scenic vistas and architecture crop up around every corner.

After a mid-afternoon lunch at a dumpling shop whose menu features items like “Clod Meat” and “Small bowl first Palestinian brain tendons,” we take the subway back toward our hotel. The subway is jam-packed, much like Tokyo at rush hour. But it’s very well marked, and bodiless voices call out the stops in both Chinese and clearly pronounced English. In fact, this subway is even easier to navigate than Tokyo’s.

Fat Buddhas are in abundance. Ditto for mosques. We pass several churches and a wedding party. For a bunch of godless heathen Communists, there sure is a lot of religion. Many things are not as I expected. I’m not seeing a lot of Soviet-style architecture, for one. My overall impression of Beijing is one of newness, construction, economic activity, success. There are many trees, and not a lot of trash. Beijing seems a lot closer to New York than New Delhi.

One regret that I must find a way live with for the rest of my life: I did not order the “small bowl first Palestinian brain tendons.” Now I will never know.

los angeles 2: support our tropes!

Slept late Saturday after last night’s 3 AM Xbox party, my head feeling like a pumpkin tossed off the porch by rejected trick or treaters. Greg, Kim and I head into the desert valley flatlands to Twitter-chase a couple of lunch trucks that we’re expecting will shortly pull up in front of a Vietnam memorial. The memorial is a long granite wall, tapered at each end and plopped in the middle of what looks like a dusty and barren landing strip. The place is filled with, in no particular order, veterans in Vietnam war memorabilia clothing, reservists and others in military gear, supporters of our troops (again, wearing T-shirts so you can tell), and, outside all of this memorializing, a group of supporters of BBQ, mostly Koreans.

We’re standing there now, in the shade of a lone tree just outside the memorial area, amid a passing flow of veterans and their families, awaiting the Kobe Korean BBQ taco truck and wisecracking. Us and the Korean youth brigade. It looks like we’re protesting the Vietnam memorial. We just need placards. “EAT, WE CAN!” or “SUPPORT OUR TROPES.”

Ok, truck’s here. We join the growing crowd that chases the truck around and around the parking lot until they finally get directed by the Men In Fatigues to a spot conveniently situated in the blazing LA desert sun on a dusty runway away from the lone tree where we’d been avoiding heatstroke. We huff and puff our way to a spot near the front of the line, and wait in the blazing sun. Yea, though it’s 94 degrees in the Valley, there’s no shadow of death. There’s no shadow of anything. It’s just plain hot as blazes.

The food was great. We ate under a tent where a trumpeter burped out patriotic standards, songs like America The Beautiful or You’re A Grand Old Flag, with extra notes thrown in for free. Just as we down our meal, the Hawaiian “Get Shaved” shave ice truck appears. Hawaiian shave ice is like a snow-cone in the same way that filet mignon is like a Big Mac.

It’s a very multicultural memorial. A bit of Vietnam (or rather, the complete absence of Vietnam, other than the Americans who had left some of themselves there), some Korea and a sprinkling of frozen Hawaii: a scoop of ice cream, covered in a ball of the softest, fine snow and flavored with various lovely syrups, then topped with sweet cream.

In the evening, Greg took me to Elf for vegetarian food beyond belief: spicy kale salad, a stew, and savory crepes. Everyone who worked there looked like they’d just dropped in from 70’s era Berkeley. Elves, one and all. And moments later, we were front row center to see our long-time idols, the amazing Firesign Theatre, perform bits from their classic albums of the 60’s and 70’s a few feet from us. The experience was just incredible, like having the Beatles reunite and perform 6 feet from us, only without having to bring anyone back from the dead.

To cap off the night, we went to Thai Tits for dessert. Not sure why it’s called that. Something about the Saturday night clientele. Great place for late night dessert.

los angeles 1: i have a balm

Friday morning. Inauspicious start to a week of travel. I’m heading to Beijing a few days from now, but first I’m taking an extended weekend in Los Angeles. Unbeknownst to me and ignored in the email that United sent to my iPhone, the flight out of SFO is early for a change, so I arrive five minutes too late to check the bag I’d already prepaid. Lost my 30 year old pocket knife and various soothing creamy unguents.

Apparently the airport doesn’t like it when they ask, “What have you got in your luggage, sir?” and I answer, “I have a balm.”

Also: cavity searches aren’t pleasurable. I don’t care how kinky you are.

First stop: Los Angeles. I haven’t been here since, let’s see—last week. Visiting my brother, so This Time It’s Personal. By the way, that’s my tagline for the script I’m working on, a sequel to The Passion Of The Christ: This Time It’s Personal.

Sitting at an audition with Greg, watching my brother work the room. Look up Gregarious. Greg’s headshot is right there in the dictionary. At least, until somebody on Wikipedia deletes it. I keep adding his head, somebody keeps taking it down, like head badminton.

He’s playing the part of a snowman. The director invited me in to watch Greg audition and sit on the casting couch. No, no, no, it’s not like that. It was a real couch. I’m sure the stains were just butter from the popcorn.

Outside in the waiting room, a guy noted, “You can tell the kind of stuff people are auditioning for by looking at who shows up.” Apparently next door to the snowman commercial they were casting women for GOT MILF?

Sis-in-law Kim met us back at the house, a.k.a. Mediocre Films Studios. G shot us all for a brief intro to one of his YouTube videos, and I took a nap before we all headed off to one of Kim’s auditions. Maybe they’ll invite G and me both in. I could use some popcorn to tide me over.

It’s a clear and hot day in Los Angeles. We arrived at Kim’s audition, in a tiny unmarked house where apparently a huge number of national spots get cast. Kids run around in the tiny yard. People who look familiar from other commercials sit around under poor lighting and look glum. Greg and I split to go get dinner.

Zankou Chicken! It’s a pilgrimmage for me whenever I’m in LA. And then off to see Mike Birbiglia at a comedy club. We actually saw Mike B before the show, walking toward the club with his wife. Intro’s all around. He’d seen some of Greg’s videos. Nice guy. Fast walker. Managed to get away from us a good half block before we hit the back of the line waiting to see him.

To be fair, I’d be hurrying too, to avoid being late to my own show. Or just to get away from Greg, Kim and me.

Homeless guy on the street calls out as we pass: “Hey, I’m a fan of Richard Pryor. Can I have five dollars?” Greg responds that he is also a fan of Richard Pryor, and No. How’d the homeless guy know it was comedy weekend?

Mike Birbiglia’s show was great! The warmup act had 10 really funny minutes, but was out there for 30. Excellent yogurt afterward, and Beatles Rock Band, and XBox on the big screen, and sleep.

To be continued…

tooth fairies and tooth demons

At some point in the silent post-midnight hours after I went to bed, but before dawn’s chirruping chorus awoke my second son, Quentin Wilberforce, T.F. visited himself upon us yet again. I have never seen Quentin, nor have I heard the passage of his footfalls outside our door. He must be very light to avoid squeaking the wood floorboards in the hallway.

I imagine Quentin as short, perhaps Hobbit-short, small as a four year old child, and very, very thin. I see him as older and dapper, with graying mutton chop whiskers. Archaic clothes, well worn but exquisitely tailored, with bone buttons on a tweed waistcoat. I have never asked Geran what Quentin looks like, and he has not asked me. None of us know for sure, though he leaves a calling card each time he visits our home, so as invisible visitors go, he is unmistakably corporeal.

We have naturally assumed the T.F. appended to Quentin’s name stands for “Tooth Fairy,” though this has always been implied, never spelled out. His visits are marked by notes left for Geran, written on tooth-shaped paper with carefully-canceled tooth-shaped stamps. These notes are a dead giveaway, an unmistakable clue as to Quentin’s fairy nature, as they are seldom seen except when left by visiting creatures of Toothkind. The stamps alone would mark this as peculiar, and I have never seen similar commemorative postage issued by the U.S. Mail.

I thought the most recent note that Quentin left had a rather odd shape, and not at all the typical Tooth. It was as dissimilar from the standard outline of teeth as a real heart from a Valentine, but Geran pointed out that the shape of his latest card matched his small, prolate pearl of a tooth.

As I recall, my elder son, who is now closer to losing his Wisdom Teeth than to his last, long-passed “baby tooth”, had more than one tooth fairy in his day. One was female, I believe. I don’t recall her name. For some reason the male’s name sticks in my head, however: Throckmorton Idyll Bluster III, T.F. A mouthful of a moniker, and one that required a full set of teeth to pronounce.

Geran has, I believe, only been visited by Quentin, a seemingly small and delicate fairy as evidenced by the ornate and miniscule script.

*****

Throckmorton and his female counterpart visited Ben a large number of times. Thrice in one memorable week: one tooth which fell out naturally, one which was pulled, and one which fell victim to an apple. I’m sure there’s a story in there somewhere, one that gets told by Throckmorton Idyll Bluster himself, at dark and musical Tooth Fairy gatherings, over flagons of questionable beverages around green and ghostly campfires on the moor.

Once, toward the middle of his prime tooth-giving years, Ben asked Marci, “Mommy, are you the tooth fairy?”

Marci looked at him and replied, “Do you really think I have time to fly to peoples’ houses all night and take away little kids’ teeth?”

Hesitation. “No, I guess not.”

“Well, there you have it, then.”

On another occasion, Ben said somewhat hesitantly, “Daddy, if I asked you to tell me the truth about the tooth fairy, would you?”

“Is that something you really want to know?”

He thought about it. “Not right now.” He never mentioned it again, and as he has grown into a young skeptic, I’m glad for that. The Tooth Fairy has been a tangible presence, unseen but definitely sensed, and a “small god” of the most personal sort. Some mysteries are best left alone.

*****

Both boys wrote notes to their respective tooth fairies. Geran still does, since he’s the one who is still losing teeth. The notes are brief and, I imagine, as hard to read by Quentin as they are by me. But the messages are heartfelt and sincere. How are you? Is there a Tooth Fairy Queen? Do you have a middle name? Where do the teeth go when you take them?

I imagine some sort of castle made from the teeth, but I’m not positive on that count. As I’ve already said, there is undoubtedly a moor involved. And dim light even at midday.

One thing I can definitely say about the Tooth Fairy is that the money exchanged for teeth has risen. I’m not sure it’s kept up with inflation, but as I recall, the tooth fairies of the 1970’s paid in quarters, and today’s T.F. pays in small bills.

*****

I imagine the polar opposite of the Tooth Fairy: a tooth demon, wicked and sharp-incisored, who pulls teeth before they’re ready to come out. Some times I will threaten that if the kids do not get ready for bed they will be visited by the Tooth Demon. It hasn’t happened. But that doesn’t mean it won’t.

Perhaps the Tooth Demon visits us already, and leaves bad breath, oily hair, and socks on the floor. That would explain a lot. If so, the Tooth Demon is much busier than the Tooth Fairy in my house.

But much less welcome.