“Literal” by Josh Lefkowitz

Reading by the author

No sensitivity?
asks the dental hygienist
scraping away at my gums—

And because the dentist’s office
is purgatorial by nature—
Once every six months, same chair,
same east-side view of the city out the window,
a place where I am not a man but a mouth—

I travel back in time
and pop up through the portal
into a childhood scene at my friend Ron’s house,
his mom asking us if we’re ready for snack:
Who wants ants on a log?!

That’s me right there, six years old
and trying to dam the tears.

It had been such a great day so far—
Video games, hide and seek,
one-on-one driveway basketball—

But now, his mother’s infusing our fun
with a Paleolithic bent.
The very idea that here, in the year 1987,
two used Hondas in the garage
and G.I. Joe on the TV screen,

we’ll be forced to sit outside on a log
and forage for ants which we’ll then have to eat
leaves me frightened and therefore bawling.

Have I always been so literal and silly?
Just some dumb kid still figuring it out
a little bit slower and in his own time and way?

No sensitivity?
asks the dental hygienist again.

I mean—some sensitivity, I reply,

now thinking of Ron’s mom gone too soon
and my own aging parents, braving the sun
and their Arizona loneliness,

my brother and sister and I leaf-scattered
across the continent, each lost in our daily lives,
so much so we might actually mistake

the sound of the coming scythe for an afternoon wind;
someday dirt lodged into our mouths, absolutely,
a truth no floss can remove—

as the dental hygienist sing-songs the coda:
All done.

Josh Lefkowitz received an Avery Hopwood Award for Poetry at the University of Michigan. His poems and essays have been published in New York Times, New Poetry from the Midwest 2019, Washington Square Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Electric Literature, and many other places. Additionally, his poems have been read aloud on All Things Considered and WNYC and printed on the side of a bus in Nashville, Tennessee. He previously performed a pair of full-length autobiographical monologues in theaters and spaces across the country. 

Image: “Chompers” by Nicole Monroe

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