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The sun popped out behind the winter clouds. It was like someone suddenly looking up and smiling at you. Maybe it was a stranger in the Wal-Mart hardware aisle, who had just thought of something pleasant and here I come, striding along with my two left feet and my hands stuffed into my pockets. That’s it. Story told. No other plot left, not even on the floor next to my desk. The smile was all there was. As if the world disappeared behind it. You can’t buy a smile. You can’t rent one. You can’t take your hand out of your pocket and try to steal it. It’s not there like a store full of commodities brimming on the shelves, still smelling of the holds of a freighter bound for the Boston seaport. 

Some thirteen muscles are involved in a smile, while it takes 47 to produce a frown. The heart expands like a curious fish eyeing a worm on a hook, whereas the heart wrinkles and grows heavy in a frown, especially a long frown. The frown is the sky sealing itself up and hiding the sun, so that winter can continue its dirge over the living. Smiling is incantatory, a spell cast over the frozen ground to make it give up the first ghostly tendrils of coming springtime. It’s a call to the dead gardens on your walk to work, begging them to host the song birds early. It rattles the door knobs of houses where pretty girls are combing their hair before school. They stop, brush in hand, and wonder who it could be. Then go back to pulling the long silky strands of glistening hair until they hang perfectly, like the curtains at La Scala. 

I’ve fumbled for the correct change at a counter until a hand as slender as a reed reaches out, finds the elusive quarter hiding in the swale of my palm and holding it up with, you guessed it, a smile of pure and innocent triumph over the vicissitudes of life. A smile appears in the slender crescent of the new moon; it is a young moon, eager to sail the darkness and empty its bag of silver particles onto the graveyards and roof tops of small towns. It is the omen of love, the promisory note of some moment of happiness waiting to mature into a gesture or, dare one hope for it, a kiss. A path glows where it parts the weeds and heads down into the purer darkness of night, the realm of dreams and fragile wishes. If you follow it, you leave your weary consciousness behind. The street recedes with its monotonous street lamps and parked cars. It takes you away from the stolid, fortified, self-absorbed houses that have sealed up all possibilities of miracles or transformations. This path, made up of fragments of discarded smiles, refuses to give up its sense of well-being. It meanders among the thick entanglements of human confusion, as if in the unraveled order of emotion lay the beginnings of fantasy and surprise. The man (or woman) who lives in uncertainty is a person of achieveament. The ones who live in certainty are persons of power. You should beware these Ahabs of steely-bright self-assurance. They mean harm and will use you if given the chance. But a smile will erase these petty tyrants and replace them with strangers milling around in the candy aisle of Wal-Mart, smiling at the slightest provocation of familiarity. 

My mother propped me up on her lap once while she mended a hole in my father’s shirt. When she dropped her needle, I grasped it in my chubby fingers and handed it back to her. She looked at me with a momentary wonder and then smiled. She had beautiful, straight teeth as white as a bone of scrimishaw in a sailor’s hand. She gave me my reward for being so cunning with the impish nature of gravity. It came gift-wrapped in a face that contracted all thirteen muscles and glowed like the April sky. The neighbor’s frown was forming just as her husband was pulling on his winter coat and heading out to his job at the hardware store.

I remember the moment when a girl came into the classroom and told me a certain friend of hers was interested in meeting me. It was Judy Zellweger, a Swiss girl with a mouth that opened slowly to let the opera begin in a moaning chorus of violas and oboes before brightening into the violin’s shrill cry of delight as the sun burst into sight. Who knows where Judy is now? I’ll never see her again. She went home to Geneva to grow up and marry, and tidy up some apartment overlooking the lake. She combed her lovely graying hair in the mirror and when the door knob rattled she smiled and knew someone was about to knock and share a cup of tea with her. She would smile in her chair and close her eyes and think of me standing there in the middle of the gloomy classroom waiting for her to enter and speak her first words to me.

Let a smile be your umbrella/ On a rainy, rainy day. I grew up hearing Bing Crosby sing that in his deep baritone croon. I’d be up in the balcony of the movie theater crunching popcorn from a bag, and elbowing my side kicks to show I wasn’t getting dreamy. But I was floating away by a certain pubescent stealth into my hideaway at the back of my soul. I could lie there on a brass  bed and stare at the ceiling as one angel after another appeared to me with a smile and left again on a tiny mote of sunshine. Outside, in the slushy street, the cars struggled up the hill pushing the dirty snow away. The way home was through a canyon of brooding houses dripping melted snow from their eaves. A girl might be at the window of one of these sombre houses, with her flute in her hands. If she saw me, which wasn’t to be expected very often, she might smile and then go back to her bed to continue practicing her scales. Her flute was carrying her away into the wild fields of the sky, pushing her hair back from her neck, and pulling her into the realm of the gods and the glitter of pure gold falling from Zeus’ forehead. Winter was gone and the gardens were writhing in an ecstasy of expectation only the sun could inspire. 


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