I have one of those talking electric toothbrushes. The kind that tells you your progress. When you power it up, it says “Hello!” After 30 seconds it says, “First quadrant complete!” The voice is kind of enthusiastic. Definitely a trained voice actor. The first time I heard it I was reminded of the voice on the subway announcements, the guy who says, “Stand clear of the closing doors!” After another 30 seconds it says, “Second quadrant complete!” At the 90-second mark, “Third quadrant complete!” Finally, when two minutes are up, “Fourth quadrant complete! Congratulations!”
It’s really not any more helpful than the ones that just buzz every 30 seconds, though some studies say it encourages faithful brushing for a full two minutes.
Anyway, this morning my toothbrush went off script. When I turned it on, it said, “Good morning, Mr. Cherches. Getting a late start, aren’t we?” Well, I suppose we were. It was around 11am. It said, “Let’s not waste any more time,” so I put it in my mouth and started brushing. “Do you have anything you want to tell me?” it asked as I was brushing.
With my mouth full of toothbrush and paste, I mumbled, “No, what would I want to tell you?”
“You’ll have to speak up, Mr. Cherches, I can’t hear you,” it said.
I managed to say, “No, nothing” in a louder voice, though it came out like, “Moe, muffin.”
“I don’t think you’re being completely forthcoming,” the toothbrush said.
I had no reason to keep secrets from my toothbrush. What was it fishing for? “Own’t moe utcher talk ’mout.”
“You seriously don’t know, Mr. Cherches?”
“We know you’re guilty,” it said. “We know all.”
It must have been a practical joke. Somebody with toothbrush programming skills must have altered the code. I was mildly amused, but it was kind of creepy. Creepy enough that I decided to turn it off. I pressed the power button. “Not so quick, Mr. Cherches,” the toothbrush said. I gasped. “We know all,” it repeated. “We know what you did.”
What did I do? Seriously I didn’t know. “Guilty of what?”
“Don’t be coy, Mr. Cherches.”
The head was still vibrating, by the way, but I was no longer brushing.
I started thinking. What have I done? What could I be guilty of? I came up with a couple of recent possibilities, but they were really nothing, misunderstandings. I had managed to smooth both incidents over. Maybe something further back, like when I was still working?
“Earlier,” the toothbrush said. It was a mind reader too!
“When I was a toddler?”
“When I was a newborn?”
“In the womb?”
This toothbrush was making no sense, I thought. It must be broken. I stopped replying, but it kept repeating, “Earlier.”
And since I can’t turn the power off, I guess it’s going to keep vibrating and saying, “Earlier, earlier, earlier” until there’s no more charge.
Peter Cherches’ most recent book is Masks: Stories from a Pandemic. Called “one of the innovators of the short short story” by Publishers Weekly, he’s also a jazz singer and lyricist. He’s a native of Brooklyn, New York.